While the graphics cards market enjoys a flurry of new cards every few months, the sound card market is relatively staid. Creative has been at the centre of PC audio ever since it established the market with its original Sound Blaster card back in 1989 and has been the major force ever since. Aureal had some success before being swallowed up by Creative and nVidia had a stab at something new with its nForce2 integrated SoundStorm chip but this came and went too leaving Creative to dominate with its Audigy line.
The time is more than ripe then to extend a warm welcome to Creativeâ€™s most significant new product since its Sound Blaster Live! series from 1998 â€“ the X-Fi. There are four cards available at launch and two of them are on review. These are from both ends of the budget - the low cost Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Music at Â£99 and the musician focused Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro retailing at Â£249.99. In between are the X-Fi Platinum (Â£149.99) and the X-Fi Fatal1ty FPS (Â£179.99).
To sell its new cards Creative has made much of the technology behind them. Each successive generation of Creative soundcard has brought a substantial improvement in playback quality with cleaner, fuller and better defined sounding audio. Quality however, is difficult to push as the primary factor with which to sell to consumers. Therefore the Sound Blaster Live! was promoted on its surround sound capabilities while the Audigy line emphasised processing power and mature EAX effects.
For the X-Fi cards their processing power is once again the highlight. Creative states that the X-Fi features 51 millions transistors and posesses 10,000+ MIPS of processing power, 24 times that of the Audigy 2 ZS.
But what does this actually translate into in the real world? Which features are worth getting excited about? What can the new cards actually do that wasnâ€™t previously possible?
Unwrapping the Elite Pro reveals a breakout box that would send the Audigyâ€™s box scurrying away to hide in a corner. This is the Xbox controller of break out boxes. Yes, itâ€™s that big. Designed to look like a hi-fi accessory itâ€™s almost the size of an stand alone amplifier. It feels satisfyingly sturdy with a full size remote control as companion.