This stunning soundcard makes a solid case for discrete audio
Audiophiles, hear this: The amazing Asus Xonar Essence STX finally faces a true competitor.
Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium is startling in several ways. A gaming and music enthusiast’s audio card, this X-Fi is ready for Windows 7 (and Vista) out of the box and comes armed with Creative Alchemy, which restores multichannel positional audio for legacy Windows XP and Vista games. Watch out, though: The sheer fidelity of the card’s output will really make you notice any shortcomings in the quality of your speakers’ or headset’s sound. Another thing you’ll notice: Its analog outputs don’t include an option for more than two speakers. Users of 5.1 or 7.1 systems without optical or digital audio inputs or a decoder will probably want to think about another soundcard because of this.
Trust us on this one—your ears will thank you.
Our test bed’s crispy-clear Logitech Z-5500 5.1 kit is, thankfully, equipped to handle what the X-Fi Titanium HD has to offer, as are our Phiaton headphones.
To test this beast, we stayed in the real world, employing careful listening tests and comparing the clarity and accuracy of the card to Asus’s triumphant Xonar Essence STX. We played a dozen games and listened to countless hours of music, including CDs, ripped MP3s of various bitrates, and a studio-quality, 24-bit, 96kHz DVD of the Flaming Lips’ recent album Embryonic.
The games proved the card is a true player’s paradise. Dead Space and its sequel, which you could easily argue have the best sound design in gaming history, both sounded atmospheric and creepy with an impressive-sounding range of effects across all sound spectrums, and the positional audio was perfectly accurate through both a two-cone headset and the Z-5500. Mass Effect 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops, BioShock 2, the underrated reboot of Medal of Honor, and Dead Rising 2 all sounded tip-top as well. Alchemy even made oldies-but-goodies like The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth 2 sound snappy and vibrant.
Musical tastes vary, as do file formats, bitrates, and studio mastering. It would be impossible to list all the bands and songs we tested, but we hit every genre from ambient to experimental noise. To say we were blown away doesn’t do justice to how impressed we were with the audio this card pumped out.
It’s important to note that low bitrate rips are quite obviously tinny, with sizzle in the cymbal crashes—a card of the X-Fi Titanium HD’s prowess really exposes the flaws in an audio file. Our 320Kb/s MP3 rips, however, sounded fantastic, and the Lips’ studio-quality double album was so full of life, we noticed details in the music we never detected listening to a CD of the same material.
The card installed quite easily. The control software is typical Creative stuff (if you’ve used past generations of X-Fi cards, the Creative Console will be familiar from the outset). The X-Fi Titanium HD’s operational amplifiers are force-fit rather than soldered in, which means they’re replaceable; the card encodes Dolby Digital and DTS for HTPC purposes; it supports ASIO 2.0 for outstanding recording quality.
The only thing it doesn’t support, which might be a stickler for gamers, is Windows XP and prior versions of Microsoft’s ubiquitous OS. The Titanium HD was designed from the ground up for the audio driver stack of Windows Vista and 7.
So, is it better than the Xonar Essence? Honestly, we couldn’t detect a difference. Both cards are of such high quality that a purchasing decision will probably be determined by pricing, brand loyalty, or simple personal preference.
At its street price, which hovers in the $160 to $170 range (far lower than its MSRP of $300), gamers might stick with the crummy onboard audio that comes with every motherboard—but real audiophiles will find the Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD a rewarding purchase.