Creative Labs Sound BlasterX G5

Evshrug

Sponsor: DROP
Sound Blaster X G5
The Gaming device with everything* we asked for



A Little Context
The G5 is part of Creative's "Blaster X" gamer focused line, cued after the name of the X7. I loved the Sound Blaster X7 (reviewed here) and the more music-focused Sound Blaster E5 (also reviewed here). The X7 is my most–used piece of audio gear right now, but the $400 X7 is Creative's top of the line setup, and a lower-cost, upgraded replacement for the discontinued Recon3D USB (reviewed here) was still missing. For me, the Recon3D USB represented a headphone to console connection, with headphone surround processing and microphone input, for around $120.

When Creative hinted about an E5 variant they would call the G5, people on the X7 and Mad Lust Envy gaming threads were dreaming of an Astro Mixamp killer. It seems Creative was actually listening and filled an impressive number of our requests, but does the G5 succeed and absolutely slay the competition? Read on!




Statistics/Design
In the box, you get the G5 itself, which is a DSP, DAC (Cirrus Logic CS4398), dual headphone amp (Texas Instruments TI6120A2), and mic (with ADC), but also you get a bold red micro USB cable (the new ones like on android smartphones and Playstation 4 controllers), a 1m optical cable (yeah I used metric, and it's a Toslink to Mini-Toslink connector cable), a map of various setup/cable wiring options and instructions, two warranty papers, and something in Singaporean which I also assume is a warranty/thank you card. If you noticed that was mostly copy-pasted from my E5 review, that's because the G5 is mostly a gamer-focused adaptation of the E5, and that's a very good start! Plus, you know, I can plagiarize myself without fear of lawsuit :p

The power aspects of the G5 are kinda balanced between a portable and desktop amp. Creative removed the E5's lithium battery, but as a hardcore gaming device it would be plugged in to USB on a PC or console anyway, so that's an acceptable cost savings measure to bring the price down. As an amp, it does have enough power for my AKG K612 to sound linear and full... Which, by the way, requires a higher volume setting than the 600 ohm DT880 for the same apparent loudness. Output impedance on the headphone jacks is between 2.2 and 2.4 ohms, pretty ideal for most headphones except the most sensitive IEMs. Speaking of IEMs, my Custom Art CIEMs and entry-level RHA IEMs pick up a little background hiss (less than the X7) that is easy to ignore once the audio starts, with no hiss for my 32 ohm Oppo PM-3 or V-MODA M-100. Unlike the Astro Mixamp or Creative's old Recon3D USB, it has plenty of volume headroom and has some nice density to the notes. From a pure value:sound quality perspective, this is pretty impressive at this price compared to the more commonly recommended signal chain gear, but more on competitive options in the conclusion.




The G5 contains a fair number of connectivity ports and buttons, same layout as the E5 but some have different functions. There's two 3.5mm jacks by the big but unobtrusive volume dial; the left jack is for headphones (TRS) and headsets (TRRS), the right is for microphones only. The digital volume dial and can be clicked to mute, and it is also backlit with a red LED that changes brightness with the volume setting, cool! Next side to the right of that has the Scout Mode button and the SBX activation, both with white indicator lights for "on," and a gain switch. You can hold the buttons to turn off processing for a "straight" audio signal. Then there's three LEDs indicating which of the three SBX profiles is active, those three plus Scout Mode total 4 sound profiles which can be customized with a computer. The next face around the right is the wide picture above. The two ports on the left are combination 3.5mm (TRS) and mini-Toslink ports. Then, the "USB–Device" port is for connecting to a keyboard, mouse (not on PS4), USB thumbdrive, and I can confirm that my PS4 recognizes my Blue Snowball USB microphone through this port. It doesn't work as a digital connection to smartphones or tablets. The furthest right micro-USB port is for charging the E5 and PC/Mac/PS4 connection (Just one cable! No rats' nest, yay!). The G5 CAN play from USB and the line-in at the same time, and you CAN output straight or processed audio through the line-out to another DAC or amp... So you can build a rats nest if you want!




