When Creative Labs introduced their original Sound Blaster product they managed to rally enough support to bring a greatly desired standard to the PC Audio scene. This standard gained the name "Sound Blaster Compatibility" and the term sound remained synonymous with the Creative label. Never really stepping away from the lime light in terms of product releases Creative Labs has consistently produced new and more advanced sound cards on a consistent basis which is one sign of any successful company, product releases to keep the market's interest focused on them and them alone. title.jpg (17482 bytes)

As if they were playing a strategic game of chess, Creative Labs quietly positioned their game pieces in hopes of making one major move that would send the market into a new era of sound. By acquiring a company which has often been referred to as the "Bose of the PC Speaker," Cambridge SoundWorks, Creative built the second pillar for their future knockout triumvirate. The third and final pillar, taking the load off of Creative and Cambridge SoundWorks to support the infrastructure of the triumvirate was put in place by the sound card giant's acquire of Ensoniq, the original producers of the low-cost AudioPCI sound card.

Creative's flagship sound card for quite some while was the Sound Blaster AWE64, it became the somewhat expensive standard for any PC enthusiast's ideal configuration. Breathing new life into their aging product, Creative's recently established relationship with Ensoniq proved to be a profitable one as they implemented some of Ensonic's technology into their next-generation AWE64, the AWE64D, the first Sound Blaster sound card available in a PCI interface.

At the same time Creative was introducing improved versions of the AWE64 and dropping its price, the rest of the market took the opportunity to make use of their many pawns and threaten Creative's domain. What was never taken into account is that a single well placed move can destroy eternities of actions without logic. This was made blatantly clear with Creative Lab's introduction of their Sound Blaster Live! card.

While just about every single product on the market is referred to as a "revolutionary new product" by its creators, the SB Live! actually has the potential to fulfill that one line phrase present in virtually all on-line PDF manuals on the net today. Creative Labs didn't approach the design of the SB Live! with achieving better 3D audio in mind, the obvious lack of the attention-grabber '3D' title in the product's name make it obvious that this isn't your run of the mil "look ma I can use 4 speakers" sound card, it is the Sound Blaster Live!

Airing it Live

In a recent trip to Burlingame, California, AnandTech was given a media demonstration of the capabilities of the Sound Blaster Live! card and the technology that surrounds it. Normally when a manufacturer gives a demo of their product they tend to sweeten up the system it is being demonstrated on, however when you go out to buy the card you usually don't receive all the perks of the system it was demonstrated on. It is much like being shown a house with a beautiful yard then being told that the yard doesn't come with the house at the time of the purchase. Approaching the SB Live! introduction with the attitude you should approach any manufacturer's demonstration of their product (always keep in mind that the product is average and then give it the opportunity to earn some points with you, never allow hype to build up) AnandTech received a fairly decent overview of the capabilities of the SB Live!. What makes the SB Live! what it is stem from what sets the card apart from the rest of the market, as Creative put it, the SB Live! is a total audio solution and not a single card. The demo systems Creative Labs setup for the media to take a look at weren't doctored up, they were actual SB Live! audio systems that you can go out and purchase. So what makes up the SB Live! audio system? Let's start with the card itself...

The Card

Based on the EMU10K1 Digital Signal Processor, the half length 32-bit PCI card that came out of the attractive Sound Blaster Live! packaging looks like your average PCI sound card at first. Featuring 4 gold plated output connectors on the rear panel, a midi port, 5 internal audio connectors, and a Digital I/O connector port the SB Live! makes excellent use of the small amount of real estate that is provided for on the brownish-gold printed circuit board (PCB). card.jpg (19596 bytes)

The EMU10K1 DSP which is at the heart of the SB Live! is by far the most powerful DSP available on the market. How powerful is the most powerful? Where as the "powerful" Guillemot Home Studio Pro has an on-board DSP capable of processing 50 million instructions per second (MIPS), and where as the Sound Blaster AWE64's DSP is capable of around 36 MIPS, the EMU10K1 can process around 1,000 MIPS using its 2 million transistors. Using a more complex processor for sound than we used to use in computers just a few years ago, Creative made it clear that the SB Live! would be the absolute best card on the market. The first method to achieving that status would be to make sure that all audio calculations were taken care of in the sound hardware and not unloaded onto your CPU, the EMU10K1 definitely accomplishes this with style. The processor does all sound processing at 32-bits and can produce 48kHz sound using Creative's own 8-point interpolation system. Much like Matrox G200 which performs all internal graphics calculations at a higher accuracy then dithers the final result to the requested output depth instantly improving image quality, the EMU10K1 applies the same principle to sound production resulting in instantly improved sound quality, no driver support necessary.

The card itself provides for 2 or 4 speaker output configurations, however as mentioned before the card also comes with a Digital I/O connector port on the PCB. Using the supplied cable you can attach the SB Live! to its provided daughtercard which features 5 new connectors. A midi input and output port, SPDIF in/output ports, and one last digital port for a multi-channel digital amplifier. This daughtercard extends the SB Live!'s speaker support to a full 8 speaker configuration which Creative will make available at a later date. One thing that you're going to have to get used to with the SB Live! is its future expandability, its expansion features remain unparalleled by any other card in its price range to date.

For you MIDI fans out there, the SB Live!'s 256-voice MIDI synthesis capabilities should satisfy even the greatest of PC music enthusiasts. In spite of the fact that most users that will be considering the Live! won't really take into consideration MIDI support, the support is there for those who desire/need it. If you're worried about the professional qualities of the card, a PC musician emailed me with a test to conduct on the Live! card. By running a cable between the Live!'s I/O ports and attempting to play a MIDI file while recording the playback the SB Live!'s functionality as a true tool for PC musicians. Unfortunately, like all other Creative sound cards in the past, the Live! failed the test and wouldn't allow the requested test to be conducted. Looks like you can't make a product aimed for the average gamer that also pleases the high end musician.

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