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View Full Version : Mini Review: Onboard audio vs. Creative Audigy 2 vs. Creative X-Fi


Madpistol
12-13-10, 01:35 AM
I've always wondered why so many people are suggesting that they keep an onboard sound solution vs. a dedicated sound card nowadays. Most people suggest that onboard sound is now equal to dedicated solutions in terms of fidelity and response. Tonight, I noticed that I had an Audigy 2 ZS sound card that has been sitting on my desk for a couple years now, dormant and unused. Tonight, I decided to bring it out of retirement and see if it can hold its own against it's more developed sibling; the Creative X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro sound card. On top of that, I wanted to see if an onboard solution was able to compete with either sound card as well, so I decided, for the first time since I got my motherboard a year ago, to fire up the onboard sound solution on my Gigabyte GA-790GPT motherboard.

Here's what I did to test each of the cards.

First, I only used a set of headphones to test each solution; the Creative Fatal1ty Circumaural Gaming Headset. (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16826158082) I used this particular headset because I have found its quality for a $50 headset to be absolutely superb. There are definitely better solutions out there, but for the price, I truly believe that the quality of sound from these cans is second to none. They have proven themselves to be incredibly good at everything from movies to music to games. That is why I have chosen to use this set as the only sound output source. (that... and the fact that I can't afford a $200 set of cans, nor can I reliably test this on my speakers seeing as my fiance is sleeping, and there is too much noise coming from the central heating and air system. Headphones just work better in this case.)



I listened to several pieces of music to determine fidelity and clarity at different frequencies.

The pieces were:

Headlock - Imogen Heap
Somebody To Love Me - Mark Ronson and The Business Intl
Remyxomatosis (Cristian Vogel RMX) - Radiohead <- original song was Myxomatosis
The Game Has Changed - Daft Punk (from the Tron: Legacy sountrack)


Once I had done this, I went on to test the gaming performance of each of the cards. I used two very common and well know titles to test the gaming aspects of each solution:

Battlefield: Bad Company 2
Crysis



Without further ado, here's my findings.











First up, I tested the Creative X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro.

Since this is considered the "benchmark" by which the other cards are going to be measured against, I'll break down everything that I can about this card.

First, there is A LOT of software that can be downloaded with this card via Creative's Auto Update feature inside the driver. Most of that stuff is junk, but a few items are useful. The one really good piece of software is the Audio Console Mode switch. This program allows you to switch between 3 different sets of presets for various different audio environments: Entertainment, Gaming, and Audio Creation.

The "Entertainment mode" is designed for listening to music and watching movies.

The "Gaming mode" is designed for playing games.

The "Audio Creation mode" is designed for people that do recording and mixing on their card.



I definitely got a chance to use the first two modes, but the Audio Creation mode has gotten little to no use since I've had the card.

Since it is available, I used the "Entertainment mode" to listen to each piece of music. As I ran through the pieces of music, I played around with some of the cool features in the driver, such as X-Fi Crystalizer, and CMSS-3D. The Crystalizer is a cool feature, but only if used a little bit. If you use it too much, it distorts the highs and lows of the music, which degrades the overall clarity. I was just as happy leaving the Crystalizer off as I was using it a little bit. Using anything more than about 50% of the Crystalizer is counter productive to the listening experience and will probably leave your ears warn out.

CMSS-3D is a gimmick in my opinion. All it does is "surround" you with the sound that you're hearing. The first time I watched a movie using this card, I thought it sounded terrible; on a movie like "Batman Begins" the bass was overly boomy, and the sound up top was always garbled. It was also hard to hear dialogue in most action sequences. Funny enough, turning CMSS-3D off fixed everything... beautiful clarity, and great surround sound effects from a pair of stereo headphones. I couldn't ask for more.

