Gamer Card

Sound Blaster X-Fi

Sound Blaster X-Fi is a PCI or PCI-E sound card series from Creative Technology. It is an add-on board for PCs.

The X-Fi (for "Extreme Fidelity") was released in August 2005 and comes in XtremeMusic, Platinum, Fatal1ty FPS, XtremeGamer and Elite Pro configurations. The 130 nm EMU20K1 audio chip operates at 400 MHz and has 51 million transistors. The computational power of this processor, i.e. its performance, is estimated as 10,000 MIPS (million instructions per second), which is about 24 times higher than the estimated performance of its predecessor – the Audigy processor. It is interesting to note that the processor’s computational power is optimized for the work mode selected in the software. With the X-Fi's "Active Modal Architecture" (AMA), the user can choose one of three optimization modes: Gaming, Entertainment, and Creation; each enabling a combination of the features of the chipset.

The X-Fi uses EAX 5.0 which supports up to 128 3D-positioned voices with up to four effects applied to each. This release also included the 24 bit crystalizer, which is intended to pronounce percussion elements by placing some emphasis on low and high pitched parts of the sound. The X-Fi, at its release, offered some of the most powerful mixing capabilities available, making it a powerful entry-level card for home musicians. The other big improvement in the X-Fi over the previous Audigy designs was the complete overhaul of the resampling engine on the card. The previous Audigy cards had their DSPs locked at 48/16, meaning any content that didn't match was resampled on the card in hardware; which was done poorly and resulted in a lot of intermodulation distortion. Many hardcore users worked around this by means of resampling their content using high quality software decoders, usually in the form of a plugin in their media player. Creative completely re-wrote the resampling method used on the X-Fi and dedicated more than half of the power of the DSP to the process; resulting in a very clean resample.

Overview

The X-Fi (for "Extreme Fidelity") was released in August 2005 by Creative and initially ranging from XtremeMusic (lowest-end), to Platinum, Fatal1ty FPS, and (top-of-the-range) Elite Pro configurations. The top-end Elite Pro model was aimed at musicians, bundled with the X-Fi external I/O box (offering phono with preamp inputs for turntables, high-impedance input for guitars, 0.25-inch mic input, headphone output, line-in, and full size MIDI I/O, as well as optical and RCA Coaxial digital inputs and outputs), and remote control. The Platinum and Fatal1ty FPS models both offer a front-panel drive-bay control unit and remote control, while the base model was supplied without any such accessories. All but the top model claimed 109dB signal-to-noise ratio, while the Elite Pro model uses a higher-end DAC, with 116dB claimed. The bottom two models feature 2MB RAM of 'X-RAM', while the top models offer 64MB, designed for use in games to store sound samples for improved gaming performance.

October 2006 saw a minor rebranding: the X-Fi XtremeMusic edition, which was in fact a highly capable gaming card, as it offers hardware decoding and EAX support, was replaced with the XtremeGamer model. The revised model featured half-width PCB, non-gold-plated connectors, optical out instead of the digital out and digital I/O module jack, and lacked the connector for users wishing to purchase a separate X-Fi I/O box. Functionality is otherwise the same.

The market segment occupied by the XtremeMusic was moved downwards, with the introduction of the (cheaper) 'Xtreme Audio' and 'Xtreme Audio Notebook' products, which, despite the "X-Fi" label, are the only products in the X-Fi line not using the EMU20K1 chip (CA20K1) (CA0106-WBTLF) and thus lacking the hardware acceleration of 3D sound and EAX sound effects, gaming and content creation features and the I/O extensibility of all the other X-Fi models. Despite the name, the Xtreme Gamer card offers a better signal-to-noise ratio and lower total harmonic distortion than the Xtreme Audio, and is hence a better card even purely for music use, though the marketing of the two products suggests that Creative believes the cheaper product to be adequate for most users.

The other new product introduced was the X-Fi 'XtremeGamer Fatal1ty Pro', identical in function to the Fatal1ty FPS, but made more affordable by the unbundling of the I/O panel and remote control.

Creative also released an external solution (named x-mod) in November 2006 which is listed in the same category as the rest of the X-Fi lineup, but is only a stereo device, marketed to improve music playing from laptop computers, and with lower specifications of the internal offerings.

