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.
These listening tests will be broken into three sets of impressions: Music, Movies and Gaming. The music and movies were listened to in Entertainment mode and games played in Game mode aside from noted exceptions. I’ll report on all three as to how they sounded and of any abnormalities I encountered.
I listened to everything from 128Kbs MP3’s to 256Kbs to 320Kbs and finally WMA lossless (1.01Mbs) and I’m fairly impressed. The songs I listened to were: Overkill – Stone Cold Jesus (320Kbs), PowerMan 5000 – Blast Off to Nowhere (128Kbs), Audioslave – Cochise (256Kbs) and Ozzy Osbourne – Diary of a Madman. (1.01Mbs). All these songs share a common trait, they’re all filled with large dynamic peaks and valleys. They were all rendered very well with no noticeable distortion or color.
The Crystalizer didn’t seem to have the least bit of impact on the music but neither did bit rates. Had I not known the bit rates of these songs I would have been hard pressed to determine if they were high or low, the sound is very nearly flawless across the board. It sounds like music not like compressed music. Sonically there’s nothing lacking.
I watched several movies on the X-Fi Prelude. On DVD I watched Hot Fuzz, great movie for surround effects. I love the hallways of the hotel creaking like a sailing ship. Fun stuff. I also watched Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers which has some really well done environmental effects. The woods, the battles with catapults hurling stones into walls or the riders on the vast fields. Just awesome foley work.
I also decided to see how this card would fare for HTPC duties using an analog input from my cable box. Via the cable box I watched Hackers. Pure cheese, I know but fun to watch when you’re bored. It helps that I had it on DVD so I’m very familiar with it.
All three movies sounded pretty good, the one from the digital cable wasn’t near the quality of the DVD’s but that’s due largely to the audio section of the cable box, it’s horrible. The DVD’s were played in Dolby Digital, I tried a couple other in DTS mode and they were a no go. No sound. The CMSS effects had no effect on the DVD’s but it was pretty good at simulating a surround mode on the cable movie. Nothing fantastic but then again, simulated surround is never great. It just makes two channel a little more satisfying.
The dialogue was rendered very competently by the Prelude in four channel mode. Easily as legible as the X-Meridian with it’s simulated 7.1 channel surround. A vast improvement over the Audigy Platinum I had back in 2003. During Hackers I played around with the Audio Creation mode which I spoke about when I highlighted it earlier. It makes a pretty interesting effect compared to the stock CMSS in Entertainment mode. I also played with the headphone version of CMSS which is supposed to simulate surround in a two channel environment.
Overall, I walked away less than enthusiastic. It was just a bit of reverb and wasn’t very convincing. One thing I did notice during Hackers was that during the scene where Dade is deciphering the worm in Kate’s room, you could hear several low frequency rumbles. I kind of wonder if they were muffled sounds of large trucks on the set lot, they sounded suspiciously like that.
Overall, the movie watching experience is very enjoyable. I like the added ambiance afforded by the EAX effects, the theater soundfield makes movie listening much more realistic for fans of the cinema.
I’ve been playing GRAW 2 quite a bit for the testing of the X-Fi Prelude. In the current section I’m in there’s one EAX effect that just is too awesome for words. I go booking along the wall and sidle into a closed doorway. Suddenly from the other side of the door comes the sound of a baby crying. It sounded so realistic, I was briefly looking for the source of the cries. Just fantastic.
Gunshots around like they’re coming from real firearms… not cap guns. Explosions sound so realistic they had my room-mate asking if there was thunder brewing outside. The crunch of team mate’s boots on gravel as the come along from behind you when you’re pinned down is a welcome sound, the Prelude renders the stealthy sound of 3-4 Force Recon marines very well indeed.
I played a bit of BioShock and found it to sound creepy. The sound is very fitting with the aquatic backdrops and the added effects of drips and structural groans are really cool. I didn’t find any cool EAX effects but that’s okay, I’m hoping I’ll run across one soon.
With the added FPS by off loading the DSP effects from the CPU and the well rendered EAX effects (when you stumble across one) the card acquits itself well in gaming. I’ve made the mistake of launching a game in Entertainment mode and the card has complained about it quite vocally. I’d get clicks and squeals as the game first loaded then it would start making the sounds of random shots. It doesn’t do this in Game mode and I haven’t given it a spin in Audio Creation mode so I have no idea if it happens there. Still, overall I’m impressed with the gaming performance.
Now we get down to seeing just how the X-Fi Prelude does overall.
Auzentech shook the enthusiast world with the announcement of the X-Fi Prelude and many hoped this would mean freedom from the Creative drivers that many find to be cantankerous if not just plain bad. I had hope that their more esoteric design would yield far superior results to the competition from Creative but it looks like the advantages are minor yet the price comes at a premium.
The sound is very convincing and the gaming performance benefit does make it a worthwhile upgrade if you’ve got the money and onboard sound. If you have a lesser X-Fi card I’d suggest just staying put though. The XRAM isn’t in widespread use so that’s basically a waste for the time being. If games start supporting it en masse then their could be a reason to sell the Extreme Sound you’re using and going for one with XRAM.
Does that mean it has to be the X-Fi Prelude? Not really, at least not for $229. For $229 it should incorporate the auxiliary input interface (the X-Tension is the optional one) that gives all the functionality that Creative offers with their $10 higher Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro. Right now the X-Fi Prelude falls into the category of "An awesome idea but not an awesome product" Instead it’s very competitive with the $145 Fatal1ty Gamer Pro but miles distant from the functionality of the Platinum Champion series or the Elite Pro.
That said I’m awarding the X-Fi Prelude a 7/10 because it’s just not up to the task… yet. Auzentech is close to hitting it on the head but they’re still dancing around the nail at the moment.
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