Oxygen HD sound cards from Auzentech and Sondigo

CREATIVE HAS ALL BUT OWNED the market for PC audio cards since it introduced the original Sound Blaster way back when. That dominance has only grown over the years, in part because Creative has made some very good sound cards, but also because the company has managed to swallow up some of its competitors and outmuscle others. Now, though, Creative is starting to see some real competition. C-Media’s new Oxygen HD audio chip is finding its way into numerous sound cards from relative upstarts, and enthusiasts have taken notice.

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.

Auzentech’s X-Meridian

Manufacturer Auzentech
Model X-Meridian
Price (Street) $169.99
Availability Now

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.

Sondigo’s Inferno

Manufacturer Sondigo
Model Inferno
Price (Street) $149.99
Availability Now

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.


C-Media’s drivers
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
Bios revision 0712 0712
North bridge CrossFire Express 3200 CrossFire Express 3200
South bridge SB600 SB600
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
Command rate 1T 1T
Audio Analog Devices ADI 1988A codec with 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:

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.


CPU utilization
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.


Quake 4
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.

Battlefield 2
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. 

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    • moose17145
    • 14 years ago

    lol, X-Fi cleaned the other cards clocks! Good to know since i own an Xtreme Music … and btw… wtf is everyones fascination with the letter “X”?!?

    Personally, i would like to see how that new Razer card performs against the X-Fi, because from what I’m seeing it may be the best competitor for it. I don’t know exactly what chip it uses though.

    • Generic Ninja
    • 14 years ago

    Just wanted to point out that the conclusion indicated that the Merridian was more than $20 better than the Inferno. The current pricing I am seeing reflects a $94 dollar price difference with the Inferno coming in well under $150 US ($105 CDN).

    $199 CDN Meridian
    §[<http://www.ncix.com/products/index.php?sku=20812&vpn=X-MERIDIAN&manufacture=AuzenTech<]§ $105 CDN Inferno §[<http://www.ncix.com/products/index.php?sku=21801&vpn=SOHD-01&manufacture=Sondigo<]§ Just wondering if that changes the balance any.

      • Dissonance
      • 14 years ago

      At those prices, the Inferno’s a nice deal if you really want the real-time DTS and DDL encoding capabilities. If you’re going to use digital output and have no desire to mess around with OPAMPs, there’s no need to spend that much more on the X-Meridian.

      However, NCIX also has the X-Fi XtremeMusic for $108, and it’s worth the extra $3 provided you don’t need the DTS/DDL stuff.

    • tygrus
    • 14 years ago

    24bit mode uses integers to represent values, 32bit mode is typically FP values for each sample.
    The benefit of higher SN ratio is being able to amplify a quiet signal for recording or output audio at lower levels while keeping the noise out of hearing (relative).
    Digital signal processing or editing could require many calculations and steps that would accumulate error faster using 24bit (16bit worse) than 32bit.
    ADC’s could be upgraded in future designs for full 32bit support.

    PCI-e cards may still need 2nd generation PCI-e controllers to minimise latency and maximise performance ???

    Sockets for audio chips dealing with analog increases cross talk, noise and THD.

    Pages with graphs weren’t always labelled (“Detailed RMAA results ..”). I can work it out from the picture’s filename or assume the sequence from previous pages.

    Why do so many sound cards have strange results around 1kHz ?

    #16 Namarrgon talks about using Dual-core CPUs to maintain performance in games. I would like to remind readers that the tests were done with dual-core CPU’s and it still affected game speed. No results or graphs were shown regarding CPU usage during the game tests. Windows, DirectX (incl. DirectSound) and driver model may prevent multi-processing and restrict performance (waiting for API calls to return which execute in kernel mode).

    These may be early drivers which could have room for improvement (eg. performance). Performance will still be limited by lack of hardware features (eg. EAX acceleration). Also remember that Creative can restrict the use of their EAX spec’s (2,3,4,5) so everyone else is currently stuck a few generations behind.

