Hard Stuff: Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD review


So you've got a sweet 5.1 surround sound speaker setup and an awesome gaming library to support it—but if you're running those speakers via your motherboard's onboard audio, you may as well be using $20 speakers from your local drugstore. What you need is a dedicated soundcard, and Creative—the pioneer of soundcards for PC gaming—has released its newest flagship warbler: the Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD.

Creative rebuilt the X-Fi Titanium HD from the ground up for Windows 7, ditching support for some legacy audio architectures. While this does create an easier to use experience (i.e. switching playback devices mid-gameplay), it means that any Windows XP users out there will not be able to use this card. That said—it's worth the upgrade. Creative has pulled out all the stops and turned the X-Fi Titanium HD into an audiophile's dream card—dedicated headphone amps, a durable EM shield, and swappable op-amps (small amplifiers designed to enhance analog signals). Changing these amps will alter the overall tone of all sounds produced, depending on personal preference.

Installing the card is as easy as plugging it into a PCI-E port, screwing in the top bracket, closing the case, and running the drivers. There's also a suite of included software. Some of that software is essential, such as Creative's gaming audio and recording tools, and some of it is unfortunate, such as trials of bloatware media players. The card offers standard 3.5mm headphone and microphone jacks, Toslink (optical sound cable) input and output, and even gold-plated RCA line inputs for analog recording. Plus, the card supports Dolby Digital, DTS, and Creative's own EAX 5.0 standards. Notably missing is Dolby TrueHD support, and 3.5mm jacks (the orange and black plugs) for older surround sound systems, but provided you've purchased yours in the past five years, this shouldn't be an issue.

OK, so it's a technically impressive card, but tech only goes so far: what really matters is the quality of the sound—and the X-Fi Titanium HD will kick you in the ears with awesomeness. Hook this baby into an optical A/V receiver and the deep rumbling bass of a tank rolling by in Company of Heroes or the piercing squeal of an F1 engine kicking into high gear in F1 2010 are pitch-perfect. Positional audio is processed so well that I could have played Left 4 Dead 2 with a blindfold on, and headshotting zombies would still have been a breeze.

The huge, acrylic EM shield on the X-Fi Titanium HD keeps internal PC interference away, and makes static noise levels whisper-quiet—a huge difference in atmospheric games like Dead Space 2, where even a tiny static buzz can kill the immersion. Also flawless are the inputs, with voice communication that transmits crystal clear, as opposed to the distortion and robotic recording you can expect from onboard audio. Of course, if you do want to sound like a robot, Creative included its VoiceFX and Silence microphone features, allowing you to knock out background noise, or transform your voice into elves and ogres, with surprisingly pleasant results.

With this card's release, Creative is once again the undisputed king of gaming audio. If you're looking to upgrade from an existing soundcard, or onboard audio, the X-Fi Titanium HD will make your speakers sing with joyous explosions and gunshots for years to come.

$180, www.creative.com