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Creative Sound Blaster X5 review : Easy To Love

Creative used to be a big player in audio industy back in 2010s. There had decent foot hold with their budget speakers, IEMs, headphones and some high quality audio equipment. These equipment were spread out between a handful of categories. Their sound blaster series though was meant for audiophiles like us. Initially Creative had associated Sound Blaster moniker with their desktop PC internal sound cards. They were high quality but were intriguing to gamer and producers more than audio enthusiasts. These cards are still available but the lineup has expanded. They have launched both personal and desktop grade products. Their E and G series were high quality desktop DAC/Amps. While the G series is newer it is more focused on high res audio for gamer but the older E5 had BT and can be used with both mobile phones laptops. Their X series though are desktop only products and who can forget their legendary X7 with its hexagonal design.

After being a bit dormant, Creative is back with a bang!! Their new Sound blaster X5 has it all. It caters to both gamer and audiophiles and unlike their last gen of products this doesn’t lack with power. Equipped with Bluetooth and dedicated MIC support this can be used with gaming consoles, mobile phones and PCs.

Priced at $279 this has to be one of the best all round audio DAC/Amps available but it seems the reach is a bit on the restricted side. Is it available at your place? Let me know.

Get one for yourself from these links:

USA: Amazon, Creative

Europe: Creative

PACKAGING AND ACCESSORIES:-

The X5 has a fairly simple packaging and opening the box is not complicated. The DAC/amp is stuffed in foam pads. The list of accessories includes a USB A to C cable, an optical toslink cable and a RCA to 3.5mm cable. There is no external BT antenna either.

I would have liked a shorter C to C cable or an USB A to C OTG adapter to use with portable devices.

BUILD, CONTROLS and USAGE:-

There is barely any DAC/AMP which is built badly and X5 definitely finds itself among the best. It uses a sturdy metal enclosure. There are no loose parts to worry about either. The size is slightly bigger than my Burson Playmate 2 but it’s not going to take a lot of space on the table. I like the fact that its not heavy and the rubber footers used provide very good traction on most surfaces. We get a decent display upfront with information about the current connected device in Bt mode and the quality being streamed when used in wired mode.

The front of the X5 houses the Power button, volume knob, MIC gain knob, all the headphone jacks, BT pairing button which resets the BT connection, display switch to navigate options, a gain switch which lets us choose between high and normal gain modes, an headphone or speaker output switch and a DSP button. One sad news is, unlike some DAC/Amps both SE and balanced out cannot be used simultaneously so is this a fully balanced AMP? The back has a Type C USB ports that works as the power source and DATA in if connected with PC or supported mobile phones. I do not like this because we it limits the usability a bit. Along with that we get both RCA and optical in and out options too. Optical is mostly for consoles. We get USB host options too to use it with microphones and speakers.

Operating the X5 was slightly confusing at the beginning, especially with BT. It didn’t reconnect or remember the mobile phone previously paired with but this got resolved after a software update. Just plug and play with mobile phones and Mac OS PCs with the help of a PD cable. One can use the software to toggle the setting if needed.

In their words:

“You are in full control to take your audio further. Make adjustment to the 10-band EQ frequency graph, select from a list of Acoustic Engine’s pre-tuned audio profiles, or switch them off completely for clean, pure, unadulterated sound. Our Creative app offers you full customizability over what you wish to hear, or not.”

When it comes to the amount of controlling buttons or switches the X5 has plenty of options to play around. My only gripe is the lack of accuracy with the volume knob. One pleasant surprise is lack of any major heating issues, it gets warm and that’s it.

TECH TALK:-

The X5 uses top quality components. It houses two CS43198 DAC chip. In their words:

“Zero Compromises in Quality:

Featuring not one, but two Cirrus Logic CS43198 DACs on the Sound Blaster X5, be ready for exceptionally high-resolution lossless playback in 32-bit / 384 kHz over PCM with ultra-high dynamic range of up to 130 dB DNR. These DACs are also capable of decoding audio formats in DoP128 and DSD256 to deliver high-fidelity audio streaming and acoustic details you cannot miss.”

Along with the top end DAC chip the X5 sports their own acoustic engine and AISO 2.2 playback and recording over USB and S/PDIF. The built-in amp offers a dynamic range of 130dB, and excellent THD of -115 db. With an output impedance of just 1 ohm this is perfect for both IEMs and headphones.

DRIVING POWER:-

X5 is plenty powerful for its size. With an output power of 8.28 vrms it is more than capable enough to drive demanding headphones without much problem. Don’t expect it to drive the super demanding planar headphones to the fullest potential and the X5 will not disappoint. It uses a lot of filters and shields to reduce noise but just like any powerful DAC/Amp it has a hint of floor noise with very sensitive IEMs. When used with not so sensitive IEMs there is no noise to worry about. Headphones barely have any problems.

SOUND QUALITY:-

I already have a dongles with the exactly same chip. It is one of the cleanest and most vivid sounding chip in the market. Tonality, imaging and emphasis are mostly about the amp and other components used and the X5 their own amp which delivers excellent transparency and clarity. I have been working around a DAC/AMPs and this thing really leaves a smile on my face. After working on the Playmate I was not sure what this DAC/AMP is capable of but I am surprised.

The TR-Amp with its flagship grade components deliver top notch notes presentation. It out performs its asking price. The tuning is well balanced without emphasizing any part of the spectrum. The tonality and timber are as slightly organic yet crispy and cleaner. In fact this is one of the most neat and clean sounding device I have heard. Pair it with anything and one does not need to worry about details, air or resolution.

