Pros: Good shielding, Pre-packaged software is good enough, Headphone Jack on the back, 600 ohm headphone amp internally.
Cons: Red LED, No shielding on front panel connector (not much of a gripe.), a little too much bass (but this can be adjusted in the equalizer.)
First, the on-board sound on my PC was lacking in fidelity. With it I could not tell the difference between 128 Kbps mp3 and FLAC (I did ABX testing on both set ups to determine whether this was the case.) The overall increase in detail is noticeable, although my original headphones don't do it's brilliance just most of the time. Ever since I got the AKG Q701's the difference is much more apparent, and they're not even burned in yet. To put it in simile, the on-board sound is like freeway noise while the Sound Blaster Z is the eery quiet that follows a snow storm.
I also noticed that the base seems to be a little over accentuated on these headphone. I fixed this by turning down the base on my receiver, but you could also fix this by turning down the 31 and 62 sliders in the equalizer tab (which by the way has quite a few well though out presets included, I find almost everything except for rap sounds good on the Jazz preset.) If you're primarily listening to music with this card, I would suggest turning down the bass quite a bit.
Of course, there is the sound quality in games, which is largely what this sound card is designed for. I found that the built in game related feature were lacking and I played better without them. What they do is mostly turn up the mids and the highs so you can hear footsteps better. I found this to be a gimmick and something you don't actually want to use as it makes feel like you're inside a coffee can because of the tinny sound. Of course, if you don't use this feature and you have a pair of headphones with adequate sound stage you've bought the right card. I make no joke when I say that I have rarely been killed in a game from behind since I got this card. I can hear footsteps from a million miles away and I can easily pinpoint gunfire with this card's crystal clear audio processing.
I'm not a big fan of the red color scheme, and the red LED really bothers me. I don't need the glass window, and the card could do an even better job at shielding without it.
- This card comes with a 600 ohm headphone amp, which is more than enough to drive most headphones. This isn't a typical sound card headphone amp either, as in it doesn't simply make things louder. It makes sound much crisper and much more defined. It takes muddled bass and turns into a clear rumble that sound just like the real thing.
- First good driver and software package from creative. I hear ASUS used to dominate in drivers and usability, but the tables seem to have turned. There aren't really any features missing from the software package (there aren't that many bloat features either, just the usual stupid voice modifiers that come with ever package,) and the drivers don't conflict with my many devices. Install was quite easy. I could take a miss on the creative ALchemy program, but it doesn't load at start up and doesn't take up a notable amount of HDD spaces so I don't really have any qualms with it. Who knows, maybe I'll need to enable direct3D sound in some game at some point, but at the moment it doesn't seem to be super functional for my uses.
- I don't use front panel audio with this because the plug is unshielded. If you're going to be installing you card near a GPU or PSU you'll want to use the rear ports. This is fine for me because I can use the software to switch from headphones to speakers easily and decrease wear on my ports because I'm not constantly plugging and unplugging my devices. But if you're the kind of person who likes to use front panel audio it will probably be staticky and and hissy and you won;t be able to use the built in headphone amp.
- This card was designed with gaming in mind. If you're a gamer, there's a larger feature set out there for you with this card. Dedicated music people will like this too, but you may want to look into the ASUS Xonar DX if you listen to music mostly. Me, I'm both a gamer and a music enthusiast so this card works great for my needs.
So in the end, i think this card is very good and quite refined on the hardware side of things. The bass is far too much out of the box, but this can be fixed through tweaking. The software could be a bit better, but it's not bad and that's all that really matters these days. Gamers will like this, music listeners will like this. It has an actual amp in it, and it is well shielded so you won't be hearing any interference at all when you use the rear ports on this card (the front panel audio is a completely different story as mentioned above in bullet point #3.) Overall, if you're in the market for a sound card I recommend the Creative Sound Blaster Z.