Otherwise known as the CMI8788, the Oxygen HD supports resolutions and sampling rates up to 32 bits and 192kHz across eight channels. More importantly, the Oxygen HD’s feature set includes the ability to encode Dolby Digital Live and DTS, allowing it to produce multi-channel digital output via a single S/PDIF connection rather than a mess of analog cables—a capability not even Creative’s vaunted X-Fi can match.
Of the handful of manufacturers building sound cards with the Oxygen HD, Auzentech and Sondigo have the most divergent approaches. Sondigo’s Inferno is a basic implementation of the Oxygen HD that takes full advantage of the chip’s capabilities but doesn’t really push the envelope on features and extras. Auzentech’s X-Meridian is a little more exotic, with a focus on output quality and flexibility that goes so far as to allow users to swap out onboard chips. Keep reading to find out which of these implementations we prefer and whether either can challenge the X-Fi’s mix of features, performance, and sound quality.
C-Media’s Oxygen HD
Since the X-Meridian and Inferno use the same Oxygen HD CMI8788 audio chip, that seems like a good place to start. The Oxygen is the latest in a long line of C-Media audio processors, and its feature set is pretty stacked. In total, the chip supports a whopping 12 output channels and eight input channels. The output channels are split between three groups: the first group handles eight-channel output at up to 32 bits and 192kHz, the second provides two-channel S/PDIF output at up to 32 bits and 192kHz, and the third offers two-channel audio for front-panel connections at up to 16 bits and 48kHz. On the input side of the equation, you get eight channels, all at up to 32 bits and 192kHz.
With the exception of digital S/PDIF connections, the Oxygen HD’s input and output ports have to undergo digital to analog conversions. That’s done on external chips, and as luck would have it, the Auzentech and Sondigo cards we’ll be looking at today use the same digital-to-analog converters (DACs). Both cards employ AKM AK4396VF DACs, capable of supporting analog output at up to 24 bits and 192kHz. 24-bit audio is pretty much the standard for mastering and high-definition content like DVD-Audio, so it’s no surprise that the cards don’t exploit the Oxygen’s support for 32-bit resolutions.
Apart from sampling rates and resolutions, the Oxygen’s feature list is loaded with buzzwords. The DTS NeoPC and Dolby Pro-Logic IIx standards, allowing users to upmix stereo content for output on 7.1-channel speaker setups. Going in the opposite direction, Dolby Virtual Speaker support allows for virtual surround sound from just two speakers. Dolby Headphone provides similar functionality through headphones, creating a virtual surround sound experience that won’t wake your neighbors.
Up- and down-mixing stereo and multi-channel content for different speaker configurations isn’t terribly unique—sound cards, including the X-Fi, have been doing that for quite some time now. However, the Oxygen does have a couple of aces up its sleeve in the form of integrated DTS and Dolby Digital Live encoders.
Normally, running a multi-channel speaker setup requires at least three analog cables—one for each of the front, rear, and center/sub channels. However, DTS Interactive and Dolby Digital Live allow that multi-channel input to be transferred over a single digital S/PDIF connection. You’ll need a receiver or speaker system that supports DTS or Dolby Digital Live decoding, but most high-end options do. Even Logitech’s older Z-680 speakers can accept DTS and Dolby Digital Live input.
What makes the Oxygen’s DTS and Dolby encoders particularly useful is that they can take any multi-channel audio stream—be it from a video file, DVD, or even a game—and convert it to digital output in real-time. Competing sounds cards like Creative’s X-Fi are capable of multi-channel digital output, but they can’t do encoding on the fly, so they’re only capable of passing along an encoded bitstream that already exists. That works fine for DVD movies and audio discs equipped with pre-encoded DTS tracks, but it doesn’t fly with games, where you have to fall back to analog output to get multi-channel sound.
The ability to enjoy multi-channel surround sound in games over a single digital connection is a coup for the Oxygen HD, but otherwise, the chip actually isn’t all that well-equipped for gaming. The chip offers no hardware acceleration for positional 3D audio, and its EAX support tops out at version 2.0, which limits the number of concurrent 3D voices to just 32. These days, EAX goes all the way up to version 5.0, which supports up to 128 concurrent 3D voices and higher sampling rates and resolutions. To be fair, the Oxygen HD isn’t alone in its lack of support for advanced EAX levels and hardware accelerated positional 3D audio. Creative’s the only game in town if you want those features.
A sound card you can upgrade
Santa Clara-based Auzentech is a relative newcomer to the sound card world, and with the exception of a USB webcam, all it does is audio. There are actually three cards in the company’s lineup: the affordable X-Mystique, which provides Dolby Digital Live output; the X-Plosion, which adds digital DTS output to the equation; and the X-Meridian, which we’ll be looking at today. The X-Meridian is Auzentech’s latest creation, and it sits atop the company’s lineup with perks and extras not available on the other X-cards.
