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I didn't need one either.
What are you expecting from a firmware update?
My apologies, there was a software update for the G5, but mentally I was excited about a firmware update to the X7. I haven't checked if Creative has put out a firmware update to the G5 in the past month, but there was just an update to the driver software.
Thanks for pointing it out though. I've got some writing that must be done tonight, but I'll edit my reviews when I get the chance (unfortunately I posted it here, the G5 thread, and as a separate product review!).
Burson Audio v5i OpAmp
Elevate your amp!
One of the "problems" of the audio hobby is that, almost inevitably, upgraditis strikes! With a tube amp, or an amp with interchangeable operational amplifiers (OpAmps), upgraditis can be staved off with $50-$75 chips instead of buying a whole new amp. Familiar with a tube amp (and the pain of manually biasing voltage with a voltmeter, and dealing with EMI noise pickup), I wanted to try changing the OpAmps in my Sound Blaster X7 from Creative Labs. Would OpAmp rolling be enough to cure an upgrade fever, or is it better to spend a whole lot more on a whole new amp? Read on and find out!
Ok, so I've been gaming with my X7 since it came out, and six months ago I leaped to using a Sennheiser HD800 as my primary headphone. Besides the X7 with stock OpAmps, I also have a vintage Yamaha receiver amp, several FiiO portables, a simple SET tube amp, and a Cavalli Liquid Carbon. Upon recommendation from a friend, Supreme Sound offered to send me a pair of single and dual Burson v5i OpAmps in exchange for a review.
First, I swapped out the stock Singles, and I have to admit I didn't hear a change immediately. I was also hearing some initial static, had a technical problem with my X7 that took some troubleshooting and firmware updating to fix, and also was sick at the time and less trusting of my ears. Then, I put in the Duals; the sound was definitely better than stock, more refined, exciting, and mellifluous, but it was hard to put my finger on exactly why at first. Changing OpAmps did not color the frequency response, but as I kept listening I realized the changes touched all the little secondary attributes that are hard to find but define the "high-end" sound. I think I also experienced a bit of positive burn-in, because the static issues during the first 10 minutes of warm-up don't happen anymore, and the gulf between the new sound and the stock op-amps became more apparent with time.
Again, the bass, mids, and treble were all balanced the same, decibel-wise. There was perhaps better extension with less roll-off in the bass and more even (less dips and peaks) in the treble. The treble spike in my Sennheiser HD800 seems sweeter, not veiled but less fatiguing than before the OpAmp changes. Resolution, "plankton," micro-detail, all these different descriptions for the same thing have been dialed into better focus over the X7's stock LME OpAmps. Yup, the waters are clear, and even little sea creatures are evident. This leads into Soundstage size being more defined and more naturally porportioned, and imaging being crisper. Take all that – the size, position, and better focused details, all without resorting to boosting treble to highlight details and without the trade-offs that come from boosting treble – and you have a more "transparent" sound, one that feels more realistic and holographically 3D.
Spoiler: High End A/B Comparisons
Compared to high-end headphone amplifiers, the Burson v5i isn't quite as good but holds its own and comes to a performance midpoint between the stock X7 OpAmps and my Cavalli Liquid Carbon. Now, the Carbon simply is a much more powerful amp, with the balanced output much much more powerful, and can produce a bit more meaty bass response and generally seems more composed and less strained. No matter how good the Burson OpAmp is, it is just the icing on top of the Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 cake. However, they both feature that musical, audiophile tuning where they have a full-bodied satin-rich sound with unfatiguing treble, and they both don't cheat to get that sound by EQ-ing mid-bass up and treble down.
Another popular platform to compare to is the Chord Mojo, the portable DAC/amp. Keep in mind that a comparison between these setups also means we're comparing the Chord DAC and Creative's DAC in addition to the amp sections, and any contrasts must be taken with a grain of salt. That said, the amp's capacity for power is more similar for both of these amps, bit more power for the X7/v5i desktop setup and now it's the one with a little more composure. The Mojo by itself also seems to have a tiny bit more treble energy... highlighting detail and that greater DAC accuracy recreation of the original, and blacker background for details to emerge from, but sometimes the abruptness that notes burst forth is almost startling. The Mojo by itself may not be the most synergistic combo with the HD800 for longer listening sessions, and in that respect the v5i+X7 combo is still quite dynamic but better for extended listening.
Now, the combined strengths of a Mojo + Liquid Carbon clear away fuzz and grain and give me the most subjective enjoyment. But that costs $599 and $799 respectively, and a full set of the v5i singles and doubles ($100) on top of a system that accepts drop-in OpAmps (my X7 is usually $399, but often on sale for $299) isn't embarrassed in the comparison. Objectively, after doing an A/B comparison, it's easy to start rationalizing what else the $1000 price difference could be spent on... even nice cabling upgrades start to make sense for a complete high-performance system before jumping to summit-fi.
