by Sergey Samarin
01/13/2006 | 03:45 PM
October 2005 was remembered due to a remarkable announcement made by Creative Labs on the 7th day of the month: they proudly launched the new SoundBlaster X-Fi sound card. In our current annual Reader’s Choice 2005 poll available here, this solution has so far been voted the best sound card of the past year 2005.
So our today’s review is going to tell you all about the new Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi card. Let’s get started.
First of all, let’s check out the functional peculiarities of the SoundBlaster X-Fi sound card according to the manufacturer:
I am not sure that all of you really need to go through the entire detailed specification list here. However, if you are still missing some data, then check out the official company web-site where the detailed specification is available.
The box with a pretty attractive eye-catching design contains the following items:
Sound cards from Creative Labs we are looking at today are based on the latest Creative X-Fi Fidelity audio processor, which contains about 51 million transistors inside a relatively small casing. X-Fi chip is manufactured with 130nm production process and works at 400MHz frequency. The computational power of this processor, i.e. its performance, is estimated as 10,000 MIPS (million instructions per second), which is actually about 24 times higher than the estimated performance of the predecessor – the Audigy processor. In fact, it is even more instructions per second than a contemporary Pentium 4 CPU can process. The interesting thing is that the processor’s computational power is optimized for the work mode selected in the software. There are three choices: Entertainment Mode, Game Mode or Audio Creation Mode.
This flexibility is already implicated in the newest architecture – the Active Modal Architecture (AMA). It implies the use of multiple mechanisms for dynamic optimization of the processor’s resources based on the so-called Ring Architecture.
Creative first mentioned the development of the new processor and Xtreme Fidelity standard on May 12, 2005, and the first public demonstration of the new solution took place at E3 show in Los Angeles. At that time a lot of experts who had the chance to listen to the sound quality provided by the new audio card were quite excited about it. And today, each one of you has the chance to upgrade the sound system of your PC so that you could hear everything we are talking about with your own ears. According to the manufacturer, the user will get better quality sound, acceleration in games and additional comfort during music playback and listening via headphones.
The remarkable peculiarity of the new sound cards is a new feature for additional sound quality improvement aka SoundBlaster X-Fi 24-bit Crystalizer CMSS-3D. It is claimed to be “enhancing MP3s and movies to sound better than they do on their original CD or DVD”. Of course, there is an entire special marketing force who are responsible for composing press releases like that, and they have the right to do it this way, no matter how exaggerated it may sound :)
What else is new...? The new sound cards bring into the world new math1ematical algorithms for sound processing. In particular they employed the new Headphone Expander CMSS-3D technology to improve the sound quality during playback and listening in the headsets offering more volumetric and intensive sound quality. Here I would like to quote Creative Labs’ marketing people by saying that “externalizes the audio by creating ten virtual speakers around you, above you and below you for an experience that's so real you'll forget you're wearing headphones.” On my part I can only add that if you really want to experience anything like that you should make sure that your headphones are of really high quality and maybe even revise your approach to quality audio formats.
Now let me introduce to you all four members of the SoundBlaster X-Fi family:
This is the top model in the family that includes high-quality Cirrus Logic digital-to-analog converters with about 116dB SNR and an external I/O unit. The card is equipped with 64MB of X-RAM used to unpack the compressed sound in games. Also this model features built-in pre-amplifiers for direct recording, and high-impedance inputs for electric guitars and other musical peripherals. SoundBlaster X-Fi Elite Pro supports all standard audio functions and boasts a remarkably rich software bundle.
This is the second best member in the new SoundBlaster X-Fi family. It owes its name to the well-known gamer, Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel. This is exactly the card that we managed to get our hands on this time, and all our ongoing tests will be carried out for it. Just like the previously described model it is equipped with 64MB of X-RAM, however it produces slightly smaller signal-to-noise ratio of 109dB Fatal1ty FPS supports the latest version of the EAX Environmental Audio – EAX Advanced HD 5.0 and uses X-Fi CMSS 3D technology to ensure highly realistic sounding in the headphones. The sound card is supplied with a commutation unit that can be installed into the 5” bay of your system case.