Funny, though, how the X-lineup’s names are so similar to X-Fi. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, or something.
In any case, Auzentech has lofty ambitions for the X-Meridian. The company says it wants the card to sound not great, but perfect, and that’s setting the bar pretty high. Auzentech also claims a signal-to-noise ratio of “better than” 115dB for the card, which is 6dB greater than that of an X-Fi XtremeMusic, so they’re off to a good start.
Even a cursory glance at the X-Meridian suggests this is no ordinary sound card. In fact, Auzentech says the card is the first original design based on the Oxygen HD audio chip, suggesting others have merely been using C-Media’s reference design. The X-Meridian, however, is boldly silkscreened with the proclamation that it’s developed and designed in the US. Amusingly, flipping the card reveals that it’s actually made in Korea.
We’re not too concerned with where the X-Meridian is made, but the card’s PCI interface is a little irksome. As PC enthusiasts, we’d far rather see the card riding a PCI Express interface, if only to give us something to put in our motherboard’s PCIe x1 slots. However, we understand that Auzentech is trying to appeal to the largest possible market, and PCIe doesn’t have anywhere near the installed base of PCI.
Even with its dated PCI interface, the X-Meridian still looks slick. The card is dotted with flashy, money-green capacitors that provide a little visual flair. Despite their appearance, these aren’t solid-state capacitors, but more common electrolytic caps.
Amidst the sea of capacitors, we catch a glimpse of the card’s array of AKM DACs. There are four identical DACs, one for each of the card’s analog front, center/sub, rear surround, and side surround outputs. Incidentally, the DACs have a rated signal-to-noise ratio of 120dB, so Auzentech’s claim that the card’s SNR is better than 115dB doesn’t look overly optimistic. However, the card’s AKM AK5385AVF analog-to-digital converter only boasts a SNR of 114dB. The chip does support 24-bit/192kHz recording, though.
For most sound cards, the DAC is the last stop before audio streams hit an output port. However, the X-Meridian adds an extra step to the equation, passing output signals through operational amplifiers, or OPAMPs for short. AUK Semiconductor S4580P OPAMPs are tied to each of the card’s analog output channels, and thanks to standard DIP-type packaging, you can swap these chips out for alternatives of your own choosing. Only particularly finicky audiophiles may actually end up taking advantage of this capability, but it’s still nice to know the flexibility is there if you get the urge to tinker.
Moving to the card’s outputs, we’re greeted by plenty of bling and a relatively standard array of ports. S/PDIF comes in two flavors; the card itself is equipped with coaxial input and output ports, but Auzentech also slides in a pair of TOS-Link adapters, so you get the best of both worlds right in the box.
If you desire a more extensive array of input and output options, Auzentech also sells an X-Tension add-on card that sports additional S/PDIF connections, a MIDI interface, and other goodies. The X-Tension will probably appeal to those who want to play around with recording, but there’s little need for the extras for typical desktop or home theater applications.
While the X-Tension add-on comes at an additional cost, Auzentech does throw a freebie into the box with the X-Meridian. The card comes with a surprisingly nice TOS-Link optical cable that’s much sturdier than the optical cables we’re used to seeing bundled with sound cards. At 10 feet in length, there’s more cable than we’re used to getting, too.
A simpler take on the Oxygen
Like Auzentech, Sondigo is a relative newcomer to the PC audio market. Dolby actually turned us on to the company, which has one of the minds behind Dolby Headphone technology at its helm. Sondigo’s based out of British Columbia, Canada, so they’re right in my back yard. But no, I don’t actually know anyone who works there. And I don’t know your friend Dave from Canada, either.
Although Sondigo makes a couple of USB and Wi-Fi audio products, the Inferno is the company’s first stab at a PCI sound card. At only $149.99 through Sondigo’s website, the card’s $20 cheaper than the X-Meridian, too. Unfortunately, the card is a little scarce online, but Sondigo tell us that it should become available through NCIX, ThinkGeek, and CyberGuys soon.
At first glance, the Inferno looks like a much simpler design than Auzentech’s X-Meridian. The card itself is about an inch shorter, and you won’t find any flashy capacitors or OPAMPs here. Given Auzentech’s claim that the X-Meridian is the first original card design based on the Oxygen HD, I suspect the Inferno is actually based on a C-Media reference design for the CMI8788 audio chip. Not that there’s anything wrong with reference designs—just look at every GeForce 8800 GTX.
