Nyquist save us
I think it's worthwhile to do a little introduction when it comes to talking about audio tools. The chain that leads to the production of a sound by an electronic computer is long, made up of multiple stages and very delicate. In sound reproduction, you need to convert sound data from discrete bits to continuous analog signal. This process is performed by components known as DAC, digital-to-analog converters. The new signal is then sent to speakers, or headphones. The opposite process passes instead into ADC units.
On motherboards there are management units for audio input / output. There are two main problems with integrated solutions. The first is a cost factor. With your money you are buying the entire motherboard, so only part of the budget is devoted to audio. Secondly, the circuitry is close to all possible symptoms of electromagnetic disturbance. To remedy this performance deficit, internal or external dedicated sound cards are purchased.
The Creative Sound Blaster AE-7, at a cost of 229,99 €, is one internal sound card, which can be installed on the motherboards' PCI-e slots, addressed to gamers. His DAC is a ESS SABER-class 9018, the audio processor a SBAxx-1 SoundCore3D. The signal-to-noise ratio of the DAC is 127dB, the playback resolution on 32bit at 384kHz and the total harmonic distortion of the DAC is 0,0001%. Headphone amplification is equipped with a double amplifier, one per pavilion. The system supports Dobly Digital Live and DTS encoding. It is able to drive headphones from 1 Ω to 600 Ω with input impedance.
The outputs available to users are the following: 3 exit from 3,5mm for 5.1 systems, 1 optical output TOSLINK, 1 line output from 3,5mm for headphones and a microphone / line in input from 3,5mm. The package also includes an external control unit, which connects to the sound card via the microphone and headphone cables and serves to bring the volume knob on the desk, 4 audio jack to connect 3,5mm or 6,3mm microphones and headphones in comfort and a integrated microphone.
The set up of I / O clearly communicates the intentions of this card beyond the official announcements. A high resolution system to improve all the most common sound output solutions, from the cheapest to the most demanding.
We're in Command
One of the advantages of having a dedicated internal sound card is the software package with which it is distributed. Sound Blaster Command is the name of the Creative suite for this card and from it you can modify a large number of options. I very much appreciated the presence of information directly in the interface, useful for helping the less experienced.
The SBX Profiles will use the chipset processing capability to alter the audio output properties. Surround, bass, vocal and track clarity improvement. There are many presets to choose from, some even dedicated to specific games, like Fortnite, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare or The Witcher 3.
Each effect remains manually adjustable and additional presets can be saved. Here you enter a very complex territory because personal preferences come into play. I can tell you that the effects are useful and can completely transform the audio experience.
The equalization allows to level the frequency spectrum of the audio signal. Here too we have presets, but the various parameters can be adjusted by hand. The other important page of the software is that of reproduction. Here you can adjust the various parameters of the audio outputs, such as the quality, set the 7.1 surround for the headphones and choose which type of headphones to amplify. Obviously if you want to hear the sound without any processing, a direct mode is available, with a selection of filters. We also have several options for recording.
In general the suite is well made, straight to the point and able to clearly expose all the options to the user.
The Himalayas are safe
Let's take a moment to analyze the card's recording capacity. As already mentioned, the AE-7 does not have a dedicated ADC unit outside the Soundcore3D, but this does not make it ineffective. Rather. I set the sampling of the Sound Blaster AE-7 to 2 channels, 32bit, 48Khz and I recorded some tracks with Audacity software. The microphones used for the test were an unspecified model of the Trust, very few euro stuff; a Tbone MB60, which is also inexpensive and has a lapel microphone that pairs with ThermalTake headphones. The recordings were made first on the sound card of my motherboard and then through the Sound Blaster AE-7, then comparing the waveforms and the quality being reproduced. No effect or gain has been applied.
