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Evshrug's "If I knew then what I know now" discussion journal.

Discussion in 'Video Games Discussion' started by evshrug, Jan 17, 2013.
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  1. conquerator2
    Aight [​IMG] [​IMG]
    I am waiting for your say. I am still tweaking the surround sound settings myself.
     
  2. benbenkr
    On my ZxR (I belive the ZxR co-relates to the X7, since they're almost identical hardware wise except for output impedance and some other very minor differences), I've always liked 72% on SBX for games and 61% for movies. 
     
    Always felt that 67% is slightly too anemic. Boosting this up to 72% gives it that subtle but noticeable air, it's more immersive IMO. 
     
  3. conquerator2
    I am really liking the X7. More refined sound than the Recon3D, noticeably more bass [the stock op-amps work really well with my neutral headphones at 'flat' EQ].
    The X7 companion app is a godsend and the X7 automatically choosing inputs/outputs is even greater.
    I've been further testing the SBX and the difference from say 33 to 67 to 100 is really just in the overall size of the 'room'. With the room getting bigger, the sound does get a bit more processed, sounding very natural at 33 and less so at 100. Still, it is a matter of taste and I'll be further testing it. For now, I think 67 is the sweet spot but I might get swayed a bit over time.
    I'll comment on the DAC section later and on the amp section when I receive the K7XX.
     
    So far though, this is a seriously impressive device! And a definite improvement in all aspects over the Recon3D, both in immersion and competitiveness [​IMG] 
     
     
    Mini DAC comparison - OK, so the DACs in question are the X7's built in DAC [PCM1794] via a line out to the SA31SE amp and then my HE-560, using either PS4 via optical or PC via USB [through Wyrd] to the X7. This was exhibit A - PS4/PC[+Wyrd] - X7 RCA line out - RCA in on the SA31SE.
     
    Exhibit B was my main NFB-7 DAC [ES9018] paired with a DI-V2014, using the same sources. The chain then would be PS4/PC[+Wyrd] - X7 S-PDIF out - DI-V2014 - HDMI out - HDMI in - NFB-7.
    The settings are used on the X7 were identical for both on this test - SBX at 67%, everything else off, no bass boost, 'flat' EQ setting. The game I tested in question was Alan Wake, which I found to have great cues and sound [if not the best overall SQ that's out there].
     
    To begin with, I was expecting a mild difference. I've compared gear before and the differences were rarely night and day. I was expecting a bit more detail and analytic sound from the NFB7's ES9018 and a bit more warmth and musicality from the X7's PCM1794.
     
    Well, was I wrong! The difference in resulting sound was staggering. Keep in mind that the amplifier was identical for both. So the difference comes down to either a] the op-amps in the X7 [if they are being utilized in this setup?] b] drastic difference between the two DAC chips c] drastic difference in the implementations/parts or d] there's some extra processing going on that I cannot see/find.
     
    Let's get to the differences - first, the SBX Surround ['room' simulation] effect as a whole, is still very convincing with the X7 DAC, though I found it a bit echoey still and constrained/heavy in terms of separation, a bit hazy and more wide than deep [at 67]. The NFB-7 fixes this issue entirely. There's a virtual room, with similar L-R X Front - Rear proportion, noticeably improved rear cues [like, seriously] and superior pin-point accuracy . With better nuance and detail coverage all-round/ Granted, the resulting sound is definitely lighter and a bit less immersive, but things still sound very convincing [if not noticeably more so] while offering a superior 'audiphile' experience. With the X7, I feel a bit more immersed, but at the same time a bit more distracted [having to focus more on where the cues are coming from, what the noises are, etc.], while the NFB7 just shows all the cues, clearly separated and ready to follow. One could say the X7 leans towards bass and immersion and the NFB7 towards delicacy and perfection.
     
    Speaking of bass, the X7 has a definite boost there. There's more of it, everywhere, including non-bass related cues, like voices/vocals, giving them more body and oomph than need be. the NFB7 sounds just like it does with the music - neutral, but offers the benefits of the SBX. There's also a difference in vocals, but this difference is further pronounced at certain times - for example, during cutscenes in AW, the vocals get quieter/reduce in volume when using the X7 DAC, while they remain level on the NFB7, again suggesting there could be some sort of internal/external processing at play that I don't see, increasing the difference.
     
