I’ve been using the Creative Labs X7 DAC to power my desktop speakers and wired headphones for almost 6 years now and have consistently been impressed with the performance, especially when it comes to having it paired up with my speakers. But I rarely run wired headphones because switching between the devices is complicated and you can’t use both at the same time. Not to mention the X7 gets toasty warm on the front when I use it with headphones. All of these issues have had me thinking about adding a dedicated headphone DAC into the mix and given the performance I have seen from the X7 it only makes sense that I would give their Sound Blaster X3 a look. So today I’m going to see what the X3 has to offer and then test out its performance to see if it fits the bill. I’ve heard great things, so I have high expectations. Let’s go check it out!

Product Name: Sound Blaster X3

Review Sample Provided by: Sound Blaster/Creative

Written by: Wes Compton

Amazon Affiliate Link: HERE

 

Specifications

Weight

330g

Dimensions

129 mm x 129 mm x 40.6 mm

DAC

Dynamic Range (Stereo): 115 dB, THD+N (Stereo): 0.0004%

ADC

Dynamic Range: 104 dB, THD+N: 0.0017%

Dynamic Range (DNR)

115 dB

Max. Playback Quality

Sampling Rate (Playback) :
Direct Mode:
Playback Resolution (Stereo): PCM 16/24/32-bit / 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Playback Resolution (Optical Out): PCM 16/24-bit / 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Surround 7.1: PCM 16/24/32-bit / 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Dolby Digital Live: 16-bit, 48.0 kHz

Max. Recording Quality

Line-in:
16/24-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Mic-in:
16/24-bit / 48.0, 96.0, 192,0 kHz
What-U-Hear
16/24-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz

Connectivity Options (Main)

1 x TOSLINK Optical Out, 1 x ⅛″ Rear Out, 1 x ⅛″ Center / Sub Out, 1 x 1/8″ Headphone / Headset Jack, 1 x 1/8″ Ext. Mic-in Jack, 1 x ⅛″ Front-out, 1 x ⅛″ Side Out Jack, 1 x USB Type-C port for PC / Mac, 1 x ⅛″ Line-in Jack

Headphone Amp

Supported Headphone Impedance: 32–600Ω, Low Gain: 32–149Ω (1.2V RMS @ 32Ω, 1.5V RMS @ 150Ω), High Gain: 150–600Ω (2.3V RMS @ 150Ω, 2.9V RMS @ 600Ω)

Audio Technologies

CrystalVoice

Scout Mode

Supported Operating Systems

Windows® 7, Windows® 8.1, Windows® 10

Power

USB Bus Powered, USB-C

Package Contents

Sound Blaster X3

USB Type-A to Type-C Cable

Quick Start Guide and Leaflets

Warranty Leaflets

System Requirements

Windows® OS

  • Intel® Core™i3 or AMD® equivalent processor
  • Intel, AMD, or 100% compatible motherboard
  • Microsoft® Windows 10 32 / 64-bit, Windows 8.1 / 8.0 32 / 64-bit, Windows 7 32 / 64-bit
  • 1 GB RAM
  • > 600 MB of free hard disk space
  • USB 2.0 / USB 3.0 port

Mac® OS

  • Mac OS X® 10.12 or higher
  • 1 GB RAM
  • USB 2.0 / USB 3.0 port

PS4

  • Firmware Ver 5.0 or later
  • Available USB port

Nintendo Switch

  • Switch OS 5.0 or later
  • Available USB port (in docking mode)
  • External USB Power (not included)
  • Voice communications is title dependent

Android ^

  • Android OS Ver 7.0 or later
  • Device must have built-in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) support

iOS ^

  • iOS Ver 11.0 or later
  • Device must have built-in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) support

^ Use as a remote controller for Sound Blaster X3 on PS4 / Nintendo Switch only, does not support Bluetooth audio streaming

Warranty

1-year Limited Hardware Warranty

 

 


Photos and Features

The box for the Sound Blaster X3 starts with a white background which has the X3 name in grey across the entirety of the background with a picture of the X3 in front of that. They have both the Creative and the Sound Blaster branding above the picture and the X3 name a second time in a large black font. They have a short description that helps tell you what the X3 is down near the bottom along with a whole row of different icons to represent key features. Most of those features are listed again on the back with a longer explanation of each of them. Then that is repeated across multiple languages which makes the back of the box one big wall of text. They also have a drawing on the side of the box that shows what comes in the box as well.