    • Alanzilla
    • 14 years ago

    Nice review, but, seriously, don’t even talk about sound quality and subjective listener tests unless you’re going to use some audio equipment better than that. I mean… Logitech? Are you serious?

      • Zenith
      • 14 years ago

      Logitech Z-680s. They’re good enough to tell an honest difference. I can assure you of that.

        • Alanzilla
        • 14 years ago

        No, they aren’t. I can assure you of /[

      • danielson
      • 14 years ago

      The reason they use Logitechs is because mainstream users have them, or something similar for the mostpart. Nobody cares about how they sound running a set of polks or whatever. For anyone that thinks you can’t tell the difference using Logitechs…that’s fine, maybe your hearing isn’t as fine tuned because just as the people in the blind tests can hear a major difference…so can the vast majority of mainstream users. So many people are quick to jump on Logitechs and Klipsh and Creative, just because they aren’t uber high end. Nobody claims them to be…lets face it, people by the thousands just LOVE to listen to them for what they are worth. Love them or hate them…nobody really cares. In the end, people that are satisfied with them are what matters. So, if you really think you can’t tell the difference doing a sound test with them, ask the dozens of review sites that have used them, they will all tell you the same thing….they work great. People need to stop treating them like they are some high end audio speaker and let them be what they are, a decent set of speakers for most people. nuff said.

        • Alanzilla
        • 14 years ago

        For a soundcard that runs $199 and proclaims itself to be audiophile quality, it deserves to be tested with a speaker system good enough to see how good it really is — or isn’t.

    • DrCR
    • 14 years ago

    The Razer Barracuda AC-1 is apparently part of the same family.
    §[<http://www.phoronix.com/scan.php?page=article&item=590&num=1<]§ Wonder how it would compare to the Auzentech and Sondigo offerings. Perhaps a _mini_-review could be arranged? :)

    • Spotpuff
    • 14 years ago

    Why can’t someone that isn’t Creative come out with a hi def card that has games acceleration as well? We need competition.

    Needs to be:
    1. High quality/HD Audio
    2. digital output
    3. hardware acceleration for games etc.
    4. PCI-E

    So far it’s like, compromise in games or overall quality. Why is there a need for compromise in the first place 🙁

      • swaaye
      • 14 years ago

      cuz the vast majority of computer purchasers don’t seem to care about integrated audio quality or capability. Even gamers, whom such an accelerated card basically only applies to, are rather indiscriminate.

      Creative has massively diversified over the past 8 yrs or so. Undoubtedly their sound card division doesn’t bring in all that much money. Certainly not from X-Fi sales. Maybe their software codecs on the value boards, mobos, and laptops are doing ok though.

      But it’s totally obvious to me that audio for mobos, and most PCs as a result, goes to the lowest bidder. And that is usually Realtek.

      IMO, Creative wouldn’t be around today if they hadn’t been so aggressive with eating up the competition over the years. Business is business, and only Creative seems to be able to succeed with sound cards. SO many others have tried and failed over the years. Only the builders of ultra cheap codecs have survived otherwise.

      • seeker010
      • 14 years ago

      compromise? the elite pro is no compromise.

      • Forge
      • 14 years ago

      The lack of hardware accelerated audio in Vista is a symptom, not the problem. Hardware 3D audio is dead like a rotting corpse, the only reason CL keeps flogging it is to differentiate their almost-identical products.

      • Anomymous Gerbil
      • 14 years ago

      For HD, presumably you would be using digital output, in which case any onboard solution should suffice shouldn’t it, i.e. it’s simply passing through the audio to an S/PDIF jack? Or are you looking for a card with DACs to produce “HD” analogue output?

      • drsauced
      • 14 years ago

      licensing. Nobody has the cash but Creative to license certain technologies. This is also a minor miracle that Auzentech was able to license Dolby and DTS.

      Now, as far as Vista goes, MS wants all the license money, and thus UAA was designed in part to do just that.

    • HalcYoN[nV]
    • 14 years ago

    FYI, beta Vista 32 driver is up at Auzentech.
    §[<http://www.auzentech.com/site/support/FAQ.php#compatibility<]§ OpenAL is still future...

