Unofficial Review: Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed within are solely the author's and do not represent, actually or necessarily, the views of AnimeOnDVD.com, its staff, or any of its affiliates.
Here it is, the project that's been occupying my free time since AX dismissed for the year. Only a month tardy (only... [img]/images/graemlins/sweat000.gif[/img]), but it takes time to properly examine something with such vast capabilities. In line with the aims of the Hardware forum, this review focuses primarily on music and DVD playback sound quality, while also examining the total X-Fi package with an eye to its usefulness as a home theater device. Nearly every other review discusses gaming performance; I think I've been generous here in giving it a single paragraph. I will, however, certainly be happy to answer questions about any subject pertaining to the card, including gaming performance.
Comments and criticisms, as always, are greatly appreciated. They're the only way that I'll know if I'm getting better at this reviewing thing.
When Hi-Fi Just Isn't Enough...
Nobody loves computer audio. The record companies surely curse the day that wavetable sound reproduction knocked on the PC's door. Audiophiles skulk around internet forums, breathlessly pouring forth epic dissertations on the horrific mutilations inflicted on pure, innocent audio streams by computer-based electro-magnetic interference. Home theater junkies prefer to keep the steps between their media and their power amps to a minimum. Gamers, the one reliable bastion of PC audio devotees, are just as likely these days to stick with whatever sound solutions come integrated with their motherboards.
In this atmosphere, Creative's decision to spend 5 years and untold millions of dollars on the development of a radical new audio processor seems a bit... Quixotic. On the other hand, it could be that the company responsible for the original, epochal Sound Blaster has finally managed to rekindle the old flame again after a string of false starts (the Live! and Audigy series of cards). Is the new "X-Fi" really the "tremendous leap forward in audio performance and functionality" that Creative claims it to be, or is the one of the most recognized names in PC peripherals reduced to treading water once again? In this review, I'll separate the marketing from the reality and see if this wondercard lives up to the press release, and in the process, cover some aspects of sound card performance (namely, home theater and hi-fidelity music) often ignored by the mainline tech press.
Potential X-Fi buyers face a four-pronged assault on their finances. The poverty-line model, christened XtremeMusic ($129.99), includes a basic card and the standard X-Fi software bundle. Nothing too "Xtreme" there. Platinum ($199.99), once Creative's designation for their top-of-the-line models, now signifies an XtremeMusic with an internal breakout box and a wireless remote -- proving that even marketing campaigns aren't immune to inflation. Gamers are now expected to fork out for the Fatal1ty ($279.99) model, which upgrades the standard card with 64MB of memory and adds some LED's to the Platinum's breakout box. The extra cash, however, will not land you a bundle, which may end up being something of a blessing in disguise.
The top-dog X-Fi, which I'll be reviewing here, is the Elite Pro. For $120 over the cost of the Fatal1ty, or $399.99 MSRP, buyers get a rather unorthodox set of upgrades. Chief among these is a series of component transplants bestowed upon the Fatal1ty's already upgraded card, replacing all of its DACs with up-spec parts. The tired internal breakout box (dating back to the first-generation Audigy) hits the bench in favor of a massive external unit, new for the X-Fi line. Buyers even get the only formal bundle in the X-Fi family, a detuned trio of professional audio-creation programs. Creative also claims a slightly higher signal-to-noise ratio for the Elite Pro, up 7dB from the other models' 109dB ratings.
Setting aside for a moment the box, remote, and software suite, let's take a look at that fancy card. Those seeking a detailed overview of the X-Fi architecture are advised that ExtremeTech has published an excellent article on the subject, which nicely covers all the salient points. For my part, I'll stick to clarifying the benefits that the X-Fi chip purports to bring to HT enthusiasts.
Foremost among these is raw processing horsepower. Creative clocks the X-Fi (the name refers to both the product line and the core chipset used on the cards) at 10,430 million instrustions per second, courtesy of 51 million transistors. While that count is small shakes by contemporary microprocessor standards -- an AMD Athlon 64 X2 contains ~233.2 million transistors, while NVIDIA's GeForce 7950 GX2 sports 278 million -- it's colossal for a mere sound card. Much of this newfound muscle powers the usual complement of EAX effects and other zooty digital signal processing (DSP) parlor tricks, but Creative dedicates the unsung majority (70.9%) to sample rate conversion (SRC).
