When someone talks about ways to enhance your gaming experience, we typically focus on faster graphics cards and high resolution monitors. Over the years, this has typically been the only way to dramatically enhance the way games were played. However, with the launch of Doom3 roughly a year ago, the gaming world soon realized that there was much more than graphics in an ideal gaming experience. For the first time, developers focused a significant amount of attention towards the sound effects in the game. The end result was a title whose sounds were as dramatic and intense as its graphics. Gamers were hooked and were anxious to have this new level of realism in all their games.
Although the main reason many of us buy the latest and greatest hardware is to have a better overall gaming experience, we also have some other uses for our systems that help us justify the hardware costs. From music collections to DVD libraries, most PC's these days are a personal multimedia theater. A focus on better audio hardware can have a profound effect on how songs will sound and DVD's will be watched. Subtle tones in songs can now be heard and special effects in movies can be much more pronounced and enveloping. Provided you're using high quality speakers, an upgrade to a new sound card can do wonders for nearly every aspect of your daily PC use.
Creative Labs has always been a leader in consumer sound cards with their hugely successful Soundblaster products. From the original Soundblaster through the Audigy2 family, Creative has done a fair job of adding new features and functionality to each new product launch. In keeping with tradition, Creative Labs has done the same with the launch of the new Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic. However, with this launch they attempted to go one step further beyond new features and functionality and add higher performance to the mix. With up to 64MB of on-board memory (X-Ram) and a ton of gaming-specific features, Creative claims that this new family of sound cards can actually give gamers a higher average framerate than when using their traditional integrated audio solutions. With such a robust set of features and claims, we were more than a bit anxious to get one of these cards installed and witness its performance first-hand.
For this review, we were provided with a whitebox press sample which consisted of a press-specific driver disk and a bare sound card. Unfortunately, our review sample did not come complete with the full software suite which can be found in all retail cards. Here, the retail card will come with Creative's own "Entertainment Center" software package which is essentially a software layer to access all your local media. In addition, customers will also receive Creative's MediaSource 3 to rip, burn, and enhance your digital media files. Rounding out the retail package, we have a patch for Doom3 which will enable full support for Creative's EAX.
The card itself is much what you've come to expect for a soundcard with the usual array of digital logic on a rather sparse PCB. The X-Fi XtremeMusic still retains the usual PCI connection as there is ample bandwidth and little to no reason to make the transition to PCI-Express just yet. Although that transition will surely happen, Creative's new flagship X-Fi lineup will remain PCI-based for the foreseeable future.
Creative's new X-Fi processor is the result of four years of research and has cost nearly $100 million to produce. The end result is a chipset that is comprised of a surprisingly large 51.1 million transistors. Compared to Creative's Audigy chipset at 4.6 million, the new X-Fi has ten times the number of transistors.
This is the 2MB Samsung module that acts like L2 cache for the X-Fi processor. Higher end X-Fi models feature up to 64MB of X-Ram which differs from this Samsung module in that its larger capacity acts as L2 cache and as RAM for the X-Fi processor. Given the low cost of lower capacity flash, it would have been nice to have seen at least 16MB of X-Ram.
The backpanel of the X-Fi XtremeMusic is not terribly exciting. From left to right we have three analog outputs, a line-input, and a versatile adaptor output called FlexiJack. Painfully missing is a standard digital output leaving those poor customers having to purchase a 3.5mm TOS-Link adaptor separately.
|Software - Test Setup|
The Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic features a unique architecture that has user selectable modes to access particular features and functionality. Overall performance for a given application will be dictated through the selection of either Gaming, Entertainment, or Audio Creation Mode.
Entertainment Mode uses several key new features to enhance the overall experience. A new 24-bit Crystalizer performs a two-step quality enhancement on the audio. The system first upconverts the audio to 24-bit/96Hz quality and then remasters and selectively enhances the signal. X-Fi CMSS-3D is a new technology which remixes the audio into surround sound which is then suited to your speaker configuration. Lastly, the card's SuperRip technology allows users to rip audio CD's to Creative's "Xtreme Fidelity" levels for the optimum audio quality. Support for DVD-Audio playback as well as Dolby Digital ES and DTS-EX standards ensure the most robust entertainment experience possible on a PC.
Gaming Mode relies upon a totally redesigned game audio processing engine to supposedly provide up to a 15% increase in performance compared to other audio solutions, without sacrificing any features or functionality. Creative's new EAX HD 5.0 provides a vast array of features to certain games which enhances the overall gaming experience. Lastly, X-Fi CMSS-3D makes another appearance and again converts the audio into a surround sound audio signal. Overall, games are supposedly more intense and immersive.
Audio Creation Mode calls upon the X-Fi processor's SRC engine which can convert at any resolution at 136dB THD+N. The engine also supports digital matched recording capabilities from 44.1kHz to 96kHz. There is also a host of other features ranging from full ASIO recording support, support for 3D spatialization for Midi, to 24-bit SoundFont sampling. Although well beyond the scope of most conventional consumers, this mode will surely attract the attention of those looking to do their own audio recording from home.
