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Reviewed by: Carl Nelson [12.16.08]
Manufactured by: Creative



In addition to the gaming and audio quality performance we've looked at so far, the X-Fi aims to add more features to enhance the user's experience. We should take a look at some of these as well, since some of them are pretty good. These features were formerly only available when you installed drivers from the included CD (Creative only used to offer barebones drivers on their website) but you can now download and install all drivers, control software, and applications from their support site.

The first and most important driver function is probably the ablity to switch between different "modes".

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

This 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.

When we first reviewed the X-Fi Fatal1ty in 2006, we called it the "soundcard of the future". Mostly because many of the features were beyond what game developers ever had access to, and very few used them (at the time, only two games had X-RAM support). Unfortunately, as it turns out, it was designed for a different future. Creative certainly weren't counting on Microsoft dropping the ability to accelerate DirectSound 3D in hardware. Because of this, most games seem to be opting for their own 3D audio engine (or licensing multiplatform APIs from the likes of fmod which allows them to share the engine across consoles and PCs).

So with the PCI Express Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Professional Series, we have a "soundcard of the future" but really from the past... It is almost identical to the one we looked t in 2006, and most of its biggest features have been rendered essentially useless in Vista. However, thanks to some clever programming it is not completely useless. If you've ever played a game in Vista, and noticed that it doesn't sound quite "right" (ie vocals are too quiet, sounds coming from the wrong direction, etc), running ALchemy will fix those issues with no performance hit. The first thing I do before playing any game is see if it is listed on the ALchemy database. If it is, it's almost always a better idea to use it.

The new PCI-E version does improve upon the card we looked at in terms of connectivity; the old one only had 6 channels of analog output on the card itself - other channels had to be piggy-backed together via a special cable that wasn't even included in the package. Also, the only form of digital output on the card was in the form of a shared mini-jack port with Line-In. The new version not only has true 8 channel analog output, but TOSlink digital audio outputs and inputs as well. There is actually a version of this card with a 5.25" drive bay, but it's not really necessary.

Other features, like the 24-bit 96 kHz upsampling, Crystalizer, CMSS-3D, etc are retained in Vista, so it's up to you to decide how useful those features are.

Onboard audio has done a lot to catch up to Creative's Sound Blaster products, and Vista (and console-oriented game design) has helped level the playing field further. But if you want the absolute most features and best Vista gaming experience, the PCI Express Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Professional Series is sitll worth a look. By the skin of its teeth.

  • Sounds great still
  • Full 8 channel output on the card
  • Optical digital input AND output
  • ALchemy fixes some games
  • EAX still sounds great in the few games that use it
  • Free DTS and Dolby Digital passthrough
  • Finally, a use for those PCI-E X1 slots!

  • Onboard audio has caught up in quality
  • Vista severely hampers overall usefulness of this product
  • Expensive