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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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Yours truly hasn't liked the Crystalizer technology from the very beginning. (In my personal vocabulary "Crystalizer" is equal to "bullshitizer".) Its mission statement and promotion methods are bewildering at best.

Let's analyze prerequisites for the rollout of this technology. Common users always want miracles. They need buttons and sliders to magically change audio quality. They need mind-boggling characteristics and mysterious innovations with weird names.

The new X-Fi cards had to illustrate the power of hardware DSP. According to Creative, it equals Pentium 4 3.4GHz (there were no Core processors at the time of this announcement).

This mutual desire gave birth to the miraculous 24-bit Crystalizer technology. It does supernatural things beyond any logic and common sense. Allegedly, Crystalizer improves the terrible quality of studio tracks, making MP3 files sound better than on the original CD.

In its advertising materials about this phenomenon, Creative often exploits the same misconception: Crystalizer rids the world of the stranglehold of compression.

Markeeting specialists apparently have no clue how studios record sound tracks and how they are encoded into compressed formats. Experts who know the real situation probably want to keep their good salaries. And the target audience of gamers and young journalists take everything they hear open-mouthed.

Historically, the word "compression" has been used with regard to two different audio processes:

  1. Compression (dynamic range) -- condensing dynamics of an audio track by raising volume of quiet sounds only without changing signal peaks.
  2. Compression (digital audio) -- reducing the size of audio files, mostly with lossy algorithms, by discarding the least audible components of the recording.

Crystalizer actually increases peaks during attacks to make up for compression of the first type. However, the advertisement speaks of returning losses to compressed files like MP3s. So they apparently confuse two different notions.

Crystalizer's mission is based on several points mentioned in promotional materials and official statements or directly resulting from them:

  1. Dynamics compression is bad and requires intervention.
  2. Studio recordings (CDs) are bad and must be remastered by a sound card.
  3. Lossy compression (MP3s) leads to dramatic quality losses.

All three points are absolutely groundless. Moreover, subjectively positive effects of Crystalizer have to do with the reduction of signal dynamics! Let's delve deeper into all this.

  1. Dynamics compression is an integral part of audio track creation that has been used for decades already. It helps bring sound nuances and details to listener and reach the necessary artistic effect. Studios perform dynamic compression using high-quality equipment. It's a complex and creative process that cannot be automated and has to be done by an expert audio producer. It implies splitting compression bands and fine-tuning parameters like attack, threshold, compression level, curve type for each track.
  2. Studio tracks recorded on CDs usually have high audio quality. The final dynamic processing of the entire recording (mostly maximization) is done at the mastering stage. It's performed by even more competent people using the best equipment. No gaming sound card with a plain algorithm and a single preset can remaster a commercial CD with acceptable results on the fly.
  3. Lossy compression and MP3s in particular is the greatest breakthrough in technology that has changed and is still changing the entire audio industry. Audio quality of medium and high bitrates is practically indistinguishable from source WAV files with use of even some very expensive equipment. You can try it yourself. Just convert a WAV file into a high-quality MP3 file and then covert it back. Then feed the result to WinABX or a similar program that can compare two files and perform statistical analysis of experiment series. Next, if some audio fragments were removed from a recording by lossy compression, no dynamics-changing algorithm will get them back. Still, there already exist various algorithms of reviving decompressed files using general principles. For example, MP3 Pro and AAC algorithms regenerate high frequencies of low-bitrate recordings using data from the rest of the frequency range.

How can Crystalizer noticeably improve audio quality?

  1. Equalizing. Along with raising signal peaks, Crystalizer significantly equalizes low and high frequencies. Common users simply adore loud booming and twittering. Considering that most popular speakers have frequency response falloff at edges of the frequency range, equalizing is justified. Crystalizer changes equalizing according to its level.
  2. Volume. Crystalizer always makes audio louder. If you let a user compare the same audio track with different audio volumes, the louder version will always seem to have more details, better attack, dynamics, and timbre reproduction. On the other hand, if you compare records of the same volume level, processed and not, a "Crystalized" record will have poor mid frequencies. A typical original record sounds better balanced.
  3. Suggestibility. Having read lots of promo articles and ready to hear improvements, a user will most likely accept all changes positively. Even if something seems wrong, a user may write it off to him not being a specialist. Other people's opinions always seems more authoritative, especially if accompanied by scientific terms and other incomprehensible words.

What problems are caused by Crystalizer? What are its peculiarities?

  1. Overload. Modern audio records have maximized levels, which leave almost no room for peaks. So Crystalizer overloads the audio path in loud audio fragments causing nasty cracking. It happens when raised signal peaks are rudely cut off. This algorithm does not take overload into account, as it would have meant the use of a certain compression type -- limiting.

  2. Timbre skew and tiredness. The all-purpose primitive algorithm of Crystalizer does not analyze audio recordings very well, as it has no predictive analysis or any relation between processing and recording type. Raised bass and high frequencies can make vocals or main instruments sound worse in mid frequencies -- the key elements of the recording will become secondary or badly audible.
  3. Primitivity. Crystalizer does not take into account what speakers are used. Certain processing could probably improve audition impressions, if used correctly.

Is there an alternative to Crystalizer there where it's really useful? For example, in manual equalizing (e.g., reducing resonance and cosmetically increasing insufficient frequencies) may spice things up a bit. A manual 10-band hardware equalizer and SVM (Smart Volume Management) solve problems with equalizing and dynamic range gaps. These are the really important advantages of X-Fi cards. However, these features do not need a special DSP and, thus, cannot be boasted of much.

Bottom line

In my opinion, all this racket and proud announcements about Crystalizer are not worthy of your attention. Practice has completely confirmed our forecasts. No revolution in the audio world has taken place, nobody is in a hurry to license X-Fi for consumer electronics. But Creative does not give up and manufactures various devices with X-Fi buttons, for example, headphones and MP3 players.

Apparently Creative has a problem: their sound cards are equipped with very powerful DSPs, but there's nothing to load them with. Even Dolby Digital encoding is implemented on the driver level and is performed by CPU. There's some strange crisis in the system. It looks as if decisions are made by marketing people who don't know the difference between two types of compression. As if engineers and world-class specialists, who designed these wonderful devices, live in a parallel universe. There have been no new ideas how to use the powerful programmable DSP for the past four years of X-Fi existence. And there won't be. The ingenuity is completely focused on composing incredible achievements of Crystalizer.

It's up to you to form your own opinion on Crystalizer based on available information, even if you don't have such a sound card. The www.x-fi.com website has many materials on the topic.

Dolby Digital

Users practically forced Creative to support Dolby Digital Live, software encoding into Dolby Digital on the fly. For a long time people have considered the lack of this feature in Creative cards a drawback (and an advantage of integrated audio and C-Media cards). Creative representatives explained that this feature was necessary only for a few users, while everyone would have to pay for it. But then the company surrendered. It's good to be able to plug an AV receiver with a single cable. The reverse of the medal is that royalties from each product have to be paid. Multiple audio conversions and a small delay for encoding/decoding provide additional arguments against Dolby Digital Live.

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