It's not often we take a look at sound cards here at Hexus so it was a surprise when the request for a review of Creative's recently released Soundblaster Audigy landed in my InBox. The Audigy is actually a range of products, each sharing roughly the same base card (i think the only difference is in the gold plating of the external connectors on some versions) and with the rest of the bundle differentiating the products.
Before we discuss the bundles including the one tested here lets take a peek at the spec of the card. Creative make a lot of noise about the technical specs of the card so lets take a peek.
32-bit Professional Quality Effects Engine
- Creative's Audigy patented effects processor
- Support for real-time digital effects like reverb, chorus, normalizer, pitch shifter, or distortion across any audio source
- Capable of processing, mixing and positioning audio streams using up to 131 available hardware channels
- Full 32-bit digital mixer maintains all sound mixing in the digital domain, eliminating noise from the signal
High Definition Audio Quality
- Playback of 64 audio channels, each with its own independent sample rate
- 24-bit Analogue-to-Digital conversion of analogue inputs at 48kHz sample rate
- 24-bit Digital-to-Analogue conversion of digital sources at 48kHz to analogue 5.1 speaker output
- 16-bit recording with sampling rates of 8, 11.025, 16, 22.05, 24, 32, 44.1 and 48kHz
- Supports Sony/Philips Digital Interface (SPDIF) format input signal of up to 24-bit/96kHz quality
- SPDIF output up to 24-bit resolution at selectable sampling rate of 44.1, 48 or 96kHz
- Low latency multi-track recording with ASIO support
- High speed connection to IEEE1394-enabled devices with up to 400Mbps transfer rate
- Hot-plug support for ease of connecting or disconnecting external devices
- Interconnection of up to 63 devices for peer-to-peer communication
- SB1394 Certification Program thoroughly tests and certifies participating vendors' 1394-enabled devices with Sound Blaster® Audigy for optimal performance and ease of use.
Sound Blaster® Audigy On-Board Connectors
- Analogue / Digital Out (Analogue Center & Subwoofer / 6-channel SPDIF Output)
- Line in
- Microphone in
- Line level out (Front) / Headphone out
- Line level out (Rear)
- SB1394 port
- Telephone Answering Device in
- Analogue CD Audio in
- Digital CD Audio in
- Expansion header to an external 15-pin MIDI / Joystick port
- Internal SB1394 header to Sound Blaster® Audigy Drive (upgrade option)
- Expansion header to the Sound Blaster® Audigy Drive (upgrade option)
Sound Blaster® Audigy Audio Performance
Looking at the features in the list we can see that's it a bit more than just a Live! series update and that Creative have put some real thought into the features rather than just slapping out a Live evolution. They've concentrated a lot on the high end audio performance it seems and they made a lot of the 100dB Signal-to-noise Ratio in product literature.
- Signal-to-noise Ratio (A-Weighted) = 100dB
- Crosstalk (Left/Right and vice versa) = -100dB
- Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise at 1KHz (A-Weighted) = 0.004 %
- Frequency Response at -3dBr = <10 Hz to 22 kHz
The card is capable of doing everything in the digital domain with input and output possible in digital formats so nothing is lost in a digital to analogue conversion which is a bonus for many and helps keep the resulting audio of high quality.
It supports the SP-DIF for digital I/O and also a low latency ASIO driver for the semi professional enthusiast. The low latency support (also present in the Live!) lets applications sync audio at very finely grained intervals. This is essential for musicians or anyone using the card for producing audio where the latency control needs to be low.
Besides the high quality audio hardware on the card, Creative for whatever reason has decided to push Firewire to the masses in the form of their SB1394 port. It's nothing more than a standard IEE 1394 FireWire host controller and the accompanying port so you are free to hookup any FireWaire device to you machine and not just Creative SB1394 branded versions of things.
The port also has the capability to be used in low cost networking. Just sling a FireWire cable between a pair of Audigy equipped PC's and with a bit of setup you have a low latency 400Mbit/sec network. You can extend the network using a FireWire hub but for simple peer-to-peer networking between two PC's it's pretty hard to beat since it's fast (faster than most Ethernet solutions) and cheap since you only need a cable, the 'NIC' is essentially free.