The result is quite evident when listening to the recorded tracks. With the internal sound card, you can notice a particularly pronounced background noise. The SoundBlaster behaves very well. Electromagnetic noise is practically zero at boost 0dB. By bringing the gain to + 20dB, the noise is amplified, but it is much lower than the internal card. Curiously, the Trust's microphone performs better than the Tbone in this aspect, having less noise. However, the Sound Blaster Command comes to our aid, with an excellent noise elimination algorithm, as well as different equalizations. We can say that the registration is promoted.
Connecting the microphones to the external control station, it returns a little more background noise, but it is normal having extended the chain with an extra connection. However, we remain at levels below the integrated system.
The built-in microphone of the base must say that it surprised me, in terms of sound cleaning. No electromagnetic noise, dominated by the hum of the PC fans.
Now, daring a little, if you are upgrading your system and want to take this sound card, in my opinion you can concentrate on buying headphones without a microphone, because for chats on online chats and during gaming sessions, the board is more than valid.
The sound of Metal
Now comes the most complicated part of the analysis: audio reproduction. This sound card is able to drive a good number of headphones and audio systems. The headphones used for the test are very simple HD 681 Evo. 30-40 € headphones, but with a much higher audio quality than their range. Input impedance from 32Ohm, but drive from 50mm. Driven by the sound card of the motherboard, they have always seemed to me .. appropriate. Once connected to the SoundBlaster AE-7, the experience was transformative.
Let's take the song Get Lucky by Daft Punk and Pharrel Williams, chosen for being very balanced. Encoded in FLAC, to 24 bit 88,2Khz. On the integrated it sounds good. On the AE-7 is another song. All instruments have a more realistic sound. Before the sound begins to distort you have to go up a lot. You can hear the difference between a FLAC file and an MP3 at 320kbps. The volume is decidedly higher, and brings out all the tones. I didn't think you could hear so much difference on 40 € headphones.
In the midst of all the experiments with the various settings, I appreciated very much Duel of Fate, listened to with the SBX Concert base profile activated.
As for the games, I wanted to try software that already had preset profiles. The ratings were 3. One with the integrated, one with the AE-7 board with direct audio and the third with the SBX presets, equalizer and simulated 7.1 surround sound. The games tested were Overwatch, Metal Gear Solid V and The Witcher 3. In every situation, the sound quality was impeccable. Music, dialogues, sound effects: all distinct, clean and without the slightest distortion. Presets offer a nice improvement over clean audio: the atmosphere you create makes more sense for the game. I will however reiterate that this is also a matter of personal taste.
Other games I set up were Doom 2016 and Borderlands The Pre-Sequel, which I played together. The first has a fantastic soundtrack and every battle is a blaze of metal and sizzling sounds, even here rendered to a decidedly good level. For The Pre-Sequel I found a good balance between game audio and voice chat.
The only software feature of doubtful utility is the scout mode. This in theory amplifies the background noises in games such as the footsteps of the players, the rustling of trees or the chirping of birds. When the action returns to become frantic, the audio is rebalanced. It should help improve the location of enemies in games like CS: GO. In the titles that I have tried, however, I have not found a huge difference.
I would say that we can go and take stock. I think I understand it to be was positively impressed by virtually every element of the Sound Blaster AE-7. Promoted with full marks. The problem in my opinion is more in understanding who has to buy it. And when. Given the cost, from my point of view, it is one of the best purchases to make when upgrading, improving your machine. When you need to build your own PC, you need to focus primarily on the essentials. CPU, GPU, Power Supply. Spend your money well there.
The integrated sound cards of high-end motherboards, however, can handle most common uses well. Those of cheaper cards are now adequate.
But when you want to improve the quality of your audio, the packages become obvious and you need to upgrade your audio processing system, not just headphones and a microphone. And until proven otherwise, what high-quality headphones can do with a good DAC is not replicable via USB or wireless headphones. If you have motherboards like mine, generic, medium level, the first step towards better audio passes first of all from a dedicated sound card. And the Sound Blaster AE-7 proves to be an excellent playmate.