Creative X-Fi Xtreme Audio
- Excellent sound quality, intuitive mixer interface and equaliser settings
- Some games may not run properly under Windows Vista, so it's best to check Creative's Web site for the games compatibility list
Do yourself a favour and upgrade from the integrated sound on your motherboard to this X-Fi card. Its sound quality was excellent, as was its ability to record from line sources.
Price$ 139.00 (AUD)
Buying a sound card for a new PC isn't something many of us have thought about doing for many years. After all, motherboards have built-in audio that does the job just fine, right? Well, that's true to a point. A dedicated sound card can give you cleaner, richer sound if you have discerning ears and top quality speakers, and it can also supply a bank of built-in sounds, which can be tapped into when using a MIDI-based controller or audio creation software.
Creative's X-Fi Xtreme Audio sound card is one that should be added to the cutting list of your new PC build or upgrade project. It's one of the latest devices on the market to harness the PCI Express (PCIe) bus; a PCIe x1 interface, which is short in length, can be used in any sized PCIe slots on your motherboard. It's easy to install if you follow the supplied instructions, although the software installation can take more than 12min to complete, which is frustrating. Remember to also disable the sound chip on your motherboard and to uninstall the previous audio drivers if you can.
Compared to the integrated sound of a Realtek ALC888 chip that's found on many recent motherboards, the Creative X-Fi will do a better job, and it won't take up as many CPU cycles. It also has a much better software interface. The card can output sound to as many as eight speakers (7.1-channel) either via its analogue or optical digital outputs.
Its sound was superb during our tests under Windows XP and Vista, even at maximum volume. Background noise was inaudible; with some sound cards, you can hear a hissing in the background when the card is idle, but with the X-Fi, there wasn't any hissing at all. Indeed, it boasts a signal-to-noise ratio of 104dB, which is a high figure.
Using analogue connections, low and high-range frequencies sounded punchy, yet warm during our tests, and mid-range frequencies weren't drowned out at all (we used a set of Creative Inspire speakers for our tests). Various preset equaliser levels can be applied to the sound, and a graphic equaliser allows you to adjust each frequency manually, and easily. As for the card's control panel, it's much more intuitive than Realtek's solution, and (in Windows XP) it has an easy option for recording sound called 'Record what you hear'. Basically, this does as its name suggests, so any sound that your PC makes, you'll be able to record.
We found its ability to record from a line-in source exemplary, as it allowed us to easily adjust the sound level for clear and accurate recordings (this is something that some Realtek chips can't do properly). So if recording the input from an external sound source is something you'll be doing frequently, then this card will help you do it without any fuss.
If you want to get fancy, you can use the card's virtual speakers setting to obtain a surround sound-like effect when listening through headphones, and this works surprisingly well, even on Sennheiser MX90 VC headphones.
Of course, the sound card also supports surround sound and 3D sound for gaming, but it also requires the use of a program called ALchemy in order to run many games with surround sound under Windows Vista. ALchemy detected our installed games and we were able to run them with EAX effect enabled. FEAR had no problems running with ALchemy and directional sounds were clearly distinct.
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