On each piece of music, the fidelity and clarity are both fantastic, no matter what the media format. Both CD's and MP3's sounded wonderful, although the CD's have a much fuller sound to them. You could hear every nuance and electric ripple of Daft Punk's "The Game Has Changed", there was tons of punch in "Headlock"'s chorus, and you can easily tell what parts of "Somebody To Love Me" are recorded and which parts are "mixed" into the track. Overall, listening to music is absolutely fantastic on the X-Fi.


Now, I switched over to games. Along with this, I switched the mode over to "Gaming Mode" since it's available. First up was Bad Company 2.

Immediately, you feel like you're in the heat of battle on "Arica Harbor" in mutliplayer. There's no other way to describe it. You can hear every bullet wiz by your head, every explosion, even if it's half a mile away. You can pin point every little footstep and gun shot. If you were to close your eyes, you can almost visualize where everything is located just by listening to it. That's the way it's supposed to be; audio that enhances and augments gameplay. In other words, I'm not sure how you could ask for much more from a sound card. It's absolutely stunning!

In Crysis, it's much the same story, only except the sound engine isn't quite as pin point accurate as it is in BC2. The X-Fi still performs brilliantly with tons of clarity and separation between every sound effect from footsteps to explosions to gun fire. It's still very good on this game.

I'll give my overall impressions at the end. Next: Creative's Audigy 2 ZS

Madpistol
12-13-10, 01:37 AM
Now up: Creative Audigy 2 ZS

This is an oldy-goldy from the days when I had a Northwood Pentium 4 2.8Ghz processor (in a Dell computer. :headexplode: ) This card is what got me into sound fanaticism. It really made me want to find a great set of speakers and headphones, and dear god did that ambition cost me a lot. So is it still any good?


First, I had to find some drivers from Creative's site. That part sucked... I'm not going to lie. I could not find the part of Creative's support site where this card and drivers were located, leading me to believe that support for this card has ended. It took me going to google and typing in "Audigy 2 ZS driver Windows 7" to find drivers for this card. Ironically, it took me through a backdoor in Creative's support site which lead me straight to a fully functioning download page. In other words, I found what I was looking for, but it should have been simpler than it was.

Once the drivers were installed, I realized quickly that you don't get a lot with the Windows 7 drivers for this card. You get an audio console, and a copy of Wavestudio 7. That's it. The layout of the audio console is spartan and doesn't include a lot of features. It does include a speaker setup section, CMSS-3D and different EAX effects, but that's about it for what I can use. You definitely don't get the small suite of features that you get with the X-Fi Titanium.

So, my first stop was to listen to music. I made sure that CMSS-3D and the EAX effects were off. Lo and behold, the audio sounded virtually identical to the X-Fi's. I could not tell one iota of difference between each of the cards when it came to music. The clarity was spot on, there was lots of thump and volume, and the separation of various parts of each track was brilliant. My only gripe is that the enhancements (CMSS-3D and EAX effects) don't really "enhance" much. They really just distort and cloud the music. It definitely didn't do anything beneficial to the music like the X-Fi Crystalizer would (in moderation, of course). Other than that, there was no difference in music tracks between the X-Fi and Audigy 2 ZS. None. Zip. Nada. Take your pick. You won't be able to tell the difference unless you're told which card you're listening to.


On to games. Since I didn't have a mode switcher, I just fired up BC2 and started fragging on "Arica Harbor." My inital impressions were... disappointing. Much like the music, I expected the difference to be nothing between the two sound cards. I was wrong. The X-Fi was clearly able to produce better area response and directional fidelity. Basically, on the X-Fi, you could shoot down baddies with your eyes closed. On the Audigy 2 ZS, you could miss a lot shooting with your eyes closed. There was simply no comparison... until I figured out one magic feature: CMSS-3D. I wanted to check and see if that feature of the card made any difference at all, and you know what? It did... oh boy did it make a difference. As soon as I activated CMSS-3D, I felt like I was playing on the X-Fi again. Everything was clear, precise, and could be heard from a mile away. The edge was back, and I had a lot of fun listening to the wonderful soundtrack of war that is BC2.