Testing for these audio solutions was conducted according to the specifications provided by the benchmark vendor whenever possible. In the case of the RightMark Audio Analyzer benchmark, the audio settings for the X-Fi XtremeMusic were configured according to Creative's user guide for RMAA.
|Benchmarks - RMAA|
The RMAA suite is designed for testing quality of analog and digital paths of any audio devices, be it a sound card, an MP3 player, a consumer CD/DVD player or an acoustic set. The results are obtained by playing and recording test signals passed through the tested audio path by means of frequency analysis algorithms.
For these tests, we compared the Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic to our test system's onboard Intel High-Definition audio. Here, a high-quality loopback audio cable was used to connect the inputs and outputs so we could measure the effective quality of the audio signal each card produced.
Unfortunately, we were forced to limit testing to a maximum of 24bit / 96kHz instead of 24bit / 192kHz. Although the card can effectively output at these levels, the X-Fi XtremeMusic is unable to record signals beyond 24bit / 96kHz. This is because the Audigy 2 is unable to record signals beyond 24bit / 96kHz.
The X-Fi XtremeMusic has a fine showing in this test turning in some very respectable scores. The slight variances on the plots is likely due to the standard quality audio patch cable used for testing. This serves as a blatant case for spending extra money on high quality cables to obtain the highest possible performance from your sound card.
The Intel onboard audio performs fairly well here, though it clearly has trouble keeping pace with the X-Fi XtremeMusic. One step into testing and Creative's new chipset is already flexing its muscles.
THD + Noise (at -3 dB FS):
Total Harmonic Distortion is defined as "a signal, the ratio of (a) the sum of the powers of all harmonic frequencies above the fundamental frequency to (b) the power of the fundamental frequency." When a soundcard processes a signal, the output is an amplified version of the input signal plus any distortion that is created during the processes. Even though some signal processors may add very little distortion to the output, there is always some present. In the case of the numbers below, the closer the value is to zero, the less distortion and the more accurate the reproduced signal is.
As expected, the X-Fi XtremeMusic walks away relatively uncontested. Although the Intel solution did relatively well, the X-Fi trounced its scores by a sizeable margin. Overall, the X-Fi has less distortion and produces a much more accurate signal.
IMD is the "nonlinear distortion in a system or transducer, characterised by the appearance in the output of frequencies equal to the sums and differences of integral multiples of the two or more component frequencies present in the input waveform." Basically this means that when two signals at difference frequencies are produced simultaneously, additional signals at other frequencies and amplitudes are created. These new signals are found at the sum, and difference, of the two original frequencies.
So, if the original signals where 2 kHz and 8 kHz, IMD would create two additional signals at 10 kHz ( 2 + 8 = 10) and 6 kHz (8 – 2 = 6). Of course, it would be too simple of it ended there. Each of these new signals caused by IMD is able to cascade off of each other and create more IMD of their own. Obviously, this means many other frequencies will be created, thus causing a huge mess of distortion.
Just like the other tests, a lower value signifies less amounts of IMD, thus a better overall sound quality.
As was the case with THD, the Creative X-Fi XtremeMusic dominated this test. Here, the card again saw a profound advantage with a much cleaner signal as a result. Although lesser quality speakers might hide some of the inherent noise on the Intel solution, a high end pair of speakers will clearly illustrate the limitations the integrated solution has compared to the X-Fi XtremeMusic.
Somewhat curiously, we see the Intel solution emerging as the victor with far less Stereo Crosstalk. The standard audio patch cable likely didn't aid the card in this test. Do yourselves a favor and ensure you use high-quality cables to take this variable out of the picture altogether and ensure your audio quality is as high as possible. Surprisingly enough, no audible artifacts from this apparent crosstalk appeared during listening tests. This is yet another example of a time when numbers help, but a personal test is necessary to formulate a final decision.
Rightmark's 3DSound test measures CPU load depending on the DirectSound device mode. The program synthetically emulates the main cycle of a typical ingame sound engine while also performing standard DirectSound diagnostics checks for supported EAX versions.
Glancing at the plots above, we find that each audio solution is extremely efficient with a minimal impact on CPU usage regardless of how many buffers were used. However, in the end there is an undeniable advantage for the X-Fi XtremeMusic especially considering the fact that the Intel solution cannot support the 60 Buffer test. The scores for the Intel High Definition audio solution show that integrated solutions have come a long way. However, there is no denying that the power of the X-Fi chipset provides dominant performance.
Looking at the results, we see that there is no profound performance advantage for the X-Fi XtremeMusic compared to the Integrated Intel High Definition solution. Unfortunately, those gaming with the integrated Intel High Definition audio will have to live without the enhancements EAX brings to this game as it obviously does not support it. Looking at the results, we're pleasantly surprised to find that these enhancements come with a negligible performance hit. Given the audible enhancements, this is certainly a setting worth enabling. Perhaps the pricier versions equipped with 64MB of X-Ram might have more luck in providing a performance differential between the discrete and integrated solutions. Overall, it appears that each solution does an admirable job in minimizing CPU usage, though the X-Fi seems the more lucrative choice thanks to its EAX support.
