Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB

This little beast is the Creative Digital Music Premium HD (in Australia). It’s also known as the X-Fi HD in other parts of the world. I’m going to call it the X-Fi HD for the rest of this post because it’s quicker and easier.

Creative designed this to match up with medium-high impedance audiophile headphones and I bought it to drive a set of Ultrasone HFI 680 headphones which are moderate impedance at 75 ohm and stretched the capabilities of my laptop.

My laptop is a Sony Vaio C-series with a Realtek HD onboard soundcard – not bad, but also not highly amplified. It drives my 35 ohm Audio-Technica AD900s quite well and is reasonable with my 64 ohm HiFi-Man Re0s, but it struggles mightily with the 680s.

Generally, the most obvious issue with high impedance headphones is a lack of volume, but that wasn’t where had trouble. My problems came in the form of sound quality. When auditioning the 680s I found the sound really flat and dull compared to other lower impedance headphones, but only when driven direct from the laptop. Adding an amplifier brought the 680s to life, but didn’t involve any increase in volume.

Adding the X-FI HD definitely had the desired effect. Most noticeably, the soundstage grew dramatically. Music sounds open and lively and all of the subtle details are beautifully present and clear. Basically, the only differences it makes are subtle. It doesn’t colour the sound or change it in any way, it just opens it up and lets it live.

The X-Fi HD is small and light – about 6″ x 4″ (at a guess – I haven’t measured it) and about 1 inch thick. The front has just two 6mm jacks (headphone and microphone) and a volume control. There’s a blue LED on the top at the front which shows when the X-FI is connected and when it’s muted (flashes). On the back is a mini USB socket for the data connection to your computer as well as optical in and out sockets as well as analogue lines out and in. There’s also an earth connection for turntable connections.

The software supplied with the X-Fi HD is comprehensive, but I can’t comment on its use because I’m not a fan of sound altering effects like stadium mode and jazz club mode, etc. They sound fairly convincing, but I prefer the sound to be reproduced exactly as it was recorded.

How it Performs

The X-Fi HD instantly transformed my listening experience subtly, but significantly. The soundstage got wider and the separation of sounds got better. That’s really it though. If you are using low bit rate audio (i.e. 256 kbps or less) then there’s probably not much point in buying this device, but if you’re listening to high quality audio with all of the original recording quality intact (i.e. original CDs, DVDs, or lossless audio) then the X-Fi HD could transform your computer into a top-notch source.

As a portable option for excellent, detailed and natural sound, the X-Fi HD is an awesome option for a little over $100 (in Australia). I’m not suggesting that it out-performs more expensive DACs and amplifiers, but for a low cost, portable option it will be hard to beat given that it also gives you the option to input other sources for high quality digital recording of vinyl, etc.

Some Specs

  • The X-Fi HD supports 24-bit 96Hz sound for both recording and playback.
  • Signal to noise ratio is 114dB (through headphone output)
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11 comments on “Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB

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  3. Is there any definite information on the lower threshold ofs headphone impedance? If the package say 30 ohm output and we apply the rule of 1/8 for the headphone impedance (http://nwavguy.blogspot.de/2011/02/headphone-amp-impedance.html), does that mean a 50 ohm headphone is way too low? Or does this 1/8-rule not apply here? Because I love the sound and the distribution of it, but it is also very bassy, possibly too bassy, and that’s mentioned as one indicator of way too high output (best would be zero or one for headphones lower than 100 ohm).

    • I’ve seen a lot of debate on this topic and especially around whether the 1/8 rule is a reliable indicator.

      From experience, I would always try and maximise the difference between the output and source impedance because the improvement in control is significant. That said, it needs to come down to how it sounds and the individual ratings of the headphone. Some headphones with a specified nominal impedance may have significant differences across the frequency range (i.e. much higher or lower impedance at certain frequencies) and this can influence the synergy between the phones and the amp.

      The reason it sounds more bassy is because you’re getting uncontrolled “wobble” of the driver – the amp isn’t stopping the driver as it should. So yes, I would say if there is a significant increase in bass from an otherwise uncoloured amplifier then you are probably experiencing a poor match of impedance and the associated lack of control and damping.

      In terms of output impedance on the X-Fi, it seems to be around 7 ohms so 50+ ohm headphones should fair well with it. I personally haven’t had any significant complaints with lower impedance items like IEMs, but I also don’t expect a lot for the price. It definitely does a good job of driving my 70 ohm Ultrasone HFI-680s.

  4. Thanks for the answer. If the problem can be located in the driver, could the problem be solved on the software side (by deinstalling it)?

    • I don’t believe that it’s a software issue. To my knowledge, impedance can only be created through the circuit hardware. I could be wrong on this so do some further research if you like.

      I am actually looking into alternative options for my IEMs. One option is to use an external amp directly out of my laptop’s headphone socket. The other option is the Audioquest Dragonfly which I haven’t tried yet, but have heard good things about.

      • You wouldn’t perchance know an alternative for up to twice the price, except for the popular FiiO E10 and E17, which I already tried? I’ve been trying different devices for several weeks now but they can’t really satisfy me. These latter don’t have bass (or only a “simulated” version) and no resonance or “space”, although they do have good “sound” qualities.

      • Or to be precise, I’m somewhat unsure about the E17, and am particularly unused to the “tightness” of its sound and a little annoyed by some sharpness in higher treble on only slightly loud volume, but I’m always drawn back to its great clarity. I’m well aware this might be the best I can get for the price (though I don’t think it’s small), but it’s not what I think of a perfect soundstage.

      • I’m actually looking at this myself at the moment. I’ve shortlisted the Arcam rPac and the AudioQuest Dragonfly. I’m leaning towards the Dragonfly because it doesn’t use a separate cable – it plugs directly into the USB socket. Also, from what I can tell, the Dragonfly has the capability to use 192kHz audio which I rarely use, but have a couple of tracks.

      • Thanks, but I’m very hesitant to go that high. That price range would be reserved in my mind or in my means for something more complex like a good monitor. I was actually thinking of the E17 as a limit or 150€ max. I think they could easily provide that kind of value in that price range if they wanted, considering how glaring some of the shortcomings of supposedly “cheaper” external dac/amps are. It makes a very artificial impression. The technology seems to be relatively straightforward and economical, but there are strict limitations everywhere (frequencies, soundstage, etc.) unless you go to a certain price range reserved for “enthusiasts”.

  5. Pingback: Audioquest DragonFly | Passion For Sound

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