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Review and Measurements of Sound Blaster Z Card

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the Creative Labs Sound Blaster Z PCI Express Gaming and Surround Audio interface card. It is on kind loan from a member. The Blaster Z costs US $100 on Amazon with prime shipping.

The card is still in my machine so here is a stock picture of the unit:

Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out Audio Review.jpg

It has some red LEDs that come on when powered on. Alas, that didn't help me much in getting it working. Despite said lights on first install, Windows did not recognize it and the 150 megabyte package of crapware from Creative refused to install anything saying there is no hardware. I almost gave up but decided to re-seat the board and try again. This time Windows did recognize it.

Installation of the crapware package was not smooth. It installed a bunch of stuff with yet another interface than their other boards. It added an auto-update which immediately told me there were critical updates available even though I just downloaded the rest of the stuff! For grins, I let it try to update, only to have it fail catastrophically with bad error dialog boxes, etc. Fortunately it worked. Well, kind of. Its ASIO interface would not work and kept saying the device was not there or some such thing. So I had to rely on ASIO4ALL layer on top of its low level stock windows driver.

Overall software experience is as bad as one would expect from Creative. Certainly reason enough for me to avoid using it but let's measure it anyway.

DAC Audio Measurements
Full output was a bit above required 2 volts and caused a lot of distortion. I dialed it down a bit and that produced good results:

Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out Fronts Audio Measurements.png


Forgot to put in the large graph. It would barely make it into the green bucket of DACs tested so not bad.

Reard channels were not as good:

Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out Surround Audio Measurements.png



But still better than many AVRs I have measured.

Dynamic range was quite good relative to 2 volt output:
Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out Fronts Dynamic Range Audio Measurements.png


So distortion is your enemy, not noise.

IMD was also very respectable:

Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out Fronts IMD Audio Measurements.png


Linearity was also reasonably good:

Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out Fronts Linearity Audio Measurements.png



Jitter showed poor design though with respect to avoiding interference:

Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out Fronts Jitter Audio Measurements.png


Frequency response was flat:

Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out Fronts Frequency Response Audio Measurements.png


Multitone results were quite poor though:
Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out Fronts Multitone Audio Measurements.png


I have been measuring a bunch of devices lately with this kind of issue. Wanted to make sure it was not the analyzer so I put the Audio Precision APx555 in loopback and this is what I got:

Audio Precision APx555 Multitone Audio Measurements.png


Now this is clean! :) The Sound Blaster Z is worse by whopping 60 dB in low frequencies!

Headphone Audio Measurements
There is not a whole lot of power available from the headphone output:

Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out HP Power into 300 ohm Audio Measurements.png


Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out HP Power into 33 ohm Audio Measurements.png


This is going to distort heavily at loud levels of listening. Strange that it is powered by PCI-Express yet it has such weak output stage.

Output impedance was high and hence the poor performance with 33 ohm:

Sound Blaster Z PC Gaming Surround Card Line Out HP Output Impedance Audio Measurements.png


ADC Measurements
Could not make the driver work no matter how hard I tried. It kind of worked with Mic but not reliably to measure.

Conclusions
The DAC portion of the Sound Blaster Z is not half bad. But the software and headphone amplifier are best avoided. All in all, It is not a good choice. I suggest buying the Sound BlasterX AE-5 which I just reviewed instead. Yes, it is a bit more money but you only live once.....

Needless to say, I cannot recommend the Sound Blaster Z.

------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

As you see there are no pictures of pink panthers in the review. Reason is that they are on strike. They have many grievances. The top one is that their daily allowance is too low. So please donate money generously using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
 

daftcombo

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#2
Thanks Amir!
All was pretty good until the multitone test. I thought that the IMD test and the multitone would be more correlated.

Do we have a chart of the devices measured yet which do the best in multitone?

Can you correlate sound quality in listening tests to the multitone test?
 
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #3
I have not tried to listen to multitone. I don't expect it to be pleasant. :)

Multitone test uses 32 tones as you know. IMD only uses two tones so the former can create a lot more sideband components than IMD test can.

