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.