To be honest weíve been predicting Creative Labs to go out of business at least a few times over the years, however they seem to be able to keep afloat. The first time we predicted their demise was a few years ago when all motherboards started to feature onboard AC í97 audio, which offered enough features and sound quality for the majority of users. We reasoned that not many people would be willing to pay an extra $50 to $100 for a soundcard when the motherboard already featured onboard audio, hence Creative Labsí sales would plummet. Creative Labs however was quick to launch a new sound card, the Audigy, which upped the ante in terms of sampling rate, S/N ratio, dynamic range and multi-channel support. It made the ACí97 standard look a bit outdated as that offers just two channels with 16-bit resolution and a maximum sampling rate of 44 KHz.
The second time was when Intel launched their HD audio solution, surpassing or equaling the Audigy in terms of features and audio performance. Intelís integrated High Definition Audio, found on its 900-series Express chipsets, can handle 32-bit sampling at 192 KHz on its eight channels. Other manufacturers were left to supply the analog codecs (A/D and D/A converters) for these chipsets which resulted in booming business for the likes of Analog Devices, Avance Logic, C-Media and Realtek that supplied these codecs. These codecs are capable of more than respectable signal to noise ratios, Analog Devicesís AD1985 manages a 94dB signal to noise ratio (SNR). C-Mediaís Azalia audio codec, often partnered with Intel High Definition Audio, offers a similar 95dB, and Realtekís ubiquitous ALC658 and 850 a capable 100dB. These figures are all way beyond what AC í97 or the standalone sound cards of just a few years ago offered and even surpass those of Creative Labsí Audigy.
This time around Creative Labs however wasnít that quick to counter Intelís initiative with another leap forward. They managed to wring some extra performance out of the Audigy design by upping the sample rate, S/N ratio, dynamic range and adding a few other minor features. This new design was marketed as the Audigy 2, which was quickly superseded by the Audigy 2 ZS. The Audigy 2 ZS offered a number of features that the Audigy 2 was advertised to have, but which never materialized in the final product. The Audigy 2 ZS remained the pinnacle of Creative Labsí product gamma until they introduced the Audigy 4, which by all counts was just a fruitless exercise on their part, as it offered virtually nothing over the Audigy 2 ZS but a name change.
In May of this year however Creative Labs announced their new X-fi product range, stating it was a new leap in PC audio. According to Creative Labs this is not just a development of the seven-year-old EMU 10K chips which have powered everything from the SoundBlaster Live to the Audigy 2 ZS, but a completely new design. X-fi or Xtreme Fidelity when spelled out in full not only supports 24-bit/96 KHz sampling, but it has a minimum 110dB SNR. Which is a step up from the typical 95 and 100dB SNR figures offered by Intelís HD audio. But thereís more, the X-fi processor is a huge upgrade in terms of computing power. With its 51 million transistors, ten times that of an Audigy, it is capable of more than 10,000 million instructions per second (MIPS), which is about 24 times as much as the Audigy. The bulk of this processing power will be devoted towards sample rate conversion (SRC) which was something Creativeís 10K-based cards had trouble with, particularly the all-important 48-44.1 KHz conversion.
The strongest selling point however still remains the fact that all of Creative Labsí soundcards, unlike the on-board audio solutions, offer hardware acceleration, hence not taxing the main processor or other system resources. Creative is about the only company left selling standalone sound cards with a full DSP and the X-fi is no exception. With a bulk load of new features such as 24-bit/96 KHz support, 136dB SNR and new CMSS (Creative Multi Speaker Surround) modes the X-fi looks to be taking PC audio another step forward. Whether itíll be an instant hit is questionable however, as besides the new two-page long feature set, the price never dips below a three figure number. Thatís right, the cheapest X-fi soundcard will be priced at $129.99 with the top-of-the-line model topping the charts at $399.99. With on-board HD audio now so predominant, and basically supplied at no extra cost with a new motherboard, X-fi not only needs to live up to expectations, but needs a serious price reduction if its going to give the standalone sound card a new lease of life.