Creative's latest sound card is actually pretty good.

Discussion in 'PC Hardware, Software and Displays' started by Guden Oden, Feb 22, 2006.

  1. Guden Oden

    Guden Oden Senior Member
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    I slotted in my Soundblaster X-Fi Fatality edition yesterday and have run some tests on it. Why I threw a ton of money on buying it when I had a perfectly functional SoundMAX AC97-compatible mobo-based sound solution? Well, I'm not really sure actually...

    Anyway! The card itself is relatively large with today's standards, especially if comparing to the boardspace consumed by built-in sound solutions, and absolutely packed with discrete components. The X-Fi DSP itself is covered by a passive heatsink, something I didn't really expect seeing as there hasn't been a sink visible in any of the PR images I've seen, but I have also wondered how a 50-million, 400MHz ASIC stays cool during operation. Guess I know now. ;) At least it doesn't require any additional power, the PCI slot delivers enough.

    The Fatality card has a bay-mounted breakout box with additional connectors. I skipped that because there aren't any free 5.25" bays in my PC. The metal box itself seems sturdy enough though, and the front is a nice glossy black that would match my case well I think, had I actually had room for it. Oh, and there's also a backlit lightningbolt "F" logo on the top edge of the card, undoubtedly so casemodders have some extra bling-bling to brag with through their side window. Unfortunately, Creative didn't consider BTX cases, so the logo is sitting upside-down in my PC. Oh, the HORROR!

    There aren't any color-coded connectors on this card by the way, instead one has to make do with a transparent label with a few difficult-to-see splotches indicating which connector does what. Barely. Then again, once the cables are inserted, there isn't any need to fiddle back there anyway. Three connectors are the standard speaker outputs, the fourth is a flexi-jack that is either coax SPDIF out or mic in. Last (but absolutely not least), there's a now obsolete 15-pin D-sub gameport stuck on there as well for some crazy reason that I can't figure out. The only use I'd consider it for today is as MIDI in/out, but there's no adapter for that included. Besides, I have neither a MIDI keyboard, nor any sound modules either so it's all the same really. ;)

    I slotted it in and installed the drivers. Was pleasantly surprised that at least the Fatality edition (and likely all of them) has a "maximum performance" lightweight install option where only the essentials are dumped onto the harddrive. Many have expressed concern over the driver bloat of Creative cards in the past, and it seems they have listened. I picked a couple other options as well as I wanted to try things out, but most of the programs and utilities are completely superflous for a gamer and can be ignored.

    Considering this, it would have been nice if there'd been an option to install other software components afterwards, sort of like Microsoft does with windows itself. I don't think this is an option, so it would neccessitate an uninstall of the entire driver first.

    Anyway, everything installed smoothly, and the soundcard actually took over operation even before the install process was completed while I was voice chatting with a buddy via GTalk! I then ran the web auto-updater also, and everything went really smoothly from there. I fiddled slightly with the options, raising treble using the equalizer and stuff like that and then tried some games.

    I was immediately pleasantly surprised by the much crisper sound in Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the venom, which through the SoundMAX software codec sounded bassy and nice, now had an upper-frequency aspect to it as well giving it an additional dimension. In WoW, I was surprised to hear that small environmental details were now much more audible, the X-Fi lifted them out of the background and let me experience them much more fully. I could hear the hooves of my goat clopping away across ground and stone, when I flirted (crudely) with an elf lassie my dorf no longer mumbled into his beard, I could actually hear what he was saying.

    Considering that the last (meh) Doom3 patch added hardware sound mixing support for the X-Fi, I also had to install that game as well. No problem! Only four bloody CDs to juggle... Now, it was such a long time since I ran that game now (half a year or more I guess), so I can't actually remember what it used to sound like, but it ran fine now. I only played through Mars City and stopped at the first airlock over to the comm facility, but there were no glitches or anything thus far, so I guess the hardware stuff is working. I dunno if the framerate really increased or not, but I guess at least it won't hurt having a big fat DSP taking care of that stuff!

    So, is the added sound quality really worth the rather spectacular price for the X-Fi Fatality board? Naaaahh... I don't think so. :) But hey, since when did THAT ever stop a geek? ;)

    Reasons to buy this card:
    * Lowest possible CPU consumption during gameplay
    * Newest EAX version supported (if that's of any concern to you)
    * Best MIDI playback of any PC consumer sound solution in existence; sound bank size limited only by RAM
    * Powerful, user-programmable DSP effects
    * Phat sound in games that's audibly better than what on-board solutions produce

    Reasons not to buy it:
    * Isn't really needed, as on-board sound is good enough for most purposes and situations.
    * Very expensive (though there is a cheaper X-Fi version available too, without the breakout box, on-board RAM and glowing LED light).
    * Can't think of any other reason right now. If you hate Creative, add "it's made by Creative" here, but really, it seems to be a really good product...
     
  2. Cartoon Corpse

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    don't current PCI sound cards also lessen CPU load? does on board sound use more CPU load? or is it like a wart on the board (functioning independantly)
     
  3. _xxx_

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    'Best MIDI playback'? Not so sure 'bout that, since they only emulate it via SW. There are some killer cards for MIDI out there, cheaper than the X-fi (for example the DMX6fire with a MIDI module, from the top of my head).

    Sure this is probably the best gaming card out there, but you sir are officially CRAZY! ;) I would maybe pay that much for a professional sound card, but never, ever for a gaming card.

    OT: also, _any_ modern sound card is way better than any onboard sound.
     
  4. Cartoon Corpse

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    i love my 5.1 audigy thing a ma jig. woiks fine.
     
