But it’s nice to see company Creative Labs continue their 30-year tradition of modernizing what worked in the past. The PCI-E based AE-5 Plus from the long-running Sound Blaster line is just one such product maximizing a PC’s hardware; all with the literal bells and whistles audiophiles can expect today. To stay relevant, the card manages to keep an elegant RGB-infused presence in any rig. More importantly, it adds an impressive boost for quality and value to the cheapest of headphones or speakers.
Sound cards are a bit of a ubiquitous term. Most devices have their own proprietary one, but can be limited by software and design. No matter what headphones are used, listeners aren’t getting the most out of their experience without a dedicated device for it. This is where the AE-5 represents a hyper specific line of products which do just that and push the sound gimmick into a real feature. It’s essentially an add-on headphone jack which uses a mix of outputting and hard audio drivers to stream the purest sound from your computer. Where high quality coffee passes a French press, some of the best audio is played through a sound card.
It’s important to look past the AE-5 Plus’ reservation for PCs. This is exclusively a device which plugs into a PCI-E x1 slot on a motherboard. This can seem jarring in a market where sound cards are USB-powered, portable and interchangeable between Mac/PC/Consoles. But users looking for a card that stays on their computer and nothing else won’t be disappointed. Because the AE-5 Plus is directly connected to the PC, the sounds also come at a low latency. It also becomes a raw recording device, giving users a bonus of recording studio-quality audio straight from the AE-5 Plus. For creators and audio-based producers, it’s a nice addition that makes the card an even bigger utility.
Freedom is a main focus for the AE-5 Plus, with Creative Labs giving users absolute control over the way they want to enjoy sound. Of course, the most used ports can be the timeless 3.5 headphone jacks for headphones and microphones. Beside them are three additional 3.5 jacks for 5.1 surround sound. Up to four large speakers can be used simultaneously for room-wide audio coverage. Lastly, it comes with an optical digital output for amplifiers, subwoofers or other DTS/digital devices. I especially liked having no wrong way of using the AE-5 Plus. It does a wonderful job in catering to headphone users and home theatre enthusiasts.
To be incredibly candid; the AE-5 Plus has a magical way of turning a $30 pair of headphones into $300 ones. It literally does so with a range of easy-to-use options which tweak any piece of audio. At the risk of pushing headphones too hard and damaging them, the AE-5 Plus lets users go deep into their favourite pair. With some small research and experimenting, users can quickly learn about ways to get the best sound by tweaking what they have.
Specific options like Gain let users change their headphone’s ohm (impedance) to increase or decrease depth and power. Audio quality can range from 24 to 32 bits. The highest quality lets users inject up to 384kHz sound into any headphone and allows for more separation between gunfire, voices or instruments. These first settings brought me instant results, with audio becoming crisp and punchy before I made any real tweaks. It reflects Creative Labs’ own refined experience for sound and makes the process for new audiophiles a breeze. In other words, overclocking your headphones has never been safer or easier.
The AE-5 Plus’ range of settings are (mostly) fantastic in giving users a clear understanding of their hardware. To really test their computer’s mettle, a Direct Mode can be switched on to give listeners raw sound. But I avoided this in favour of customizing my own quality to really make the most out of my headphones. This is done by playing with the acoustic engines: Surround, Crystalizer, Bass, Dialog+ and Smart Volume. Each setting might feel familiar as a tacked-on feature in phones or laptops. But with a dedicated sound card, these five aspects are hard wired into the AE-5 Plus. The result is an equalizer which isn’t very software based and really works. But some parts of the EQ start to feel redundant or flat-out pointless when they are overlapped and work together in certain everyday situations.
Surround did a solid job of adding depth to every element in a track. It added more atmosphere by giving environments, objects and voices a punch. At the maximum 100 percent, the surround worked as expected by throwing audio all around me. In songs like Giorgio by Moroder, the ambiance of being in a restaurant was impressively delivered by the AE-5 Plus. As the titular Giorgio Moroder was talking in the intro, I was still able to tell apart other guests chattering around him and the clattering of tableware on dinner plates. The scene felt even busier with Daft Punk’s 70s-infused disco beat pulling me in with a satisfying punch. It’s just one of the concrete instances the AE-5 Plus does to add realism in a scene, while PC users can feel more immersed than before.
