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The Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeMusic
Creative is offering four Sound Blaster cards based on its new X-Fi technology: the Elite Pro, Fatal1ty FPS, Platinum, and XtremeMusic. Today we'll be focusing our attention on the XtremeMusic, whose $110 street price puts it at the low end of the X-Fi family. The low end of the X-Fi line isn't necessarily a bad place to be, though. Thanks to the wonders of trickle down, each member of the X-Fi family uses the same audio chip. In fact, with the exception of X-RAM, all X-Fi cards have the same core features and functionality.

X-Fi cards also share a common aesthetic, which is dominated by black and gold. It could be worse, I suppose, but I've never been a bit fan of bling on black¬ónot that it matters much when the card is tucked away inside a case.

Fortunately, an audio card doesn't have to look good to sound good, and when it comes to sounding good, the XtremeMusic's resume is impressive. According to Creative, the card has a 109dB signal-to-noise ratio for all DAC channels and supports audio formats up to 24 bits and 192kHz. 24-bit/192kHz audio isn't supported across the board, though. Creative is quite upfront about the fact that the XtremeMusic only handles 192kHz sampling rates for two-channel stereo playback. Recording and multi-channel playback are limited to 24 bits and 96kHz.

While a 96kHz sampling rate may be enough for most users, we were still curious about the nature of the XtremeMusic's limitations. On the recording side, one could blame the Wolfson WM8775 ADC, which only supports audio up to 24 bits and 96kHz. Creative says that the X-Fi can technically handle 192kHz recording, but suggests that anyone that serious about recording will probably want to consider its E-mu line of professional products over an X-Fi. When it comes to playback, the card's eight-channel Cirrus Logic CS4832 DAC claims to support 24-bit audio at up to 192kHz, so it shouldn't limit multi-channel output. According to Creative, the X-Fi doesn't support multi-channel 24-bit/192kHz output because no commercial content exists in that format. Most DVD-Audio content is multi-channel 24-bit/96kHz, and Creative only supports stereo output at 192kHz because some DVD-Audio discs offer that option.

Apart from the Cirrus Logic and Wolfson chips, users will notice that the XtremeMusic also has a 2MB Samsung memory chip onboard. However, the memory isn't available to developers, so it's not the same as X-RAM. For that, you'll have to pony up $300 for an X-Fi Fatal1ty FPS or $400 for an X-Fi Elite Pro, both of which come with 64MB of X-RAM.

While the XtremeMusic is one of two X-Fi cards without X-RAM, it's the only card in the X-Fi lineup that lacks a breakout box with extra input and output ports. That leaves the XtremeMusic with a rather sparse port cluster that relies far too heavily on port sharing. The card's digital output, for example, shares the same physical port as the line input and microphone. Digital output also requires a 3.5mm TOS-Link adapter, which Creative apparently doesn't include with the card.

As if not being able to run a microphone and digital speakers at the same time weren't inconvenient enough, the XtremeMusic only has three analog output ports. That's fine for six-channel output, but with eight-channel audio, things get a little messy. To compensate for its lack of a dedicated surround output, the XtremeMusic tacks the left and right surround channels onto the rear and center/sub outputs. This arrangement requires special cables that aren't bundled with the card. Obviously, we'd prefer a dedicated surround output. While we're at it, standard TOS-Link or coaxial S/PDIF ports would be nice, as well. To be fair, Creative does offer a more extensive array of outputs via a breakout box on its X-Fi Platinum, Fatal1ty FPS, and Elite Pro, but that'll cost you extra.

Speaking of extras, or a lack thereof, the XtremeMusic lacks the Firewire port present on the Audigy and Audigy2. Firewire isn't a necessity for a sound card, especially with virtually every enthusiast-oriented motherboard sporting at least one 1394 port, but it was a nice perk.

By now, you've no doubt noticed that the XtremeMusic is a PCI card. The entire X-Fi lineup is currently PCI-only, but Creative says that the X-Fi chip can work over USB, Firewire, and most notably, PCI Express. Can we get a PCI Express version ASAP, please?