Impressions & Conclusions
Typical users hold onto their sound cards longer than most other components inside their computer, and with PCI-Express becoming more mainstream, the Sound Blaster X-Fi will probably be the last PCI sound card you will buy before the PCI slot completely disappears. Seeing how you’re going to live with it for the next while, how does the X-Fi measure up to expectations?
Music to Your Ears
From the testing I did on the 24-bit Crystalizer and CMSS-3D, I can say for certain that the X-Fi will benefit music listeners the most – the 24-bit Crystalizer made all music I listened to sound richer and more defined, while CMSS-3D made my stereo (2.1) set up sound more enveloping without the need of surround speakers. However, I was hard pressed to find any qualitative benefit to these two technology features while watching movies or playing games; with the features on or off it didn’t make any real difference to the audio I was hearing.
While I did not find CMSS-3D or the 24-bit Crystalizer beneficial, the X-Fi does provide some features worth considering for gaming. X-RAM is something that will likely benefit the gamer in the future much like how RAM works on video cards. You can expect developers to take advantage of the buffer for bigger or uncompressed audio samples which ultimately means better sounding audio or a faster performing game.
If you’re on the fence with the X-Fi, consider gaming as a big factor. At the moment there’s no real quality improvement (see 24-bit Crystalizer and CMSS-3D) to audio or performance improvement with the X-Fi (see Game Testing). I would wait a few months to see which titles are going to support X-RAM and then decide on a purchase, otherwise your current Audigy 2 ZS will do you just fine which performs and sounds just as good as the X-Fi (minus the X-RAM).
With CMSS-3D and Crystalizer enabeled, the Sound Blaster X-Fi produced much better sound than the Audigy 2, Envy 24-PT, or HD Audio. However, with the effects turned off, all sound cards sounded very similar in music and DVD playback. In games, the X-Fi had better spatial sound than Envy or HD Audio, but sounded very similar to the Audigy 2 ZS. If you’re looking for a clear difference between the X-Fi and the Audigy 2, make sure to turn on CMSS-3D and the Crystalizer.
CMSS-3D and a stereo (2.0 or 2.1) configuration will give the sound field produced by music a nice boost – it fooled me into thinking my surround speakers were still on.
Are you itching to improve your sound quality right now? I would recommend investing in good quality speakers since it’s no use to buy a premium sound card and have it hooked up to speakers that have muddy sound reproduction.
Compatibility Problems with nForce 4 Motherboards (Update: Nov 3rd, 2005)
It has come to my attention that the X-Fi sound card may be incompatible with certain nForce 4 motherboards. I have confirmed this myself using the EPoX 9NPA+ SLI board, but everything works fine on the ECS KN1 Extreme.
If this is a problem that afflicts your X-Fi / NF4 setup, then either contact Creative Labs for a firmware update, or acquire the appropriate BIOS update from your board manufacturer. If you need assistance please check our Audio Forum and the people there will take care of you.
If you’re a big music listener then the effects of the 24-bit Crystalizer alone is worth it and it really does make your music sound better. Movies, unfortunately, did not benefit in the same way music did which goes contrary to what you would expect. I could not hear a substantial difference with CMSS-3D and 24-bit Crystalizer enabled to strongly suggest the X-Fi for solely movie watching. With regards to gaming, without a large selection of titles supporting X-RAM and the lack of any real improvement to sound quality, there’s not much reason to upgrade from an Audigy 2 at the moment. Performance in games didn’t change when comparing the X-Fi without X-RAM to an Audigy 2 ZS. So if you’re planning on gaming a lot, seriously consider an X-RAM model for future games.
The Sound Blaster X-Fi is very much a sound card for the future as Creative Labs markets it and wide adoption of their latest product will heavily depend on game developer support and on pricing. I have no doubt the X-Fi will be the sound card of choice for gamers and music lovers in the near future, but don’t throw out that old Audigy 2 just yet!
Where to Now?
Now that Creative Labs has released their next flagship audio product, where do we go from here? Notably missing from the product line-up is a cheap X-RAM package. Currently the only way to get X-RAM is if you purchase the Fatal1ty bundle and get the remote control and front panel, but what if you just want the card by itself? I assume Creative did this intentionally to give their initial release products a chance to sell before canibalizing their own market share.
What about the competition? The competition in the audio market isn’t as fierce as the graphics market so you can expect products to improve much more slowly. Currently there’s no direct competition to the X-Fi in terms of features and performance, but solutions from VIA are able to compete in price. I wouldn’t be surprised to see NVIDIA get back into the audio game in the next few years. Their design and engineering is legendary and would seriously give Creative Labs some serious comeptition.
Feel free to use our Pricegrabber service to help you locate the best deal on this next generation sound card!