I see so many Creative Labs / SoundBlaster h8ers on this thread, I considered it my duty to post some impartial observations from my recent experiences. First of all, I'm not going to make excuses for Creative Labs and their Recon 3D lineup. The card is obviously inferior to the X-Fi Titanium line, and I'm not even sure I'd put it above the SB Live/Audigy line. It was a rush job on their part to get the new Core3D DSP onto a board, and do it at a price point that wouldn't make your average gamer choke. Who is going to fork out $150-$200 for a sound card to go on their $99 motherboard? What they failed to realize is that somebody that does fork out the cash expects it to perform better than the onboard audio on that $99 mobo. LOL.
The X-Fi Titanium HD was a decent card. The SoundBlaster Z/ZX is Creative's attempt to put some proper engineering behind their investment in the Core3D DSP architecture. With much better ADC/DAC, capacitors, and jacks alone, the Z/ZX has a much higher SNR and improved fidelity at 24-bit/96 KHz, and provides better results upsampling from 44.1 KHz to 96 or 192 KHz. For what it's worth, you're sitll probably better off playing content back at it's native sample rate. Each to their own.
I recently bought a SoundBlaster Z because I was getting irritated with a ASUS Xonar DX. The Xonar DX was a great sounding card, don't get me wrong... But I had three major gripes with it. Gripe #1 is the 4 pin floppy power connection is assinine considering a PCIe x1 slot can power a 25 watt card. If ASUS hadn't been half assed and used a PCIe to PCI bridge on the card, they probably could have stayed under 25W and ditched the power connection. Gripe #2 with the Xonar DX is there's no automatic jack detection and routing for the headphone/front channel. If you're like me, and you switch between desktop speakers and a headset frequently (2-4x a day), going into the driver and changing the stereo output from Front to FP Headphone manually is a pain in the ass. Gripe #3 is somewhat minor, but I play some older games that can make good use of EAX 3.0, 4.0, and 5.0, and the Xonar DX only supports EAX 2.0 in software emulation. The SoundBlaster Z has full EAX 5.0 support.
So, i pulled the Xonar DX out, and bought a Soundblaster Z. I had read about the "differences" between the Z and ZX, and some cited the ZX has having Nichicon FIne Gold capacitors and the Z having generic caps on it. You can see through the box in the store if the Z you're holding has Nichicon Fine Gold caps in it -- mine does, and is the identical board to what's packed in the ZX box. The ZX has the external volume control, and I don't need or want it. I have FP headset connectors on my PC case, and I already have a volume knob on my Logitech 2.1 THX desktop speakers.
First impressions of the Soundblaster Z are that the noise floor and dynamic range are at least comparable to the Xonar DX. The most recent drivers on the Creative Labs site seem to work fine with Windows 8 x64, and I haven't had any technical issues yet. As for sound quality, I'm found for my personal taste, I ended up turning OFF the SBX Pro Studio BASS enhancement, and set the Surround and Crystalizer to 25-30%, way down from their default 60-65% settings. The out-of-the-box SBX Pro Studio settings are way too aggressive for me, possibly becaused my Logitech 2.1 THX desktop speakers, Sennheiser headphones, and Turtle Beach headsets have plenty of dynamic range already and don't need a "boost" to sound good. I might think otherwise if I were using some small driver headphones or ear buds.
The Creative Labs drivers are pretty simple. I'd like to see some better control over the sample rate conversion, etc. I could hear some difference on the Xonar DX between 44.1/48/96/192 KHz sample rates, and I usually left things at the 24-bit/96 KHz setting with head phones.
End observation is the SoundBlaster Z is a noticibly better sounding card than the Recon 3D, and on-par with the X-Fi Titanium HD. If you already have a X-Fi Titanium, I wouldn't bother "upgrading" to te Z, but if you're already using a Recon 3D or older Audigy/SB Live board, the Z/ZX would be worthwhile.