The 130 nm EMU20K1 audio chip operates at 400 MHz and has 51 million transistors. The computational power of this processor, i.e. its performance, is estimated as 10,000 MIPS (million instructions per second), which is actually about 24 times higher than the estimated performance of its predecessor—the Audigy processor. It is interesting to note that the processor’s computational power is optimized for the work mode selected in the software. With the X-Fi's "Active Modal Architecture" (AMA), the user can choose one of three optimization modes (Gaming, Entertainment, and Creation), each of which enables a different combination of the features of the chipset. The Xtreme Audio model lacks the EMU20K1 chip and thus only supports the "Entertainment" mode via software emulation, while all other models support all three modes. X-Fi models that support "Gaming" mode use EAX 5.0, which supports up to 128 3D-positioned voices with up to four effects applied to each. The X-Fi, at its release, offered some of the most powerful mixing capabilities available, and made it a powerful entry-level card for home musicians.

The audio processor on X-Fi was by far the most powerful at its time of release, offering an extremely robust sample rate conversion (SRC) engine in addition to enhanced internal sound channel routing options and greater 3D audio enhancement capabilities. A significant portion of the audio processing unit was devoted to this resampling engine. The SRC engine was far more capable than previous Creative sound card offerings, a limitation that had been a major thorn in Creative's side. Most digital audio is sampled at 44.1 kHz, a standard no doubt related to CD Digital Audio, while sound cards were often designed to process audio at 48 kHz. So, the 44.1 kHz audio must be resampled to 48 kHz (Creative's previous cards' DSPs operated at 48 kHz) for the audio DSP to be able to process and affect it. A poor resampling implementation introduces artifacts into the audio which can be heard, and measured as higher intermodulation distortion, within higher frequencies (generally 16 kHz and up). X-Fi's resampling engine produces a near-lossless-quality result, far exceeding any known audio card DSP available at the time of release. This functionality is used not only for simple audio playback, but for several other features of the card such as the "Crystalizer", a technology that claims to improve the clarity of digital music through digital analysis (supported by all X-Fi models, including the Xtreme Audio and X-Mod).

The 20K1 chip can use a significant amount of RAM to store sound effects for faster and improved processing, just like the previous E-mu 10K-series and E-mu 8000. This feature, dubbed X-RAM by Creative and found on the higher-end models in the X-Fi line (the Elite Pro, Fatal1ty and XtremeGamer Fatal1ty Pro Series), is claimed to offer quality improvement through audio processing capability enhancement, in addition to further reduction in host system CPU overhead.

In 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, Creative Technology unveiled PCI Express x1 and ExpressCard/54 versions of Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio.

X-Fi features

The Sound Blaster X-Fi presents the following features, which are usually implemented with the aid of the X-Fi DSP or in software, in the Xtreme Audio model.

  • 24-bit Crystalizer

Creative Labs states that primary function of the 24-bit Crystalizer is to "restore portions of the sound which were lost during compression" . In theory this can be done by advanced interpolation techniques. In practice, the Crystalizer is a dedicated, dynamic equalizer (Exciter). Its main function is to enhance the high and low frequencies of the input audio. Other functions include modifying a certain range of frequencies in order to achieve better perceived sound quality on a wider array of equipment such as headphones and speakers, and also to digitally increase the volume by about 3dB. As a consequence of enabling the Crystalizer, the original signal is altered, and whether the result improves upon the original audio is purely a matter of perception and can depend on the type of audio being played.

  • CMSS-3D

This feature is intended for both headphones and speakers. CMSS-3D consists of 3 settings depending upon what equipment is used. With 2 speakers, CMSS-3DVirtual can be enabled for virtual 3D audio. If surround sound speakers are used, CMSS-3DSurround can upmix stereo sources up to 7.1 channels. There is also CMSS-3DHeadphone for virtual 3D audio when using headphones. Whether the results are desirable can depend upon speaker equipment and personal preference.

  • EAX Effects

Environmental Audio Extensions is designed to be enabled by game developers within a game to enhance the "simulated-reality" the user is modifying. There are also 8 built-in EAX effects which can be enabled by the user.

  • SVM

This is Smart Volume Management. It is a compressor or normalizer that tries to keep the volumes of various audio sources equal. It does alter the original recording so it may or may not be a desired option. It can be useful depending upon what audio is being played, or if two audio sources are being played at once.

  • Graphic Equalizer

This function divides music into ten frequency bands, which can be adjusted using the sliders.

