Creative Sound Blaster X7 Deskop DAC & Amplifier Review

Introduction


A lot of attention gets put on high-end displays and graphics, but while technology has made great advances in pushing graphics to 4K monitors, 3D displays, and all kinds of other cool stuff, I see a lot of people neglecting their audio experience, be that as part of their home cinema setup, or their desktop audio. While I must admit that motherboard technology has made huge advances, with many brands such as MSI and Gigabyte for example, putting high-end audio hardware directly onto their motherboards, I have yet to hear one that was comparable to a standalone unit.

Audio Performance
  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio (DAC): 127dB
  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio (ADC): 123dB
  • 24-bit recording sampling rates: 44.1, 48, 96, 192 kHz
  • 24-bit playback sampling rates: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kHz
  • Stereo Direct Playback at 24-bit / 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 kHz
  • Surround Playback at 24-bit / 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz
  • Dolby Digital Decoding
Frequency Response
  • 20 Hz – 90 kHz (24-bit/192kHz)
Maximum Power Output
  • 50W + 50W (4Ω, 1kHz, 10% THD)¹
  • 38W + 38W (4Ω, 1kHz, 10% THD)²
  • 27W + 27W (8Ω, 1kHz, 10% THD)¹
  • 27W + 27W (8Ω, 1kHz, 10% THD)²
Rated Power Output
  • 37W + 37W (4Ω, 1kHz, 1% THD)¹
  • 35W + 35W (4Ω, 1kHz, 1% THD)²
  • 22W + 22W (8Ω, 1kHz, 1% THD)¹
  • 20W + 20W (8Ω, 1kHz, 1% THD)²
Total Harmonic Distortion
  • 0.05% (1kHz, 4Ω, 33W)¹
  • 0.05% (1kHz, 4Ω, 30W)²
¹ Requires upgrade to high power AC-DC adapter (24V 6A)
² Using bundled AC-DC adapter (24V 2.91A)

Creative and their Sound Blaster range have a lot of years experience in the audio business, unless you’ve been lost on a desert island for the last couple of decades, you will have heard of them and many of you have either owned or used their products in some context at least once. I’m seeing more and more desktop AMP and DAC hardware in recent years and as the music industry continues to push away from crude quality MP3’s that plagued early MP3 players years ago, higher bitrate audio files, high-quality audio streaming services and a whole lot more are now offering up audio in up to 24-bit/192kHz high-resolution formats.

If you’re investing £300+ into a 4K monitor and god knows how much more in graphics cards, a CPU and other components, is it really too much to set aside another £329.99 to get your audio on par with the rest of your setup? That’s what I hope to find out today.

First, let’s take a quick look at a full walkthrough with Ryan Schliepier of Creative, at the level of features included in this setup, because if I were to put them into writing, I’ll be doubling the size of this review; prepare to be blown away by the feature set on this unit!

This is a premium grade product, so as you would expect, it comes with virtually every kind of connection you could possibly need. One thing that did really surprise me is that the unit comes with five power cables, FIVE! No matter where you are in the world, you shouldn’t have a problem plugging this thing in.

All the cables that are included are of a high quality and will help you get this thing plugged in and setup from day one.

This funny looking thing is a headphone stand and we’ll take a close look at how that works in a few minutes.

The unit is very nicely designed and while it is quite big, it’s not so big that it would be imposing on your desktop. The shape of it also means it takes up less cubic space on your desktop and aesthetically speaking, it’s a lovely looking bit of kit.

As you saw in the video above, the unit has a great range of connections. On the front panel you’ve got a gorgeous volume dial, which was infinite rotation in either direction, rather than a lock to lock volume dial. There’s headphone jacks for both 3.5mm and 1/4″ and a microphone line-in for those who like to use a dedicated mic. Then you’ve got the power/Bluetooth and SBX control switches. In the middle there’s some ventilation, behind which you’ll find two beam-forming microphones.

On the right side, you’ll see a small NFC logo, you can tap your phone or any other NFC compatible device and immediately sync up the audio through the unit. This is great for playing songs from your phone or tablet, but it can also be used to make hands-free calls via the built-in microphones and your own speakers or headphones.

Around the back, we see a plethora of connections. You’ve got options for 4ohm and 9ohm impedance for two bare wire terminals and RCA/Jack outputs for 5.1 setups. There’s stereo line in, optical passthrough and USB, not forgetting the built-in Bluetooth support; if you’ve got anything audio related, you can connect it!

All the fittings are of a premium quality, with gold-plated ports and high-quality screw fittings for the wire terminals.

At the top, there’s some passive cooling holes and two small holes for mounting the headphone stand.

