Summary: Looking for a high-end, low-profile sound card for your HTPC? If so, you'll want to check out Auzentech's X-Fi Forte. See how it stacks up against other audio solutions in this review!
Creative’s Sound Blaster series of audio cards once set the standard in positional sound effects thanks to their proprietary EAX audio acceleration. While on-board has caught up in many ways to dedicated audio cards in regards to measurable performance, it still leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to audio quality. This is especially apparent if you are using a decent set of headphones or speakers. Distortion, stereo crosstalk, and especially interference are some of the great extras one can experience when using on-board audio solutions. This is even more exacerbated if you have a small form factor PC, where high quality, low profile audio solutions are few and far between. Auzentech seeks to remedy this with their just released X-Fi Forte 7.1 sound card, based on the X-Fi Professional chipset.
The X-Fi Forte is a PCI-Express based sound card that comes in low profile form factor, allowing it to fit in small form factor cases. Designed in conjunction with Creative, Auzentech has put their own spin on the X-Fi standard while also retaining a lot of the features of the X-Fi Professional, such as EAX 5.0 support. Let’s take a look at how the two cards break down technically before we explore some of the additions and changes Auzentech has engineered into the Forte.
Auzentech hasn’t strayed too far from Creative’s reference design in a majority of features listed on the Forte. Both utilize Creative’s updated EMU20K2 audio processor, as well as the same digital-to-analog converters for the rear panels. The EMU20K2 remains very close to the original chip used on the first generation of X-Fi cards, however the processor does feature native PCI-express support as well as some hardware bug fixes. Also, both cards have identical sampling rates for recording and playback. Finally, both cards support Dolby Digital Live optical support and CMSS3D stereo upmixing in place of Pro Logic II, Dolby Headphone, and Dolby Virtual Speaker. While the Forte may look like a low profile copy of the X-Fi Professional, it does change a few design features up a bit in an attempt to stand out from its reference brother.
One of the big features is the dedicated DAC for the front panel connectors, which functions separately from the CS4382 that powers the rear connectors. Auzentech also boasts an improved SnR on average over the vanilla X-Fi. Taking into account dedicated headphone users, Auzentech included swappable OPAMPs into the front panel headphone connector, allowing users to cater the Forte to their particular tastes. On the software side, Auzentech included DTS: Interactive and DTS:NEO support in addition to Dolby Digital Live. This gives the Forte more flexibility in regard to audio formats than the X-Fi Professional. Finally, the Forte supports both stereo and balanced microphones, which allows it to be used for professional recording should you choose.
Since the Forte is essentially a modified X-Fi, the driver and software used for the card is nearly identical to Creative’s software suite. The Forte lets the user change the audio mode between 3 different settings, each one geared for different, specific audio tasks such as watching movies, recording audio, or playing games. Switching modes while an audio application is running is not recommended and will usually cause a Windows error so it’s suggested you close out all audio applications beforehand. Let’s take a closer look at each application mode and what their particular strengths and weaknesses are.
Switching to game mode enables the 64MB’s of on-board memory, which in theory should allow the card to pre-cache sounds faster while also giving the DSP some extra resources for EAX processing. Game mode also enables CMSS3D, which is Creative’s way of rendering surround sound to a stereo headset. CMSS3D also up-mixes a stereo source to surround sound. You also gain easy access to the X-Fi Crystalizer, a feature that can supposedly re-render any bit-depth audio at 24-bit. Game mode features an audio mixer and enables EAX Effects by default. Environmental effects are also fully supported in game mode while the other two modes leave them disabled by default.
Audio Creation Mode is easily one of the most powerful modes enabled on the X-Fi cards. Granting the user full access to a digital version of a mixing board, the Audio Creation Mode lets you control quite a few powerful aspects of recording such as FX effects for each individual Line-In. Creation mode also enables 24-bit and matched bit recording, as well as ASIO, a low-latency interface that allows for direct recording via the sound card. Finally, creation mode disables the ability of card to run CMSS3D and EAX effects as the hardware memory buffer is utilized for the MIDI Synthesizer. Entertainment mode is more geared around movies and video, and as such, disables a lot of the 3D audio processing capabilities of the X-Fi. Entertainment also fully supports the high resolution audio playback of creation mode.
