Thursday, May 23, 2013

Creative X-Fi USB Review-ish

Every four or five years, I get the itch to upgrade my main desktop computer. It used to be an exciting stretch of time with the first year being filled with excitement about having a brand new and faster machine. The luster faded by the end of year one and ambivalence followed in year two. At year three, I usually started to notice sluggishness, programs (i.e. games) not running at high settings anymore, and this progressed into cursing and outright rage by year four. Depending on whether I had the money or not, I'd splurge on a new system by the end of year four or five. Yes, I have anger issues.

Being a nerd, I build my own systems nowadays. In fact, I recently upgraded my hard drive to a solid state drive and added some memory (RAM) in the process -- minor upgrade, not a total rebuild. Times have changed. I've gone through this upgrade cycle 2 times now, almost right on schedule. It's different this time. With the majority of blockbuster games being designed for the Xbox 360 (released late 2005) and Playstation 3 (released late 2006), which both have hardware at least 6 years old, the demand from games on hardware has slowed on the personal computer.

What does any of this have to do with sound cards?
The sound card is the one item that I didn't upgrade across two major rebuilds in the past decade. I did a minor upgrade and got a Creative Sound Blaster X-fi Xtrememusic in the summer of 2005-ish. It was carried over to two new systems because the sound card market hasn't really progressed much since then relative to other hardware (e.g. CPU, GPU). The technical performance measures like signal to noise ratio, total harmonic distortion, stereo crosstalk, etc. have gotten better since the Xtrememusic. However, I haven't noticed any major improvements that really sold me on getting anything new. A lot of people appear to be happy with onboard sound built into the motherboard. And there are arguments about how it's more worth it to get better speakers and headphones than a new sound card.

Then the double-decker GPU "craze" and PCI slot "recession" started...

Up until a year ago, my home did not have air conditioning. Where I live, we do in fact get summers when temperatures reach 30 C to 35 C (80-90 F-ish?). And it gets really humid too. Being a cheap ass, I usually get smaller sized ATX motherboards without a lot of expansion slots. This meant that a double-slotted GPU sitting in the PCI-E x16 slot would usually cover one PCI slot. For some reason, this left me with only one remaining PCI slot -- I don't remember what other card I had in there -- to put in my PCI sound card. Across two systems, my GPU was right next to my sound card with about 1-3mm of clearance depending on whether I had the case on its side or sitting upright. The card and fan had no room to breath, and heat was also being transferred between the cards. 

Temperature monitoring software and the wailing of the GPU fan told me that the GPU wasn't happy. The engineers were nice enough to design and test their systems with GPUs in this position luckily, but I still wasn't happy. My GPU temperatures were hitting 85 C to 90 C on hot days. With the sound card removed, it ran at 70 C to 80C, usually below 75 C. I let this slide for a year or two, then saw a sale (not a great one) on a Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB external sound card a but over a year ago. I finally caved.
Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB Front
Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB - $85 to $100

This is an external sound card box that only outputs 2.1 audio (not surround). There are hook-ups for RCA jacks and a digital (fiber-optic) connection. Specifically, there are RCA hook-ups for in and out, digital in and out, a ground connection, a 6.3 mm microphone in, and 6.3mm headphone out. You're supposed to be able to hook up a record player or something, but I have never used that feature, so don't really know much about it. There is no dedicated power cable: you hook the box up using a USB connection only and that is used as both the signal and power supply cable.
Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi USB Rear
Sound System Setup
Around the time I got my internal X-Fi Xtrememusic, I got the itch to upgrade my speaker system to something that wouldn't ever really become obsolete in my mind (read: stupidly expensive and of reasonably good quality). About $800 later, I ended up with a set of Paradigm Atom bookshelf speakers, an audio-video receiver, and a subwoofer. To upgrade, I'd need to blow about $300 at the minimum, and I like to think I'm still miles ahead of computer-grade speakers. That whole story was important in order to inform you that I need to connect my sound card to a receiver using RCA cables.

With my Xtrememusic, I disabled all of the 24-bit Crystalization stuff or whatever audio enhancement. After a year or two of changing between Game and Entertainment mode in Creative's drivers, I started leaving it on Entertainment mode.

The new X-Fi HD only had the Entertainment mode available and it doesn't do the newer, more advanced EAX audio enhancements in games. Honestly, I don't care how games sound because I end up turning the sound down, and the booms and bams get tiresome after the first few hours.
This thing fits into the front headphone jack...
Sound Quality -- Subjective Analysis
The only thing I was concerned about when I got this was if it could replace an internal sound card and if the sound output was comparable. In short: it delivers and I've been using it happily for over a year now.

According to technical reviews for the X-Fi HD USB online, the performance measures for this external card are comparable to the X-Fi Xtrememusic. If I remember right, the Xtrememusic still comes out top. And other newer X-Fi internal card models beat both. But I'm not that big an audiophile and don't really care about performance specifications too much -- I do care, just not enough to measure things.

In dealing with the temperature issues with the GPU and internal sound card, I tried to switch over to my motherboards onboard Realtek sound card twice over the years. Both times, I went screaming back to the X-Fi Xtrememusic because the difference was very noticeable. It sounded terrible compared to the X-Fi and I like to think that my higher quality speakers made that difference more apparent.

Between the X-Fi HD USB and X-Fi Xtrememusic, I could barely tell a difference when listening to music. This includes soundstage, overall quality, positioning, frequency response, etc. And in case you're wondering, I rip my music to Windows Media Player's Variable Bit Rate. In my mind, I like to think the external card sounds ever so slightly clearer, especially when it comes to higher frequencies. Bass frequencies also seem ever so slightly better.

Because the X-Fi Xtrememusic came out almost a decade ago, the last official set of supported drivers were for Windows XP or Vista, if even. So, I think some of these apparent "improvements" may have come down to driver issues -- my current system to which the X-Fi HD is installed runs Windows 7.

For games, like I said, I turn the sound down. However, all the hacking and slashing, booms and bombs sound as good as usual. Again, the card can not do more advanced EAX versions, and I noticed that my sound quality is usually stuck at "low" quality. Oh well. If you do care about games and more advanced sound features in them though, do pay attention to these limitations.

System Performance

No measurements, but I have never noticed any sort of lag or out of sync audio. I was initially afraid that the extra connections and the external placement would produce noticeable sound lag between stuff happening on screen. This has not been noticed once in the past year. Also, I have not noticed any performance issues or computer slowdowns -- then again, my system is relatively new and fast. If your system is slower, it might be an issue. Only one way to find out?


I got a pair of Sennheiser HD 439 headphones recently and they work fine -- still breaking them in and trying to get the foam smell out. They have an impedance of 32 ohms. If I remember right, this external sound card does not have a pre-amp, so be sure to double check if your headphones will work or not.

Creative Store says it supports headphones with an impedance <330 ohms.


The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB external sound card is a good alternative to an internal sound card. It is also a fine upgrade from onboard motherboard audio. With my system, I have not noticed audio lag or overall system performance slowdown. This is great if you're short on space inside your computer, have cooling issues, or just want a portable sound card to share between computers.

However, you are confined to 2.1 audio, advanced audio for games is not available, and you'll have a few extra wires around your desk.

For $90, this isn't that bad a deal considering the more expensive internal sound cards start at around the same price. There are cheaper alternatives like the Xonar series from Asus though.