Pros: All cables/adapters included, USB DAC and Optical Audio sound processor for many/any device, Native Mac OS X drivers, nice virtual 3D audio processing
Cons: Weak internal amp, can only tune THX mode
A little intro may help, as this first-impression review is adapted from a thread discussion.
Creative's relatively new Recon3D Surround Sound Processor is a USB sound card that's main function is to turn 5.1, 7.1, or PC 3D surround gaming audio into virtual surround for headphones/headsets and near-field PC speakers. It features adjustable "THX TruStudio Pro Surround" processing to replace Creative's precious CMSS-3D, Dolby Digital decoding, a "Scout Mode" to boost tactical sounds amongst the other sound effects, and Crystal Voice on PC. The hardware of this device allows connection to Windows & Mac PCs and Playstation 3 via USB, and the Xbox 360 or any other device by a combo Optical Audio/3.5mm-in port. I use this lapel mic for voice chat. All sound processing is handled within the Recon3D's hardware (powered by a propriety quad-core CPU), so it doesn't put any "extra" load on your system resources.
All that was a pretty compelling package; with the consideration that this is the only sub-$1000 sound card with native Mac drivers I know of AND spotting a temporary sale price of $69 shipped from J&R.com, I jumped on the sale. Now, let's run the device through an Xbox 360 gaming marathon to see if all those features add up to a device worth a hoot!
Update: I did a few experiments tweaking the THX settings for optimal results, read my post here for the juicy details.
Setup was simple, once I figured out the necessity of removing the plastic "globe" covers on the tips of the optical cable. Included in the package were all the necessary cables, including a 2.5mm to 2.5mm cable to connect the Xbox Chat audio to a neat extension cable that organizes all your connections by your seat while reducing clutter between seat & Recon3D to a single, flat, ribbon style cord. I didn't use either of those two cables, since I already have an adapter to plug in a lapel mic directly into my controller and have my Xbox set to play chat audio through the "speakers." The headphones used for this marathon are the AKG Q701, extremely comfortable and known for having exceptional soundstage and detail.
- Listened to conversations and fireplace in a bar (Bruma), sounds accurately tracked around during fast and slow turning.
- Started ye olden bar brawl, used magic to aggro. 3D positioning and "heft" are ok with this game's somewhat "meek" (IMO) sound effects. EDIT: my opinion still stands, but I later found that adding an amp helps things sound more lively!
- Yielded to someone who joined the fight, amusingly they started fighting amongst eachother. Recon3D did it's part. Slight reverb to rear sounds but not like the echo I heard before with my Yamaha receiver's Silent Cinema, there also seems to be some pitch and "EQ" style gain adjustments based on direction. It's all subtle but realistic & more natural sounding. 3 o'clock, 5,6,7, and nine are all distinct; I say 5,6, & 7 because you can tell between directly behind as different from slightly to one side. Really, there are no imaging "holes."
- "swimming" distortion noise during intro movie of planets, with THX mode on. Fine if off.
- Definitely lacking power contrasted to receiver. Not quite natural authority & volume even when turned to max (this was an expected possibility, external amping even from lowly E5 helps) Update 3/2/2013: the FiiO E12 or Zigis' Rock 'n Glass tube amp make an even more awesome difference.
- Scout mode is interesting, helps in SWAT to concentrate on footsteps over the rest of the mix.
- Campaign intro is free of distortion with THX mode on, Heli fly-by is great, positioning is dimensional rather than merely directional. The dimension quality probably is more game dependent... Reach has some superior audio IMO, and I know they spent a lot developing the audio.
- THX mode is quite nice, I'm hearing the music at a nice level in campaign while also picking up NPC footsteps more distinctly than with Silent Cinema. Sound "whoring" is unnecessary in SP in my opinion, but here I'm hearing evidence that the presentation of detail is great while still being "musical" in the way that I absorb the mood ambiance.
Batman: Arkham City
- Surround works, but I definitely have to tweak THX mode because the treble is too harsh. Standard mode is fine tho.
