Creative doesn’t seem to like a narrow approach to its audio products. Rather than focus on one feature or technology, the company mixes them together into a single recipe that somehow works well. This is true of its best portable speakers, like the excellent iRoar, and it also comes across much the same in an unusual product like the Sound BlasterX Katana.
Positioned as a gaming soundbar, the affordable BlasterX Katana ($300) comes with a subwoofer in the box like most soundbars, along with a variety of different ports and features that make it a versatile sound system. We got some hands-on time with the Katana recently to see how versatile it really is.
Looking at the form factor and some of the marketing language, PC gaming appears to be at the top of the list, but we were a tad skeptical. We can all appreciate a sound boost in the middle of a Battlefield 1 firefight, but why go with a soundbar when dual monitors do just fine?
Initially for the desktop gamer, new features and functionality expand its use cases well beyond gaming.
While the added subwoofer obviously adds more oomph to the equation, the question is more about space: Gaming PCs take up a lot of it, and stereo speakers offer more flexibility for placement. Sure, the sub can be nestled under a desk or put off to the side somewhere, but the bar itself needs to be laid out flat and strategically placed to get the most out of the sound it pumps out.
Creative does include wall mount brackets in the box to save space, which is great, but we figured those would be better suited to mounting it under a TV. At the very least, a gaming rig with a wall-mounted monitor would free up room to put the Katana soundbar underneath.
Multiple ways to play
Size issues aside, Creative makes a strong case for the Katana. The back of the soundbar has an array of connections, including one each for a microphone, headphones, Aux-In, optical audio, USB, and micro-USB. Bluetooth is also built-in for audio streaming from a smartphone.
The Katana was designed with a Windows system in mind, compatible with Windows 8.1 and above. It can work with Macs, but controls are limited to the included remote. There’s no software to control or customize it for the Mac, like setting profiles or choosing different LED patterns, among other things available for PCs. The Sound Blaster Connect app also wouldn’t come in handy in such a scenario because the Katana’s extra features are only accessible on Windows.
Power cables for Europe and the U.K. are included in the box, but the only other ones inside are USB specifically for the PC setup. Any of the other connections require buying those respective cables separately, which is a letdown — Creative should have at least included a digital optical cable inside.
We asked Creative about all this to get a sense of who the Katana is truly made for. Initially conceived for the desktop gamer using a widescreen or multi-screen setup, the company added features and functionality that expanded its use cases.
“It will work great with consoles. In fact, we added … Dolby decoding specifically for console use,” said Ryan Schlieper at Creative in an interview with Digital Trends. “It’s also why the feet are removable and why we have a wall mounting kit available as well. If someone wanted to, they could mount their Katana to the wall below their TV and have an all-in-one solution ideal for surround sound gaming with their consoles.”
He added that the Katana’s surround algorithms have a “very wide sound stage” despite its compact form factor, which should be an advantage over other soundbars that don’t have the Katana’s digital signal processing (DSP) chops.
“It’s going to be at home on a hardcore gamer’s desktop just as much as it would be with the person looking for a minimalist laptop space with awesome audio, or as it would be with the PS4 gamer in the living room. We’re looking to redefine how people see speakers in their setups by providing an incredibly powerful audio experience in a very small form factor,” he said.
“To a Windows PC the Katana appears as a 7.1 device,” Schlieper told us. “We then take the 7.1 streams and apply our award-winning surround algorithms to it to create a virtual 7.1 space, either through the Katana or a headset or headphone attached to it. The same will hold true for console games, where we will take the Dolby 5.1 stream and virtualize it.”
Schlieper wasn’t exaggerating. With the sub plugged in, we tried the Katana on the Gaming preset mode playing the aforementioned Battlefield 1 on a PlayStation 4. The sounds of the game roared to life in ways we didn’t expect. Distant shelling sounded almost haunting, nearby voices close enough to feel real, and firefights filled with explosive audio that pulsated into our small living room with verve. Even the game’s excellent musical score came through with the right dosage of dramatic crescendos. It’s not a true surround system, and yet it sounded a lot like one.
The sheer scope of the volume alone made the Katana a pleasant surprise. At only 30 percent, it was shaking things on the desk. At 50 percent, it felt like being in a theater with an explosion scene repeating itself, while voices sounded impressively lifelike.
As seems to be the MO for Creative these days, the company has packed as much as it can into a smaller frame. In fact, the Katana is as dynamic as many typical TV soundbars twice its size.
At 50 percent volume, it feels like being in a theater with an explosion scene repeating itself.
So how does it do it? The system’s foundational elements include a built-in SoundBlaster sound card and five drivers that are each powered by amplifiers with DSP (digital signal processing). The subwoofer adds the punch to bring out the bass and provide the rumbling effect noted earlier. Fairly small and easy to place, the subwoofer did its job well in our evaluation. Plugging in a pair of headphones also up-converts audio coming in at a lesser bitrate.
The Aurora Lighting System is the icing on the cake — visually speaking anyway. There are 49 programmable LEDs along the underline of the unit that can light up in different patterns based on which mode it’s on. For Gaming, a blue light rears back and forth, whereas for Cinema, a rainbow-like effect comes up. The lights are customizable, so you don’t have to stick to the defaults if you have something else in mind.
Jack of all trades
The Katana’s versatility allows it to be used in a variety of different ways. Its lighter weight and smaller frame, including with the subwoofer, made the Katana easier to move from one room to another when a situation called for it. The sound can fill up a party room, while the Night mode also proves valuable in keeping down the audible spikes and reverberations when the family is slumbering.
The USB port in the back also offers a wireless alternative for headphones that use USB transmitters. If wired is more your speed, the headphone jack is always there as an option too. The USB port also doubles as a music player. Pop in a flash drive up to 128GB and it can play back tunes stored on it. Unfortunately, playlists are only viewable through Sound Blaster Connect via Windows, so Mac, iOS and Android won’t work. Playback is also limited to MP3, WMA, and FLAC file formats.
The lack of HDMI might be vexing for some looking to have pass-through capabilities, especially if being used with a TV, but the optical audio cable suffices for gaming applications and beyond.
We also linked it to an Echo Dot to include Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant run through it, which is a significant improvement over Amazon’s own speakers. Telling it to play a song from a specific artist on Spotify or getting a weather update was extremely convenient, and sound roared through the speaker.
Creative’s marketing focuses on the gaming side, which we think is a missed opportunity. At $300 for the package, the Katana is a compelling system for anyone looking to improve their home audio. TV speakers have only gotten worse over the years, and the Katana is an improvement in spades over that, especially at the price. Whether it’s a PC gamer, a console fan, or anyone looking for more in the living room, bedroom or basement, Creative’s Katana cuts through them all in an impressive swipe.
- Booming sound clarity
- Works well for PC or game consoles
- Plenty of connection versatility
- Lightweight, smaller form factor
- Limited Mac compability
- No HDMI