Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How to Connect your Creative X-Fi Card to a Reciever

It sounds simple, doesn't it? It would be, except for the myriad of nuances that arise....I hope this post will help some poor troubled soul out there who is banging his head against the desk because he can't get Dolby Digital sound out of the SPDIF output on his X-Fi sound card while gaming.

My journey started here: http://hardforum.com/showthread.php?t=1447925

Apparently when using the SPDIF output only stereo sound is outputted no matter which codec was used to encode the source. You can get around this limitation by using the analog outs and connecting to the multichannel inputs on your receiver. This isn't without drawbacks - the obvious being degraded sound quality (compared to a fully digital connection) and the plethora of cables required. However, if you'd still like to go that route you can order the cables from monoprice for .76 cents a cable (http://www.monoprice.com/products/product.asp?c_id=102&cp_id=10218&cs_id=1021804&p_id=665&seq=1&format=2) If you'd like to spring for the premium version, (http://www.monoprice.com/products/product.asp?c_id=102&cp_id=10218&cs_id=1021804&p_id=5598&seq=1&format=2) be my guest, just be warned that due to the diameter of the input cable you can't fit 3 of them side by side into the back of the sound card. (which is your only option) So you'll have to work something out with extender cables.

There is however, a much better alternative which is using the SPDIF out via a coaxial cable into the digital or coaxial in on your receiver. But what about the problem I mentioned earlier in regards to only stereo sound being emitted from the SPDIF out? There is a solution. It's called the "Dolby Digital Live and DTS Connect" pack from Creative and can be yours for the low low price of $4.72.

The benefit of using the DDL & DTS Connect pack is:

  1. Uses a single digital cable connection - This ensures the integrity of the audio signal and eliminates the confusion, hassle and clutter of multiple analog and digital connections.
  2. Transforms all PC audio signals into a Dolby Digital or DTS signal - This enables playback of PC audio over millions of home theater systems equipped with Dolby Digital or DTS decoding.
  3. Optimized for low-latency interactive applications - No perceptible delay between video and audio in game play.
  4. Provide realistic 5.1-channel surround sound effects during interactive video gameplay - Immerses PC and game console players in a highly realistic game experience

Pay special attention to point number 2. This pack coverts all audio signals into Dolby Digital or DTS signals! This means we no longer have to settle for an analog connection in order to get surround sound from games.

All is great now, right? Wrong. This is where things go wrong... horribly wrong. How is it that you are now using an all digital connection but the sound quality has gotten worse? Crackling. Distortion. Screeching. It's all there... and it will make your ears cry.
I didn't really notice any problems when playing music, but when playing games the distortion was blatantly all up in my ear hole. The first game I launched was Bad Company 2 as it is known for its award winning audio design. The loading movies with the EA logo and the Dolby logo were more than my ears could stand as the distortion was unbearable. I then launched Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit as I have logged many hours with that game so I was familiar with the audio cues. Again, distortion.... horrible horrible distortion - even the little "bloop" made when switching between menu items was distorted.
After many hours googling different search terms, crawling forums and blogs.... I finally ran across the answer. Apparently the preamp out on the X-Fi when using the DDL & DTS pak is insanely high... so high that it creates distortion. This would tell the average person to turn down the volume in the audio mixer.....the only problem is that you can't control the audio level when outputting via SPDIF. Back to square one, or are we?

Finally, after all my blabbering we're to the point where we actually fix the problem. :)
Launch your Creative Audio Console and click on the EQ tab. Make sure the box labeled "Enable EQ" is checked then proceed to select the "Flat" preset at the top right. Pay close attention, this is where the secret sauce kicks in. Adjust the The "level" bar on the right is what we are using to increase or decrease the output  (or gain) of the signal. On my system the distortion was present all the way up until around a -4.5 to -5 gain so I adjusted mine to -8 just for peace of mind. 

I found the best audio cue to use was the built in "dingy bell" that is played when you test your surround sound through the sound control panel in windows. 

Good luck! Have questions, comments? Let me know below in the comments field. 

So by chance today I happened to stumble upon what is REALLY distorting the sound. The equalizer adjustments are more of a workaround.

Apparently when you output through the flexijack the volume is controlled by the "What U Hear" slider. I currently have mine set to 7 which seems to work nicely. The sound outputs loudly and is not distorted. 

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