Soundlblaster Live! Value
 

Introduction
Beginning with the Sound Blaster 16, Creative has steadily provided solid hardware platforms for PC audio. Although a bit slow on the uptake to PCI audio, their sound cards reigned supreme for one simple reason - compatibility. I have been somewhat reticent about doing sound card reviews for pretty much the same reason. For Super 7 systems PCI sound cards have been a seemingly endless source of problems, and with advances in 3D sound technology and sound card bus mastering, have presented some problems for non-Intel platform systems. There was, for a time, no end to the difficulties users experienced when balancing both AGP video and PCI sound on many a super7 PC. Having found a truly stable AGP video platform with the release of 3dfx' Voodoo3 graphics cards, I now feel the waters are safe enough to wade right in to both 3D audio and PCI sound. The first of several PCI sound cards we'll be looking at over the next month or two, Creative's SoundBlaster Live! Value seems to offer and excellent balance of price, performance and compatibility. Coupled along with a rather impressive software bundle the Live! Value has a lot to offer and a lot to cover. So please, as this is the first sound card review I've attempted, bear with me if I ramble a bit.

Overview
Although it's true that graphics cards and CPU garner the most media focus, a true multimedia PC is quite capable, with the right hardware, of producing incredibly good sound quality. Unfortunately this area seems to have been rather overlooked by the industry big boys for a long time now. If you own a proprietary PC (Dell, Gateway, Compac, etc.) that's a year or more old, you, no doubt, have been saddled with a set of cheesy speakers and a plain Jane audio card (PCI or ISA). Multimedia programmers have been working hard to improve your PC gaming etc. experience both visually and audile as well. So if you are still hearing your multimedia applications through an old SB16 sound card, you're missing a good part of the action.

The Live! Value support Creative's open standard API known as Environmental Audio Extensions (EAX). Similar to, but less complex than Aureal's A3D, EAX is an extension of DirectSound3D, Microsoft's audio API that is part of the DirectX game-programming environment. DirectSound3D controls the position and orientation of sound sources and the listener in the virtual 3D world of the game. For example, if a game uses DirectSound3D, it can create a separate sound source for everything within the game that's capable of making sounds, and provide perceived locations for each of these sounds. These sound sources can move through the 3D world just as you, the game player, who hears the sources. Developers can use DirectSound3D to control nuances of a sound source such as the direction pattern (the source can emit a stronger sound in one direction than another) and Doppler effect (rising pitch as a moving sound source approaches the listener and dropping pitch as it departs).

EAX takes DirectSound3D a step further by creating a programmable virtual world around the sound sources and the listener -- a virtual audio environment. It provides additional texture by simulating the way sound bounces and reverberates from the virtual surfaces within the given environment. The reflections and reverberation provide audio cues to the listener about the nature of the surroundings -- the size of the room, the reflective quality of the walls, and more. Game programmers can use the EAX API to easily set different acoustics for different places or rooms. For example, a gamer playing an EAX-enhanced game can hear the change of acoustics when walking from a hall into a large room and from a wooden floor to a carpeted surface.

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Packaging
Having purchased the OEM version of the Live card, I was pleased to see that along with the drivers, Creative included a wide variety of sound utilities as well as a few toys. Creative PlayCenter™, an integrated multimedia player that allows you to play media files of virtually any format. Creative Launcher™, a task bar that quickly launches frequently used applications, Creative AudioHQ™, a a control panel applet that allows you to customize every aspect of the Sound Blaster Live! product. Rhythmania™, an interactive auto-accompaniment application that allows you to create music along with music sequencing presets. Keytar™, a virtual rhythm guitar console that enables you to pluck and strum tunes with mouse and keyboard and there's even more. but we won't be focusing too much on the software aspects. While the accompanying drivers are quite good, to get the most out of the Live! Value, the first thing you must do is hit Creative's web site to download the latest Live!Ware 2.0. Live!Ware 2.0 includes an enhanced 3D Audio Engine, which allows you to distinctly experience discrete 3D audio sources. With support for 3D audio elevation, planes flying overhead actually sound like they're coming from above. You will also be able to experience the Occlusion and Obstruction Effects offered with EAX 2.0 support, enabling you to distinguish a sound distinctly coming from behind an obstacle or even another room. The Live!Ware 2.0 is a cumbersome download of around 28MB but I found the added enhancements well worth the effort.