    I did not tick the 'direct mode' or 'S-PDIF direct' in the X7's settings while testing either DACs. I did not assume it would affect one without affecting the other, should it do anything. All other X7's 'enhancements' [Dialogue Plus, etc.] remained off.
     
    In conclusion, the X7's DAC sounded [as of now, with these settings] sounded noticeably warmer, more muffled and bloated [largely due to the bass boost] and projected a less convincing room effect, while the NFB7 sounded neutral, with easier discernable details/cues and a superior audio experience.
     
    Of course, the X7 is still a good performer! A worthwhile upgrade from the Recon3D. This is only to relation to a different [and arguably much more expensive] DAC, utilizing only the DSP processing of the X7. I am kinda starting to wish for a 'DSP' only device now [​IMG] But that's because I own the NFB7/SA31SE...
     
    I'll investigate further tomorrow whether there's anything I missed. As of now, I am certainly a bit buffled by the results. I was expecting the difference in both quality and signature to be there, but for it to be this drastic, that I did not expect.
     
    I hope someone else [Evs :D] can test an external DAC like I did, to either verify or prove wrong my findings! Good night for now [​IMG]
    [PS - Hope Evs doesn't mind me posting my little snippets in his thread. I am stll eagerly waiting for his take [​IMG] [​IMG]]
     
    EDIT: 2-DACs comparison
     
    martin vegas likes this.
  4. benbenkr
    ^So from your impressions, it does seem to fit what I already know since I own a ZxR - The X7 is on the warmish tilt side of things, of which can be somewhat remedied towards the neutral side with different op-amps.
     
  5. Fegefeuer

    I share the same experience with the stock ZxR. It's less controlled in the bass region and more tilted towards "excitement" in general while my D2 DAC is building the world noticably cleaner, more precise with better architectural finesse. (What a stupid description but you get the notion).

    Yet still the x7 will overshadow any other affordable solution immensely.
     
  6. benbenkr
     
    Agreed. My cheap fix for the ZxR before swithching out the op-amps were to EQ the bass regions down several notches for most headphones and speakers that I paired it with. Never liked EQing but it does help somewhat in cases like this.
    Can EQing be done on the X7?
     
  7. conquerator2
    ^ it can, very easily. :)
    Either through the PC X7 app, or the Android/iOS companion app. It offers a pretty good EQ, with lots to tweak :D
     
  8. Evshrug
    Creative Lab's Sound Blaster X7[/SIZE=5]

    As gamers, it's part of our hobby to seek "the next level". We're always looking for new adventures, new ideas, new graphics, and new ways to push the competitive edge. In the past few years, there has been a growing awareness (or for the hardcore, a resurgence) of how virtual surround combined with great headphones provides an ideal gaming experience: private, immersive, no speaker placement issues, and high value. Creative Lab's new Sound Blaster X7 is the result of a growing consumer awareness of these benefits and Creative’s taking note that there is a market for upgraded component quality and convenience.

    P1010186.jpg


    Here's as shortest way to describe what the X7 has to offer: it weaves the web of practically all your audio sources into an all-in-one high fidelity component and plays them back (almost) however you want. The X7 offers a surround DSP, desktop DAC, desktop headphone amp, passive speaker (!) amp, and beamforming microphone. The X7 can connect to optical, USB, analog RCA line-in, mic line-in, and up to two Bluetooth sources. Plus, it looks awesome with its pyramid/prism shape, uncluttered front,volume/mute knob at the apex, and wire headphone stand/home above it. Overall the X7 is a smaller unit than I expected and it rated an "Oh, that's a tidy little setup" from my girlfriend.

    My desktop setup, Before/After
    image.jpg P1010183.jpg



    Those qualities were enough to make me jump at trying out the X7 as soon as it was released... but if you're reading this, I suspect you are trying to find out if it's worth its $400 MSRP price tag.



    The Specs & Sound[/SIZE=4]

    I want to point out right away that the specifications are all listed on www.soundblaster.com/x7, and except for one minor addition to that list I just want to focus on how each of those numbers benefit the sound.