    • Zenith
    • 14 years ago

    I have a running set of Logitech Z-680 speakers. They were originally ran by my Soundstorm DDL output, but are now ran by a Chaintech AV-710.

    I have to tell you…the lossy method DD uses really affects sound IMO. As much as I loved the Soundstorm solution, I wouldn’t return to DDL/DTS encoding after experiencing 24bit/192kHz audio quality.

      • tempeteduson
      • 14 years ago

      Thanks. It’s good to know that one can tell the difference between uncompressed 24-bit and lossy DDL/DTS. And this through Logitech speakers? Quite amazing. I’ll keep that in mind.

        • Zenith
        • 14 years ago

        If you turn down the subwoofer about 3-5 clicks from the bottom, the speakers sound good. Mind you, I keep it at about 4 clicks from the bottom, but I’m using them inside a small room. Overall, I am a picky person. The stereo 24bit/192kHz output on the AV-710 is far superior to the normal 5.1 24/48 mode. Thankfully, I listen to music more than anything else. And as for games, I don’t care if it’s 24/48 since I’m just…playing a game. And since I have the Z-680s, I still pipe DVDs through the SPDIF.

        Overall, I would say they are some of the best PC speakers made. Yeah, there are better now, but as PC speakers get, they’re high quality. But I fully understand that a smart selection of quality shelf speakers with a decent amp (whether you use the onboard or soundcard DACs) is superior, though you will spend more than I did for these. I did not have any of those things, nor the money, so I “settled” for the Z-680 set. I also had a nForce2 board running a decent rig, so I wanted to take advantage of the SS.

        Overall, I am extremely pleased with the speakers to this day, despite being exposed to many other highend systems. Oh, and I got them for $280 for them on Amazon, from Amazon, new-in-box when they had 7 left, and free shipping. After those 7 were gone, the price went back up to $380.

    • Chrispy_
    • 14 years ago

    Yes, that was a solid read. I read it so thoroughly that it took me an entire episode of House on my second screen. Guess the lack of soundcard reviews has piqued my interest for this article 🙂

    I bought an SBLive! value to play Half-Life with EAX and it’s still in my main system alongside my X1800XT. Sure it’s not as swanky as my flatmate’s Xi-Fi but it’s as good as, or better than my speakers, so what do I care?

    My loathing of creative, no matter how much I still like my Creative card is the godawful drivers, and the C-Media panel really looks like it could teach Creative something.

    Perhaps DirectX could implement a control panel for the sound cards, cutting out the crap and just showing the compatible directsound functions.

      • swaaye
      • 14 years ago

      I’ve thought the SBLive Unipack driver from ’03 has been one solid sound card driver.

      I have like 4 SBLives around from people giving them to me. They still are certainly better than almost all onboard audio. People should use these things but seem to assume they’re useless antiquated junk.

    • l33t-g4m3r
    • 14 years ago

    I would like to take this moment to point out something recently discovered on the creative labs forums about the x-fi, and other creative soundcards.
    Creative is using cheap jamicon capacitors, which may be THE reason for so many problems with creatives hardware.

      • ludi
      • 14 years ago

      I see a lot of Jamicon hate in that thread, but only a silken wisp of technical justification for it. Lots of “junk” and “they fail” but nobody actually showing how, or confirming that the problems they were experiencing did not actually have some other origin (secondary heating from another hot-running peripheral card or poorly-ventilated case, for example; or random motherboard compatibility or system EMI problems being scapegoated by the ignorant).

      The real clue-in is that the guy who started the thread rants about the difference between “Jamicon” and “audio” capacitors. One double-blind test would quickly put that one to rest, as it has repeatedly done in the past.

    • Jigar
    • 14 years ago

    Good article there Geoff and thanks for making me proud owner of Xtreme music 😉

    • HammerSandwich
    • 14 years ago

    I’m not familiar with RMAA’s limitations, but there seem to be some. (All comments based on results with the X-Fi recording, not loopback.)

