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Creative Audigy 4 Pro preview with pics!~~

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LovingU    0

Introduction:

The history of the Sound Blaster series of cards has been one of devoted love and loathing. In the beginning, they were vanguards, pushing the capabilities of what to expect from a PC soundcard, with the SB16, culminating with the AWE64 Gold.

Through the late 90?s PC gaming fans were treated to some serious advances in audio, much of it driven by the often-cutthroat competition between Aureal (pushing their wavetracing technology that debuted in A3D 2.0 on Vortex 2 driven cards) and Creative Labs, pushing their EAX technology that debuted on the Live.

Today we are faced with a market where Aureal is no more, Sensaura has been purchased by Creative, and Creative?s success in getting developer support for EAX Advanced HD has made choosing a sound card from a pure gaming perspective an easy decision.

Now, not everyone is looking to make their sound card decisions on just one element and even from a gaming perspective. NVIDIA was making things interesting with their SoundStorm solution offering single cable digital multichannel gaming for the first time (via real time Dolby Digital encoding aka Dolby Digital Live).

Still, the problem for anyone but the pure gamer has been the compromises that choosing one card forced.

If you went with Creative Labs, and their Audigy series, you got today's standard in gaming due to wide scale adoption of EAX Advanced HD in current game titles, a host of unique hardware driven DSP features, strong MIDI support, and the only PC product offering DVD-Audio support.

Unfortunately, despite strong claims from Creative to the contrary, you also got sound reproduction, particularly for the very important (all CD and hence MP3 tracks) 16/44 kHz source material that was not up to the same standard as competitors using chips from Cirrus Logic (e.g. Santa Cruz) and more recently, VIA (a host of ENVY24 based products).

Those products have been able to post superior pure audio quality across product generations but have always been behind when it comes to support of any particular version of EAX. This difference was accentuated even further with the release of EAX Advanced HD, which can only be fully implemented on Creative?s Audigy line.

EMU (a Creative subsidiary) has been music orientated designs for recording and playback (back since the days of the Live!), and showed that the basis for the Audigys can sound good. But these cards lacked the basic consumer needs for gaming support, so these were relegated to a niche group of PC audiophiles and professional recorders. The bottom line is that if you were a die-hard music aficionado first and a gamer second, then you probably made your sacrifices on the gaming side and looked elsewhere, much to the chagrin of Creative Labs.

Now with the advent of PCI-E, the PCI line of cards are being slowly phased out, and like the AWE64 Gold of the past, Creative Labs decided to make one last PCI card, to be a transition from what was, and what is coming. Enter the Audigy 4 Pro. Take the best from the PCI pro music card, and add the best gaming support that their cards are known for, and you have the premier all-in-one consumer offering for PCI.

In my opinion, the Audigy 4 Pro was something long overdue, as you will see in this review.

Technical Overview:

The heart of the card is the CA10200 ICT DSP, the same one as the A2ZS series, which uses the CA0102-ICT. Supporting the DSP are the card's DACs. These process the audio stream from digital format to analog, and are instrumental in creating the audio quality of what you listen to. Obviously, the higher the quality of the DAC, the better the output of the audio. Now the Audigy 4 Pro can also output in digital via SPDIF PCM, but you can only get full digital surround sound via Creative's proprietary digital inputs on their speaker systems (except for AC3 / DTS sources, which will fit on a single SPDIF stream). You will be hard pressed to get better quality from the SPDIF outputs, since the Audigy 4 Pro uses Cirrus Logic's flagship DACs, the CS4398 in a quad setup for 8 channel output. (7.1) No compromises here, and no weaker DACs on the rears and surrounds. These chips are also used on the EMU 1212M and 1820M cards, and the Lynx Two card, which uses the earlier CS4396., all of which are professional studio cards. Important to note that the included DVD-A HD support disables SPDIF output, so you will need to use analog.

