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Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Sound Cards

A hardware DSP and the PCI Express bus.

June 18, 2009

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X-Fi evolution

If we look back into the history, Creative entered the market with gaming Sound Blaster cards. Evolving, their sound cards would come closer to semiprofessional models and then drift apart again. There were AWE and Live series, the purchase of E-MU and Ensoniq companies that provided a powerful professional DSP and hardware MIDI. Today Creative is moving away from combining all features in a single card.

As we learned in our interview with Darragh O'Toole, Creative's current cards are mostly designed for gamers. This category of users is considered to be the most promising and has the highest requirements.

Sound processing, in its turn, is delegated to the E-MU department. And the company does not make products for audiophiles. That's the only market segment where Creative cannot or doesn't want to compete with other companies. Surprisingly, Creative is actively trying to license DSP and technologies to other companies. For now we can mention only Auzentech, offering two audiophile sound cards based on the X-Fi processor. But, with all their unique combinations of features, these cards are of purely theoretical interest here, as they won't be available in in the local market.

To all appearances, the manufacturer failed to make the X-Fi series as popular as the Sound Blaster brand, so the card has two names for better presentability. Marketing efforts to promote the new quality standard "eXtreme Fidelity" haven't reached their objective.

Why? First of all, there are not enough prerequisites for success. The quality of integrated HDA codecs became acceptable long ago. With all issues and poor functionality, they still satisfy undemanding users, as they come for free. On the other hand, demanding users have only a few reasons to buy X-Fi cards. It's boring to see nearly the same parts and functionality in sound cards for many years. Alas, there haven't been many changes in X-Fi cards since Audigy 2. And statements about MP3 quality improved to exceed that of original CD suggest sad ideas that they take users for blithering idiots. Marketing slogans of questionable quality have short legs. And real advantages of X-Fi sound cards remain in the shadow.

Gaming sound cards

If we kick aside the promo nonsense about the new age of sound, X-Fi cards have only two real advantages. The first is a hardware DSP that provides perfectly realistic 3D sound in games. What's important, this happens without slowdowns, there are even some performance gains. The second advantage is high-quality DACs (digital to analog converters). Especially if we take into account the quality of speakers a common user has. These are two major advantages over the integrated audio.

In this light we can only welcome the positioning of the new X-Fi Titanium card for gamers -- that's a perfect choice. However, it doesn't go without aggressive advertising as well.

Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel, the master of the left mouse button

The "Professional" and "Pro Gamer" suffixes hint of professional gamers who make their living by taking part in cybersport competitions. The company has staked on this to promote the cards. Creative has been cooperating with the champion gamer Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel for a long time already (selling his name, to be more exact). Here's what Johnatan says: "When I'm competing I need top-notch performance and the most realistic sound to help me know where my opponents are and Sound Blaster X-Fi really delivers for me... there is nothing faster or better."

One probably shouldn't envy him much, as if we divide all prize money he has won (which is about half a million dollars) by the number of years it took to earn those, it wouldn't look as astounding. Anyway, it's high time to strike the iron while it's hot -- license a trademark while the name is popular. And that's exactly what Wendel is busy with now. How much money do we pay for this logo, I wonder? Does it help to increase the sales? Does the "Fatal1ty" suffix somewhat repel ordinary users who are not Wendel's fans?

It's interesting that there's also a fourth modification of Titanium in Asia named "Professional Audio". It's completely identical to the Fatal1ty Professional Series, but lacks the Fatal1ty logo and its bundle includes a would-be audiophile minijack stereo RCA cable. Unfortunately, we don't have these cards in our local market.

Not just games

Fortunately, X-Fi cards have enough features for other tasks. Music and movie playback is also given some attention. The card has three hardware DSP modes optimized for certain tasks -- games, movies, music -- which are also advertised as advantages. But in practice there are not that many pure gamers, cinephiles or music lovers, so it's really tiresome to switch between these modes very often.