Live! Value Features

Wave-Table Synthesis

E-mu ® Systems EMU10K1 music synthesis engine
64-voice polyphony with E-mu’s patented 8-point interpolation technology
Hundreds of voices of polyphony PCI wave-table synthesis
48 MIDI channels with 128 GM & GS-compatible instruments and 10 drum kits
Uses SoundFont ® technology for user-definable wave-table sample sets; includes 2MB, 4MB, and 8MB sets
Load up to 32MB of samples into host memory for professional music reproduction

Effects Engine

E-mu Systems EMU10K1 patented effects processor
Supports real-time digital effects like reverb, chorus, flanger, pitch shifter, or distortion across any audio source
Capable of processing, mixing, and positioning audio streams using up to 131 available hardware channels
Customizable effects architecture allows audio effects and channel control
Full digital mixer maintains all sound mixing in the digital domain, eliminating noise from the signal
Full bass, treble, and effects controls available for all audio sources


Environmental 3D Positional Audio Technology

User-selectable settings are optimized for headphones and two or four speakers
Accelerates Microsoft ® DirectSound ® and DirectSound 3D
Support for Environmental Audio ™ property set extensions
Creative Multi Speaker Surround ™ technology places any mono or stereo sound source in a 360° audio space
Creative Environments––user-selectable DSP modes that simulate acoustic environments like hall, theater, club, etc., on any sound source


32-Bit Digital Audio Engine

User-selectable bit rates from 8-bit to 16-bit
User-selectable sample rates from 8kHz to 48kHz
All sound sources are handled with 32-bit precision for highest quality output
Analog and Digital I/O modes supported
Hardware full-duplex support enables simultaneous record and playback at 8 standard sample rates
Utilizes AC97 audio CODECs


MIDI Interface/Joystick Port
Supports MPU-401 UART mode
IBM ® compatible 15-pin joystick port with analog support
Support for digital and DirectInput ™ game devices


On-Board Connectors

Microphone in & Digital (SPDIF) CD in
Line in & Telephone Ans. Device in
Line out (front) & Line out (rear)
Joystick port & MPC-3 CD Audio in
Auxiliary in


Platforms

Windows ® 95 & PCI 2.1 compliant
Windows 98 & Sound Blaster PCI
Windows NT ® 4.0 & Environmental Audio Extensions
General MIDI & Microsoft DirectSound ®, MPC-3 DirectSound 3D and derivatives
& Plug-and-Play


Installation and Setup

The included manual should provide all you need to easily install the Live! Value PCI card although I did run into some problem trying to determine how to correctly hook-up the digital (SPDIF) CD connector so that both the sound card and DVD decoder could take the best advantage of the Live! Value card. Using the included CD you can set up all of the drivers and included applications until such time as it is convenient for you to download the Live!Ware 2.0 update. I was replacing a Creative AWE64 card and migration to the new drivers went off without a hitch. After hooking up my Altec Lansing ACS 45.1 speakers the first day, I was so impressed that I had to rush out and purchase another pair of speakers so that I could experience all the card had to offer.

Sound Quality and Performance
To really take advantage of the new card you'll need a minimum of 32MB of system memory but 64MB is better, and the specs call for at least a Pentium class 166MHz or higher CPU. An additional set of speakers is also a must for the most out of the Live! Value's sound capabilities. The EMU10K1 DSP (processor), with it's 2 million transistors, capable of 1000 MIPS, takes virtually all of the sound processing load off of your CPU but you most likely won't notice much if any increase in performance as that load is pretty minimal except in 3D audio enhanced gaming applications. My only frame of reference for determining the quality of 3D enhanced audio is from the few mainboards I've reviewed that have implemented it on-board. The best of these, so far, has been the Iwill LE370 mainboard which comes with Aureal's AU8808B2 audio chip. While I thought that the sound from that system board excellent, it cannot begin to compare with what the Live! Value equipped with Live!Ware 2.0 seems to achieve. This is probably due on my part with the fondness I feel for the programmable environmental qualities of the Live Value card. And, my experience with programming the audio environments has barely scratched the surface of this card and drivers capabilities. I was somewhat amazed that all of the hum and static that I used to equate with line noise coming from my speakers power transformer seemed to completely disappear. Much of this was, I have come to learn was due to the analog audio cable located between my earlier sound card, the DVD decoder card and DVD drive. Moving away from an analog connector to a digital SPDIF connector has an amazing effect on the CD and DVD audio tracks overall sound quality as well. Using the SPDIF connector means that you are using the digital-to-analog converter on the Live! Value card rather than the one that comes on-board the DVD drive and the Live! DAC is far superior. I should also mention that the Live! Value's line-in quality outshines that of the AWE64 as well. Using Dragon System's Naturally Speaking I was amazed to see that the audio setup wizard finally approved my microphone's audio rather than all of those annoying "Below Normal" ratings I used to get. Unfamiliar as I am with all of the properties that need to be covered in regards to benchmarking a PC/Audio subsystem I present the following using Ziff-Davis' Audio Winbench 99. The scores reflected are the average of three runs of the test.

