Sunday, December 31, 2006

Review: Creative Live! 24-bit External Sound Card

This USB sound card, model SB0490, is apparently intended for use with high-end multimedia computers feeding home theaters with surround sound and subwoofers. It comes in a neat little silver box about the size of a Palm Pilot, with two handy volume pots on top (one for mike, other for speaker output and incorporating an instant mute switch). There are inputs for mike and line, and outputs for several different speaker configurations. These include DIN, digital, optical, headphones (thank goodness!), surround, and the standard 2-channel or 2.1 amplified computer speaker system with subwoofer. There's also an IR port for a remote control (not included).

I got interested in the unit when it was recommended by the company making SkySweeper as by far the best performing with their software. None of the stores around here ever heard of the thing, but a quick trip to Amazon turned up a good price (US $44) from The order was picked the same day, despite it being the Friday before Christmas, and arrived by UPS in a timely manner the week after.

I am told that refurbished units are available from Creative, with warranty, for around $25 US.

Once you get the plastic box open (I used a razor knife, a new blade, and lots of caution), there's the card in its little case, the quick start guide, a CD with drivers and other goodies for Mac and that other system out there, a USB cable, and a DIN cable for home theaters. You open up the quick start guide fearing the worst.

However, step one is to insert one end of the cable in the sound card, and the other in a free USB port on your machine (not a hub). No wall wart needed, as the power comes from the computer, which (if you're running a decent OS like XP) should find it right off. Step two is to install the drivers, a media center/player type of app, and (for Windoze) the appropriate version of DirectX. You don't have to install the player, but since I love to push every button on new software, I did.

Step three is to enable DMA and digital CD playback on your computer. Since XP has these both on by default, for me there was no step three. I was up and going.

I gave the player a nice music file with a known high quality that I'd been listening to for Christmas. It had sounded good, but now it sounded better, especially with the digital reverb and enhanced stereo off. It wasn't going to blow away a rack of vacuum tube gear from a good vinyl playback into studio-grade speakers, but then what does? This little box sings.

Even without the inputs padded down with caps, it took some real doing to find the noise floor. I forgot exactly where I measured it, but it probably met the claimed -100 dB. This is way, way cleaner than you'll ever get inside a computer case full of EM fields. Distortion is also way down, due possibly to the 24-bit processing.

Of course I tried SkySweeper, but it had worked well on my old card, so there wasn't much to test. Conditions weren't very good, and noise was up, making too many variables. DGPS, which is less subject to the ionosphere's bad moods, was worse until everything got tweaked in. Then it was detectably better, with fewer missed messages.

For a real test, I fired up the commercial PC-HFDL, which either likes your sound card or it doesn't. It had never liked the internal ones on my last two computers, making the program largely useless. It liked the SB Live! just fine, though. The screen filled right up, with lists of planes quickly appearing down the right. In fact, this might be a marriage made in heaven. This hardware and software really get along. The only problem is that now I will have to pay Charles Brain for his program.

If you think I like this sound card, you're right. It's one of those incremental little improvements that won't impress your friends with your technical prowess, but it does make a difference you can hear and measure. That has to count for something.