The headphone stand is optional and is perfect for keeping your favourite set within easy reach.

Down the left side, you’ll find a USB Host port, perfect for charging your phone or even your headset.

On the underside, there’s a removable cover, behind which you can see some of the workings of the AMP/DAC. Here you can see the removable op-amps, which you can replace yourself if you have the money and the desire to do so.

Overall, this is one stunning looking setup and no, the headset in the picture isn’t included in the bundle, but I figured a Creative brand headset would look nice on the stand.

Asus Announced Xonar U3 External DAC

Shortly before Christmas, Asus announced the Xonar U3 external DAC. The U3 is the new little brother to the bigger U5 and the gaming-oriented U7 DACs and is desgned as a portable and compact solution.

The compact design brings some limitations along, most likely due to the limited amount of power that can a single USB port can deliver. The frequency response ranges from 20Hz to 20KHz at a sample rate of 48KHz and 16bit, a somewhat low setup for those who prefer high-quality uncompressed music. Looking from the other side, a portable solution like this will be a huge upgrade to almost any laptop or other portable computers.

The headphone amplifier has adjustable gain levels that can drive up to 150ohm headphones and headsets, which indeed is nice. The included DJ Mix tool and five pre-set audio modes all point towards the use of this DAC that must be creating podcasts while on the go.

While the specification might not impress everyone, the price of just £19.99 via Amazon might change those opinions. It’s a cheap and portable soundcard for people on the go that aren’t satisfied with their built-in solution.

Specifications

  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR): 100dB
  • Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise : 0.005% (-110dB)
  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Headphone impedance: Optimized for 32~150Ω
  • Interface: USB 1.1 or above bus compatible
  • Sample Rate and Resolution: Up to 48KHz @ 16bit
  • Connectivity: 1 x 3.5 mm jack analog out; 1 x 3.5 mm jack (Line-In/Mic-In combo); 1 x S/PDIF out (combo with analog out)
  • Operation system: Windows 10, 8, 7, XP (32/64bit)
  • Karaoke functions: Music pitch-shifting, vocal cancellation, and microphone echo effects with stereo mix recording (Wave and Mic-in) for online Karaoke or online DJ applications

Thanks to ROG for providing us with this information

Images courtesy of ROG

The Streamz Smart Headphones Are Almost Here

The world’s first truly independent headphone audio system for audiophiles is almost here, as the Streamz Media have announced that the headphones will start shipping in Q1 2015 and will be on show at CES 2015. The

The Streamz headphones feature everything built-in, ranging from the 128 x 128 pixel OLED display, over controls and keypad, all the way to a built in 96KHz 24bit DAC, an Android system running on a quad-core processor and up to 36GB of storage with optional 32GB memory card.

It can play most common audio formats such as WAV, FLAC, ALAC, MP3. AAC, Pandora, plus many others, has built-in WiFi and additional Bluetooth where WiFi won’t work. Wifi connections are however the only uncompressed, so you’ll want to use that whenever possible. While you can control everything from the headphones themselves, they also come with smartphone apps for Android and iOS.

The API will allow Android developers to create their own apps and future plans include a voice controlled module called VOXXI that will allow users to search and play music plus other system controls with Google voice commands.

Thanks to StreamzMedia for providing us with this information

Images courtesy of StreamzMedia

Silverstone SST-EB03 Desktop Headphone Amp & SST-EB01-E DAC Review

Introduction


When it comes to kicking back and enjoying your favourite albums, having a great set of speakers or a set of high-end headphones can really make or break the experience. Of course for many people out there, the £20 set of headphones they got from their local electronics store will be more than enough, offering them many hours of happiness when needed, but there are certain people, myself included, that demand a lot more from their audio equipment. While some like to use the term Audiophile to describe those who love premium grade sound components, I don’t think you have to take it that seriously just to want the best quality from your music, much in the same way you don’t have to be a complete TV nerd just to want a quality HDTV.

Desktop PC audio has certainly improved over the last few years, many motherboard manufacturers are including higher quality audio components directly onto their motherboards; sure there are some lovely sound cards out there, but with GPU’s often dominating the PCIe slots in our systems, it’s getting difficult to find the room for a large sound card. The devices we’re looking at today offer two solutions to improve your audio, the first would be the EB01E, a powerful XMOS XS1 TQ128 DAC which supports Asynchronous USB 24bit / 192 kHz audio. If all of that was nonsense to you, let me put this as simple as possible; you connect the EB01-E to your PC via a digital connection (USB, Optical or Coaxial) and then connect your speakers to the EB01-E and it will provide you with improved audio quality.

