Auzentech's X-Fi Forte 7.1
An X-Fi from the other guys
Despite Creative's sordid history, the X-Fi remains the most capable PC audio processor around. Fortunately, you don't have to buy a Sound Blaster to get your hands on an X-Fi. Auzentech has been building custom X-Fi designs for years, focusing on improving the sound quality of solutions based on what has been the industry's best APU silicon.
What's particularly interesting about Auzentech is that it's not even an all-Creative shop. Indeed, the company has a number of models based on C-Media audio chips, including the Oxygen HD found in the Xonar. But we're not here to talk about the rest of Auzentech's lineup. Today, we're focusing on the X-Fi Forte.
Those looking for a sound card to populate a cramped enclosure will no doubt appreciate the Forte's svelte proportions. The card is a low-profile design, and a matching PCI back plate is included in the box for those running slim enclosures.
The original X-Fi chip had a PCI interface, but Creative's latest revision is a native PCI Express design, allowing the Forte to slide into an x1 slot without the aid of an auxiliary bridge chip. Auzentech pairs this fresh X-Fi silicon with 64MB of dedicated X-RAM memory that, given how EAX has seemingly fallen out of favor with game developers, will likely go largely unused by future titles.
Without any shielding to block our view, a closer look at the Forte reveals a smattering of interesting components. Auzentech uses a combination of DACs to perform digital-to-analog conversions. An AKM AK4396VF with a 120-dB SNR handles the front output channels, while a Cirrus Logic CS4382A takes care of the rest, albeit with a less impressive 113-dB SNR. You'll also find two ADCs on the board: a Wolfson WM8775SEDS tied to the rear mic, line, and auxiliary inputs, and a WM8782S connected to the front-panel mic input. The two chips have 102- and 100-dB SNRs, respectively. While the latter supports 24-bit audio up to 192kHz, the former only goes up to 96kHz.
These dual ADCs allow users to record two streams simultaneously or mix while they record. I suspect using a separate ADC for the front-panel mic input also made it easier for Auzentech to implement a microphone pre-amp for that port. Using an onboard jumper, it's possible to switch the mic pre-amp between modes designed for professional "balanced" microphones and standard stereo units.
Like the Xonar, the Forte also offers headphone amplification. However, rather than relying on aftermarket silicon to perform that function, Auzentech crafted its own amplification circuitry using eight "high-end discrete transistors." The company says this amplification circuitry offers 100mW of output per channelmuch more than the 7mW per channel that Auzentech claims is standard for a sound card.
The Forte has traditional OPAMPs, too. A socketed National Semiconductor LME4972 handles the front output, and a collection of JRC 4580s amplifies the rest of the output channels. Only the National Semi chip can be replaced, though; the others are soldered onto the board.
Along the top edge of the card is a two-pin auxiliary digital input that nicely complements a 20-pin connector designed to plug into Auzentech's Titanium I/O Drive breakout box. The I/O drive moves a smattering of additional analog ports to a 5.25" drive bay insert, but at $80 on its own, it's an expensive proposition. The Forte can be purchased directly from Auzentech with the Titanium breakout box included for $200, though.
It might not look that way, but the Forte actually has plenty of connectivity options right out of the box. The card's back plate hosts a coaxial S/PDIF output, a 3.5-mm headphone jack, and what will look to most like a VGA monitor output.
That 15-pin connector plugs into an output dongle offering a full range of analog audio jacks, including front, rear, center/sub, side outputs and line and microphone inputs. This gives the Forte the ability to output multi-channel audio in both analog and digital formats, a trick the Essence can't match. For digital connections, Auzentech also supplies a rather flexible TOS-Link cable that stretches a full 10 feet in length. The cable is designed for round TOS-Link ports, but there's an adapter for rectangular connectors in the box, as well.