But yes, I was surprised how high the distortion in multitone was. Tried it with one or two tones and didn't get that. It might be forcing it to clip more requiring less volume. Not sure. Am shipping the unit back to its owner already as this and the other two he sent have been here for months!
 

zermak

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#4
Thanks for these PCI-E audio cards reviews Amir! And I see surround measuraments as well! Very much appreciated!

@amirm
Can you please also run the multitone test on the AE-5?
If it is as bad as this one then I would prefer this one (if there would not be better choices in the PCI-E format; I hope we/you can find some good ones tho; I am stuck on an Asus Xonar DX now) over the other in a multichannel setup, considering the better SINAD of the surrounds here.
 

Arnandsway

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#5
Thanks for the many cheap MCH Dac reviews, Amir.
Does someone have an overview on which is the best performing mch in this price category? :cool:
 

Blumlein 88

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#8
I have not tried to listen to multitone. I don't expect it to be pleasant. :)

Multitone test uses 32 tones as you know. IMD only uses two tones so the former can create a lot more sideband components than IMD test can.

But yes, I was surprised how high the distortion in multitone was. Tried it with one or two tones and didn't get that. It might be forcing it to clip more requiring less volume. Not sure. Am shipping the unit back to its owner already as this and the other two he sent have been here for months!
Sort of wonder looking at the 32 tone test if some of the grassy noise floor wasn't jitter combined with IMD products.
 

mkawa

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#9
waiting eagerly for the evga results; it's currently on sale for 150, which in theory should put it ahead of the ae-5 with hopefully much better numbers since it is targeted at audiophiles and not gamers..
 

Physkx

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#10
Thanks so much for these sound card tests @amirm , this one especially has confirmed a long-held suspicion I had that my Sound Blaster Z card had slight audible distortion creep in at full volume, I think these last two reviews have really pushed me into moving away from internal sound cards and I am now looking at replacing it with a Topping DX3 Pro or D50s/Atom stack
 
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #11
Sort of wonder looking at the 32 tone test if some of the grassy noise floor wasn't jitter combined with IMD products.
Ah, that could be another reason due to high number of high frequency tones in there. Good thinking! :)
 

cshake

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#12
I had two copies of this card last year (yes, that's a bad sign already).
Using my AKG K612 headphones (120ohm / 101dB sensitivity), I did some basic listening comparisons between using the SBZ headphone outs and my onboard Gigabyte implementation of ALC889 (including the onboard going through my Tapco mixer as an amp, which just seemed to add a bit of hiss when I turned it up past normal listening levels). Honestly couldn't specifically identify any differences, but I had to remove the card to get the onboard to work, so it was a couple minutes between listening so anything small had no chance to be found. This got me disappointed at the start because I'd just spent the money to try to improve my sound and I couldn't hear any difference (outside of using their EQ or other software settings).

The problem I had was that after about a week the output got really scratchy with heavy distortion at a medium volume output and the OS volume control stopped working completely. Same effect with both front and back ports. After an RMA the second card worked for about another week or two, then stopped sending any music and just popped and hissed a bit. I had a hassle returning the second card for a refund because I was outside the 30 day window of the original purchase (due to the two weeks it took for the original RMA), but I complained a bit to customer support at Newegg and they eventually let me return it.
Creative replied to my bad review at Newegg asking for me to contact them and troubleshoot, but I no longer had any desire to have the card and ignored the request. I figured they wanted to find a way to blame me because obviously it must be user error or my computer for two to die, right? Ignore the fact that this computer has been using other PCIe cards for about 4 years with no problems, and I've never had any other card die since I started building my own computers 15+ years ago.

Not to imply that all cards will die, since there are a lot of good reviews around the internet for this card (hence why I bought it in the first place), just adding two data points.

I have a small desire to pull out my old Turtle Beach Santa Cruz 5.1 PCI card from my box of retired computer parts (got a good 4 years out of that in the early 2000s) and see if it still works, but driver concerns make me not want to try (I still have a PCI slot on this motherboard I think).
 

