Dedicated sound cards provide better audio quality, more features and more stable drivers than on-board audio, but most of us aren't prepared to pay the Earth for one, particularly if we spend more time gaming than listening to uncompressed audio through a £300 pair of studio headphones. Because of this, there's a great deal of competition among manufacturers to produce the best possible sound card for under £100.
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Creative's Sound Blaster Z is the latest to throw its hat into the ring. Priced at just £80, the Z has the same SoundCore3D processor we saw on last year's Recon3D range of gaming sound cards. It's a more modest affair than its ZxR sister card, so you won't find any external control modules, daughterboards or replaceable op-amps here, but there are plenty of quality components underneath this card's snazzy red EM shield.
On the rear are five 3.5mm ports - one line/mic input, a headphone output and three further outputs (front, rear and centre/sub) to provide up to 7.1 analogue surround sound. There are also optical S/PDIF in and outputs. All the ports a uniform gold colour, with small symbols etched on the backplane next to them. While this looks stylish, colour coding would have made them easier to identify.
Click to enlarge - gold plated connectors aren't the easiest to see when reaching behind your PC
Since the Creative Zx sound card is effectively a Z with an external module for easy connection of mic and headphones, it'd be logical to assume that both the Z and the Zx would closely resemble Creative's premium £200 ZxR. This isn't the case - as well as the external connection module and a daughterboard packed with inputs, the ZxR card itself comes with quite different hardware, including 1/4in input and outputs and different on-board components including a variety of op-amps for various output channels that are not only higher quality than those found in the Z and Zx but also come housed in mounts that allow them to be changed if you want alter your card's audio profile.
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It's worth bearing in mind then that, while the ZxR is closely comparable to cards like Asus's Xonar Essence STX, the Z is more of a jobbing gamer's sound card. That's not to do it a diservice. It sounds great, particularly if you're upgrading from on-board audio or an entry-level USB sound card. However, in an increasingly vigorous market for sound cards, the Z may struggle a little given its £80 price point. For a start, it's going up against the Asus Xonar DX , which costs around £20 less and - despite its age - is a long-stranding favourite of ours. The DX uses a rebadged C-Media CMI-8788 OxygenHD audio processor and has the same DAC for its headphone outputs, but doesn't have the same range of dedicated op-amps as the Z.
Processor: Creative SoundCore3D
Inputs: 3.5mm mic/line in, optical S/PDIF in
Outputs: 4x 3.5mm outputs, optical S/PDIF out
Interface: PCI-E x1
Maximum Sample Rate: 192KHz (front), 96KHz (headphone)