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Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi Elite Pro - Subjective test: Sound quality

Before we end this review we have to have to take a closer look at the perhaps the most crucial: how does it really sound?

Here we don’t have any fancy graphs, tables or pictures to show. Instead we will simply describe how we, subjectively, experience the sound from X-Fi compared to our integrated ALC850, Audigy 4 Pro and M-Audio Audiophile 24/96. In our tests we have used both headphones and speakers with a range of sources. We have done the tests at different volumes, going from hardly noticeable to levels that would make the best of neighbours annoyed.

The sound in general:
Let me start by saying that X-Fi Elite Pro sounds better than any sound card we have ever tested before. The sound is very detailed and roomy, a word that comes to mind is "controlled". There is never a frequency that ruins the picture during normal play.

Compared to earlier Audigy-cards it is mainly the bass that is being controlled better, we don’t hear any unwanted noise or distortion. Another thing we’ve noticed is that X-Fi doesn’t sound as warm as it predecessors. In short: more control and less color. Not saying that the sound is cold though, this can happen when you have too much space in the upper frequency ranges.

Compared to our ALC850 it’s like night and day. The first and most obvious impression is that ALC850 sounds very weak in comparison as it lacks the push that X-Fi has. The sound sounds in general pretty thick and shut in with the integrated circuit. The bass has better control than we expected though, instead we have problems with the treble which sounds very metallic and shut in. In general we also think that the X-Fi makes a considerably better impression with organ music while the Realtek-circuit makes most look rather synthetic. With X-Fi you also get around the yell and arduous sound you get with ALC850 when you turn up the volume.

Audiophile is a completely different story; the differences are a lot smaller. Just as X-Fi Audiophile delivers a very detailed, roomy sound without colors. The fact is that the cards sound very similar with the headphones and speakers we had to test with. A risk is that we simply didn’t have good enough test equipment. The only thing we noticed is that X-Fi sounds a little more detailed in the high frequency ranges.

CD / MP3 / WMA:
Here we have an area where Creative has earlier been criticized for its sample rate conversion and considering that Creative has been bragging about its new SRC-algorithm we had rather high hopes for a better sound compared to Audigy 4 Pro. And yes the card does sound a lot better with the 16/44-material we have available. Above all X-Fi sounds more articulate, not the least in the lower frequency ranges.
The difference between ALC850 and X-Fi is pretty much identical with what we have written earlier in the general section.
M-Audio’s contribution ends somewhere in between X-Fi and Audigy 4 Pro when we listen to regular CDs, with compressed audio it gets harder to judge as the differences are so small that we doubt that we would be able to notice anything with a couple of really good monitors.

For our DVD-tests we’ve chosen to use nVidia’s decoder as it has earned a good reputation. With the two cards from Creative we’ve tested we’ve used Creative's own decoder which we have gotten pretty comfortable with. When it comes to the differences between Audigy 4 Pro and X-Fi Elite Pro they were very small with PowerDVD. With Creative’s own decoder it sounds like it has done a good job with the implementation as it sounds much more defined than earlier.
ALC850 manages much better here than with the CD-tests. But we still have the same problem that we described in the general section but not as apparent when we used CDs, however the bass keeps making unwanted noise now and then.
With Audiophile it is harder to make a fair comparison as the card doesn’t have any surround support. We therefore picked some Dolby 2.0-mixes from some movies and tested with. The result was a bit more detailed treble, more authority and strength with Creative card.

As Creative is the only company that supplies the PC-market with DVD-Audio-support at the moment (after that Intervideo has retracted its support with WinDVD) we have only tested Audigy 4 and X-Fi here. When we were about to test with material with higher resolution we thought our speakers would set the limit pretty early on. The picture with X-Fi feels considerably bigger and roomier than with the Audigy-card, but we suspect that Creative has improved its software for DVD-Audio-playback considerably for the X-Fi-cards. Nonetheless it sounds better so we’re happy.

Creative still is the unchallenged king of game audio and X-Fi continues to empower the already stable position. Compared to Audigy 4 Pro is above all the positioning that has become better. Especially close sources feels more natural which was expected considering the MacroFX-technology from Sensaura. Otherwise we can’t say that the sound sounds all that much better which perhaps says more about modern games than the cards we have tested.
ALC850 is such a big step down that the difference is clearly noticeable. The fact is that we experience the sound as even worse than when we tested Dolby Digital and CDs which pretty much depends on that ALC850 lacks EAX3, 4 and 5 and only supports 32 channels, etc.

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