The operator amplifier (opamp) chips (ST4558C) can also be seen in the photo above. So why is the quality of these DACs important? There is a growing user base of people who use their PCs as an all-in-one device, commonly referred to as a HTPC, or Home Theatre PC. People are taking their home audio surround systems and replacing their separate DVD Players, multi-CD racks, etc. with a PC that they can use store and play back music, watch movies and of course, game like mad! This shift of the PC in to the living room has meant that the bottleneck in sound quality coming from the PC has shifted away from the multimedia speaker system and toward the sound card since these new setups typically delivering the audio to higher quality receivers (or component amplifiers) and higher end speakers. Now some of the flaws of the prior generation of cards (including the Live and Audigy) were more audible. Consumers looking for the ONE card have been forced to pick from a variety of compromises, be it gaming features, DAC quality, connectivity, etc.

Now enter the Audigy 4 Pro. The user can now have superb, lossless multichannel audio on their home theatre rigs. Finally, we have a card that can produce the analog quality that is offered by external decoding these users have grown accustomed, matched with the defacto gaming support that Creative has come to be known for. More objective details on the audio quality later on in the review.

The Audigy 4 Pro itself is PCI 2.3 compliant, and includes an external breakout box, which is connected to the PCI card via both a FireWire and proprietary connection. It includes 2 FireWire ports, a 1/4? Line-In, a 1/4? Line-In with Mic boost option and gain control, a 2x RCA Line-In, a 1/4? Headphone port, Master Volume control dial, CMSS Enable toggle, SPDIF Optical In/Out, MIDI In/Out, SPDIF Coax In/Out, and the proprietary Creative 4-pole Digital Out 1/8? port. The external box sports the CS4392 DAC for the headphone port, which is a 114dB 24/192 rated DAC, in addition to the TI/BB PCM1804 ADC (112dB SNR, -102dB THD) for recording.

The interface for the breakout box is the CA0151, with the supporting CS8420 chip, which was used for the Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro. To quote Amy Stojsavljevic, PR Specialist from Creative, ?The CS8420 chip is the interface chip to the external box. Basically, it is a digital resampler that is put in to make sure that the audio signals are in sync when going to and from the external hub. The problem that this solves, is that audio signals can get out of sync due to the length of the cable (which is a benefit for a breakout box), so this allows the cable to be longer WITHOUT the audio being out of sync. This is not different from our implementation in the Audigy 2 ZS.? There was some speculation as to its purpose, so I'm glad we got that cleared up.

Cabling supplied is the connector to the breakout box, plus a SPDIF for a CD Player. You will need to use a mini-molex connector from your power supply, and an adapter is included. Installation is straight forward, unless you are connecting your Audigy 4 Pro to AV Receiver. You can use 3 x 1/8? stereo to 2 RCA cables to do 5.1 analog to the receiver, and use the DVD-A/SACD inputs. If you are doing 6.1 or 7.1, you will need one or two 3-pole 1/8? to 3 RCA cables, otherwise known as camcorder cables. The third RCA has the rear surrounds signal. Of course there is an illustrated guide included for all of this. You may want to get gold plated cables, since the ports on the Audigy 4 Pro and most likely your A/V Receiver will be gold plated, and this will avoid any annoying corrosion. Don't forget that you will likely need to enable Bass Management on the Audigy 4 Pro for the analog connection to your HT system. (More on this later)

Software included are the drivers (5.12.2.445 9/24/2004), MediaSource (and their HTPC frontend), the DVD-A Player software, Cubase LE, WaveLab Lite, Fruity Loops Studio 4 (Creative Edition), and full version games featuring EAX HD: Thief ? Deadly Shadows (EAX 4.0) and Hitman ? Contracts (EAX 3.0), all on one DVD. Now if only the game makers would start using DVD discs for their game distributions, instead of making us install 5+ CDs. Also included is a DVD-A Sampler disc, with a varied amount of music to listen to.

Installation and Software Applications:

I will not go into great depth here, since they aren't all that much different from the applications in the past, but I will, in turn, mention that which I consider to be important to note.

Surround Mixer: Your place to adjust levels for the various inputs and outputs. In the Advanced tab, you can adjust the volume levels to the individual sats.

Speaker Settings: Choose your speaker setup, and whether you want Digital Out only. As noted earlier there are lots of very good reasons to stick to analog connections here and not select digital out only.