Among the audiophile circuit, SRC is something of a dirty phrase -- and with good reason. Every Sound Blaster since the Live! series has employed SRC for the simple reason that the card's DSP effects all run at 48KHz. Anything sampled at any other rate needs to undergo a two stage conversion process: once to 48KHz for audio processing, and again to match the user's specified output settings. CD audio, unfortunately, is sampled at 44.1KHz, which doesn't scale linearly to 48KHz and is thus very difficult to convert. Past efforts on Creative's part were quite ham-handed, with somewhat less-than-satisfying results. This prompted many PC-bound audiophiles to turn to other solutions, such as Turtle Beach's legendary Santa Cruz, M-Audio's Revolution, or (in my case) TerraTec's DMX 6fire series.
Those spurned souls will be justifiably unhappy to hear that Creative continues to resample everything going in and coming out of the X-Fi, but the company pinky-swears that its new architecture offers enough gusto to perform the process competently, with results that are at least palatable, if not perfectly transparent. How well that claim bears out remains to be seen.
Fortunately, the X-Fi still has plenty of power left over after SRC, and harnesses it toward ends that could be handy for HT enthusiasts. For one, the X-Fi can decode both Dolby Digital and DTS audio streams in hardware, taking a burden off the CPU. Given the capabilities of contemporary processors, this is admittedly a benefit on paper more than anything else, but it's always possible that there are a few pioneers out there using ffdshow for everything DVD-related, and pretty much anything would be better than liba52 or libdts.
A more tangible benefit of the X-Fi's DSP wizardry is CMSS-3D, Creative's series of proprietary spatialization algorithms. CMSS-3D can expand stereo sound over a discrete surround setup, simulate surround sound over a stereo speaker set up, or even model a head-related transfer function (HRTF) for surround-sound listening over headphones. All of this runs in hardware and can be applied to any signal, a substantial benefit for those who deal with multiple media formats and codecs.
One would imagine that it would be in the best interests of an audio company to get hi-fi down pat before moving on to more exotic regions of the alphabet, but the X-Fi's architecture hints that Creative may have jumped the gun. The current gold standards in computer audiophilia operate in a similar fashion to VIA's venerable Envy24 chip (used in, among other boards, the Revolution and 6fire): no DSP, no resampling. Frequencies can be set in hardware; audio coming in at 44.1 KHz stays at 44.1 KHz all the way through the output stage. Dedicating a full-blown programmable microprocessor to the handling of audio data is impressive on paper, but I've found it wise to be wary of companies who try to do with complicated means what others succeed admirably at with simple ones. Testing will show the truth of the fruits yielded by Creative's labors, but for now, let's see just what else purchasers can expect along with their shiny new cards.
Any illusions concerning where your precious dollars have gone are immediately dispelled upon beholding the Elite's monstrous packaging. In person, the box is simply breathtaking -- cartons of this size are usually reserved for things like printers, cases, or LCD monitors. I suppose when you're trying to sell the computing world a $400 sound card, subtlety isn't part of the plan.
Crack open this sarcophagus and you quickly discover that over two thirds of the space inside is reserved for one carton, which contains exactly one item: the Elite's external breakout box. Monolithic in stature, this thing is far larger than it has any right to be, considering the rather meager accoutrement of I/O options when compared to, say, the box supplied with TerraTec's DMX 6fire 24/96. All this corpulent excess seems to be justified by way of seven rotary controls (more on these in a minute) mounted on the front, which are all at least two sizes larger than they need to be. My 6fire's controls may be small, but they're still readily discernable by touch, and their smaller size frees up real estate for the sort of connectivity that one might reasonably expect of a breakout box.
That connectivity, on the X-Fi, includes the following: three 1/4" jacks (one headphone-out, one line-in, one combo line/mic-in) and an IR port on the front panel, while the back sports a DIN jack (for digital output to select Creative speaker packages), the AD_LINK port that mates the breakout box to the card proper, one pair of RCA input jacks, one pair of MIDI inputs/outputs, and two pairs of SPDIF inputs/outputs -- one optical, one coaxial. Overall, this is no greater an assortment of jacks than the TerraTec offers; in fact, the TerraTec even adds a pair of RCA outs, which Creative apparently couldn't find room for anywhere on the X-Fi's stunningly blank back panel.
