Creative AE-5 Plus PCIe DAC and Amp Review
Peter Donnell / 3 months ago
Creative has long been a leader when it comes to desktop audio. I’m sure most of you have owned or do own some Creative hardware. It’s likely you don’t even know it, as they product chipsets for all kinds of hardware too. I’m a big fan of what they’ve been doing in recent years. I can’t get through the day without my Creative Theatre SXFI headphones, and I use SXFI headphones on mobile, and a Creative speaker to power all my smart home entertainment. So, now it’s time to see what they can offer on the desktop, with the PCIe DAC and XAMP card, or in simpler terms, their latest soundcard!
Creative AE-5 Plus PCIe DAC and Amp
For many, on-board motherboard audio is good enough. There’s no shame in that either, as on-board audio has come a long way, especially on some of the more expensive motherboards. However, it’s hard to match what Creative is offering. It features SABRE-class 122dB DAC, with Hi-RES audio support, outputting up to 32-bit / 384 kHz PCM audio.
What Creative Had to Say
“Be one of the proud OPs showing off their gaming rigs on r/battlestations! The Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus is a perfect convergence between aesthetics and performance that features a SABRE32 ultra-class hi-res PCI-e gaming sound card and DAC with customizable RGB LEDs on its body, and comes with an included RGB LED strip. It also features our award-winning Xamp discrete headphone amp that utilizes a bi-amplification technology, as well as our full suite of industry-leading audio processing technologies including Surround Virtualization.” – Creative
Packaging & Specifications
The AE-5 Plus looks to be the sweet spot of the range. Sure, the AE-7 has a higher SNR, and some mighty impressive 9018 DAC’s, but not much more beyond those fancy I/O panels. The AE-5 has an excellent set of features and offers the same DTS and Dolby Digital Live encoding abilities which you don’t get on the Pure Edition. Here’s a link to the full chart if this one is hard to read.
The box is really funky, with lots of bright colours and technical information all over it. It’s a common theme for any Creative product though, so it’s good to see them sticking to that. On the front, you can see the product, as well as main features and format support; DTS, Crystal Voice, etc.
Around the back, a more technical breakdown, but nothing we won’t dive into in a moment.
The box opens up to reveal a dual layer cardboard design and a top cover. It’s all very well protected.
Soft foam interior and an anti-static wrap protect the actual card its self.
In the black box, you also find this lovely RGB LED strip.
It’s even SoundBlasterX branded, how cool is that! It hooks directly into the soundcard, which has its own RGB lighting too. I sense some fancy EQ reactive lighting modes, don’t you?
Of course, you get all the usual user guide and what not, nothing out of the ordinary there though.
A Closer Look & Performance
The Sound BlasterX AE-5 PLUS is a lovely looking bit of kit. It’s a PCIe device, so make sure you’ve got space on your motherboard for it. Those with mini-ITX boards will likely have the main slot taken by a GPU, and some mATX boards may be limited too if you have a 2.5x thick GPU. However, most ATX system will have a couple of space 1x slots available between the main 16x slots.
The housing is metal, so it has a nice durable and premium look and feel to it. Of course, the metal will also provide it with some passive heat dissipation and generally protect the internal hardware.
There are five jacks and an optical out on this card. From left to right they are line-in/mic-in, headphone jack, front LR, rear LR, center/sub. Of course, all of them are gold plated too for better conductivity. I especially like the headphone jack, as that comes with quite a few features of its own. It runs through a custom Xamp discrete headphone Bi-Amp. Each channel is individually amplified, allowing for a whopping 600 Ohm of amplification; enough to drive planar-magnetic headphone drivers.
That’s not to say the rest of the card isn’t packing some impressive hardware too. You get the SABRE-class DAC. Delivering 122dB, 32-bit/384kHz PCM audio. That means you could listen to lossless audio formats such as FLAC, DSD, WAV. Of course, it’ll also handle the best your gaming has to offer too, albeit ultra-high audio formats aren’t so common in gaming, at least not yet. It does include many of the high-res formats you’ll find on modern movies and Blu-Ray formats though, so you’re getting the best of many worlds from this card.