There is also a speaker test to check your rig. Here you can fine tune your Bass Management setup, which you need to do if your speaker and/or amplifier does not have built-in bass management. If you have a Multimedia set, then it probably has its own Bass Management, and you do not need enable it. If you are hooking up to an AV receiver, then the DVD-A inputs you are using will need BM to be enabled, unless your receiver supports bass management on DVD-A inputs, and you are using that feature. Set the crossover point to the bottom range of your satellites, or maybe just a tad higher if they are small and you want to offload the bass to the subwoofer. Some experimentation is in order to get whatever is a good setting for your satellites. You can also enable Bass Boost, if you have a stereo or quad system, but is disabled for 5.1 or more.

Notes:

Bass Management and the Audigy 4 Pro (and other Audigys for that matter):

The LFE output when using Bass Management on the Audigy series has been something of an annoyance when connecting to an A/V amplifier using the multichannel analog input the receiver is typically not doing any bass management (some hi-end AV receivers have started to offer Bass Management on these inputs). The Audigy 4 Pro should be ideal for connecting to these inputs. However, when not playing discrete 6-channel sources, like DVDs and DVD-A, you'll note that the attenuation for the LFE is low. This topic has been in discussion on Creative's Europe site for some years now, and recently (11/29/2004) Catherina Karskens of Creative reported that they are aware of this issue, and are in discussion for finding a fix, involving a software solution.

If you want to know more about this, here is the link: http://de.europe.creative.com/support/foru...foru=51&page=34

So what do we do until there is a fix? Well, you can turn up your amp on your subwoofer by 10dB or whatever is to your taste, or you can use a mono preamp or EQ for the LFE Line. Remember that the LFE will be correct for discrete 6-channel sources, so you will need to tone it down. Yes, this is annoying. The upside is that this is a known issue, and due to be addressed.

Advanced Features:

The Advanced Features of the included drivers, and reverb effects are accomplished by a section of the DSP referred to as the EAX Engine. This portion of the DSP is locked at 16-bit, 48000 Hz samplerate. Using these Advanced options will cause internal resampling of the audio streams. Typical sources of music are 16/44.1, like CDs and MP3s, and will be resampled by the hardware, which the internal hardware resources cause the high IMD%. Most of the distortion, however, is in the high spectrum, and is probably inaudible. Under typical listening situations, this isn't a problem, but some of our readers may have an issue. If so, then using a software resampler in your player can be a good workaround. (If you have no idea what I am talking about, don't worry about it.) If using other features like the DVD-A playback, or SPDIF Bitperfect recording, these advanced features will be disabled by the drivers, so that there will be no resampling of these sources.

EAX Console: Control all things EAX. Normally, you have ?No Effects? enabled. EAX games enable this within the game, so no need to do it here. In fact, you can cause some weird effects that way. Popular feature to use here is the Karaoke filter and the Parametric EQ. CMSS can be controlled here, as well as turned on/off on the external box. A yellow LED lights up when it's on, so I use that as a warning system for myself, as I prefer to let my media player do Stereox2 for me. I've preferred CMSS when it was done in hardware, like on the old DTT2500 system. If you use MediaSource, there is an option to use Neo:6, which is superior, and Creative says that too in the application!

Diagnosis: Use this to fix things. After my install, it reported an error, and fixed it. Use this to generate a report if you call Creative for Tech Support. You can also use this to reset everything to their default values, which after getting your settings corrupted by other audio driver installations is welcome.

Graphic Equalizer: A 7-band EQ that is easy to use, and mostly useless for serious tweakers for the limited number of bands. How about a nice 1/3 octave EQ that goes lower than 125 Hz? This is a seperate item compared to the Parametric EQ offered in the EAX Console.

THX Setup Console: You can access your speaker setup, enable/disable Bass Management (the Speaker Setup allows for finer tuning), and Speaker Calibration, where you can input the distances to your speakers, and it will calibrate for that. This application should have an option to disable, since it may be desirable for certain modes of playback.

MediaSource Player: This player lets you take advantage of all those nifty features that Creative groups into your software. Here you can abuse such features as Smart Volume Management (aka normalization), Time Scaling, Smart Crossfading, and Neo:6 upmixing of stereo sources. This player will play MP3 (with ID3 tagging), Wav, and WMV. Too bad it doesn't support anything newer, like say MP4/AAC, MPC, APE, FLAC, WavPack, MOD, and a whole bunch of other formats that can be easily supported by utilizing DirectShow codecs. It does, however, support the playback of DTS-CD.

