In order to understand how good a sound card is, you should listen how it sounds comparing to other devices. Audition is primary, no technical specifications or measurements will ever replace it.
The main audition problems are to choose a correct method and an audio path and interpret the results right. Our sound card testing method has been honed in the past ten years. It mostly agrees with official recommendations, and it produces easily verifiable and applicable results.
The choice of an audio path for audition is a much more serious problem. Examination must be correlated with real usage conditions. A typical user may own a wide range of speakers, from inexpensive PC speakers to a consumer amplifier with Hi-Fi speakers. If examination indicates a difference between devices tested with Hi-End speakers, this result cannot be automatically applied to all possible speakers. Even if we cut off the extremes, it still leaves us with many questions. For what class of speakers is integrated audio enough? What sound cards are optimal for what speakers, so that you don't waste too much money? These are important questions. Many enthusiasts spend money on expensive audio devices and then get disenchanted, because of not getting the expected quality boost (e.g., from plugging an E-MU card to a $100 PC speakers).
Ideally, audio quality must be evaluated with various-grade equipment. Auditions must include listening to several sound devices at once.
We usually use ADAM S2.5A active monitors as the reference point. But when we deal with an inexpensive sound card for common users, such results will be only of abstract interest. So we decided to perform our tests with the Microlab SOLO 6 active speakers. According to our tests, this model is one of the best in its class (it shares the title with SVEN Royal 2) and also affordable (about $120). Many people will use their X-Fi cards with speakers of this level, so our tests will be more authentic.
X-Fi Titanium vs. HDA vs. E-MU 1212M
We decided to compare X-Fi Titanium with integrated audio and with the E-MU 1212M sound card.
The integrated audio is free of charge, but it's difficult to choose a codec for this test. Our testbed is based on the ALC889A chip, the top HDA codec from Realtek. It can boast of very good specifications that come close to those of X-Fi cards. The SNR of ALC889A equals 108 dBA, distortions are -90 dB. Cirrus Logic CS4382, the DAC used in X-Fi cards, has the SNR of 108-114 dBA and distortions of -94 to -100 dB.
It's hard not to gloat over Creative in this respect. They have been using the same CS4382 converters since Audigy 2, which allowed the integrated audio systems to catch up with the latest X-Fi models in their characteristics. They cannot boast of Creative cards' great advantage over integrated audio in terms of SNR anymore.
The sound cards were compared by switching signals by means of a passive switcher with resistive attenuation for accurate volume adjustments (within 0.1 dB).
We've got interesting results. Our Microlab SOLO 6 speakers did not reveal much of a difference between these three devices. The integrated audio ALC889A is practically no worse than X-Fi in terms of audio quality. This codec sounds surprisingly well, with no apparent problems audible. A thorough audition gives similar sound quality of cards with CS4382 and CS4398 DACs, the codec sounding a tad different. Out of doubt, E-MU1212M demonstrated the best quality here. But differences in this audio path are not very important. The SOLO 6 speakers apparently act as the bottleneck for the CS4398-based device. Owners of such speakers have no reasons to want better audio quality than X-Fi can provide. X-Fi Titanium performs excellently. The attack and stereo panorama are fine, the sound has drive. There are no signs of stifled sounding typical of inexpensive audio devices.
The integrated audio puts up surprising performance. We could have recommended this solution, if it wasn't for problems in the most important 44 kHz mode. Resampling 44 kHz into 48 kHz gives a forest of subharmonics at high frequencies. That may be the explanation for timbre tint that make the HDA codec different from the reference device. Fortunately, X-Fi cards guarantee there is no frequency resampling in the Bit-Matched Playback mode. If you need to enable audio processing in the playback mode (e.g., an equalizer), X-Fi cards perform resampling extremely well. Our measurements demonstrate meager artifacts, which cannot be heard after processing. Interestingly, E-MU PCI cards have no problems with resampling even when the effect processor is enabled.
As a result, X-Fi Titanium is a good card for such speakers as Microlab SOLO 6 / SVEN Royal 2. If you have better speakers, you may consider more advanced cards.
X-Fi Titanium and the HDA codec have a similar power output in headphones. The integrated audio allows to choose the output mode -- line-out or headphones. Naturally, we selected the latter for our headphones tests.
Both devices are loud enough, but there is not much margin left. Both easily handle the high-resistance load of Sennheiser HD600 (300 Ohm). But in case of Philips SHE8500 (16 Ohm), the integrated audio demonstrates a deep gap in low frequencies, while X-Fi shows only a little less bass.
Our tests prove the good quality of the new X-Fi Titanium family. These cards are honestly positioned for gamers now, being the best choice in this category.
PCI Express itself does not give any benefits to the cards. But X-Fi Titaniums, owing to Creative's efforts, provide extra protection from cracking, which was a serious problem with previous X-Fi PCI cards.
Still, the X-Fi Titanium cards are good as all-purpose devices as well. If you want a universal sound card without sacrificing much quality, we can also recommend Auzentech products with hardware X-Fi DSPs.
Thus, users should think twice before buying expensive sound cards with top-end parts, if they have no speakers of the same grade. Top converters and other components need much more expensive speakers than people usually have for their full potential to be realized.
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