    Why do the 24/96 frequency-response graphs hit a brick wall just after 20KHz? If RMAA doesn’t test higher frequencies, what can 96KHz tests show?

    I noticed no reduction in noise levels when moving from 16 to 24 bits. Whether this is a testing artifact, a problem with all of the included cards or a general result of putting audio devices inside a noisy PC case remains a tough call.

    Finally, what happened with the 24/96 crosstalk? The graph is awful and doesn’t match the generated rating.

      • liquidsquid
      • 14 years ago

      Likely a limitation of the sigma-delta converters in the CODEC, not the testing software. This is to anti-alias the audio signal of concern, yet still give you a lot of datapoints to re-create signals under 20kHz.

    • Shinare
    • 14 years ago

    I notice that you are using an X-Fi fatality. Would your conclusions hold true for an X-Fi extreme gamer or extrememusic? I only ask because I will probably be getting the ExtremeGamer in the very near future and dont want to pay for “Fatal1ty” branded card if it performs as well in games.

      • Dissonance
      • 14 years ago

      I haven’t yet tested an XtremeGamer, but the XtremeMusic sounds identical to the Fatal1ty. And, although the Fatal1ty features X-RAM, we’ve found that it doesn’t make much of a difference when it comes to game performance.

      §[<https://techreport.com/reviews/2006q1/xfi-fatal1ty/index.x?pg=1<]§ I'd expect the XtremeGamer and XtremeMusic to offer nearly identical positional audio performance.

    • 20dB@10Hz
    • 14 years ago

    This is very good review and comparison.
    It confirms what I thought: DDL is worth it only if
    you are ready to give up on true EAX and accept slower frame rate. There is no benefit for music listening unless you are ready to swap the opamp for a better one
    and accept inherent instability of such solution
    (as pointed out in #22)

    I would add this:
    DDL and DTS Connect are great solutions born from the need
    to squeeze multichannel audio into limited bandwidth of SPDIF intended for stereo. I always wonder why AES/EBU was not implemented on both ends instead. This is protocol designed for multichannel audio, right?

      • accord1999
      • 14 years ago

      Virtually no HT receiver support.

    • liquidsquid
    • 14 years ago

    It’s too bad that the AD1988 is hamstrung by a bad layout or noise problems. A few of the charts that show a high noise base across the spectrum confirm this. The device itself has fantastic specifications, and were (AFAIK) designed in the US in the Boston area.

    I am using the AD1986A on a design and it is a pretty good performer being a bit earlier generation, but the AD1988 should easily compare to the other products for sound quality of the board layout if power supplies were handled correctly.

    Actually the AD1988B’s specifications are pretty amazing, so I would hardly call it lowly. It is simply designed onto a board poorly. Put this on it’s own board with a filtered supply and it would perform as well or better than Creative’s boards according to spec. I don’t know why there are not more separate sound cards based on these devices available.


      • Perezoso
      • 14 years ago

      Does it work with Linux?

        • liquidsquid
        • 14 years ago

        No clue. Actually Analog Devices is pretty unhelpful for us developers for getting drivers. Last time I had some trouble with drivers, I requested a DDK from them. They told me to “Google for them” to get the latest drivers. I was a little pissed because I spent the better part of a day digging for the latest ones.

        I have come across no Linux drivers, but the devices do share a common API with all other compliant hardware. In most cases you just have to change the Device Instance ID to match the card you have installed, and you can make almost any driver work with any card. Only unique features will not be operable between cards if the hardware is not there to support it. I am sure a Linux guru can take a HD driver for Creative products and make it work on AD1988B.


        • Prototyped
        • 14 years ago

        It’s HDA compliant AFAIK, so it ought to work with the snd-intel8x0/snd-hda-intel driver stack.

          • nightmorph
          • 14 years ago

          Actually, you’d use the CM drivers that are already in the kernel. As another forumite posted later, though, the advanced Dolby features such as DTS are unavailable. Too bad — there are some soundcards available for Linux that actually work with DTS, though I’m not sure if there is any support for DDL.

