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[OVERCLOCK LABS] Sound BlasterX Katana Soundbar Review

WilliamGayde
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Pros: Great acoustic performance, Powerful sound, Advanced software, Many connectivity options

Cons: Difficult to position, Price

A gaming sound bar. Now that's probably something you haven't heard before. Traditionally computer audio has been dominated by headphones and small desktop speakers. They work well but there hasn't been much room for innovation. In the past few years we have seen sound bars come onto the stage for home theater setups, but never aimed at the gamer. Creative Labs is aiming for success with their new Sound BlasterX Katana Gaming Sound bar. Let's see how it performs!

Overview
The Sound BlasterX Katana is a 2.1 Channel gaming oriented sound bar. It features 24-bit 96kHz audio playback, 75W of RMS power output, multiple connectivity options, and RGB lighting underneath. The packaging here really focuses on the Aurora Lighting in the background and around the back are some tech specs of the speaker system. The Katana has 5 drivers total: 2 high frequency, 2 mid frequency, and 1 low frequency (subwoofer). There are also three individual amplifiers as opposed to one single amplifier. It's hard to directly compare the effect this would have, but in theory it should provide extra isolation and clarity between frequencies.



Included in the rather large and bulky packaging we find the sound bar, the passive subwoofer, and a box of cables and accessories. You get a micro-USB cable, a power adapter with various different wall outlet standards, two additional mounting brackets, a remote, and some documentation. The user manual was well written and helped clarify some of the settings and inputs. The sound bar measures 2.4" x 23.6" x 3.1" and weighs in at 3.3lbs. The subwoofer measures 5.1" x 11.8" x 13.1" and weighs considerably more at 8.8lbs. For a 150W peak output system, the weight is to be expected.



We'll head over quickly to the subwoofer first. It is passive and plugs in to the main unit with a single RCA cable. The cable is plenty long enough and the unit is easy to hide in a corner. It has a matte black frame with a round fabric cover over the driver. There is also a shiny plastic airflow port at the top as well. It's not the tightest sounding bass I've ever heard, but it definitely gets the job done. Out of the box it was a bit lacking but with some minor EQ tweaks I had it sounding really nice in no time.



The included remote is a nice touch for operation without a computer. You can change the volume, input, and lighting scheme among other things with it. Overall if feels somewhat cheap and flimsy, but it works well for occasional use.



Now on to the main sound bar. I like the industrial design Creative has employed here. It has a brushed aluminum top with matte black speaker grills around the front. There are 5 buttons and a display in the middle as well. It's a darker aluminum so fingerprints don't appear to be an issue yet. On the outsides you'll notice that the speakers aren't facing the same direction. At low frequencies, the exact positioning of the speaker becomes less critical since the brain can't determine where the sound is coming from anyways. This is why subwoofers are typically placed on the floor or in corners; it creates a much more immersive and room filling sound. The outside two high frequency elements on the Katana are pointed directly at the user while the inner two mid-range drivers point up. This helps give the illusion of a much larger soundstage. It also allows the device to maintain a sleek footprint on your desk.



From the top we see the controls and the mid-range drivers very clearly. From left to right there is a power/Bluetooth button, volume down and up, a source select button, and an SBX button. SBX is Creative's audio processing technology - more on that later. From the bottom we see the two feet that raise the Katana about 0.5" above the surface and angle it more towards the user. Towards the center there are two vents for cooling the amplifiers and other internal circuitry. Around the edge we can see the 49 individual LEDs that provide ambient lighting under the speaker. They shine downwards but reflect off the desk to create a neat effect.



Connectivity and Lighting

In terms of connectivity, there are lots of options. Again from left to right we have the DC power input, subwoofer output, microphone in, headset output, auxiliary input, optical input, USB input, and a micro-USB connection back to the computer. I would have liked the power cable to have been a bit longer since it can be left dangling if you have a taller desk, but it's manageable. The microphone and headsets ports are for a secondary output. It's effectively just an audio pass-through back to your computer, but you get the advantage of the built-in signal processing from the Katana. This could be great for situations where you wanted to change between headphones and speakers but didn't want to mess with unplugging any cables. I'm not really sure why they included a full size USB port though. It has compatibility for MP3, FLAC, WMA, and WAV on drives up to 128GB, but who would realistically use that. If you have your phone connected or your computer connected, what's the point? I could have done without this.



It's 2016 and every product has to have RGB lighting, even speakers. The implementation is really good and the lights look great, but I'm just not quite sold on it. I think it's perfect for a party or mood lighting, but after an hour or so it got distracting so I turned it off. I just wouldn't use it normally. There are a few effect presets like a wave and color cycling, but I was expecting a bit more. I think an effect that went along with the audio output would be cool. Something like a level meter or other interactive setting. For gaming, a health or status bar integrated into the game would be neat and I would definitely use that.



Audio Quality and Usability

OK now the part you've been waiting for, how does it sound. I'll start by saying Creative Labs really knows their stuff when it comes to the Sound BlasterX line of audio products. I was pleasantly surprised with how good the Katana sounded. I was expecting a bland sound bar with a narrow soundstage; something that would be a chore to review. What I heard was really the opposite. The default neutral setting is a bit dull to listen to, but with the touch of the SBX button, the music really came alive. The soundstage seemed to be even wider than the speakers themselves. The 5.1 and 7.1 audio reproduction were remarkable too given the Katana's form factor. The rear channels were clearly distinct form the front. The Katana gets loud too, very loud. The volume indicator goes all the way up to 50 but I never went above 20, even when I plugged it into my home theater. The sound is room filling and enjoyable to listen to. I found the Concert setting to be best for everyday listening. There are Gaming and Movie settings which boost footsteps and dialog, but I found they distorted just about everything else so I left that alone. The Cinema mode was messy in the mid-range frequencies so I didn’t like that one either.

With a slight bump to the EQ in the highs and lows, the Katana sounded great. Music was fun to listen to and the additional signal processing made the audio more immersive. I would not recommend a sound bar, no matter how good, for most games though. There are presets included with the Katana for CS:GO, Battlefield, Call of Duty, Dota, and Overwatch, but I can't see them being practical. For these types of games, you need to be able to hear footsteps and know where the enemy is. A sound bar just can't give that level of clarity and pinpoint accuracy. It's great for movies and more cinematic games but I would still use headphones on any type of competitive game. The Katana also has connectivity via Bluetooth from any compatible phone, tablet, or laptop. The range was pretty good and you still get the audio processing to liven up the sound. This makes the Katana a great music streaming device.



I had a hard time positioning the Katana on my desk. It is pretty wide and unless you have a large gap between your monitors and keyboard, you will have this same issue trying to get it to fit. It's branded as an under-monitor device so I think some clips to mount it to the monitor would have been nice. Some taller feet could also work; you just need a way to get it up off your desk. There are also two wall mount brackets included but that wasn't an option for me.


The last thing to look at is the included computer software. The Katana comes with Sound Blaster Connect. You can set simple EQ curves, turn on the various signal processing elements in the BlasterX Acoustic Engine, program the Aurora Lighting, and adjust a few other small settings. The software feels well-polished and definitely adds great functionality to the speaker



To sum it all up, I really like the Katana but I’m just not sure where to place it or who would use it. At $300 there are many cheaper sound bars and gaming audio setups. The sound quality is really good but that can also be achieved with many other speaker solutions. The wide variety of input options make it great for an all-around gaming audio center, but there are also many other options that cost less. I guess if you’re looking for something with the Katana’s features, then go ahead and buy it because you’ll love it. If not, then there are still many other great options out there.

Here is a link to the forum post for discussion

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