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Reviewed by: Carl Nelson [05.05.06]
Manufactured by: Creative Labs


The Drivers

The installation CD includes the usual bloated version of Creative's drivers and Audio Console, with fancy graphics to please the eyes. Unfortunately, despite all of X-Fi's computing power and improvements in audio quality, Creative hasn't gotten over the need to include big, fat, bloated drivers on their installation CD's.

Luckily, the downloadable version of these drivers do not include the extra garbage, and unlike in the past, you do not lose all functionality of your Creative card when using downloadable drivers.

In the past, Creative supplied the basic Windows drivers for their products, but no alternative to the bloated Audio Console, where users would set things like EAX and CMSS. This left those who have lost their original installation CD's frustrated, as they were left on their own to find an ISO of the driver CD, or lose most of the functions of their Soundblaster.

Lately, Creative has been offering downloadable versions of the Audio Console for many of their products, like the Audigy 2 ZS and X-Fi. The Audio Console is now built into the drivers themselves.

Onto the Drivers...

Active Modal Architecture

Earlier in the review, I talked about Active Modal Architecture. This unique function of the driver allows the user to set their X-Fi card to best suit the what kind of audio functions they'll be using it for. You can select from Entertainment Mode (Select this mode for the highest quality music and movie playback experience), Game Mode (Select this mode for the most powerful game audio processing solution), and Audio Creating Mode (Select this mode if your primary activities will be recording, mixing, and composing).

It's a bit more involved than that though; in addition to changing various control panel settings (such as enabling CMSS 3D and disabling the 24-bit Crystalizer when you switch to Entertainment Mode), various other changes are made.

Entertainment Mode

  • Using the SRC engine I mentioned on the first page, all audio sources are upsampled to 24 bit/96 kHz. As I mentioned before, the quality on this is very good compared to other soundcards.
  • CMSS3D is enabled, giving a 3D effect to 2D sound. It has always been my opinion that stereo music was meant to be listened to in stereo, as the original artist intended. Various artists are playing with surround sound on their releases (see Blue Man Group and Nine Inch Nails for good examples of this), and in my opinion, it should be the artist that decides what sounds are direct to which speakers, not some software. However, playing around with CMSS3D a bit, some music actually suits this effect. Usually electronic music, like some Nine Inch Nails tracks, Front Line Assembly, and Skinny Puppy, in my experience. Heavily layered music like from Download or Tool just sounds terrible with CMSS3D.
  • When ripping CD's in this mode, the resulting MP3's are upsampled at that time, using the above techniques. It isn't specified, but I imagine you'd have to use Creative's own (bloated) MediaSource software to do this.
  • Hardware 3D Audio acceleration is disabled
  • Recording is only supported up to 2 channels (stereo)

Gaming Mode

  • This is where the X-Fi engine is allowed to shine. EAX 5.0 is only supported in this mode, as is any sort of 3D acceleration.
  • CMSS3D is enabled when headphones are used - this actually improves surround effect quite a bit. Back when they were in a battle with Aureal (before suing them into the ground), Creative always lacked in surround sound with audio channels. However they are getting better at it with each product release.
  • The 24-bit Crystalizer is enabled, upsampling sounds to 24 bit. The effect of this is argued by many; some say it sounds "more clear" and "clearly better" while others say it just sounds louder. It should be noted that in some blind tests, simply increasing the volume by a small amount had the same effect on the testers as enabling the Crystalizer.

Audio Creating Mode

  • Recording Mode is the only way to allow the recording capabilities to fully shine at full 24-bit 96 kHz sampling with low latency ASIO 2.0 support. Also, it's the only way to record in multiple channels.
  • Hardware effects can be added to any audio stream
  • Bit-Matched playback is only supported in Recording Mode
  • CMSS is not available
  • Recording Mode

AMA is an interesting way to handle the obviously robust X-Fi engine. My only issue is having to remember switching back and forth whenever I do something different (usually switching from Entertainment Mode to Game Mode when watching a game - you don't want to forget that!). Most people will probably just leave it in Game Mode.

Next Page: (Performance; Audio Quality)