After a number of postponements I had mentioned in my earlier review, the Auzen X-Fi Home Theater sound card finally made it to the market in September 2009. The manufacturer first posted the news that it could be preordered and then the upgrade program for owners of X-Fi Prelude 7.1 and X-Meridian 7.1 took off. When the long-anticipated product came out, I had some serious doubts about whether it needed a comprehensive review since it looked the same as the Auzen X-Fi Forte 7.1 with an added audio-over-HDMI capability. Well, I have to confess now that my suspicions were not well grounded.
So, what are the key benefits of the Auzen X-Fi Forte HomeTheater HD sound card which comes at a recommended price of $250 and who is it intended for? If you’ve got an Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 and have paid a lot of money for the joy of listening to your favorite music in highest quality, does it make sense to give it back for only $50 under the upgrade program conditions? I will try to give you the answer in this review but will put off the test of this sound card with high-definition formats (Dolby® TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio) until a future report. First, I will tell you a few words about the purpose the X-Fi Forte HomeTheater HD was designed to fulfill.
World Conspiracy and Protected Path
As digital video sources like DVD and SACD developed, the popular SCART interface was replaced with the more compact digital interface HDMI that had been originally designed to transfer video content with a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels and a refresh rate of 60 Hz along with eight-channel audio in 192 kHz/ 24 bits format. For many years the new High-Definition Multimedia Interface was penetrating the market, being implemented in more and more audio/video devices. In its new specification HDMI reached game consoles and PCs but it is only in the fall of 2009 that users got the opportunity to play Blu-ray discs on the PC without any quality loss.
When developing the Blu-ray disc specification, the members of the Blu-ray Disc Association focused on copy protection technologies and agreed to ensure maximum security throughout the entire data path, from the medium to the display device. Thus, the contents of a disc are encrypted with AACS and data are transferred using HDCP. If at least one device in the chain does not support HDCP, i.e. does not guarantee copy protection, the transfer is blocked or the quality of video and audio is forced down to the level of ordinary DVD.
However, when a Blu-ray disc is being reproduced not by a hardware player but by a PC, this protection system turns out to have a gap in the operating system and its applications. Prior to Windows Vista, there had been no guarantee for the protected content to pass through the computer without being intercepted. Thus, there had been no opportunity to reproduce Blu-ray in full quality despite the HDCP support implemented in monitors and graphics cards.
Microsoft solved the issue by introducing a protected audio/video path (PAVP) into its operating systems. It is an encrypted channel for transferring data into graphics and sound cards. If supported by software (device driver, disk player), the protected content is delivered safely to the hardware which decrypts the data stream and passes it on to HDCP. Being among the first to implement PAVP into its integrated graphics cores, Intel claims that that technology not only protects data but also lowers the CPU load by performing all HD video decoding on the graphics card. This is the visual aspect of that technology. What about audio?
At first, there were no PAVP-compatible sound devices for the PC. PAVP was not supported even by Intel chipsets which had long been able to transfer multichannel 192kHz audio over HDMI while many discrete graphics cards with HDMI output were limited to the capabilities of the outdated SPDIF.
Auzentech was ahead of other developers to announce, in the summer of 2008, the capability to reproduce high-definition audio formats on the PC, but spent a whole year polishing its product off. Over this period, ASUS, AMD, Realtek and VIA offered the same functionality in their products and Auzentech lost its leading position. However, a sound card is not only about playing Blu-ray discs, so other factors must be considered as well.