Price (RRP): $229.95
Sound Blaster, remember them? The brand is Creative Labs, and for a time they were it when it came to PC sound. If you were producing a PC Game, Sound Blaster compatibility was an essential. Well, there are still computers, so there’s still Sound Blaster sound. And that brings us to the Creative Sound BlasterX G6, the company’s current top of the line sound “card”.
Sound BlasterX G6 features
The Creative Sound BlasterX G6 is not really a “card”. It’s an external USB Class 2.0 Audio device which smashes those old sound cards for performance. It acts as a DAC for your audio system, and a microphone interface, and as a headphone amplifier.
It plugs into the USB socket of a Windows computer … or a Mac, or PS4, or an Xbox One or a Nintendo Switch. The Sound BlasterX G6 is designed for very high-end audio performance, as well as supporting multichannel game play.
What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at game play first. Unlike most hifi-style DACs, the unit supports Dolby Digital surround sound decoding and can generate a kind of 5.1 or 7.1 channel virtual surround effect for playback through headphones. A dedicated “SBX” button is provided to invoke that. The 3.5mm headphone output and 3.5mm microphone input suit gaming headsets. It includes “Scout Mode” processing – you can switch that on or off. That is intended to highlight subtle sounds from different directions which, I imagine, would be particularly useful in FPS games.
There’s a large volume control on the end for adjustment of level. A gain switch allows easy support of both low and high impedance headphones.
There’s also a line level analogue input and an optical digital audio input, plus a line level analogue output and an optical digital audio output. Those allow the Creative Sound BlasterX G6 to be a virtually complete audio input/output device.
Confession: I’m not really a gamer. I plugged in a headset and made sure the microphone side of things worked. But for the most part I used the Creative Sound BlasterX G6 for music listening.
So, what do I mean about “high-end audio performance”? Well, that further subdivides into two parts: which signals are supported by a device, and how well it handles them. I shall be returning that second part. But first, what can it cope with?
Well, the optical digital audio input can accept regular PCM signals at up to 32 bits of resolution and 192kHz sampling rates. PCM stands for Pulse Code Modulation, and that’s the most commonly used digital encoding method, first widely seen on the compact disc. But the CD runs at only 16 bits and 44.1kHz.
If you use the USB connection to make the Creative Sound BlasterX G6 an audio device, it can handle PCM up to 384kHz and 32 bits. And also DSD at both 2.8MHz and 5.6MHz. DSD is Direct Stream Digital, which was used on the Super Audio CD. The SACD was the disc Sony introduced in the early 2000s as a high-resolution replacement for the CD. It never really took off in the way that Sony wanted, but the SACD persists thanks to a dedicated fan base in the audiophile community. More importantly these days, DSD has become an audiophile audio format for delivering music. There are music recording companies operating today who record fine musicians with enormous fidelity. With a good sound system, these sound astonishingly, well, present. If you’re interested in such things, I’d suggest trying some of the sample tracks from Blue Coast Records.
Direct Stream Digital
If you want to get all technical, you can look up DSD all over the internet. But, in essence, it uses a single bit stream (at 2.8MHz per channel) to represent the level of the analogue waveform by the density of the 1s versus the 0s. I have no great love of the DSD format as such. It uses aggressively noise shaped dither that produces an excellent noise floor in the audio band but results in gobs of ultrasonic noise. And it doesn’t lend itself to processing very well. Often, it’s converted to a super-high resolution PCM format called “DXD” for all that stuff, with the result converted back to DSD. Give me high resolution PCM all the way through any day.
But, hey, that’s me. The fact is, ever since the SACD first appeared there have been thousands who have fallen in love with the format and consider far superior to PCM.
The Creative Sound BlasterX G6 accepts DSD using the DoP method. That stands for “DSD over PCM”. That’s a technique which disguises the DSD as PCM as far as the USB interface is concerned. Increasingly, DACs have been permitting direct DSD transfer over USB, but that only really becomes necessary for quadruple-rate DSD (aka DSD256) or higher. The G6 supports standard and double speed DSD: DSD64 and DSD128.
