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Review: SBLive! 5.1 Platinum

by James Morris on 29 August 2001, 00:00

Tags: Creative

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SBLive! 5.1 Platinum review

The Creative Sound Blaster Live! 5.1 Platinum (what a mouthful!) is creative's current top of the line sound card. It's UK retail is £152 from the creative European home page. Its main competitor at the moment is the newly released Hercules gaming theatre XP, which is also a 5.1 card.

Its compatible with Windows® 95, 98, NT4.0, 2000 and Millennium Edition
General MIDI, MPC-3, Plug and Play, EAX, Microsoft DirectSound, DirectSound3D and derivatives, Dolby Digital.

I'll start with the hardware that this card has to offer, then onto software…so, when I received my lovely creative soundcard thru the door back in January this year, just after the 5.1 model had come out, replacing the existing SoundBlaster live cards. It sure felt like a heavy box when I took hold of it from the postie, and I wasn't surprised to find the box, upon opening, crammed with things…so, what do you get out of the box:

· Creative Sound Blaster Live! 5.1 sound card

This is the sound card, which operates on a PCI bus. By the looks of it, it's exactly the same card you would get if you got a SBLive! 5.1 package, minus the IR Drive and remote, and some software. Its heart is equipped with the same powerful EMU10K1 processor of the original SoundBlaster Live! Processor, which also has EAX, Creative's home-grown audio enhancement package, which allows for games to add echo effects, or the like, to increase realism. More games are compatible with this, such as valve's half-life, than the rival system A3D, from Aureal. To the rear of the card are outputs for mic, line in, line out, rear out, digital out, and a midi/joystick port. On the cards PCB is a Telephone Answering Device in, MPC-3 Analogue, CD Audio in, Digital CD Audio in and the Audio extension connector for the IR Drive expansion panel.

· Creative Live Drive II with IR

The Live Drive II is a expansion panel, which one slots into a spare 5"1/4 slot. Its main feature is to allow connection to your system with a Varity of different I/O connectors. It's also got the infrared sensor, which you point the remote at. It's only available in white, which could be a problem for those of us who have a black system, but it didn't bother me too much. Onboard connectors include PCM S/PDIF In and Out (RCA/Coaxial Jack) Headphone Out (1/4" Stereo Jack with Volume control) Line In (1/4" Stereo Jack, shared with Microphone In) Microphone In (1/4" Jack with Gain control) MIDI In (mini DIN) MIDI Out (mini DIN) Optical S/PDIF In and Out, Stereo Auxiliary In (2 x RCA/Coaxial Jack) and the Infra-Red Receiver.

· Creative Remote Control RM900

The remote, one of the additions during the 5.1 upgrade of the SB Plat range, is a handy little thing, which when using the creative mp3 player, allows for remote control of tracks. Also, with the on screen display you can control volume levels and switch EAX on or off, preference pending. Its quite slim line, and has a nice high quality feel to it, as does everything else in the package.

· Bits n Bobs

The Box also came with a heft assortment of screws, cables, a high quality base mounted mic, with a sticky to slap it on the side of your screen, two ribbon cables for connecting the live drive to the Sound card (one spare) and its more than long enuff for full towers. Molex connectors come too, along with the midi cables for converting the ps2-sized midi ports to ps1 sized, an optical cable…and the software….well….

· Creative Software

Bundled with my SoundBlaster came a number of titles. Lets start with the drivers, which in this case are the liveware 3. It's a pretty comprehensive set of drivers with a full GUI, and you have access to configure all the features the card has to offer like the EAX mode's, the speaker outputs, be it 5.1, 2 speakers, headphones etc, also, you can turn AC-3 decoding (which is another name for Dolby digital) on and off. Also, you can view the demo's that are built in for configuring a digital connection, what EAX does and the like. It's all accessed thru a large taskbar that goes at the top of your screen.

Also included were the media ring software, for online chat, and the creative playcenter two, which is like realjukebox/winamp and pixmaker, which allows you to make 360 degree swivel images.

