Do you remember Sound Blaster? For a brief moment in time in the 90s, these sound cards were an essential upgrade for any gaming PC. They gave you a place to plug in your pre-USB joystick for bouts of X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, as well as substantially better audio quality than whatever was built into your PC – if you were lucky enough to have anything at all. Nowadays though, even basic motherboards include integrated audio hardware with perfectly fine quality, plenty of inputs and fancy software features – that you’ve probably never used. And of course, GPUs can pipe out digital surround sound over HDMI too. Surprisingly perhaps, new Sound Blaster cards are still in production today – and after testing Creative’s new flagship model, the $350/£299 AE-9, I think discrete audio hardware is still worth considering today. Here’s why.
First, high-end modern sound cards can actually replace a lot of other audio equipment. The AE-9 is a perfect example, as it comes with both a sound card that goes in your PC and an ‘audio control module’ or ACM that sits on your desk, joined by a mini HDMI cable (and a stern warning not to plug anything else into the mini HDMI port). The ACM serves as both a headphone amp and an audio interface, with room to plug in both ¼ inch and ⅛ inch headphones plus XLR, ¼ inch and ⅛ inch microphones (with optional +48V phantom power). You can also plug in auxiliary devices, like your smartphone or MP3 player, via phono inputs on the back of the box. Meanwhile, the sound card itself includes four line out ports (two phono, two ⅛ inch) plus optical in and out, allowing a full set of 5.1 surround-sound speakers to be connected. As well as the AE-9’s built-in Acoustic Engine processing, you can also opt for Dolby Digital Live and DTS Connect Encoding – sadly, the more recent Dolby Atmos and DTS:X standards aren’t supported, nor are 7.1 surround sound setups·
While audio interfaces like the FocusRite Scarlett often include more knobs to turn and switches to flip (there’s only a volume wheel, a three-point impedance switch and a couple of extra buttons on the AE-9’s ACM), there’s enough here to handle most simple use cases – like hooking up a powered XLR condenser microphone for streaming, recording a musical instrument or keeping both headphones and speakers connected at all times. Having everything in one place, instead of split across multiple boxes, is convenient if a little messy.