Creative uses some pretty good components on their X-Fi Titanium Professional Series cards, giving it an impressive 109 dB signal to noise ratio. It supports stereo output up to 24-bit 192 KHz, but all other channels (and inputs) are limited to 24-bit 96 kHz. Back when the X-Fi first came out, 24-bit 192 kHz uncompressed sound was limited to stereo DVD-Audio and such. Since then though, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD have introduced support for up to 6 channels encoded at 24/192 by way of DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. This might seem like a severe limitation, but even though the ability is there, even the best sounding Blu-Ray movies use sampling rates no higher than 48 kHz usually.
That was impressive in 2006, but it’s 2008 now, and onboard audio is beginning to catch up. For instance, the Realtek ALC889a codec boasts 108 dB and 104 dB SNR’s on their DAC and ADC respectively. It supports up to 24/192 on all 10 of channels, input and output. It even has the same DTS passthrough support the X-Fi hs. Historically, onboard audio solutions have lagged behind high quality soundcards like the Sound Blaster X-Fi series. Let’s see if Realtek’s latest (found on many higher-end motherboards) makes up for this. For these tests, we used loopback mode in RMAA to test overall (recording and playback at once) quality. 16-bit 44 kHz and 24-bit 96 kHz were both tested:
As you can see, the ALC889a not only catches up to the X-Fi, but beats it in some tests. It is particularly better with 24-bit audio, so those building home theatre systems should keep that in consideration.
So now that good integrated audio codecs have caught up to Creative in terms of audio quality, all that’s left is gaming performance, right? And as we mentioned earlier, Microsoft’s new UAA has essentially put all soundcards on a level playing field in this field as well.
Not really; not all games work the same way on all soundcards – some still support OpenAL, and thus will still fully support X-Fi’s hardware acceleration and EAX effects. Those that use DirectSound 3D can still be passed through via ALchemy to re-enable hardware acceleration (and in many cases, restre proper surround sound). Some games (like Call of Duty 4 and Crysis) will always run from the CPU, and should sound the same no matter which soundcard is being used.
To get a clear perspective on performance, we dusted off our old Windows XP discs and used it for some benchmarking. The same games were played using both Windows XP and Vista, and the latest drivers for each. This will tell us not only how the X-Fi compares to onboard audio in its best environment (XP) but in the OS that most people are using today. It should also be interesting to take a look at which OS is better for gaming performance overall.
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 (reviewed here)
Memory: 2GB OCZ PC2 6400 SOE Urban Elite 4-4-3-15 (reviewed here)
Video Card: GeForce 8800GT 512MB
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-X48-DQ6
Video Drivers: 180.48
X-Fi Drivers: 2.17.0004
Realtek Drivers: 2.11
CoD4 uses a full software engine that doesn’t use DirectSound 3D. Therefore, it will run similarly on all soundcards, regardless of using XP or Vista. This also means it is not compatible with ALchemy.
Crysis also bypasses DirectSound 3D, so once again performance is quite similar between the two soundcards within an OS.
I’m not exactly sure what audio engine Dead Space uses, but clearly it runs better on the X-Fi.
Fallout 3 is one of those games that only sounds right in Vista when ALchemy is used. Luckily, ALchemy not only introduces no performance penalty, but in fact offers better performance than pure software mode.
Far Cry 2 also only sounds right in Vista with ALchemy enabled. The most interesting result here though is the 10% higher performance when played in Windows XP.
Unlike older Source engine games, HL2E2 sounds okay in Vista software mode right out of the box. Unfortunately, that incurs a huge performance drop as you can see above.
As you can see, the huge performance advantage once seen on the X-Fi is no longer there. If you are using Vista though, many games will not have proper surround sound without it. If you’ve played Far Cry 2 and noticed that the voices are really quiet, and seem to come from random speakers, ALchemy fixes that. And to use ALchemy, you need an X-Fi.
As a side note, it’s also interesting to see how poorly some of these games perform in Vista compared to XP. We’ll be taking a closer look at this at a later time; subscribe to our RSS feed to keep up to date on that.