Gamers tend to favor headphones for their audio. The best of them, which I've reported on previously, offer superior spatialization and noise-cancelling properties. Whether Creative's new gaming sound bar, the SoundBlasterX Katana, will shift interest away from headphones remains to be seen. It's good enough that it might. For the time being at least, it appears to be in a league of its own.
She's a Looker
Creative's Katana is inspired by the Japanese sword. Does it look like its namesake? That's in the eye of the beholder. The company makes it clear that it was the craftsmanship that went into the sword that it hoped to emulate. In any case, the Katana is attractive with a name you'll like saying, especially if you're a teenage gamer. "What's that over there?" a friend is sure to ask. "That's my ... Katana," you'll say. It's impossible not to say it dramatically. The name also makes for good branding; Exhibit A being this product video.
The Katana sports a minimalist design. The top is brushed aluminum with five buttons in the center: power, up/down volume, source and SBX (an audio preset button). On either side are upfiring midrange speakers. All along the front is a speaker grill with a large, nicely legible digital readout in the center. It will display for 10 seconds before shutting off.
LED lighting is projected via 49 programmable lights on the underside of the Katana's chassis. It's the most effective use of LED lighting I've seen. In a dark room, the Katana looks like it's floating on a pool of light. There's an option to turn it off but I never wanted to do so. There are five lighting presets linked to the audio presets. But you can also customize lighting using Creative's SoundBlaster Connect software.
The Katana is designed to sit on your desk under your computer monitor. So it is smaller and slimmer than typical sound bars. It measures 2.4 inches X 23.6 inches X 3.1 inches. So at its longest, it's just under two feet. It's also light at 3.3 pounds. The only other gaming sound bar I'm aware of is Razer's Leviathan, which came out a few years ago. They are close in size but Razer's appears designed to sit in front of the monitor and not under it, so Creative's boast that it has created the "world's first true Under Monitor Audio System (UMAS)" may not be an idle one.
The Katana comes with a subwoofer. That measures 5.1 x 11.8 x 13.1 inches. It weighs 8.8 pounds. The subwoofer is meant to sit on the floor up against the side of your desk, specifically the left side, as that's the side the speaker is housed.
The flared port tube that exits the front of the subwoofer increases bass output and is a technology that can be seen on earlier Creative speakers like its GigaWorks desktop series. The exterior is made of MDF.
The Katana delivers a powerful, snappy sound with a surprising amount of detail. It boasts five speakers: Two upfiring 2.5-inch midbass drivers, two front-facing 1.3-inch tweeters, and a 5.25-inch subwoofer driver. A multi-core DSP (Digital Signal Processor) controls three separate amplifiers. One amplifier is dedicated to the mids, a second powers the treble and a third controls the bass. These amps deliver a total output of 75 RMS and 150 watts of peak power.
The DSP is a a certified Dolby Digital decoder which will convert sound from an optical source into digital 5.1 configurations up to high-resolution 24-bit/96kHz. It will also support Virtual 7.1 channel audio when connected via USB. Creative says this will deliver precise positioning for game play. I was skeptical that a sound bar could effectively match the spatialization from headphones. After testing, I ultimately decided that, while the Katana wasn't bad at positioning things approaching you from the front or sides, it couldn't compete with headphones when something was sneaking up on you from behind. I also found that distance mattered. While sitting at a desk with the Katana about a foot or two away, its positioning ability was far more effective than when I was sitting 15 feet away on a couch.
Although the Katana is not a TV sound bar, it gets pretty loud. Creative seems to excel at milking volume out of small devices, its iRoar portable speaker line a case in point. Milking actually isn't the right word because it implies that these devices are straining at higher volumes when actually they appear to blast away effortlessly. So I couldn't resist moving it over to the TV to see how it did. Typical TV sound bars produce twice the peak power as the Katana, around 300 watts let's say, but the Katana filled the room without a problem. Volume goes up to 50. I was comfortable listening to it at 6. At 30, I started to fear that the Katana was going to commit hara-kiri to my ears. The Katana can absolutely be used as a TV sound bar should you choose to do so.
The Katana includes five audio presets: Neutral, Night, Gaming, Cinema and Concert. Through Creative's software, you'll have access to an equalizer so you can create your own presets. There are also preset sound profiles for popular games, like Counterstrike: Go, Battlefield 1, DOTA 2, and others. Creative excels on the software side and its SoundBlaster Connect interface is well laid out and easy to use.
The Katana offers solid connectivity. The back features ports for an optical connection, an aux-in (so it will play audio from any device with a 3.5 mm output), a headphone jack, a microphone jack, a micro-USB for your computer and a full-size USB for flash drives (the Katana will play audio directly from a flash drive). It will also connect via Bluetooth so you can listen to audio played from your smartphone or your Mac/PC if you choose to connect your computer wirelessly.
Once you've paired, the Katana will recognize your device and connect automatically thereafter. However, it's worth reading the instructions for initial pairing however to understand you need to hold down the power button for three seconds to enter pairing mode.
What You Get
The Katana comes with a power adapter, USB Cable, one remote with battery, two wall mount brackets, and a quick-start guide. It also includes plugs for foreign outlets. An IR remote is also included. It's a credit-card variety operated by a coin battery. Though designed well in terms of its layout, the remote is small. And this will be a problem if used with a TV. People lose much larger remotes all the time. Creative likely wasn't thinking of this as an issue as its meant for a desk but people game on their TVs and may choose to put it in their living rooms. So here I wish Creative had designed something larger and more robust.
Creative's audio team has raised the bar for gaming soundbars. Razer may have been the first, but they've just been demoted to second place. The SoundBlasterX Katana is now the one to beat. It's really more than a gaming soundbar as it has the chops to work as your television audio source, especially in tight spaces, like a bedroom. With sound bars now a popular audio option, the Katana is one that deserves to be on your short list if you're on the hunt for one.