Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeMusic review
Sound Blaster sound cards have always led the way for audio entertainment on the PC. Innovations such as EAX proved so popular – and well marketed – that they quickly became accepted standards, leaving rival sound card designers either to follow Creative’s lead, slash their prices or (more often) give up.
As such, there’s barely any mainstream competition for this latest Sound Blaster, save for the sound chips built into modern motherboards. These offer surround-sound outputs, and many use high-specification digital-to-analog converters to deliver impressive audio fidelity. So is there still any need for a dedicated sound card in a modern PC and, if so, is it good enough to justify spending nearly £100 on?
The X-Fi XtremeMusic has much in common with the Audigy series it replaces, but there are some surprising differences. Disappointingly, the software bundle has all but disappeared; there are no bundled games and still no DVD playback software included, although the driver can decode Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES soundtracks for 6.1 surround sound using any DVD playback software that can output audio as an S/PDIF stream.
The collection of sockets has diminished too, with the separate line, mic and coaxial S/PDIF inputs now combined onto a multipurpose socket. The FireWire port has also disappeared. Instead, there’s a proprietary connector that’s used to attach the X-Fi I/O Console – a breakout box with various extra connections and controls that comes with the X-Fi Elite Pro package (£235 inc VAT). As with previous Sound Blasters, a Platinum version (around £130 inc VAT) is also available with extra connections that sit in a 5.25in drive bay. There’s also a X-Fi Fatal1ty FPS (£155 inc VAT), which is the same as the Platinum version but with 64MB of RAM for storing audio samples for use in compatible games, as and when they appear.
The PCI card itself has a new processor that Creative claims is 24 times more powerful than the Audigy’s chip. This has a number of ramifications. Previous Sound Blaster cards were criticised for their reliance on sample rate conversion (SRC) to synchronise internal and external audio signals – a process that diminished the cards’ otherwise excellent audio fidelity by introducing quantisation errors. The X-Fi still uses SRC for the same purpose, but around 70 per cent of its processing power is dedicated to executing high-quality SRC algorithms. Creative claims that its SRC can convert 44.1kHz signals to 48kHz with total harmonic distortion of -135dB. In practice, this means SRC is completely transparent.
The Audigy 2 introduced DVD-Audio playback to the PC. The format offers 5.1 surround sound at 24-bit, 96kHz – a significant step up from CD’s stereo 44.1kHz, 16-bit audio (or Dolby Digital’s 20-bit, 48kHz audio with lossy compression). However, the DVD-Audio format hasn’t made much impact as yet – listeners seem content with CD and even compressed formats such as MP3. Therefore, this time around Creative has attempted to improve the playback quality of existing formats. CMSS 3D turns stereo sources into surround sound, either as a virtual surround effect over headphones or stereo speakers, or as a true upmix over surround speakers. The same techniques are employed to give the effect of surround gaming on headphones or stereo speakers. It isn’t a new idea, but the improved algorithms do give some impressive results. However, clarity is somewhat compromised by this processing, and purists will inevitably find the concept a touch distasteful.