Physkx

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#13
I had two copies of this card last year (yes, that's a bad sign already).
Using my AKG K612 headphones (120ohm / 101dB sensitivity), I did some basic listening comparisons between using the SBZ headphone outs and my onboard Gigabyte implementation of ALC889 (including the onboard going through my Tapco mixer as an amp, which just seemed to add a bit of hiss when I turned it up past normal listening levels). Honestly couldn't specifically identify any differences, but I had to remove the card to get the onboard to work, so it was a couple minutes between listening so anything small had no chance to be found. This got me disappointed at the start because I'd just spent the money to try to improve my sound and I couldn't hear any difference (outside of using their EQ or other software settings).

The problem I had was that after about a week the output got really scratchy with heavy distortion at a medium volume output and the OS volume control stopped working completely. Same effect with both front and back ports. After an RMA the second card worked for about another week or two, then stopped sending any music and just popped and hissed a bit. I had a hassle returning the second card for a refund because I was outside the 30 day window of the original purchase (due to the two weeks it took for the original RMA), but I complained a bit to customer support at Newegg and they eventually let me return it.
Creative replied to my bad review at Newegg asking for me to contact them and troubleshoot, but I no longer had any desire to have the card and ignored the request. I figured they wanted to find a way to blame me because obviously it must be user error or my computer for two to die, right? Ignore the fact that this computer has been using other PCIe cards for about 4 years with no problems, and I've never had any other card die since I started building my own computers 15+ years ago.

Not to imply that all cards will die, since there are a lot of good reviews around the internet for this card (hence why I bought it in the first place), just adding two data points.

I have a small desire to pull out my old Turtle Beach Santa Cruz 5.1 PCI card from my box of retired computer parts (got a good 4 years out of that in the early 2000s) and see if it still works, but driver concerns make me not want to try (I still have a PCI slot on this motherboard I think).
While it could just be coincidence that you got two bad cards, it also sounds like you may have a dodgy PSU or motherboard to me, I have had a motherboard before that had one PCI slot that would randomly kill every peripheral card I put in it - after the third network card popped and died I placed the fourth exact same model in an adjacent PCI slot and I never had the problem again.
 

daftcombo

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#14
What bothers me a little is that there is a fair number of DACs measured on this site and doing great at the 1kHz THD+N test, jitter test, IMD test, but for which we don't have the multitone test results.

Would it be possible that a few DACs subjectively reviewed as "not so great" by some people do bad at this test?
 
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amirm

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Thread Starter #15
What bothers me a little is that there is a fair number of DACs measured on this site and doing great at the 1kHz THD+N test, jitter test, IMD test, but for which we don't have the multitone test results.
Multitone was added after a number of DACs were already measured and sent to their owners. In general, every DAC I review now has multitone unless I forget to run it which is not frequent.

FYI, these boards have been sitting in my lab for months. I wanted to get them done and sent back to its owner.
 

somebodyelse

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#16
For future tests of multichannel interfaces would you add a test on one of the secondary channels to the standard battery of tests please? You did this for the AE-5 and found significantly worse performance than the mains. That may be fine for the intended purpose of surround channels, but it's a problem if someone wants to use it as part of an active crossover.
 

cshake

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#17
While it could just be coincidence that you got two bad cards, it also sounds like you may have a dodgy PSU or motherboard to me, I have had a motherboard before that had one PCI slot that would randomly kill every peripheral card I put in it - after the third network card popped and died I placed the fourth exact same model in an adjacent PCI slot and I never had the problem again.
It's possible it could be related to the motherboard. I haven't used other cards in that specific slot, but the symptoms (card still completely recognized by the computer but something in the output stage died) didn't make me think it was interaction with something at the computer connection end. This PSU (750W modular) has been used for the last three computers all of which used multiple cards and have 6+ HDDs and/or SDDs at a time, so I figure I would have noticed by now if any of the voltage rails were dodgy. By the time the second one died I had no desire to have the card anymore even if it worked (no noticeable improvement over onboard), so it was easy to justify not caring.
 
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