Ask Dan: Sound 'n' such

Publication date: 7 September 2008
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Meet John Smith, accountant, and John Smythe, giant robot.

what is the main difference between the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio PCIe x1 card and the Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio PCI?


My original answer to this letter said that these were actually quite different cards, even though they have almost the same name. As a few readers have now pointed out, that's not really the case.

I thought that only one of these cards was actually a real "X-Fi", using the same EMU20K1 chip that Creative made much of when they launched this line of cards.

That's wrong.

Actually, neither of these cards has an EMU20K1. The PCIe card, as I pointed out in the original reply, has the older Audigy silicon instead of the newer X-Fi hardware, and is thus an X-Fi in name only.

But as it turns out, the PCI Xtreme Audio card is pretty much just a rebadged Sound Blaster Live.

This matters less than you might think, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. But it does mean that buying something, almost anything, other than either of these Creative cards is a highly defensible decision.

From most users' point of view, the main differences between the two Creative cards are that the PCIe card has a good collection of connectors right there on the back panel with no need to use some sort of breakout box or cable to get them. And it will (duh) fit in a PCIe x1-or-bigger slot, of which most modern computers have at least one free.

The whole chipset issue isn't actually a huge problem, especially now that many people are using Windows Vista, in which the DirectSound audio acceleration that Creative's fancy chips do has to be software-emulated anyway. So you might as well spend about the same money on an Asus Xonar card, because those are the only boards currently available that have the top-end C-Media chips on them and can therefore use "DirectSound 3D GX 2.0", a more elegant software-emulated 3D audio system than Creative's kludgy "ALchemy".

(Aus PC Market, by the way, will be pleased to sell Australian shoppers a PCIe-X1 Asus Xonar DX sound card for $AU139.70 delivered. Click here to order!)

There's a detailed review of the PCIe "X-Fi", explaining this painful API soup, here.


Cross-company compatibility

Is the digital output signal from a Sound Blaster Digital I/O Module likely to work with Logitech digital speakers?


I wouldn't bet my life on it, but I think so, yes.

Generally speaking, everything with a normal "S/PDIF" coaxial (RCA-socket) electrical digital connector, and everything with a "TOSLINK" optical digital connector, should work together, provided both ends of the conversation are dealing with the same number of sound channels.

(If they aren't, then you're probably still going to get sound - you just aren't going to hear some of the channels.)

The optical and electrical digital audio standards are actually both the same S/PDIF bits; they're just sent over different types of cable. You can use little adapter boxes to convert between the two if you've got something with an electrical digital output and something else with an optical digital input, or vice versa.

Some computer speaker systems have, or at least had, weird proprietary connectors and/or audio standards that'll only work with sound cards made by the same company (coughCreativecough). I think that nonsense has died out, now; the current Logitechs seem to be standard enough.

(Note also that the high-bandwidth DTS digital audio standard isn't supported by all devices that can accept digital audio input. The current Logitechs have a tick in the spec-sheet box for DTS decoding, though, so they look to be ready for anything.)

Note that the above does not count as a guarantee from Aus PC Market, or even from me. I haven't actually connected these components together, and there may be some setup thing that stops you from using more than plain stereo two-channel audio, or something. A bunch of readers are probably about to tell me tales of woe.

But I reckon it'll work.

UPDATE: A reader has indeed given me some more info about this.

If you've got a modern 5.1-channel PC speaker setup, it will accept standard digital audio input from anything that can generate it, but it'll probably only accept AC-3 ("Dolby Digital") 5.1, or 5.1-channel DTS if it's got that on its spec sheet.

So if you're using your PC to play a DVD with 5.1-channel audio, that soundtrack should be passed through to the speakers just fine. But the sound card will not necessarily be able to encode audio from other software - like games - into the digital format the speakers want. Consumer audio hardware and software that can generate 5.1-channel digital audio on the fly from game audio has existed in one form or another for years - especially if you didn't mind not using quite all the bells and whistles of modern positional audio and environmental effects. But you're still not going to find it on any Creative-branded hardware, for licensing reasons.

