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.