Before getting stuck into this review, I want to take you back in time with me for a moment. It won't take long I promise...
Prior to the early 1990's, PC's had little capacity to output sound beyond basic beeps. The sound card as we know it was popularised by Creative Labs at the start of the 90s with its range of Sound Blaster products. The SoundBlaster became a de- facto standard for amateur audiophiles, gamers, and home users, and was quickly emulated by other hardware manufacturers. The product line has continued to evolve, but other manufacturers have also come and gone and subsequently been swallowed by Creative. Hardware manufacturers like Terratec, AOpen, Hercules, Philips, M-Audio have all either fallen by the wayside or vanished into total obscurity.
For a while the sound card market appeared to stagnate, until an innovative manufacturer named Auzentech arrived on the scene. Within quick succession, Auzentech released sound cards that began to reinvigorate the market...namely the X-Plosion, X-Mystique and finally the X-Meridian. Utilising alternative C-Media chipsets, Auzentech began to secure a solid following and fan-base for both their quality, performance and innovation.
Auzentech's X-Meridian sound card also had the dubious honour of going head-to-head with Creative's latest offering...the Creative X-Fi. However, Creative seemed to be having a change of heart from their attitude of the past and were having a change of direction. Last year the PC enthusiast community began to hear rumours that Creative were going to begin licensing their audio chipsets. Whether Auzentech's surge in popularity had anything to with this is purely speculative, but I would be prepared to wager on it.
Subsequently, Auzentech were given the license to start producing their own range of X-Fi based sound cards and the rumour mills were buzzing with excitement at this interesting collaboration. As the days to release were ticking down, news was rapidly spreading that the Auzen X-Fi Prelude was shaping up to be something very special, and free of issues that plagued Creative's X-Fi based cards.
Today I have been given the honour of reviewing the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card, and I can safely say that it has been well worth the wait. But don't take my word for it, take a look at it yourself...
Specifications The Auzen X-FI Prelude 7.1 sound card specifications were taken directly, and unashamedly from Auzentech's website .
Creative X-Fi CA20K audio processor
One AKM AK-5394 super high performance 96kHz 24-bit ADC for analog input
Four AKM AK-4396 96kHz 24-bit advanced multi-bit DAC for analog output
64Mbytes of memory for audio processing
High fidelity audio OPAMPs for analog input and output (TI OPA2134)
Front L/R output OPAMP is replaceable by end-user (National LM4562NA)
16-bit to 24-bit recording sampling rates: 32, 44.1, 48 and 96kHz
One 3.5mm MIC input connector in rear panel
One 3.5mm line input connector in rear panel
One 4-pin AUX connector on board
Four 3.5mm 8 channel line output connectors in rear panel (FL/FR/C/SW/RL/RR/RSL/RSR)
One S/PDIF combo input connector in rear panel for receiving either coaxial or optical digital
One S/PDIF combo output connector in rear panel for transmitting either coaxial or optical digital
One 10-1pin front panel connector on board for MIC input and headphone: more
One 40-pin digital extension header on board to support AD-Link and other digital functionality
S/W and drivers
Creative X-Fi Driver
The Auzen X-FI Prelude 7.1 specifications look very good on paper, but just how well these equate to real-world performance we'll see later in the review. But for now, let's turn the page to see what you are actually getting for your money...
To be honest I have never previously owned an Auzentech sound card of any description, although I have always been tempted to. I must say that the box that the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card came in is very enticing to say the least. I'd almost purchase it off the shelf for the packaging alone, instead of it being the most 'hyped' sound card for some time. Featuring an image of the Auzen Prelude sound card and X-Fi processor, as well as some of the listed features, I'm excited already. I also like the moniker that Auzentech decided to run with for the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card premiere - "Audio You Can Belive In". I find this quite pertinent considering the issues that Creative Labs have had with their X-Fi based sound card.
Here's a close-up shot of what the Auzen X-Fi Prelude sound card features and supports. However, you will notice that Auzentech has included support for Dolby Digital Live, and DTS will be coming soon, as they are currently working on driver support and licensing for the formats.
Flipping the box over you can see the 'onboard' features of the card and a breakdown of each of the major components in a multi-language format.
