X-Fi Digital Audio Monday 3rd September 2012, 17:01
Recently I've completed a project I've been planning for a while and haven't had the inclination to risk it and finish off.
For many years I've been using my Creative X-Fi Xtreme Music in my computer as in my opinion it provides a lot of extra functionality (EAX and 24-bit as just two examples) and a quality sound. However this has always caused me one problem, and more recently a second problem. The first is the lack of any standard front panel audio connectors, which I hope to rectify soon. The second concerns digital output as my older model card does not provide an optical SPDIF nor a digital coaxial output. However I quite quickly found a solution to this following the instructions that can be found here: http://runawaybrainz.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/audio-creative-x-fi-spdif-toslink-and.html; rather than reiterate what is explained there I intend to provide the solution which I have come to and how I went about it.
First of all I found an SPDIF and digital coaxial back plate off eBay. I could have followed the easiest instruction and use the digital I/O interface, but I use the microphone port which immediately throws that option out of the window.
This particular backplate is designed for Gigabyte motherboards and therefore does not provide a connector that is compatible with the bespoke Creative interface. However I was also able to acquire a new connector from Maplin. The connector, which can be found here (2x5 DIL IDC Socket), is simply a serial port header connector which is usually for a ribbon cable. However I cut the cable from the backplate's incorrect connector attached the power (red), data (white) and ground (black) connectors to the appropriate sockets for the X-Fi and pushed the crimping element down to strip and lock the cables in place. The crimping require no tools as I was able to push the top plate down with sufficient force by hand.
Here is an image of my new cable attached to my sound card.
Unfortunately I didn't take any photos of the backplate before I started cutting it up. All I needed to do was convert the three pins in a line with the red on the right and the ground on the left to the Creative standard with two spaces between the data line and the power. Also it is worthy to note the pin spacing on the Gigabyte connector is a lot smaller than that of the X-Fi. I have no accurate device to measure either but there is no chance you can plug just a digital coaxial in (as it doesn't need the power line) with the original cable.
For testing I connected my PC to the TV and surround sound system in the lounge, with a few setting modifications I had the computer output directed to the SPDIF and I was away. Sound check, but wait it's in stereo... the X-Fi would not automatically encode the PC surround sound output to Dolby or DTS. To get any surround sound effect you must use the analogue 3.5mm jacks, not an option for anyone using an amp without three RCA inputs; this obviously would not do.
Dolby and DTS
After a little research I came across this pack which can be purchased from the US Creative Store here. This, after purchase would provide the currently unavailable on-the-fly surround sound encoding I was after. I agree with the Internet 'crowd' that this really should have been part of the software in the first place, but I can also see the licencing costs are prohibitive. In the great scheme of things around £3 to get this working is not exactly going to do any damage to my bank account at all!
The testing I conducted was on the games that were already installed on my system, and I spent most of Thursday and Friday playing around with it and thoroughly enjoying it!
Overall I prefer DTS, and have done for sometime because I was led to believe it has lower compression, creating a punchier sound. Whether this is false information and I'm hearing what I expect I don't know. Therefore under Windows 7 I have selected this as my default encoding, however under Windows XP the DTS encoder is not installed and in this scenario I fall back to Dolby Digital.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Windows 7 x64 - DTS - Incredible difference to stereo I really enjoyed walking around the town hearing the people talking behind me even if I wasn't at a point in the game to traverse an expansive dungeon!
Unreal Tournament 3 - Windows 7 x64 - DTS - This didn't seem to have so much impact, which suggested to me that maybe it doesn't support surround in the way I expected. Usually in an FPS I would experience people sneaking up behind but mostly I heard the taunts from the rear speakers.
Baldur's Gate - Windows XP - Dolby Digital - This was my sister's recommendation and with the EAX echoing in caves this was a pleasure to listen to! I wasn't sure how the top down perspective would map to the extra speakers, but I feel that it worked and look forward to trying an RTS (Real Time Strategy) game at some point.
Panzer Dragoon II Zwei (SSF Emulator) - Windows 7 x64 - DTS - As I only got this game a few days ago I thought I should give it a try to experience the DTS Neo stereo upmixing. I can't say that I noticed much from the rear speakers, but the extension to the centre was noticeable which provides a more immersive frontal audio stage in my opinion.
Minecraft - Windows 7 x64 - DTS - I had to try this and I found a lot of chicken/ducks seemed to be following me, something I wouldn't have noticed before!
Finally I tried some music using DTS Neo and I have to admit it worked extremely well using the rear speakers occasionally which helped to punctuate the right parts of the music. I have no idea how they managed it but it was quite an experience.
When I eventually get a new amplifier to replace my broken machine I'll be looking for a digital input so I can easily swap between my PC speakers and Hi-Fi without having to climb under the desk to swap cables.
Before I was sure this was the correct solution for me I did investigate the possibility that my graphics card (Nvidia Geforce GTX460), as it has an HDMI connector could pass multi-channel audio. First of all I currently have no way to extract this data stream into an amplifier I own (only optical and digital coaxial input, no HDMI) and secondly I could find no means to plug the digital output from the X-Fi to the HDMI via the graphics card. As I have the sound card I can't imagine why I would want to use anything else.
The next experiment I hope to conduct with my X-Fi is to create the front panel audio connectors allowing me to purchase a headset and not annoy everyone so much on Minecraft with music and voices being retransmitted via my microphone. Unfortunately this is a much more difficult mod which is the only reason I am yet to attempt it. Although with the success of this, albeit simple cable I do feel a little more confident to investigate further as I have finally found the elusive connector, the only excuse I had not to have done it yet!