Those seven rotary knobs, then, had better be useful enough to justify the box's dimensions. Largely, they aren't. Only three of the knobs -- potentiometers for the two 1/4" inputs and the main (digital) volume control -- actually control settings that one would want to adjust on a regular basis. The other four control various audio processing functions, which can also be adjusted through software or a quartet of cool little wheels on the included remote control. Triple redundancy is all well and good, but it shouldn't come at the expense of valuable desk space; the X-Fi's breakout box is larger than a first-generation PlayStation 2. Thankfully, the breakout box shares something in common with the PS2 other than size: a vertical stand.
But back to that remote for a minute. Included in the X-Fi Elite Pro package is Creative's RM-1800 remote control, and it's a fascinating piece of work. In addition to the four wheels previously mentioned (which control, in order, the 24-bit Crystalizer, CMSS-3D, EAX, and 3DMIDI -- see the "Music Performance" section to learn more), the remote also features volume controls, a DVD-style cross-key navigation pad, playback controls, a number pad, menu controls, and an enigmatic power button. Rather than powering on or off some hardware component, as one might expect, this button instead controls access to Creative's Entertainment Center software, which, oddly enough, can only be accessed through the remote -- Creative includes no entry for it on the Start menu, though enterprising souls can feel free to jerry-rig one.
Entertainment Center, in essence, does an entirely satisfactory job of replicating Microsoft's Media Center. The interface is similar, the functionality is similar, and it is similarly bug-free, as least insofar as I can tell. With DVD video decoding routed through FFDshow (at least on my system), playback is surprisingly robust, with the X-Fi's internal processing taking care of all Dolby or DTS decoding functions. Preventing me from recommending this software wholeheartedly, though, is a tragic design oversight that leaves Entertainment Center stuck at 800x600 resolution, full-screen. Considering the abilities of modern HDTVs and EDTVs (to say nothing of computer monitors), this lack of adjustment mars an otherwise excellent solution.
The rest of the X-Fi's bundle waxes and wanes, but generally proves worth the disk space. Creative Mediasource is an iTunes clone in the same way that Entertainment Center is a Media Center clone. Owners of Creative MP3 players may note that Mediacenter allows much more intuitive access to the player's contents than the previous Playcenter software did, and everyone else will find that Mediacenter works just fine as a one-stop playback/indexing utility. I doubt, however, that anyone will spontaneously flock from Apple's iTunes store to Soundbuzz, Creative's partner of choice.
Mediasource as a whole might be a perfectly decent piece of software, but its associated DVD-Audio player isn't. I had originally planned to include a DVD-Audio test in the music section, but scuttled that idea after preliminary testing (using Nine Inch Nails' With Teeth DVD-A) consistently blue-screened every time the player cycled from one track to the next.
Most of the rest consists of various sundry audio-creation programs (WaveStudio, Vienna Soundfont Studio, and so forth), all of which work well and represent a fair value. No complaints here.
With the X-Fi Elite Pro, Creative also throws in "lite" versions of Cubase, Wavelab, and Amplitube. If you're a musician and are looking for reviews and evaluations of these programs, look elsewhere, because I'm really not qualified for that sort of thing.
Creative's traditional game bundle is AWOL, which is probably just as well, since the offerings frequently amount to stale leftovers. You do, however, get a patch to upgrade Doom III with EAX support. The actual game must be procured elsewhere.
And lastly, Creative rounds out the package with their expected motley assortment of utilities. These run the gamut from the exceedingly useful (THX Setup Console, which offers an impressive range of speaker-adjustment options), to the woefully redundant (Mediasource Go!, a popup toolbar which provides access to shortcuts already placed in the start menu). Even the redundant utilities are at least benign, and can be disabled, which can't be said of the single most irritating part of the X-Fi's software bundle: the Mode Switcher.
New for the X-Fi is Creative's latest attempt at turning computer audio into a user-friendly enterprise. "Active Modal Architecture" splits the card into three separate hardware and software configurations, depending on what tasks the user intends to perform. Through changes to the Volume Panel and Audio Console applications, the various modes enable and disable features as you switch from one to the next. Entertainment Mode, designed for music listening and movie watching, activates EAX presets and works some black voodoo on CMSS-3D, switching it into a configuration different from the one offered in Game Mode, though Creative doesn't explain the difference. Game Mode also activates EAX for gaming applications, and offers a more comprehensive bass boost control than that available in Entertainment Mode. Most useful by far is the Audio Creation Mode, which switches the Volume Panel into something resembling a mixer. Through this mode, users can exert precise control over channel levels and balance, channel effects, and MIDI banks. ASIO is also available here; while the other modes allow playback through ASIO, only Audio Creation Mode allows the user to adjust ASIO channel levels and balance.