It often takes something like this to appear in a mass market product for it to gain acceptance. Putting a FireWire port on the worlds biggest selling PC soundcard is the best way for it to achieve critical mass since motherboard manufacturers are sticking to USB (and now USB 2.0) unanimously and FireWire was struggling to gain a foothold in the PC market. This is different to Apple where they ship FireWire on everything meaning the popularity of devices using the interface became huge very quickly.
I'm a fan of the technology so all praise to Creative for licensing it and getting it out to the masses.
The card itself was simplicity itself to install. Remove the old soundcard if you have one and pop the Audigy in a spare PCI 2.1 compliant slot. All that's left is to hook up any input and output devices (in my case, initially the front a rear channels of an old FPS1000 speaker set) and boot your machine.
Windows will notify you that it has detected new hardware so cancel the dialogs asking you to provide new drivers and pop the supplied CD in the drive. I'm not a fan of letting an install program install drivers, I'd rather do it by hand by pointing the dialog at a directory on the CD and letting an .inf install the driver but Creative insist on packing things in their own installer.
They've come under some criticism for this since the exectuable delivery format lets them install other programs at the same time that you may not necessarily want or need. I'd much prefer a zipped driver but exectutable style it is.
The CD installer is in stages with the driver and core Creative applications being installed first (you can choose what's installed thank god) and then you are presented with the option to install the extra software supplied on the CD.
This is where this review will fall down slightly since I'm not a fan of Creative's applications at all and never use them. I can't offer up any insight into their usefullness since I don't use them on a daily basis. I like to install a sound card and then my own choice of applications on top for using it and unfortunately those applications don't include anything from Creative.
The Creative Surround Mixer is usually installed for me when I first install the card on an operating system so that I can setup the speaker outputs and get the levels right for everything and then it's uninstalled. However if the bundled software is your thing you'll find everything from full music management applications, recording software and the Creative Taskbar to Internet Radio software. Everything you might need is provided, just I don't choose to use it.
After the drivers are installed it's time to check that everything works right and I'm getting audio from both front and rear channels and that stereo seperation is working.
For Hexus in the labs the card installed like a dream. Some cards have definite issues however. Our sample from Creative worked without an issue, but the card which Ryszard uses doesn't.
Apparently there has been two models of Audigy floating around the markets, the SB0090 and the SB0092. On any of Ryszard's test systems the rear channel has refused to work and neither has the FireWire network adapter.
Operating System compatibility is limited to Windows 98SE, Windows 2000, Windows Millennium Edition or Windows XP and Creative maintains a massive list of EAX compatible games here but nothing specific on the new implementation of EAX Advanced HD.
The card was fine running all the test games including Serious Sam, Serious Sam: Second Encounter, Quake3, Quake3: Team Arena, Max Payne, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Microsoft Train Simulator, Unreal Tournament, Deus Ex and many others.
For testing AC3 compatibility I ran the digital out to my Sony Dolby Digital/DTS decoder and I managed to her the output - it ran fine. Some of the owners of the SB0090 cards can not hear the output - you need to check you get the newer card.
Playing MP3's via Winamp was more successful however and there was a genuine improvement in audio quality when listening to the audio via my Sony AV amp and speakers compared to an SB Live! or CMI8738 onboard audio. But if you try lower quality sound output you can not hear the difference - but if you are in to AV seriously, you will have better speakers.
The board has a nice specification and performed well when playing music via mid range audio equipment. Some of the problems with the cards are that people are having major issues with the rear channel which sometimes is defunct, the FireWire networking driver doesn't function and digital out doesn't work at all. This removes 3 of the main selling points on this card in one fell swoop. This is an issue, Creative really need to get it resolved or else there could be more and more issues which could crop up, There is a new revision of the card on the market which resolves the problems and one of our test cards was fine, the other exhibited the problems. The cards are excellent. If only there wasn't this issue with some of the current cards on the market.
This is an excellent card but there are a large number of people with problems that wont tell you that. Creative could fix this issue via drivers then this card would sure win an award from Team Hexus, we will only see...