Entertainment Center: Now this is a new piece of the software package that you may enjoy. Using your supplied remote, you can access media files and discs, and play them, converting your PC into a HTPC. You can play CDs, DVDs, or have a slideshow of pictures. It also supports WinDVD and PowerDVD, except for PowerDVD 6, which is the newest version, and what I use. Oh well, it was almost a good thing for me, but I assume the next update will address that. It would be nice if an applet existed so that you can configure it to use other applications. No support for other DVD players.

Objective Audio Quality:

I know everyone wants to see the numbers (tests run on RightMark Audio Analyzer v. 5.4), so here they are:

SoundBlaster Audigy 4 Pro (external loopback RMAA 5.4 to self)

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB Noise level, dB (A) Dynamic range, dB (A) THD, % IMD, % Stereo crosstalk, dB IMD at 10 kHz, %

16/44.1 +0.13, -0.36 -95.3 94.2 0.0032 0.0080 -96.3 3.4560

16/48 +0.04, -0.11 -96.7 96.0 0.0052 0.0068 -95.6 0.0100

24/48 +0.09, -0.19 -108.5 107.6 0.0015 0.0022 -109.3 0.0078

24/96 +0.02, -0.09 -108.4 107.5 0.0015 0.0021 -106.2 0.0140

You can check out the detailed RMAA results here

Testing chain: External loopback (line-out - line-in)

Sampling mode: 24-bit, 96 kHz

Line Out to Line In 3

Summary

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB: +0.02, -0.09 Excellent

Noise level, dB (A): -108.4 Excellent

Dynamic range, dB (A): 107.5 Excellent

THD, %: 0.0015 Excellent

IMD, %: 0.0021 Excellent

Stereo crosstalk, dB: -106.2 Excellent

IMD at 10 kHz, %: 0.014 Very good

General performance: Excellent

Frequency response

Frequency range Response

From 20 Hz to 20 kHz, dB -0.18, +0.02

From 40 Hz to 15 kHz, dB -0.09, +0.02

Noise level

Parameter Left Right

RMS power, dB: -106.3 -107.0

RMS power (A-weighted), dB: -107.5 -108.4

Peak level, dB FS: -80.2 -80.2

DC offset, %: 0.00 0.00

Dynamic range

Parameter Left Right

Dynamic range, dB: +106.6 +107.0

Dynamic range (A-weighted), dB: +107.5 +108.4

DC offset, %: 0.00 0.00

THD + Noise (at -3 dB FS)

Parameter Left Right

THD, %: 0.0015 0.0018

THD + Noise, %: 0.0018 0.0021

THD + Noise (A-weighted), %: 0.0021 0.0025

Intermodulation distortion

Parameter Left Right

IMD + Noise, %: 0.0021 0.0023

IMD + Noise (A-weighted), %: 0.0017 0.0018

Stereo crosstalk

Parameter L <- R L -> R

Crosstalk at 100 Hz, dB: -101 -103

Crosstalk at 1 kHz, dB: -105 -105

Crosstalk at 10 kHz, dB: -98 -100

IMD (swept tones)

Parameter Left Right

IMD + Noise at 5 kHz, %: 0.0068 0.0070

IMD + Noise at 10 kHz, %: 0.0137 0.0138

IMD + Noise at 15 kHz, %: 0.0207 0.0210

This report was generated by RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.4

Considering I had to resort to an external loopback to self, I would have to say these numbers are pretty impressive for a consumer gaming card. As you can see, the card still resamples somewhat poorly for 44.1KHz sources, like CDs, (based on the IMD results), so I still suggest that you use SSRC or PPHS DSP's to use the card's native modes of either 16/48 or 24/96. (These are resampling features supported by your media players. Consult your player's help or faq about setting this up.)

