Creative Sound Blaster X-FI Xtreme Gamer Fatal1ty Pro series Review

Desja - 2007-09-26 22:41:06 in Sound Cards
Category: Sound Cards
Reviewed by: Desja   
Reviewed on: October 10, 2007
Creative Labs
GF City Computers
Price: $149.99 USD

Introduction:

Remember, if you will, a time when Sierra and Lucas Arts first started pumping out games with sound that used external speakers. Many of you were just as awestruck as I was to hear sound not muffled by the inside of your computer. Today, sound cards have come a long way from their humble beginnings. They have become a must-have item for any gaming rig. Sound Blaster has been a force to be reckoned with since it pumped out its first sound cards back in the 80's. With a world of 'integrated everything' is it still worthwhile? Some still scoff at the thought of dropping anywhere from $150-300 on a moderate sound card and there are some that still feel integrated audio is good enough. Let's see how this audio powerhouse stacks up against integrated audio and open it up to see if it really is worth it or not.

"Since launching the phenomenally successful Sound Blaster sound cards and setting the de facto standard for PC audio in 1989, Creative has been able to leverage on its leading-edge audio technology, huge user base and strong brand name to expand into the exciting lifestyle Personal Digital Entertainment (PDE) market. Today, Creative is widely recognized as a global leader for product innovation in the audio and PDE segments, offering consumers a complete, high quality digital entertainment experience through Creative's hardware, software applications and services. Finding the perfect balance between form and function, Creative strives for every product to be a sensory feast for the eyes and ears."

 

Closer Look:

The sound card is an OEM version of the X-Fi. The card comes shipped in an anti-static bag and includes 2 driver disks: one for Vista and the other for XP. It also includes a game demo disk that includes both Battlefield 2 and F.E.A.R.

 

The card has one mic port and three output ports (right to left green, black, orange) as well as one AD link port.

 

Below you will see the accessories package contents, along with the driver disks and manual.

 

Installation:

When making any sort of change in hardware it is a good idea to remove previous drivers from the old hardware. This helps avoid unnecessary hardware conflicts and needless installation complications. The card is easily installed. Step one would be to shut down your computer. Then disconnect all of the peripherals from the chassis. Before you work "under the hood", you may want to ground yourself with a grounding strap as an added precaution. After the case is open, the fun starts. Remove the old card if this is a replacement, or just push the new card firmly into a free PCI slot. I suggest leaving at least one slot open between your video card and any other expansion cards, such as network interface cards or modems( For those of you still on dial-up). The reasons for this being, that some of the newer graphics cards need more air-flow to avoid crashes and prolong the life of your hardware. After that, just plug in your audio cables into their designated ports and boot up your computer. 

 

 

Configuration:

Once your computer has booted up, insert the driver disk (designated for your operating system) into your optical drive and begin your installation.

 

This part of the installation allows you to make sure that you have hooked up your computer speakers correctly. It goes step by step for each set of speakers and allows you to test them individually.

Configuration:

 

During installation you will be asked which mode you would like to choose: Game, Entertainment, or Audio Creation mode. Each mode has unique skins, but configurations are basically the same, just located on different areas.

 

 

 

Game Mode

Game modes style is very “tech” oriented. Most of the basic configuration is on page one. Compared to the Audio Creation and Entertainment modes, the usability and functionality of the Game mode falls in between the other two modes. Game mode features lots of configuration possibilities without having to search around.

 

Entertainment Mode

Entertainment mode is very sleek in its styling. It would be for the general user without much experience. With some searching around you can find all the same configuration options in this mode that game mode has to offer in its user interface. The first page is very simple to use just treble, bass and volume.

 

Audio Creation Mode

For all you disk jockey’s and music junkies out there, this mode is for you. The Audio Creation mode features more configuration options available on one page when compared to all the other modes. This mode is for those of us that know what we are looking for and want it all at our finger tips.

 

After the installation is complete,  a toolbar is installed at the top of your screen that looks like the image below.

 

The tool bar includes six programs, ranging from THX configuration, to a Creative media player. We will look at the THX program later in this review

Configuration:

For this section, I will be using the gaming mode as an example. The other two modes should have similar options. In this screen you'll notice the options for the Equalizer. You can either customize your own settings, or choose from a variety of presets. I prefer the 'rock' preset myself, but believe me - there is something for everyone. Below the EQ menu, I have selected the speaker menu. This tab allows you to choose which speaker system you own (i.e. 2.1, 5.1 etc). You can also synchronize with the standard control panel settings from here.

 

 

 

 

 

I have now selected the mixer tab in this section. Much like the Windows mixer, you can adjust various volume controls and mute controls. Below that is the bass menu. In this menu, you can fine-tune the bass frequency and also allow bass boost of +15dB. As with menus shown above, master volume can be controlled from this panel.