This is all well and good, except for the observation that there is no reason why the modal system needs to exist in the first place. Perhaps a certain segment of the market might appreciate the simplicity of splitting the audio adjustments into three separate groups, but for experienced users, the system is an unnecessary bottleneck. What's worse, modes frequently share redundant settings. Outside of EAX, CMSS-3D, and the bass boost function, for example, Game Mode and Entertainment Mode are almost completely identical. Yet, if the system is set to Entertainment Mode, the user cannot activate EAX in games. Likewise, in Game Mode, the user cannot set EAX presets when listening to music. And only Audio Creation Mode can control ASIO levels and activate bit-matched playback, which makes Entertainment Mode's music listening features rather superfluous.
Stranger still is that the system retains separate volume settings for each mode, so every time the user switches from one mode to the next, and the X-Fi hardware reinitializes itself, the volume levels shift to where they were the last time the user accessed that particular mode. When you want to change the system volume, you need to do it three times, or else be prepared for a surprise next time you change modes on the quick. Inexplicably, channel balance settings (except in Audio Creation Mode -- huh?) reset themselves every time the user switches modes. All of this foolishness could have been avoided by scrapping the mode system, pruning the Entertainment and Game modes from the Volume Panel, and transforming the Audio Console into a single unified dialog with all options accessable all the time. The Audigy series had no problem with this latter approach, so why the switch to a system that offers no benefit and a great deal of frustration?
ASIO support may as well have been left out of the X-Fi package, as it's really only present here in token form. Audio Creation Mode, while allowing the adjustment of ASIO channel levels, provides no options for setting latencies and buffer sizes, effecively neutering the protocol. The X-Fi also routes ASIO signals through the main processing chip, along with every other audio input source, further diluting its effectiveness. One of the primary benefits of ASIO is that it allows users to bypass internal system processing -- the X-Fi's handling of the ASIO protocol, then, negates this benefit entirely.
All of this software, along with the quick start guide (a full manual is available in software form only) and a CD-key card for the audio creation programs, can be found in the larger of the two remaining boxes that fill the X-Fi's container. The final box contains the card itself, safely stowed in an anti-static bag, and a case badge for those who really want one.
Installation and Setup
Getting that card to work was a pretty painless process, right up until it wasn't. Theoretically, the process is quite simple: install the card in your machine, connect the breakout box through its external dongle, and run the setup program on the included installation CD. Two glitches marred my particular experience, one major, one less so. Saving the best for last, the minor glitch lay in getting Mediasource to recognize my Nomad Jukebox 3 -- the process involved an eye-wateringly frustrating series of driver complications. This, however, is not a problem I expect most users will encounter.
Most users are significantly more likely to encounter my other problem. Calamity swept in under the door and nearly strangled this review in its crib, the result of an unfortunate hardware glitch that left progress effectively sidelined for a couple of weeks. Shortly after the commencement of testing, a pervasive and crippling stuttering problem quickly surfaced, primarily affecting DTS tracks played through the X-Fi's internal decoder. Knowing that the X-Fi is a very picky card with regards to settings and system resources, troubleshooting was necessarily an intensive and messy affair. Several reinstalls, driver swaps, PCI slot changes, and IRQ reassignments later, hardware DTS decoding still wouldn't work. Ultimately, the problem turned out to be an IDE bus issue between my two DVD drives, and now DTS works properly -- if not on the drive I had originally planned on using. So caveat emptor, dear reader, for problems with this card, when they spring up, are neither easy nor expedient to fix. Ballpark estimate on all this troubleshooting, figure 15 hours.
At least the X-Fi didn't even object to the presence of my TerraTec card, as previous Sound Blasters have. As of this writing, the two are still peacefully co-existing.
Setup is mercifully simple -- once everything works -- as Creative includes a handy speaker adjustment wizard. Let that do its thing, maybe read the online manual to learn how adjust the card's settings, and you're ready to rock. In our case, literally.
