I finally bit the bullet and grabbed an X-Fi to play with. I wanted to see how the sofware and CPU usage compared on my home rig. For those who don’t know, Audigy series and X-Fi drivers are built around a similar driver architecture and share common driver parts. So in theory, X-Fi should suffer with the same issues as Audigy.
That’s the theory, but with the Creative Labs soundcards I’ve owned previously they develop problems over time. Vista killed my Audigy 2. It was never the same after the loss of DirectSound. It developed all sorts of nasty issues that never surfaced under Windows XP.
Creative were slow to react. Audigy owners had to wait nearly 2 years after Vista’s launch before they could use basic features such as microphone, multi speaker, EAX etc. I never expected to buy another Creative soundcard. I wanted something half good to hook up to our Yamaha RX-V461DAB though. I really would have liked an Auzentech soundcard. They’re super expensive and quite difficult to get here in the UK. Baby goat food costs money, so I opted for yet another budget mid-range Creative solution.
I ordered a OEM Creative Labs Xtreme Music from an online store. They sent a rather odd-looking Xtreme Gamer instead. This isn’t any normal Xtreme Gamer though, it’s quite different from all the one’s I’ve seen before. I even had to make an entry on the Sound Blaster Product Index.
The card which I received was the SB0770, but I believe there’s a twin SB0772 model also. The card has no internal connections to connect to expansion devices such as the X-Fi front panel. Instead, this X-Fi resembles the budget-bin Xtreme Audio PCB layout. I was quite worried when I saw the board shape. Xtreme Audio cards are total crap software solutions, and doesn’t even contain the genuine EMU20K1 chip. Thankfully, the SB0770 has a EMU20K1 and also has a companion CA0112 “Golden Gate” chip that allows switching from UAA to X-FI mode.
UAA audio hardware core
- Supports 3 independent DMA playback stream:
– 4x stereo analog output hardware output channels.
– 1x stereo headphone hardware output channel.
– 1x stereo digital hardware output channel.
– I2C EERPOM support to
1) Re-configure the number of analog output exposed to OS.
2) Disable headphone and digital output channels.
- Supports 5 independent DMA record stream:
– 1x stereo Line In
– 2x stereo MIC In (Front/read)
– 1x auxiliary IN
– 1x stereo SPDIF input.
– I2C EERPOM support to disable line in, MIC in or auxiliary in or SPDIF input.
- Supports Microsoft ‘out-of-the-box’ HDA driver
- Audio outputs
– All playback channels support 16 and 24 bit stereo format.
– I2S Output supports sampling rate of 44.1 KHz, 48 KHz, 96 KHz and 192 KHz.
– SPDIF digital output supports sample rate of 44.1 KHz, 48 KHz and 96 KHz.
– Each playback DMA stream’s sample rate and bit format are independent.
– SPDIF Output will play Non-PCM data when digital stream is enabled.
- Audio inputs
– All recording channels support 16 and 24 bit stereoformat.
– Line In and MIC In support sampling rate of 48 KHz, 96 KHz and 192 KHz.
– SPDIF input supports sampling rate of 44.1 KHz, 48 KHz and 96 KHz.
– Each record DMA stream’s sample rate and bit format are independent.
- 1x I2C interface with configurable via I2C EEPROM to control on-board DAC/ADC.
- 2 GPOs to control on-board anti-pop circuit and muting of headphone and speaker output.
- 11 GPI input for audio jack detection.
- 1x SPDIF input to I2S output format converter of 24-bit with sample rate 48KHz, 96 KHz and 192KHz.
- 3x I2S input to SPDIF output format converter of 24-bit with sample rate of 44.1KHz, 48KHz, 96KHz and 192KHz.
Another official Creative confidential data sheet (lol?) reveals this card has been in production since before July 2007. It seems HP and Alienware all sold this card at some point. It looks quite budget, but it’s how it compares to the ear that counts.
Looking at the picture, you can see a couple of missing pins for internal SPDIF. You might also notice something quite nice on the bracket though. Such a pleasant surprise to see both optical-in and optical-out connections. I’m unsure of what use optical in will be for me, but the output is a huge bonus. No front panels, onboard sound or plug in converters needed here.
Instead of the internal pin connections for the X-Fi expansion bay, you’ll also notice a standard Front Panel HDAudio connector. I think it’s fair to say, this card offers a wider compatibility with PC multimedia flaps everywhere. It’s got everything for my Antec P180 case, at least.
So far the music has been pretty much the same high quality as on my old Audigy 2 Platinum soundcard. That’s not much of a surprise, as I use our receiver for digital-to-analogue conversions. I’d probably notice greater differences if I used the analogue leads – but I’m not interested in them (or the CMSS, SVM or Crystalizer features). I always hear more distortion than improvement with those features turned on. Besides, our Yamaha has a quality music enhancer for compressed music like MP3. The Yamaha does all of the work for music, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare music.
Games however really sound much more enthralling. The first game I tested the SB0770 on was Borderlands. The sound was 100% better. I especially liked the extra bass when shotguns were fired or grenades exploded. EAX enabled pinpoint accuracy too! It was much clearer which direction the gunshot sounds were coming from. I tested Guild Wars (EAX 2/3) and Team Fortress 2 (ASIO) but there was no real noticable change from the Audigy. I would say they both sounded slightly better though. Perhaps someone can suggest a good EAX 5 title to evaluate? 🙂
EAX 5.0 offers several new [software] features:
- 128 simultaneous voices processable in hardware and up to 4 effects on each
- EAX Voice (processing of microphone input signal)
- EAX PurePath (EAX Sound effects can originate from one speaker only)
- Environment FlexiFX (four available effects slots per channel)
- EAX MacroFX (realistic positional effects at close range)
- Environment Occlusion (sound from adjacent environments can pass through walls)
Overall, I’m glad I upgraded to the SB0770 purely for the more stable software. I’m using the daniel_k X-Fi series Support Pack, needless to say. The DDL and DTS are working properly, without huge CPU usage. This makes it worthwhile alone for me on my aging E6550. My CPU usage used to skyrocket whenever I enabled DDL on the Audigy.
I can now play 5.1 in games, watch movies and listen to music through the same TOSLINK optical cable. Before I used to need two inputs on the receiver and the following leads coming from the PC.
- Front Left/Right Cable Analogue
- Rear Left/Right Cable Analogue
- Center / Sub Analogue
- Coaxial Digital (with frequent sound distortions and cut-outs)
Goodbye spaghetti wires!
Pretty much all the official software is working better on the X-Fi than the Audigy 2. My old Audigy Dolby Digital Live licence are valid on the X-Fi too which is another bonus. I did wonder if I would have to buy another pack for the X-Fi. Speaking of which, it hasn’t created any of the distortion sounds that can be heard on Audigy DDL either. My sound hasn’t cut-out once.
- One TOSLINK cable does it all, without issues
- Under £30 delivered – Cheapest EMU20K1
- EAX 5 really does sound better than EAX 4
- Better and almost fully working software, which is a nice change.
- Onboard optical-in and optical-out sockets
- Better connectivity to third-party front panels and cases, but no X-Fi front bay connection
- It’s made by Creative Labs. The software & drivers will accidently develop bugs after a couple more X-Fi driver releases
- It’s quite hard to find in stores or online
- No connectivity to X-Fi front bay, but standard fittings instead.
Did I forget to mention you can buy for £29.99 delivered on ebay UK? People pay more than that for used XtremeAudio on there…