No desktop device has such extensive functionality as the Creative Sound Blaster X5 - but any number have better outright sound quality
- Headphones amp, DAC and soundcard
- Some specification highlights
- Numerous customisation options
- Performance depends on power supply
- Feels cheap and plasticky
- Bluetooth is an afterthought
It’s strange that a product so carefully and generously specified, one that’s capable of quite deft and engaging sound, should achieve such an unremarkable rating. But the fact is that for all its functionality, the Creative Sound Blaster X5 is a product that always feels less expensive than it is and often sounds like it, too.
No product is without compromises, of course, but you’ll have to think long and hard about the demands the X5 makes. Will you take care with its power supply? Do you promise not to use it as a Bluetooth receiver? Are your headphones up to surviving the connect/disconnect circuit noise that comes from their use? If you can, then great – Creative has a useful and flexible device here for you. If you can’t, well… I can’t pretend I’m all that surprised.
Creative Sound Blaster X5 review: What do you get for the money?
The Sound Blaster X5 has a list price of £269 and that spend gets you an awful lot of functionality wrapped in 216 x 170 x 72mm (WDH) of unremarkable plastic. If perceived value matters to you, the X5 isn’t going to excite you – but if it’s ultimate desktop flexibility you’re after, you’ll overlook all the plastic and concentrate on what’s going on elsewhere.
On the front panel, there’s a big, bold display letting you know what the X5 is up to. Controls run to a power on/off button along with buttons to take care of Bluetooth pairing (the X5 is a Bluetooth receiver), mic mute, display (which scrolls through the on-screen information), a gain switch (helpful if you’re using truculent headphones), a button to switch between headphones and speaker functionality (speaker in this instance means stereo RCA analogue outputs), a direct/DSP button that gives access to preset EQs, a control to switch between PC and console functionality (Playstations 4 and 5 are fully supported), and a big volume dial. In addition, there’s a mic gain control, 3.5mm unbalanced and 4.4mm balanced headphone outputs, and a 3.5mm mic input. All three of these last sockets are gold-plated.
Around the back, there are stereo RCA line-level inputs and outputs, digital optical inputs and outputs, a USB-C input (for both power and data transfer) and a USB-A slot marked “USB Host” for use with Bluetooth transmitter dongles, speakers, headsets and mics. Wireless reception is taken care of by Bluetooth 5.0, which is rather tragically only compatible with the bog-standard SBC codec.
On the inside, the X5 is a fully balanced, dual-architecture design using a Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC chip for each stereo channel. This is a chipset with a) nothing to prove, and b) compatibility with file sizes up to 32bit/384kHz and DSD256. The headphone amplification is of Creative’s own “Xamp” design and is configured to minimise crosstalk and electrical noise.
As well as the fascia controls, there’s a control app available for iOS and Android mobile devices. A fuller version, with a frankly remarkable suite of adjustability and customisation options, can be had for Mac, Windows and Android computers – it’s free too. And here’s where you can request virtual surround sound for your headphones, fiddle with numerous acoustic settings, finesse the sound of your voice when making calls or teleconferencing (if you want to sound like an Orc, or a robot, or a Marine, go right ahead), or give sonic emphasis to footsteps when playing FPS games.
Perhaps the most interesting feature is the mixer. You won’t have noticed a reference to an input selector so far – that’s because there isn’t one. Each of the four inputs (Bluetooth, stereo RCA, digital optical and mic) is open all the time – so if you have four incoming inputs, you can mix their output level relative to each other. And you can set specific mixes for monitoring/listening and for recording.
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Creative Sound Blaster X5 review: What did we like about it?
There are caveats about the sound the X5 makes but there’s certainly no arguing with the width and depth of its functionality. No matter if it’s passive listening or active gaming you’re interested in, the X5 does what you want, and more besides.
Gamers in particular are very well served here. From adjusting the response of the mic to focusing on particular areas of the frequency range or specific elements of a soundtrack, the Creative is a useful and helpful device. But no matter what you’re listening to or participating in, the amount of adjustability available in the control app – particularly the desktop version – means it’s always possible to maximise your experience. It’s even able to offer assistance when you’re involved in those endless Zoom calls (although it can’t make them any shorter).
The facility to mix between each of the inputs – all at once, if you fancy – is a very nice touch too. It’s possible to balance incoming signals against each other with real accuracy.
As far as out-and-out audio quality is concerned, it all depends. Performing at its best, with some properly high-resolution digital audio content coming aboard via one of the physical connections and sent out again to some good headphones or a capable amplifier, and with an efficient power supply running the show, the X5 is a nicely judged and actually quite revealing listen. It’s even-handed throughout the frequency range, has decent powers of detail retrieval, and creates a spacious, organised soundstage (as long as you leave the virtual surround option well alone). It’s not the most assertive or dynamic performer you’ve ever heard, but any listener who appreciates neutrality will find it a balanced and quite deft performer.
A 24bit/96kHz file of My Bloody Valentine’s Soon delivered from a MacBook Pro (using Colibri software) via the USB-C input (which is simultaneously providing power) illustrates the point. The sound the X5 makes is open but well-defined, and there’s an impressive degree of insight into the song’s notoriously dense and murky mix. Timing and integration are good, and even if the Creative doesn’t quite have the headroom to make the most of the dynamic upheavals, it’s quite adept with the harmonic variations.
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Creative Sound Blaster X5 review: What could be improved?
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of performance here, there’s no denying the perceived value of the X5 could be improved more than somewhat. Light weight is not automatically a bad thing, but the empty sensation of the X5 isn’t the most inspiring and the feeling of the plastics from which it’s constructed is even less so. The controls all operate flawlessly, but they feel thin and cheap beneath your fingers. Premium is not a word that applies.
Things could be better where operability is concerned, too. Volume can be controlled using the big dial on the fascia, or (if it has a gain control) by the source of audio – your laptop, say. If the X5’s volume dial is at 9 o’clock and then you adjust the laptop’s volume, 9 o’clock becomes the new zero – so unless you’re prepared to reset the laptop and the X5 to zero volume when changing headphones, you may well find a marked increase or decrease in the level of output you’re expecting.
And even if all volume controls are at zero, there’s a consistent, and loud, thump every time you plug or unplug headphones. And by every time, I mean every time – it’s not good for your headphones and it’s not good for your hearing. Where headphones are concerned, it’s also worth noting the obvious discrepancy between the sound of the 3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs – balanced generally beats unbalanced, of course, but the drop-off when switching from a balanced output to the single-ended alternative is profound.
The X5 is also extremely sensitive to the way it’s being powered. All of the sonic positives mentioned in the previous section can be more or less ignored if the USB-C that’s powering the X5 is a low-output source – a smartphone, say, or a USB hub running multiple connections. Audio quality becomes flatter, more two-dimensional and altogether less satisfactory.
On the subject of unsatisfactory, it seems almost wilful to make the X5 compatible only with the unremarkable SBC Bluetooth codec. It’s fully high resolution for physically connected sources, but not even mildly so for the wireless alternative – would it have really added so much to the asking price to include (for instance) aptX HD compatibility? Listening to YouTube content on a laptop via Bluetooth is a far from fulfilling experience.
Creative Sound Blaster X5 review: Should you buy it?
There’s no arguing with the scope of the Creative Sound Blaster X5’s functionality – so if your needs chime with its capabilities, there’s every chance you’ll be able to overlook its uninspiring materials. Whether or not you can get past how dependent on circumstances its sound quality is, though, is a different matter.