Music Performance and Audio Processing
Understanding the tonal signature of the X-Fi is critical to evaluating its utility as a home theater solution. To this end, this section focuses on two evaulations: the first, a formal (if non-scientific) comparison of music-playback performance between the X-Fi and TerraTec's late but loved DMX 6fire 24/96. An informal overview of the audio-processing functions comprises the second. Due to practical limitations, the comparison wasn't a properly empirical double-blind affair, but a set of rules ensured the highest degree of accuracy under the test conditions. Both cards ran in ASIO mode to bypass the Windows K-mixer, and the X-Fi was set to bit-matched playback, thus disabling all audio processing functions. The listening hardware consisted of a pair of Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro headphones connected to the 1/4" headphone out in each card's breakout box. With the headphones rated for 250 Ohms of resistance, this setup also allowed for the evaulation of each card's headphone amplification stage.
On the software end, all audio playback ran through foobar2000 version 0.9.2 with the ASIO output plugin. All songs were played directly off the original CD in a LaCie 300980 DVD±RW drive using digital audio extraction. No resampling of any sort was performed within the player software or its plug-ins.
Audioslave - Out of Exile (2005, Interscope)
Track 02 - "Out of Exile"
Bjorn Lynne - Beneath Another Sky (2006, Shockwave Sound)
Track 06 - "Aurora Polaris"
Fear Factory - Obsolete (1998, Roadrunner)
Track 02 - "Edgecrusher"
Frou Frou - Details (2002, Universal Island)
Track 04 - "Must Be Dreaming"
I've Sound - Regret (1999, Visual Art's)
Track 02 - "Last Regrets"
Metallica - Metallica (1991, Elektra)
Track 08 - "Nothing Else Matters"
Tool - Lateralus (2001, Tool Dissectional)
Track 09 - "Lateralus"
Chisa Yokohama and the Heaven & Earth Band - Live in L.A. (1997, Pioneer Entertainment USA)
Track 02 - "I'm a Pioneer"
In general, the X-Fi acquitted itself more competently than I had expected. The breakout box's headphone jack easily supplied enough juice to properly drive the thirsty Beyers. The noise floor was admirably low -- neither card produced any audible noise during my testing. Separation, and clarity were both on par with the 6fire, which is to say they were quite satisfactory. For all that, though, Creative's entry suffered from a constricted soundstage, hazy detail resolution, and sluggish transient response. But the major fault with the X-Fi's music performance lay in the card's tonal balance. The X-Fi's output seemed almost like there was an equalizer setting somewhere in the software that needed disabling. This sound was punchy at the extremes, emphasizing treble and mid-bass. While this produced a bombastic effect that could enhance certain tracks, the tonal balance overwhelmed the already bass- and treble-heavy Beyers. Mid-bass response, in particular, was muddy and boomy compared to the 6fire -- an effect especially noticeable on the meaty bass lines in "Out of Exile" and "Lateralus".
This loose, boomy mid-bass also accompanied an interesting phenomenon: a lack of mid-bass slam. These three traits combined to turn the normally taut and kinetic basslines of "Edgecrusher" into a morass of sonic sludge. The X-Fi lent this song a certain presence, but it was the presence of a boom box with the bass boost activated. On the 6fire, the song exploded with its proper energy, like a bowstring pulled tight, ready to snap.
Another casualty of muddy mid-bass was a drowning out of deep bass. "Last Regrets" is one of my favorite songs for testing this, as producer Kazuya Takase assembles a bass line that dives pretty deep into the lower registers -- the sort of bass that you sense more than feel. While the X-Fi matched the 6fire for perceived bass depth, the bottom of that sonic trench remained obscured by the cloudy upper regions of the bass line, where the kick drums reside.
Mid-range response, however, was quite satisfactory, if a bit thin compared to the 6fire. On "Nothing Else Matters", the latter card conveyed a degree of acoustic warmth that the X-Fi's rendition lacked. "Must Be Dreaming", another song with thickly-layered mids, fared considerably better, benefiting from the X-Fi's bombast. The slight lack of emphasis on Imogen Heap's vocals and the backing strings was adequately compensated for by the enhanced presence of the mid-bass registers, lending an entirely different character to this song.
A cold sound also means pronounced treble, and the X-Fi certainly delivered here. Problem is, the card tended to sizzle. This became especially apparent in the cymbals on "Out of Exile" and "Nothing Else Matters", which proved overly strident. "Aurora" and "I'm a Pioneer", both rather bright to begin with, shone blindingly, with "Aurora" nearly too forward for comfort. The 6fire proved better at balancing out the highs, avoiding the X-Fi's slight sibilance and retaining a hint more detail in the process.
Ultimately, however, the sonic differences between the X-Fi and 6fire prove more indicative of the old "cool tone versus warm tone" dichotomy. It's a matter of preference, really. Considering that the Beyers are already rather cold headphones, I personally prefer the TerraTec sound, but with a different set of cans, I might well prefer the X-Fi in this regard. The X-Fi's muddy bass is certainly concerning, but only really put a damper on electronic and hard rock songs with heavily-emphasized bass lines. Rap fans might enjoy the additional emphasis. Classical music lovers would probably prefer the TerraTec's ever-so-slight edge in perceived detail (though the X-Fi certainly didn't omit anything) and warmer, calmer tone.
As for the X-Fi's post-processing options, most have been struck from the gilded-lily mold. EAX continues to be the computing world's foremost real-time echo chamber simulator -- if that gets you going, you'll find little to complain about other than the fact that the X-Fi inexplicably provides fewer presets than the old Sound Blaster Live! cards did. The 24-bit Crystalizer (purported to improve the sound of heavily-compressed MP3s), while not a total gimmick, is clearly of limited utility. Creative claims the Crystalizer produces "a punchier and more dynamic listening experience", and this it does -- to excess. While the Crystalizer did flesh out some poorly compressed songs, in the process of doing so, it also boosted the bass and treble response to levels that were almost uncomfortable. On properly-compressed (or uncompressed) material, the Crystalizer's effect was simply overpowering, and ruined the experience. It certainly isn't a substiture for a properly-encoded file, and the X-Fi is punchy enough without assistance. I'm not a fan.
3DMIDI uses surround processing to map MIDI channels on a spatial plane around the listener. You probably already know whether or not this is something you would ever actually use. The X-Fi's 10-band equalizer works as advertised, though it isn't likely to convert those of us who abstain from rocking the EQ. SVM (Smart Volume Management) is a normailzer, as the name implies. If you really need one, well, it's there.
Volume Panel's Audio Creation mode unlocks a plethora of additional processing filters that can be applied to individual channels. You get Auto Wah, Chorus, Compressor, Digital Delay, Distortion, Flanger, Parametric EQ, Pitch Shifter, Reverb, and Vocal Morpher. Each setting has a stunning array of adjustment options, which I am wholly unqualified to assess. Aside from the novelty value, these filters will primarily prove useful to musicians and budding sound engineers.
Last up is CMSS-3D, which we've already discussed in detail. In the next section, we'll give Creative's new spatializer a workout and see if it can hold its own with the field's reigningkings, Dolby Virtual Speaker (DVS) and Dolby Headphone (DH).
This, the most crucial part of the review, requires a more expansive battery of tests than the last: four film selections, each chosen for their emphases on aural directionality, intensity, and clarity. Two audio decoders -- Cyberlink's PowerDVD software and the X-Fi's own hardware algorithms. Two sound cards, as with the music section. Two listening setups -- one pair of headphones, one set of speakers. Between the earlier troubleshooting and this testing, I may never want to watch Gladiator ever again.
Cyberlink's PowerDVD 7 player served as my test platform, handling DVS and DH decoding, as well as the SPDIF passthrough to the X-Fi's hardware decoders.
To ensure consistency in comparing virtualization algorithms, all were set to approximate surround fields of similar size. CMSS-3D operated at its default levels of spatialization (50% front/rear) for both headphones and speakers. DH was set to DH2 mode, DVS to Wide 1.
