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.