    Right now, I'm keeping the writing juices flowing by listening to Daft Punk's newest Random Access Memories (featured in Stuff.tv's "30 Greatest Audiophile Albums" article), and that Burr Brown 127dB S:N DAC and Texas Instruments' headphone amp is easily revealing detailed minutia such as reverb and the decay of drums, with solid, tight bass, mesmerizing mids, and clean clean clean clear treble. With good headphones, I can hear most of these details with the built-in DAC in a typical 86dB motherboard or 98dB DAC built into previous console-gamer DSPs, such as an Astro Mixamp or Creative Recon3D. Often, however, I won't NOTICE these details until the X7 (or my other DAC, a Schiit Bifrost Uber) seems to pull the wool out of my ears and reveals the details. Playing "Hooked on a Feeling," I never before noticed the organ that begins playing at 25 seconds. The X7 is a very good DAC, so much so that since I don't lose any entertainment value compared to the $420 Schiit Bifrost Uber and I gain all the extra features, I'd easily recommend it for gamers over the Bifrost.

    Another shortcoming with a motherboard or Mixamp, those "entry-level" devices have merely "entry-level" amps. With higher quality headphones, which generally feature higher impedance (Ω, or Ohms) and lower sensitivity, I had to double-amp with a dedicated headphone amp to hear the true level of dynamic and controlled quality the headphones were capable of. Nothing extra is needed in the X7, thanks to the Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 solid-state headphone amp chip "capable of driving high-end 600Ω headphones." It certainly doesn't seem to be straining to supply my 150Ω Sennheiser HD700, 62Ω AKG K712, or 32Ω VMODA M-100; "Spirit in the Sky" digs really dynamically into the artist-intended distorted guitar and sounds awesome (and yup, I have the Guardians of the Galaxy OST). 

    P1010185.jpg

    One last specification that is Head-Fi popular but rarely published by amp manufacturers is the headphone output impedance; I asked Creative and they told me it was 2.2Ω, which is a very nice and pretty universal measurement that will allow for all but the most difficult IEMs to drive nicely without distorting. Oh, and the speaker taps? They happen to play nice with my antique Stax headphones and their transformer:

    P1010187.jpg



    Okay okay, that is great and all, but how does it sound while gaming? Creative’s proprietary SBX processing for headphone surround, combined with a nice DAC, amp, and headphones, really makes a great recipe for console gaming – an example of something greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, it plays great from PC like top of the line soundcards, but the X7 is the first Dolby Digital Live surround decoder with a headphone DSP that has high-end parts.

    In testing, I played CoD: Ghosts while streaming to Twitch. I often pointed out for my viewers when I was picking out enemies by sound alone, well before we saw the opponent (and I blasted 'em). Even though I was about 3 months rusty from competitive FPS, I dominated because my awareness was so good! I actually showed the streamers how I tracked opponents through walls and anticipated when we would see them come around corners. Playing a single-player game like Metro: First Light, it's easy to get caught up in the atmosphere and spook when you hear a monster climbing up the pillar off the screen to your right. If you've never gamed with headphone surround before, it really sucks you in and immerses your senses, even more than 3D. SBX processing sounds cleaner and more realistic than the rare headphone surround DSP built into any home theater receiver. Plus, it's adjustable...


    Controls and Adjustments[/SIZE=4]

    The X7 has the best controls I've ever seen in an audio component. The PC control panel is logically laid out with different sections and icons in a sidebar, AND every control is also accessible from a similar layout on the smartphone/tablet app. I have iOS devices, and the PC control panel is replicated on my iPad, while my iPhone 5S has icons on the main screen that correlate with the sidebar sections on other devices. The connection is Bluetooth and there is a one second delay between making a change and the X7 changing to reflect that, but that doesn't diminish how cool it is to mess with SBX and Equalizer settings while the game is playing live on the main screen.

    The first screen of the Sound Blaster X7 mobile app on my iPhone allows me to switch between speaker and headphone output (don't have to unplug anything!), change volume, choose if I want my iPhone's sound to play through the X7 or something else, and choose between the 9 control categories. I'll focus on just three for the scope of this review: SBX Pro Studio, Mixer, and Profile (in the Cinematic panel, just set it to "full" and leave it there).

