IntroductionAuzentech are based out of San Jose California, known for their work developing the world's first Dolby Digital Live sound card and also the world's first DTS connect board. "Since the creation of Auzentech, Inc, our goal has been and will remain to create, produce and distribute the finest sound products in the world." - Stephane Bae, President, Auzentech Inc.I had not previously heard of this company or the work it has done in the PC audio field, however upon doing a little reading, things do indeed look quite promising. The company has a fantastic website with lots of handy information on its product range and also the individual components used in each board which is a nice touch, I think.
Setup and Technical Overview
Setup and Technical Overview
Installation of this board went very smoothly indeed. Once a suitable PCI slot is located and the card is seated, it's simply a process of running the drivers through windows and you're all done. Upon installation of the board and drivers it's time to connect your speaker system and also any other gear situated in your work area that requires audio. This job is made easy via the wide selection of outputs and inputs located on the rear of the board, seen just below.
From a technical point of view we understand that Auzentech have fully licensed Creative labs' X-Fi chip onto their own proprietary circuit board design. So what does that mean? Well it means arguably the world's fastest and most advanced audio processing at the average consumers reach right now, with upcoming driver support for Dolby Live, DTS interactive and since we have a Creative chip, the very latest in EAX surround technology.Okay, technically we have 24-bit/96k straight down the line-in and out through all 7.1 channels as well as the digital pathways; not a bad start. Next we have super low latency ASIO 2.0 support for the smallest of real time delays when recording, and 64MB of on board RAM to ease the strain a little. This is something I have personally never seen on a sound card before, very cool.Rounding out the package, we get swappable OPAMP connectors I assume to upgrade the amplified analog outs with components sourced from Auzentech's aftermarket catalog; a very interesting upper-echelon feature to include for a general consumption board. All necessary software including drivers for XP/Vista are also included.
Signal to noise ratio is well up there with my Xonar and should provide little noise if any at all. Total harmonic distortion figures are good, and once again are on par with the Xonar.This board is also loaded with a very nice selection of chips, each with its own specific job to do down the signal path. Another interesting feature I touched on earlier is the inclusion of 64MB of RAM on the card to aid with intense surround audio processing during gaming.
Control and Playback Features
Control and Playback Features
The software included with the Prelude is quite intuitive and features three different control skins, depending on your needs. The user either selects the mode for gaming and entertainment, or music production. The decision to make individual operation modes for the control centre greatly cuts down on clutter and allows for a slick and easy to learn interface.One of the more interesting features is the X-Fi Crystallizer which is a native feature of the chip implemented to give greater dynamic range to audio that might be victim to heavy compression. I found this to enhance bass response very well and to also give a smoother warmer midrange to the audio. I cannot speak highly enough of this handy little tool.We also get a compressor built in to the entertainment mode which is called smart volume management, and this limits dynamic range to allow for greater playback volumes on tracks which may be lacking in gain; really handy to have.Naturally we are also given the latest EAX algorithms for a vast selection of surround FX and environments to play with; more of a gamers feature than anything, but can be fun to play with too.We are also given CMSS-3D surround which can up-mix any two channel signal to match the surround system being used. So, even with 7.1 and only a two channel signal, CMSS will make sure every last speaker comes to life.I really like this control center, more than any other I have used before in fact. Although it hogs RAM, it does a great job at displaying all of the many capabilities of this board.
Let's Fire It Up
Let's Fire It Up
My test bed is currently running an ASUS Xonar alongside the Auzentech board for quick comparison between the two.I am using an external CD player running digitally from itself to the Prelude via coax, and then out again via toslink optical (24-bit/96k) to my Logitech control centre. What this really means is I'm using an external device to test the card as opposed to an internal optical drive, and that I'm doing it 100% digitally.
Above is an image of the provided toslink optical cable which is used between the card and my Logitech control centre. Also included are two adapters that convert the coax ports on the card to toslink optical. The Sample rate is selected via the control panel with either 96k or 48k to choose from, although as I have mentioned before, other factors affect the actual real world sample rate aside from the choice made here.