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When you open the box up, Creative has the X3 sitting in a cardboard cutout to keep it locked in place. They also have a foam ring up on the top which goes around the top volume knob to lock everything in place and keep the X3 safe. The X3 comes wrapped up in plastic, as does the USB cable. Then up under it, you get a huge pile of documentation. There is a paper that tells you how to get setup with the SXFI app as well as has a link to the PC software as well. There is a small warranty booklet and more legal speak in the declaration of conformity on radio equipment paper. There is a card welcoming you. Then finally there is a user manual and a smaller card that shows what each button does that you can keep at your desk when you first use the X3. With so many products now not coming with any documentation at all, it did feel weird ended up with so much for a relatively small product like the X3.

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So here is the first look at the X3 and what you have is a 129 mm x 129 mm square with rounded corners and a huge aluminum volume knob up on top. This is different from a lot of the older school headphone amps and DACs but is still similar in design to things like the GSX 1000 from Sennheiser (now EPOS). It is a lot like an Apple TV or a Roku, only dedicated to audio-only and with the huge volume knob. The X3 isn’t exclusively a headphone AMP as it does support 7.1 output to speakers, just like it isn’t PC specific and can be hooked up to game consoles as well.

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All of the connectivity options are packed into the back and the front edges of the X3. The front keeps things simple with just your headphone and microphone 3.5mm jacks. The headphone is the audio out and the microphone being the audio in. When you flip the X3 around, the rear has a LOT more going on. The four connections on the left are all 3.5mm jacks and are for a speaker out. This is where you would hook up a 7.1 PC speaker system and they have designated these all with the Line Out legend under them. The line in is just that, another input just like the microphone port. Here you can hook up your phone or another audio source to play through the X3 to your speakers or headphones. Then next to that is an optical out or a TOSLINK connection. This optical connection is what you would hook a receiver up to if you wanted to tie the X3 into your home theater or a soundbar. Then down at the end is a Type-C USB connection, for hooking up to your PC or other game consoles. I’m really happy to see that they went with Type-C over micro USB as Type-C is easier to plug in to and a stronger connection.

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Up on top, it is very hard to ignore the large aluminum volume knob in the center of the X3. This is of course to control your volume. The entire housing is shaped around with, with it rising up a half-inch away from the knob then sinking down in around it. That ring around the knob also has an RGB LED ring around it that lets you know when it is powered up by powering up blue. The knob itself has a small amount of resistance and has bumps in the resistance but isn’t a potentiometer like some volume knobs which have an end and beginning, this can be spun around and around. It also has a button under it when you push down on it for quick muting. Below that are three other buttons. The left is an audio balance button that you can use to switch between input sources aka flip between your microphone or the line in on the back. This also turns the ring around the volume control red (and a red light above the button) and lets you control that input volume including a full mute when you push the button in. The second button is the mode button, this flips through three different equalizer modes that you set in the software as well as a flat EQ profile as well. There is an LED above this button that goes from not on for flat, then white, pink, and blue for other modes so you know which you are in without getting into the software. Then the last button is the SXFI button. This is their Super X-Fi audio mode which I will talk more about in the performance section, pressing this button turns it on and off and the LED lets you know if it is on with a green light and off with a yellow button.

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The bottom of the X3 is very simple. There are four rubber feet in the corners. Then in the center, they have all of the certification logos and required legal info etched into the button of the black plastic housing. Then the serial number along with a bar code for the serial is just a sticker that is stuck in the center in a desiccated spot.

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The USB cable that is included with the X3 is just a standard USB cable with a Type-A connection on one end and a Type-C on the other end. This is good because it can be easily replaced if damaged. The cord itself is 6+ feet long and should be able to reach your PC easily with most desk setups.