They should have implemented automatic management, just like that of graphics cards. In case of X-Fi, the manufacturer has recently started offering a small utility that can switch between modes and lets user configure presets for any application. There is also a third-party X-Fi Mode Changer, which is where Creative has borrowed the idea. Unfortunately, it takes time to switch modes. Because of the delay, a started application may initialize the card and detect its functionality (EAX support, number of buffers) when the preset hasn't been changed yet, and then it won't use the advanced functions. This is confirmed by the RightMark 3DSound utility (that displays DirectSound and OpenAL functionality of audio devices). The third-party utility offers more features and does a better job, because it seems to delay the launch of applications. But if a device is initialized, when the modes are changing, the system may fail to detect EAX support.

Thus, manual control remains the most reliable method. The only guaranteed solution for the peace of mind is to leave the card in one mode and forget about switching. The sound card won't be used in the most optimized way then, but it will still offer more features than integrated audio and Audigy2/ZS cards of the previous generation.

PCI Express

It has always looked like PCI Express was forced into the industry, having no serious advantages over AGP and PCI. They twisted arms of graphics cards manufacturers and forced users to upgrade their graphics. In terms of peripherals, only Apple plunged into an inhuman experiment and threw PCI slots out of its new desktops. This solution somewhat stimulated PC hardware manufacturers, as it guaranteed a small but stable market.

The "outdated" PCI slot meets all requirements of most peripheral devices on the PC platform (except for specific areas, such as HD video capture). Audio devices do not need a faster bus, and they have own specifics: a small data stream and that the data isn't transmitted continuously but is rather updated via a buffer. If the buffer is not updated timely, you will hear "cracks". The PCI bus has a number of advantages, as it has separate contacts for service signals and data. PCI Express is not designed for this operating mode. It transmits data fast, but, roughly speaking, uses only two wires. Useful data is sent in long sequences and small windows are left for service data. Thus, designing sound devices for PCI Express adds lots of extra technical problems.

The easiest solution used by some manufacturers is to install a PCI-PCIe bridge. But it may cause little delays and it will inevitably make such devices more expensive. Creative solves this problem by installing an additional RISC processor, which, according to the official information, buffers data. We can assume that the extra processor also bypasses the limitation of no instructions inside data streams. Tailoring standard protocols or even designing new interfaces to suit audio needs is not a rare thing in the audio industry.

It goes without saying that we decided to verify Creative's victorious claims and tested latencies with RMAA 6.2.3. Our latency detection algorithm gives a signal shift between input and output accurate within a single sample. You can recheck our result in any other program. Just keep in mind that ASIO editors shift the recorded file, relying on the buffer value returned by drivers.

As a signal passes through the internal digital path along the shortest route (ASIO), X-Fi Titanium's latency amounts to 27 samples (75 samples for the analog audio). So the digital latency reaches only 0.56 ms. The analog latency is caused by digital filters in DAC/ADC as well as phase shift in the analog filter. The PCI X-Fi card in the same system with the same drivers demonstrated a latency of 30 samples or 0.63 ms. The audible delay for human ears is 10 ms. Thus, we can say that the delay is negligibly small, and both cards perform on a par in this respect.

The driver includes software buffering of fixed value (about 500 samples) for the MME interface in order to eliminate cracking on computers with slow CPUs.

It was clear from the very beginning that PCI Express alone wouldn't provide a performance advantage. It's good that the delay hasn't grown. By the way, in the same testbed, the X-Fi card with the PCI Express interface demonstrated better stability than the PCI modification in the ASIO mode with low latencies. In our Russian forum some users reported that installing new X-Fi Titanium cards fixed cracking on some exotic chipsets. It's difficult to say whether it's the effect of the new bus, Creative's efforts or just a better architecture of PCI Express chipsets. Anyway, it's irrelevant for practical conclusions.

And another practical note: before you decide to buy an X-Fi Titanium card, you should examine your motherboard and pay attention to the layout of PCIe 1x slots. One of such slots in our testbed was buried under the graphics card installed into a PCIe 16x slot, and the second slot was too close to it. As a result, the heatsink on the dual-slot graphics card was only 3 mm away from contacts on the sound board. Considering operating temperatures of modern graphics cards, this layout may damage both sound and graphics cards. So be ready to provide extra airflow, if needed.

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Article navigation:

Page 1: Introduction, the Titanium series

Page 2: X-Fi evolution, gaming and more, PCI Express

Page 3: Crystalizer, Dolby Digital

Page 4: Audition, conclusions

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