For our listening tests for each sound card, we utilized a set of Logitech Z5500 5.1 speakers connected to the system via an analog connection. Using one of the highest performance PC speakers on the market, we were able to scrutinize each audio chipset with little fear that the speakers were to blame. The system was then run through a variety of different scenarios. We'll look at a few examples below which best illustrate the overall performance of each audio solution.
The best example of audio performance for these solutions would be the Gladiator Soundtrack CD. This CD contains a compilation of an extremely wide variety of music. From the soft and peaceful tracks to the intense and dramatic bass onslaughts of the battle tracks, the X-Fi XtremeMusic shined. Enabling the 24-bit Crystalizer managed to breath life into a handful of 128kbpm MP3's, with some interesting results with tracks recorded live at an event. Here, the tracks had more audio substance and their range appeared much more full. Unfortunately, some tracks like a few by G.Love appeared a bit too sharp with unwanted emphasis on the high tones in the song. With the Crystalizer disabled, nearly every song tested sounded incredible. The integrated audio solution did an admirable job considering, though it could not match the overall clarity witnessed when listening to the X-Fi solution.
Codename: SWORDFISH was a spectacular film to watch on the X-Fi XtremeMusic. The opening explosion of the bomb sequence was nothing short of breathtaking. Here, the sharp sounds of each ball bearing punching through cars, walls, and people did an excellent job of showcasing the accuracy of the X-Fi chipset. The positioning of the system was exceptional with strength exhibited throughout the audio range. Conversely, the highs on the integrated audio solution seemed a bit soft and lacked the overall crispness heard on the X-Fi. Regardless, I did find myself shocked on several occasions that I was listening to integrated audio. Although impressive, there is little doubt that impartial listeners would have no trouble selecting the X-Fi XtremeMusic as the best choice overall as it makes the integrated audio's performance seem "flat" in comparison.
What would a gaming test be without including Doom3 as a critical test? What was arguably the most audibly-intense games ever created is taken to even higher levels on the heels of the X-Fi XtremeMusic. Using the latest 1.3 patch, the full force of EAX4 is enabled. Quantifying the improvements is difficult, though it is best described as "heightened". It is easier to determine the position of enemies off around corners and such, and environmental interactions are much more apparent. Even when using headphones, the use of the CMSS-3D feature yielded incredible results. Though you'll never get rid of a dedicated 5.1 speaker system, a good set of headphones and CMSS-3D will put a smile on your face and make you a believer. Throughout testing, game audio just appeared extremely clean and clear. Gaming on the Intel audio solution was far from poor, though it lacked the realism and completeness of the X-Fi's audio.
Overall, it is hard to find fault with the performance of the X-Fi XtremeMusic. The card performed flawlessly and offered exceptional audio performance in nearly every situation we presented. Despite the stellar results, there are a few chinks in the armor of the X-Fi XtremeMusic.
The lack of a standard digital output on the backplate is a bitter annoyance, especially with most higher-end speakers offering this as the ideal connection method. Creative could minimize this fault by at least including the 3.5mm TOS-Link adaptor users need to connect their digital speakers to the card. In addition, the card's $110 plus price tag would be a bit easier to swallow if it included the same X-Ram as its pricier siblings. Perhaps even 16-32MB would help justify the cost and perhaps even add a performance increase in games as an added bonus when it becomes more widely used. Lastly, the true Achilles' heel of the X-Fi is the lack of games that can truly harness its power and showcase its potential. Though the list of EAX-enhanced games is growing, it is far from showing up in all your favorite new titles. Hopefully, developers will continue their recent interest in game audio and we'll see see the same attention as graphics sometime soon.
New technology such as the 24-bit Crystalizer is a relative success. Although it did produce some unwanted sharpness on some tracks, it did make a positive impression on most lower-quality audio tracks. Typically, people will have to experiment with it and let the results speak for themselves.
Paired with a set of high-quality speakers, the Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic offered an intense and realistic audio experience. Granted, the card's performance is not drastically different than its predecessors. Though a distinct improvement, it is more refinement than revolution. Those already gaming on an Audigy 2 or Audigy 4 might not be blown away by an upgrade to the X-Fi XtremeMusic, but they'll certainly appreciate the extra polish here and there.
Ironically enough, it seems as though the ideal customer for the X-Fi XtremeMusic is the hardcore or casual gamer that is using headphones. Here, the X-Fi has the most profound impact on the overall experience. CMSS-3D can have a dramatic effect on games and when combined with the crystal clarity the X-Fi XtremeMusic provides, it doesn't seem as though the audio could possibly get much better.
Overall, we'd have to commend Creative for the job they've done with the Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic. Ever the pioneer in this industry, they've continued the forward progress they've been making the last few years with their Audigy line of sound cards and have reached a new level of performance. If you have the money to spend, you'd be doing your ears and your gaming experience a favor by purchasing any soundcard based on the new X-Fi chipset. Just be sure to do the card justice and get a set of high quality speakers or headphones that can show what the card can truly do. With all this is mind, we give the Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic a Hot Hardware rating of 8.