There’s a Mafia-style war raging around your PC. The MPEG-2 decoder card? Found face down in a Dumpster. The LAN card? Gunned down as he was leaving his social club. And no one’s seen the poor modem since he was “Hoffa’ed” in the 1990s.
Who’s responsible? All evidence points to the Host-based family, and none other than Don Processor himself, who has been consolidating power and resources on the motherboard for more than a decade now. After all, who the hell needs add-in cards when you can use the CPU to handle every PC chore.
Amid this upheaval, we didn’t expect the soundcard to stick around, but boy has it, in the form of Creative Labs audacious new Sound Blaster X-Fi series. Instead of knuckling under and going host-based like other soundcard makers, Creative spent money on a new DSP and architecture. With its 400MHz core speed, 51 million transistors and 10,000 MIPS, the X-Fi, according to Creative, has 24 times the power of an Audigy 2 ZS and equals the power of a 3.4GHz general purpose CPU.
Creative is building the X-Fi into three distinct PCBs, with four versions of the card available at retail: The basic X-Fi XtremeMusic features a multichannel 24-bit Cirrus Logic DAC, a Wolfson 24-bit ADC, and 2MB of “XRAM.” The X-Fi Platinum adds a bay adapter to the XtremeMusic. The Fatal1ty FPS uses the same DACs as the XtremeMusic but ups the XRAM to 64MB and gives you a status LED. All three can hit 109dB SNR, which is just a tick better than the 2 ZS’ 108dB. The Elite Pro can hit 116dB thanks to its higher-end AKM DAC. What’s XRAM for? It will act as a local audio buffer eventually, but right now, it doesn’t do much.
But enough about the hardware, what really matters is the sound. We tested a Fatal1ty FPS and the Xtreme Music version to see if Creative’s new cards live up to their SNR claims. When compared with Intel’s HD Audio, we can say there’s no contest. In music and movies, the X-Fi sounded head-and-shoulders above than HD Audio. HD Audio’s gaming performance was also inferior. In Battlefield 2, comm chatter sounded synthetic and the positional effect was piss-poor. With the X-Fi, a tank’s engine rumble was occluded when it moved around a corner to the other side of a building. We could even discern an audible difference when running with our “face” forward or pointed at the ground. That’s the strength of the X-Fi, which is the first card to combine technology from Aureal, Sensaura, and Creative. As you’d expect with that kind of pedigree, it sounds pretty fantastic.
Furthermore, we experienced actual game hitches in Battlefield 2 with HD Audio. With the X-Fi, there were none. Why? We suspect that 16 bots plus audio chores is too much for the CPU. With the X-Fi, you get better audio and playability.
So where does that leave Audigy 2 ZS owners? If you use speakers, the differences are probably too subtle to make the upgrade worthwhile. With headphones, however, an upgrade yields noticeably improved sound. Also in the X-Fi’s favor is the ability play up to 128 audio streams in such games as Battlefield 2 at the highest quality setting. That might sound like overkill, but on a 64-person server, the game will generate more than the 64 audio streams the 2 ZS is capable of.
Mind you, the X-Fi isn’t perfect. We’re disappointed we can’t tune headphone acoustics like we could on many Sensaura parts. On the base Xtreme Music card, you can’t even program the jacks to support the headphones and a set of speakers simultaneously. We definitely don’t think the extra RAM and pointless LED in the Fatal1ty FPS card are worth the extra cash.
Still, it’s hard to foresee anyone making a better all-purpose soundcard than the X-Fi series right now. Despite predictions of its death, it’s pretty clear to us that the soundcard is still alive and kicking. Bada Bing! —Gordon Mah Ung
Month Reviewed: November 2005
+ ROLLING STONES: Headphone gaming doesn't get any better than this. - GALL STONES: Painful pricing, and where's the FireWire?