Creative stays on top of the sound card game by regularly updating its Sound Blaster cards with ever more sophisticated features. Its latest, the 7.1-channel Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro, incorporates Creative's next-generation Xtreme Fidelity (X-Fi) audio chip to deliver better-sounding audio than any other consumer sound card to date. A key element of the X-Fi feature set is its 24-bit Crystalizer, a digital technique by which the X-Fi chip can improve the quality of your digital music. Creative also adds a software-based usage mode selector, a sophisticated external I/O box and a fancy new remote control. The X-Fi Elite Pro can call itself the new gold standard for hard-core gamers and PC audio enthusiasts, although it's also the priciest Sound Blaster yet.
Like the Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro, the X-Fi Elite Pro incorporates three main components -- the PCI sound card itself, an external I/O box that houses hardware controls and jacks, and a remote control. The X-Fi Elite Pro's I/O box and remote control have been heavily redesigned. At 324 by 57 by 229mm, its I/O box is nearly 50 per cent wider than the Audigy 4's. The extra size accommodates a larger assortment of controls and jacks than ever, but now the box can't neatly sit on top of a midtower PC case. As a solution, Creative supplies a low-profile plastic stand for mounting it vertically, but the button labels look out of sync from that perspective.
The X-Fi Elite Pro's remote control is roughly the size of a typical set-top box remote and features dozens of buttons. Dedicated thumbwheels harness the digital-signal-processing (DSP) functions, such as the 24-bit Crystalizer, CMSS 3D upmixing capability and EAX Advanced HD 5.0 for game audio processing. All features are also accessible on the I/O box and through the software. The I/O box's front panel has a 1/4-inch headphone jack (a 3.5mm to 1/4-inch headphone adaptor is supplied) and two 1/4-inch line-in jacks accompanied by line-in level knobs. You can mute the volume and DSP functions by pressing the appropriate knob on either the remote or the I/O box. A blue LED lets you know when the overall volume is muted, and green LEDs indicate active processing functions.
The I/O box houses a stereo RCA input on its back panel that works as a standard auxiliary input or a phono input for direct connection with a turntable. Full-size MIDI-in and -out jacks enable hooking up synthesisers and other devices, while optical and coaxial digital connections facilitate a digital speaker system or a MiniDisc recorder. One notable drawback however, is that unlike the Audigy 4 Pro, the X-Fi Elite Pro doesn't have any FireWire ports. Considering that development, it seems unlikely we'll be getting the USB 2.0 ports we've wished for in the Audigy 4 Pro review on any of the X-Fi family cards. The PCI card has analogue output jacks for up to 7.1-channel multimedia speakers.
The Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro's primary software interface is Creative's Volume Panel, which nests in the Windows Taskbar. From the Volume Panel, you can switch between entertainment, audio-creation and game modes. Each mode has its own distinct interface and, according to Creative, optimises the drivers and processor for the task at hand. Designed for music and movies, entertainment mode has the simplest interface, with a large volume control, bass and treble controls, and icons that open additional screens where you can configure settings. Audio-creation mode, which supports Steinberg's low-latency ASIO protocol, looks like simplified professional recording software and allows you to select various recording sources and set levels in a mixerlike environment.