This sound card model is targeted for multimedia entertainment PC systems. The card is accompanied by the same commutation unit as the Fatal1ty FPS. The card is equipped with practically the same converters offering 109dB SNR. All in all it is very similar to the X-Fi Platinum, I should say.
As you may have guessed from the name of this sound card it is intended for music lovers, who will surely enjoy the advantages of the Creative MediaSource 3 software and X-Fi Extreme Fidelity 24-bit Crystalizer technology for MP3 conversion into 24-bit format. SoundBlaster X-Fi XtremeMusic sound card is the simplest model in this family, therefore it ships without the commutation unit. Most standard system configurations will most likely be equipped with this particular sound card.
Now that we have introduced to you all the members of this new sound card family, let’s take a closer look at one of the most vivid solutions: SoundBlaster X-Fi Fatal1ty FPS. This sound card has been designed for extreme gamers, which is clearly stated by the package design.
The distinguishing feature of the PCB this sound card is based on (besides the converters) is a large LED with the model logo. However, it will make a difference for you only if you have a system case with transparent panels or segments.
The card requires additional power supply: an indisputable attribute of contemporary high-end gaming systems. Another cable, a flat one, connects the sound card with the commutation unit.
The front panel of the commutation console has remained practically unchanged and looks just like the front panel of the identical unit shipped with the Audigy series. The only significant difference is that the MIDI-connectors have again become miniature (special adapters are included with the package).
The bracket that sits in the case rear panel features a Line-In/Mic port (you can turn it into a digital port in the software) and three connectors for the analogue acoustic system. So, there is one more connector left, as you may see. However, it is not for the gaming manipulator, as you may have thought at first glance, but for the connection to the SoundBlaster X-Fi I/O Console that is supplied with the X-Fi Elite pro kit. So, the PCB is actually quite unified.
The infra-red remote control unit you see on the photo above is included with all the three top models of the X-Fi family. If you ask for my personal opinion, it is a little bit big and inconvenient to work with.
X-Fi Fatal1ty FPS is bundled with only one CD-ROM disk with software. It contains a patch for Doom 3 game, so if you have the game installed on your system, then you will be able to really feel the difference with the new EAX 5.0 features. The interesting thing is that there are no bonus disks with any other games in the bundle, while the previous sound card, Audigy, used to ship with such true bestsellers as Hitman 2, Messiah, etc.
Quick access panel for Creative’s major tools
Once the drivers and Creative’s brand name software are installed, the user gets a lot of tools for work with audio files at his disposal. All major applications can be launched from the Creative MediaSource Panel which is located on the desktop. You can also select one from the list by launching the Volume Panel utility located in the system tray:
I found this way to be more convenient, especially since Volume Panel seems to contain a much bigger list of options.
As I have already pointed out above, Creative allows selecting one of the three work modes and the performance of the sound processor will be optimized accordingly.
In other words, if you would like to watch a DVD-movie, use a special work mode for that. You will get the following window:
The window is split into two sections. The volume and timbre controls are down below, while all the major settings are in the upper part. I would like to specifically point out a few of them:
Digital In/Out Activation
Here you can activate the digital In that is the first connector on the card bracket (FlexiJack). It works as an analogue In for the microphone or any other sound source by default.
In the Dolby and DTS sections the user can activate the decoding of the content of corresponding type.
Game Mode has been developed for better X-Fi optimization in computer games. The window is split into a few specialized pages for each of the features. The screenshots follow below:
The Game Mode seems to be the easiest for manual setting. Besides, it offers the user a number of unique features that are unavailable in the two other work modes. This is primarily true for subwoofer settings and surround effects. I would also like to add that if you have a sound system with standard mini-jack connectors, you will be able to really enjoy your subwoofer only in this mode (I had to enable Bass Redirection, and this function is only available in Game Mode).
