I needed something a little better than my onboard sound, and my SoundBlaster Live! died last fall. A friend gave me this neat little unit, which retails for about $40. It’s about 2.5 by 4.5 inches, with a 1-inch thickness and very little weight. On it, Creative has packed quite a bit of ports.
There are two sets of gold-plated RCA plugs, one each for line in and line out. Gold plating doesn’t make any difference at all, but it looks cool and the device is reasonably priced, so I won’t complain about them. The unit also has optical input and output ports.
The opposite (front) edge contains three very useful components: a microphone jack, a headphone jack, and a volume knob for the headphones. This is great! Finally, I can have a useful headphone port – it cuts out the speakers when I plug in headphones – without buying the overpriced LiveDrive or its various clones for the Audigy cards.
The sound quality, as I expected, is excellent. Because it’s external, and only connects to the computer through USB, the analogue components sit far from the electromagnetic noise inside the case. This reduces background hissing, making everything sound better. It can also drive my big headphones to a pretty loud volume, an impressive feat considering its only power source is the small voltage from the USB cable. Unfortunately, it’s only two-channel (stereo), but I don’t need surround sound at the moment. Creative’s EAX Advanced HD reverb effects are supported, but I can’t tell any difference between this and the original EAX effects with the Live! card. It also supports real-time hiss and pop reduction, as well as time stretching, but these only work if you’re playing your music with Creative’s awful program. I refuse to install it, so I didn’t test these features.
The worst feature of the SoundBlaster MP3+ is its status light. On the top panel, there’s a little blue LED that stays solidly on when the unit is connected, but blinks when sound is playing. It’s very annoying to see a blinking LED constantly, especially in a dark room. This annoyance, fortunately, can be eliminated with some black tape.
I was afraid of Creative’s drivers, because the Live! drivers were painfully bloated and obnoxious. The MP3+ drivers were a pleasant surprise – while they offered the ability to be bloated and obnoxious, you could easily uncheck it in the menu.
The problem with this is that it’s a niche device. Most people are fine with their onboard sound, and high-end audio fans buy $100 surround sound cards like the M-Audio Revolution 7.1. It’s pitched at laptop users, and I can see a definite market there. For me, it’s great to have external analogue circuits and a working headphone jack right on my desk.