Unlike the X-Meridian, which features AKM chips to handle both digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversions, the Inferno has a Wolfson ADC. The WM8785 ADC supports 24-bit/192kHz audio, but its rated signal-to-noise ratio of 111dB is a few decibels short of what AKM claims for the ADC found on the X-Meridian. Oddly, Sondigo’s website says that the card’s AKM DACs have a SNR of 117dB, but the AKM data sheets claim a 120dB SNR.
We didn’t let the X-Meridian slide for arriving with a PCI interface, and we’re not going to cut the Inferno any slack, either. Yes, there are more PCI-equipped systems than those with available PCI Express slots, but if someone’s considering a $150 sound card like the Inferno, we’d wager they have at least one PCIe x1 slot to spare.
The Inferno’s relative simplicity continues at the port cluster, where we find a selection of color-coded analog outputs and decidedly less bling than we saw with the X-Meridian. S/PDIF input and output ports are only available in TOS-Link form, but that’s probably the format most folks will want.
The TOS-Link ports also mate nicely with the optical cable Sondigo includes in the box. This cable is only six feet long, and it’s not nearly as beefy as the one bundled with the X-Meridian. Fortunately, that doesn’t appear to affect its ability to deliver a pristine bitstream to compatible speakers.
In addition to the optical cable, Sondigo also throws a copy of WinDVD 5 into the box. That would be a nice touch—especially since WinDVD 5 supports Dolby Digital Live output—if InterVideo weren’t currently pushing WinDVD 8. DVD playback apps don’t change much from release to release, but this one feels like it’s been pulled from a Wal-Mart bargain bin, so it doesn’t really add much to the overall package.
Neither Auzentech nor Sondigo roll their own drivers, so both rely on C-Media’s drivers for the Oxygen HD. Auzentech offers the most recent C-Media release for download on its website, but Sondigo’s support page doesn’t even offer driver downloads, so you’ll have to get driver updates from C-Media’s site, instead. I suppose you could also download them from Auzentech’s site, if you wanted to be cheeky.
Those who loathe Creative’s penchant for bloatware shouldn’t have a problem with the C-Media Oxygen HD drivers, which are both lightweight and functional. They don’t offer the robust array of features presented in the X-Fi’s various control panels, but I don’t get the impression that anything vital is missing.
If anything, C-Media’s drivers are easier to use than the array of applications that come bundled with Creative’s cards. Switching from analog to digital output can be done with the click of a single button, and flipping between various digital output modes is a snap. You can easily perform automatic or manual speaker tests from the same driver control panel, as well, making it easy to double-check your configuration.
Overall, the drivers offer a pretty standard array of features and options. There’s a mixer, numerous effects options, and even bass boosting functionality if you think music should be felt rather than heard. Karaoke fans are accommodated as well, but you’ll have to provide your own copy of Rhinestone Cowboy.
Oxygen HD drivers are currently only available for Windows XP, but you can get them in 32- and 64-bit flavors. C-Media is expected to release 32-bit Vista drivers in the first week of February, as well. We haven’t been able to get a timetable for Vista x64 drivers, but C-Media is apparently working on it. OpenAL drivers are also in the works, albeit without a definitive release schedule.
Our testing methods
Today the Inferno and X-Meridian face off not only against each other, but also against a couple of other audio options. Obviously, we had to include something from Creative. We selected the X-Fi Fatal1ty because it sells for roughly the same price as the X-Meridian. Apart from a breakout box with extra I/O ports and additional onboard memory, the X-Fi Fatal1ty is essentially identical to cheaper models like the X-Fi XtremeMusic, which we’ve been recommending for well over a year now. To make things even more interesting, we’ve also included the Analog Devices ADI 1988A codec featured on Asus’ M2R32-MVP motherboard. Pitting integrated motherboard audio against sound cards costing $150 and up doesn’t seem entirely fair, but it’s always nice to see how “free” motherboard audio fares.
Positional 3D audio support on the Inferno, X-Meridian, and AD1988A maxes out at EAX 2.0, so we were able to use the same in-game audio settings for those configurations. EAX effects were enabled in each game, and we pushed the audio quality to the highest available settings. However, the X-Fi offers much more robust EAX support, so we tested it twice in each game. For the first round of tests, we used the same in-game audio settings as we did with the other cards, giving us a level playing field. Of course, no one buys an X-Fi and then limits themselves to EAX 2.0, so we conducted a second round of tests with the highest in-game quality settings available on the X-Fi. These results are labeled “Creative X-Fi (EAX Advanced HD)” in the graphs, and they should reflect how X-Fi owners would really use their cards.
