Creative Sound Blaster Axx SBX 10 and SBX 20 Review
Sound Blaster Axx Performance
In terms of performance, the only difference you’ll see between the Sound Blaster Axx SBX 10 and the Sound Blaster Axx SBX 20 is simply the amount of power each can output without the audio becoming distorted. Whereas the SBX 20 can easily fill larger rooms, living rooms, and kitchens with sound, the SBX 10 is more limited to smaller rooms or near field listening. That said, the testing below is equally applicable to both speakers, but do keep in mind that the SBX 20 is a considerably more powerful speaker.
Games and Movies
Kicking it off with some games and movies, I fired up some Battlefield 3 and some CS:GO, and overall I didn’t really come away feeling too impressed with the SBX 10 or the SBX 20. The sound output from these speakers are best described as something like a high end iPod dock. The single speaker doesn’t cut it when it comes to pinpointing enemy locations and the bass response was fairly weak on both the SBX 10 and the SBX 20. Where you’d normally experience nice deep booms in game, you’d actually get something more along the lines of a little thump instead. Personally, even after tweaking the settings around, I found it extremely difficult to really get immersed into the game and for those with a real desktop gaming PC, there are definitely much better alternatives out there.
After playing some games, I went on to test movie performance, and the experience was more or less the same. Loading up Captain America The First Avenger on Blu-Ray, I felt the Axx simply didn’t cut it here as well and was the limiting factor to the superb lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack included with Captain America. By no means was the audio bad – in fact, there’s no other USB powered speaker out there that comes close to the SBX 10 or the SBX 20, but when compared to a 2.0 or 2.1 powered speaker system such as the Audioengine 5+ or the Logitech Z-2300, watching movies on the Axx is just unsatisfying. The lows felt like they hit a certain point before it simply became a thump and the very high end faced quite a bit of distortion when the audio is cranked up. Although the SBX 20 with its more powerful speaker is capable of handling this much better than the SBX 10, ultimately both aren’t ideal solutions for movie watching if a full powered speaker system is available. Speaking of distortion, both the SBX 10 and the SBX 20 are only capable of about 75%-85% volume before you start getting distortion; however, it shouldn’t be a problem for near field or in-room listening.
After spending some time testing the Axx on my desktop, I came to the conclusion that the Axx probably wasn’t designed for the typical desktop PC gamer/PC enthusiast. I think the Axx is more oriented towards the casual PC user/casual PC gamer and those who spend a lot of time on mobile devices such as a smartphone or tablet. Because of this, I don’t think my usual headset/speaker test games apply here. What does apply here is stuff like Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies. I found games such as Infinity Blade 2 a prime example of how much more enjoyable these games can be after being hooked up to the Axx. Personally, I’ve never really heard that game out of anything better than the iPhone 4S’s internal speakers, and it’s a shame so many users (myself included) have experienced it only on the internal speakers of something like the iPhone 4S. With the Axx, the game sounds a whole lot more lively, real and three-dimensional, which is a far cry from the flat, lifeless, almost monotone sound coming off the iPhone 4S’s internal speakers.
Additionally, I also tested the Axx against the internal speakers off a 15″ Macbook Pro as well as the CyberPowerPC Xplorer X6-9120 and both laptops internal speakers were in a word, trash, when compared to the SBX 10 or the SBX 20. While the the Axx is quite underpowered versus a powered desktop speaker system, it’s still sounds significantly better in comparison to any laptop speaker I’ve ever heard. With the SBX 10 being so small and it only requiring a single USB connection for power, it could serve as an excellent travel companion, offering decent movie/game sound quality when away from a main PC.
So one of the biggest reasons to get a speaker is for music performance, and overall I found the performance here to be fairly good for what it is. Straight out of the box, the speaker sounds pretty flat and lifeless with a lacking low end, an overly bright high end, and a very narrow soundstage. However, Creative’s onboard SBX Pro Studio audio processing suite gives a ton of flexibility allowing many different adjustments to the audio. The soundstage can be widened, the bass level/crossover can be adjusted and the equalizer can be tuned. With a couple adjustments, the Axx is capable of sounding better than laptop speakers, USB powered speakers, and even most iPod docks out there. One thing that’s very important with the Axx is speaker placement. As it uses a stacked speaker design with one speaker on each side of the device, the speaker needs to be facing you or the sound will be off.
As usual with most Creative products, the sound processing on the Axx tends to favor both the highs and the lows, which is best suited for music slightly heavier on the lower end. Unfortunately, because the Axx does bottom out fairly quickly on the low end, it doesn’t work too well for the music it’s better suited for. What a bummer. I think one thing Creative can and should do here is drop in functionality for interfacing the Axx with their ZiiSound line of wireless speakers/subwoofer. I think this would make the Axx a whole lot more versatile. Safe to say then, the Axx is definitely not designed for any sort of monitoring or critical listening applications. Then again, I seriously doubt any company in their right mind would design a single speaker solution for an application like that, so those looking for a perfectly flat, perfectly accurate speaker need not apply here.
Productivity isn’t something I usually have a section on while testing speakers, but I think this is what makes the Axx such a special little device. With the Axx hooked up to my iPhone, the Axx made it easy to take phone calls hands free, which allowed me to freely move around the room or do other things while still having the ability to talk to someone else on the other line. For me, this meant I could be talking to someone on the other line while typing, taking product photos, or even benchmarking on my test bench. Previously, this required either putting the other party on speakerphone, which meant I couldn’t stray too far from the phone, or doing the shoulder hold method, which severely limits mobility. Of course, office work isn’t the only situation where I found the Axx quite useful. Moving the Axx into the bedroom allowed me to chat on the phone or listen to music while laying down on my bed, and having the Axx in the kitchen meant I was able to play music, listen to podcasts, or even take calls while preparing meals or washing dishes.
Microphone quality on the Axx is fairly decent. It does its job as a microphone designed to pick up sound, but it’s nowhere near the quality you’d get from entry level condenser microphones such as the Blue Snowball. However, voice pickup was clear in every test I conducted and features such as noise cancellation, acoustic echo cancellation as well as voice focus does a superb job getting a clear voice to the other party. One thing to note is that some of these voice processing technologies will make voices sound a bit artificial, but I guess it’s better than the other party hearing a lawnmower humming in the background.
One thing I was quite interested in with this product was exactly how much power was needed to drive the speakers. In order to do this, I hooked up both the SBX 10 and the SBX 20 to an Extech 380801 Power Analyzer.
Wow… Just wow. During typical usage, the SBX 10 only draws 1.4 watts and the SBX 20 only draws 2.2 watts. That’s about as much power as the phantom draw on a PC that’s turned off! Even at full load, the SBX 10 doesn’t break 2.3 watts and the SBX 20 doesn’t break 5.5 watts. Additionally, do keep in mind the load numbers here are peak figures throughout an entire song. During points in the song where less is going on, the power consumption dials down significantly on the SBX 20.
It’s quite strange that the SBX 20 is capable of drawing up to 5.5 watts on full power as USB 2.0 spec limits maximum power output at around 2.5 watts. (5v * 0.5A) Of course, power draw does vary during the song, so my best guess is that the combination of capacitors and the Audium chipset is what allows this to work.