For the headphone section of this testing, the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pros from the music sessions returned for another run. According to the folks at Dolby, the DT770 Pros were one of two cans (the other being Sennheiser's HD600s) used to develop the Dolby Headphone algorithms, leaving no question as to the Beyers' bona-fides. A pair of Altec Lansing MX5021s volunteered their services for speaker testing. Yes, a pair -- unfortunately, I have no space for a proper 5.1 setup at my computer, and thus don't keep one on hand, and I was unable to procure a loaner for this testing. Thus, this will be a battle of the spatialization algorithms, a chance to determine whether all the X-Fi's vaunted processing firepower can noticeably improve the film-viewing experience. In any event, a 5.1 comparison between the X-Fi and the TerraTec would likely have panned out in a similar fashion to the audio review, with the victor determined by analysis of various minutiae in the sound signatures of each card. The difference between virtualization algorithms, on the other hand, is quite far from subtle.
Cowboy Bebop Best Sessions
Bandai Entertainment, 2002, DTS
Disc 1, Title 6, Chapter 3 - "Ballad of Fallen Angels - Part B"
Gladiator - Signature Selection
Dreamworks/Universal, 2000, DTS-ES
Chapter 15 - "The Battle of Carthage"
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2004, DTS
Chapter 2 - "The HMS Surprise"
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2005, Dolby Digital EX
Chapter 3 - "Battle Over Coruscant"
Dolby's software and the X-Fi's hardware decoding posted entirely different results, depending on which test setup was employed. Both fared equally well in headphone testing, differing primarily in their approaches to sound orientation. CMSS-3D produced a very precise surround effect, with individual channels easy to pin-point in space, while DH took a more cohesive approach, conjuring an enveloping ring of sound in which one channel merged seamlessly with the next. Judging from the manufacturers' descriptions of their respective audio technologies, DH supposedly places the listener in a virtual theater screening the film, while CMSS-3D situates the viewer within the scene itself. In my testing, however, the opposite proved true -- DH transported me into the scene, while CMSS-3D simulated the experience of listening to the action on a discrete speaker system. Personal preference on the part of the listener ultimately plays more of a role in a comparison of this sort than any one trait of either technology. For my part, I favored the X-Fi.
In the end, I walked away from the HRTF comparison feeling rather impressed. Both Dolby and Creative fielded excellent results, reconfirming my long-held belief that headphones, combined with a proper spatialization circuit, are an excellent substitute for speakers when one doesn't wish to disturb others. I was significantly less enamored with the speaker virtualization algorithms. While Dolby Virtual Speaker held, in my mind, a definate advantage over CMSS-3D, neither one produced what I would remotely consider a decent surround-sound experience. At best, I could find faint hints of directionality, but for the most part, the experience with either algorithm was more akin to expanded stereo. Both suffered badly when asked to handle sounds coming from rear center -- those felt more like wearing a pair of out-of-phase headphones than like listening to a proper rear center channel. DVS, however, served up sounds from left and right rears with great aplomb, while CMSS-3D portrayed those sounds as coming from side left and side right. My advice for anyone planning on listening over speakers: buy a discrete system. If you absolutely can't, then DVS is a tolerable substitute.
Spatialization performance may tell much about the absolute performance of a card, but many prospective buyers, particularly gamers, doubtless already own proper 5.1 (or beyond) discrete speaker setups. Relative performance, then, steps up as the primary criterion of interest, and so the X-Fi once again squares off against TerraTec's five-year-old champ. To keep things fair, I once again set equals for equals -- both cards ran the Dolby algorithms.
The X-Fi emerged as the more involving card in Gladiator, utilizing its pumped-up sound to full effect. In comparison, the 6fire seemed very composed, laid-back, and generally detatched from the action. The X-Fi's bass rocked and rolled, pounding out a rhythmic storm as the chariots circled around Maximus' scattered gladiators. While this left the TerraTec feeling bright, the X-Fi possessed the truly shrill highs, with sword clashes ringing just crisply enough to toe the comfort line.
A lack of aural dynamism also plagued the TerraTec's showing in Episode III's opening assault sequence. Creative's latest progeny blasted out a sweeping cacophony of low-end fireworks, to which the 6fire responded by lounged back, preferring to emphasize John Williams' score over the sound effects blitz. An academic approach to audio reproduction may work fine for music, where detail and balance reign supreme, but film demands dynamism. I never would have thought that a card could make one of George Lucas' rollicking rail-shooter sequences seem boring, but the proof is in the hearing.
