There was a time when owning a standalone sound card was a mandatory part of a gaming PC. On-board sound was literally the bare minimum, the chimes you associated with Windows sounds. But in today's world of multiple gaming platforms, and a world where onboard sound has come leaps and bounds, the pitch for a sound card has become a lot more complicated.
Because most devices are USB powered these days, internal sound cards aren't necessary for basically ... any gamer, really. What will do the job for the extreme majority is an external digital audio converter (DAC), a device that basically functions as a gateway between your headphones/headset/speaker system and your computer or console.
That's one of the main advantages with the Sound BlasterX G6, which works just fine with the Switch, PS4 or Xbox One as it does plugged into the rear of your PC. If you're just connecting a gaming headset, there's the standard 3.5mm inputs on one side, but anyone with 5.1 or 7.1 systems can connect to the DAC through the optical port.
How you connect the G6 depends on what system you're plugging into. If it's PC, then it's a straight mini-USB to USB connection through any port you choose. If you're connecting a Xbox or PS4, it's the mini-USB plug, as well as the line/optical in port on the back.
The Switch is a little different depending on how you're playing. If you're in docked mode, you can connect the USB through one of the ports on the Switch dock. If you're playing undocked, then you'll need to connect the G6 to a USB power adapter — basically anything you've got lying around that would charge a modern phone will do — and the Switch connects to the G6 through its headphone jack and the line-in.
It makes the G6 the first external DAC Creative has that supports the Switch, which is nice, and the first with Dolby Digital decoding (if you're connecting a speaker system through the optical port).
Most people might be familiar with the Sound Blaster Connect software, with some manufacturers (MSI and Gigabyte) licensing Sound Blaster hardware for their onboard sound. If you've got one of those motherboards, then chances are you'll be pretty familiar with the basic dashboard, which lets you pick from a range of customised audio profiles for Counter-Strike, Battlefield, Music, Call of Duty, and other games.
The nicest part of the software, even if it just results in you buggering up the quality of the sound more often than not, is the software's ability to smart-draw the equaliser pattern of your choice:
If you're connecting through the G6, the software will also let you control the RGB effects on the soundcard itself. That's really only helpful if you've got a setup where the G6 is actually visible on your desk: the supplied micro-USB cable is pretty short, so I had the DAC sitting on my desktop tower, which rests on the floor because I'm still using a relatively shitty Bunnings desk and I can't afford for the whole thing to warp and collapse.
Compared to the onboard licensed Sound Blaster, the G6 had an added menu for Dolby Digital and the ability to adjust the digital audio filters, letting you pick between slow or fast roll offs. You can also adjust between scout mode, SBX and "Direct" through the app, although there's buttons on the G6 itself, as well as the choice of adjusting between low and high gain. (There's no gaming headset alive that needs the high gain option, but swapping between Scout Mode and SBX makes an appreciable difference depending on what you're playing.)
The G6 also has side tone control, if you're using the microphone port, directly and Creative's Xamp headphone amplifier which boosts the left and right audio channels separately, rather than applying uniform amplification across both channels at once.
But that's not the fun bit. Here's this menu:
Available only if you've got a device connected through the mic port — sorry, USB microphones — the menu basically gives you 27 separate profiles for messing with your voice. Think of it like a post-processing filter for your microphone. It doesn't just work on PC, either. Whatever settings you apply when plugged into a PC (or laptop) are saved on the G6 and automatically applied to whatever sound source you plug them into afterwards.
Voice changers on PC are pretty standard — something like Voicemod or voicechanger.io works well with any microphone input, instead of being restricted to the 3.5mm jack — but having that functionality on a console is a different story. It's a nice way to randomly fuck with your friends on Discord, but that's not really a reason to drop almost $230 on an external sound card.
I've got a few sets of headphones at home, with the Philips Fidelio X2HR as my preferred favourites. But I've also given the G6 a whirl with some budget gaming headsets I had lying around, as well as the recently-released Logitech X Pro with has its own USB DAC.
Given that my motherboard already had some of the Sound Blaster features, it was interesting to see what cans benefited the most. The difference with my X2HR's was the most minimal, although they're also a set of cans that benefits massively in gaming with some EQ tweaks (the X2HR's have a lot of bass for open-backed headphones, which is awesome for movies but can hurt the accuracy of footsteps and other audio cues in-game a little).
The cheaper headsets are where you'll get the most gain, particularly cans that are lacking in clarity and have a bit of a weaker soundstage. There's an argument to be made that you'd get an equal improvement from buying a better set of headphones around the $200 mark to begin with, but that's an easier decision if you're just playing on one platform and don't need to worry about compatibility across multiple consoles and PC.
The G6 fills that role nicely, but it is worth forking out just over $200 for? Like a lot of audio equipment, that's a difficult call to make. Console gamers are the ones that are likely to get the most benefit from the G6, and being able to take the unit and play with it on PC or across other consoles is nice. Those playing primarily on PC are more apt to look at better headphones, since gamers are unlikely to buy any headset or headphones that can't be driven adequately through the onboard sound on their motherboards. PC gaming also has plenty of software alternatives for adjusting EQ and virtual surround.
On console, that's not an option. So if you have a set of headphones you like, but you want to spend more time gaming on the couch and you'd prefer something less garbled than the sound out of the Switch's 3.5mm port, your Xbox or the Dualshock's headphone jack, the G6 will give you an appreciate bump in clarity, customisation and surround sound. If you're playing on PC, it's a definite upgrade for those with entry-level headsets, but you'll probably get a better return by investing in higher-grade quality headphones and some time spent customising EQ profiles to your liking.