When we last reviewed a gaming soundcard, Creative had just launched the first Sound Blaster product based on the X-Fi controller. This controller features hardware acceleration of DirectSound 3D, freeing up resources for the CPU. It even had its own onboard memory chip, which developers could utilize to have higher quality sound files in their games. Finally, EAX5 was introduced, allowing up to 128 voices to be played at once in high definition sampling rates. The most any 3rd party could license from Creative was EAX2, which only supports up to 32 voices, and only in low-fi 16 bit resolution.
On top of that, they used pretty decent audio components, making for quite high audio quality from both digital and audio outputs.
Unfortunately, that was back in the Windows XP days, before Microsoft took hardware acceleration out of DirectSound 3D. Suddenly, those games that supported 128 voices and 7.1 surround sound were stuck in stereo mode. This put Creative’s cards back on a level playing field with even the crappiest of onboard codecs at first. Games using the OpenAL API maintained hardware acceleration, but those games aren’t nearly as common as those using DirectSound 3D.
Since then, Creative has come up with a workaround in the form of ALchemy, a wrapper program which takes DirectSound 3D calls and converts them to OpenAL. This allows most games to use their hardware acceleration, but full EAX5 support is often still gone. These days, most PC games are merely ports from PS3 and XBOX 360, so there is little reason for developers to spend time adding EAX features. Also, CPUs have come a long way in the past 2 years, so it’s really not too much to ask of them to handle 3D audio.
As it stands, ALchemy is a great solution for playing older EAX games in Vista, and sometimes fixes newer games which will not support proper surround sound in Vista. I found this to be the case with both Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3. Both games had crappy surround sound to start with, but once I sent them through ALchemy, they sounded much better, with sounds coming from the proper surround channels for once.
So it would seem like Vista has pretty much killed off or at least lessened the need for soundcards like the “PCI Express Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Professional Series” (yes, that’s the full name). Nonetheless, we’ll take a look at this new product from Creative.
PCI-E, and that’s about it
If you’re wondering what’s different about the card above and the one we reviewed back in May 2006, the answer is: not much. The onboard components are almost identical, meaning the audio features and quality will be the same. The other main additions are optical digital audio inputs and outputs on the card itself (the old card required a breakout box on the more expensive versions). Also, the card above comes with software that dynamically encodes surround sound to Dolby Digital (Vista, XP) or DTS (Vista only), allowing you to use a digital audio connections while maintaining surround sound in games. Without this feature, optical audio would only work as a pass-through for movies – everything else would go through as stereo PCM.
This same software is apparently available for the older X-Fi cards, but as a commercial purchase only (although I haven’t found where to buy it).
And that’s about it! If you already own an X-Fi Fatal1ty card that uses PCI, there is very little reason to upgrade to the PCI-E version unless you REALLY want to fill those X1 slots that have been sitting empty in your system for years. If you are building a new system however, this is the one you’ll be looking at.