While the market is packed with add-in cards offering gaming and "multimedia" experiences, there have been very few that aspire to offer "audiophile" quality. There are very good reasons for this: the amount of rogue radio frequency present in a typical PC makes it quite difficult to turn out a hi-fi product. In an industry dedicated to making things faster and more powerful, not many companies are focused on making the computing experience "better".
But sound cards are sound cards, right? You wouldn't expect much difference between one and the other. It just works. Well, Creative would like to disagree with that.
Creative's E-mu division has a lot of experience in the pro audio field, and a lot of the technology produced there trickles down into Creative's high-end consumer audio cards, including this: the X-Fi Titanium HD.
While Auzentech and Asus have had "audiophile" cards on the market for some time, it's taken Creative quite a while to catch up. Like cards from those two manufacturers, the Titanium HD also caters to tweakers, with features like swappable op-amps enabling users to experiment with different sounds, but this isn't the most interesting thing about the card.
The Titanium HD is a high-end PCI Express x1 card, and includes features friendly to home cinemas and home recordists. Creative boasts that the Titanium has an audiophile DAC — a Burr-Brown PCM1794 according to Wikipedia — and is the first to include the THX TruStudio PC standard designed to "bring the same great audio experience found in live performances, films and recording studios to the PC". If you're looking to use this soundcard as part of a home theatre PC or as the basis for a home recording studio, then you'll be interested to know the card has two sets of dedicated stereo RCA inputs — one in and one out. The card also features an optical digital input and output, which are shared with RCA inputs. In addition, the card comes with a dedicated 3.5mm headphone jack and microphone.
Once installed into our system, and running Creative's (spotty) installation software, we pitted the Titanium HD against the on-board HD sound of an AMD motherboard (Realtek ALC1200 chipset) and a high-end Marantz NA7004 digital player.
Starting with lossless music playback, we found that the on-board sound was a bit closed vocally and overwhelmed by the bassline when we played Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand", while the Creative was a lot more even across the spectrum and sounded the way we were familiar with. However, the difference was not as night and day as we had expected.
Changing to the Marantz player using the high-quality USB input, the sound quality of the Creative card was definitely on a par, and demonstrates that the X-Fi card could easily form the centre of a digital PC system.
Games and movies were also well served by the card, with explosions and vocals rendered clearly through the headphone output and into a pair of Grado SR60s.
If you want to try your hand at music-making then the RCA inputs make it easy to connect to a mixer, which provided a low noise floor for our own recordings.
If you already have quality on-board sound based on Intel's High Definition Audio then this card may not offer a compelling reason to upgrade. However, if you're a musician or like the ability to choose your own op-amps then the Creative X-Fi Titanium HD is probably as good as discrete audio is going to get.