Dolby Digital Live is available in Entertainment and gaming modes and works for the most part without issue. The only problem we ran into during our testing was the inability to control the volume over Live via Windows. We confirmed with Auzentech that this is a limitation of the encoding feature by Creative Labs as DDL transfers the audio signal and then the sounds free themselves from the Windows controller.
We love the audio modes that Creative implemented into the X-Fi, however we do not love having to swap modes each time we change what we are doing. Going from game mode to entertainment mode is annoying and we think many users will end up leaving the sound card in one mode or another instead of changing it out. It would not have been difficult to implement a per-process application swapper. In fact, someone already did for free with the
Another big issue people need to consider is that lack of EAX support in many modern games. While this can be blamed on the re-written audio stack in Windows Vista, it still means that one of the big features of the card is going to go pretty much underutilized. Also, you must be running Windows XP to hear EAX to begin with, so installations of Vista will find they are limited to stereo. You might be aware that Creative released a tool a few years back called ALChemy as a workaround for this, which essentially translates OpenAL commands to EAX calls. This essentially re-enables EAX for legacy products. Unfortunately this still doesn’t change the fact that developers are moving away from EAX support in lieu of proprietary surround audio systems or straight-up stereo.
Sapphire PC-AM2RS790G AM2+ 790GX
4GB OCZ Reaper DDR8500 DDR2
HIS Radeon 4870 X2 2GB
Logitech Z-5500 5.1 Speakers
Sennheiser HD280 Pro Headphones
Auzentech X-Fi Forte 7.1
Creative X-Fi Professional
For our testing, we compared the Auzentech Forte with the Creative X-Fi Professional sound card, as well the on-board Realtek ALC888 featured on our Sapphire motherboard. RightMark Audio Analyzer is benchmarking utility that runs a line-out/line-in test, playing test tones to analyze an audio cards ability to reproduce sound.
We tested the Forte subjectively by watching a few movies using both our 5.1 speakers and headphones. Audio reproduction was what you would expect from a Creative-based product, namely excellent. Whether we were listening via DDL to our speakers or analog, we really enjoyed what we heard. We did hear some crackling over the optical connection, but the latest driver release from Auzentech seems to have fixed that issue. The X-Fi Crystalizer, which can supposedly play audio at 24-bit depth instead of its native recorded rate only really seemed to make the audio sound hollow however, so we were inclined to leave it off for the most part. The audio sent over DDL was fairly clear, although we did think the max volume level was a little on the low side. Perhaps we are spoiled by not being able go past 50% volume on our Z-5500’s when connected over analog, but not being to up the volume level over DDL prevents us from getting a fair comparison.
For the most part, we were pleased with the audio quality of the Forte. Movies boomed and surround sound was wonderfully rendered. Games with EAX support sounded as good as the reference X-Fi, if not better, and it really had me lamenting for the days before Vista removed audio acceleration support. The front audio ports had a slightly ‘warmer’ sound to them that you may or may not appreciate, but for me it only made music sound more attractive. We were annoyed that auto-detection did not disable the optical connection though. It kind of defeats the purpose of muting all the jacks if the optical still functions as a pass-through for audio, forcing the user to mute their system.
Low Profile: As far as low profile audio cards go, the X-Fi Forte is probably one of the best ones on the market. Of course, there isn’t exactly a huge selection of low profile audio cards right now, but that doesn’t take away from the fact the Forte is a great sounding card. As far as low profile goes, your only other option is really the Xonar DX series from Asus, however it lacks EAX 3.0+ support as well as the processing capabilities of the X-Fi.
Volume Issues with DDL: Unfortunately, once the signal is passed to the DDL encoder, you cannot control the volume anymore. This means you need per-application specific settings, which may be fine for Vista, but XP users may find it frustrating to be unable to use the multimedia keys to adjust audio volume. Also, the maximum volume of DDL actually a little bit lower than we would’ve liked, which kept us from enjoying some ear-blistering sounds with our surround system.