To add another wrinkle to the equation, we’ve also conducted testing at two processor speeds. To simulate a relatively high-end system, we tested with an Athlon 64 X2 5000+ running at 2.6GHz. We then ran our performance tests with that chip clocked down to 2.0GHz, simulating the affordable Athlon 64 X2 3800+.
All tests were run at least twice, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.
|Processor||Athlon 64 X2 5000+ 2.6GHz||Athlon 64 X2 3800+ 2.0GHz|
|System bus||HyperTransport 16-bit/1GHz||HyperTransport 16-bit/1GHz|
|Motherboard||Asus M2R32-MVP||Asus M2R32-MVP|
|North bridge||CrossFire Express 3200||CrossFire Express 3200|
|Chipset drivers||Catalyst 7.1||Catalyst 7.1|
|Memory size||2GB (2 DIMMs)||2GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||CorsairTWIN2X2048-6400PRO DDR2 SDRAM at 742MHz||CorsairTWIN2X2048-6400PRO DDR2 SDRAM at 742MHz|
|CAS latency (CL)||5||5|
|RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)||5||5|
|RAS precharge (tRP)||5||5|
|Cycle time (tRAS)||12||12|
|Audio||Analog Devices ADI 1988A codec with 188.8.131.5260 drivers|
|Auzentech X-Meridian with 8.17.8 drivers|
|Creative X-Fi Fatal1ty with 2.09.0007 drivers|
|Sondigo Inferno with 8.17.8 drivers|
|Graphics||GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB PCI-E with ForceWare 93.71 drivers|
|Hard drive||Western Digital Caviar RE2 400GB|
|OS||Windows XP Professional|
|OS updates||Service Pack 2|
Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing. 2GB of RAM seems to be the new standard for most folks, and Corsair hooked us up with some of its 1GB DIMMs for testing.
Also, all of our test systems were powered by OCZ GameXStream 700W power supply units. Thanks to OCZ for providing these units for our use in testing.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5
- RightMark 3D Sound 2.3
- Quake 4 1.30
- F.E.A.R. 1.08
- Battlefield 2 1.41
- Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 1.35
- FRAPS 2.82
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
We’ll kick things off with a set of CPU utilization tests using RightMark 3D Sound. The ADI 1988A only supports up to 32 voices in this test, so we don’t have results from it at 64 or 128 buffers.
On the Athlon 64 X2 3800+, there’s a sizable gap in CPU utilization between the Oxygen-based cards and their competition. That gap grows dramatically as we increase the number of concurrent buffers, while the X-Fi’s hardware acceleration allows it to maintain a reasonable level of CPU utilization, even with 128 buffers.
Note that there’s little performance difference between the Auzentech and Sondigo cards; they use the same audio chip and drivers, so they’re likely to offer all-but-identical performance in 3D audio tests. It’s also interesting to see that the ADI 1988A has much lower CPU utilization than either Oxygen-based card, at least up to 32 buffers. Analog Devices uses the Sensaura 3D positional audio library, and Sensaura is, incidentally, now owned by Creative.
Overall CPU utilization drops a little when we move to the faster Athlon 64 X2 5000+, but the Oxygen-based cards are still occupying far more CPU cycles than either the X-Fi or our ADI onboard audio.
CPU utilization with digital output encoding
Since real-time Dolby Digital Live and DTS encoding are key facets of the Oxygen HD’s appeal, we decided to run a quick CPU utilization test to see whether the encoding process saps CPU cycles. The results below come from the X-Meridian, but the Inferno’s performance was essentially identical. The card was tested with standard analog output and then with digital output pushing DTS Interactive and Dolby Digital Live bitstreams.
There does appear to be a computational cost associated with on-the-fly encoding, but it only becomes significant when we move beyond 32 buffers. RightMark 3D Sound’s EAX test doesn’t show much difference between the output methods, either.
A note on 3D positional audio quality
We’ve encountered dodgy EAX implementations in the past, notably with certain versions of Realtek’s HD audio codec drivers, so I fired up RightMark’s positional audio test to confirm that the Inferno and X-Meridian don’t cut any corners with 3D audio. Both cards correctly place 3D sounds, and they properly honor EAX occlusions and obstructions. So do the ADI 1988A codec and X-Fi Fatal1ty, and without dipping into the X-Fi’s support for more advanced EAX features, my ears can’t detect any real difference in the positional audio quality across all four configurations. However, once you start tapping the X-Fi’s support for a greater number of 3D sounds, you start to hear things that you don’t on the other cards—most dramatically in Battlefield 2.