  • The Mixer

There are multiple volume adjustments for different inputs and outputs on the system. The master volume affects all of these settings. The default and recommended value is 50% for all sources, which actually equates to a 0 dB amplification (none), while a 100% value causes a 6 dB amplification.

  • Dolby Digital Bitstream Out

This setting controls the DD sound decoder.

  • DTS Bitstream Out

This setting is the same as Dolby Digital Bitstream Out, only with DTS sound instead.

  • Linux support

On September 24, 2007 Creative Labs released a closed source unsupported beta driver providing Linux 64-bit OS support for the following Sound Blaster X-Fi series sound cards:

  • Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro
  • Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Platinum
  • Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Fatal1ty
  • Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer
  • Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeMusic

An open source driver is available with OSS v4 build 1013 and above. As of July 2008, ALSA does not support the X-Fi series. However, datasheets were provided to the ALSA team and drivers are now in development.

Criticism

Marketing

Creative Labs has received criticism for the way the X-Fi-series was marketed. This criticism mostly centered on the optional "Crystalizer" functionality—a DSP function which colors the output audio in an effort to improve perceived quality. Creative claims that this Crystalizer DSP could derive 24-bit resolution from audio recorded originally at 16-bit, which is misleading. The resolution of a recording mathematically limits its precision; however, 24-bit output resolution may allow for a more accurate representation of 16-bit input after processing has been performed.

Crystalizer is similar to many plugins that are available for digital audio players. Since the technology is proprietary, Creative has not released a great deal of information into the technical workings; only to describe it as a "signal-dependent, dynamic EQ", where as other testing has determined it's closer to a multi-band compressor. Whether or not the effect is beneficial is a qualitative measurement unique to each individual, and depends on the type of audio being played back.

Operating System support

As of July 2008, Creative does not yet officially support the use of Sound Blaster X-Fi with Microsoft Windows 2000. An X-Fi card's audio drivers (EMU20K1 chipset) may indeed install perfectly under Windows 2000 but the Creative Audio Console and other related software will likely refuse to recognize the device, thereby leaving the sound card in a default two-speaker mode. Fortunately a workaround exists, which enables full Creative software support under Windows 2000. The currently-working solution is to replace all instances of the file “ctxfispi.exe” in newer driver versions (e.g., SBXF_PCDRV_LB_2_09_0007.exe) with the same file from older drivers (e.g., SBXF_PCDRV_LB_2_07_0004.exe), as seen in Creative's own user forums. Please note that Windows 2000 audio management tools cannot be used to significantly tweak an X-Fi card, especially (and critically) with respect to speaker management. Also, the X-fi series sound cards were not fully compatible with Windows Vista 64 bit with systems using 4 gigabytes of RAM, though a driver update has now fixed this problem.

Drivers for Linux have been available for the X-Fi series since September 2007. Intended to be closed sourced beta, the decision resulted in a huge backlash from the community, as the drivers would only work for Linux systems built to use the older Slab allocation method and fails to load if the kernel is a SLUB kernel, and only worked if the kernel is of x86-64 architecture. It is thought that Creative have finally gave in to the community as the ALSA developers have reported as of August 2008 that they have received documentation of the card as well as sample hardware from Creative and that work to support the hardware has started . Also, there are open sourced drivers for the X-FI from , available for all major unices.

X-Fi Xtreme Audio

The entry-level model of the X-Fi series, the Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio, does not actually have the EMU20K1 chip but is a re-branded Audigy SE, using the same family of chips (CA0106-WBTLF), and even the same drivers. Thus, not only is all of the X-Fi–related processing performed in software, but it also lacks basic hardware acceleration just like the SB Live! 24-bit, the Audigy SE and other budget Soundblaster models. The X-Fi Xtreme Audio does not use the same drivers as the rest of the X-Fi family, some games do not recognize it as being "X-Fi capable hardware", and the device's hardware profile resembles that of older Live! and Audigy cards.

Furthermore, users have reported that it slows down some applications and games, and that rear sound in games (all) is muffled and of profoundly low quality. Thus, even if the card is marketed as part of the X-Fi line, it does not belong to it technically, just like the Audigy SE doesn't technically belong to the Sound Blaster Audigy series. The card is not marketed as supporting the "X-Fi Gaming Mode" (but is still marketed as "X-Fi"), and there are no official implicit or explicit statements regarding its having hardware acceleration or not.

