What is a manufacturer supposed to do when it wants to distinguish a new product from its existing portfolio without sacrificing the cachet of a well-established brand? Add an X to the name, of course. Sound Blaster consequently turns into Sound BlasterX, and you're made to think that its H5 may be a higher-end, more extreme gaming headset.
But what's really at the heart of Creative's naming games? On the surface, it's looking to sell a more expensive piece of hardware that does away with the perception of value pricing and average performance.
The H5's packaging reinforces this message. In addition to the headset itself, Creative's bundle includes a detachable microphone and an extension cable that splits the combined connector into two separate 3.5mm jacks. Those are then plugged in to your mic input and headphone output ports.
The headset has been on the market for some time now. Still, a $130 list price is temporarily marked down to $80 as of this writing.
Look & Feel
The patented ear piece and frame suspension is this headset's real highlight. As far as we know, only a few companies use this patent, which probably has something to do with the IP's owner. In return, lightweight and neutral headphones are converted into a true gaming headset.
An increased focus on quality is also evident in the material mix. Sturdy aluminum parts combine with more durable plastics to yield a better looking and feeling step up from lower-cost alternatives. We tried twisting and bending the headset with quite a bit of force, but couldn't deform it. Though the H5 wasn't built to last forever, you can at least be sure it won't fall apart on you in a few weeks or months (Creative guarantees the H5 for one year).
No matter how large your head is, once you get the H5 adjusted, it'll fit perfectly. Of the headsets we tested, this was one of the highest scorers in the comfort department. It's neither too tight nor too loose, even though it's an over-ear solution that seals off the auricle completely.
The ear pads made from faux leather are extremely soft, and the foam used inside molds to accommodate your anatomy. Unfortunately, we cannot estimate how long the polyurethane will hold its shape or resist cracking.
Slightly tilted drivers are meant to better support the human head. By adjusting the source of generated sound waves to line up better with your ear canal, Creative claims its "tilt driver implementation" optimizes that chamber between its driver and your ear. We couldn't tell if this actually helped reduce annoying resonance, though, since we couldn't perceive any to begin with.
The idea to adjust fitment via joints on the frame works well. In fact, this is similar to the implementation of various Beyerdynamic products. Similarities continue on the inside of the headband, and it's no coincidence that headsets like the Qpad QH-90 are in some ways indistinguishable.
A good fit is only one part of the comfort equation. The rest can be achieved by this headset's light weight. And it's worth mentioning Creative's very soft padding integrated into the frame. Because the H5 is so light, though, you don't find yourself relying on it to lessen the fatigue of long gaming sessions.
Creative unquestionably brings refreshing design and good workmanship together with its H5. This is less common in the ~$100 category than you might think, even if competing headsets occasionally score points for high quality and new ideas as well. The H5 simply one-ups them all, though.
Functionality & Interface
A control unit built into the cable houses the volume dial and microphone switch. It's located close enough to the headset for easy reach without taking you away from your game. And because Creative didn't implement a USB-based interface, instead opting for a conventional 3.5mm jack, it avoids any well-meant but ultimately detrimental effects on quality caused by sound engineering.
If you have one, it's worth connecting the headset to a good headphone amplifier. That will almost always yield better sound quality than on-board solutions, along with higher volume levels with less distortion. Level stability, in particular, is what makes many integrated audio controllers a limiting factor, while actual DACs have matured to the point of being quite useful.
The omnidirectional microphone has a large pop filter, and can be plugged in or removed at will. This allows you to quickly switch the H5 from a communications device to an ultra-light, comfortable set of headphones instantly.
The low cut at ~100 Hz performs admirably. Thus, you won't have to worry about the rumble of wind noises or jarring blow-out sounds. The pop filter takes care of everything else. Noise suppression works reasonably well, and without amplification, audible clipping only occurs at high peaks. Speech intelligibility is great, which is helped by a flexible gooseneck for optimal positioning.
Measurements & Sound-Check
To read about our test methodology in depth, please check out How We Test Gaming Headsets, particularly page 6 where we detail the measurements we take.
Creative hopes to compete with products like the Qpad QH-90 and HyperX Cloud II. The fact that both headsets are made by Guangdong Takstar Electronic Co. Ltd. and are, in fact, modified stereo headphones is no coincidence. Obviously, the manufacturer came to realize that good stereo headphones are capable of much more believable spatial sound reproduction than any attempt at 5.1-channel surround could hope to achieve, including those ridiculous attempts at sound engineering that have no true benefit beyond marketing.
A slight deterioration of the bass curve starting at 200 Hz is likely due to our test setup. Creative's ear pieces produce lower contact pressure as a result of the small artificial head we use (its circumference is only 56cm). This reading doesn't trouble us though, as our subjective impression was more satisfying. If you do like your sound a bit heavier and don't want to sacrifice the H5's light fit, raising the 64 Hz control brings back whatever bass you desire. This works so well because Creative's H5 offers some of the best level stability we've seen.
We only have good things to say about these results. The progression is completely linear, with only slight variations of +/- 3dB from 200 Hz to beyond 20 KHz, resulting in neutral sound. We also observe expertly differentiated reproduction of voices, instruments, and broadband gaming noises.
A comparison of the H5 to Beyerdynamic's Custom One Pro and DT 990 Pro places Creative's Sound BlasterX in the middle. The Custom One Pro's predominant bass affects its finish, as does the DT 990 Pro's highly intrusive trebles. Meanwhile, with an equalizer and optimized settings, the H5 plays smoothly down to the subcontra octave as it maintains soft, warm, and balanced sound reproduction. Its transient response is definitely acceptable for this price range.
Whereas the DT 990 Pro's high frequencies often need to dialed back on the equalizer, the H5 is much more neutral. Its acoustic impression is almost equally good across all frequency ranges, and the highly differentiated reproduction is certain to make even gamers take notice. Certain sounds will be experienced differently on the H5, and in some cases it might seem like you're hearing them for the first time. If you're used to common "gaming headsets" with exaggerated lows and highs, Creative's Sound BlasterX is going to be a breath of fresh air.
It is possible to enjoy both music and gaming equally through the H5s, and love both interpretations with a little help from the bass control. These more or less half-open headphones don't cut you off from the environment completely, but they do have a pleasant sound cover to mute the outside world. For many musical genres, and even gaming, we prefer the H5 to the Custom One Pro, since the H5 offers higher level stability.
What happens when an almost neutral headset with great level stability meets a discerning gamer whose ears haven't been ruined by the booming bass so prevalent in competing products? We think the gamer will happily buy that headset and enjoy it immensely. Listening pleasure really can be as simple as a good stereo headset with a detachable microphone.
Marketing departments are good at over-promising with flowery adjectives and features that do more harm than good. In the end, though, truth always reigns supreme. In this case, it does so in the form of pristine, neutral sound that relentlessly reveals details that weren't audible before.
Our final verdict is entirely positive, and an explicit purchase recommendation is the only logical conclusion. If you prefer a neutral sound and would rather manually adjust the resulting acoustics through an equalizer, try Creative's Sound BlasterX H5 out for yourself.
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