Crysis turned out to be exactly the same with CMSS-3D enabled. Lots of sounds, easy to pick out, but still not as brilliant as BC2. Of course, that's an engine limiation. That's not the sound card's fault. BC2 is just amazing on the sound front.


Now on to ONBOARD!!!! :D

Madpistol
12-13-10, 01:38 AM
Last: Onboard Realtek HD audio

This was by far the most simple to install. All I had to do was enable it on my motheboard's BIOS, and voila! Instant sound. However, I knew that wasn't all I could get, so I headed over to Realtek's site and downloaded the current Realtek HD drivers. What's incredible is when I say they're current, I mean those drivers are very, very, VERY, current. Release for this version of the drivers was on December 3, 2010. That was 9 days ago, people. It doesn't get much more up-to-date than that. Once the drivers were downloaded, installation of those drivers was a breeze. Click and install. There is absolutely no bloatware to speak of. Needless to say, my first impression left me believing that I may be giving up my sound cards once and for all...

The drivers are great. They are well organized and come with a mini-suite of features to setup a home entertainment system. Creative doesn't even come close to creating a product that is this easy to use. Everything is guided by pictures and easy to read menus. If the software isn't simple on Realtek HD sound solutions, then it's efficient. It's also got some cool virtual effects for different situations. It allows you to distort the sound (I assume either move the pitch up or down from the original source, and do it in real time), set up for a small 3D sound setup, and change your voice on your mic. Not bad for a free sound solution on a $100 motherboard.

So that's it. Everything is perfect in the land of "Onboard" right?



Unfortunately, there's a dark side to this fairytale.

As soon as I fired up my first piece of music, the first thing I noticed was the music itself. It sounded great!... but it was very soft. So I started turning up the volume... to 100%. My headphone volume was also maxed out. I don't know if there's some sort of volume restriction set on this sound solution, but it just wasn't very loud. I could not figure out how to get the volume up past about a medium volume. Both of Creative's offerings were able to output enough sound to make my ears hurt @ 50%, and the onboard solution isn't able to satisfy me @ 100% volume? That's unacceptable.

Still, the music sounded good, if not slightly clouded. The music is clear as daylight, but it left me longing for some clarity. It was almost imperceptible, but there was in fact a slight difference in clarity. I keep telling myself that it's a placebo effect of having 2 great sound cards and then going to an onboard solution expecting the onboard solution to match the dedicated sound cards. I can't shake the thought from my head that onboard sound for listening to music just isn't as good... I wish I had hard evidence to back this up, but you're just going to have to take my word on this one. Music sounds better on a dedicated sound card.

Now for the games. Since there is no special sound settings, I just fired up BC2 and began fragging on "Arica Harbor"

It surprised me initially. The sound reproduction is spot on. It sounded exactly like the Audigy 2 ZS with CMSS-3D enabled. In other words, it sounded pretty dang good. There was one huge flaw, though. It came in the form of missing sounds. While everything could be heard on the X-Fi and Audigy 2 ZS, there were sounds missing on the onboard solution. I was standing near a cliff, and a grenade exploded right beside me. I saw the puff of dust come up, but the sound that followed was non-existent. Funny enough, I could hear bullets passing my ears and shells flying past me clear as day. However, random sounds were missing. How do you explain that? Isn't every sound being produced by the CPU on this game? There is no audio acceleration integrated into this game, so you would think there should be no difference. I'm here to tell you that if you're playing on an onboard solution, you're more than likely missing part of BC2's soundtrack of explosions and war. I wish I was lying on this one...


Crysis sounded just fine, although I had a couple of tears in the sound quality that I couldn't explain. I would be listening to Joker talk to me, and all of the sudden, he would cut out and cut back in, mid-sentence. That wasn't a good experience. On top of that, the rustling of shrubs and such were more of the same; good sounds with tears. Once again, the sound was fine for the most part, but it still left me longing for more. The tearing, however, just killed the experience for me.