X-Fi Xtreme Audio (PCI Express version)

On top of the Xtreme Audio's rear sound problem in games, the PCI Express version of the X-Fi Xtreme Audio suffers from the inability to record from a Microphone while simultaneously recording "What U Hear", which is possible in all other cards. The reason for this is unknown, but the issue is that the Windows audio Playback Control panel doesn't allow you to view the Mic channel when looking at your Playback Control sliders (activated by double-clicking the Windows Volume Control button). In the Windows audio Playback Control panel, the Mic can only be viewed in Recording Control, and there is no Mute/Unmute checkbox associated with it. The Creative Mixer shares the problem in a different way: you can unmute the Mic, but it becomes muted again once you switch to "What U Hear" as your recording source. Thus, on the PCI Express version of the Xtreme Audio (only) it is impossible to record your Mic and "What U Hear" at the same time, because you cannot get the Mic to output to the speakers while "What U Hear" is enabled.

Sound Issues with Crackling and Popping

A number of owners of X-Fi cards have come to experience what is known as a constant popping and crackling noise during use of the cards. Creative has attributed the case to be NForce motherboards, however many other users who do not use these motherboards continue to experience the sound issues. Creative has not provided a fix as of yet for this. Nevertheless there are unofficial recommendations how to solve these issues:

  • Move audiocard to another PCI slot and reinstall audiocard drivers.
  • Replace native disk controllers drivers with generic Windows ones.
  • Update motherboard's BIOS to latest version (including "beta" versions).
  • Set PCI Latency to 96 or more.
  • Use X-Fi card only in "Audio Creation Mode" with "Bit-matched playback" option on.
  • Overclock PCI bus to 40 MHz instead of 33 MHz.
  • Replace all the capacitors on the card (At the expense of warranty)

The newly revised EMU20K2 chipset used by the Titanium line of cards is said to solve the problem, further confirming the above PCI bus related fixes. New titanium line of cards has its own problems like microphone input not working etc.

X-Fi line-up

Card Release signal to noise ratio Chip RAM I/O Console I/O Drive Box Remote control Notes
Prelude Aug'07 120dB EMU20K1 64MB - High-end X-Fi product designed and marketed by Auzentech with Creative Labs' collaboration
Elite Pro Aug'05 116dB EMU20K1 64MB included - included additional software included
Titanium Fatal1ty Champion Jun'08 109dB EMU20K2 64MB - included optional
Titanium Fatal1ty Professional Jun'08 109dB EMU20K2 64MB - optional optional
Fatal1ty Aug'05 109dB EMU20K1 64MB optional included included also known as: Fatal1ty FPS / Fatal1ty Edition / Platinum Fatal1ty Champion
XtremeGamer Fatal1ty Pro Oct'06 109dB EMU20K1 64MB optional optional
Platinum (Discontinued) Aug'05 109dB EMU20K1 2MB optional included included
XtremeMusic (Discontinued) Aug'05 109dB EMU20K1 2MB optional optional still widely available as OEM product
Digital Audio (Discontinued) Sep'05 109dB EMU20K1 2MB optional optional Japan-only variant of XtremeMusic with additional jack extension
XtremeGamer Oct'06 109dB EMU20K1 2MB - optional Low profile card (half height), replacement for XtremeMusic
Xtreme Audio Oct'06 <109dB CA0106 - - optional Low profile card (half height), does not contain the EMU20K1 chipset used by the rest of the series. Is based on the same chipset as the Audigy 2 SE and SB Live! 24-bit. It also has Crystalizer and CMSS-3D. Also available for PCI Express and ExpressCard.

  • The I/O Console is an external box with analog and digital I/O audio jacks and volume control knobs. It is always bundled with the remote control
  • The I/O Drive Box is an internal 5 1/4 drive with analog and digital I/O audio jacks and volume control knobs. Also bundled with the remote control.
  • All cards have 3x 1/8 inch jacks for analog headphone/speaker output (2 of them are 4-segment-jacks for a total of 7.1 sound output)
  • All cards except XtremeGamer have 1x shared 1/8 inch jack for either: Line In / Microphone / Digital Out / Digital I/O Module. The optional Digital I/O Module is an external box for handling digital IO: 1x Coax In, 1x Coax Out, 1x Optical In, 1x Optical Out. The XtremeGamer card has 1x shared 1/8 inch jack for either: Line In / Microphone / Optical Out (TOSLINK minijack). It does not support the Digital I/O Module.

See also

References

External links

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