The EBo1-e uses the TI PCM1798 Digital Audio Converter (DAC), this is the part that takes your digital signal and converts it to analogue. It supports a maximum resolution of 24-bits, with USB, optical and coaxial line in and RCA out for easy compatibility with most speaker and headphone systems.

A high quality audio decoder such as this is ideal for bringing new life to the humble MP3’s you may have in your collection, but they’ll really pull their weight when you’re listening to something such as FLAC and other lossless audio formats.

  • High quality DAC with improved performance
  • Classic SilverStone Ensemble exterior design
  • Easy one touch button for USB, optical or coaxial input
  • Support highest format of up to 24-bit/192kHz
  • Utilizes premium XMOS XS1 TQ128 USB decoder for accurate sound reproduction
  • Includes TI PCM1798 D/A converter for producing high quality analog signal
  • Includes TI NE5532 OP amp for optimal analog output

The EB03 is a headphone amp, it provides an extra powerful punch to drive your headphones way beyond the limits of what your on-board audio and even most soundcards could do; the EB03 can easily run any set of headphones from 16-600 ohm. It features a standard 6.3mm stereo jack on the front and an RCA bypass connection on the back, so you can still run your speakers without having to disconnect the device.

It features two chip sets that process the signal to provide a powerful, distortion free signal for your headphones of choice, which can be controlled via a simple to use independent volume dial on the top of the unit.

  • Premium amplifier designed to deliver full sound to headphones
  • Classic SilverStone Ensemble exterior design
  • Extra RCA bypass connection included for easy pairing with additional device
  • Studio-quality IC with THAT 1646W16-U & 1512S14-U
  • Independent volume control knob

Both the EB01-E and the EB03 come really nicely packaged with a quick run-down of the major features on the box (see above) as well as a small image of each product.

Both are really well packaged in soft foam blocks and plastic wraps, so the aluminium finish should reach you in perfect condition.

In the box with the EB03 you’ll find a manual, RCA to RCA pass-through cable, RCA to 3.5mm cable and a power adaptor.

In the box with the EB01-E you’ll find a manual, software install CD-Rom, RCA to female 3.5mm cable and a good quality USB cable.

Silverstone Desktop Amp & DAC At CeBIT 2014

Here we are once again at the Silverstone booth at CeBIT 2014 and while we’ve already had great fun checking out their new chassis products for 2014, I can’t help but be even more excited about their audio products. Silverstone are well known in the industry for their attention to detail and premium grade engineering, a mindset that works well when designing high-end audio equipment.

Below we have the RAV01 and the RAV02 audio products, both of which are part of Silverstone’s premium grade gaming series “Raven”. The devices booth look simple enough, black boxes with a pair of audio jacks on the front. The RAV01 is external and compact, while the RAV02 is a little larger to allow mounting in a 5.25″ drive bay slot on your chassis. Both of them are designed to filter and improve the quality of your sound while gaming, perfect for blocking background noise and giving your headset an extra kick.

The really awesome stuff comes in the form of the new desktop amp and DAC (Digital Audio Converter). These two sleek looking devices are made from beautifully finished brushed aluminium and while they can be run separately you can hook the pair together to really reap the benefits of high-end headsets and headphones on your desktop. Improved signal quality and power delivery really makes a big difference and I’ll be taking a closer look at these products in the coming weeks for an in-depth review.

There is still more great things to see at the Silverstone booth as well as from the rest of the show here at CeBIT 2014, so well be back very soon with even more coverage from the show floor.

GIGABYTE Launches G1.Sniper Z5S and G1.Sniper Z5 Gaming Motherboards

Gigabyte launches their G1.Sniper Z5S and G1.Sniper Z5 Gaming Motherboards featuring signature GIGABYTE AMP-UP Audio features with Qualcomm Atheros Killer E2200 networking, deadly looks and awesome performance. With the launch of GIGABYTE G1.Sniper Z5S and G1.Sniper Z5 motherboards, the GIGABYTE G1.Killer gaming series now spans several price points and market segments, without compromising on the core features and technologies that PC gamers have come to expect from GIGABYTE.

“These new GIGABYTE gaming motherboards extend our G1-Killer series to a broader audience than ever before,” commented Henry Kao, Vice President of GIGABYTE Motherboard Business Unit. “We’re confident that end-users will relish the opportunity to build mid-range gaming systems with advanced networking and the most compelling audio platform out there.”

Exclusive Upgradable Onboard OP-Amp
GIGABYTE G1-Killer gaming motherboards feature an upgradable onboard operational amplifier (OP-Amp), commonly found in high-end audio equipment. Offering better quality amplification of the audio signal, the motherboard’s OP-Amp is mounted on a socket which allows users to physically switch out and try different OP-Amps, each offering distinct and nuanced properties that make the audio clearer, punchier and more life-like.

