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The heart of Creative's new initiative is the X-Fi audio processor. The processor has been in development for four years and the company had invested close to $100 million in R&D. The X-Fi chip itself has 51.1 million transistors, 10 times more than Creative's previous chip, the 4.6 million transistor Audigy audio processor.
Creative plans on using all that processing power with two new, power-hungry audio processing technologies: the 24-bit Crystalizer and CMSS-3D. Creative's 24-bit Crystalizer technology is designed to address the basic problem of a fancy 24-bit sound card going to waste when the CD and MP3 audio input quality is only 16 bit. Creative's solution is to transform that 16-bit stream into full 24-bit audio by analyzing the data and restoring all the information that was originally removed when the audio was compressed to 16 bit in the studio. Granted, the restoration isn't perfect, but we know enough about the studio compression process to intelligently bring back the missing highs and lows, and return some texture to the midrange.
After using the X-Fi to listen to audio with the 24-bit Crystalizer, we will have a very hard time going back to plain old 16-bit, 44.1kHz. We listened to several MP3s and CDs using the 24-bit Crystalizer and songs did sound much better with it enabled--like having the equalizer settings optimized, but much better. The 24-bit Crystalized songs became more vibrant, and disabling the feature felt like we were crippling the audio. The X-Fi menu lets you enable or disable the Crystalizer, and there's also a slider setting that lets you adjust the degree of the effect (we kept ours pegged at 100 percent).
CMSS-3D works with headphones, two-channel speakers, and multichannel speaker setups. CMSS-3D is actually a collection of several different algorithms, since the listening experience varies greatly between speaker setups, even between a pair of headphones and a pair of speakers. The CMSS-3D headphone algorithm uses HRTF filters and simulated room reflections to create a surround-sound effect from a stereo output. CMSS-3D does the same for a two-speaker system (without the virtual room reflections), but if you already have a 5.1 speaker system, CMSS-3D can upmix a stereo recording up to six channels to make sure your speaker system doesn't go to waste. Creative is also currently developing X-Fi-branded speakers and headphones that will have built-in X-Fi technology that can process normal, incoming audio streams and enhance audio on the fly.