iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi

Interview with Darragh O'Toole, European Brand Manager for Audio products at Creative Europe

Darragh O'Toole works at Creative's office in Dublin. He is responsible for marketing, sales, and technical support of company's products in European countries. Darragh came to Creative in 1997 and filled various posts in technical support, testing and development, as well as project management. He graduated from Dublin Institute of Technology, European languages and business. Before Creative, Darragh was a professional musician and took part in making several films and albums. When he has spare time, he indulges in music, studies foreign languages, takes part in amateur concerts, watches movies, and reads books.  

Maxim Liadov (iXBT.com): Hello, Darragh.

Darragh O'Toole (Creative): Hello to you and all your readers!

Maxim Liadov: How are things in Creative after launching X-Fi?

Darragh O'Toole: Very positive, we have really seen a resurgence in interest in audio as a key part of your PC and have come up with a compelling set of features that are as innovative as when we introduced the first Live! cards with 4.1 surround and EAX 1.0.

Maxim Liadov: How successfully is Creative fighting with integrated motherboard sound now?

Darragh O'Toole: There are still a very high percentage of people using basic motherboard audio, and while this may be tolerable for low cost machines built for web-surfing and office applications, one of our goals is to educate people about the clear benefits of a dedicated solution like X-Fi. People are beginning to understand the concept of the PC as a component system, much like a hi-fi is made up of a series of components. In the same way that you would never buy a great set of speakers and hook them up to a cheap and nasty amp and CD player, investing in a good set of speakers or headphones to plug into motherboard audio is a complete waste of money. If your source signal is crap to start with, all you end up with is "amplified crap"!

If you are serious about Gaming or Entertainment on the PC, Audio is a key dimension to these experiences and the way we look at it is if you are going to invest in a killer Gaming rig, a Home Theater/Media Center PC, Digital Audio Workstation, you need to be thinking about sound from the start and allocating a budget accordingly given that an audio upgrade is very affordable as a % of the system cost.

Investing in a high end system with dual SLI, dual core processors but not upgrading from integrated audio is like investing in a Porsche Carrera, putting cheap tyres on it, hooking it up to a trailer and then wondering why you're not getting the best performance from it.

Maxim Liadov: Darragh, will X-Fi stay for long? Do you intend to launch the next generation of cards, say, this or next year?

Darragh O'Toole: X-Fi is so powerful that it's unlikely that we will see another chip of its kind in the next few years. What you can look out for though are X-Fi products that cater for different bus types and form factors over the next year.

Maxim Liadov: A lot of our users were disappointed to see that X-Fi XtreemMusic uses the same DACs as in Audigy2. Does Creative have any plans to design a soundcard with better converters than those in Audigy2/X-Fi Music/Platinum/Fata1ity, but not as expensive as Elite Pro? May be some intermediate model?

Darragh O'Toole: Looking at the DACs in isolation may not provide an accurate picture, as although they may be similar models, the overall performance of the card has been improved due to architectural improvements. So even the non-Elite versions at 109dB still provide higher performance than the majority of cards on the market. No intermediate model is currently planned but the Elite Pro card only solution with the incredible 114dB performance will begin to appear as an option from some of our key OEM partners in their high end machines which may address this segment.

Maxim Liadov: Lots of our users are also disappointed with a lion's share of DSP resources used for SRC instead of some useful features. Any plans to offer a new usage scenario for the X-Fi chip power? Perhaps in professional soundcards from E-MU?

Darragh O'Toole: The X-Fi architecture is reprogrammable, but until a new application presents itself that requires a retasking of the resources, this is not likely to happen, as we believe we have covered the majority of usage scenarios with the modal architecture to ensure you get 100% optimisation of chip resources for your chosen task. The ring architecture lends itself very well to the type of audio processing that would be used in a studio environment to replace the traditional "in-line" synth and effects architecture. It is likely that future designs would transition to this at some stage, but I don't have any clear indication as to when this would be.

Maxim Liadov: Our readers would like to know when X-Fi patch for UT 2004 will be released.

Darragh O'Toole: As you know, we have a patch that was custom designed by Creative for UT2004, this features custom sound sets implemented using our developer tool ISACT for streamlined implementation of 3D audio in game. This allows us to take advantage of the higher voice count and generate higher quality sounds for two aspects of the game. Firstly, it allows the music to respond to the situation, so when your health goes down, the soundtrack switches to one of a series of levels from upbeat, to mid-tempo to panic stations (in a similar vein to the initial aims of Direct Music but which was based on Midi). Secondly, it allows the in-game sounds to use up to 24 bit stereo samples, replacing the low quality 8-bit, 11kHz sounds that most games use to preserve resources. Just as we were about to release this, Epic updated the game so we need to tweak the patch for the new version. We are in the final stages and hope to have it available for download sometime in March. Some of the new weapons sounds will definitely remind you that your subwoofer is still working!

