A Closer Look

X-Fi Sound Cards Blast Built-In Competition

By Daniel Greenberg
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Back in the early days of the personal computer, when we mostly worked with document and spreadsheet files, the sound system didn't matter much. Today, with digital music and video games dominating much of the PC's work, the quality of the sound has become much more important.

For many, the sound card that comes built into the PC is sufficient for casual listening. Hard-core gamers and music aficionados know that an add-on product -- notably one of the sound-enhancement products from the Sound Blaster family by Creative Technology Ltd. ( http://www.creative.com/ ) -- will do wonders with a bit of an investment.

Creative's latest addition -- the X-Fi -- is a sound card that promises rich and crisp audio, and it delivers. It comes in four versions, ranging from $130 for a basic card to $400 for a robust music-creation suite with plenty of input and output capabilities.

We compared the least-expensive X-Fi to Intel's High Definition Audio circuitry, which is built into many new PCs and is, in itself, a huge improvement on the rather tiny, hiccup-prone built-in audio that's found on most existing PCs.

The X-Fi easily surpassed Intel's latest and greatest built-in sound hardware by producing startlingly rich and clear audio from CDs and MP3s. It also delivered much more detailed surround sound in DVDs and games, even when heard through inexpensive 5.1 surround sound speakers.

It delivers simulated surround sound through conventional stereo headphones that sounds better than the processed surround effects on any other card we've heard, even through low-end headphones. This surround effect sounds even sharper and more defined on higher-end headphones, with the sound seeming to originate from farther away in space.

The results are striking in games, where the surround-sound effect is so detailed that players in some games can locate an unseen opponent by sound alone. Even Intel's best built-in audio lacks the X-Fi's precision. Sound effects on the Intel card can be murky at times, and human voices come across as somewhat artificial in comparison with the more natural sound of the X-Fi.

The X-Fi's extra clarity opens up a world of sounds that are not even audible using built-in sound, substantially improving the sense of immersion in the game environment. Dozens of moving sounds in a game can become a cacophony on built-in sound, but the X-Fi keeps each sound reasonably distinct and makes it easier to focus on the important ones.

This clear, rich surround sound also enlivens DVD audio with stunning detail that appears to emerge from different locations in space. It supports home theater formats such as THX, Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES (but not Dolby Digital Live) and improves even further when used with a 7.1 surround-sound system instead of 5.1.

Another thing to remember about basic sound cards is that they sometimes require extra work from the computer's main processor and sometimes can create slowdowns or stutters in the graphics. For DVD watching, that's usually not a problem because the PC is rarely doing anything other than playing the movie. But if the computer is playing a game, the slowdowns become quite a problem. X-Fi not only fixed the audio glitches but smoothed over some graphics stutters, as well -- though the improvements were more obvious on low-end and mid-range PCs. The higher-end PCs marketed to gamers tend to come with upgraded components to address those issues.

For music playback using the X-Fi, individual instruments were easier to distinguish and quiet sections were noticeably quieter. Subjective listening tests did not confirm Creative's claim that MP3s sound better than the original CD, but high-quality MP3s sounded almost indistinguishable from CDs, and even highly compressed MP3s sounded clearer when played through the X-Fi instead of the standard audio.

The X-Fi comes with a host of tools for audio creation and playback, including a switcher to optimize the hardware for games, entertainment and audio creation.

However, the least expensive version, the $130 X-Fi XtremeMusic, lacks some common digital outputs. The $200 Sound Blaster X-Fi Platinum adds a host of plugs to the front panel of the PC, including those missing on the base card. The panel also makes it easy for podcasters and musicians to use higher-quality microphones.

The high-end Elite Pro is targeted more at musicians who are looking for a professional recording tool at an amateur's price.

The X-Fi must be installed inside the PC's case, but the installation was fast and relatively painless. Unlike many other sound cards, the X-Fi does not add a FireWire connection. The biggest downside is the relatively high price of the enhanced cards.

But if you're a sound snob, the quality you'll get for your money makes the X-Fi more than worth the price.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company