Opening up the box we are greeted by the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 card encased in a blister pack. The blister pack is identical to those used by graphics card manufacturers, and the snug fit that it provides ensures that the sound card doesn't move around. Immediately below the sound card is a cardboard box that contains the necessary items for installing the card. I am happy to report that Auzentech has taken all necessary precautions to ensure that the card will arrive at your place in one piece.
The packaging contents should include: * 1 x Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card; * 1 x Quckstart manual; * 1 x Driver CD; * 1 x 3 metre SPIDF optical cable, and * 2 x SPIDF cable blanks (plugs)
Now that we've had a look at the Auzen X-Fi Prelude's packaging and contents, let's head over the page and become acquainted with what you are all itching to see...the card itself.
Well after a considerably long wait, we finally get a chance to have a look at the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 up close and personal.
To say that the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 looks a little 'busy' would be an understatement. The brown PCB is a little 'different', especially compared to Creative's black version. Personally I prefer black, but hey!
Auzentech has utilised every bit of the available real-estate on the PCB, where Creative's offering looks decidedly more sparse. Not that it has any effect on performance, but the Prelude's 'busy' appearance makes you feel like you are getting a lot more for your dollar.
The beauty of the Auzen X-Fi Prelude's design layout is well illustrated.
One particular area that is testament to Auzentech's build quality is the inclusion of solid capacitors. Increasingly we are seeing solid capacitor usage become the 'norm', particularly from motherboard manufacturers. Solid capacitors offer much higher quality and better reliability when compared to their electrolytic counterparts. Solid capacitors also have a higher tolerance for higher temperatures and they also perform better with higher frequencies and higher current than electrolytic capacitors. The Auzen X-FI Prelude 7.1 soundcard is certainly designed to last, and give trouble-free audio pleasure for many years to come.
Connectivity options for the Auzen X-Fi Prelude are plentiful. Featuring two inputs (line-level and microphone), four analog outputs, and optical connectivity...there should be enough options here for even the most discerning audio-enthusiasts.
On the flip-side of the card, Auzentech has kindly included identification for the inputs and outputs.
I have taken the liberty of highlighting some of the major components of the Auzen X-Fi Prelude below, and given you a brief explanation of their function.
National LM4562NA High Performance Audio OPAMP The LM4562 from the NATIONAL combines extremely low voltage noise density (2.7nV/ √ ^Hz) with vanishingly low THD+N (0.00003%) to satisfy demanding audiophiles. The really cool feature here is that the OPAMP's are able to be changed. Don't like the NATIONAL LM4562! Then simply swap it out for one that is more to your taste. Excellent feature Auzentech!
The Auzen X-Fi Prelude features 64MBb (2 x 32Mb IC's) of Micron RAM for audio processing; the Creative X-Fi features 1 x 64Mb IC. The RAM is intended to take a load off the CPU when processing and we should see a slight increase in frames/ second when running our benchmarks. Ah, we now have the absolute attention of the gamers amongst us...
AKM AK5394AVS ADC The AK5394A is a 24bit, 96kHz sampling 2ch A/D Converter for professional digital audio systems. The modulator uses the new advanced multi-bit architecture and achieves 123dB dynamic range and wide bandwidth with superior distortion characteristics.
I can't help but reiterate just how impressive the Auzen X-Fi Prelude looks. The inclusion of 'top quality' components and the total layout of the card itself, sets it apart from the competition in my opinion. But the 'proof is in the pudding' and I guess we'll have to wait and see.
Now that we've had a look at the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card in a little more detail, let's head over the page and see how the installation process went, and what the included software offers...
To be honest, one of the things that really irks me most with Creative software is that it has a tendency to be either very buggy, and/or it is bloated to the max. Considering that the Auzen X-Fi Prelude uses Creative's X-Fi drivers, it will be very interesting to see what Auzentech has decided to run with in the way of included software.
Installation was a typical affair; simply pop the card in and wait for Windows to recognise it, and then install the drivers. The drivers that I was supplied with for the review are currently in closed Beta, and are therefore not available for official release. I'm extremely happy to report that the software installation was the most painless process I have ever encountered...Especially under Windows Vista. In under 2 minutes and 1 reboot later I was up and running with the new Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1.
