Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live!

EAX and 3D Sound

With the increasingly popularity of 3D sound support in games and Microsoft’s inclusion of DirectSound 3D in DirectX, Creative Labs decided to develop their own 3D sound API, EAX (Environmental Audio Extensions). Essentially, sound environments are created with the use of sound sources and effects that are processed in real-time using the powerful EMU10K1 SBLive! processor. Using a 4 speaker system, sound sources can be placed in a 3D space with effects such as reverberations added to simulate certain environments (for example a cave, tunnel, auditorium, etc.)

EAX Realism

For subjective hearing tests, we tested EAX with two games that supported it: Unreal Special Edition and Half-life. With a 4 speaker set-up, the 3D sounds were quite amazing. In both Unreal and Half-Life, we were able to pinpoint the location of the monsters and other sound sources without looking at the screen. In addition, we could quite easily distinguish between different environments.

EAX vs. A3D

One of the great debates occuring in 3D audio is whether EAX or Aureal’s 3D audio extension, A3D, is better. The philosophies behind A3D and EAX are at 2 different ends of the spectrum. Whereas A3D advocates total accuracy and complexity, EAX backs a simpler “simulation” model. With A3D, a physical model of the environment must be constructed just as with normal visual 3D models in the application. This allows for accurate 3D sounds as the sounds are essentially “rendered” in the environment according to acoustic physics. Hence, reflections off walls that are closer will sound different than reflections that occur further away. EAX, on the other hand, only simulates the effects of environments using real-time effects such as reverberations.

From the point of view of the game developer, EAX is much simpler to implement. As opposed to constructing a physical model (which takes a great deal of time), EAX just requires the game developer to set the sources of the sounds and apply “effects” to simulate the surrounding environment. But which one sounds better? After closely listening the differences between A3D and EAX, HardwareCentral found that A3D was much more immersive than EAX. While EAX effects sometime sounded “canned”, A3D always sounded very accurate for the physical environment. In addition, while EAX requires the use of 4 speakers to simulate 3D space, A3D only requires 2 speakers. While the 2 speaker A3D setup is slightly inferior to a 4 speaker EAX setup, A3D eclipses EAX when used in conjunction with earphones.

 

What You Get

Inside the Box

  • SB Live! sound card
  • Digital I/O daughter card
  • Digital I/O daughter card connector cable
  • Microphone
  • Software and drivers

With the Soundblaster Live!, you get basically any feature that you could ask for in a sound card. The SBLive! allows you to play multiple WAV streams, which is only a fairly recent innovation in the Soundblaster product line. It also boasts wave-table synthesis, as well as Creative’s Soundfont technology, which allows the user to load digital audio for use in midi files. All in all, the SBLive! has a very complete set of features.

SBLive! Vs. SBLive! Value Edition

SB Live! comes in 2 flavors, the “regular” edition being the SBLive! and the lower-end edition being the “value” edition. So what are the differences between the $199 regular edition SBLive! and the $99 value edition? Apart from the separate daughter card that houses digital inputs, which is only found on the regular edition, both have essentially the same features with a few subtle differences. The first of these is the surround sound support. With the SBLive! you get Dolby Digital 5.1 as well as 7.1 surround sound. The second difference is that the SBLive! value edition comes standard with normal connectors, while those found on the regular edition are gold-plated for higher sound quality. Lastly, the regular edition comes with the high-end sound software packages Cakewalk Gold Express, Sound Forge XP and Mixman Studio.

 

Installation

NT 4.0 Service Pack Users Beware!

When we first installed the SBLive! on Windows NT 4.0, we were unaware of the installation problems that we would have to face. It was not until after the installation we discovered that the version of the NT drivers which came with the SBLive! were incompatible with NT Service Pack 4. After installing the SBLive! on NT 4.0 with Service Pack 4 and rebooting, the system would not load! Instead, NT froze at the green logon screen and would not continue. The only solution we found was a system reinstallation. Apparently, Creative Labs has just released a new driver (December 22nd) to “Improve the performance of your Sound Blaster Live! on Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 4 with the latest Enhancements from Live!”. In other words, Creative now has a driver that actually works with NT Service Pack 4 and doesn’t corrupt your system in the process of installation.

Windows 98

The Windows 98 installation of the SBLive! was much smoother. After installing the card into a free PCI slot and inserting the drivers CD, we were prompted with a standard install sequence. Following the installation, the system was rebooted and we were on our way, with no problems at all.

 

Conclusion

Pros:

  • Exceptionally high quality sound
  • Direct3D and EAX support
  • Support for up to 32 digital audio streams (3D as well)
  • Packed with features

Cons:

  • High price for regular edition
  • Driver issues with NT

With the SB Live!, you get exceptional sound quality and a great set of features. The EAX 3D sound support of the SBLive! also adds another dimension to sound support. For acoustic enthusiasts, the “regular” edition of the SBLive! is definitely a great buy with its variety of high-end digital inputs. However, for normal users and gamers, the $99 SB Live! Value┬áis probably your best bet. In conclusion, whether you are sound fanatic, a normal computer user, or a gamer, the Soundblaster Live! is a great deal.

 

Ludo Morgan
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