Cowboy Bebop, at least, offered the TerraTec a chance to flaunt its chops. Episode 5's iconic "window" sequence sings out superbly in DTS, and even more so when paired with a source properly schooled in music handling. The X-Fi attempted to burst through Yoko Kanno's score in its swaggering frat-boy manner, but succeeded only in stumbling past the details and slurring its speech. Creative's more mature competition presented the music with appropriate delicacy, savoring the fine transitions between notes and placing each voice and instrument discretely across the soundstage. TerraTec's card brought out an etherealty in the soundtrack that eluded the X-Fi's capabilities.
Bombast lost again to precision in Master and Commander's quiet opening sequence. Here the X-Fi missed its cue entirely, delivering a half-hearted rendition of the scene without the nuance or craft of its German counterpart. That card conveyed subtle details, like creaking wood and restless snores, in a manner more captivating and true-to-life than anything the X-Fi could manage. Chalk up another round for the 6fire.
And so, we arrive at the conclusion of testing with a draw presented before us. Clearly, high-energy action scenes comprised the X-Fi's home turf. There, percussive lows and sharp highs emerged victorious over restrained dynamics and cautious presence. Quieter, more solemn scenes turned in opposing ballots, favoring the 6fire's more refined approach. Any preferential decision between the two cards, then, again depends strongly on personal taste. Action-movie buffs will likely gravitate to the X-Fi's hard-hitting sound, while those who prefer dramas and other quieter genres may well select one of the 6fire's like-minded contemporaries, such as M-Audio's Audiophile 2496 or TerraTec's Aureon 7.1.
Gaming and Thoughts
Gamers, on the other hand, will certainly find much to like here. I won't dwell overlong on gaming performance, as there are legions of reviewers better equipped to tackle this subject, but I did find time to test three titles that best illustrate the X-Fi's benefits to gamers. Monolith's F.E.A.R. showcases the stunning capabilities of EAX's latest iteration, and it's hard not to walk away impressed. Creative has greatly matured EAX since the Live! cards first hit the street, and it shows in F.E.A.R.'s intense aural realism. In the game, knocking over cans in a 4' x 4' closet with cinderblock walls, linoleum flooring, and a drop ceiling sounds eerily like knocking over real cans in a real 4' x 4' closet with real cinderblock walls, real linoleum flooring, and a real drop ceiling. It's spooky. EA Games' Battlefield 2 bills itself as the first title to use the X-Fi's 64MB of on-board memory, hough in my testing, the game was more notable for not producing the pops, clicks, and stutters that have plagued many other X-Fi owners. A recent patch for Unreal Tournament 2004 adds a number of curious dynamic sound features, including the ability to vary the music according to how fast you fire your weapon. I had originally pegged this as frivolty, but the new sound features do make the game a bit more exciting. The dynamic music does lack the character of the original tracks, though, and comes across as rather cliché.
But what of those who don't play games, or only play casually? The X-Fi's processing effects certainly are intriguing, but I'm not convinced that they sell the card in light of its other faults. Sound quality can't even hold par with that of a no-frills chip released five years ago. Massive, crippling bugs bring the show to a close in a hurry unless all the stars are aligned and the user's system is in total harmony with itself. Even a Zen master would lose patience trying to get this card operational. The included DVD-Audio player, at least in my testing, simply doesn't work. Promising though it may be, Entertainment Center fails as an HTPC interface by denying access to resolutions higher than 800x600. Users are forced to wrestle with a system of hardware modes that needlessly complicates setup. ASIO support is half-hearted and inadequate for serious audio work. Any card with a $400 MSRP should allow the user to at least set latency levels -- and the X-Fi doesn't, which really gets at the core of the problem here.
"Jack of all trades, master of none," so the saying goes, and putting the X-Fi though its paces shows that it fully embraces the old saw. There's a lot to like in this package; users certainly won't be wanting for further versatility with Creative's new baby. This is the Swiss Army's own sound card. Problem is, sometimes you just want a decent jack knife, something that does one thing and does it well. You won't get that with the X-Fi.
But you will have one snazzy breakout box.
Pros:[*] More options than a Porsche price sheet[*] Top-notch spatialization
Cons:[*] Price[*] Audiophiles still need not apply[*] Finicky appetite for system resources[*] The Breakout Box That Ate Minnesota
Oodles of "X", not enough "Fi".
Avatar: Ruri "Kuroneko" Gokou, from Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai.
I just imagined Najimi wearing a frilly dress and twirling in front of a mirror in excitement... it's horrifying...
-Tsuyuri, Doujin Work