For the subjective part of the listening tests, I used either setup:

? Pioneer VSX-D811S A/V Receiver (AK4586 DAC) with Klipsch Quintet II sats and a modified KLH AVS10-120 subwoofer (surround setup)

? Headroom Supreme headphone amp with Sennheiser HD580 headphones / Cardas cable

The PC setup is:

? Asus A7N8X-E Deluxe with an AMD 2800+ and 1024 Megs of PC2700

? Windows XP Pro SP2

? M-Audio Revolution 7.1 (analog) 5.10.0.5052

? nForce2 Soundstorm (to Coax SPDIF via Dolby Digital Live) 6.14.456.0

? SB Audigy 4 Pro (analog) 5.12.2.445

? BFG 6800GT 256

? Foobar2000 0.8.3 Special Install

Music files are either Musepack 1.15r/s encoded (-q7 -xlevel), DTS .wav files, or AC3. 2 DVD-A discs (Yes ? Fragile and Metallica ? Metallica) were also used for High Definition listening.

Those who use Soundstorm will note that you will have differences in attenuation as compared to using SPDIF, depending on the amplifier. You will have to recalibrate your system to get it balanced again in regards to the sats and the sub. The rolloff technique used for the Audigy 4 apparently is different for the one for my Pioneer. I can't say which is better, but they are different. I'm interested in testing a 7.1 preamp with it to see if that makes a difference, tho Mark suggests that it shouldn't since the levels out the Line-Outs are 2Vrms, which is what DVD-A players use, but I cannot help myself from experimenting. When calibrating the system, I found I needed to lower the crossover for Bass Management from 100Hz to 86Hz (80Hz is the THX recommendation, at that works well too here) to get the correct sound from my satellites, so I do suggest some experimentation on your part to get it perfect.

When I first connected the Audigy 4 to my receiver, and played my music from Foobar2000, I was prepared for the worst. However, when I started listening, my first thought was that I was still playing music that was converted to analog on the Pioneer via SPDIF, and checked all my settings. I then learned that I had indeed had it all setup correctly, and that the audio was being produced from the Audigy 4 analog outputs. What a pleasant surprise, needless to say. The audio was clear, clean, instruments were distinct, and the background was not meshed into the foreground, and vice versa. I came to the conclusion that this was not just a remake of the Audigy 2 series. Sure, the functionality is basically the same, but the core hardware got a very nice upgrade.

I then gathered my usual henchmen of songs that I know quite well, and connected my headphones for some serious listening, and comparing to my other soundcards. In summary, the cards competes very well with my Pioneer, and it AK4586 DAC. The Revolution 7.1 was outclassed, pure and simple. The Audigy 4 had all the tonal strengths of the Revolution 7.1, and then some. The performance was literally like listening to a hi-grade component player, which was once only achievable by using professional studio cards. It's about time the Audigy lived up to its marketing name.

Subjective Listening Tests

Tomoyasu Hotei, ?Battle Without Honor or Humanity? Kill Bill Vol 1 OST MPC

I chose this track because of two reasons, one being that I love the track, and second, because of a review done over at techreport.com by Geoff Gasior, which I will quote here:

?The Ultimate Edge sounded good in Battle Without Honor or Humanity and had much better separation for background sounds than the Audigy2 ZS, which sounded a little mashed together. When compared with the Revolution 7.1, the Ultimate Edge had the slightest of echoes, which may be a good thing or a bad one, depending on your tastes. Our test subjects were split on whether the Ultimate Edge or Revo sounded better for this track. Both offered superior instrumental clarity to the Audigy 2 ZS.?

The ?a little mashed together? sound of the Audigy 2 is known to me, since I have the Audigy 2, as well as the Revolution 7.1. I've described it in the past as being relatively speaking ?2-dimensional and somewhat smeared.? I consider that to be a signature sound for that series. Mind you that listening to audio is highly subjective, and takes practice, so do take any observations with a grain of salt, and also note that every audio system has its own colorations, even if minor. Also, the quality of the source material (CD vs MP3 128CBR) and the quality of speakers play a very significant part in determining if the soundcard itself is the limiting factor for a sound system. If it seems that I am splitting :)irs here, I am. :)

I am quite pleased to say that the Audigy 4 Pro does not retain this signature. The rendition was spot on, and comparable to SPDIF output to my AK4586 based receiver. Output from the trumpets were brassy, cymbals had crack and impact, and weren't lost to the rest of the instruments. Details were very apparent when using the Sennheiser HD580 headphones.

Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts, ?Piano Solo (Live)? Cowboy Bebop OST Limited Edition CD 4 APE

Nothing like a good live piano concert. It's even better when you can easily pick out one individual clapping out the right channel during the intro to the song while everyone is clapping. Tonal quality was also spot on, with the piano sounding natural, and good impact when the keys were struck hard. Keynotes did not smear into each other, as it should be.

Yes ?Heart of the Sunrise? Fragile DVD-A High Definition 6-channel and 2-channel 24/96

How can I do subjective listening without doing some DVD-A tracks? Full fidelity is what DVD-A is all about, and finally a consumer card with the DACs to take advantage of it. Listening to this track on the surrounds was definitely fun to do; listening to them on the Sennheiser HD580s and the 24/96 stereo track was an experience. I tried very hard to find any defects in playback, but couldn't, so I just gave up, and sat back and enjoyed it. If you have multiple DVD players, there is a playlist editor available.

Metallica - ?Enter Sandman? Metallica (Black Album) DVD-A Hi-Def 24/96 6-channel

Some songs do not benefit from high definition mastering, and this is one of them. You get to listen to Metallica in all their glory, both good and bad. James Hetfield benefits from being blended in the standard CD mix, but when the focus comes in, all his faults are there vocally, as well as the engineers who did the mixing. I think they went a little wild with the panning. On the upside, all the power and impact of this solid metal song is there, and with full dynamic range enabled, caused my receiver to shut down due to power stressing the amplifier a couple of times.

The Audigy 4 played this track faithfully and did not add to the color, and remained neutral sounding. The lesson here is that the rendition will only be as good as the source, and being faithful and detailed will expose any errors done by the audio engineers at the studio. Such is the price and curse for quality rendering.

Hanz Zimmer ?Woad to Ruin? King Arthur OST MPC

Someone pass me the popcorn. This is the song that drove me batty with the bass management, and after 2 days, I finally figured out that the bass crossover needed to be lowered, so that the sats didn't get their lowend attenuated into oblivion. The intro comes in like a wave on the ocean, and sweeps you into the theme, racing on horseback to outrun Saxons. It was this immersiveness I was trying to recreate, and managed to succeed, I might add. No faults in the presentation of the orchestration, and there was depth to the soundstage.

Overall, the Audigy 4 analog output will definitely utilize high quality speaker systems, and let them show off what they can do.

MIDI

Supports Soundfont 2.1 format, and works quite well. Use the included application to load soundfont banks.

Gaming

This is where the Audigy series had already been crowned as king, and now you can be king with greater fidelity. 64 Hardware channels, DirectSound3D hw accelerated, OpenAL hardware accelerated, EAX Advanced HD 1-4 support, which most games use these days All of this coming out on Quad CS4398 DACs. Life is good, and updates will come out since Creative uses a unified driver model for the Audigy series. No updates are available yet, however, and no, I did not choose to try the leaked beta for the Audigy 2 ZS series.

If using headphones, there is an option in the Audio Console under ?Headphone Detection? tab for optimizing 3D effects for headphones, and whether to mute the main speakers when you plug into the headphone jack.

Games with 3D audio do not have the audio already seperated into discrete channels like movies do, so they rely on the card's audio engine to do this for them. Creative's implementation has always allowed for any amount of speakers to be used, and provide positional cues, so you may use anywhere from 2 speakers to a full 7.1 setup and get a good gaming experience.

CMSS may be necessary to be active when using 2 speaker setups, and headphones, as proper HTRFs are generated by CMSS for positional cues for DS3D games. This is not an issue with quad setups, or greater, and also depends on the game's support for EAX. If you feel the game doesn't sound right, try turning on CMSS to see if this helps.

LucasArts ? Jedi Academy

Here's a classic FPS with lightsabers. The game also touts to be an EAX Advanced HD showcase, and it shows. One adventure in particular takes place on a cliffside and inside caves, so the environmental effects and occlusions kick in, especially when attacking dark Jedi from afar. During gameplay, the music tracks are played only from the fronts. My lightsaber swings panned from left to right and center channels. Environmental effects were applied to even weapon fire and explosions. Headphone gameplay was useful, as I was able to use the environment sound cues to find an cave opening, and directional cues for weapons fire was spot on.

