Needing little introduction, Creative Labs has been around for a long time in the PC audio industry, since basically the dawn of it all in fact. They offered first up the Sound Blaster 1.0 (CT1310/CT1320A) if memory serves, and then followed onward with a massive line of rock solid Windows based PCI, and later, PCI Express sound cards.
When these cards were combined with Creative Labs' in house technology known as EAX (or Environmental Audio), they took the gaming community by storm and fast became a gamers first choice for surround sound. This is after the latest graphics accelerator was installed, of course.
To this day the success of EAX is yet to flounder thanks very much to the strong backing of the physical hardware itself, namely the X-Fi chipset which we first took a look at a couple of years ago. At that time we were already very impressed by how it sounded, and also with the interface it offered users.
Back to the present day now and the new Titanium HD sure has a serious name as well as a serious spec sheet to match. But will this board be a better option than the hugely successful ASUS Xonar heavy hitters out there? - That remains to be seen. But with arguably a more developed and equipped chipset under the hood, things are off to a good start!
Package and Contents
- 1x Sound Blaster Titanium HD PCI Express Soundcard
- Driver/Utility CD for Windows 7, Windows Vista and XP
- Quick start guide
- 1x Stereo mini to dual RCA cable
- 2x Optical cable (for input + output digital signal)
The Sound Blaster Titanium HD comes in quite a small black box with the board itself being the feature in the centre and a little bit of silver writing to make things a bit fancy. Well, not really; to be honest we think such a high end board should be in a nicer box. It's just sort of good to be able to get that feeling as you inspect something for the first time that it is really something special, unlike all others of its kind perhaps.
Moving onto the package itself and it's not a bad one. A driver disc takes care of that side of things and a generous selection of cables are also on offer. Namely, there is the inclusion of two optical cables which is a TweakTown first; we have never seen such thoughtfulness in cabling before.
Also of note is the offer of a free copy of PowerDVD for download, which is a nice touch. Hopefully it's not a 'limited' version. Unfortunately we did not have time to download and follow up on it. It's interesting that there never seems to be any bloatware with sound cards these days (free and limited games etc), but it's a good thing as long as it keeps prices down.
Not a bad overall package, though, in terms of what's inside. It's just a bit light on for material choice and design art work, if you're looking for that sort of thing.
Speaking technically, let's start by looking at some specifications.
- RCA Line Out for audio playback up to 122dB, 24-bit/96kHz Digital-to-Analog Converters (DAC)
- RCA Line Input for recording up to 118dB, 24-bit 96kHz Analog-to-Digital Converters (ADC)
- 0.001% Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise (THD+N)
- Headphone output for audio listening up to 115dB 33 Ohms, and 117dB, 330 Ohms, at 24bit/96kHz
- Replaceable Op-amps
- Hardware-accelerated 3D positional audio and EAX 5.0 effects that provide a truly immersive experience with headphones and speakers
- Dolby Digital and DTS encoding enables one-step single-cable connection to home entertainment systems
- TOS-link optical-in/out
- 1/8" microphone-in
- 1/8" headphone jack
- Creative Alchemy™ to restore EAX and surround sound that is otherwise lost in DirectSound game titles running under Windows Vista and Windows 7
- ASIO recording support with latency as low as one millisecond with minimal CPU load
- Works with Windows Vista and Windows 7 operating systems
On paper this is the most exciting and heavily spec'd Sound Blaster that's been made to date.
The above shots give a look underneath the boards cover unit with the use of many genuine audiophile grade components. Of specific interest in this area are a couple of key component choices that really help to position the Titanium HD amongst the very best out there.
The key role of converting digital data into analog is done by the Burr-Brown PCM1794 made by Texas Instruments. This is a 24bit 192kHz DAC and has been used to great success on many high-end CD players. The choice made here is a vital one, because it affects so heavily the final output sound of the board, and it's pretty clear Creative chose carefully with this one.
Also a very important area of component choice is of course the chipset being used, and in this case it's the CA20K2 (E-MU 20K2), which is a native PCI Express solution and can also be found on the X-Fi Titanium. Also included here is 16MB of onboard RAM to help with system resource draw during gaming sessions.
The final output stage is handled by some gold plated RCA connectors which allow for either analog out to be used, or alternatively the digital in and out, but not both at the same time. Stereo mini jack connectors can also be found to allow for the connection of a Mic or headphones. It's very nice to see this choice being made over the usual pastel colored mini jacks seen previously throughout the line of Sound Blasters.
Another rather interesting feature supported by the Titanium HD is the use of swappable op amps, which can color the sound in certain ways depending on the users needs and wants. We have seen this in the past and do like it a lot in terms of the notion behind it all. The only problem is that the company's never actually included one of these 'other swappable' op amps to test with the board. So by the time we have sent away for one and got it delivered, the article would have gone to print, so to speak.
Installation & Software
The installation process for the Sound Blaster Titanium HD is much like the installation process for any PCI Express board. However, unlike some we have tested in the past, this one does not require a four pin power connection. We had the board seated in place with the installation disc running within a minute or so.
Also, unlike some other boards tested, the software package that comes with the Titanium HD is quite a large one weighing in at a bit over 200MB. Now, we can only hope that this is not going to be bloat ware at this point and that rather it's all goodies to get the new board humming along.
Below can be seen some of the audio configuration options presented the first time you start everything up.
The actual process of installing the software from the disc took a little longer than expected, and actually hung for a brief minute before completing and exciting of its own free will. Following a reboot you will be able to launch the control interface for the first time. Some images of this can be seen throughout this page.