Unfortunately, the quality of in-game audio isn’t as high as we’d like for playback quality testing. Most games use compressed audio, and that makes discerning the already subtle differences between each card’s playback quality difficult at best. The dynamic nature of games also makes conducting reliable blind listening tests extremely complicated. However, after spending a lot of quality time benchmarking the cards, I got a good feel for how each sounds in games. The cards really do sound similar, but gunfire on the X-Meridian is noticeably louder than it is on the other cards. Also, when running with fancier EAX effects, the X-Fi seems to provide a slightly richer, more immersive sound. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s due to superior playback or the addition of other background sounds, though. Running the X-Fi with the same in-game audio settings as the others doesn’t convey quite the same effect.
Unless you’re running a timedemo, which lacks audio, Quake 4 frame rates are capped at 60 frames per second. We used the game’s playnetdemo function to play back a pre-recorded demo at normal speed while using FRAPS to monitor frame rates. Those FRAPS results allowed us to calculate average and median low frame rates. We’ve also presented a graph showing frame rates across the duration of the demo.
Unfortunately, all our fancy frame grabbing is for naught in Quake 4. The 60 frames per second cap rears its ugly head, even on the Athlon 64 X2 3800+. This is how users will experience the game, though.
F.E.A.R. has a handy in-game performance test that uses audio and spits out average and low frame rates. We took the mean of those averages and the median of the low scores.
The Inferno and X-Meridian lag behind a little here, turning in lower average and median low frame rates than either the X-Fi of the ADI 1988A. We’re not entirely surprised that the Oxygen-based cards can’t keep up with the X-Fi’s hardware acceleration, but we didn’t expect the ADI 1988A to fare so well. Sensaura rocks, apparently.
Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter
Since Ghost Recon doesn’t have an embedded performance test or timedemo feature, we played through the same 90-second section of the game on each card with FRAPS collecting data in the background. This test was repeated five times on each card in an attempt to quell some of the inherent variability associated with playing through the game manually. Again, we’ve provided average and median low frame rates in addition to a timescale graph. Note that the points on this line graph represent averages, too.
Call this a beatdown, folks. The Inferno and X-Meridian are a good 11 frames per second off the X-Fi with the Athlon 64 X2 5000+ and even further off the pace with the X2 3800+. What’s even more embarrassing for the Oxygen-based cards is how they’re trounced by our lowly ADI 1988A codec.
More striking than the size of the frame rate gap is how it affects gameplay. Ghost Recon ran noticeably smoother on the X-Fi and the ADI 1988A than it did on the Inferno and X-Meridian.
Like GRAW, Battlefield 2 lacks in-game benchmarking features, so we resorted to another set of 90-second FRAPS sessions on the Strike at Karkand level.
The Oxygen-based Inferno and X-Meridian cards don’t fare quite as poorly in Battlefield 2 as they did in Ghost Recon, but they consistently trail the X-Fi and the ADI 1988A. You probably won’t notice the difference on the Athlon 64 X2 5000+, but the Inferno and X-Meridian definitely felt a little more sluggish on the X2 3800+.
Frame rates aside, we experienced a slight audio glitch with the Oxygen-based cards in Battlefield 2. In-game radio voices came across a little garbled and distorted, although that didn’t affect our ability to play the game. This was the only positional 3D audio problem we experienced with any of the configurations throughout our testing.
Listening tests – CD audio
For our listening tests, I called in a few favors and cornered three friends in the Benchmarking Sweatshop. After bribing them with adult beverages and some quality time alone with a GeForce 8800 GTX, I subjected our listeners to several hours of music playback tests spanning all three sound cards and the ADI integrated audio config. Tests were conducted with a pair of 5.1-channel Logitech Z680 speakers connected to each sound card using the same analog cables. Volume levels were normalized to within one decibel, and all environmental effects and equalizers were disabled.
To highlight the differences between cards, 30-second song clips were played back-to-back on different configurations. Four cards gave us six back-to-back tests per configuration, ensuring that each card went head-to-head with the others. The order of playback was randomized for each test, and our listeners were unaware of which cards they were listening to at any given time.
This first set of listening tests examines CD-quality audio playback. We used uncompressed WAV audio ripped directly from source CDs, and tapped Windows Media Player 10 for playback. Below, you’ll find a summary of our listeners’ impressions of how the Inferno and X-Meridian stacked up against each other and against the X-Fi and ADI 1988A. I’ve also injected a few thoughts of my own, although since I was running the tests, I knew which cards we were hearing.
Before we start, I should note that this was by far the most difficult set of listening tests we’ve ever run. In most cases, the differences between the cards were minute, although our listeners were largely consistent in which cards they favored.
Bloc Party – This Modern Love
Ripped from their Silent Alarm debut, This Modern Love combines a healthy dose of artsy, brit punk with a little dash of the acid-washed 80s.