  5. MasterBaiter

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    I think the X-Fi's are a decent replacement for the Audigy line, but I take exception with some of their higher end products. I just don't think their prices are justified.. I bought a Platinum X-Fi, and it's great. Still haven't seen anything really take advantage of onboard memory yet (BF2's usage is debatable), so I'm not feeling too bad about not having that. :)
     
  6. John Reynolds

    John Reynolds Ecce homo
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    Zipzoomfly is having $20 and $40 rebates from today until March 1st on the Music and Fatal1ty boards, respectively.
     
  7. Geo

    Geo Mostly Harmless
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    I have X-FI Music, and I've been happy with it. It, err, makes sounds. It makes sounds well. :lol: Replaced my SB Live! which I really wasn't unhappy with, it just, well, felt old.
     
  8. ANova

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    Anything with the fatality branding is way overpriced, though I think all the x-fi based cards are.
     
  9. Guden Oden

    Guden Oden Senior Member
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    Some may, some may not. It depends on how much is off-loaded (if any at all); the card might simply function as a playback device which reads sound buffers from RAM that the CPU has pre-mixed for it. Most cards can't do EAX/3D sound in hardware, or at least not very well.

    Yeah, typically it is entirely software-driven, including channel mixing, 3D positioning, reverb/EAX emulation etc. The one glaring break from this rule was the soundstorm solution in the first two generations of Nforce chipsets.

    It's not software emulated, it's a hardware MIDI synth with soundbanks that you can replace yourself, unlike with pretty much any other consumer soundcard. Right now, I have a bank loaded that weighs in at 57 MB and gives gorgeous sound. ;)

    And yes, I'm probably crazy for paying this much for a soundcard - though my original Live also cost an arm and a leg back in '98 (I think it was) when I bought that right when it was released. Sound cards can be moved from one box to the next, it's not as if it is the same as with videocards that become obsoleted practically as soon as you open the cardboard box it comes in...
     
  10. Joe DeFuria

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    God do I miss my Roland Sound Canvas ISA midi card....
     
  11. John Reynolds

    John Reynolds Ecce homo
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    I paid over $200 back in '96 for a Roland MIDI daughtercard.
     
  12. Diplo

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    For my latest rig I got an OEM Creative SoundBlaste Audigy 4 for only £37 (about $64). Sounds great and has EAX 4 and 7.1 sound blah blah and is cheap as you don't get any of the fancy break-out boxes or remote controls. Also comes with ASIO 2 drivers which is a big plus for me.
     
  13. Guden Oden

    Guden Oden Senior Member
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    That doesn't sound bad at all Diplo (bad pun not intended ;)), but I already had an Audigy2 ZS lying about and the A4 was an incredibly minor upgrade from that. I wanted something more substantial, and the X-Fi is just that. I'm also glad to be back with Creative so to speak and the great MIDI support they have; the on-board SoundMAX uses MS's software MIDI synth which uses an incredibly lame bank of instruments, it sounds much worse than even the SB waveblaster daughterboard from the early 90s.

    I actually sort of miss that sound by the way; Blood's music has never sounded better for me than when played using waveblaster emulation. They really did a number with the music (AND the general mood) of that game. Too bad they screwed up the sequel to such a degree. :(
     
  14. horvendile

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    I did much the same thing in '97 for a Yamaha XG60 midi card (if I remember the name correctly), since I used to listen to midi while fiddling around in Windows.
    About five minutes after the purchase, mp3 became popular.
    Doh.
     
  15. Guden Oden

    Guden Oden Senior Member
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    MP3 was a huge drain on the CPU back then though... It was like 15-20% of a P166 or something like that, it made a very noticeable dent on the responsiveness of the system. MIDI has always been like a fire and forget kind of deal, it almost doesn't even register on CPU consumption, at least when you have a hardware synth in the system.
     
  16. Blazkowicz

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    yes, I experienced the "hearing new sounds here and there" going from VIA AC'97 to my current SB Live! 5.1 digital, and that's only because of the raw physical output quality (I don't use the "5.1" nor the "digital" features :), and I don't care, long live analog stereo.)
     
  17. KimB

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    While we're on the subject of reminiscing....I still miss my Aureal Vortex 2 :(

    That sound card was just awesome for 3D positional sound. And though I only ever played one game that made good use of A3D (UT), that one game really showed how amazing the feature could be. Really too bad they went under :(
     
  18. _xxx_

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    Heh, I really loved A3D in Outlaws (yes, that great old western game that unfortunately never got a sequel :(). It appeared in the final patch along with D3D support.

    I have to replay that gem this weekend, I almost completely forget about it...
     
  19. Zaphod

    Zaphod Remember
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    One word: Thief. Much better with headphones and a Vortex than a Live! and quad speakers + EAX. (EAX was patched in as one of the first games supporting it, IIRC. Got a Live! when my Vortex1 died. Really missed the Aureal.)
     
  20. K.I.L.E.R

    K.I.L.E.R Retarded moron
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    I never bothered with sounds.
    As long as they are sharp and not too loud I like them.

    I leave my subs almost on the off position because I don't like loud noise in games or elsewhere.

    I dumped my SBLive for the onboard sound AC685 on my nForce 3.
    Found it a bit more crisp than my SBLive and my CPU consumption is much lower when playing MP3 than my Live.
    I blame that on Creative's drivers.
    Realtek update their drivers once a month and sometimes even twice in a single month.
    I've never had any issues whatsoever with bugs in games with Realtek's drivers.

    Drivers are the main issue for me. The less problems the better.
    This was a while back, not too sure how the driver situation is with SBLive cards now.
     
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