As you can see from the screenshot above, there are three modes to choose from; either game, music and movie, or music creation. Basically put, most people will spend the majority of their time in music and movie mode and will make the change when needed to the other modes of operation to allow for specific controls and features to be accessed.
All three modes are quite attractive when being used and operate smoothly and efficiently when needed, managing to cover the wide spectrum of capabilities this board possesses by wisely splitting everything into three modes mentioned above. We really see this as being a necessary requirement at the moment with such heavily spec'd products like this.
Overall, a very smooth installation with no problems at all, but the best part is the comprehensive driver Creative has built up over the years, which while having compatibility issues in the past, surely must be one of the best in its current form.
THX True Studio is also part of the software package and comprises of some interesting processing algorithms that allow the user to expand compressed music and also to create a more true representation of what the original engineer intended.
This all sounds great in theory, as it always does, but using more processing to allow something to sound un-processed? - Well, you can insert your own metaphor for that one. It's pretty simple stuff, but that shiny THX logo on the card keeps doors revolving, so all is well in 'silicone valley'. For the record, though, the crystallizer does make a notable improvement to some compressed music depending on the damage done of course.
It's not really that the THX add-on bit is totally useless, because it can be made quite useful. No, it's more so that THX has become such a flagrant marketing tool these days that what was once a sign of true quality now only really means a deal has been struck in someone's office 'back at HQ'. Such is the suchness of life.
Testing was conducted using the Sound Blaster Titanium HD audio hardware on an AMD/ASRock Phenom dual core platform @ 3.00GHz with 2GB DDR3-1333, running Windows 7 Enterprise.
Straight up, we found that the Sound Blaster Titanium HD is truly one of the best, if not the best sounding board we have tested. Build quality is good, although we feel in this area the ASUS Xonar STX wins out by a small margin, and also in some of the choices in capacitors used, although this is fairly academic stuff in the overall wash of things.
The choice of digital to analog converter is a great one also and gives the sound a very mature vibe, which when paired with the Creative proprietary main chipset makes for an engaging audio experience.
Without a shadow of doubt one of the most impressive we have tested in recent memory. The high end has an elevated and sparkling characteristic that sounds fantastic at any volume, and even better when the volume does go up; there is not a hint of fatigue to be felt whatsoever. Symbols and guitar runs were solid and present, while never being a bourdon or requiring a quick run to the EQ.
The high end also had a very controlled nature that seemed to be able to steer everything between the markers of being present, but not overly to the point of detracting, if you get where we are coming from. It was almost as if there was a built-in compressor working away, smoothing things over to make sure that there are never any nasty spikes or deviations occuring that can make the high end sound harsh and unpleasant. Perhaps it's a couple of filtering capacitors on there helping things out; all we know is it really does sound good to the ear.
Our testing of the mid range revealed again quite impressive results with a strong centre defuse point from which to listen outwards, as explained in our last article covering the Corsair HS1 headset. Usually difficult mid range duties such as various different drum transients and the like were handled with ease by the Titanium HD, with our listening tests of a live concert track coming through in nearly full HD (720p) sounding absolutely spot on in terms of that centre frequency as well as really nice contrasting transients going on through the mid.
What we witnessed here was a very detailed and wide soundstage that just has that open relaxed feel that is instantly attractive to the ear and without doubt making anyone who loves music want to keep listening.
The low end is an interesting beast indeed with this new Sound Blaster. And to cut right down to the chase, the only area that we firstly thought could have been more refined, and secondly was in our opinion better on the Xonar Essence STX. Now, the low end is a subjective thing and certain people will enjoy a slightly more excited character to the low end, which is fine. On the positive side of the low end, bass was not at all one notey with plenty of audible changes in bass note coming through our subwoofer and main speakers.
Because this board features full support for the latest iteration of EAX, there is plenty of scope for some top notch game audio, not withstanding that Creative sell a version of this for gamers already. Even so, we see no problems with plugging in some nice headphones and having a gaming session once in a while thanks to EAX handling surround duties. The only issue with external speakers is the lack of analog outputs for rear and side speakers.
The Titanium HD has the potential to be a really good board for some casual movie viewing. However, the only issue with surround is that the lack of analog outputs for the rears requires the signal be sent externally out for decoding, which means that all the Titanium is being utilized for is a 'digital pass-through', which is a little bit of a shame. Otherwise, connect some decent stereo speakers and enjoy! - We would take a nice two channel movie experience any day over a set of cheapie surround speakers, so just enjoy that sound quality for what it is.
There is also the THX suite of different options as well, which can add to the movie experience. However, these would have to be used with a set of headphones. Creative Labs do sell boards for gaming and movies specifically, so bare that in mind please before rushing into any purchases. But if you do these things secondarily to music listening, definitely consider!
The very latest in a huge line of Sound Blaster boards, the Titanium HD is indeed the finest. And Creative should be proud of where the series has come from the days of the old SB Live! Value we had running in Windows 98, which back then was an amazing board that blew gamers away; pun intended.
So what we have in the end is truly a refined product both in terms of developed driver support, which is industry leading as far as we can see, combined with a matured piece of hardware that has withstood the test of time.
Many moons ago after we received the Essence STX from ASUS, we honestly wondered when we were ever going to say that this thing has been trumped by another sound card. The STX was that much better than anything at the time, and the build quality was in a word, brilliant. Times they do change, though, and today we feel as though that time mentioned above has indeed come.
It's only by a sparrows eyebrow mind you, but the Sound Blaster Titanium HD thanks to its bolstered driver support and truly refined high end just trickles over the line ahead. With that said, we're calling it provisional best-in-class pending an almighty response by any other company with the silly season upon us now. Anything is indeed possible.