In the end, the v5i seems "worthy" of the HD800, good enough for me to be satisfied with the notoriously picky headphone powered straight out of the X7 for convenience while being less fatiguing than the stock Sound Blaster X7.
Spoiler: Some Listening Notes
Arcade Fire: "The Suburbs" is fun, not boring!
Massive Attack: "Angel" is a fantastic bass test track, one thing that stood out to me was at the Burson OpAmp upgraded X7 was able to fill the soundstage with a thick bassy atmosphere while still making the string instrument that starts playing at 20 seconds in have a sound very tight/taut in texture even among that heavy bass, uncomfortably close to what the Liquid Carbon achieves.
Pink Floyd: "Money" has drum and cymbal hits sharp enough to reverb and reveal the size of the recording room.
Cowboy Junkies: "Walking After Midnight" can be sibilant on the "s" sounds and especially on the first blast of the harmonica, with the Burson OpAmps these moments are less stressful while not giving up any of the smoldering magic of this song as Margo takes the listener for a slow, slow, late walk on a summer night.
Andrew Bird: "Imitosis (Four Tet Remix)" infects me with chin thrusts and leaves me addicted, this song thrives on its sense of rhythm and pacing. The v5i does not disappoint... The only measuring equipment I have is my own ears, but I swear that square wave measurements would show better leading edge and sustain that "square shape" better.
The Mars Volta - Televators. Really cool chittering of animals right at the start have a sense of a big indoor area like an aviary, and the stereo panning causes the image of the soundstage to swim around with a fascinating feeling of a room moving around you. The unforgivingly revealing nature of the HD800 shows its head too. At 10, 12, 17 seconds and on, there's an easy to reproduce whine that could be from recording equipment or feedback, but it's clearly in the recording.
I listened to a ton of songs and my "Test Playlist" is now twice as long!
Dominating in the The Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare beta was an exhilarating experience. Very conducive to a rushing, flanking, hipfire gameplay style that was a lot of fun and very competitive on smaller maps. SBX processing sounds less distorted with more convincing virtual surround than ever with the new OpAmps. The stock X7 made it easy to be aware of what was going on around the player without needing a UAV or radar, but the Burson's refinement and fuller body make playing more exciting and fun without giving up competitiveness.
So, why does a set of small $40 and $70 chips make a significant difference when added to a whole (and complex $400) DAC/Amp system like the Sound Blaster X7? It's because they were designed with lower distortion, wider bandwidth, and they are a hybrid Integrated Component/Discrete design. The lower distortion and hybrid design are a big part of why the Bursons sound more transparent, and the wider bandwidth (the Burson website quotes that the high frequencies can reach 50MHz) means there is less struggle to reproduce sounds within our human hearing range, which helps explain why the not-veiled treble seems smoother and more liquid.
Public Service Announcement: the v5i fits inside the X7, but they are tall enough that you can't fit or bend the compartment lid back on. They don't extend past the enclosure, as you can see in the pictures, so it's not a problem at all, but worth pointing out. After hearing their performance, I'm kinda tempted to put my X7 up on stilts (vibration isolation cones?) so that I could fit the really tall discrete v5 OpAmps sticking out the bottom!
The Sound Blaster X7 is marketed as "the" high-end virtual surround gaming device on the market, and immersive gaming is my primary motivation in audio. Virtual Surround is a bit of an estimation and "One size fits most" technology right now (unless you have a Smyth Realiser), but the v5i's transparency really helps to create the holographic 3D sense of sound positioning. The transparency and separation also helps keep busy or chaotic action from overwhelming each other and creating a muddy mess. Lastly, these kinds of improvements help immersion. When I first got my X7, sometimes I would just stop in awe and take in the environment and how many things were going on at once. It trained my ears, spoiled me against ever wanting to go back, and the Burson upgrade makes me notice again atmospheric rustles and twinkling sounds that I had started to take for granted. Now that I'm 30, I appreciate any enhancements to awareness that can compensate for my slower reaction times in competitive gaming. The other guy may have aim-bot like reflexes, but if I can hear you coming during the heat of battle and track the moment you appear, or if I can out-juke you so you're facing the wrong way, well... let's just say I still get top scores.
Musically, the sound is more dynamic, full of interesting details and atmosphere, while also easier to listen to, then the experience is more stimulating and engaging, filling the hearing sense and imagination, and more likely to be a fulfilling standalone pastime.
Take the above, and only spend between $40 (singles) to $100 (a pair each of singles and doubles in a set) instead of spending $500 or more on buying an additional amp good enough to outperform what is built-in to the stock X7, and that is a very practical kind of cool.
Best Use Scenario
I like to use this section as a conclusion, because this final analysis should be the point that lingers in the mind.
The v5i is NOT the best choice when a colored opamp or amp is REALLY desired to "season" your headphone's frequency signature, or if you just want a big new piece of gear to feel and see a pride of ownership. If you don't have an amp that supports OpAmp upgrades, then obviously the v5i chips won't help much.