BASS:-

The best part of the X5 is how neutral it is, it has no influence on the amount of lower end body and thump the headphone or earphone will deliver, if the head gear has it in it, it will deliver exactly what it has. There is barely any coloration. The sub-bass feels very extended with exact amount of emphasis. The mid bass is not boosted and delivers what the IEM or HP has on offer. The upper bass is as good as it is supposed to be and the dynamics are high quality. The decay speed is nicely paced, it is not unnaturally fast or slow. The best part is the layered delivery of notes and air it has between them. It delivers cleaner and better textured notes compared to the Hip DAC 3 and Fiio Q15. If you are unhappy with the bass, try using equalizers and it will respond without much issues.

MID RANGE:-

It does not have much emphasis on any part of the spectrum but the mid range is ever so slightly emphasized. Vocal notes are slightly to the fore while the instruments around it are well balanced. It is much easier to connect with this kind of signature.

The vocal region is slightly forward and suits headphones and IEMs with a bit recessed mid range. There is plenty of texture and details to like. Let it be male or female vocals, both have some of the best depth and finishing energy. Male vocals have nice throaty feel while female vocals have nice sharpness.

Notes have very good definition and accuracy. The delivery is effortless with clean and precise imaging. Very good clarity and transparency along with a more accurate decay speed making things enjoyable, accurate and engaging at the same time. Notes have appropriate body with very good control over the notes. There are no thin or sibilant notes to worry about. The ability of details retrieval is admirable, if the headphone is decent, not a single detail will be missed. The upper mid can feel a bit less comfortable with headphone which are prone to sibilance. Pairing it with dry sounding head gears might produce a little less desirable sound because of its crispy notes delivery.

HIGHS:-

Creative has tuned the X5 for excellence and that reflects with the amount of attention they have paid to the extension, accuracy and the balance between details and comfortable presentation. It is on the crispier side without any exaggeration while maintaining excellent details and definition. It can be called musical as the notes are not sharp or thin and maintain decent musicality. The presentation is marginally bright yet neutral and doesn’t have much coloration and will exceptionally well with any headphone.

The energy is neither less nor extra and the presentation is just right. It kind of feels like the instruments are playing with the right amount or dampening. The directional cues are vivid and pin pointed. Details are very good and come out with equally good enthusiasm. The treble extension is nothing to complain about and the bigger than average stage size gives it nice resolution and imaging. There is good amount of space and air between instruments.

STAGE AND IMAGING:-

What is good DAC/Amp without proper staging and imaging? The X5 delivers a very cohesive imaging with a nicely rounded stage. It has excellent depth, height and width. All the parts of the spectrum have the right amount of stage presence. Imaging too is excellent as it has very good presence outside the head, only the bass and some part of vocals are placed inside the head while the rest are placed well outside the head giving a nice hollow graphic projection.  X5 delivers an evenly spread stage. It doesn’t feel clumsy or horrid. Layering is of top class with high quality background and foreground separation.

PAIRINGS:

Do we need some matching? Power matching or signature matching? The kind of tuning this the X5 has, one doesnt need to worry about this. It sounds excellent with nearly everything I threw at it which includes IEMs like Symphonium Crimson, Craft Ears Aurum and Campfire Audio BlackStar. I tried a handful of headphones like Sivga Luan, Fiio FT3 and to my delight all of these headphones exhibited improved performance when compared to Fiio Q15.

The general improvements are with the stage and air between instruments. It does shave off some extra body to make the notes agile when needed, especially when paired with warmer sounding IEMs and headphones like BlackStar and Fostex T50rp mk3.

COMPARISON:-

I have had a handful of desktop sources. The closest one in terms of price is the Burson Playmate and I have no doubts that the X5 has much better instrument distribution, bigger stage and equally impressive definition and resolution.

While the playmate was a bit too biased toward the mid range, bass and treble regions were not as airy, X5 is a lot more natural and lets instruments breathe freely, enhancing the imaging and sonic abilities. Details wise both are similar but the X5 is more mature with better body and a bigger stage.

CONCLUSION:-

In my opinion, X5 is one of the best DAC/amps one can buy under $300. its sound superb with a more natural and effortless presentation that is hard to fault. I love its definition and details, instruments are airy, imaging is excellent and there is barely coloration to worry about. It have plenty of power to drive most of the headphones without much issues. There are no technical flaws with the X5 when it comes to sound and it gets highest level of recommendation from me.

But, just like most of the products we get in this price range, this too is not flawless.

1. I do not like the fact that there is no separate power input. You can look at budget offerings and they have separate DAC and charging ports.

2. A handful of viewers told me this beautiful looking DAC/Amp is not available in Germany, India and many other markets. This limits its reach and restricts the consumer’s options to mostly Chinese brands.

If we look past these two issues, Sound Blaster X5 is a winner.

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Picture of Suman Sourav Meher

Suman Sourav Meher

My humble audiophile journey started in 2010, when I was in college, where I fell in love with the elements, nuances, and variations of this mesmerizing world. The ability of tiny earphones to recreate amazing sounds made my bad days tolerable and good days better! Now I am a full-time audiophile with a preference for musical tracks, especially vocals and engaging ones. I must admit I am addicted, but not to drugs or alcohol, but to earphones. Come join me as I share my experiences, bad or good, and let’s have some fun!

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