Creative X-Fi Titanium HD £170
26th Aug 2010 | 15:40
The rebirth of the add-in sound card?
Creative X-Fi Titanium HD: overview
Who does Creative have in mind for its new X-Fi Titanium HD soundcard? After all, it's been a long time since add-in sound cards were a must-have piece of kit for gaming. Thanks to the improved quality of on board sound, they're an optional extra for pretty much everyone these days.
As the best-known manufacturer of gaming sound cards, Creative dominated PC audio for a few years in the middle of the decade. So it had the most to lose as gamers adopted a more laissez-faire attitude to aural effects.
Creative wasn't helped by the fact that companies like Auzentech and Asus opened a second front against it by wooing away those who wanted hi-fi quality sound from their PC.
Creative's in-game effects engine, EAX, was being eclipsed by the more generic Dolby Surround standard, and at same time the Auzentech Prelude and Asus Xonars were attracting folk who knew and cared about SNRs, dynamic ranges and understood that sometimes you get better quality from a coat hanger than a £90 gold-plated cable.
Fortunately, Creative is not the kind of company to roll over and give up.
Its passionate defence of hardware acceleration when Microsoft dropped DirectSound from Vista may have led to more user confusion than any other technical argument in the history of PCs, but it certainly helped to keep sound cards selling.
Now it's fighting back in the other direction too. The Titanium HD is a makeover of its X-Fi sound card aimed at the dreaded bunch who would call themselves audiophile.
Creative X-Fi Titanium HD: Features
Physically, the card comes clad in an unusual plastic housing that covers up all the components on board.
Whether or not this is designed for looks, or as some sort of RF shield for fidelity purposes is unclear, but it's a far cry from the sometimes gaudy LEDs of the Fatal1ty cards and more becoming of the kind of PC which might find itself hooked up to a pair of Bang & Olufsen's finest.
It connects via a single lane PCI-E port, and the EMU20K2 audio processor and 16MB of on board RAM is the same core specification that's been on Creative cards for a couple of years.
The card also supports DTS Connect and Dolby Digital Live. Old favourites like the upmixing of surround effects through Creative's own CMSS-3D remain, though.
Similarly all the previous features like the Crystalizer, which increases the dynamic range of compressed audio, remain untouched.
These now fall under the auspices of the THX-cobranded TruStudio PC, which has also appeared on Creative's USB headphones in the past and brings a load of tuning options for mid-range clarity or smart volume control.
The driver suite is identical to previous versions of the X-Fi control panel, with three modes for switching between entertainment, gaming and audio creation.
So far, then, so little to really differentiate itself from earlier X-Fi cards. The important differences are in the components used on the PCB. The key features here are higher quality capacitors and a 122dB SNR digital-analogue converter.
Along with replaceable op amps there should be enough here to pique the interests of those in the know.
Creative X-Fi Titanium HD: Benchmarks
How do you benchmark a sound card?
Well, we can show that there's little to be gained in terms of frame rates by offloading sound cycles from the CPU, and Rightmarks' Audio Analyzer (RMAA) can give us a technical overview of what's going on inside. Ultimately, though, audio is subjective, and different ears will like different things.
Far Cry 2 - Frames per second (higher is better)
RMAA total harmonic distortion
RMAA Dynamic range
Creative X-Fi Titanium HD: Verdict
You've got to be really interested in PC audio to even consider buying a sound card for over £160, and the X-Fi Titanium HD has a couple of other quirks to keep the riff-raff at bay too.
For example, round the back of the card, there's a 3.5mm headphone out and mic in, but the four RCA ports could be very controversial.
Two are for stereo line out, two are for stereo line in, which means if you want surround sound, you're going to have to use the optical connection to a separate amp and decoder, rather nullifying your investment in a high quality on-board one. There are no analogue connections for surround speakers.
That's a design quirk we can live with. After all, the audience for the Titanium HD is probably more interested in the low latency ASIO drivers for professional studio recording than listening for someone creeping up behind them in Call of Duty 4.
But what of the actual sound quality? Technically, according to the Rightmark Audio Analyzer benchmark, it comes close enough to the specs on the box to run rings around a standard Realtek on-board chip, although it loses out to Asus' Xonar Xense – a card very similar to the £150 Xonar Essence STX.
Subjectively, the tone is infinitely tuneable, but by default the card puts out a warm, rich sound in movies which – being critical – needs a little more emphasis on the higher frequencies for listening to music through headphones.
Gaming wise, even though on-board sound has come a long way, you will still notice the difference if you upgrade to an add-in card like this.
The trouble for the X-Fi Titanium HD is that for most people it's just not that much better than, say, the X-Fi Xtreme Gamer, which is a quarter of the price.
And if you really have to buy something that can edit out only the differences dogs can hear, then Asus' Xonar Xense is only £30 more expensive, but comes with a pair of Sennheiser headphones worth half the price, and a more impressive headphone amp to power them.
Auzentech's X-Fi Bravura, meanwhile, comes perilously close to the Titanium HD's specs, but costs just £70.
We're not arguing that you shouldn't pay for quality, but it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't be better off upgrading their headphones or speakers, or silencing their PC, than spending nearly £200 on a sound card.
Even with the improvements in on-board sound, there's still a place for add-in cards, whether you're gaming, watching movies or listening to tunes. The X-Fi Titanium HD has some impressive specs that appeal to audio purists.
It's just too niche, and too expensive. You could easily argue, for example, that any improvement in sound quality over a cheaper card using the same chip is going to be drowned out by the noise of your PSU.
If you want this kind of audio quality, you're probably not using your PC as your main entertainment device.
Even with the improvements in on-board sound, there's still a place for add-in cards whether you're gaming, watching movies or listening to tunes.
The X-Fi Titanium HD has some impressive specs that appeal to audio purists. A fair shot at the high end, but other hi-fi cards are cheaper and better.
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