Physical layout of the Sound BlasterX G6
The Sound BlasterX G6 has a kind of high-tech styling. It is finished mostly in gun-metal grey and is 111mm long by 70mm wide by 24m deep. It weighs only 144 grams, so it’s eminently totable.
One end is for the headset, with the microphone and headphone sockets. The other end has the other inputs and outputs. It also has a Micro-B USB socket for connecting to computers. At the headphone end is a large volume control. This has an illuminated ring around its base. You can press it to mute the sound. On the top is an illuminated “X”. You can switch this off, change its colour or have it cycle through various effects. You use the Sound Blaster Connect software on your computer for that.
On one side are three control buttons. One is for SBX – 5.1 or 7.1 virtual surround processing. One switches on the previously mentioned “Scout Mode”. But if you hold it down for a couple of seconds it switches the unit to “Direct” mode. That switches off all the processing and provides a particularly pure performance. The only downside of this, in my view, is that this mode is indicated by an illuminated ring around that button flashing continuously. But if you do find it too irritating, you can switch off the light in the software.
Finally, there’s a slide switch to put the headphone output in low or high gain. Basically, high gain makes it louder.
For the past 18 months Windows 10 has natively supported USB Audio Class 2.0 devices, which means that it’s no longer limited to 96kHz sampling. Nonetheless, I’ve found that most audio devices with high sampling rates work best using their own drivers. And that’s especially the case when using Direct Stream Digital sound. So, I downloaded the software from the Creative website and installed it. In addition to the drivers the Sound Blaster Connect software is installed.
This software lets you manage all aspects of the Sound BlasterX G6. You can switch on and off various modes. You can fiddle with EQ if your headphones need it. You can control the lighting on the unit. It can upgrade the firmware of the unit if required. It can also adjust its volume level. That turned out to be important as we’ll see.
There is one significant weakness in the software so far as I can see. It offers the usual range of drivers. For those interested in such things, they include the standard Direct Sound driver that links in with Windows, and the WASAPI and ASIO drivers which allow Windows to be bypassed. ASIO is the normal choice if you’re planning on listening to DSD. Most ASIO drivers have a panel which shows the sampling rate of the data. This one doesn’t.
Is that important? Well, yes it is. It is hard to set up Windows software to allow DSD to be decoded natively by a DAC rather than being converted to PCM by software. One way to confirm that you’ve done it properly is to examine format indicators on the DAC, if it has them. This one doesn’t. The other way is to look at that ASIO panel. Even with that, DSD fed in the form of DoP can be difficult to check since it looks like high sampling rate PCM. But the more information, the better.
Listening to the Sound BlasterX G6
As I said, I’m not much of a gamer. So, I really focused on listening to music from a computer. Now, as a hifi guy, it almost pains me to say that with just a little bit of care, you will get a performance from the Sound BlasterX G6 that’s virtually indistinguishable from certain audiophile DACs that can cost in the thousands of dollars. I say that both after listening and after running some formal performance tests. I will return to those tests.
The other day, I listened to a sampler track from the aforementioned Blue Coast Records, delivered on DSD64, using my Oppo PM3 headphone (we reviewed these here, but I would have scored them higher). As I said earlier, I’m not sold on the merits of DSD as an improvement over PCM. But I am sold on the recording techniques used by Blue Coast. It seemed as though there was a portal that passed through time and space between my headphones and the performer. The discs and productions and equipment in the middle of all that seemed to have disappeared. All that was left was an unadulterated signal coming through.
I wrote that paragraph a few days ago and was interrupted by other aspects of my life. So now I’ve returned to the same music in the same format, but this time wearing Sennheiser HD 535 headphones. As I wrote a couple of years ago, these twenty year old headphones “have proved over the years to be capable of extremely high performance, but depend very much on the quality of the headphone amplifier driving them”. Plugged into the Sound BlasterX G6, they’re sounding simply delightful.