    SBX Pro Studio
    I covered a lot of these functions in my Recon3D USB review, and they function essentially the same here. The sample video/sound clip built-in to the PC control panel is useless, but you can just play a real game while making adjustments.

    "Surround" and its strength slider allow the virtual headphone surround goodness. I prefer personally to have this setting pretty high while gaming (~80%-100%) but getting used to 67% at first is a good baseline.

    "Crystalizer" is supposed to "restore" the liveliness of compressed audio, maybe this would be great with the Sony MA900 or HD650 to "wake them up," but the headphones I prefer are already pretty lively and this setting is fatiguing to me, so I switch it off.

    I actually like Creative's "bass" setting here and find a little boost pleasurable, I believe it makes an EQ adjustment and perhaps a little volume compression, the "crossover frequency" sub-setting is a cutoff point for where the bass boost stops having effect, so I can keep the bass from bleeding over the detail of the mids.

    "Smart Volume" is a volume compression to "minimize sudden volume changes" and make quiet sounds not so quiet compared to the loudest sounds. I know a lot of people will switch it off and I find it situational, but sometimes I find it really useful when a movie or especially TV show is quiet then suddenly booming, or if I'm writing a review article for 6 hours and I just want to listen at quiet volumes. 

    "Dialog Plus" enhances voices, again something I quite enjoy with movies and TV shows.

    On the mobile app, the SBX panel is also where the 10-band EQ lives – sometimes the EQ seems to hide from me, but then I remember that it's in this SBX panel, at the top of the screen.

    Mixer
    Astro Gaming, eat your heart out. The Astro Mixamp has two dials, a master volume dial and a game-to-chat balance knob. If you use any "chat" then the Mixamp actually loses some maximum volume output. The X7 has no such volume issues because it's all digital, and you can rebalance the volume of your overall output, mic monitoring (hear yourself echo in your headphone), line-in, SPDIF-in, Bluetooth, USB Host, and SPDIF Out. Any of those could also be muted, or change the balance of left/right ear in case you have any hearing loss or one speaker just sounds "off."

    Oh, I guess this is as good a time as any to point out that ALL these sources can be playing at once (only one bluetooth at a time, you an pair two but switch which is feeding audio), so you can have your PS4 going, your iPad playing some music, your friend on PC chatting with you, and hear your phone ring and quickly switch to just that connection. Since these play simultaneously, you can get creative with your console connections, which I'll get back to in the setup section.

    Profile
    Yay for controls and options! Boo-hiss for having to change all the settings per-headphone or for each type of media. Luckily, the X7 can save a set of settings into different profiles so you can switch everything quickly, or use one of Creative's preset ones.


    Connections and Microphone[/SIZE=4]

    P1010189.jpg

    Alright, I've already listed the types of connections on the X7, but I just wanted to go a bit more in-depth on a few things. First of all, while the X7's mic works on PC and bluetooth, there isn't really a convenient way to use the X7's mic with a gaming console. That all has to do with Xbox simply not supporting USB audio, and the PS4 being unable to "see" the X7's mic among all its other features.

    Second, when gaming on PC, my friends consistently preferred my dedicated Blue Snowball USB mic -- even my cheap HDE/Neewer clip-on mic I found on Amazon sounds a little cleaner. A big part of that quality can be attributed simply to the compromise of being further away from a mic and then the room acoustics come into play. But it must be said that I'm not compelled to use the x7's Beamforming mic much, and that hurts the "all-in-one" score a bit. On the bright side, I had my friend call my phone with bluetooth and it seamlessly changed the playback and mic audio to the call once I accepted, so that's a plus.

    Connecting the X7 to Bluetooth headphones (which often have a mic, nearer your mouth) is currently not possible, but Creative is aware that this is a "highly requested feature." So, if Creative adds Bluetooth headphone support, cool things could happen and suddenly the PS4 or Xbox could wirelessly connect to 3rd party Bluetooth wireless headphones. Now, Sony itself doesn't support 3rd party Bluetooth headsets in the PS4, but they did with the PS3 (which I don't have). If Sony adds 3rd Party Bluetooth support for PS4, this could solve chat/mic issues, because it could "see" the X7 as a headset, which would enable the built-in mic at least and the X7 could mix together game and chat audio.