Finally, the Audio Creation Mode is intended for work with special musical applications. Frankly speaking, I expected to see something more advanced. Especially since Creative has pretty rich experience in this field: remember the efficient PatchMix DSP Mixer console by Creative E-MU 1820 (that particular sound card was based on the Audigy sound processor, by the way).
Among the other software tools available for system setting, I would also like to point out the THX Setup, which comes as an individual application:
THX Setup console
This tool is almost identical to the Speaker Settings utility, however, it offers much finer tuning options for the acoustic system. There are three major sections here: Speaker Selection, Calibration and Bass Management. On the first page the user has to set the type of the acoustic system, define the central speaker (in relation to the screen), test the connected equipment, etc. On the second page, calibration, the user adjusts precisely the location of all acoustic system components by inputting the distance to them, the vertical location and angle in relation to the center (listener). On the third page you can set the cutoff frequency, subwoofer level, etc. The console has hardly changed and represents a very efficient tool for acoustic system setup.
I decided to split the performance tests of the new sound card in two parts. First we will find out how greatly the overall system performance drops when the system is running with the sound on and off. We resorted to the Comanche 4 Demo test and ran it with the screen resolution set to 1024x768. The results are given on the diagram below:
For a more illustrative comparison we carried out the same measurements on the identical system but with the integrated sound enabled. I don’t think the system configuration matters in this case, because all we need is the results difference – the delta indicating the performance drop.
The performance difference when we consider 3DMark03 results is much more noticeable, especially when we process 60 sound streams. We cannot run this test for the integrated sound subsystem (it is not supported) that is why we only provide the data for our sound card.
So far we can conclude that the use of an individual stand alone sound card for gaming needs is absolutely justified, because it allows to significantly improve the system performance in resource-hungry applications.
The second part of our today’s test session includes sound purity evaluation with the help of the SpectraLAB utility (version 4.32.17), which is none other but a FFT spectrum analyzer. This utility is shareware coming with a limited license for 30 days. You can download it from this site .
I explained the testing methodology in my previous articles, which you can find in our Multimedia section . During the tests I did my best to comply with Creative’s recommendations concerning sound card testing. The results below refer to the LineIn – LineOut1 circuit.
Here are the spectrograms for Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi Fatal1ty FPS:
Determining IMD at 44,100Hz/16bit
Determining IMD at 48,000Hz/16bit
For more information here is a side-by-side comparison against SoundBlaster Audigy 4 Pro:
In conclusion to this review I would like to sum up a few things. Well, we have just got acquainted with the true successor to the legendary sound card family from Creative. It is very nice that the company decided to continue working on the sound processing algorithms focusing on the realistic sounding for headphone listening. This is a pretty logical solution, especially since most users prefer headphones to the traditional acoustic systems. X-Fi will be a true gift for gaming fans, because all new games are expected to support EAX 5.0.
From the professional standpoint, I have a few comments to make. I wish the developers paid more attention to the software by providing more functional effects mixer and other special tools meeting the requirements of the sophisticated professionals. While the sound quality is extremely high, the proper development of the accompanying software seems like a logical step to make now, so that this quality could be really put to good use.
I would also like to say that they have quietly eliminated the FireWire support, and the corresponding port has mysteriously disappeared from the card. I don’t have any specific regrets about it, however, this feature surely didn’t affect the final cost of the product, so they might have as well left it on. I believe that many owners of previous generation sound cards from Creative will think twice before make up their mind about an upgrade.
Of course, I cannot miss out another “izer” that the new sound card has acquired: the 24-bit Crystalizer. It is a definite advantage, which can help make up for insufficient home acoustics and add some extra quality to the old audio tracks. Anyway, the new SoundBlaster X-Fi offers such a rich set of hardware and software means that there is plenty of choices for everyone out there.