 

 

The Crystallizer tab shown below allows you to select how much crystallization you prefer. The Crystallizer is used to repair damaged MP3's to make the sound clarity better. Below you will also notice the X-fi CMSS-3D tab which creates nine virtual speakers over stereo headphones for positional audio that's so accurate, you'll swear you're in a room full of speakers. Multichannel speakers are even better with audio cues that are so accurate you can actually locate enemies by sound. In this tab you can select type of surround sound and fade from front to back speakers.

 

 

 

 

If you want to fine-tune your speakers even more, I suggest jumping right into the THX menu, as mentioned above in the toolbar description. You can fine-tune everything, right down to the distance of your speakers from each other, to where you center speaker is located, be it above or below the monitor. This software even goes deep into speaker size and sub woofer configuration.

Specifications:

 

24-bit Analog-to-Digital conversion of analog inputs:

96kHz sample rate

24-bit Digital-to-Analog conversion of digital sources:

96kHz to analog 7.1 speaker output

24-bit Digital-to-Analog conversion of stereo digital sources:

192kHz to stereo output

16-bit to 24-bit recording sampling rates:

8, 11.025, 16, 22.05, 24, 32, 44.1, 48 and 96kHz

ASIO 2.0 support:

16-bit/44.1kHz, 16-bit/48kHz, 24-bit/44.1kHz 24-bit/48kHz and 24-bit/96kHz with direct monitoring

Enhanced SoundFont support:

Up to 24-bit resolution

X-RAM:

64MB

Audio Performance (Rated Output @ 2Vrms, Typical Value)

 

Signal-to-Noise Ratio (20kHz Low-pass filter, A-Weighted):

Stereo Output 109dB
Front and
Rear Channels 109dB
Center
, Subwoofer and Side Channels 109dB

Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise at 1kHz (20kHz Low-pass filter):

0.004%

Frequency Response (-3dB, 24-bit/96kHz input ):

10Hz to 46kHz

Frequency Response (-3dB, 24-bit/192kHz input):

10Hz to 88kHz (Stereo only)

Connectivity

 

Speaker and Headphone connections:

Stereo to 7.1 (Line Out via three 3.5mm mini jacks)

Flexijack:

Line In / Microphone In / Digital Out¹ / Digital I/O² via shared 3.5mm mini jack

Auxiliary Line level Input:

4-pin Molex connector

I/O Console connector:

For linking to the Sound Blaster X-Fi I/O Console (upgrade option)

Feature

Description

X-RAM: Boost performance even further in games with X-RAM support

Free up system memory and improve overall gaming audio performance in game titles like QUAKE 4, Battlefield 2, Prey and others that take advantage of X-RAM.

X-fi CMSS-3D: Hear your enemies before they find you

Don't let them sneak up behind you. X-Fi CMSS®-3D Headphone creates nine virtual speakers over stereo headphones for positional audio that's so accurate you can actually locate enemies by sound. Multichannel speakers are even better with audio cues that let you hear exactly where they are even between speakers.

EAX Advanced HD 5.0: Immerse yourself in a new dimension of sound

Bullets whiz past your head. Explosions shake the room. Take reality to the next level with EAX® ADVANCED HD™1 sound effects in games.

X-fi 24bit crystallizer: Get lost in the details

Hear crisp, sharp gunshots and deep, booming explosions. X-Fi Crystalizer™ revitalizes your compressed game sounds, bringing out the highs and lows for the most intense gaming experience ever.

Testing:

As I stated at the beginning of the review, I am putting this card up against my on-board sound card. My motherboard is the Asus P5B. I will be testing each card's ability to perform under movie, game and MP3 challenges. Each test will have two categories: Fatal1ty and P5B. There will also be two sub-categories: speakers and headphones.

Testing System

Apps:

 

 

Media Player MP3 Test:

Fatal1ty sound card using Creative 5.1 speakers:

The sound was incredible with very distinct notes and clarity. I tried rap all the way to classical. I must say, the most notable was when I played Yoyo Ma (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). Every instrument could be picked out and the use of each channel individually was amazing. The dB from the speakers was very high and there was a noticeable difference between the on-board sound, being much louder and clearer from the Fatal1ty. I did not experience any crackling, unless the MP3 used was of poor quality.

 

P5B On-board using Creative 5.1 speakers:

Although much better then my previous motherboard's sound card, this on-board soundcard didn't match that of the Fatal1ty in this test. The quality of the sound was nowhere near the quality of the Fatal1ty and the dB level was much lower. The problem I found in testing was that there seemed to be little to no distinction for each channel. It sounded as if all sound frequencies went to each channel. Instead of an immersive melodic experience, it felt more like going into a room and everyone shouting at me from all sides saying the same thing. One notable thing was the sub woofer did sound fairly clear, but only comparable to, if not less than that of the Fatal1ty.

