Clean going in, clean coming out
The Extigy adds a laundry list of input and output jacks to your desktop. On the front, you'll find an optical (TOSLINK) in, an optical out, a line in, a mike in with hardware-level control, and a line/headphones out with hardware-volume control. The back panel houses a USB jack, a MIDI in, a MIDI out, an S/PDIF in, an S/PDIF out, and three jacks for outputting Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (front, rear, and center/subwoofer). With all of these ins and outs, you can connect pretty much any audio device to the Extigy--and we did.
Installation was ridiculously easy, a refreshing change from the audio-hardware headaches we've encountered with PCI-card-based solutions. You can put the Extigy on your desk either horizontally or vertically using two rubber feet. When it's connected, the Extigy replaces your sound card. But to prevent configuration issues, your system reverts seamlessly back to your internal sound card when the Extigy is disconnected or powered down.
Since the Extigy sits outside of your PC, attaching cords is much, much easier than having to reach around to the back of your computer every time. The fact that it is an external device also renders your audio free from the PC's internal electrical noise. The digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converters are of a very high quality--more than a 100dB signal-to-noise ratio and up to 24-bit 96KHz in and out--so whether you're listening to PC-based MP3s on your headphones or recording onto your hard drive from an LP, the Extigy delivers remarkably hiss-free sound. Analog stereo input and output volume levels can be adjusted using knobs on the front of the Extigy, via the taskbar mixer, or with the Creative Audio Mixer.
The Extigy is perfect for recording from an external source, but due to the latency caused by the USB cord, it's just passable for amateur musicians wanting to record multiple tracks of audio. People who want to tackle multitrack recording or MIDI work should go with the Sound Blaster Audigy instead since its latency is 2ms or less, as opposed to the Extigy's 40ms.
The DVD situation
We encountered more difficulty using the Extigy while watching DVDs. Since the Extigy can't send Dolby Digital 5.1 to a home-theater system optically, the only way to get Dolby Digital 5.1 out of the DVDs you play on your computer is to use the six-channel analog outputs or to connect the S/PDIF output to Cambridge SoundWorks' or Creative's own Inspire Dolby Digital 5.1 speakers. With stereo recordings, the button-accessible CMSS function can up-mix the stereo recordings to convincingly simulate surround sound. Other than the Creative and Cambridge speakers mentioned above, the Extigy should be used with only surround-sound computer speakers since they have the correct analog inputs. When we tried this approach, the results were excellent--fully immersive surround sound. The Extigy also supports EAX and DirectSound3D, so video games with those capabilities will sound the way they should. We tried Half-Life, which uses EAX 1.1, and we noticed that the sound was smoother and clearer with the Extigy than with the standard-issue sound card on our test machine.
Since this device has so many inputs and outputs, it's only natural that it comes with no fewer than nine different applications to parse everything coming in and out: Audio Stream Recorder, which is sort of like an MP3 VCR for streaming Internet radio; PlayCenter, which encodes and organizes MP3s; Creative Remote Center (more on that below); WaveStudio, for recording and editing high-quality audio; Audio Mixer, for selecting input and output types and levels; Diagnostics, for testing drivers and the mixer settings; MiniDisc Center, for recording from PC to MiniDisc; Recorder, for making simple recordings; and MixMeister 3.0, for DJ-ing sets of MP3 music. Interesting points here include the fact that the MiniDisc Center inserts pauses between songs so that your MiniDisc unit separates the tunes. WaveStudio is a pretty respectable stereo WAV editor, with onboard effects plus automatic compatibility with whatever DirectX plug-ins you have on your system. And MixMeister impressed us to no end, with its smart fade-ins, fade-outs, Webcasting abilities, normalization, and automatic beat matching. It turns even the most tin-eared music fan into a pro DJ.
Finally--a remote for your PC
The remote that comes with the Extigy is a godsend, even though it controls only Creative Labs' own software. It displays volume bars and song titles in large text that can be read from across the room. It also makes your computer feel more like a TV since you can adjust volume from the couch. Speaking of which, if your stereo isn't right next to your computer, you can daisy-chain up to five USB ports together with 15-foot USB cords, putting the Extigy up to 75 feet away from your PC.
Overall, the Sound Blaster Extigy is a fine product that everyone who uses a computer for entertainment should consider. It has every input and output most people would ever need, as well as clean sound, an amazing software suite, and, at $150, a fair price tag.