Back when we all had to use ISA sound cards, PC audio wasn't much fun. The quality was pretty poor or, sometimes non-existent - allocating resources to ISA cards could be a tricky chore. And the same was true of the next step – getting a program or game to see and use the card. Thankfully, plug and play turned up and things got a lot easier. Eventually. Quality also improved, including that of Midi – which was used in games back then.
PC audio has come a long way, what with surround sound, environmental audio effects and a whole array of other advancements. But one name echoes down the years - Sound Blaster. It was there in ISA days; was the name on a huge-number of first-generation PCI sound cards; and it's still with us today.
As you'd expect with such a long-stayer, Creative's audio family has moved with the times and that is reflected in its latest offering – the four-strong Sound Blaster X-Fi range. This spans prices from about £100 to £250 and provides enthusiasts with add-in alternatives to the on-board audio that is common in many of today's PCs. We'll be looking at the range-leading Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro in a moment but for now, a bit more background.
When onboard audio first arrived on the scene it was about as much fun to work with as an ISA sound card. However, the birth of Intel's AC97 audio solution paved the way for a new generation of cheap integrated audio packages that worked, and worked pretty well. Then NVIDIA's Sound Storm came along and rocked the world with its hardware Dolby encoder but it only lived as long the nForce 2 core-logic platform. Since then it's been AC97 all the way, with current versions supporting coaxial and optical outputs and 6.1 channel, and even plug-and-play audio devices. However, AC97 has no way of handling fancy audio effects – all the clever work has to be carried out by the system's CPU.
Okay, basic audio playback, even multi-channel, isn't going to make a modern PC flinch. But, crank up the environmental effects, 3D positioning and beyond and it can have an impact, most notably in games. Users want an immersive gaming experience and that includes audio and visual effects. So, the last thing they want is audio effects potentially reducing on-screen frame rates or straining the CPU. Creative's latest audio processor, the X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity - as used across the X-Fi range - flaunts an array of sound-enhancing features, plus the latest version of EAX and more, all dealt with by the card itself.
Testing audio hardware can be tricky and the results confusing. Signal-to-noise ratios, frequency response, dynamic range and distortion are but a few aspects of an audio system that can be analysed. However, will the results mean anything to you, the end user? Maybe. But probably not.
Consequently, we're approaching this review from the perspective of the end user, looking not at numbers but at the experience. Is X-Fi easy to set up and use? What features are there and will they be useful? Find out as we explore what you can do with an X-Fi.