Sound
I played some high-rez FLACs of music using VLC (and some fun stuff from iTunes), with SBX and any EQ off the sound is pretty good: it's overall pretty clean, though maybe a slight upper mids emphasis which makes vocals and guitars sound a tad more romantic. This is all so slight and close to flat, that you have to be really used to your headphone on another amp to hear the difference; without A/B testing this will sound like a nice flat amp. Plugging in my headphones to the G5 compared to my PC's Gygabyte more board was an immediate improvement; every note more crisp, nuances revealed so the playing stage is more transparent (and thus relative depth of a great recording is easier to sense). My next description will be familiar to most people who have owned a nice amp: audio is a bit more engaging, like as if you can feel the artist's emotion or the music is "full of life" rather than dull or a soda-gone-flat.

One more thing… Straight out of the box, the G5’s SBX processing was smeary and, frankly, bad. The G5 sounded good without processing, and a firmware update basically fixed the processing. I highly recommend installing the new Blaster X suite to your computer and updating the G5’s firmware right out of the box before judging the processing.


What makes it cool?
Let's cut to the chase here: this is a lower cost reconfiguration of Creative's E5, with fewer features but still retaining most of the things a gamer at home will like. As an audiophile, this is a great starter Amp/DAC. I would go as far as saying is pretty comparable to the well-known Schiit M&M stack or FiiO E09k (with less output impedance and hiss) and E17 stack for a pretty great price. It also includes a DSP that can be custom-tuned for a headphone (Hot treble? Anemic bass? EQ that!) or use (music engagement, tactical gaming, movies at night). That processing (including SBX Headphone) can be output to a crazy desktop super-setup or AV receiver (night mode + Netflix, anyone?). They also enabled Creative's excellent SBX Headphone Surround to take positional audio from PC/Mac and immerse players in 360° (2D) sonic environments. I feel trading things like the battery, built-in microphones, digital phone connections via USB or Bluetooth from the E5 in order to reach a lower price point is fair (though the loss of Bluetooth controls on a mobile app is a tiny bit annoying). The lower cost, LED volume indicator, easy mic setup, and processed output were all community requests for improvements after looking at the X7 and E5, and Creative brought that to market.

That leads me to the uncool part. The G5 cannot decode Dolby or DTS from a Playstation or Xbox, so consoles are a Stereo-Only affair. Good stereo, no problem for 2D games, but that means the G5 is not a true successor to the Recon3D USB, even if the sound quality is improved.

I can only speculate as to why the G5 wasn't enabled to decode Dolby while the Recon3D USB was for around the same price (less, when on sale). The existence of the Recon3D makes me doubt cost as the reason, though maybe it has to do with Dolby and post-processed digital outputs, or perhaps not enough gamers have been educated about the appeal of surround gaming.


Conclusion
If you liked the Sound Blaster Omni but wanted to be able to connect to consoles as well as computers, then the G5 does that while being an amp upgrade. However, for PC-only gamers, the Omni is cheaper and you won't outgrow it because the Omni also has a line-out and post-processed optical output for upgrades. If you like the G5 but could make use of turning it from a transportable to a portable, with the extra features of Bluetooth, Microphones, phone and tablet USB support on the go, and a battery, then for $50 more you can buy the very versatile Creative E5. If you want headphone surround with a game console, then shop for an X7 or another brand. The G5 definitely takes a stab at all of Astro’s Mixamp line with a much more powerful Amp and crisper DAC for overall sound quality at almost the same price, but the Mixamp still has 360° surround audio for consoles and a physical knob for mixing chat and game audio.

Purely based on sound quality, Schiit, FiiO, Fostex, and others should watch as the G5 sounds surprisingly close for less money. The G5 has it’s own implementation of the amping chip also used in the FiiO E09k, Fostex HP-A4, Asus STX, and Creative’s own ZxR, while sharing the same DAC chip as used in several of Astell & Kern’s DAPs and sounds nigh-indistinguishable in A/B tests with Schiit’s Modi DAC. Let that sink in for a little… The G5 is no gaming gimmick.

As it stands, the G5 is low–cost considering it's sound quality, and is a great *stereo* home-gaming device.
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ScubaMan2017
ScubaMan2017
Hello Evshrug. It's been ~1 year since your original review of the G5. Would you still recommend it as a starter system for a newbie audiophile? I want to link up my XBox 1 console's TOSLINK to it so that I can experience better sound quality.
Question: has another manufacturer figured out a device that can offer Dolby/surround-sound output... at the same $180 price-range?
J
JayGold
How do I update the firmware?
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