Test Configuration for Creative SoundBlaster Live! Value

Mainboard Iwill XA100 Plus
Chipset Ali Aladdin V
L2 Cache 512kb PBSRAM
Processor AMD K6-III 400MHz
Memory 1x64MB PC100
Corsair CM 654S64-BX2
Hard Drive Quantum Fireball EX
6.4G Ultra ATA/33
Graphics Adapter 3dfz Voodoo3 2000 16MB AGP
Operating System Windows 98

Table of Results

Ziff-Davis Audio Winbench 99 CPU Usage in %
DirectSound CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Static:Hardware Voices 32
DirectSound CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Static:Voice 8  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Static:Voice 16  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Static:Voice 32  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Streaming:Hardware Voices 32
DirectSound CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Streaming:Voice 8  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Streaming:Voice 16  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Streaming:Voice 32  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Static:Hardware Voices 32
DirectSound CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Static:Voice 8  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Static:Voice 16  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Static:Voice 32  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16bit, Streaming:Hardware Voices 32
DirectSound CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16bit, Streaming:Voice 8  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16bit, Streaming:Voice 16  0
DirectSound CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16bit, Streaming:Voice 32  0
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Static:Hardware Voices 32
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Static:Voice 8  2.01
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Static:Voice 16  2.1
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Static:Voice 32  3.68
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Streaming:Hardware Voices 32
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Streaming:Voice 8  1.95
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Streaming:Voice 16  2.12
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 22 kHz, 8 bit, Streaming:Voice 32  3.75
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Static:Hardware Voices 32
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Static:Voice 8  1.97
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Static:Voice 16  2.1
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Static:Voice 32  3.7
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Streaming:Hardware Voices 32
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Streaming:Voice 8  2.01
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Streaming:Voice 16  2.07
DirectSound3D CPU Util, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, Streaming:Voice 32  3.7

Super7 System Compatibility
New hardware often brings some unusual problems to the table for super7 users. I tried the Live! Value card on 2 different mainboards (two different chipsets) with different video cards and found some interesting and sometimes unresolvable conflicts. I put each system setup through four different game sequences - Unreal, Quake II, SiN. and Forsaken and drew the following conclusions - and I am sure that there are many that I didn't get. I don't have the time or inclination to explain every problem but I post them so that you may get an idea of some of the conflicts you may run across.

System Board/Graphics Card Unreal (D3D) Quake II SiN Forsaken
EPoX EP-MVP3G Diamond Viper 330 OK OK OK OK
  Matrox Millennium G200 Static Lockups Static OK

Chipset

Creative Blaster Banshee OK OK OK OK

VIA MVP3

AOpen PA70 Savage3D Static Lockups Lockups Static
  Diamond Viper 550 Lockups Lockups Lockups OK
  3dfx Voodoo3 2000 OK OK OK OK
Iwill XA100 Plus Diamond Viper 330 OK OK OK OK
  Matrox Millennium G200 Static Lockups Static Lockups
Chipset Creative Blaster Banshee OK OK OK OK
Ali Aladdin V AOpen PA70 Savage3D Static Lockups Lockups Static
  Diamond Viper 550 Lockups Lockups Lockups OK
  3dfx Voodoo3 2000 OK OK OK OK

Conclusion
The heat's been on for some time for your sound card buying dollar and as this is my first sound card review I would certainly be somewhat remiss in stating that the quality of the Live! Value is unbeatable.  I will however wholeheartedly pass the Super7 Award to the quality of the sound that the card puts out, the software bundle, documentation and ease of installation of Creative's SoundBlaster Live! Value audio expansion card. As to the conflicts you may encounter, a lot will depend on your other components.  For instance, on the Iwill XA100 Plus, many of the problems exhibited using the Matrox graphics card were overcome by disabling AGP x2 and bus mastering on the G200 card and disabling DMA on the HDD and CD-ROM.  These fixes came at cost in performance.   The Viper 550's problems were overcome on both systems by slowing down L2 cache and system memory accesses, changing the modem's IRQ, and disabling the DMA for only the CD-ROM.  What I'm trying to put across is that, for the most part, conflicts were correctable in almost every case.  It will have to remain with you to determine the importance of high quality sound.  I am happy to report that the V3 card, the Banshee and Riva 128 based boards had no problems whatsoever.

I have to say that I so enjoy my PC's new-found audio capabilities that I would be genuinely reluctant to ever go back to my old AWE64 (a sound card that I used to consider first rate) and I can hardly wait to get my hands on more of the new PCI hardware audio accelerators

For more on the SoundBlaster Live! and Live! Value as well as other sound cards, check out Creative's web site at http://www.soundblaster.com

May 24, 1999

 
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