This game uses the OpenAL library to interface to the soundcard, and there are some pitfalls that need to be addressed here. The game installs into it's own game directory a version of the OpenAL32.dll that is a DirectSound3D wrapper. The Audigy 4 Pro, like its predecessors and other cards, like the nForce series, have an OpenAL32.dll that is installed to /system32 that supports hardware acceleration. To take advantage of this updated library, you will need to go into the game directory, and either remove or rename the OpenAL32.dll to something else, say OpenAL32.meh. Or you could copy the one from /system32 into the game directory, replacing it. I suggest the first solution, so that when you do driver updates, you are always using the latest one. Mind you this applies to any game that uses OpenAL.

If you have 2 soundcards, be mindful that there can only be one OpenAL32.dll in /system32, and in my case, the nForce and Audigy card installs overwrite each other. Make sure whatever card you use for gaming is installed LAST. (I uninstalled the nForce2, and had to reinstall the Audigy 4 drivers again because OpenAL32.dll was deleted.)

BioWare ? NeverWinter Nights (1.64)

This game uses the Miles Sound System, which is a 3rd party Audio API that game developers can use. My biggest complaint about using Miles is that often the game developers do not update the MSS core files that the game uses, to get any updates and bugfixes that the Miles developers make to their engine. Sometimes you can download the demo of MSS, and replace the files with these, but often than not they are incompatible.

In this case, the MSS supports using EAX 3, which was available for use using the Sound menu. Also, there is an EAX checkbox. Being an Audigy card, I went ahead and turned both on. I went skipping around in Sheori's Fell, and noted the effects. Directional cues panned accordingly to the correct speakers, and background sounds were directional too. In this one case, I had a small campfire that was coming out the front right, with a waterdrip sound coming from my rear left, and somewhat from the front left. Pretty cool. I did a quick attack on the town (oh my!) and got in real close to my character, so when everything started, I got a pretty good surround effect, with distance cues from the various attackers, and some occluded effects from people crying out from around corners. I was using a bow with acid arrows, so as the bowshot fired off, you can hear the arrow trail off into the distance.

The Miles system also supports Headphone Mode. Directional cues are supported, assuming that HTRFs are enabled in your Audio Control. ?Enhance 3D Sound Effects...?

ID Software ? Doom3 (v1.1)

Now the first real difference I noticed when playing this game compared to my nForce2 was not having to reset the sound system when the audio tanks into static during gameplay. If you ever had this issue, you know exactly how annoying it is. I have a keymapping to s_restart, and never had to use it once. No crackiling, no distortions, just 3D audio as good as the 3D graphics from the BFG 6800GT I use. I played the Hell level to get the cube, and it was all nice and fluid, and no resetting. Explosions were thumpy, as was getting smacked upside my head by a Hell Knight.

Now I know that ID Software agreed to add EAX Advanced HD support to the game engine, but I do not yet see anything specific to EAX Advanced HD.

Eidos ? Thief: Deadly Shadows (v1.1)

One of the games included with the card, this games supports EAX Advanced HD 4.0, and there are specific options to enable this in the A/V menu. Now, this game is about stealth, and you need to rely on the audio moreso than the graphics, since you need to overhear conversations, listen to tumblers, and know where the guards are and what they are doing. So spatial cues and occlusions are a big part of this game, as well as paying attention to how much noise you are making. The graphics are also quite nice, and the models aren't cheesy, and the voices are lip synced rather nicely. On top of all this, there is a plotline! So don't forget to stop and listen to what comes out of this game, since some of the audio clues are subtle. Game recommendations are 512M of memory, and it will use the lower quality textures on anything with 64M or less video cards. It also happens to be a great showcase for shaders, since shadows are a staple to a good thief. Now it is difficult to spot specific places where the EAX 4.0 is used, but I can say that the audio is pretty realistic, so attention to the audio quality was as paramount as the graphics when the game was being developed.

