It's the most expensive sound card ever, but Creative's new Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro is also the most feature rich. With an audio chip that can actually make compressed audio sound near to its original quality and a more streamlined interface, the X-Fi Elite Pro sets a pricey new standard.
Like the Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro, 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.
The Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro's primary software interface is Creative's Volume Panel, which nests in the Windows Taskbar. From the Volume Panel, you can switch between entertainment, audio-creation, and game modes. Each mode has its own distinct interface and, according to Creative, optimizes the drivers and processor for the task at hand. Designed for music and movies, entertainment mode has the simplest interface, with a large volume control, bass and treble controls, and icons that open additional screens where you can configure settings. Audio-creation mode, which supports Steinberg's low-latency ASIO protocol, looks like simplified professional recording software and allows you to select various recording sources and set levels in a mixerlike environment.
The Volume Panel's Game mode has a curvy, futuristic interface, providing quick access to speaker settings, volume, and mic level controls.
Overall, the new Volume Panel goes a long way toward consolidating the software functionality under one umbrella, but some redundancies are still carried over from previous Sound Blaster software. For instance, bass management features reside in both the Volume Panel's entertainment mode and in the THX Setup Console. And if you want to rip music from a CD, you'll have to do that from the standalone Creative Media Source player rather than from the Volume Panel's audio creation mode, where you might expect it to be.
The X-Fi Elite Pro sounded great on all of our tests, but the I/O box's hardware controls and remote performed dismally. Latency seemed to be a hallmark of the problem; for instance, if we turned the hardware volume control up, the volume might change unpredictably after 20 seconds or more. In contrast, the PC software's controls worked fine.
With Logitech's 5.1-channel
The X-Fi Elite Pro comes with a multichannel DVD Audio disc player application, but for those who stick with more conventional formats, CMSS-3D's music modes effectively convert stereo music into multichannel soundtracks that make you feel like you're onstage with the band. For headphone gaming sessions, CMSS 3D delivered competitive, although not fully convincing, surround-sound simulation. Recordings we made from Internet radio streams and external sources closely mirrored the originals.