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Auzentech's X-Fi Prelude 7.1
Creative, covered

Manufacturer Auzentech
Model X-Fi Prelude 7.1
Price (Street)
Availability Soon
Creative has been able to dominate the sound card market in part because its audio processors—be they Audigys or X-Fis—have offered features and capabilities unmatched by the competition. Those audio chips have only been available on Creative's own sound cards, giving users who want hardware acceleration for positional 3D audio or support for EAX levels beyond 2.0 little choice in the market.

That is, until now.

Auzentech's new X-Fi Prelude takes Creative's best asset, its X-Fi audio processor, and deploys it on a new board design that's been tweaked to improve overall output quality. What we have, then, is an X-Fi remix—one that comes with a couple of bonus tracks in the form of real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding capabilities available now and DTS encoding that's promised in a first-quarter driver update.

The fact that Auzentech is working to expand the Prelude's feature set beyond the X-Fi's native capabilities easily sets this card apart from X-Fi models already available from Creative, and that's without even looking at the board itself. At the hardware level, the Prelude is a very different beast from anything in Creative's stable.

When pictured with an X-Fi XtremeMusic (right), the Prelude's redesigned board is immediately apparent. The layouts are very different, and so are the onboard components used to bring everything together. In particular, note the Prelude's use of solid-state capacitors throughout. The XtremeMusic, on the other hand, uses standard electrolytic caps that can have a shorter lifespan.

An X-Fi audio processor sits at the heart of the Prelude, seen above covered by a simple heatsink that looks like it's been pulled off a 486. With a claimed 10,000 MIPS of processing power distributed across an innovative ring architecture, the X-Fi is easily the most complex and advanced consumer audio processor on the market. Here, we see it paired with 64MB of memory—known as X-RAM—that can, among other things, be used to cache uncompressed audio so that it doesn't have to be decoded in real time.

Once the X-Fi is finished with an audio stream, it's passed along to the Prelude's array of AKM AK4396 stereo DACs. Four of these chips cover the card's eight output channels, delivering support for 24-bit/192kHz audio with a SNR of 120dB. Playback is capped at 96kHz for multichannel playback, but that's a limitation of the X-Fi and not the AKM DACs. Converting in the opposite direction, from analog to digital, we have an AKM AK5394AVS ADC. Like the card's DACs, this two-channel chip can handle 24-bit/192kHz audio, this time with a 123dB SNR. Again, keep in mind that the X-Fi is only capable of recording at up to 96kHz.

One of the more unique features of the X-Fi Prelude, and a staple of Auzentech's high-end sound cards, is the ability to remove and replace operational amplifiers. In this case, you're limited to replacing a single OPAMP—National Semiconductor's LM4562NA—which sits in a socket connected to the card's front channel output. Amplification for the card's other output channels is handled by an array of Texas Instruments OPA2134 OPAMPs that are soldered to the board and cannot be easily replaced.

Moving to the Prelude's port array, we find a standard complement of analog and digital inputs and outputs. No fancy colors here, just a faux-gold finish that requires that you actually read the tiny print associated with each port to figure out what it is. At least there's a little color coding with the coaxial S/PDIF ports, which have hints of black and grey for input and output channels, respectively.

To complete the S/PDIF equation, Auzentech includes quite a fancy optical cable with adapters that make it compatible with both coaxial and TOS-Link connections. This cable is much nicer and longer than the one you get with the Xonar. However, it's the only cable that comes in the box.

Auzentech doesn't offer many perks on the software front either. A driver CD is all you get, and it doesn't contain much beyond the drivers themselves. A sound card doesn't necessarily need to be bundled with applications, but it would've been nice to get DVD-Audio playback software in the box.