Unfortunately, the Crystalizer feature made little to no difference for clearing up small details. Instead, it feels like a volume booster for the other settings. With Surround already giving sounds a clear separation, the AE-5 Plus’ crystalizer was quickly overpowered by this and gave zero impact. I would have loved to see the crystalizer adapt and give immediate sounds all the attention for listeners first. In games, this could have given listeners a bigger edge for hearing footsteps, distant chatter or distant commotions. But the AE-5 Plus’ wastes the opportunity to fully use the crystalizer, which is too dependent on other features to be useful.
The AE-5 Plus inevitably falls into a trap of having tacked-on features. A Scout Mode tries to tweak the sound card to pick off little details for players, including footsteps and distant gunfire. However, these do more to dampen the sound quality for users who benefit more without it. It also varies across games, making the Scout Mode a miss for competitive shooters. This software-based feature is easily the worst addition, while it’s outshined by practical ones like the Encoder. Users can directly integrate Dolby Audio and DTS Connect with existing devices, making the AE-5 Plus a natural fit for digital movies.
Other drawbacks came from poor volume balancing on the AE-5 Plus. The card packs a weird sensitivity, while anything past volume 10 would be too loud. It’s a known issue which hurts the quality of life in the AE-5 Plus. But this can be easily remedied by using headphones with their own volume controls as well for easy balancing.
A real highlight comes from using the Bass setting, which does more than enough in boosting a headphone or speaker’s depth. The AE-5 Plus’ own bass driver works especially well for users who can let it take over their audio. But the card’s bass extends well past songs. I especially loved hearing this work over my sessions in Black Ops Cold War, where explosions were boosted naturally, and grenades sounded more chaotic than ever. In firefights, I could also hear the thumping of my gun. The bass and surround combined to make these sounds more realistic. Environments could rumble under the AE-5 Plus’ bass, while weapons sing with their mechanical parts. It’s details from this masterfully crafted setting which add a significant immersion to games like Jedi Fallen Order. The sound of a lightsaber igniting is even deadlier with the AE-5 Plus, adding much more impact in every swing and hit during combat.
The AE-5 Plus gave my playthrough of Marvel’s Avengers an improvement for dialogue. Its impressive Dialog+ does what the Crystalizer couldn’t by amplifying immediate sounds like character voices and SFX. In one of my weirder discoveries, the AE-5 Plus was even able to tell apart a voice actor’s quality. Due to COVID-19, much of Avengers’ DLC had to be produced at home. Hawkeye actor Giacomo Gianniotti recorded much of his lines with a makeshift studio. This was something the AE-5 Plus really confirmed in awkward ways during cutscenes, as Hawkeye’s voice paled in comparison with other actors. As much as I enjoyed Marvel’s Avengers using the AE-5 Plus, it does an impressive job of separating sounds for an even more premium experience. This was also shown off in horror games like Resident Evil 7, where the haunting echoes of the Baker House stole the show. Enemies were also having a harder time ambusing me as I could hear them coming more effectively. But with a few tweaks to bass and maxing-out surround, users can have an even better thrill for survival horror titles.
The AE-5 Plus brings all of its settings together with an incredible easy-to-use application. Called the Sound Blaster Command, it’s a surprisingly polished software which lays out the settings with sliders. It also features multiple pages which focus on the sound card’s different features. The Sound Blaster Command uses these menus to avoid clutter, making the overall UI familiar for those using Steam or Battle.net. Users can easily experiment with the Acoustic Engine to find their best quality, while profiles can be saved for as many headphones as you own. Creative Labs has clearly put users in mind when giving them full control of their AE-5 Plus and makes downloading an extra software a rare pleasure. Its Playback menu features some of the richest settings for both analogue and digital devices. With one click, the sound card mechanically switches audio to the home theatre or headphones instantly.
Creative Labs have taken steps to make the AE-5 Plus a part of any kind of gaming PC. Its smooth and black metal shell naturally blends in with other parts including a GPU. Users will also have to pay attention to spacing, since my AE-5 Plus was close to being grinded down by my beefy RTX 2060 graphics card. Micro-ATX motherboards might also have a hard time making space for the AE-5 Plus without a riser cable. But when the sound card is installed, users might be surprised to find it flowing with RGB lighting. Enthusiasts can be overjoyed to see Creative Labs include this in the AE-5 Plus, while the lighting can be customized with different patterns on the Sound Blaster Command App.
The Sound Blaster AE-5 Plus proves PC-based sound cards are here to stay. It packs a surprisingly wonderful suite of enhancements for first-time users and caters to audiophiles looking for more control over their multimedia experiences. The mechanical features work hand-in-hand with custom sound systems and give headphone users a brand-new perspective over their purchases. The AE-5 Plus is tied nicely together with a highly intuitive software that makes the audio experience a fun one.