Update [2014-05-16]: I updated some thoughts below on sound quality.
[Update 2014-09-14]: Added a pretty big caveat to the Omni Surround.
I am a bit nuts about external USB sound card / DAC /AMP combos. I’ve bought 3 from the same manufacturer. They are all part of the Sound Blaster line of sound cards from Creative. I wanted to capture some thoughts as there isn’t much written about these cards.
A bit of background
I am part of a small community of people who build and maintain Hackintoshes (I’ve been doing it since the early versions of Boot-321). One thing that has always troubled me is that sound would be continually borked. It was frustrating enough for me to just dump the modified onboard sound kexts and look for a properly supported USB sound card. I haven’t looked back.
I first bought the Sound Blaster Recon3D USB (SB1300). It was a good buy at $40 CAD (many stores were liquidating them at the time). It’s powered by a Creative’s Sound Core3D chip–a quad-core DSP that also integrates a USB Digital Audio Converter (DAC), an Analog Digital Converter (ADC), a separate 600-ohm Headphone Amp, a digital microphone interface, S/PDIF inputs and outputs and General Purpose Inputs and Outputs (GPIO). In 2012, they rebranded the chip to the SB-Axx1™ chip.
Impressed by the sound quality, I searched for second, but wasn’t able to find a supplier. So I bought the Sound Blaster X-Fi 5.1 Surround Pro (SB1095)–it’s an older USB card with similar features and had just been updated with Windows 8 drivers. Minimal research showed that it was compatible with Mac OS X and would be a good addition to my office setup at Kobo.
I was wrong. It didn’t work at all on the mac. So it’s been sitting in its box for about 6 months.
The Sound Blaster Omni Surround 5.1 (SB1560) is the spiritual successor of the X-Fi 5.1. In addition to Mac OS X compatibility, it offers a dual-noise-cancelling microphone and a 600-ohm headphone amp (the X-Fi’s amp was designed for low-impedance headphones). It also supports all the same software features as the Recon3d USB.
One thing I found troubling about the Omni Surround 5.1 is that there was no advertised Sound Core3D chip (or SB-Axx1™ chip), yet it supported all the same features of the Recon3D. Here is a breakdown of core chips:
|Device||DAC||ADC||Headphone Amp||Hardware DSP?||3D?|
|X-Fi 5.1 Pro||6-channel DAC (CS4361)||2-channel ADC Cirrus Logic (CS5345)||NXP Semi. Amp, 32-ohm (TDA1308)||No||THX|
|Omni Surround 5.1||6-channel DAC (CS4361)||2-channel ADC Cirrus Logic (CS5345)||Max. Integrated Amp, 600-ohm (MAX97220A)||No||SBX|
|Recon 3D USB||6-channel DAC (SB-AXX1)||4-channel ADC (SB-AXX1)||Onboard, 600-ohm amp (SB-AXX1)||Yes (Quad-core DSP)||THX|
A few highlights:
- The Omni Surround 5.1 and the X-Fi 5.1 Pro do NOT contain any hardware audio processors–everything is done in software. While this is disappointing, keep in mind that sound processing requires minimal CPU time and the resources of today’s computers and consoles greatly exceeds many people’s needs.
- The addition of the MAX97220A headphone amp is a common addition to the new Z-line Sound Blaster products after complaints that the onboard 600-ohm amp offered by the Sound Core3d processor (SB-AXX1) received poor reviews.
The Recon3d USB and X-FI 5.1 Pro both support “THX® TruStudio Pro™” , whereas the Omni Surround 5.1 supports “SBX Pro Studio“. From what I can tell, the software is identical. The prevailing belief is that Creative did not wish to pay the licensing fee for THX. In fact, the pages for THX® TruStudio Pro™ and SBX Pro Studio are eerily familiar.
Most people coming here are probably looking for my impression on sound quality.
I haven’t tried the X-Fi 5.1 Pro.
To be frank, I can’t really discern between the Recon3D and Omni Surround 5.1. They work well for what I use them for. I like the dial on the Omni Surround better than the buttons on the Recon3D. The beam microphone on the Omni Surround works really well.
I will write more when I upgrade my headphones. [Update 2014-05-16] I updated my headphones to Beyerdynamic DT880 Premiums (600 ohm). I’ve been listening to some 24-bit 96 kHz (new studio remasters of some Jazz albums that I bought from HDTracks.com). I’m impressed by both the Recon3D and Omni Surround 5.1. The SNR on the Recon3d is 90 DBA (20kHz Low-pass filter, A-Wgt) vs 100 DBA for the Omni Surround. I can’t hear the difference. Even when I max the volume. It’s nice to be able to get a 100% range from my sound card. Even at max, the sound is distortion free and immersive. I just wish that either solution was more portable.
Overall, I like the Omni Surround better — only for the fact that it has the dual-mics and volume knob (the push buttons on the Recon3D is a bit ridiculous).
[Update 2014-09-14] One thing that I find really annoying on the Omni Surround is that it doesn’t support Acoustic Echo Cancellation. This effectively makes it useless for a speakerphone setup and seriously limits my use of it in the office. Apparently you require the SB-AXX1 for the real-time audio effects. I’m not sure why this can’t be done through software. This is kind of a deal breaker for me–although the new E5 DAC/AMP combo supports this. 🙂