    In the end, right now it's simpler and sounds great to just use the X7 for game audio duty, and plugging in a desktop USB mic into a computer or PS4/3, if you're the type of person who likes to chat. You could also do what the console manufacturers want you to do, and use a Kinect or PS Camera as your mic, the mic quality on those are basically the same as the X7 (because they pick up your voice from distance and get some of the sound of the room). You could also get more complicated with a y-splitter, lapel mic or ModMic, and route chat audio from controller to the X7; the Xbox One additionally requires the headset chat adapter if you mean to use the controller-wired method. Personally that's too much wire mess and I'd stick with a USB mic or Kinect. Here's a picture of how the PS4 controller-wired-to-the-X7 setup looks like:
    P1080190.jpg



    Who Is This For?[/SIZE=4]

    The X7 has proved it's worth to me, performing some impressive feats of Alchemy while also being rather future-proof, and I'd buy it again if I had to. That said, I realize that some of it's features may not be worth it to my dear readers, in which case I'd recommend something like a Turtle Beach DSS, which fits pretty much in the middle between the 1Dimensional stereo sound from a console controller/PC motherboard and the high-end sound of the X7. I'd recommend saving up for the X7 if some of these points make sense to you:

    •College dorms, apartments and condos.
    •Best DSP on the market besides Beyerdynamic Headzone and Smith Realizer - realistically the X7 gets the max quality out of games and can produce better-than-CD music.
    •Make use of 3 or more features (DAC, amp, surround DSP, Audio Source mixing, etc).
    •"Next Level" quality, for those seeking better than a Mixamp.


    - Review by Everett, special thanks to Stillhart for editing and encouragement, and Ryan and Susie of Creative Labs for the extra information and helping me get my hands on one of the early units.
    - Next up, a youtube video review!
     
  9. conquerator2
    Too short :D
    Great writing Evs.
    I will be probably writing something myself, but I agree with what you said mostly and applaud the effort :)
     
  10. lenroot77
    Nice review! U should post this up on Amazon, as no one else has yet.
     
  11. Evshrug
    Yup! Also making stand-alone review.

    I tested the physical unit pretty thoroughly, comparing and whatnot, kept editing parts.

    I tried to point out the best points at the beginning, so that I already let the cat out of the bag that it's pretty boss right from the start. I legitimately feel that the only remaining worry for most will be the cost. The cost:value seems clearest to me when I found that the difference between the Schiit and Creative was mostly that the X7's DAC is a little warmer... The Bifrost Uber is $420, and all you get is a (well-regarded value) DAC.
     
  12. pack21
    Fantastic review!

    Finally some light on X7. Can you explain how you hear the sound of party in your headphones when you use a USB mic? hear yourself, echo or none, game sound allows to listen participants in chat or vice versa?

    Thanks
     
  13. conquerator2
    Have you experienced the same in regards to the X7's DAC?
    I compared it to the NFB7 and found out the aforementioned things... Previous post for details (DAC comparison).
    The X7 does do well via the RCA line oit, just curios about your opinion and/or whether you agree with my sound signature assesment :)
    Cheers and happy 2015 :D
     
  14. Evshrug
    Oh yeah I read your comparison, I just didn't want to steal your thunder. I haven't heard an Audio GD product, but I do think the stock op-amps add a little warmth. Sounds good as-is, but I know it can be tweaked, just not something I've done.
     
    pack21 likes this.
  15. Evshrug
    If you have a USB mic plugged into a PS4, chat audio automatically is just transported along with the rest of the game audio over the optical connection. On PC, you can turn on mic monitoring (where you can hear yourself after a slight delay) even if you're using a USB mic, but it makes me seriously distracted to hear myself. I did use it a bit just to hear the mic though, sounds a lot better locally before you compress it and send your voice over Steam chat or Battle.net

    Oh, btw, I did use the speaker taps with great results. I'll go more into detail on that in the video review.
     
    pack21 likes this.
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