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Performance

While the most important part of the performance for me is sound quality, for a device like the X3 which uses its software for a few features. Before jumping into normal performance testing I wanted to check out what the software has to offer. The X3 uses a program called Sound Blaster Command and it isn’t product-specific. This is the same software that works with the AE-7, AE-5, and G6 as well. I like the integration with other products more than the exclusive software that our X7 uses, even though I can’t imagine you will be using more than one Sound Blaster audio product on the same PC at the same time.

The first page you land on has the model up in the top left corner under the Sound Blaster Command name with a full menu of pages on the left and then down at the bottom there is a quick switch to switch between your headphones and speakers and volume controls for the input and output over on the bottom right. This is also where you can turn on SBX profiles which there is a drop-down list of different options. There are also options to turn on things like crystallizer, surround audio, bass, smart volume, and dialog+. Most of these are available on our X7 as well and are different ways to enhance different audio aspects.

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So the Super X-Fi page looks like nothing is going on. But that is because some of the functionality of this feature requires you to use the Super X-Fi app. You HAVE to log in to your account to download your profile. I took a look at this first back when I tested the Creative Outlier Gold In-Ears. The reason the app is required is that in order for the software to work it has to have pictures of your ears and your face to figure out the size of your head and your ear shape to map things out. They also have to have your headphones listed and for me, I had to go with the X2HR’s because the new X3’s weren’t added yet, but the X2 has a similar design.

software 2

The equalizer page, like the Super X-Fi and the SBX profiles, has an on and off switch right at the top. Below that you can see the three modes and the flat profile that you can switch between. From there you can select a mode and pick from the dropdown menu. You can also make your own EQ profiles. What is interesting here to me is that there is a pink and a blue line, each mode/profile can have a different EQ for your headphones and for the speaker output so you can make each perfect. There are 10 frequencies that you can adjust. They even let you use a pen and draw the profile out and it sets it closest to your drawing for quick setup. The bass and treble options down below just adjust the two dots on the lines which are the standard bass and treble locations.

software 3

The playback tab splits up your speakers and headphones apart from the digital output that would go to a receiver. You can set a direct mode that forces pure audio, set the DAC audio quality, and set a few basic filters as well. The digital page also has audio quality options as well which goes up to 24 bit 196 kHz or Dolby digital live where the headphones are the main focus with 32 bit at 192 kHz being its highest setting. This changes the format setting from the windows advanced settings to save you from having to dig to it. You can also set the device as default with a click here for everything or just communications, also saving you from the windows settings.

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The recording page is similar but for the microphone side of things. Here you can force this to be your windows default and also set the audio quality used. The microphone boost from windows is here as well. Then you can get into volume settings and you have a few options to change your voice sound with the voice clarity options as well as the voice morph which has options like a chipmunk, male, female, elf, etc. The back input also has a page where you can set the quality, open up volume settings, and force it to be your windows default.

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Scout mode is a single option but they give it its own page. They can make some important in game sounds like footsteps and the noise when weapons are handled can be enhanced. This when turned n lets you set a hotkey to turn it on and off. The encoder page is also another single page option  lets you turn Dolby Digital Live surround sound on or off.

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The last page is the mixer. All of these can be found on other pages, but they have put all of the volume settings all on one page. You can mute by clicking on the audio icon on the left. The gear on the right also lets you set the left and right balance on most of the volume sliders and for your speakers, you have the full 8 options for the 7.1 audio as well.

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For performance testing, I paired the X3 up with the Philips Fidelio X3 headphones that I recently reviewed. I had been using them with the X7, so a high-quality DAC wasn’t an issue from the beginning. But I was curious what the X3 might add and was hoping it would at least keep up with X7 in audio performance. Testing included a lot of testing in music, some TV shows, and movie viewing, and gaming as well.

Specification wise the X3 does improve on things from the X7. Going from a 24-bit controller at 192 kHz to the 32-bit at 192 kHz. The headphone amp still supports 32–600Ω Impedance headphones as well and enough power with 1.2V RMS @ 32Ω and going up to 2.9V RMS @ 600Ω. What does that translate to actual performance? Well out of the box, things sound really good. The gap between the X7 and the X3 isn’t much, but the gap between them and most other options, especially onboard audio which is where I see a lot of people would be using an X3, to replace their built-in option.

