I've been digging the net for some X-Fi gaming performance benchmarks for a while, but I wasn't able to find anything more than Creative's own benchmark done with UT 2004. So... I began my own research.
What is an X-Fi card
Creative is using the X-Fi brand for their most recent product lineup targeted to the non-professional users. Since X-Fi launch, there were two processors capable of hardware acceleration: CA20K1 (a.k.a. EMU20K1), followed few years later by CA20K2 (a.k.a. EMU20K2). CA20K1 processor seems to be 24 times faster than the previous generation's processor (Audigy). A major difference between Audigy and X-Fi is the effects processor sampling rate and number of bits for audio resolution. Audigy was able to apply sound effects only at 48kHz/16 bit, so if the source signal wasn't 48kHz/16 bit, it needed to be resampled, and the resampling operation generates intremodulation distortion. CA20K1 is used in the first generation of X-Fi sound cards, connected through PCI slots, while CA20K2 is used on PCI Express based variants, Titanium family. Being a revised chipset, CA20K2 also fixes the 'Sound crackling and popping' issues.
But... these processors are not included in all X-Fi products. For example, the cheapest sound card from Creative branded X-Fi is 'X-Fi Extreme Audio', a card which looks like the previous generation cheap card, Audigy SE. It has a PCI Express counterpart, but this cannot accelerate in any way audio processing. This does not mean that X-Fi Extreme Audio is using an older processor for hardware acceleration, it means that Audigy SE does not use hardware acceleration at all. Since I wanted a card with hardware accelerated DSP/processing I've decided that a card from the X-Fi Titanium family should be enough for me, and I wanted to have available the 'Crystalyzer'.
After few days using it on a Logitech Z2300 speaker system, I wasn't sure if the sound quality was superior or below onboard ALC889 when listening music and/or watching movies, and googling over the net showed me that it's the DAC the most important chip, that Auzentec X-Fi prelude is better than X-Fi Titanium, that Asus Xonar D2X has superior DAC, that EAX is dying, and many things which made me ask myself if the X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty is worth the money. In fact, EAX is not dying, but Creative is implementing EAX on vista through OpenAL extensions.
So i decided to measure gaming performance improvement on Unreal Tournament 3, a game which is using OpenAL, comparing X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty gaming performance with onboard audio provided by an ALC889 chip. Since I didn't have another sound card for comparision, the results are limited, but I found some convincing results. If anyone do think that there are cards not using X-Fi CA20K2 with better performance, I accept him/her sending me such a card for performance comparision.
My test configuration:
- Intel Core2 Duo E8400 @ 3.0 GHz, FSB 1333 (333 QDR)
- Intel Core2 Duo E8400 @ 3.6 GHz, FSB 1600 (400 QDR)
Motherboard: Gigabyte EP45-UD3P
Mem: 4 GB DDR2/800
Graphics card: ATI Radeon HD 3870 from Gigabyte, Catalyst 9.6
- onboard ALC889
- Creative X-Fi Titanium, using drivers from june 2009
My tests were made with the UT3 Benchmark tool from Guru3D, with DirectX10, max quality, sound on, max display resolution (1440 x 900). I did 5 runs of DM-ShangriLa map, without bots, with each card. After the first set of results, I've overclocked the CPU to 3.6 GHz, and I did a second set of benchmark runs. The average FPS are shown below.
X-Fi Titanium vs. Onboard Realtek 889 benckmark results
So far, I can tell that there is a 15% FPS gain only by using X-Fi Titanium instead ALC-889, and another important thing is that there is a higher performance gained overclocking the CPU when using X-Fi, since the CPU soes not need to handle all the workload needed for rendering audio.
I tought that, these days, the CPU power needed by audio on games is negligible, but I was wrong. Games using UT3 engine and/or OpenAL need a lot of CPU cycles to render audio, and using a hardware accelrated platform does squeeze maximum performance from other subsystems such as CPU and graphics card. In my test configuration, all the time when I ran the benchmarks, the CPU usage was 100%, making a CPU the limiting factor on this case. So, overclocking the CPU or using some hardware acceleration would help increasing gaming performance.
Doing some math, results that I need to overclock a Core2Duo by 0.6 x 4 = 2,4 GHz to release from the CPU the workload needed by audio processing in the same way X-Fi does in hardware with it's CA20K2, only to gain the same 15% FPS improvement. Also, I achived a higher framerate increase by overclocking when I used X-Fi, by 7.42%, which twice the gain achieved by overclocking the CPU and using onboard ALC889. Combining using an X-Fi Titanium instead onboard audio with some light overclock yelds a total framerate increase by 23,99%, which I consider 'high performance improvement' and 'worthy'.
That degree of performance increase may not be noticed by someone using a high clocked quad core CPU, but it does a big difference when the CPU has some limits, and such improvements cannot be achieved by overclocking. I can say that X-Fi titanium Fatal1ty does worth the money, and probably any CA20K2 X-Fi based sound card does, especially for gamers wanting to squeeze the maximum FPS from their platform, including those using the latest CPUs. But keep in mind another important thing: Unreal Tournament 3 engine is using OpenAL for audio rendering, and games using software for rendering cannot benefit from the acceleration provided by X-Fi, using only the CPU for this task.