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Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic
Date: Oct 26, 2005
Author: Sean Pelletier

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.

Specifications of the X-Fi XtremeMusic
Up Close and Personal

24-Bit 7.1 PCI Audio Accelerator

Technical Specifications

Product Highlights

•Full duplex
•Maximum Recording Depth: 24 bit
•Maximum Recording Rate: 96 kHz
•Maximum Playback Depth: 24 bit
•Maximum Playback Rate: 192 kHz
•Amplified 2.0 V RMS output

Audio Quality (All Channels)

•Frequency Response: 10Hz to 24kHz,
<+/- 0.15dB
•Signal to Noise Ratio: 109 dB, A-weighted (Typical)
•Total Harmonic Distortion: 0.004% (Typical)

Quality Connectivity Features
(All 24-bit/96kHz resolution)

•FlexiJack (3-in-1 function, Digital I/O, Line In, and Mic) via 3.5mm mini jack
•Line level out (Front, Rear, Side, Center, Sub) via 3.5mm mini jacks
•Auxiliary in (via 4-pin Molex)
•AD-Link for X-FI I/O console (upgrade)

Minimum System Requirements

•One available PCI 2.1 slot
•Pentium III class 1GHz MHz or faster processor
•Intel, AMD or 100% compatible motherboard chipset
•256 MB system RAM
•CD-ROM/CD-RW/ or CD/DVD-ROM for driver installation
•DX9-compliant GPU w/ 32MB
•600MB free hard drive space

Operating Systems Supported

•Microsoft(R)Windows 2000
•Microsoft Windows XP

Standards Compatibility
•General MIDI compatible
•Plug & Play
•PCI 2.2 compliant
•EAX Advanced HD 5.0 game compatibility
•Microsoft DirectSound(R), DirectSound 3D and derivatives

DSP Algorithms
•X-Fi 24-bit Crystalizer™ enhances MP3s and movies
•X-Fi CMSS-3D allows you to upgrade your MP3 music and movies into surround sound
•SuperRip™ allows you to rip your CDs into Xtreme Fidelity quality
ADVANCED HD™ 5.0 delivers incredibly realistic gaming audio

Entertainment Mode
X-Fi 24-bit Crystalizer™ enhances MP3s and movies to sound better than they do on their original CD or DVD.
X-Fi CMSS-3D allows you to Upgrade your MP3 music and movies into surround sound with headphones or multichannel speakers.
SuperRip™ allows you to rip your CDs into Xtreme Fidelity quality.
Experience incredible audio with THX certified quality and unbeatable movie sound with DTS-ES™ and Dolby
(R) Digital EX decoding!

Gaming Mode
EAXADVANCED HD™ 5.0 delivers incredibly realistic gaming audio!
X-Fi CMSS-3D delivers an amazingly realistic surround sound experience with headphones.
Features like 128 voice support, EAX MacroFX, EAX PurePath and Environment FlexiFX set a new standard for EAX and realism available in gaming audio.

Audio Creation Mode
The Creative X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity audio processor features a near transparent SRC engine that converts to and from any resolution at 136dB THD+N, and also provides digital-matched recording capabilities in resolutions from 44.1kHz to 96kHz.
You'll also get support for ASIO recordings with latency as low as one millisecond, up to eight different hardware effects, 24-bit SoundFont
(R) sampling, and 3DMIDI for amazing flexibility and recording results.


The Card

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.

HotHardware's Test System
Not all are created equal...

Socket T - Pentium 4 (3.6GHz)

Biostar SFF system
I915G Chipset
Kingston HyperX PC-5400 DDR2 – 1GB(2x512MB)
Reference NVIDIA GeForce 6600 128MB

On-Board 10/100/1000 Ethernet
On-Board Intel High Definition Audio
Creative Labs Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic
NVIDIA ForceWare 81.85
Windows XP Pro SP2

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.

Rightmark Audio Analyzer 5.5
Audio Testing

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. 

General Summary:

This section covers a general summary of the entire testing process that we preformed on both of the soundcards. The in-depth coverage of specific tests, with available graphs, is located in further sections.

Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic - Summary

Test Setting


 Frequency Response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB: +0.41, -0.54 Good
 Noise Level, dB (A): -100.4 Excellent
 Dynamic Range, dB (A): 100.7 Excellent
 THD, %: 0.0019 Excellent
 IMD, %: 0.0075 Excellent
 Stereo Crosstalk, dB: -96.5 Excellent
 General Performance: Excellent


Integrated Intel High-Definition Audio - Summary

Test Setting


 Frequency Response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB: +0.19, -0.64 Good
 Noise Level, dB (A): -89.6 Good
 Dynamic Range, dB (A): 85.3 Good
 THD, %: 0.027 Good
 IMD, %: 0.273 Average
 Stereo Crosstalk, dB: -68.4 Good
 General Performance: Good

Comparing the results, we find the X-Fi XtremeMusic performing extremely well as it scores an "Excellent" mark for general performance. The card received top marks across the board with the exception of a single test. Scoring a "Good" for Stereo Crosstalk was a bit surprising though it is entirely likely that a higher quality patch cable would have benefited the test. Similarly surprising, the integrated audio solution earned a "good" mark for general performance. Granted, it was no match for the discrete audio card but it did fair well as a free addition versus the X-Fi hefty price tag.

Frequency Response:

Frequency response is defined as "a measure of the effectiveness of an instrument to transmit signals applied to it in terms of their incidence."  To simplify the definition, it is the ability of the soundcard to process signals without changing the relative loudness or adding distortion. Consequently, the smaller the difference between the lowest and highest value, the better the sound quality.


Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic - Frequency Range

Test Setting


From 20 Hz to 20 kHz, dB: -0.39, +0.03
From 40 Hz to 15 kHz, dB -0.10, +0.03

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.

Integrated Intel High Definition - Frequency Range

Test Setting


From 20 Hz to 20 kHz, dB: -2.38, +0.19
From 40 Hz to 15 kHz, dB -0.64, +0.19

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.

RMAA continued

Rightmark Audio Analyzer 5.5 Continued
The Numbers Continue...

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.


Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic - THD + Noise (-3dB FS)

Test Setting


  Left / Right
THD, % 0.0019, 0.0020
THD + Noise, % 0.0060, 0.0063
THD + Noise(A-weighted), % 0.0027, 0.0028


Integrated Intel High Definition - THD + Noise (-3dB FS)

Test Setting


  Left / Right
THD, % 0.0270, 0.1102
THD + Noise, % 2.0282, 2.9231
THD + Noise(A-weighted), % 0.0379, 0.1445

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.

Intermodulation Distortion:

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.


Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic - Intermodulation Distortion

Test Setting


IMD + Noise, % 0.0075, 0.0078
IMD + Noise (A-weighted), % 0.0031, 0.0032


Integrated Intel High Definition - Intermodulation Distortion

Test Setting


IMD + Noise, % 0.2733, 1.2742
IMD + Noise (A-weighted), % 0.0815, 0.3108

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.

Stereo Crosstalk:

Stereo Crosstalk is when "undesired signals or sounds, as of voices, in a telephone or other communications device as a result of coupling between transmission circuits."  In the case of the soundcard, it is when a signal that is meant for the left channel, ends up being partially outputted on the right (or vice versa).  Subsequently, this disrupts the stereo imaging and overall sound field.  Obviously in this case, the less crosstalk (lower the value) the better.


Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeMusic - Stereo Crosstalk

Test Setting


  L->R / R->L
Crosstalk at 100Hz, dB -92, -91
Crosstalk at 1kHz, dB -95, -95
Crosstalk at 10kHz, dB -83, -91


Integrated Intel High Definition - Stereo Crosstalk

Test Setting


  L->R / R->L
Crosstalk at 100Hz, dB -47, -38
Crosstalk at 1kHz, dB -67, -58
Crosstalk at 10kHz, dB -74, -62

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.

CPU Utilization

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.

Rightmark 3DSound 2.1
More Audio Analysis

Intel HD Audio                Creative X-Fi
8 Buffers

16 Buffers

24 Buffers

32 Buffers

60 Buffers

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.

CPU Utilization with Doom 3 - Single Player
Details: http://www.doom3.com/

Doom 3
id Software's games have long been pushing the limits of 3D graphics. Quake, Quake 2, and Quake 3 were all instrumental in the success of 3D accelerators on the PC. Now, many years later, with virtually every new desktop computer shipping with some sort of 3D accelerator, id is at it again with the visually stunning Doom 3. Like most of id's previous titles, Doom 3 is an OpenGL game that uses extremely high-detailed textures and a ton of dynamic lighting and shadows. We ran this batch of Doom 3 single player benchmarks using a standard timedemo with the game set to its "Low-Quality" mode, at resolutions of 800x600 without anti-aliasing enabled. "Surround" mode was enabled for all benchmarks with EAX enabled and then disabled when possible to determine any impact that feature had upon 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.

Subjective Listening

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.

_Incredible PC Audio
_Solid Bundle
_Good Performance
_Amazing Headphone Audio Quality
_MSRP Seemingly Too High
_Limited In-Game Performance Increase
_Slow EAX Adoption

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