FOR A WHILE THERE, the PC audio market was pretty boring. Creative had bought out Aureal and Sensaura, and seemed content to issue only incremental improvements to its Audigy line of sound cards. VIA challenged Creative's dominance of the market with various respins of the Envy24, and although they were generally well-received, those chips' lack of hardware acceleration for 3D audio ultimately limited their appeal. Then, in May of this year, Creative surprised many by announcing an all-new Xtreme Fidelity audio processor loaded with 10,000 MIPS of processing power-24 times that of the Audigy chip it would replace. A radical departure from architectures of old, the X-Fi arranged its on-chip components around a pipelined audio ring with a whopping 4096 internal audio channels. The X-Fi also upgraded EAX to support up to 128 simultaneous hardware-accelerated 3D voices, and promised to enhance compressed audio playback to sound better than the original CD.
Modesty has never been one of Creative's strong suits, but could there be something to all the X-Fi hype? To find out, we subjected the most affordable X-Fi offering, the $110 Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeMusic, to a punishing battery of performance, quality, and listening tests against competitors ranging from M-Audio's Revolution 7.1 to integrated "Azalia" High Definition Audio. Read on to see how the XtremeMusic fared and why the X-Fi is such a bold departure from audio chips of old.