If your sound hardware can't make an AC-3 signal for digital speakers when you're using one or another piece of software, the speakers may end up getting nothing more than two-channel stereo (possibly with crappy old analogue surround encoding). Or they may not make any sound at all.

The easiest way around this is to forget about the single digital cable, and just use a bunch of good old-fashioned analogue ones. Get a sound card with 5.1 (or more) channels worth of analogue outputs, and a speaker system to match - a PC "multimedia" setup, or even a normal home surround-sound system. If the various speakers are just getting their signal from the matching analogue outputs of the sound card, nothing has to be digitally encoded.



I've been using a pair of Sennheiser HD 212 Pro headphones for a damn long time now and love them to bits. I wish I could use them everywhere, but after about 2-3 hours my ears give out and I have to take them off... the poor things (my ears!) can't take that much crushing.

I'm now shopping about for headphones I can leave at home and wear for extended periods of time that sit around my ears and not on top. I love the bass the 212 Pros produce, but end up using the "Treble Booster" EQ presets on most devices to compensate for the crazy bass output.

I'll still use my 212 Pro's for the daily commute and when I need to leave the house and want music. The headphones I'm shopping for will probably stay attached to the computer and will only be used in a quiet environment.

I've read reviews, including your own, and heard mostly good things about the Sennheiser HD 555s. Do these sound (pun intended) like they may fit the bill?


In brief: Yes. You need to be a pretty darn picky headphone geek to not be satisfied with the way the HD 555s sound, and it's pretty much impossible to find more comfortable headphones anywhere - though that's not a unique selling point, because there are many other lightweight open models that're just as comfortable as the 555s.

The only problem with the 555s is that they are open-backed headphones, which means they let your music out for the rest of the world to hear (not usually a problem) and also let background noise in.

For everyday listening this is not an issue, and can in fact be an advantage, if you want to be able to hear the phone ringing or someone knocking on the door or whatever. If your listening environment has lots of background noise, though - like an office with a few PCs in it, or one overclocked fan-stuffed box with the side panel removed - you may prefer sealed headphones, even if they're not as comfortable. I've been using AKG K 271 sealed 'phones ever since I reviewed them more than three years ago; they're not the tightest-sealed headphones I've ever tried, but they're unusually comfortable for this type of headphone.

(Aus PC Market still sell the Sennheiser HD 255s, for rather less than they cost when I reviewed them years ago. They're now only $AU187 including delivery, which compares favourably with the $US109.95 special super-secret e-mail-to-be-told ex-delivery price for the same headphones at HeadRoom in the USA. Australian shoppers can click here to order a set of 555s from Aus PC Market.)



Is the little "Wink" stereo Bluetooth headset able to be used as a means of noise protection, as in earmuffs on the tarmac around aircraft?



There's a limit to the noise attenuation that noise cancelling headphones can manage. Basically, they can't cancel noise that's any louder than the maximum volume they can output. "Supra-aural" on-top-of-the-ear headphones like those "Wink" ones also don't have much physical noise attenuation (because they don't surround your ear with a sealed cup), so their performance versus really loud noise is likely to be very poor.

For the noise inside a commercial passenger plane in flight, none of this is a problem. For the noise outside one on the tarmac, it is. A little headset would probably have some small effect on noise levels, but it'd be very far from adequate for ear protection on its own.

You can get headphones that're built into conventional "earmuff" hearing protectors; they all have pretty crappy fidelity and no more noise attenuation than the "backyard mower" ear protectors they're based on, but they're also quite cheap.

"Canalphone" headphones are basically a tiny headphone built into an ear-plug, and also have good outside-noise attenuation.

For really serious noise attenuation, though - jackhammers, nearby jets - you're going to need either dedicated high-density earplugs, or similarly serious ear protectors, probably with heavyweight oil-filled cushions like those used for cockpit headsets.

Australian shoppers can purchase all sorts of PC audio gear from Aus PC Market.
Click here to order!