Finally! We are beginning to see Creative’s chipset offerings being used in other manufacturers sound cards. The first such product is Auzentech’s X-Fi Prelude, which we have on the test bench today. Though it excels in some regards, we find out that it has a lot of room for improvement.
I’m going to take a protracted look at the Entertainment mode since it covers all the same features as Game mode does and offers a few additional tweaks for entertainment (music and movies) that the Game and Music Creation modes don’t. It makes it easier to point out features you won’t see than describe the ones that are missing.
This is the main menu of the Entertainment mode. You’ll notice the subtle word "Theater" placed in an out of the way pla… oh, hey wait a minute… it’s emblazoned across the middle of the display in large electric blue letters! Ahem. I was saying, you’ll notice the word "Theater" boldly displayed in the main menu. This is a visual cue as the the EAX soundfield in use. Clicking the icons brings up the associated adjustments.
For instance, clicking the EAX icon brings up the submenu for choosing and making adjustments to the soundfield. Unlike the C-Media based cards, there’s a real honest to God effect adjustment rather than arbitrarily devised "room sizes". The C-Media effects are good sounding but unfortunately the adjustment only go from "A bit too much" to "Are we in a cave?" to "You’ve got to be kidding me!" levels.
With this, you can adjust the soundfield to the extreme or make it very subtle. I choose to run the Theater soundfield since it has a nice flow to it. It’s not too harsh or too reverberant and at -15db to -18db it really gives the impression of being in a large cinema. Very nice. Not to say that the other soundfields are bad, I just prefer the sound of a largish area filled with sound dampening materials as opposed to a huge area lined with sound reflective materials.
Moving along we come to the CMSS (Creative multi speaker surround) setting for expanding two channel material into a quasi surround sound. I say quasi because it’s emulated rather than real surround sound which entails channel steering so that you hear the Blackhawk come screaming up from behind you just before it shoots past you.
Instead if it was a two channel source, you’d hear the blackhawk get louder with a bias towards where ever you set the slider. It works OK for movies but it does bring music to life especially when coupled with an EAX soundfield. The slider focuses the sound bias between the front and rear speakers in either Stereo Expand mode or Stereo Surround mode. Stereo Expand is like added presence simulating a wide stereo field while Stereo Surround sounds more like old school quadraphonic, ah, the good old days!
The X-Fi Crystalizer adds dynamic range often lost on compressed music. When you compress music you don’t keep it intact. Instead it goes through and loses a bit here and a bit there. Some is lost on the upper and lower ends of the audible spectrum while others are lost in lowered dynamics and other subtle alteration of the music.
X-Fi Crystalizer tries to rectify that by adding some of the dynamics back. The Crystalizer effects are pretty subtle, I wasn’t readily able to hear a difference I could point to and say "Aha, that’s from the Crystalizer!" but it doesn’t hurt the sound quality either. Could I tell a difference? Not especially, but it could be something in the drivers, I have no idea.
The SVM button brings up the SVM setting. It’s either off or on and honestly it’s best left off. SVM stands for Smart Volume Management, it’s a compressor and expander. It boosts soft sounds and compresses loud sounds so that the average output is at X level across the board. Sounds good on paper but on execution it’s a bit too enthusiastic with the compression.
Soft sounds were boosted to a livable level but during times of boosted levels such as gunfire or explosions, I saw the compression render normal conversational level dialog mute. I’m not surprised, I’ve seen these schemes in everything from software DVD decoders to enthusiast grade audio equipment in the early days of Dolby surround (pre Pro Logic, 4 channel surround) when audio equipment builders were trying to get dialogue levels up to reasonable levels. The results were less than spectacular back then too. Best solution is to leave SVM off and drop the bass levels down so that the rumble in big explosions is reduced.
This is the mixer mode. It’s permanently stuck in playback mode with access to one slider in recording mode. The arrow above the slider brings up the drop down menu that allows you to choose from the record source. The other sources are muted so all you have is the one to utilize. This too holds true for the mixer in gaming mode.
Digital I/O mode. Here’s where you choose the sampling rate for the digital input and output. Sadly, from all the documentation I’ve read from Auzentech, the input isn’t functioning right now and won’t for another few months. Booo!
On the lower left corner we see the "Mode" button. Hitting it brings up the mode switcher. You click on the mode you want and hit ok and the current console closes and the chosen console opens.
To give a quick look we have the Audio Creation mode. In this mode you can choose as many input sources as you’d like and add effects, mix them with other sources (that are using effects if you desire them) and also mix them into a dolby esque soundfield. Many of the effects are user customizable and you can choose the amount that you want mixed in with the source.
Here I took the auxiliary input (running from the cable box) and added chorus to it, assigned the chorused signal to the front speakers and rear speakers, then I added digital delay (stock preset) with it assigned to the rear speakers which were also run through an additional chorus. The effect was amazing in that it really opened up the soundstage. The room felt huge yet it wasn’t cheesy.