Madpistol
12-13-10, 01:39 AM
Conclusion and thoughts:



This took me a couple hours to do all of the tests and install/uninstall each item. In that couple of hours, I learned a whole lot about sound cards.

First, Creative did in fact make improvements between the Audigy 2 and their current X-Fi sound cards. I believe those improvements had to do with EAX effects in games and general fidelity of sounds. The general fidelity is a hard one to pin down. I honestly cannot tell a difference in audio clarity between the cards. They're virtually identical at stock settings. Any sort of difference there might be can probably only be heard on very high-end setups that may end up costing about a grand for speakers and a receiver. Basically, you'd need to hook up a decent home theater setup to be able to find a perceptible difference between the cards.



Where the X-fi wins, though, is versatility. There is 3 different audio modes, and each one fits its scenario perfectly. There is also the X-Fi Crystalizer, which is pretty cool if you want extra treble and bass without having to fiddle with the graphic equalizer. It's also able to intelligently "guess" what you're doing. In gaming mode, music sounds great, but you have more options in entertainment mode. In entertainment mode, games sound fine, although certain games benefit a little more from gaming mode. Basically, you can choose one mode, and set it and forget it. You'll probably never know the difference unless you scrutinize the settings for several hours.



The Audigy 2 is a great card. I mean it too. Audio reproduction on this card is spot on, especially considering that this card is now 6-7 years old. It's a relic in computer years, and yet it's still kicking tale and taking names. The X-Fi may have it beat in "fluffy" software, but if you take an Audigy 2 ZS to the game, you will be able to hang with the big boys. There's no doubt about that. I just wish that the Windows 7 drivers gave the user a little more control over the card. I couldn't find a graphic equalizer anywhere, and that's a pretty big must for anyone that wants to customize their sound settings.




Onboard sound, while I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt, just didn't perform. The volume issue was inexcusable. Couple that with the "lost" sounds in games, and you've got a recipe for a second rate sound solution. I still can't figure out how certain sounds didn't happen, especially since none of it was being accelerated on any sound solution that I tested today. Every bit of it was software based, which means the CPU had ultimate control over what sounds went out through the speakers. Maybe my onboard sound is just having an off day, but I will tell you this: My belief in the dedicated sound card is now solidified. I will never buy another computer without buying a dedicated sound card along with it.





So now the question is which is better? Audigy 2 or X-Fi.

The X-Fi is clearly the better option from a software standpoint, but I will put this disclaimer up: If you've got an Audigy 2 that you're still using in your main gaming rig and you're thinking about upgrading to an X-Fi, save your pennies for something else. The difference in sound clarity is little to none. The Audigy 2 ZS is still one of the big boys, even after all these years. It will easily sit atop great gaming systems with an authority that cannot be matched by regular onboard audio sound. Is the Audigy 2 starting to show it's age? Yes, unfortunately. I believe it won't be getting any new driver updates either. If that's the case, the Audigy 2 ZS will eventually suffer the same fate that all computer components eventually suffer: Loss of support. Considering the legacy that the Audigy 2 has produced, it's sort of hard for me to swallow that this great sound card is on its way out. PCI is a dead standard and is being rapidly replaced by PCI-express. Eventually, PCI slots will cease to exist on motherboards, and thus, the Audigy 2 ZS will also cease to find a home. However, for the time being, rest easy. The ZS still plays the game very well and very hard.


So, the X-Fi is the winner... but not by much.

MaXThReAT
12-13-10, 01:49 AM
Looking forward to the rest.

bob saget
12-13-10, 01:55 AM
Looking forward to it. I noticed a huge difference especially in music going from onboard --> X-Fi.

Roadhog
12-13-10, 02:00 AM
Looking forward to it. I noticed a huge difference especially in music going from onboard --> X-Fi.