 

Fatal1ty card using Senheiser HD 437 headphones:

Unlike every other time I have thrown on my headphones, this time I noticed a big change. The Fatal1ty card was not only louder, but way clearer then the on-board. Creative touts the use of 3D 9 directional surround sound capabilities for use with headphones. The sound that was generated was right on the money. While I do prefer the true surround sound experience, the headphones did sound pretty amazing.

 

P5B On-board using Senheiser HD 437 headphones:

About as much range as an iPod, the sound quality was poor. I had crackling and as far as 3D sound was concerned, it was mediocre at best. The funny thing about it was the fact the headphone volume couldn't get as high as the Fatal1ty, but they still crackled before I turned the sound all the way up. When there was no music playing, I noticed audible feedback, which wasn't present with the Fatal1ty.

 

Gaming Test:

Fatal1ty sound card using Creative 5.1 speakers:

I went to the Fatal1ty website and noticed its advert for Bioshock, which intrigued me. So for this test, I used Bioshock and GRAW 2. Bioshock is a creepy game to begin with, so adding this sound card didn't turn this into a fluffy-bunny game for me at all. When entering a room, you hear the various voices of the little sisters all around you. If the movie Children of the Corn has taught you anything, then you know demonic kids are creepy as hell. The Fatal1ty card plunges you right into the game. Each fire crackle and scraping step can be heard as clear as if it was in the room with you. When I switched over to GRAW 2, I noticed the 3D sound much more. Each step and every shot echoed perfectly. Everything was as crisp and as clear as if I was actually standing there being shot at. I could tell where every shot was coming from, having the competitive edge is what these gamer cards were designed for. I was surprised much less often then I was with the on-board sound.

 

P5B On board using Creative 5.1 speakers:

Good sound on both games, with a little more distinction than with MP3, but still doesn't pack quite the punch the fatality did. I could almost tell where sounds were coming from, but mainly from a left to right fashion more than a full 3D effect.

 

Fatal1ty card using Senheiser HD 437 headphones:

Once again, the 3D headphone claim rings true. It was very disconcerting knowing I had headphones on and was still able to pick out exactly where and when everything was coming for me. Great sound quality as well.

P5B on board using Senheiser HD 437 headphones:

Although the headphones did make for a much creepier Bioshock, they did not have the fully 3D immersive effect that the 9 directional option the Fatal1ty card has. The sound was clear but not crisp.

 

Superman Returns (DVD) Test:

Fatal1ty sound card using Creative 5.1 speakers:

Rich crisp and clear sound with very distinctive use of each of the channels. The scene when Superman stops the aircraft from crashing into the stadium was fantastic and Jarrel's voice throughout the movie is very clear and really uses the subwoofer.

 

P5B On board using Creative 5.1 speakers:

This is where the on-board sound really shined. Even so, it was still not enough to compete with the Fatal1ty. The use of the subwoofer was very nice, as the sound wasn't cumbersome or crackling at any part during the test. I could see the on-board sound's use for movies and it did seem to take advantage of the 5.1 surround pretty well. I did notice different frequencies per channel, which had been lacking in the other tests. Overall, I would not be too hard pressed to watch a movie with on-board sound. In my opinion wasn't too bad. The little details do make the Sound Blaster card inch ahead in the end.

 

Fatal1ty card using Senheiser HD 437 headphones:

Even though it was much less impressive than full surround sound, the headphones clarity was undeniable. Although I don't see myself sitting through an entire movie wearing headphones again in the near future, I must say that the Fatal1ty card did not make watching a movie with headphones as much of a chore as I though it might be.

 

P5B On board using Senheiser HD 437 headphones:

Here is where we see the integrated sound card fall behind and show its true colors once again. The range and quality was seriously lacking again. Needless to say, I would never watch anything with headphones with an integrated sound card.

 

Judging by what we just witnessed, I think we can conclude that although integrated sound cards are a cut above what they once were, even with the addition of 5.1 or better capabilities, they still don't quite stack up to a dedicated sound solution.

Conclusion:

After vigorously testing both cards, I'd have to say the Fatal1ty was a cut above the rest. It blew the integrated sound card out of the water. The volume of the Fatal1ty was much louder overall. The sound did not crackle at max volume like the P5B's did. If I were to base this test purely on its gaming improvement potential, I would have to say that if you are a gamer and you still use integrated sound, you have peaked in your skill level. The ability to hear your enemy before he hears you is more than enough compensation for $149. If you can scrounge up enough money for the card and not the speakers, buy it anyway. A good pair of headphones still takes advantage of some of the card's abilities, making it leaps and bounds more user friendly than the integrated option.

 

 

Pros:

 

Cons: