Introduction

Ever since the SoundBlaster AWE 64, we have been waiting for a Creative Labs product that lives up to the SoundBlaster legend. The bar was set very high with the pre-PCI generation of SoundBlaster products and Creative became the de facto standard in PC sound. The Live! and Audigy product lines didn't bring about the same revolution in sound for which Creative was known. Rather than advancing by leaps and bounds, the industry has slowly and steadily been creeping forward over most of the last decade.

With the launch and availability of the new SoundBlaster X-Fi line of cards, we could again see a discrete step in performance and quality that puts this new technology head and shoulders above its predecessors. Aside from the usual incremental moves forward, X-Fi includes a new architecture for sound hardware (which Creative calls an Audio Ring Architecture), high quality sample rate conversion (SRC), a very powerful DSP, and the option of including 64MB of RAM on the sound card itself. Putting all this together gives us a card that offers the highest quality and performance in consumer audio with today's software, and the potential for even more quality and performance should developers choose to take advantage of the power offered.

The SoundBlaster X-Fi Elite Pro is the best non-pro sound solution for audio listening, features and recording. In addition, the potential for higher quality and performance for sound in games is unique to the upper class of the X-Fi line. The downside, and our biggest concern about the product, is price and value. Is the top of the line worth the $400 premium? We hope very much that this article on X-Fi technology and the SoundBlaster X-Fi Elite Pro will answer that question.

The X-Fi Audio Ring: Powerful and Flexible
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  • mindless1 - Wednesday, September 21, 2005 - link

    Unless you can provide the technical means used, I will tend to disbelieve this as the card itself is evidence to the contrary. You can't do in software what the hardware doesn't "really" support and have same result. To get 44.1 out without resampling, you have to START with a 44.1 clock rate, have that specific frequency generator. You can't do "math tricks" to derive a 44.1 rate, it's just an end-run to same end- resampled.

    Resampling IS clearly a negative. "clean signal" is foolish talk in the context of audio, because typical distortion figures are not enough to discriminate what the human ear can. Proof-positive is that people can, reproducibly, conduct blind abx tests and discriminate between two different sources that have insignificant "measurable" signal differences.

    Resampling is always considering one of the most significant factors, it destroys the music's detail to do it. If the rest of your gear is crap and you can't hear the difference, it matters less- but if you are buying this card I would HOPE it's not to be paired with low-end links in the rest of the system.

    When you "set a clock", you are causing it to resample. Doing without resampling requires multiple clock crystals, at least the base frequencies if upsampled further for better DAC resolution on an analog output. You don't "set" a clock rate in such a superior scheme, only selecting (which) clock input.
    Reply
  • Byzantine - Wednesday, September 28, 2005 - link

    In Audio Creation mode you can set "Bit-Matched Playback" which will disable the SRC and any EQ. The X-Fi has a flexible signal routing architecture so that you change the sampling rate. The Digit-Life review confirms that you can play back at 44.1kHz without SRC.

    I guess you haven't auditioned the X-Fi yet, otherwise you would not notice how improved the SRC is on the X-Fi compared to the previous generation. Even if you did not like the SRC, there is now the option to avoid the SRC altogether. Music listening is very subjective, so there's no way people will agree on the quality of the sound. If the X-Fi is not up to your standards, then don't get it. I'm personally more than satisfied with my Elite Pro.
    Reply
  • Sea Shadow - Wednesday, August 31, 2005 - link

    How do you know this, I have yet to see any data proving or disproving your rantings. Reply
  • yacoub - Wednesday, August 31, 2005 - link

    I'll consider it a return when they offer it for $100-200. This is nothing more than Creative moving to a price model similar to other computer hardware components such as videocards. The only thing returning is the bullsh*t. Reply
  • Araemo - Wednesday, August 31, 2005 - link

    Hello? Anyone out there? Creative, 2004 is calling, and it would like a PCI-express audio card.

    More seriously, I'd be hesitant to spend $100+ on a new sound card for my new system(about 5 months away) that may not work on my next system after that(About 2 years away). Sound cards are not a huge performance bottleneck w/ only two speakers. I don't NEED a new card, so I'll probably just use the Realtek 850 audio on my next motherboard.

    Why would Creative release their only innovative product from the past 5 years, without support for the most current interface? I'm sure they can add it down the line, but it doesn't make sense to me not to have it now.
    Reply
  • xeizo - Wednesday, August 31, 2005 - link

    There is no PCI-E soundcard out there yet, strange it may seem, but that must be because the industry had an easier time introducing PCI-E on motherboards than they expected, and so no need to push it further by rushing "killer hardware". Or mabe more right, the killer hardware was SLI.

    There are other much more interesting audiowork being done than X-Fi, like the team which are writing an audiodriver for Geforce-cards. There we can talk about a capable DSP, and with lots of "X-RAM" already in place.