Diving into the software, I was really curious if some of the options would be able to improve on the overall experience. The base performance is great, especially when paired with great headphones. But what did Super X-Fi add? Well, the short version is that it gives a multi-speaker experience out of the two speakers in your headphones and it does that without a doubt. Turning it on and closing your eyes on some songs and it feels like you are right there in the room with them playing in front of you. Of course, there are some songs that this effect goes wrong and doesn’t work as well. Overall though the experience is surprising, this is a LOT better than your standard surround sound effect. The best way I can describe it is that it moves the audio to in front of you where the basic sound is just at your ears. It also opens up the sound stage, similar to how an open-air headphone does compared to a closed earcup.

The equalizer profiles in the software were important when tuning different audio types. Specifically, I used this to add a little more bass when listening to rap and rock and roll but I could flip back to a flat profile which is what I prefer with most everything else. The SBX profiles were a similar option. Turning the bass up on here worked well. But I mostly just used these when I wanted to really to jam out and needed more volume, the smart volume does a great job of turning things up when you set it to loud.

 


Overall and Final Verdict

Even going back to my first PC gaming experiences the Sound Blaster name was important, most of you may not remember or were even alive at the time but old games would add sound Blaster support which was the best option for audio at the time. The brand and creative labs as a whole have continued to have that reputation and for good reason. They are always at or near the top of the game when it comes to PC audio. So going in I didn’t expect the performance of the X3 to be bad and it wasn’t. Out of the box without any of the features turned on it sounds great. It also ends up being well beyond a headphone DAC and is truly a full DAC for your headphones, microphone, and speakers. They also have support for multiple game consoles as well which is nice. Everything except the Xbox One that is.

I love the easy to use volume knob and this works a lot better than my X7. The X7 faced out at you but when you try to use any of the front controls it wants to slide back. Going with the controls on top avoids this and the X3 didn’t move around at all for me other than when I plugged in the headphones. The big knob has the LED right around it which helps make it visible and the quick push to mute was nice. The controls are simple with just three other buttons and you can flip between multiple EQs as well as each having a different profile depending on if you are using the headphones or your speakers. The compact design is nice as well when compared to the X7 (of course the X7 has an AMP as well). The one thing that the X7 does that I’m surprised wasn’t included on the X3 was its support for Bluetooth. The X3 even uses Bluetooth for full software control via an APP but you can’t stream audio to it. You do have the line-in on the rear, but Bluetooth for times you want to broadcast to your speakers would be nice.

Creative continues to impress with their Super X-Fi, though I typically don’t look for ways to add better surround sound performance into my setup. That is the biggest downside for me specifically with the X3. In my specific situation, it does more than I need or want it to do. I just need a headphone DAC/AMP, having additional line-ins, speaker or receiver audio connection options and all of the software is just stuff I won’t be using and in the case of the software can overcomplicate things. That isn’t to say those aren’t all great features though. That is just more to my specific needs. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the plastic enclosure for the X3, a lot of headphone DACs have a nice aluminum enclosure at a similar price point as the X3.

Speaking of pricing, where does the X3 land? It has an MSRP of $119.99 which is priced right in the middle of what you would expect for a DAC. Adding in the EQ options and the 7.1 stereo outputs help make it a better value if you can put them to use. The X3 is a great option to step WAY up from onboard audio if you aren’t using a USB headset and already have speakers. If you don’t need those options, like me, a cheaper $100 headphone DAC/AMP would be a better value.

fv5recommended

Live Pricing: HERE

 

Author Bio
garfi3ld
Author: garfi3ldWebsite: http://lanoc.org
Editor-in-chief
You might call him obsessed or just a hardcore geek. Wes's obsession with gaming hardware and gadgets isn't anything new, he could be found taking things apart even as a child. When not poking around in PC's he can be found playing League of Legends, Awesomenauts, or Civilization 5 or watching a wide variety of TV shows and Movies. A car guy at heart, the same things that draw him into tweaking cars apply when building good looking fast computers. If you are interested in writing for Wes here at LanOC you can reach out to him directly using our contact form.

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