Our listeners felt the X-Meridian had the strongest vocals and percussion of the bunch, but they said that came at the expense of background instrumentals that seemed a little lost in the shuffle. The X-Meridian’s highs and lows were bright, they said, but the mids were a little foggy, especially when compared with the X-Fi’s more balanced output.
The listeners were split on the Inferno. One thought the card sounded almost identical to the X-Meridian, while the other two were in agreement that the Inferno sounded a little muffled in comparison, especially at the low end of the spectrum. That low-end muffling caused all three to favor the X-Fi’s cleaner, crisper output over the Inferno.
None of our subjects were keen on the ADI 1988A with this song. There was some agreement that the ADI audio offered clean vocals, but they weren’t as good as those of the X-Meridian. There was also a sense that the ADI 1988A missed the mark with background instruments, and my ears concurred.
Overall, the X-Fi offered the most balanced playback for this track. However, the X-Meridian’s stronger vocals and punchier percussion were quite pleasant.
The Rapture – Get Myself Into It
For the first time ever during a TR listening test, we had a subject ask if they could dance. The Rapture’s Get Myself Into It is indeed a catchy tune, with soaring vocals and a beat funky enough to induce a little head bobbing.
We all agreed that this track’s funky bass line sounded great on the X-Meridian, but it was almost too much, since our listeners found that it overwhelmed the background instrumentals a little. The Inferno didn’t have the X-Meridian’s punch, according to our subjects, but they also felt that the Sondigo card lacked precision in the mid-range and suffered from slightly tinny vocals.
The X-Fi was the consistent favorite with this song, with each listener preferring it, if only slightly, to the Inferno, X-Meridian, and ADI 1988A. One of our listeners thought the ADI 1988A sounded a little better than the Inferno, although all agreed that the ADI audio lost some of the mid range when compared with the X-Fi and even the X-Meridian.
Gnarls Barkley – Just A Thought
Call me crazy, but I think Just A Thought‘s obnoxious percussion, sweet strings, and slightly raspy vocals are absolutely beautiful. They also presented quite a challenge for our sound cards.
According to our listeners, this track’s thundering percussion was crushing on the X-Meridian, but in a good way. One subject felt there was a little too much reverb on the Auzentech card, and two agreed that the mids were a little too distant when compared with the X-Fi’s output.
When the X-Meridian was pitted against the Inferno, our listeners had a hard time distinguishing between the cards. Interestingly, though, they felt that the Inferno missed some of the sweetness in the strings when it was compared to the X-Fi. One listener also heard crisper vocals on the X-Fi, and a little more punch to the bass than what the Inferno offered.
Overall, our listeners liked the X-Fi and X-Meridian’s playback the most, favoring the former ever so slightly. The ADI 1988A trailed the Inferno here, with our subjects finding the ADI audio’s bass a little too overwhelming at the expense of the vocals and strings.
Personally, I really liked how this track’s drum line hit me in the chest on the X-Meridian. You don’t get quite the same thump with the X-Fi, but then, the X-Fi’s strings did ring a little sweeter.
Audioslave – Original Fire
Original Fire rocks out with Chris Cornell’s classic wail, plenty of percussion, loud guitars, and even a little tambourine. Loud, straightforward rock music tends to lack the sonic complexity that makes listening tests easy, but there’s loads of it in my CD collection, so we gave it a spin.
As expected, our subjects didn’t detect much of a difference between the cards here. The X-Meridian and Inferno were all but identical to their ears, although one listener heard a little more mid-range on the Auzentech card. Our listeners also felt that the X-Meridian provided slightly cleaner vocals than the X-Fi, but one also said that the X-Fi provided more punch than the Inferno.
Likely due to this track’s lack of complexity, the ADI 1988A fared rather well. A couple of our listeners even felt that the ADI had crisper percussion than the Inferno, but they also thought that it didn’t sound as good as either the X-Fi or the X-Meridian.
Pachebell – Canon
I’ve been using the same classical music compilation for listening tests for quite some time now, and I’ll admit I know next to nothing about the genre. However, one of our listeners was familiar enough with Pachebell to note that while he had heard Canon numerous times before, this was his first experience with this particular take on the piece.
That same listener detected a few missing cellos in the X-Meridian’s playback when the card faced off against the X-Fi. All three felt that the Inferno was missing something when compared with the X-Fi, as well, although they could only point to the fact that the X-Fi sounded fuller. There was also general agreement that the Inferno and X-Meridian sounded almost identical.
Again, the ADI 1988A was the least favorite of the bunch. Our listeners felt the ADI integrated audio didn’t have the body or cradling sound of the other cards, especially when compared with the X-Fi.
I was actually impressed that the ADI 1988A sounded as good as it did, but it was my least favorite of the bunch. To my ears, the X-Fi had a richer sound than either the Inferno or the X-Meridian, although not by much.
Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around
Listening tests wouldn’t be complete without a little country, and there’s no better subject than the man in black. This track, from American IV Recordings, combines subtle piano, acoustic guitar, and Cash’s unmistakable vocals.
The rich body of Cash’s voice played well on the X-Meridian and Inferno, according to our listeners. They felt that both were superior to the ADI 1988A, which missed a little of the vocal character and clarity. One listener even felt that Cash sounded tinny on the Analog Devices codec. Johnny Cash—tinny!
As much as our subjects liked the playback of the Inferno and X-Meridian, one felt the Inferno sounded a little hollow compared to the X-Fi. Another found the X-Fi’s vocals to be a little fuller than those of the X-Meridian, and my ears agreed. With the X-Fi, there seemed to be a little more pain in Cash’s voice—additional character, if you will.
Listening tests – multi-channel DVD audio
With digital output a key feature of the Inferno and X-Meridian, we whipped up a second wave of listening tests for our three discrete sound cards. For these tests, we switched to WinDVD 8 and a couple of DVD-Audio discs, and we swapped our analog cables for a TOS-Link optical connection to our Logitech speakers.
Digital output should provide a consistent digital bitstream across the board, so we didn’t expect to see much of a difference between the cards. For the first two tracks, we compared the X-Fi, Inferno, and X-Meridian with DTS output. For the second two, we narrowed our focus to the Inferno and X-Meridian with Dolby Digital Live output.
Nine Inch Nails – With Teeth
The title track from Nine Inch Nails’ latest album, With Teeth is heavy on percussion and features an interesting chirping piped to the rear channels.
As expected, our listeners had a hard time telling the difference between the cards. There was a little mumbling that the X-Fi might have sounded a little clearer, but no consensus was reached. To my ears, the three cards were all but indistinguishable.
Nine Inch Nails – Getting Smaller
Getting Smaller circles the listener with noisy, distorted guitars atop a driving bass line. In 5.1-channel surround sound, it’s quite the experience.
Again, our listeners detected little difference between the cards. One thought the X-Fi sounded a little cleaner than the Inferno, but the others thought they all sounded about the same.
Blue Man Group – Sing Along
With guest vocals provided by Dave Matthews, Sing Along lulls you into a false sense that you’re no longer listening to music played back on PVC tubing.
Predictably, our listeners were unable to detect a difference between the Inferno and X-Meridian. Both cards are passing the same Dolby Digital Live bitstream using the same encoder, after all.
Blue Man Group – Piano Smasher
Piano Smasher almost defies description, but I can add that it’s also the background track for the Blue Man Group’s DVD menu.
Again here, our listeners were unable to distinguish between playback on the Inferno and X-Meridian. Digital output was consistent, as it should be.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Loopback – 16-bit/44.1kHz
Moving from subjective listening tests to something more objective, we used RightMark Audio Analyzer to evaluate output quality. Our first set of RMAA results are from “loopback” tests that route a sound card’s output through its line input. We’ll kick things off with 16-bit/44.1kHz CD-quality audio.
To keep things simple, I’ve translated RightMark’s word-based quality scale to numbers. Higher scores reflect better audio quality, and the scale tops out at 6, which corresponds to an “Excellent” rating.
The X-Meridian scores a few wins here, distancing itself from the X-Fi in noise level and dynamic range tests. However, the Inferno doesn’t fare quite as well. That card scores lower than the X-Meridian in four of six tests and lower than the X-Fi in three. At least the Inferno stays ahead of the ADI 1988A most of the time, particularly when it comes to frequency response and stereo crosstalk.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Loopback – 24-bit/48kHz
My Nine Inch Nails With Teeth dual disc’s DVD-Audio tracks are 24-bit/48kHz, and we ran RMAA at that bitrate and resolution.
The ADI integrated audio starts to falter when we dip into higher bitrates and resolutions, but the X-Meridian matches the X-Fi across the board. The Inferno doesn’t fare quite as well, falling off the pace in the dynamic range and distortion tests. Surprisingly, the Sondigo card trails the ADI 1988A in the total harmonic distortion test.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Loopback – 24-bit/96kHz
24-bit/96kHz is as good as multi-channel DVD-Audio gets, so we’ll test at this bitrate and resolution, too.
Again, we see the X-Fi and X-Meridian locked in a tie across the board. The Inferno continues to trail those two cards in RightMark’s dynamic range and distortion tests, although this time it doesn’t lose any ground to the ADI.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – X-Fi XtremeMusic – 16-bit/44.1kHz
To remove each sound card’s line input as a variable, we switched from RMAA loopback to straight playback tests using an X-Fi XtremeMusic installed on a separate system for recording. We actually did a batch of playback tests with a Terratec DMX 6fire 24/96 as the recording card, but our results suggested that the older Terratec card was more of a limiting factor than the X-Fi.