For those with alternative Operating Systems, particularly Linux, the news is not as good unfortunately. According to the Auzentech website a Linux driver will be made available around the 1st Quarter of 2008, but it will be limited. The first version of the X-Fi Prelude Linux-compatible driver will be very preliminary, and you can expect high-quality output without the full X-Fi Prelude feature set. Although I can understand the logic behind the decision, I still feel that it is high-time that all manufacturers acknowledged Linux as a viable enough Operating System to code a fully fledged driver and feature set for.
One thing that you will notice with the Auzen X-Fi Prelude card (if you have a windowed case) is that the card has a green LED on the side that glows static when booting up. But as soon as you get into Windows it starts to flash, and continues to do so. Some may not have a problem with it, but initially I found it a little distracting. I have included a short video illustrating the effect below:
Quite honestly, this is the best inclusion of software that I have seen in a long time. No longer do you have to wade through the myriad of 'Start Menu' options that traditional Creative installations force upon you; instead there are just 4 - the Auzentech Audio Console, the Console Launcher, the Volume panel and Creative's ALchemy (X-Fi Edition).
Creative ALchemy is included to provide support for an ever expanding number of games under Windows Vista. With the advent of Windows Vista, Creative ALchemy is needed to play advanced audio effects. I'll let Auzentech explain it better:
It is necessary because prior to Windows Vista, the Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) enabled DirectSound and DirectSound3D technologies to play advanced audio effects. Many games have used these technologies for dynamic audio, but those same games sound flat when played in Vista. For newer releases, OpenAL has become the favorite technology. But what about the old games? That's where ALchemy comes in: ALchemy translates the legacy DirectSound calls into OpenAL, and then passes control over to your soundcard driver. The result is full hardware accelerated 3D Audio and EAX support, just as the developers intended.
The Audio Console allows for initial setup options and setting whatever mode that you want the Console to run in.
The Mode Switcher screen also allows for changing audio modes depending on whether you're going to game, listen to some tunes or create something special yourself.
By now many of you will already be familiar with the different modes, particularly for those of you already with X-Fi cards, so I'm going to be very brief and just include screenshots.
Under the Gaming mode, performance is enhanced with 3D soundscape, allowing you to hear bullets whiz past your head while explosions shake your room. EAX Advanced HD sound is also included to add 'voices' to your game. X-Fi CMSS-3D essentially emulates realistic surround sound with only a pair of headphones. You can boost game performance even further with games that take advantage of X-RAM, freeing up system memory and improving audio quality. The X-Fi Crystalizer automatically upgrades existing games with more dynamic and realistic sound.
X-Fi CMSS-3D expands your MP3s and digital movies into surround sound over multichannel speakers, stereo speakers, or even headphones. The X-Fi Crystalizer is supposed to restore the detail and vibrance to your compressed music and movies. Apparently all the highs and lows are enhanced so you'll hear everything in crystal clarity.
The X-Fi Crystalizer certainly should make a noticeable difference when listening to your choice of music. There's nothing quite like ability to play 'liquid gold' that is DTS 96KHz/24-bit, especially if you're decked out with a decent 5.1/7.1 setup. It'll wreck both home and hearing with equal impunity.
The Smart Volume Management function is an interesting one, I still prefered to have it turned off.
The X-Fi Prelude supports up to eight different 24-bit hardware effects, hardware synthesis capabilities, 24-bit SoundFont sampling and 3D MIDI recording. The X-Fi Prelude provides the lowest latency ASIO recording, allowing for the most precise audio recording capabilities in any class with latency as low as one millisecond with no CPU load.
Now that we're a little more familiar with the software side of Auzentech's X-Fi Prelude sound card, let's get down to the nitty gritty and see how we're going to test it...
Auzentech X-FI Prelude 7.1 Sound Card Page: 5 Test Setup and Methodology
I have chosen totest the Auzen X-Fi Prelude on two fronts because it is marketed as a sound card for both audiophiles and gamers alike. Analysing the Auzen X-Fi Prelude's performance from a gamers perspectivewill illustrate how well the sound card:provides immersive gaming environments and enhances the performance of the gaming system. Secondly I will be performing a series of audio tests, whilst incredibly subjective in nature, will assess the Auzen X-Fi Prelude's ability to reproduce audio from CD and DVD sources. I will make every effort to report my findings as 'objectively' as possible, bearing in mind that it is virtually impossible to cater for everyones particular preference in audio reproduction.