The Burson/Supreme Sound v5i is a great budget upgrade for owners of the X7, high-end PCIe sound cards, and other amps that support drop-in OpAmp upgrades. Not only do the v5i's save money compared to a whole system replacement, audiophiles and gamers don't have to give up on the simplicity, connectivity options, and features of just using an X7. Most importantly, it SOUNDS like another level up.
Hi @ Evshrug
A noob question here (I'm still quite new to the whole op amp upgrading idea)... I've just read your post above.
With regards to your 'sound signature' section, my understanding is that your testing routine was:
a - Replace LME49710 with v5i single channel, while retaining the NJM2114D
b - Replace LME49710 with v5i single channel, and replacing NJM2114D with v5i dual channel.
Is that how you did it? Or did you retain the LMP49710 single channels while replacing the dual channel NJM2114D in part b?
Will all three combinations of putting v5i in single channel and/or dual channel work together?
I tried retaining the stock Duals (off the top of my head I forget, but NJM211D sounds right) while using the Burson v5i singles... and I was expecting a difference in timbre like I heard with tube amps, but I didn't hear the difference I expected.
Then, I tried all Singles and Duals replaced with v5i OpAmps... still not a tube-like change, but it was more obvious what had changed once I had in the full set.
Unfortunately, I did not try using the Stock singles (the LME, probably the LME49710 you mentioned) with the Burson v5i Duals alone, because the pins on one of my stock LME singles got bent when I took it out the first time. I probably could bend it back... but I was enjoying myself. LOL!
So, I only tried two of the three possible combinations, but I would still say that the v5i Duals are worth the price difference, and the full set has good synergy.
Interesting, thanks for the reply
Definitely something for me to think about - mulling over whether I might want to spend some money to give my X7 a different sound signature. Cheers!
If you would start by only upgrading half of your OpAmps... I felt that the change of the Duals made a more significant gain/change. But really you should get the full set.
And if you read the review, I was expecting to hear a different sound Signature... but I didn't, I just heard a more refined version of the existing signature.
Hello I have the Sound Blaster X7. I'm new to the op-amp upgrading thing and I'm curious which one you bought. On the Burson website they have the Dual and single. I seen in yours that you replaced all 4 stock amps with the Burson. Did you buy the Dual V5i x 2 and another Dual V5i x2 that way your have 4?
I know you have the X7, and the HD800, I quoted you before because I was trying to help info get your way.
As stated in the review, to have your X7 set up like mine, you would need a pair of Duals and a pair of Singles. Did you see the pic of the X7 stacked on top of the Carbon? Size wise, the Carbon and amps of that size fit pretty tidily underneath the X7, but I too enjoy just using the X7 by itself. Putting the Bursons inside the X7 doesn't transform the whole amp section to be as good as the Carbon, but it does get closer!
Yep, for sure! Thanks for the clarification, I'll have a closer read of your review in that case!
"Changing OpAmps did not color the frequency response, but as I kept listening I realized the changes touched all the little secondary attributes that are hard to find but define the "high-end" sound."
If there was any technical change, it was a slight reduction (maybe within a dB) in treble that's easy not to notice. If you DO want a shift in the sound balance, I've found the EQ in the X7 to be very good!
I just want to mention you might can fit the huge Burson V5 op-amp in the X7 if you disassemble the X7 and use a op-amp extension cable.
The Surround Gaming Review Guide
Part 1: Into, Headphone Surround samples, and a table of contents (of sorts)
Part 2: Chico's "Frequently Asked Questions" section, probably most people's questions could be referred here for great answers. And humor.
Part 3: All of Mad Lust Envy's headphone reviews, sorted by price groups, wth lots of spoiler tags for quicker navigation (this took me awhile):
Page 4: Will be the long-time "contributor's" reviews. I will use price ranges and spoiler tags like part 3 to make navigation quicker.
Credit to Mad Lust Envy for the reviews, chicolom for the FAQ (and NamelessPFG for the PC Soundcard thread), Hansotek for the "title" graphic, and Evshrug for reformatting, editing, and posting it.
Smyth Research A16 Realiser: Impressions
Putting this here for posterity.
Short version: most impressive stand-alone unit I've heard yet, high price seems justified because of it's potential to make 2-channel speaker guys sad or hold a grudge.
Speaking of Impressions:
Tips for Getting the Best CIEM Impressions
I think CIEMs can be a good choice: in a lot of ways, an IEM is the ultimate headphone (portable, private), and a CIEM is like the ultimate IEM (comfort, sophisticated design). However, my CIEMs never seem to fit right and so I never use them. When I went to get my impressions made, I wish I had the above tips and suggestions beforehand.
I also wish I had my ears cleaned a week before going to the audiologist. I had wax all the way up against my eardrum, and I'm sure the cleaning process causes inflammation and a bad impression.