Beethoven’s Prelude 7.1
First of all, let me explain the current situation with the drivers. Auzentech have taken it on themselves to make the drivers themselves. The reasoning behind this is sound (there’ll be many more puns to come), as Creative is still yet to get the X-Fi 100% fully working in Vista. As Auzentech don’t have to rely on Creative to write the driver code, they can essentially introduce features/compatibility at a rate that Creative won’t match.
Unfortunately, Creative have pushed the launch of the Prelude before its drivers were fully ready for reasons unknown, which is why on the front of the box you’ll see the small ‘coming soon’ logo, and next to it ‘Dolby Digital Live, DTS Interactive, DRS Neo:PC for Windows XP and Vista’. Basically, the Auzentech staff has basically had to launch the product without the drivers being 100% and so they have merely written on the box that this is what the card will support shortly (card hardware will do it, software doesn’t yet talk to it). I’m sure once it’s been sorted, they’ll put a sticker over the top of the coming soon logo.
The box itself is nice and colourful, relying heavily on the X-Fi logo, and with an image of the card itself on the right hand side. Once you’ve popped off the cardboard sleeve you get to the real meat and two veg, you’ll find the card in a plastic box, with a manual, driver CD, a TOSLINK optical cable and some optical converters.
The optical converters allow the twin coaxial ports on the right edge of the card to take on an interesting ability. They look like simple coaxial ports, but with the aid of the converter, you can actually plug the TOSLINK cable to it, which enables you to choose either coaxial or optical input/output.
The card itself is fairly different from the original X-Fi, although not drastically. You can still see the heatsinked X-Fi chip itself, and above that the twin X-RAM modules. Interestingly, both of these modules bare similar codes to the actual X-Fi, although the X-Fi only has one chip. Both have 64mb of X-RAM, but the Prelude does it in two modules… dual channel anyone?
For those who don’t know, X-RAM is a pure Creative idea, which basically allows your sound card to take the strain off your PC. With an on-board solution, or indeed an add-in sound card, your system RAM takes the hit when dealing with sound information, meaning less for the game itself. If you find a game that is designed for X-Fi then the games sound information is off-loaded to the X-Fi meaning that it can gain access to the information faster, and doesn’t need to fill up your normal RAM. In reality, with most people having more than 2GB of RAM, the gains are slim.
The Prelude has some other interesting options that the original X-Fi doesn’t offer. One of them being the front panel audio connectors. The X-Fi doesn’t have these – at least on the FatalONE1111!!.5+.5ty version – because Creative expect you to fill a 5.25” bay with their extension device which offers all kinds of connectivity. Most will never use the various connections, and so the more elegant solution would be to offer front panel audio connectors; Auzentech have realised this. If you have a DVD drive or any other product that requires an audio cable, then there is a small slot allowed for this on the top of the Prelude.
Another bonus, is the swappable OPAMP, which was shown on their other sound card; the HDA X-Plosion. However, in this usage you can only swap the front channel OPAMP. The OPAMP that they have chosen appears to drop a lot of names on the Auzentech site, which makes it sound like a good choice (although I don’t follow the OPAMP scene). Add in the solid capacitors and you are on for a winner… at least on paper.
The back of the card has 6 standard audio sockets for all of you surround sound products, compared to the original X-Fi’s 4. These ports allow you to connect two inputs (mic and line in) and four outputs (front, rear, center/woofer, back surround). Coupled with this are the twin optical/coaxial multiports; one for input and the other for output. This is exactly where you’ll see the DTS/Dolby data stream being sent from. The input allows you to connect your DVD player etc. to your PC if you so happen to have better speakers than your TV, and it’ll also allow you to record etc.
The reason behind using something like Dolby Digital Live, or DTS Interactive is that instead of having to have a whole bunch of analogue cables being sent to your speakers, you can use just the one digital cable. The benefits also increase when you use the optical cable as any possible electromagnetic interference is eliminated too. Using digital over analogue also increases the signal to noise ratio as there is less chance of the signal being distorted (think analogue TV vs. digital)
Looking at the different specs, there isn’t much between the two cards; X-Fi and Prelude. I have the feeling that the different is more in the tone of the sound, rather than the measurable stats and numbers.