Creative has certainly made a card that will do justice to any window- equipped gaming chassis. Its dark red, anodized EMI shield looks great, and there is a little window that lets you see the SoundCore chip. To further add to the bling value, Creative mounted two red LEDs that illuminate the card nicely.
Once you strip the card of its cover, very few components pop out. The layout is really simple despite it being a 5.1 enabled card that has both optical in and out.
The EMI shield makes accessing the front-panel audio headers a bit more tricky than usual, but you should be alright if you mount the cable before inserting the card.
The back panel layout is similar to other 5.1 cards, with five mini-jacks and two TOSLINK S/P-DIFF connectors. The spacing between the headphone out and the other jacks is sufficient, so you can use a pair of headphones that have a 1/4" jack with any normal adapter, and without the adapter blocking the next jack. This card's beefed up headphone amplification allows you to run fairly serious headphones straight out of the card to good results.
A good microphone is something that is very important to any gamer, since communication is key. Creative's solution is quite simple: you get a small beam-forming microphone with the sound card. It can be placed on your desk, screen, or any other flat surface, and it offers a much better sound quality than inexpensive clip-on or low-end desktop microphones.
Creative includes a new quad-core sound processor on its Sound Blaster Z series cards. The processor can basically handle all the signal processing you might want. True hardware acceleration only works with ALchemy supported titles, but it is highly overrated since any modern PC will easily handle the miniscule load generated through the audio of games. The red LEDs are nice if you have a gaming rig with a side-panel window, providing it fits your desired color scheme, but these LEDs can easily be swapped out if not. The capacitors used are pretty standard and so is the DAC and all associated chips. The main channel op-amp is a 4556A: a capable op-amp produced by JRC. It is also featured on previous designs by Creative, coming straight from the Sound Blaster Live! series of sound cards.
Creative is making a big fuss about its new Sound Core, both visually on the card and through marketing; now, there is real evidence to support its presence.