I like that while it is a serious piece of hardware, it doesn’t take its self too seriously either. You get a digital RGB header on the back of the card. Of course, the RGB strip is included in the box, but you could easily use your own too.
The back of the card is finished in a bold black and white design. Which seems a little out of contrast to the black and red on the other side. Then again, if it’s sitting below your GPU, will you ever really see more than the edge of this thing? It’s unlikely.
Another bit of LED lighting is built in here, so what should look pretty funky when powered up.
Around the back, you’ll find a MOLEX header. MOLEX, in 2020? OK whatever, but my buddy SATA wants a world when we’re done here. There’s also a HD Front Panel Audio Header so you can use the audio jacks on your PC case.
The Sound BlasterX AE-5 PLUS really is the sum of its parts. Creative has cherry-picked some of the best components in the business and added a touch of their own, erm, creative magic to the mix. Listening to movies, music or anything else through this thing is great fun. It adds a level of power and clarity that ensures you’re getting the absolute best.
The RGB looks fantastic, and I couldn’t get the strip to work, but only because I didn’t have any MOLEX to hand. Again, that should be SATA.
The software is great, and if you’ve got any Creative products, you may be pretty familiar with the Command interface. There are profiles to pick from and a bunch of easy to understand dials to adjust.
A powerful EQ with separate settings from headphones and speakers.
All your basic configuration options for your setup.
The awesome Scout Mode. Zoom in on enemy footsteps audio, it’s like a wall hack but for your ears.
There’s all the fancy encoding stuff here too, which is great if you’re wanting to stream higher quality formats.
How Much Does it Cost?
The Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 PLUS is available now from many major retailers. It’s on Amazon in the UK for just £129.99, which I think is very reasonable for the level of processing it offers. Plus, that little RGB add-on is pretty funky. You can get the standard one for £104.99, but if you want the top end Dolby processing, I’d spend the extra £20. Plus, compared to the £200 AE-7, it’s a bargain, as they offer many of the same features, albeit the AE-7 has a cool I/O device too.
Creative has pushed the limits of desktop audio for decades. Some of my first speakers were Creative, my first soundcard was Creative, and even today, I still find myself using Creative. Albeit, I’ve used and owned many other brands in-between over the many years. I ran this little soundcard through my admittedly humble Creative T20 speakers, they’re a little tired now, but it was still clear that the soundcard brought some big improvements to the range. However, they seem like a sensible match for my needs.
There’s certainly no big issues here, as the whole thing feels very robust. They’ve used quality materials, and a metal construction for the heatsink and shield to keep it all looking and feeling great. The rear PCB has been given a funky two-tone design, and there’s lashing of RGB throughout. Of course, you’ve got the gold-plated jacks, and as for the hardware they’ve used, well it’s all well known and well tested chipsets that are well proven in the industry, so no issues there either.
More is More
There’s nothing wrong with most systems on-board audio these days. I myself use on-board 99% of the time. However, you get what you pay for and the AE-5 Plus really gets the best out of higher resolution formats. It’s also got more amplification and lower distortion, so if you’re pushing bigger speakers, volumes, and quality files, it’ll really pay off. The addition of their fantastic software suite, powerful EQ, profiles, and exceptional format and processing modes certainly give it an edge too. Then there’s the RGB, it’s just all a bit over the top and well, that’s what I like. Precise, powerful, functional, but also still a bit quirky.
Should I Buy One?
It does seem like a big investment, but if you’re dealing out cash for the best graphics card, the best monitor and the best speakers/headphones for your next gaming PC, then it stands to reason that getting the best soundcard is the next logical step. If your onboard audio is lacking, this is a great solution to take things to the next level.