About the SB Recon3D!
Creative launched the successor to their popular X-Fi series with the Recon3D THX USB sound card. The Recon3D THX is a USB powered sound card though there are PCI-E versions using the same quad core processor to handle all the sonic requirements. The heart of this sound card is a very fancy sounding Core3D Audio processor which is a quad core chip and should help reduce the load on the CPU to process audio during demanding applications like 3D games.
While the Recon3D THX is a 2 channel only solution (no 5.1 or 7.1 speaker support is available) the advantage is that you can use the sound card with even your Xbox 360 and PS3 gaming consoles using the Optical input. (All necessary connectors to connect the Recon3D to the PC, XBOX, and PS3 are provided in the retail package).Hence the primary usage of the sound card is for gamers who prefer to use headphones over speakers as the only output option is a 3.5mm jack while input options are USB (for PC only) and Optical (for XBOX and PS3).
Connecting the device to the PC is extremely simple. Just plug in the micro USB cable to the sound card and you are good to go! Drivers are automatically installed and optional software bundle can also be used if you desire to use the THX functionality along with other tweaks.
- Processor: Creative Sound Core3D CA0138
- Memory: none
- Interface: USB 2
- Maximum Channels: 2 (analog)
- Bit-rate: 24-bit
- Maximum Sample Rate: 48KHz
- Inputs: Micro–USB, 3.5mm mic, 3.5mm Stereo Aux in, 3.5mm optical S/PDIF in
- Outputs: 3.5mm headphone
- Audio technologies: THX TruStudio Pro, Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic, DirectSound HW, DirectSound SW, OpenAL generic modes,
- Extras: 1 x optical S/PDIF lead, 1 x micro-USB to USB
As can be seen, the maximum channels supported is just 2 so multi speaker set ups are not really possible with this sound card.
The card is capable for down mixing 5.1 audio to the stereo so even if your source material is 5.1 you can safely play it on a headphone. Also, there are surround sound emulation modes which frankly I don’t care for but YMMV.
The maximum sample rate is just 48 kHz which doesn’t match the 96 kHz that the PCI-E version is capable of.
The card has a physical button for enabling the THX effects which is good for those who like the output. A similar button for Scout mode is also available so you can turn on/off the enhancement during a game. There is also a microphone adjustment button.
Gaming and Audio performance
The PCI-E version of the Recon3D made a bold advertisement of being able to run 600-ohm headphones (generally only very expensive headphones have 600 ohms which make a powerful headphone amplifier a necessity). I remember smirking at their bold statement as at the time the Recon3D was announced most people used $500+ pure headphone amps to be able to power these types of headphones. And the Recon3D was ‘only’ a $200 card and that too was first and foremost a soundcard and not a headphone amplifier. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see that Creative were true to their word, and it managed to power my extremely hard to drive Yamaha YH-100 headphones with plenty of reserve power (i.e. I was only at 3/4th volume for a comfortable volume). To put into perspective on hard to drive my Yamaha YH-100 is, I can barely hear anything when I connect them to my phone at maximum volume. Connecting them to my laptop or onboard audio yields similar results.
The USB version sadly doesn’t get enough power from the USB port to provide sufficient power such hard to drive headphones. However it still provides enough power for high impedance headphones like my 300 ohms Sennheiser HD650, and by 85% power, I can get enough volume for most games or songs.
One advantage of the Recon3D is the ability to be connected to the Xbox 360 or PS3 via an optical-in connection. You still need to connect the USB cable to the Xbox or PS3 as it requires power.
The sound advantage over the built in APU on the Xbox 360 isn’t very huge, but the sound quality is slightly better with the Recon3D. That said it was not an even contest as it is not really possible to connect a headphone directly to the Xbox as you require an amplifier. For those who like to game on the Xbox/PS3 with headphones would be very happy with the ease of connecting a headphone.
Coming back to the actual gaming performance the overall sound performance was pretty good and a noticeable step up from onboard sound. Comparing to the PCI-E version both sounded approximately the same which isn’t surprising considering both share the same APU. That said while comparing it to my dedicated $149 music DAC – Music Streamer II, I found the Music Streamer to offer a better SQ for music with slightly better bass, wider soundstage and noticeably better treble. However, the MS II lacks a headphone amp so the Creative is an all in one solution.
I next compared the Creative with a $70 USB DAC Fiio E10 that has a powerful built in amp. Here, there was a much closer match in SQ with the E10 having better bass and midrange but lesser treble and soundstage.
Now one of the USPs of this sound card over the Music Streamer and other USB based DACs available is the software bundle. Scout mode claims to enhance the footsteps of people in games which makes it easier to spot them. Of course this is the marketing claim, but frankly, I found the sound to be rather unnatural, and while it did make some difference I didn’t like the unnatural audio from the game.
However as always YMMV. (Your Mileage May Vary)
In addition to the Scout mode, there is also a THX mode which is mainly meant for movies. Now while I really didn’t like the sound again I am kinda biased against such sound ‘enhancements’ so you may feel differently. To Creative’s credit, the THX mode really alters the sound adding greater soundstage which could enhance the whole movie watching experience and such an effect is not really possible with normal software EQs that are available for all so it’s entirely possible some would really appreciate this undeniably distinct enhancement.
Too expensive for what it gives?
The Recon3D THX isn’t a very easy to recommend a card since at its price range you get some decent USB DACs that offer better SQ. However, most of those DACs are PC only so they don’t have the Recon3D’s ability to pair with consoles. Compared with its PCI-E brother, the SQ of both are around the same but the PCI-E version boasts multi channel support, a very capable headphone amplifier for hard to drive headphones and a slightly lesser MSRP ($99 compared to $129 of the USB version). However, the USB version boasts of a far simpler installation process and support for consoles along with the external controls for disabling/enabling enhancements like Scout Mode and THX Trusound profiles.
Also while many would have moved to Windows 7 or even Windows 8 by now it has to be mentioned that this card does not work with Windows XP (either 32 bit or 64-bit versions). So if for some reason you are still using Windows XP this card will simply not work. Driver support is only for Windows Vista, 7 and 8 (support for 32 bit and 64-bit versions for all OS).
At the end of the day…
To sum up, this is a competent sound card and worth a buy if you like to use headphones or speakers and don’t wish to go through the hassles of installing a PCI-E card or lack the space in your cabinet for another PCI-E card. For pure VFM, the PCI-E card is a better bet for support of 5.1/7.1 speaker systems and for the powerful headphone amplifier which will comfortably drive practically any dynamic headphone on the planet.