Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro
Creative stays on top of the sound card game by regularly updating its Sound Blaster cards with ever more sophisticated features. Its latest, the 7.1-channel Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro, incorporates Creative's next-generation Xtreme Fidelity (X-Fi) audio chip to deliver better-sounding audio than any other consumer sound card to date. A key element of the X-Fi feature set is its 24-bit Crystallizer, a digital technique by which the X-Fi chip can improve the quality of your digital music. Creative also adds a software-based usage mode selector, a sophisticated external I/O box, and a fancy new remote control. Our preview software was very close to final, but Creative said it is releasing new drivers the day the card ships, August 22, 2005. Assuming the final software works as Creative says it will, the X-Fi Elite Pro can call itself the new gold standard for hard-core gamers and PC audio enthusiasts, although it's also the priciest Sound Blaster yet.
Like the, the X-Fi Elite Pro incorporates three main components: the PCI sound card itself, an external I/O box that houses hardware controls and jacks, and a remote control. The X-Fi Elite Pro's I/O box and remote control have been heavily redesigned. At 2.25 by 12.75 by 9 inches (HWD), its I/O box is nearly 50 percent wider than the Audigy 4's. The extra size accommodates a larger assortment of controls and jacks than ever, but now the box can't neatly sit on top of a midtower PC case. As a solution, Creative supplies a low-profile plastic stand for mounting it vertically, but the button labels look out of whack from that perspective.
The X-Fi Elite Pro's remote control is roughly the size of a typical cable box remote and features dozens of buttons. Dedicated thumbwheels harness the digital-signal-processing (DSP) functions, such as the 24-bit Crystallizer, CMSS 3D upmixing capability, and EAX Advanced HD 5.0 for game audio processing; all features are also accessible on the I/O box and through the software. The I/O box's front panel has a 1/4-inch headphone jack (a 1/8- to 1/4-inch headphone adapter is supplied) and two 1/4-inch line-in jacks accompanied by line-in level knobs. You can mute the volume and DSP functions by pressing the appropriate knob on either the remote or the I/O box. A blue LED lets you know when the overall volume is muted, and green LEDs indicate active processing functions.
The I/O box houses a stereo RCA input on its back panel that works as a standard auxiliary input or a phono input for direct connection with a turntable. Full-size MIDI-in and -out jacks enable hooking up synthesizers and other devices, while optical and coaxial digital connections facilitate a digital speaker system or a MiniDisc recorder. One notable drawback: Unlike the Audigy 4 Pro, the X-Fi Elite Pro doesn't have any FireWire ports; considering that development, it seems unlikely we'll be getting the USB 2.0 ports we've wished for in the Audigy 4 Pro review on any of the X-Fi family cards. The PCI card has analog output jacks for up to 7.1-channel multimedia speakers.
From the included disc, you can install up to two dozen different components. Our installation repeatedly froze, forcing us to start over. We eventually got the software loaded, and we should point out that the software was finalized at the time of this review. Creative said that we shouldn't expect any noticeable changes and that different, WHQL-certified, and hopefully bug-free software will ship with the retail packages of the card. Perhaps the temperamental install process will disappear with the retail CD. We'll update this review if we notice any difference with the final software.