Also with the package comes a fat whack of games and musical software. Games included in my bundle was world rally two and mdk, (both full versions) but where is really shines is the audio software it gives you. I got Media Talkring, Mixman Studio, Creative Keytar, Creative Rhythmania, Creative WaveStudio, Cubasis VST/Wavelab/ReCycle Lite and Kool Karaoke. Also it has minidisk studio for recording mp3's to your minidisk player via the optical out.

The real truth.

Well, enough with all these tech specs, time for the real truth. Once I got over the marvel of taking it out the box and viewing all the goodies before me, I set to work setting it up in my machine. I have an Tbird with an Abit KT7-RAID, which for some reason would not accept the SBLive card in another PCI slot that slot 4. I knew of this before I put it in the PC, but if I hadn't I would have had hassle getting it working. I put the IR drive in my top slot on my Juno P6 full tower and wired up the ribbon to the card, and gave it a Molex for power. Once I got that done the driver installation process began. I slapped in the CD and ignored the registration and installed everything on the CD. It sure took a while to do, and I have a 1.1ghz machine. Must have taken the best part of 15 mins to install. I rebooted upon prompt and found that the SB16 emulation was conflicting with my highpoint controller (raid) on my mobo! To solve this I disabled the emulation, and later found that it was a known issue. Apart from that the installation was pretty simple, and not long after, I was listening to mp3's from the headphone port. Well, after I found a 3.5mm headphone jack converter (the thing that makes the big headphone ports into the smaller standard size) The software was a bit of a toil to configure to my needs, but once it was done I haven't needed to do it again. I did have one major problem tho, which was when I came to plug my external Dolby digital amp into the S/PDIF coax connector on the front, I found it refused to dish out a Dolby signal that my amp could pick up. After hours of playing with the software, I found that the 'enable Dolby digital' tab had to be switched OFF! I found this weird at first, but then I realised that my amp needed the undecoded signal to decode it itself for playback. Also on the CD were some ac-3 tracks which with creative playcenter you can play back and hear 5.1 channel music…

To be honest, this card has not much more than the old sound blaster platinum, apart from the ability to decode into 5.1 channels and the remote, with the revised live drive with an IR receiver to support it.

With regards to the software the only real annoyance we had with anything was the Creative Mediaring Talk software. It became rather old after awhile to have this stupid thing keep popping up in front of you every time you rebooted. Essentially, the Mediaring Talk is simply software that lets you perform voice communications with your friends over the Internet, and the games, well, they weren't my choice, but it's a shame they weren't 5.1 enabled games to exploit the power of the sound card itself.

For those who are a bit unsure of what this 5.1 lark is all about, it's basically this. 5.1 mean's 5.1 channels, i.e. 5 speakers and a sub. These usually comprise of 5 mains speakers, a centre, front left and right, rear left and right and the .1 means the sub. Dolby digital, the playback format from DVD's can utilise 5.1 sound, and play it back on the 5.1 channels. I use it for playing back my DVD's via the coaxial out on the IR drive. Also note that creative has included 6 5.1 channel coded music tracks on the applications CD. You can play these back thru creative playcenter 2, which is on the disk. I found that the software and the product is very biased towards creative in house speakers, the DT2200 and 3500. I think that matching these together will give a easy to set up set of speakers.

Although I have yet to see a Hercules theatre XP in action, the SB Platinum 5.1 seems a very worthy alternative, but remember one thing, don't buy this card unless you know you'll have a use for the extra features over the SBLive! 5.1. otherwise, you'll be wasting your money.

Pluses:
+ Remote control.
+ Front panel hook-ups with Live Drive II.
+ 5.1 output.
+ Good software bundle.

Minuses:
- Configuration problems.
- Expensive.

Bottom Line:
This sound card is for you if you like to have you home theatre connected to your PC, or you want to record to minidisk, or you want to fill your bays with the cool IR drive, or if you're a musician who would use the midi, but apart from that, you'll be just as happy with the regular SBLive! 5.1.

But as a product, the SBLive! Platinum is very good indeed.