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Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro review: Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro

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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 Z-5500 Digital multimedia speaker set connected, games, DVDs and music really came to life. Ambient environments in Half-Life 2 had exceptional detail and realism, making us feel enveloped by the action. We're not usually impressed by DSP effects, but the 24-bit Crystallizer did a surprisingly good job of giving compressed music a bit more punch and opening up the treble response without introducing glaring sonic inaccuracies. We also attribute the improved audio quality to the 64MB of onboard RAM, a first for consumer level-sound cards. By being able to store data without belaboring your computer's CPU, the card is better able to process more complex effects.

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.

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