The system I will be using today should allow for some some credible performance results. I have included a list of the hardware used below:
AquAus * ASUS Blitz Formula SE Motherboard * Intel e6850 Core2 Duo * 2GB OCZ FlexXLC PC2-6400 CL3 (3-3-3-12) * 2 x Seagate Barracuda 250GB 7200.10 SATA2 3.0Gb/s HDD's (RAID 0) * ASUS NX8800GTS Video Card * Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card * Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio sound card * Silverstone TJ-07 Case * Windows Vista Ultimate * Logitech X-530 5.1 Speakers * RAZER HP-1 5.1 headphones
* RightMark 3D Sound CPU Utilization Test v 2.3 * QUAKE 4 * Unreal Tournament 3 * Fraps v 2.9.2 (build 6725)
You will notice that I have included the Creative X-Fi Xtreme Audio card in my list of testing hardware. Whilst it isn't really within the league of the Auzen X-Fi Prelude, and is really only just an X-Fi sound card, never-the-less it will assist in allowing a performance comparison to be made. One that will hopefully be better than onboard sound anyway!
For the gaming phase of the review I have chosen to use two relatively new games - QUAKE 4 and Unreal Tournament 3. Benchmarking will be undertaken using demo's of both games. The Auzen X-Fi Prelude will be run in both the Gaming Mode and Entertainment Mode to illustrate the impact that X-RAM has on system performance. CMSS 3D and EAX will be enabled during all of the benchmarks. I will be using Fraps to record the amount of frames per second during gaming.
Following on from the bout of gaming I will be running both of the cards under the RightMark 3D Sound CPU Utilization Test (Free version). The RightMark 3D Sound CPU Utilization Test measures CPU load depending on the device. It synthetically emulates the main cycle of a typical ingame sound engine, and provides diagnostics checks for supported EAX versions. Screenshots of RightMark 3D Sound graphs will be used to further illustrate the point at hand.
Subjective Audio Phase
During the subjective audio phase I will be listening to a plethora of music styles and genres, some of which I have included below: * The Four Seasons (Vivaldi) * The Great Southern Trendkill (Pantera) * Back in Black (ACDC) * Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing (Keith Urban) * Dreams - The Ultimate Collection (The Corrs) * With Teeth (Nine Inch Nails) * Happy Hardcore Singles Collection (Various Artists)
I have chosen to listen to a few of my favourite DVD's out of my somewhat large collection. Again, they have been listed below: * Apocolypto * Van Halen Live * Star Wars - Revenge of the Sith.
Now let's head over the page to see how the Auzen X-Fi Prelude copes with this swagger of testing...
I started out my gaming test phase with a little bit of Unreal Tournament 3. UT3 uses the Unreal Engine 3. Already known for its extensive graphical capabilities through titles such as Gears of War and Bioshock, the engine now takes advantage of third party technologies such as PhysX physics cards to provide an advanced game experience with destructible environment. Also included is the ability for AI bots to respond to advanced and specific voice commands, improved from previous use of a very small number of voice commands, along with the ability to use a command menu to control bot behaviour. All things considered it is a pretty taxing games on the graphics sub-system.
Please remember that these graphs represent an average of the frames/ second as recorded by Fraps.
The Auzentech X-Fi Prelude is the clear winner here..the inclusion of the X-RAM certainly makes a difference.
With 'Game Mode' off and 'Entertainment mode' on the frames per second take a drop; not exceptionally noticeable, but a drop none-the-less.
Running through the motions with QUAKE 4 at 1680 x 1050 can be quite taxing with all the bells and whistles on. Again the Auzen X-Fi pulled away with 'Gaming Mode' on.
The Auze X-Fi Prelude provided an incredibly immersive experience when gaming. Weapons fire and overall game soundscapes never sounded so good. There's nothing like hearing an enemy manta screaming past at full noise, or having the ball projectile of the BFG in QUAKE 4 land anywhere near you with the Auzen X-Fi Prelude in your rig.