Eidos ? Hitman: Contracts

The other included game, this one "only" sports support for EAX Advanced HD 3.0. Hitman series is kind of along the same line as Thief, yet modern, and you can be more violent. Stealth is just as important, since assassins don't want to be noticed, and it helps to listen to what is around the corner. Unfortunately, this game doesn't have the awesome soundtrack as Hitman 2, which was performed by the Budapest Symphonic Orchestra, but in this case it was composed and performed by Jesper Keyd. The audio menu allows for EAX to be enabled, tho this title was intended for more mainstream play, so the FAQ doesn't demand EAX gameplay for optimal performance, tho having the EAX Advanced HD support will give you some ear candy. If you liked the other Hitman games, then you will like this one. Gunfire is sharp, cracking sounding as opposed to some cheap off-Hollywood effect. Cues are spot on, and panning is a non-issue. Expect good, solid FPS audio here. Game supports using all the available hardware channels for 3D audio.

Movies

High quality output is the name of the game here. With driver support for decoding Dolby Digital EX, Dolby ProLogic II, and DTS-ES to your Stereo thru 7.1 setup, you don't have to use a software decoder like PowerDVD if you don't want to. Just do SPDIF passthru in the player, and enable decoding in the Audio Console. You can even connect external players, like a DVD player or game console, into the various SPDIF inputs and decode those as well. Those with external receivers can choose to pass it on to the receiver if they wish.

I tested the movie playback, with SPDIF out on the DVD player software (PowerDVD 6) and decoded via drivers, and everything worked as should be expected.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Special Extended Edition under PowerDVD 6

Set PDVD to do SPDIF, and enabled DD/DTS decoding on the Audio Console. Worked like a charm in both DD EX and DTS ES. Full Dynamic range was enabled.

Strauss ? Public Available Concert on DTS 44.1 Audio

I couldn't get the .wav file to play, however, burning it to CD allowed MediaSource to play it correctly, utilizing the driver decoder. Also played via SPDIF-In from external DVD player. You must enable ?DD/DTS SPDIF-In decode? in the Audio Console. Also was able to stream from the CD to external decoder. Just disable the driver decoder, and use SPDIF passthrough.

Recording

You can either record via WDM, or for low latency recording, ASIO. Since this the Pro, it supports recording in 24/96 ASIO 2, and 16/48 ASIO, and that's it. But what it does offer, it does nicely, as you can see from the RMAA test results. No balanced inputs, sorry. 3 Analog stereo inputs, and 2 digital inputs (toslink/coax SPDIF). Pretty much standard fare for a card with an external breakout unit, and definitely welcome by those without one who need the extra ports. No phono RIAA port, which is typical these days. If ripping from vinyl, and usingan old phono player, I'd suggest investing in a phono to line-out external converter. Supports recording of multitracks using the 3x analog inputs, and has bitperfect SPDIF recording.

Bitperfect SPDIF recording can be enabled via the Audio Console, which should be welcome for anyone transferring from DAT or other digital sources. This disables any features that would corrupt the stream, and allow for a clean recording.

Conclusions

This definitely qualifies to be considered a prosumer card. The lack of balanced ins and outs prevent it for being a true professional card, along with some minor resampling issues, but if you use unbalanced lines, then this card can satisfy your recording needs, even for 24-bit recording. For the serious gamer, you get everything you need for serious power gaming, plus you can run your game consoles through the inputs for Dolby and DTS decoding. Movie lovers will enjoy the clarity and dynamic range offered. Music lovers will be able to have the quality they desire for whatever rigs they use, be it multimedia systems, HT systems, or quality headphones and dedicated headphone amplifiers. If you are looking for a one-card solution for everything, and are serious about wanting quality playback, the Audigy 4 Pro is one to seriously consider. MSRP is $299 US, but street prices have already dropped to about $250 at some reputable locations.

All in all a package of features, price and performance that add up to the very first sound card to earn the 3DSoundSurge Surge of Approval and Gold Medal of Excellence!

Edited by LovingU

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Pink Floyd    15

why were you prepared to worse by playing music n foobar with audigy4 ?

on a side note: I still have my aureal card somewhere. darn they were good cards

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Storm    4

Where are the pics? :p

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