But it doesn’t have to be finely recorded acoustic music delivered via DSD that sounds great. Now I’m listening to the self-titled debut Rage Against the Machine album. And, oh wow. Precise, detailed, plenty of bass. Despite the genre, the recording quality of this track is high and every bit of it can be heard with the Sound BlasterX G6 driving these headphones.
Driving them loud. The Sennheiser headphones are highish in impedance – 150 ohms – and low in sensitivity. Yet the G6 could drive them to an uncomfortably high level … with the low gain setting. With the high gain setting, I began to fear for my hearing. I had turned down the volume knob before switching from Low to High, but not far enough. I grabbed for it as the sound blasted – perhaps that’s where the brand name comes from – and started spinning it counter clockwise. Not fast enough. The volume control seems to have been biased towards precision rather than rapid operation.
That said, what I should have done was simply press it. That mutes the sound.
Despite the ridiculously high level, the sound remained clean and controlled.
Sound BlasterX G6 Weaknesses
Not all was perfect. One significant weakness was signal isolation. That is, the device wasn’t all that good at keeping noise on the USB connection from infecting the analogue output.
I was mostly using my Microsoft Surface Pro 2017 as the PC providing digital audio for the Sound BlasterX G6. When I plugged the G6’s line output into my desktop audio system, there were all manner of – quiet, but clearly audible – random noises and burbles coming out of my speakers. I eventually traced the source to the Surface Dock which was providing power to the computer. When I pulled the connection, the audible noises stopped. I used the Surface Pro’s own power supply and the noises remained absent.
Exploring further, I found that it wasn’t the Surface Dock, but the Ethernet cable plugged into the Surface Dock. When I pulled that, the audible noise stopped. It’s not surprising that the Ethernet cable carries lots of noise. It’s plugged into a dozen different things over tens of metres of cable. No, the problem is that the G6 should stop that noise from getting into the analogue connections.
The other weakness was with Direct Stream Digital: the volume control on the unit wouldn’t work with it. The volume control on the control software did, as did the volume control displayed in the status bar of the computer. No killer, just an inconvenience, but it should work.
I measured a few of the most important performance aspects of the Sound BlasterX G6. First, the headphone output levels. Basically, it’s a powerhouse. With low impedance headphones – I use a test load of just under 16 ohms – it managed a bit over 1.8 volts output before running into clipping. That works out to over 200mW of output. You can expect typical 16 ohms earbuds to easily go over 120dB with that output, and many to approach 130dB.
With high impedance headphones – around 300 ohms – it manages around 3.5 volts, or over 40mW. That should push most headphones above 115dB.
I did the other measurements from the line output. Here’s the frequency response with CD-standard material, it’s pretty much flat to just on 20kHz:
The noise was low at -97.6BA, THD was 0.00041% and IM distortion was 0.00036%. All those figures are as low as you’d expect from an audiophile DAC. But that’s only CD-standard audio. What about high resolution stuff?
First, here’s the unit’s frequency response with 96kHz high resolution audio. As you can see, it’s only 1dB down at 34kHz and 3dB down at 41kHz.
Running the computer on the battery, the noise was at an impressive -112.7dBA, THD was just 0.00028% and IMD was 0.00088%. Again, they are audiophile numbers. But with the Surface Pro 2017 connected to the network in my office, the noise figure plummeted to -95.1dBA. The test didn’t really capture the full amount of noise, but it still looks pretty bad on the graph. I’ve included the graph for when the Surface Pro was battery run, for when it was connected to the Dock and thence to the network, and for a $600 high fidelity DAC in both states. Yes, that other DAC still lets a lot through, but it’s orders of magnitude less.
Finally, here are two frequency response graphs for the unit with 192kHz material. I suspect I changed a setting between the two, but I’m not sure what. Anyway, the green trace with -3dB at 45kHz is pretty standard for audiophile DACs. The white trace with the response flat out to nearly 80kHz is the odd one.
The Sound BlasterX G6 promises audiophile sound and delivers it. It’ll drive just about any headphones. It’s an amazing device selling for a surprisingly low amount.
The official webpage for the Sound BlasterX G6 is here.