    As been pointed out, the most annoying thing about X-Fi are the driver issues:
    no Linux-driver, or even support for external development of one
    no Windows Vista-support
    the general low quality of ALL Creative drivers, the slow updates or correction of bugs, the bloat, and not being able to download full drivers but must buy a CD.

    And what about usability ? If I build a new computer, do I really need more audio-performance than what I have ? Yes, if I'm a musician I need "as much" audio performance as I can get, but I don't usually get it from a soundcard(or audiointerface) but instead I get it from software or dedicated hardware. What I need is a fast, faster, fastest cpu and lots of matching RAM. No need to even bother to use any part of Creatives software bundle, as there already are endless amounts of much better dedicated music-creating software out there. All i need is a fast PC and a clean sounding audio-interface. Even an Audiophile 2496 for under a 100$ sounds clean enough for professional use and has as low latency as the 400$ X-Fi, and the drivers aren't buggy. It just works, clean and simple. If I wan't to make music I would be much more interested in Creatives E-MU cards, especially since X-Fi are so insanely highly priced. The cheaper cards in the X-Fi line will NOT do to take make music on because they use inferior AD-converters, which renders the good enough DACs on them useless for recording live instruments.

    For other use, ie games, gamers aren't audiophiles. They just want cool effects in their game, any Audigy-card will do for that. Analogue sound, that is, if you use SPDIF to good quality external hardware i guess there aren't many that can't do with an ALC850.

    And pure audiophiles who don't make any music, just listens to it ? Well, if the musician who made the music thinks an M-Audio-card is good enough to create the music on I see no reason why an Audiophile can't think that the same soundquality as in the studio is good enough for him.

    And movies ? SPDIF and ALC850 once again ... but i prefer my standalone DVD-player.

    In fact, noone NEEDS X-Fi, it's just bloatware and marketing. Most people annoyed with their soundquality need better speakers, not better soundcards. Or prove me wrong.
    Reply
  • Araemo - Wednesday, August 31, 2005 - link

    Some agreements and counter-points:

    In my current system, I have an audigy(First gen) "mp3". And the nForce 2 soundstorm w/ dolby digital(I think? NF7-S v.2.0, I don't use dolby if I do have it thoguh). I have no room for a 4.1, 5.1, 6.1, etc.. sound system, and it would just annoy my roommates and neighbors. So I wanted to find a good, high quality 2.1 system w/ optical audio in.. I couldn't find one from any computer speaker company. In retrospect, I should have looked at home theatre type stuff? But that probably woulda been at least twice the price(Good speakers + good amp?, vs. my logitech 2200s for about $70). My audigy, due to drivers, or whatever.. crackles after the system has been on a while, and multiple sounds are playing(Winamp + any game?). The Soundstorm has SHITTY sounding midi playback. I have both cards installed and configured.. midis play through the audigy's hardware midi playback, are 'recorded' on the audigy without leaving the card, and played back through speakers hooked up to the soundstorm. If I get an ALC850 sound card, I'll probably have to do the same thing to get decent midi playback. Plus, as scary as it sounds.. Creative's drivers are the BEST among all the consumer 'gaming' sound cards. And they SUCK ASS. I know from experience that the intel chipset built-in audio isn't always as stable as my audigy was.. (At least on my first gen centrino chipset). So, no, not everyone can put up with just an ALC850.. 99% of people can, but anyone who has a collection of MIDIs and likes decent sound banks.. has to buy creative, or get dedicated MIDI hardware.

    Doesn't PCI-E have a transport mode designed to give predictable latencies? I would think the ability to have multiple sound cards interacting with the controller 100% independantly, getting all 1Gbps(Per lane) of bandwidth, would be desirable for high quality multi-channel sounds. It IS refreshing to finally see another creative product that isn't based on the Emu10kX chips. And who knows, if ATI can make their drivers good enough that some people are saying they're better than nVidia(In certain areas), maybe even Creative can pull their drivers out of the gutter too.
    Reply
  • DerekWilson - Wednesday, August 31, 2005 - link

    quote:

    Most people annoyed with their soundquality need better speakers, not better soundcards.


    That needs to be said quite a few more times ...
    Reply
  • mindless1 - Thursday, September 1, 2005 - link

    True, the speakers are usually the weakest link but that doesn't begin to make the sound card any stronger. Unfortunately as any audiophile will tell you, the better the /rest/ of your gear is, the more you'll notice the weakest link. Can't tell for sure from the pics but it doen't even look like Creative is using decent output coupling caps, which is sad on a $400 card. Reply
  • ceefka - Thursday, September 1, 2005 - link

    Plus: would an audiophile be listening to his best CDs from a PC or a standalone high end CD player? I guess I could do without the background noise of a PC and I do not consider myself an audiophile. Reply

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