Maxim Liadov: I have a question about techno demos. ATI and NVIDIA release free programs that demonstrate capacities of new hardware and associated software technologies on a regular basis, which generates much interest to new products. What about Creative?

Darragh O'Toole: As X-Fi combines several technologies, we created what we called the Sounds Best on SoundBlaster Demo Disc. This disc ships out with all the latest products and is also hosted online. This includes some small pre-rendered demos of the technology.

Maxim Liadov: Present and future game titles (including Oblivion and Gothic III). Is there a hit list of the best EAX-enabled games?

Darragh O'Toole: As we work closely with developers months in advance of release, we have visibility of several leading titles that are due to release this year, but unfortunately, due to confidentiality reasons can not list them. Suffice to say that there are some kick-ass titles due over the coming year. At present, we list most of the top EAX games that we work directly with the developers on soundblaster.com/gaming. If I had to choose an award for best implementation so far, it would have to be Battlefield 2 for its full use of X-Fi, where you need X-Fi to access the ultra high settings. For the fear factor, playing Doom3 and Quake 4 late at night over headphones definitely registers on the richter scale. Several magazines across Europe are now actually including a section in their gaming reviews that focusses specifically on in-game audio from a soundtrack and in-game perspective which is a testament to how crucial the audio dimension is to games, and even more so now that we can deliver a multichannel experience over headphones.

Maxim Liadov: What about Vista and OpenAL? DirectSound vs. OpenAL.

Darragh O'Toole: It appears that Vista will not support a Direct hardware patch and will have a DS SW layer. As this is not an optimal signal path, involving latency and CPU software processing overhead, OpenAL will be the API of choice for programming game audio for best performance and access to hardware accelerated features. Compared to DirectSound, OpenAL was built exclusively for audio, it addresses any issues in the DS architecture where audio is simply a sub-component of a much larger technology infrastructure and in some cases is not as fully optimised as it could be. A similar comparison in performance is Asio vs Direct X where it was necessary to create a custom API for direct hardware access and advanced features to ensure low latency and tight synchronisation.

Maxim Liadov: Why is there no name for Creative's hardware 3D sound, unlike Sensaura and QSound?

Darragh O'Toole: There is! The actual brand name for it is CMSS-3D, Creative Multi Speaker Surround-3D, this then has sub components including CMSS-3D Headphone, for surround sound over stereo headphones and stereo listening enhancement CMSS-3D Virtual, for surround from 2 speakers and CMSS-3D Interactive, for 3D audio in-games.

Maxim Liadov: What does EAX mean now? Do you know people think that EAX is reverb and that game sound on Creative soundcards is software 3D sound + hardware reverb? Any plans to publish technical "how it works" information about hardware DirectSound, hardware OpenAL, etc?

Darragh O'Toole: EAX is now in its 5th generation as the API of choice for high quality, hardware accelerated in-game audio. Most people associate it with Reverb for games as this was the first main feature in EAX 1.0 for SB Live! but it has evolved significantly since. One of the main aims is to deliver a realtime cinema soundtrack style audio experience in your game with significant advances in positioning technologies. Detailed info on the technologies can be found here http://images.soundblaster.com/products/x-fi/demo2/index.html. Select Xtreme Fidelity Gaming, then Gaming Technologies, then EAX Technologies

OpenAL is an opensource platform which grew out of the same need that gave birth to OpenGL. This provides a cross platform audio api which offers direct access to the hardware. OpenAL is supported on Audigy, but is more highly optimised for use on X-Fi hardware and has been used in Battlefield 2 and the Doom 3 and Quake 4 engines and is likely to see widespread adoption over the coming year. Further info can be found here:

Maxim Liadov: What about new high-quality speakers from Creative for X-Fi Elite Pro? Perhaps these will be the E-MU PM5 pro audio monitors?

Darragh O'Toole: The speaker team are making steps towards high quality 2.0 stereo solutions with the new Gigaworks T20 and it would be great to see an evolution of the original M80 monitor series to cater for the range of the Elite Pro Card as I know this bookshelf style of speaker design is of most interest to the more audiophile user. At present, the best parter from the Creative family for the Elite Pro would be the PM5, which are ideal for users with PC Home Studios. However, as these are specifically tailored as studio monitors with ruler flat response for mixing, they might not suit all Hi-Fi listening tastes where the speakers tend to be "tuned" for Hi-Fi listening with a non-linear response.

Maxim Liadov: Thank you very much for your time!

Darragh O'Toole: My pleasure, anytime Evil Editor ;)
Good bye! Darragh O'Toole.

Maxim Liadov (maxim@ixbt.com) aka Very Evil Editor
March 17, 2006

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