The Inquirer-Home

Creative delivers hardware HD audio on PCI-e

First INQpressions Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatality
Thu Jul 31 2008, 16:28

Product Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatality Champion series
Type Hardware-accelerated HD sound card & module
Price 160 quid inc VAT or 120 inc VAT without I/O module

DESPITE its more or less successful attempts to gain foothold in media player gadgetry, Creative Technology, aka Creative Labs, is still mostly known for its Sound Blaster PC audio standard.

The problem is that over the past two years, Creative has produced far more news in the gadgetry area than in the area of high-end PC sound. The reason? It took longer than usual to work out a PCI-E version of the Sound Blaster X-Fi, the card with the EMU20K audio processor, local X-RAM, effects and such - all fully in hardware.

Why do we need the PCI-E version, when the old PCI ones worked perfectly - Vista driver hardware acceleration excluded? The problem is that, by next year, there'll be fewer and fewer PCI slots on new mainboards. In fact, once Nehalems are in the mainstream by mid 2009, don't be surprised to find lots of mobos without any old PCI slots at all. So, it's either PCI-E or nothing.

The card
The card itself is substantially shorter than the PCI siblings, barely two-thirds of their length. If inserted into the first PCI-e x1 slot, usually before the GPU and near the North Bridge cooling contraption like on the Asus Rampage Extreme, the compact size helps fit it easily.

Furthermore, there's a noise black shield here as well, the first for Creative X-Fi line. Asustek's Xonar sound card obviously started this trend which will not disappear any time soon - sexy looking shielded sound cards are here to stay.

Under the hood
In some cases, like with an earlier Asus Xonar card, the PCI-E compatibility was achieved on the quick by combining the existing PCI sound chip with a PLX or similar PCI to PCI-E x1 bridge. It does add a little latency but usually, for audio at least, it shouldn't be a major problem.

Creative, however, created a native PCI-E audio processor with its EMU20K2. While this was a reason behind a big part of the new card's delay, it may prove to be a very sound investment, pun intended.

Why? Well, a single-chip native PCI-E implementation will open the door to future mainboard versions, like MSI has been doing on selected high-end mobos over the past few years. Without widespread mainboard bundling presence, Creative couldn't count on keeping the Sound Blaster X-Fi brand as the new standard setter material.

The 64MB X-RAM memory chip is there for games like Quake 4, Battlefield 2, Prey, Unreal Tournament 3 and others that take advantage of it - also, the Intel HD Audio compliant front panel header eases the connection job for most standard PC cases. However, the very top-end amplifier circuitry for the music enjoyment is still left to Creative's partner Auzentech to implement.

Talking about entertainment, Creative included Dolby Digital Live connecting to your home theatre system through a single digital cable (available separately) for 5.1 surround sound. The DTS stuff and such, again, is left to Auzentech.

The 24-bit 96 kHz (192 kHz for conversion of stereo digital sources only) sampling support stayed the same as in the current X-Fi cards, probably enough for most of us, just like the 109 dB claimed signal to noise ratio.

The I/O drive, fitting both 3.5-inch and 5.25-inch (two extra connectors in the latter case) drive bays, are helpful for various sound input and output gadgets.

As for the Creative software suite, the usual three modes - Audio Creation, Entertainment and Game are available, with the Audio Console, Creative Mediasource and other usual applets.

We ran the card on the newest setup here - Asus Rampage Extreme with Intel QX9650 and 8GB Kingston DDR3-1600 memory, with the display taken care of by Asustek's Geforce GTX280 TOP card. The X-Fi Titanium fit nicely into the first PCI-E slot meant for audio cards - interestingly, Asus bundles custom shields (Asus ROG style) budget non-DSP X-Fi version with this mobo.

In this first run, the Vista64 SP1, known for its unfriendliness to hardware-accelerated audio or Creative's EAX 5.0, was used as a check platform to see what happens with the RightMark 3D audio CPU utilisation benchmark vs the default bundled X-Fi non-DSP audio.

Here are the results - of course, the bundled simple audio couldn't even test the hardware 3-D option here. In generic audio, the CPU utilisation of the bundled audio hovered around one per cent, while the X-Fi Titanium was between zero and 0.5 per cent.


It seems that, despite Vista's problems, the CPU utilisation when using 3-D effects on the X-Fi Titanium is still basically zero at the standard 44.1 kHz.

In the follow up, we'll be looking at some frame-rate gains for the games on both XP and Vista, CPU loads vs software audio at 96 kHz 24-bit settings, as well as the card's behaviour in an overclocked Rampage configuration.

Overall, this is very good news: native PCI-E audio with full hardware acceleration in a nice-looking card - hopefully, Creative will make sure that the Linux and MacOS support is there for all the X-Fi Titanium and Platinum features - there are less of these users, but most of them do pay for premium hardware if the driver support is there.

The Good native PCI-E, fast full hardware HD audio, Sound Blaster X-Fi brand
The Bad Price should be lower, plus more incentives for mainboard integration
The Ugly Vista is still a long-term problem until it fully allows hardware accelerated audio

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