USB DAC-UP
Featuring a gold-plated USB 2.0 port, GIGABYTE USB DAC-UP provides clean, noise-free power delivery to any Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC). DACs can be sensitive to fluctuations in power from other USB ports; this is why GIGABYTE USB DAC-UP takes advantage of an isolated power source that minimizes potential fluctuations, ensuring the best audio experience possible.

Gain Boost
To optimize the audio experience provided by the onboard OP-Amp, GIGABYTE G1.Sniper Z5S and G1.Sniper Z5 motherboards also feature Gain Boost with onboard switches to select between 2.5x and 6x amplification modes depending on output device. Most OP-Amps are capable of providing a high-gain audio output that is ideal for high-end headphones and speakers that have higher impedance headroom.

7.1 + 2 Channel Audio with 115dB Signal-to-Noise ratio
GIGABYTE G1.Sniper Z5S and G1.Sniper Z5 motherboards feature the latest Realtek ALC1150 HD Audio Codec, a high-performance multi-channel audio codec that features ten audio channels in total, including two front panel audio channels capable of a remarkable 115dB Signal-to-Noise ratio. This ensures the most lifelike realism during game-play, and a more immersive overall experience.

Audio Noise Guard
To help protect and insulate the Realtek ALC1150 codec and onboard amplifiers from electromagnetic interference (EMI), the GIGABYTE G1-Killer motherboards feature an audio noise guard that essentially separates the board’s sensitive analog audio components from potential EMI noise at the PCB level. LED trace path lighting illuminates to show the separation of the PCB layers.

Nichicon Pro Audio Caps
GIGABYTE G1.Killer motherboards use the highest quality Nichicon MUSE MW series bipolar audio capacitors at each channel layout. These professional audio capacitors deliver the highest quality sound resolution and expansion to create a true Hi-Fi audio experience.

Qualcomm Atheros Killer E2200
GIGABYTE G1-Killer motherboards feature the Killer E2200 from Qualcomm Atheros, a high-performance, adaptive gigabit Ethernet controller that offers better online gaming and online media performance compared to standard solutions. The Killer E2200 features Advanced Stream Detect technology, which identifies and prioritizes all network traffic to ensure important applications that require high-speed connectivity are prioritized over less important traffic.

Killer Network Manager
Gamers can also use the Killer Network Manager which allows custom prioritization for all network applications, increase or reduce the bandwidth each application uses, or block an application entirely – all in an easy-to-use graphical interface.

Multi-GPU Support
Featuring support for 2-way SLI and 3-way Crossfire the GIGABYTE G1.Sniper Z5S has the potential for some incredible graphics performance in the latest 3D gaming titles. The GIGABYTE G1.Sniper Z5 supports 2-way Crossfire configurations.

Thank you Guru3D for providing us with this information
Images courtesy of Guru3D

Silverstone Release Desktop EB03S Desktop Headphone Amp and EB01-E Desktop DAC

For audiophiles, getting the most out of their high-end headphones is more than just about getting the best source or music format. High-end headphones often have higher resistance so if the equipment connected to them are subpar, the sound quality will suffer. With the Ensemble EB03, SilverStone aims to provide the power and quality necessary to unleash the full potential of headphones.

EB03’s excellent sound amplification is produced by its internal studio-quality IC (integrated circuit) with premium Op-amp, current buffer, and enhanced power delivery. For discerning users, it also has an extra bypass connection for use with an additional amplifier or receiver. Finished with classic aluminum design that defines SilverStone’s longstanding tradition of excellent metal works, the EB03 is the perfect companion to high quality headphones. Besides using the EB03 on its own, users may also pair it with SilverStone’s own similarly styled EB01-E DAC to create a great looking, and sounding computer audio system!

Special Features:

  • High quality DAC with improved performance
  • Classic SilverStone Ensemble exterior design
  • Easy one touch button for USB, optical or coaxial input
  • Support highest format of up to 24-bit/192kHz
  • Utilizes premium XMOS XS1 TQ128 USB decoder for accurate sound reproduction
  • Includes TI PCM1798 D/A converter for producing high quality analog signal
  • Includes TI NE5532 OP amp for optimal analog output
  • Premium amplifier designed to deliver full sound to headphones
  • Classic SilverStone Ensemble exterior design
  • Extra RCA bypass connection included for easy pairing with additional device
  • Studio-quality IC with THAT 1646W16-U & 1512S14-U
  • Independent volume control knobec.18th.

The recommended End User price (excl. VAT): EB01-E 242,97 USD, EB03S 244,27 USD