The RightMark 3D Sound CPU Utilization Benchmark reinforced what we were seeing in the UT3 and QUAKE 4 benchmarks. Please remember that the X-Fi Crystalizer and EAX settings were activated for all of the following graphs.
(CPU utilisation with the Auzen X-Fi Prelude set at 16-bit/44.1KHz.)
(CPU utilisation with the Auzen X-Fi Prelude set at 24-bit/96KHz.)
(CPU utilisation with the Creative X-Fi Xtreme Audio set at 16-bit/44.1KHz.)
(CPU utilisation with the Creative X-Fi Xtreme Audio set at 24-bit/96KHz.)
You can see from the last CPU Utilisation graph that the Creative X-Fi Xtreme Audio just doesn't have the goods to match it with the Auzen X-Fi Prelude. The Prelude's ability to offload DSP and EAX load from the CPU definitetly makes it the better performer.
A couple of times during the testing phase I forgot to change from Entertainment Mode to Gaming Mode, and the Auzen X-Fi Prelude let me know about it quick smart. There's nothing quite like having clicks, squeals and pops attacking your eardrums at above average volume. Apart from this phenomenon the experience was extremely pleasurable.
My god how good does it sound when listening to your favourite tunes on the Auzen X-Fi Prelude! Making sure that I got a good mix of music at different bit-rates, the experience was nothing short of heavenly. In fact I would go out on a limb and say that the Prelude provided the best audio reproduction of any sound card that I have ever tried...period. One weird thing I found with the X-Fi Crystalizer is that it didn't really appear to make a lick of difference to any of the music that I tried, it was just great out of the box.
Once again the Auzen X-Fi Prelude performed very well at faithfully reproducing DVD audio. Listening to Van Halen's Live concert had me feeling like I was quite literally there, and the EAX effects made it feel as if the crowd had enveloped me completely.
Mel Gibson's Apocolypto was extremely satisfying, especially during the waterfall scene and the numerous chases through the jungle foliage. Hearing the arrows, spears and other numerous weapons whistling through the air during the 'running of the gauntlet' sounded exceptionally good on the Prelude.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith - laser weapons...fast moving ships screaming past you...'nuff said! Outstanding!
Let's head over the page to see how the Auzen X-Fi Prelude performed as a whole...
Well after toying around with the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card I really have to say that I am impressed by the experience, but at the same time left wanting a little more. The Prelude certainly has has a lot of pluses, but I felt that it has been released as a slightly unfinished product.
The gaming phase of our testing illustrated that the Auzen X-Fi can boost performance via the inclusion of X-RAM, where it off-loads DSP and EAX rendering from the CPU. During bouts of QUAKE 4 and UT3, weapons fire sounded so life-like that I felt like I was in the game. Gaming was incredibly immersive and surreal. However, quite a few times I found myself heading off into a game and remembering that I was still stuck in 'Entertainment Mode' which can be quite annoying to say the least. Especially when the card barks back!
The movie phase of testing was thoroughly enjoyable. I especially liked the added ambiance afforded by the EAX effects, and for those who enjoy the big-screen, the theatre soundfield makes movie listening exceptionally realistic.
I really enjoyed listening to music through the Auzen X-Fi Prelude, and considering that I played such a broad range of styles, it is testament to the homework that the Auzentech engineers have put into this card. The music just sounds great.
The price of the Auzen X-Fi is where I really think that an improvement can be made. Only when all of the cards key features are working and driver support has been improved, will it be worth the considerable outlay of cash.
So how does the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card stack up? Let's have a look at the summary I have made below:
The Good • Excellent sound overall • Replaceable OPAMP adds flexibility • Hardware DSP, no extra load on the CPU. • Solid capacitors ensures longevity and reliability. • Support for Digital In (SPDIF In) and external device can be connected through the Optical/Coaxial combo port
The Mediocre • Creative drivers, and lack of Linux drivers until next year. • Price, especially considering that key features are still not yet available.
The Bad • The Auzen X-Fi Prelude was released late and still feels a little unfinished. • No DTS for analog outputs.
Overclock3D would like to thank Auzentech for making this review possible