            • Perezoso
            • 14 years ago

            Ok. Thanks for your replies.

      • tempeteduson
      • 14 years ago

      The ADI chip is quite nice as an onboard solution (definitely beats out Realtek crap), but I wouldn’t really want it on a soundcard. It has a built-in 10-channel DAC, which is nowhere near audiophile quality. And AD quotes 95dB (SNR or dynamic range?), which is not good in either case. Far off the pace of other chips, even the older X-Plosion.

      Oh, and it does work with Linux, according to the manufacturer.

        • liquidsquid
        • 14 years ago

        The B version is good for 101dB, and a 10-channel DAC. I think you are confusing with bits. Note the card reviewed is only 8 channels. It is a 24-bit pathway through 10 separate channels. Do you have 10 speakers to take advantage of this? It is simply for routing signals around, and should not impact sound quality, just number of channels you can mix together at once.

        32-bits is worthless. Out of 24-bits of the AD you will likely only use 22 under the absolute BEST of circumstances (perfect power supply, shielded enclosure). 32-bits causes for a nice recording of meaningless noise which you cant hear. You still only will have 22 bits of usable data, the rest is marketing garbage and wasted silicon.

        BTW 101dB is more than a CD can reproduce, so if you would only experience this sound quality if the recorded source was that good. We all know compressed audio is not that good, and neither is ripped audio from CDs. I’m not sure of the bit-depth of audio on DVDs, but again, studio equipment and environment is barely good enough to hit the 95dB mark, let alone 101dB.

          • tempeteduson
          • 14 years ago

          My point was that the built-in 10-channel DAC will /[

            • Anomymous Gerbil
            • 14 years ago

            Isn’t this entirely academic, given the types of speakers that most people have hooked up to their PC, and given that most people couldn’t hear any difference between 70 or 80 or 90 or 100dB noise floors in normal use? If you are remotely serious about your audio, you’ll use the digital outputs on your PC with a reasonable outboard DAC and amp, and with reasonable speakers.

            By the way, to say that DAC tech is improving while speaker tech has maxed out seems to be entirely back to front, at least at the higher end? Speakers just keep on getting better (both in raw terms, and when combined with stuff like digital crossovers, per-driver amps and room measurement/correction), whilst I’d hav thought that high-end DACs have surely pretty much plateaued in accuracy, resolution, linearity etc? Or were you referring more to sensibly-priced gear that average users will buy?

            Finally, 32 bits will never be relevant to audio, except possibly in the context of calculations performed during upsampling, room correction etc. Even great DACs can’t do anything useful with much more than 20-21 bits (a number which was scientifically determined by pulling it out of my arse, based on vague recollections), assuming we’re talking about PCM.

            • tempeteduson
            • 14 years ago

            I myself would use the SPDIF output to an outboard DAC, but it is expensive, so I believe a soundcard should have excellent analog output quality, as well. Otherwise, one could just buy a USB transport (e.g. M-Audio Transit) for digital output. I think there is quite a difference between <90dB SNR (that mostly applies to onboard sound) and >100dB SNR found in discrete cards, never mind a 70dB figure!

            Regarding speaker technology, I was referring to the /[

            • Anomymous Gerbil
            • 14 years ago

            Let’s see how far new materials science can take the development of speakers in the next few years 🙂

            • tempeteduson
            • 14 years ago

            Sure, but I won’t hold my breath. Not to be pessimistic, but even today’s “advanced” materials like Kevlar, carbon fiber, aluminum/titanium/magnesium, and composites like Aerogel have their share of tradeoffs, in terms of frequency response, distortion, energy storage properties, etc. If you want a driver with perfectly flat frequency response, you have to give in to the other two. If you want low distortion and energy storage over most of the frequency spectrum (i.e. a stiff, rigid material), the resulting driver will ring like a bell somewhere in the upper frequencies, at which point even an amplitude correction in the crossover will not completely solve the higher distortion and energy-storage problem /[

            • Anomymous Gerbil
            • 14 years ago

            Well, beryllium and diamond have (supposedly) made a difference, and who knows what materials science wil come up with in future. That’s the joy of tech!

