Disclaimer: The Sound Blaster AE-9 used in this review was sent in by the manufacturer.
Creative Labs has found itself in a bit of a predicament since the turn of the millennium. Back in the golden age of computers, a sound card was a required component for any gamer or enthusiast, as there was no such thing as on-board sound – until motherboard manufacturers caught on and started including inexpensive sound chips on their motherboards.
This had a dramatic effect on the sound card market – it almost killed it. With sound working out of the box on most motherboards, and some even offering surround sound, optical output, and other niceties, it’s comparatively rare to find a sound card taking pride of place in a gamer’s PC. Even audiophiles have left the fold, as USB-enabled DACs allow for high-end audio to be easily added to any system, with the added benefit of working on laptops or dedicated audio players.
Creative Labs, then, has been met with a problem – how do they win enthusiasts and audiophiles back? Their latest answer to this question is the Sound Blaster AE-9, a £299 monster of a sound card, and one aimed squarely at the audiophile market. There’s no RGB here, no marketing about dominating your enemies on the box – instead, the card is clad in handsome silver metal, and the lighting is restricted to a white glow behind Creative’s logo on the side. The card connects to your computer via a 4x PCIe slot, and requires a single six-pin PCIe power connector to be driven – the same type you might plug into a powerful graphics card.
On the back of the card are connections for speakers, optical connections for a receiver or Blu-ray player, as well as a curious mini-HDMI port – which connects to the star of the show, a box that Creative dubs the ‘audio control module’.
That audio control module – or amplifier in audiophile terms – is a surprisingly hefty box that sits on your desk and allows you to connect headphones (with both 6.3mm and 3.5mm ports), as well as a microphone through both a 3.5mm port and, unusually, a combined XLR and 6.3mm port that is capable of providing an optional +48V of phantom power.
Rounding out the functions are stereo aux-in ports, an impedance switch (to allow the amplifier to power both sensitive devices such as IEMs, and hard-to-drive, audiophile-grade headphones), a switch to toggle on Creative’s SBX effects, and a large, satisfying volume knob. There’s also a monochrome display for showing the volume and status.
Once hooked up, you can control everything on the sound card through Creative’s Sound Blaster Control software, which allows for fine-tuning all sorts of controls, including a graphic equaliser, output selection (speakers or headphones), and perhaps most importantly, Creative’s proprietary SBX audio profiles.
SBX aims to improve the sound going to your headphones by applying software effects to it, such as adding an artificial surround effect, deepening the bass, ‘crystallising’ the audio, or attempting to boost dialogue. They even produce profiles specifically for certain games, although most of them are out of date at this point.
Unfortunately, these effects made the out of the box experience less than optimal. Plugging some headphones into the AE-9, the first few music tracks I tried sounded muddy and distorted – and distinctly artificial. Pressing the ‘SBX’ button on the amplifier to switch the effects off made an immediate and striking difference, as the soundstage returned, the bass became more balanced, and the vocals crisp and clear. While the effects are heavily adjustable and can be individually tweaked, I couldn’t find anything that sounded better than simply turning all of the processing off.
If that’s where the comparisons ended, I’d cautiously recommend the Sound Blaster AE-9 – the price is high, but the sound is better than any other internal sound card I’ve heard, and the amplifier is solid, convenient and satisfying to use. However, and unfortunately for Creative, the audiophile market is a vibrant and competitive one – which means that some truly wonderful DAC/amp combos can be found for a fraction of the price.
As part of putting the AE-9 through its paces, I conducted a blind test between my motherboard’s on-board audio (the ASUS Maximus X Code), the Creative Labs AE-9, and a well-regarded USB DAC/amp combo, the Fiio K3. All three were tested with a pair of Sennheiser HD6XX headphones.
As should be expected, I could easily pick out the on-board audio as having the weakest sound in all situations, with the sound feeling enclosed, dull, and lifeless. The surprise was the difference between the £299 AE-9 and the £85 K3: While both were very attractive-sounding, producing a clear, wide soundstage and balanced audio, the K3 came across as brighter and more detailed, and I found myself preferring it on the majority of songs I listened to.
The AE-9’s troubles don’t end there – because external audio can be so good, it becomes harder to justify the compromises inherent in an internal sound card. You lose the versatility of a USB DAC, and installation – while not particularly difficult – is more complicated than simply plugging a cable in. That compromise does work both ways, though – the integration between the AE-9 and the system is much better than any external box I’ve tried, and being able to control the volume from the computer itself is remarkably convenient, a feature you often lose with audiophile-grade DACs. The AE-9 also has a huge advantage in that it allows you to plug in a wide variety of microphones, which headphone DACs rarely support.
When it comes down to it, the AE-9 feels like a product stuck between two very different worlds. At £299, it’s very much not aimed at the mainstream market, or even gamers – who are more likely to buy an expensive gaming headset, which often come with integrated sound processing. On the other hand, £299 is perfectly affordable for audiophiles, but the quality simply doesn’t deliver enough for the price.
As wonderful as the AE-9 can sound, you can get the same quality or better for significantly less, and the convenience is simply not worth the significantly inflated cost. For my money, I’d go ahead and buy a USB DAC/amp combo – and probably a new pair of headphones with the money I saved, too. In the end, the Creative Labs AE-9’s Sound Blaster AE-9 is just too little, too late, and far too expensive.