Testing the X-Fi Prelude 7.1
Testing the X-Fi Prelude 7.1
Playback of audio via this connection method proved itself to be very respectable indeed. There is clearly a hallmark of quality components used in the construction of the board, as I found the signal to be clean, clear and punchy without lots of noticeable digital compression. This would be an ideal way to configure your setup for music digitally while leaving the Preludes analog ports wide open for other uses.So, initially we know that the Prelude has a good digital pathway that is very capable of sending a high quality (up to 96k) digital signal where ever you want it. Now, let's have a shot at music testing which should give a very solid indication as to where the Prelude stands. As mentioned above, my direct comparisons are made against my Xonar 7.1 sound card which is without doubt one of the Preludes toughest competitors right now.My first impressions were good with a very noticeable notch up from the low-end after swapping from the Xonar. Not only did the low-end sound a lot beefier, it had a lot more character to it; more warmth and depth. Now, I'm not sure how or why the low-end had been tweaked like this, but it certainly makes for a strong impression. However, if things get a bit too much down there, you can always use the quick access bass control on the front of the control suite to attenuate things to personal taste.I also found the midrange to generally possess a lot of warmth and clarity aided by the very cool crystallizer when used, but also no less respectable when not in use. Mid-range transients were well reproduced and overall I found the middle to be very warm and inviting, less clinical than the Xonar with more mid-bass and timbre to the sound. To carry on the statements made with regard to the mids, I found high-end reproduction to be of high-standard providing clear sparkling treble to blend seamlessly with the midrange tones. Even when the treble dial starts to slide up, things do not deteriorate at all, again demonstrating the high-quality pathways being used here.To offer a summary to the statements made regarding musical nonce; I have over the last few weeks during testing grown very fond of the warm lush audio being processed by this card, and must say that from the perspective of a music listener this is a great card with a heap of functionality to offer and sound quality that is simply that; quality.Gaming and DVD UseAt the time of writing, Auzentech are working on a driver revision with full Dolby support along with DTS surround to boot. So at this stage I cannot really make a full assessment of the card in this area; only to offer the same positive comments made just above regarding music playback. I had some problems with the updating of some drivers, but this was no doubt due to a windows issue. I have no reason at this stage not to recommend Auzentech's drivers.
Gaming support is complete here because it's a Creative chip being used, buyers will reap all the many benefits of EAX in its latest 5.0 incarnation. This is one area the Xonar gets left in the dust, as it only supports EAX 3.0. It's clearly not going to be the gamers' first port of call.To conclude, while I was not able to test movie playback with Dolby support included, all of the positive comments made above apply here in totality to the audio integrity of this board. And when matched with total support for EAX 5.0 with 64MB of RAM to aid the course, things become very attractive indeed. I have found performance to be solid right across the deck on all fronts, music, games and video.
Well, I never thought Creative would let another company use their proprietary technology, but I guess I was wrong and Creative knew what Auzentech could do to improve on an already proven design.The Prelude 7.1 is not just a bare bones Creative X-Fi based solution to nudge the margins a little for the company, it's being designed by Auzentech from the ground up to be a value solution that offers the fidelity of the X-Fi chip without the staggering software suite that Creative bundle with their products which inevitably pushes prices up and up. Instead, we have a slick, slimmed down product with all the good bits minus the heavy price. A fantastic product indeed, and well worthy of the TweakTown Editors Choice award.
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James has been interested in all types of audio for the last 6 years or so. He began as a moderator at the very well respected 3dsoundsurge forums. From there he was offered a spot testing Philips Acoustic Edge sound cards in beta form. He then began writing for Hardavenue, which lasted about three years before it was acquired by Tweak Town Pty Ltd. For the past nine months, James has attended the SAE (School of Audio Engineering) institute in South Melbourne, Australia. He handles all of our sound card and speaker product reviews with very knowledgeable and in-depth analysis.
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