    • Prospero424
    • 14 years ago

    Excellent article. This is the kind of thing I come to TechReport for.

    Strangely enough, this piece of hardware interests me more than the latest offerings from Intel or AMD; it’s a promising solution for a true HDHTPC, which is something that is pathetically lacking in the industry.

    Good stuff, and something I’ve been waiting for since Soundstorm; a promising implementation which took a good long while to get the bugs worked out of it.

    True passthrough rules. Let’s hope Creative takes notice of this feature with their next lineup.

    • ludi
    • 14 years ago


      • Norphy
      • 14 years ago

      Same with iPods and Microsoft mice. They proudly proclaim that they’re “designed in California” or “designed in Redmond, WA USA” then put “Made in China” in tiny print.

        • Corrado
        • 14 years ago

        That just goes to show that the us LABOR force can’t compete in the global market… only the US brain force can.

          • ludi
          • 14 years ago

          Well sure…how do you compete against 2 billion capable Chinese and 2 billion capable Indians who have a real cost of living that is a fraction of yours, and can therefore work for a wage that doesn’t meet the US poverty line?

          Simply put, unless something shuts down global shipping capabilities tomorrow, you don’t. You find ways to occupy yourself on intangibles (brain power), or trades and services that aren’t readily outsourceable.

    • eloj
    • 14 years ago

    Good: “Linux driver available”
    Bad: “(w/o Dolby®/DTS® and other DSP technologies)” — §[<http://www.cmedia.com.tw/?q=en/PCI/CMI8788<]§

    • Bensam123
    • 14 years ago

    w00t for a sound card review.

    As expected Creative layed the other cards to waste. It’s still nice to see some new faces around that part of the hardware spectrum though.

    • Namarrgon
    • 14 years ago

    I think it’s time audio manufacturers looked around them a bit.

    Dual-core CPUs are common these days, and are still under-utilised by games. If you have to do the 3D positioning in software, why not do it on a separate thread? It should have very little effect on frame rates if it’s running on the other core. Latency might be an issue, but I doubt it would be a big issue.

    Also, Dolby Live encoding is great & all, no-one wants to run multiple analogue cables to their receiver – but there are other alternatives now. HDMI socket? Yes please. 8 channel uncompressed digital audio on a single cable, no encoding latency, and you could join it with your DVI output for an all-in-one solution.

      • tempeteduson
      • 14 years ago

      Thing is, HDMI is currently used as a video-only interface, so we’ll have to wait for widespread adoption of uncompressed multichannel audio over a single cable connection.

    • Prion
    • 14 years ago

    Whatever happened to ICEnsemble/VIA? After the wonderful cards designed around the Envy24 and Envy24HT we haven’t really seen anything…

      • sluggo
      • 14 years ago

      Via bought the Envy design from IC Ensemble (RIP) and chose not to develop it.

      There used to be a lot of very clever and committed analog designers out there who wanted to do interesting things with PC Audio back in the day (Windows 95-ish). AMD, S3, Aureal, Ensoniq … they all had parts either on the market, in development, or both, and now it’s just Creative and five guys named Joe. A shame, too – the things that were in development 10 years ago in PC audio were far more interesting than anything happening now.

        • ludi
        • 14 years ago

        Unfortunately, Creative was the first out of the gate and won the race to dominate the intellectual property landscape in PC audio. Ensoniq was willingly bought by Creative and Aureal was unwillingly bought after being litigated into the ground. The rest lost interest one way or another.

        The landscape is desert because Creative came over the aftermarket like a hot wind, and onboard audio is good enough for the non-enthusiasts.

    • tempeteduson
    • 14 years ago

    THANK YOU for the informative article! I’ve been patiently waiting for it for quite some time, and I especially appreciate the detailed listening tests that must have took a while.

    Do you guys have an X-Fi Elite Pro to test by any chance? It has four of Cirrus Logic’s flagship stereo DACs instead of the eight-channel chip on all the cheaper models. It’s expensive, but it should sound even better.

