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.