Creative Labs is a name that is surely synonymous with PC sound. In recent years, the 'Sound Blaster' range of cards has become the de facto
standard for add-in boards enabling high quality sound and entertainment on the PC. Creative have expanded their range of products, producing USB and PCMCIA sound devices for laptops, as well as a range of speakers.
The last major product Creative made in the add-in board space was the Audigy. This has been revised, two times since, but never revamped. This year has seen Creative go back to its roots and come up with an entirely new sound board, the X-Fi.
But, they've done it just as the general trend in the industry seems to be to integrate sound onto the motherboard. Intel are pushing the Azalia audio specification as the standard for audio in PC systems. Today, is there really any need for a discrete sound board? And what benefits, if any, can such a card offer? That's what we're here to find out today, as we put the X-Fi under the scope.
A Brief History
Creative started out with the Creative Music System, in 1987, which provided 12 voices of pretty basic sound by today's standards. This was re-marketed as the Game Blaster in 1988, and consequently went on to sell a load through a tie-in with Radio Shack. The Sound Blaster name first appeared in 1989 - the card had the same basic features as the Game Blaster, but with FM synthesis and full Adlib support. It was 8-bit and only mono, but a year later saw the stereo Sound Blaster Pro, which proved popular with system builders. 1992's 16-bit Sound Blaster 16 became the de facto standard for in-game sound - if you weren't Sound Blaster-compatible, you were nowhere.
While better than the beep-beep of the PC speaker, FM synthesis was pretty rubbish, and the Gravis Ultrasound
was grabbing market share amongst enthusiasts, high-end audiophiles and the hardcore Demo scene, all attracted by it's configurable on-board memory and sexy wavetable MIDI. Sadly, it ultimately failed because of hit & miss developer and limited Sound Blaster legacy support, though the 4-speaker support in the original DOOM was a highlight.
Creative hit back in 1994, launching the first piece of really desirable
Sound Blaster hardware: the AWE 32. Legacy support was retained with an on-board FM chip, but wavetable synthesis was the key feature, and supported up to 28MB of RAM through the clever addition of standard 30-pin SIMM slots; the Ultrasound was limited to 512KB.
1998 saw the introduction of the Soundblaster Live! This was amongst the first cards to have support for 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound, and its release co-incided with the explosion of DVDs and DVD-watching on the PC. It also added the first 5.25" breakout box, which was incredibly popular with case modders.
Finally, the Audigy line first appeared in 2001, with even greater fidelity than the Live! The Audigy was the first mainstream board to support optical out via the S/PDIF interface, and also added FireWire support to the card, which many used to hook their PCs up to a niche, geeky device known as the iPod. The Audigy 2 (with variants) and the Audigy 4 went on to offer better specifications over the original, with improved signal-to-noise ratio, DSP processing and the like.
And so we arrive at today, with Creative's all-new architecture - the X-Fi. The X-Fi comes in a number of versions, including the 'Extreme Music', 'Fatal1ty FPS', 'Elite Pro' and 'Platinum'. The version we have on test here is of most interest to the hardcore gaming clientele like you and I, the Sound Blaster X-Fi Fatal1ty FPS. What does it offer?
3 Mode Operation:
The X-Fi has three usage modes, Gaming, Entertainment and Music Creation. You can switch between these modes in software. Each mode opens up different control panel options, and different tweaks and settings suitable for whatever it is you want to do.
Tuned for gaming:
A ring-style architecture, similar to the memory controller design we've seen on the X1800 series of ATI cards, allows for low-latency processing of sound. Any feature of the X-Fi can grab data off the ring architecture and place it back on, with next to no latency.
Audio data obviously consumes system memory, and throwing it back and forth across the PCI bus can be slow. Because only so much system RAM can be used for audio, there is a limit to the number of streams of audio that can be processed simultaneously. X-Fi alleviates these bottlenecks by bringing back on-board RAM. The Fatal1ty version of the card has 64MB on-board. This can be used by the developer to process audio data on the card, without having to go to CPU or main memory. It also allows for more simultaneous streams of audio to be processed and played concurrently. The net result should be more FPS and better quality audio. Games have to be written to support it, but many games coming up will be - currently, both Battlefield 2
EAX Advanced HD 5.0:
The latest version of Creative's sound effects system includes support for MacroFX (heyhey!) which simulate things passing incredibly close to you, as well as other features like environmental occlusion environmental voice processing.
Better quality standard audio:
By doing clever things with sample rate conversion, the X-Fi gives better quality to your standard PC audio and music, too. The Crystalizer feature aims to put lost quality back into
More output options:
There's full 7.1, 5.1, THX support et al. However, perhaps the best new feature is CMSS-3D Headphone. This simulates 5.1 surround sound using just a pair of headphones, and the Creative implementation is surprisingly effective.
There's more detail about all these features over at the X-Fi homepage
Those features in full:
Main Hardware Features:
- 109dB SNR DAC Quality on all channels
- 64MB X-RAM (Xtreme Fidelity RAM)
- THX Certified Quality
- Extended I/O via Internal Drive-Bay Module
- IR Remote
I/O Drive Connectivity
- FlexiJack (Performing a 3-in-1 function, Digital In / Line In / Microphone) via 3.5mm mini-jack
- Line level out (Front / Rear / Center / Subwoofer) via 3 X 3.5mm mini jacks
- AUX_IN line-level analog input via 4-pin Molex connector
- 26 pin AD_Link connector for linking to the X-Fi I/O Console (upgrade option)
- 2 x RCA jacks for coaxial SPDIF input and output
- 2 X RCA jacks for Auxiliary input
- 2 X optical connectors for optical SPDIF input and output
- 2 X mini MIDI female connectors for MIDI input and output
- Headphone output via 6.35 mm (1/4-inch) stereo jack
- Headphone volume control knob
- Shared line-level analog Line/Microphone input via 6.35 mm (1/4-inch) stereo jack