Same, then I went from X-fi to an Asus Xonar STX and was blown away. O_O :headexplode:

bob saget
12-13-10, 02:12 AM
Same, then I went from X-fi to an Asus Xonar STX and was blown away. O_O :headexplode:

you serious? lol

jkmetal
12-13-10, 02:24 AM
Creative headphones? Seriously?

Before I acquired my wonderful hearing problem, I had some nice headphones. Senn 595s, Senn HD80s and Sony MDVR v6's. The Senn and Sony were under $75 and I'm very sure that they'll be a tad better than your creative phones. The HD80s was a special kind of win for games...

Roadhog
12-13-10, 02:43 AM
you serious? lol

Yes, x-fi could be considered onboard compared to this card.

bob saget
12-13-10, 02:45 AM
Yes, x-fi could be considered onboard compared to this card.

wow. ok i will keep it in mind.

Redeemed
12-13-10, 02:48 AM
Great review over all. :D

I happen to have had an Audigy 2 and X-Fi myself... never noticed enough of a difference in either games, music, or movies to keep the soundcards so I use onboard. Guess it boils down to preference eh? :lol:

Great review though. Very informative and honestly makes me wish I had my old sounds setup back. Man what great audio can do for the immersiveness of a game or movie!

Madpistol
12-13-10, 03:01 AM
Review is done. Hope you guys enjoy it.

Let me know if you have any questions about what I did.

Time for bed. Nighty night. :)

jeffmd
12-13-10, 03:07 AM
Grats on your entire review being invalidated because you used 2 channel sound. ^^

The fact that you THOUGHT you could pinpoint your targets.. in 2 channel sound... really leaves me scratching my head. No.. your crappy 2 driver head phones are not going to provide the same acoustics of your ear drum to provide positional sound effects. And yes, those bullets wizzing by your that you seem to hear and love so much are probably a streamed environmental effect.


And as for the asus card...im sure it has the most awesome SNR ratio for your 2d sound... but last I checked every pc game makers goes to CREATIVE, not asus, for making their games sound awesome. I don't like to be creatives fanboi, but frankly nobody else in the sound card realm has even hinted at a reason for being better at gaming sound. Imagine for a second, if nvidia's only competition was intel. ^^

Madpistol
12-13-10, 03:14 AM
Grats on your entire review being invalidated because you used 2 channel sound. ^^

The fact that you THOUGHT you could pinpoint your targets.. in 2 channel sound... really leaves me scratching my head. No.. your crappy 2 driver head phones are not going to provide the same acoustics of your ear drum to provide positional sound effects. And yes, those bullets wizzing by your that you seem to hear and love so much are probably a streamed environmental effect.


And as for the asus card...im sure it has the most awesome SNR ratio for your 2d sound... but last I checked every pc game makers goes to CREATIVE, not asus, for making their games sound awesome. I don't like to be creatives fanboi, but frankly nobody else in the sound card realm has even hinted at a reason for being better at gaming sound. Imagine for a second, if nvidia's only competition was intel. ^^

Troll much? :headexplode:

I got each of these cards before Windows Vista and 7 ever hit the market. Therfore, I got them for EAX and other audio enhancements that came with gaming on them. That's all. If I had to buy a sound card today, it probably wouldn't be a creative sound card due to the fact that Directsound has been replaced by OpenAL, and EAX no longer works without the use of a wrapper program. The headphones when I got them were cheap, too. (came free with the purchase of a sound card.)

I think you might be surprised at how accurate a good 2 speaker set of headphones can be. A surround sound setup will definitely give you a better chance of evaluating what's around you, but consider this: If you can't see the sound in front of you, it's behind you.


Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I just wish you wouldn't criticize me for putting up a voluntary evaluation of how sound cards are compared to onboard sound solutions. If you'd like, you could buy me the stuff you would buy, and I'll review everything again on that hardware. Or, you could do your own review. ;)

Roadhog
12-13-10, 03:18 AM
http://www.guru3d.com/article/asus-xonar-essence-stx-review/

Well the asus xonar isn't made for gaming, it is made for perfect stereo playback which it does perfectly. Although, I have never had a problem with its performance in gaming either. Obviously if you have anything other than headphones or a stereo setup then the asus card isn't for you.

Also, I read the first post of your review on my pc and liked what I saw. However, the rest is a tl:dr as I am on tapatalk now. You seem to have made due with what you have on hand which is the whole point in user reviews.

Edit: this post was mainly a reply to mr. troll.

Peoples-Agent
12-16-10, 06:26 AM
I needed a new headset, so I cheated and just bought the Fatal1ty HS-1000. It has CMSS-3D too, it's awesome in games. Definately a big leap up from onboard.

You should update your Realtek drivers btw, using the ones that came with the mobo disc I had a few issues with sounds not playing.

Revs
12-16-10, 07:18 AM
Superb report bud, cheers for going to the effort. Though I've never had an X-Fi card, I did upgrade earlier this year from my Gigabyte UD5's onboard sound to the Xonar HDAV1.3 DeLuxe and the sound quality improvement was surprisingly noticeable in all areas, but non more noticeable than with movies. The clarity and detail, especially with TrueHD films, is wonderful. It's not a cheap card, but it's not the sort of thing that gets upgraded a lot, so thinking long term it's a worthy purchase. At least that's how I justified to myself :p

Yaboze
12-16-10, 09:52 AM
Good report, I love my X-Fi Titanium PCIe, but if I go SLI, I'd have to dump it probably due to the layout of this board. Maybe.

Muppet
12-17-10, 07:06 AM
Review is done. Hope you guys enjoy it.

Let me know if you have any questions about what I did.

Time for bed. Nighty night. :)

That was a big help. I myself have been wondering about doing the step up to an external sound card. I honestly don't know which one to choose though. It was between the X-Fi, Zonar DX2 and the Zonar essence. I'm personally using Sennheiser 595's. I would say that 90% is for gaming use.

jkmetal
12-17-10, 12:10 PM
That was a big help. I myself have been wondering about doing the step up to an external sound card. I honestly don't know which one to choose though. It was between the X-Fi, Zonar DX2 and the Zonar essence. I'm personally using Sennheiser 595's. I would say that 90% is for gaming use.

Senn 595s :love:. If only my hearing never went to hell....

mcolbourn
12-20-10, 03:05 PM
Well I have just got a ASUS Xonar DG and for 21 it a bargain upgrade over my on-board. In the games I have tried so far they all sound better and general music sounds crisp and clear. I found with the on-board it added too much bass to things and this distorted the sound bit but you get none of that with the Xonar.

turdhat
12-21-10, 11:03 AM
Guys, if you have an HDMI receiver that you can use with your pc THROW AWAY those junk creative cards, turn off the onboard sound and run hdmi out of your nvidia card.

Best sound that I have heard come of out a pc. I have a high end Harmon Kardon HDMI receiver/repeater and some killer speakers.

All games load up 1st time in proper surround. Receiver shows 5.1 pcm when gaming. It is almost as if the receiver becomes the sound card. I have benched using my 480 for sound vs the x-fi and found no differences other that not having to mess with stupid modes, eq's and all that crap. Things come of your pc in their native format and the receiver does all the work.

The video card just passes pure digital pcm to the receiver. Everything sounds like it is intented to sound by the people that recorded and mixed it. You can always jack up bass etc on the receiver if that is your thing.

I consider myself a bit of an audiophile and I am telling you guys I have not heard such perfect imaging on simple two channel music before. If you have the gear you gotta try it.

One word. There are no control panel for the Nvidia hd sound. You set it to 5.1 and go. All eq'ing etc can be done via the receiver or what ever app you play you music in. I recommend foobar when you go hdmi. It sees my receiver by name !