Results are mixed at 16 bits and 44.1kHz, but the X-Meridian looks like a competent competitor to the X-Fi. The Inferno doesn’t fare quite as well, falling behind in several tests.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – X-Fi XtremeMusic – 24-bit/48kHz
The Oxygen-based cards continue to falter slightly in the frequency response test, but the X-Meridian bounces back nicely in the remaining tests. Unfortunately, the Inferno doesn’t bounce back quite as well, and it trails the Creative and Auzentech cards in a couple of instances.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – X-Fi XtremeMusic – 24-bit/96kHz
Again, the Inferno and X-Meridian get off to a slow start, but once we get past the frequency response test, the Auzentech card matches the X-Fi through the remainder of the RightMark suite. The Inferno, on the other hand, displays some weakness in dynamic range, noise level, and total harmonic distortion.
Detailed RMAA results – Loopback – 16-bit/44.1kHz
If you want to geek out over a bunch of detailed RMAA graphs, we’ve provided the raw results for all of our RMAA tests over the following six pages. These results are included as a bonus; feel free to skip to the conclusion of the review, if you wish.
Detailed RMAA results – Loopback – 24-bit/48kHz
Detailed RMAA results – Loopback – 24-bit/96kHz
Detailed RMAA results – X-Fi XtremeMusic – 16-bit/44.1kHz
Detailed RMAA results – X-Fi XtremeMusic – 24-bit/48kHz
Detailed RMAA results – X-Fi XtremeMusic – 24-bit/96kHz
If you’re looking for a sound card based on C-Media’s Oxygen HD audio processor, the Auzentech X-Meridian is a much better choice than the Sondigo Inferno. Yes, the X-Meridian is a little more expensive, but it comes with a nicer optical cable, more flexibility with regard to digital output options, and replaceable OPAMPs for especially picky audiophiles. The card also scored better in our objective RightMark Audio Analyzer output tests and sounded better in our subjective listening tests, both of which used analog output. All that’s worth the Auzentech card’s $20 premium, we think.
Don’t get us wrong, though. The Inferno’s a decent card; it’s just not worth $150 when the X-Meridian offers the same audio chip and all those extra perks for around $170.
So we like the X-Meridian, or at least we like it more than the Inferno. But would we recommend it over an X-Fi? No. You see, the whole point behind cards based on the Oxygen HD is their ability to encode DTS or Dolby Digital Live output in real-time. That functionality is a boon to gamers looking to pipe digital output to speakers or a receiver with a single cable, but if you’re serious about surround sound gaming, you really want something with hardware-accelerated positional audio and more advanced EAX support.
The difference between EAX 2.0 and 5.0 is far from academic, and as our game performance tests show, the X-Fi’s hardware acceleration can give in-game frame rates a huge boost, even with all sorts of extra 3D voices. That’s not the worst of it, though. The Oxygen-based cards can’t keep up with the frame rates offered by ADI integrated motherboard audio, either. If you want multi-channel output in games, get an X-Fi and learn to live with analog cables—it’s better than suffering through higher CPU utilization, lower frame rates, and fewer in-game sounds just to run a single optical cable.
If you’re looking to build a home theater PC for video playback, the Oxgyen’s capacity for on-the-fly DTS and Dolby Digital Live encoding does have some appeal. Unlike the X-Fi, which can only pass along pre-encoded DTS bitstreams if they’re included with the source (such as with a DVD movie), the Oxygen-based cards can encode any multi-channel material for digital S/PDIF output. That’s a nice capability to have if you want a digital connection to your home theater receiver and you want to play back content that lacks embedded DTS tracks.
I suppose some audiophiles will take a shining to the X-Meridian, too, for its replaceable OPAMPs. If you like hard-hitting bass and prominent vocals, the X-Meridian also has an edge over the X-Fi in terms of analog output quality, according to the subjects of our listening tests. However, those subjects also felt the X-Meridian short-changed the mid-range a little and that the X-Fi provided a more even sound across the spectrum, so prospective X-Meridian owners might want to do a little equalizer tweaking to even things out.
In the end, we can only recommend the X-Meridian if you have a specific need for real-time DTS or Dolby Digital Live encoding or if you have a set of high-end OPAMPs burning a hole in your pocket. Auzentech may win some fans simply by providing an enthusiast-friendly alternative to Creative’s much-maligned dominance of the audio card market, but there are precious few scenarios where we’d rather have an X-Meridian over an X-Fi.