    And to think I was seriously considering the Inferno…

    • destroy all monsters
    • 14 years ago

    How does this compare to Razer’s card using the same chipset?

      • tempeteduson
      • 14 years ago

      From what I’ve seen, the Razer shares a similar design to the Sondigo Inferno and Bluegears b-Enspirer cards (based on the reference design), but the layout was shuffled a bit to accommodate the metal shield that covers part of the card. It costs as much as the X-Meridian, though, so it has no obvious advantages, save for a jack for direct connection to the company’s HP-1 headphones.

    • sluggo
    • 14 years ago

    I know many of us would prefer PCI-e hardware these days, but is it really fair to ding these cards for being PCI? I mean, the Oxygen chip is the bus interface, so if you design around that chip you get a PCI implementation – no options. Agreed that an objective review has to call a spade a spade, but you might mention that PCI vs. PCI-e is not a board manufacturer’s choice when the decision is made to build a C-Media 8788 card.

    Otherwise, great review and yes, the graphs are very handy.

      • LoneWolf15
      • 14 years ago

      Considering that many new mainboards have 1-2 PCI slots, and often at least one is blocked in an SLI configuration, yes, it’s fair to ding them, just as it’s fair to ding Creative for the same.

        • sluggo
        • 14 years ago

        My point was that Auzentech and Sondingo are board designers, not chip developers. To stay in business, boardmakers like Auzentech and Sondingo have to take whatever controllers are available in the market and build boards around them. It’s not their fault if the only parts they can get are PCI based (if there’s an non-Creative audio controller out there with a PCI-e interface, I haven’t heard of it). Creative, on the other hand, designs it’s own controllers and can rightly be dinged for not having PCI-e boards.

          • LoneWolf15
          • 14 years ago

          You do have a point there. And of course, it reflects another wish as an enthusiast: it would be great to see another manufacturer come out that could do both, like Aureal did before Creative killed them.

          I’m surprised so far few if any have mentioned what appears to be the lack of OpenAL support for CMedia chips, btw; that qualifies as a bigger issue to me than the bus of the boards.

    • adisor19
    • 14 years ago

    Hey, a sound card review ! Im missed those.. I’m glad to see that there is still some resonable alternatives out there to Creative.


    • TO11MTM
    • 14 years ago

    Hmm. Looks like none of these will replace the Audophile 2496. It’s just a damn good recording card, no matter how you slice it. I miss my Revo 🙁

    I would love a good PCIE Audio card.

    • Freon
    • 14 years ago

    That CPU usage is pretty bad. Oh well, maybe next time.

    • Samhain
    • 14 years ago

    I’ve heard a lot of bad press regarding the onboard sound, even C-Media.
    I’ve been using the Optical S/PDIF on my Asus motherboards for about five years now and I haven’t run into one problem with playing music or games.
    My current board (which will be replaced in a few weeks with the Striker board) is the Asus P5GDC Deluxe and it has C-Media onboard with the Dolby Digital Live. Has worked GREAT on all games.

    • SGT Lindy
    • 14 years ago

    I wonder these days….how big is the aftermarket sound card market?

    My Audigy 2 was the last audio card I will ever buy, unless they stop putting them on motherboards.

    • Forge
    • 14 years ago

    Yay, new sound cards!

    Oh wait, they’ve got C-Media chipsets. Ah well.

    • willyolio
    • 14 years ago

    yaaay for competition! somebody please bring back A3D! won’t somebody think of the children?

    i’ve heard good things about the x-meridian before this article. i just hope it’ll be available in mainstream electronics stores and get some exposure. or better yet… an OEM.

    • SpotTheCat
    • 14 years ago

    That, sir, is one interesting article.

    • steelcity_ballin
    • 14 years ago

    That’s a lot to digest! Wow, I mean, I’m used to the in depth TR treatment but how long was thing thing in the wings for!? Dugged. 😉

      • Damage
      • 14 years ago


      bump 🙂

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