- Surround isn't as much of a game-changer as in FPS. Recon3D is fine tho. Beautiful game.
- Still like having a little extra amp.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
- Positioning is good, but it never saved me, I didn't feel like it gave me an advantage. I am tired at this point, but I had a bunch of good-scoring games anyway. I just don't have a sonar-like detection while guns and grenades are going off, everything's so close because of the maps that I'm better off being careful at corners and judicious about sprinting.
- Scout mode made treble sounds hurt less. It's clearly designed to compress loud and quiet volumes into a smaller, more moderate range.
- I forgot that I had turned down the in-game volume, so I brought it up to 80%. Still used the E5 though to warm the sound and make the sound more lively and forgiving. Before I started using headphones with my Xbox, I played this game at quiet volumes, even when I didn't have to worry about others hearing it, because it gets fatiguing as the hours go by. I guess lots of games and sounds would get fatiguing after a marathon like I just had.
UPDATE 3/2/2013: Nowadays, I use a FiiO E12 as my amp, see my review on this amp here, and I'm fairly confident the "treble fatigue" I was experiencing was truely due to playing for over 5 hours until 3am when I wrote the review. After much more time with the Recon3D, there have definitely been times where I heard someone on the other side of the wall and I was able to get the jump on them, even a few cases where I shot them THROUGH the wall. There have also been a few cases where I heard someone, jumped around the corner while pre-firing, only to realize the enemy I heard was upstairs from me; that is more a limitation of 5.1 and 7.1 surround audio from consoles however, read this post for an explanation.
Final Impressions and Thoughts.
About 5:30 hours is where I decided I was pushing unhealthy game time and called it quits. So, that was a pretty extreme marathon. I think the Recon3D works very well, a real bargain at almost half the price of a Mixamp (which you have to buy direct... is there tax and shipping on top of the $130?) but with more device flexibility & features.
The headphone virtual surround effect is very nicely implemented, much more even and refined than Silent Cinema. Another "pro" for it is the adjustability... I turned up the "surround" effect to Max in THX mode, and beyond a standard EQ adjustment panel you can also adjust things like chat voice Crystalizer (PC only) and bass crossover (what do on single-driver headphones??). I want to play with tweaking the THX mode some more, smooth out a little treble and find a nice sound balance for CoD4. On that note, Scout Mode was actually my savior towards the end of the night; though it skews the original game mix substantially, it's "smart volume" compression feature helped my tired ears pick up on smaller details while also taming louder, harsher sounds. I like that I didn't need additional adapters or cables.
I think the most significant "con," however, is the unit's relative lack of power. It performed pretty well on the computer connected via USB, but when connected to the Xbox via Optical, the Recon3D's internal amp was always maxed out for volume through the night, providing my (somewhat harder than typical to drive) AKG Q701 headphones with enough volume at best, but not enough on some games. In general, I feel the dynamics and soundstage will be improved by adding an external amp. I don't think it's a boat-sinking flaw however, as most headphones and headsets are much easier to drive, and my thought is if you have a hard-to-drive audiophile headphone, you'll have an audiophile amp. I could've again hooked up my receiver for more juice, but even my cheap FiiO E5 brought volume levels up to good levels and imparted (a little) more current to juice the AKGs and liven up the sound. If I used my 32 Ohm Audio Technica AD700s instead, I wouldn't bother with an extra amp.
So, the Recon3D USB sound processor is a device with a lot of features on paper for a price easily in reach, but actually performs well in the real world with quite a few of those features proving their worth in the right situations. The virtual surround feature is advanced and works quite well with detailed headphones and well-designed games, the DAC feature is useful with both computers AND consoles, the sound is good out-of-the-box but has extensive tweaking potential, and the package comes with all the cables and adapters needed to make for some gaming magic. Scaling up your headphones pretty much requires scaled-up amping, but I feel that's expected, and a good amp is always a boon to soundstage and liveliness. The Recon3D has my first recommendation for multi-platform gamers, and the sometimes worrisome Creative should be applauded for a solid provision to the head-fi gaming niche.