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Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live! Retro Review

30 March 2013 | Written by Andrew H.

Introduction

Throughout the 1990s, Creative Labs' Sound Blaster family of cards was the standard for consumer audio. After cloning rival AdLib's feature set and offering (mostly complete) compatibility in all DOS games, the focus shifted on providing better sampling rates, more inputs and features like Game Ports, CD-ROM interfaces, and wavetable synthesis.

By 1997, the proliferation of the PCI bus and increased amounts of memory made standard on consumer computers made for an evolutionary sound card that would focus on audio I/O and post-processing effects for the premium consumer market.


The Creative Labs EMU10K1, the chip that succeeded the EMU8000 on legacy AWE64 cards. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia user Spc01

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Creative's foray was the SoundBlaster Live!. Creative released several versions of the card, including one that came with a half-height 5.25" bay panel dubbed "Live!Drive" that included a front-mount headphone port, a second line in or microphone in, S/PDIF in and out jacks, and MIDI in/out jacks. Front jacks and volume knobs were a godsend in days where trying out different gear meant getting behind the computer and replugging devices.

Other versions skipped the bay connector, and there were other minor differences in the jacks - the most expensive version had gold-plated conductor jacks in the rear while the other versions had colored plastic (which was arguably easier to see and use than etched metal). I was able to secure the Live! Value version of the card for this article, but as a prior owner of the Live! Gold there was plenty of classic software to try.

You never know when you'll need drivers - 14 years later.

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Software: Installation

The SoundBlaster Live! software installs like any wizard-drive Windows program of the time. Installation of every feature took about 27MiB and loaded 3 icons in the notification area. Registering your hardware was easier before there was 'Like us on Facebook!'

Software: Applications

Creative PlayCenter was the first up, and presented a neat interface to play DVDs and music CDs. I never had a use for it as a WinAmp disciple at the time.

The PlayCenter's most disappointing feature was that it didn't support the CD Text so you can't tell that this is Britney Spears - late '90s CDs for late '90s software.

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Creative Launcher is next, and it exists as a hide-away menu that drops down when your mouse hovers at the top of the screen. It provides quick access to the control panels to reconfigure inputs, and allows you to assign environmental effects so you can switch your audio sound from "Bathroom" to "Sewer Pipe" at a moment's notice.

The PlayCenter's most disappointing feature was that it didn't support the CD Text so you can't tell that this is Britney Spears - late '90s CDs for late '90s software.

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AudioHQ provided the environment settings again, and let you mix in custom amounts of reverb and other audio processing to get sound you desire. Other applets included a keyboard that would probably not be bad if you had a MIDI instrument ready to go. Playing piano by clicking keys with the mouse was lackluster.

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Hardware: Setup

I have a confession to make. The Live! Gold Edition was my last real sound card - since 2002 I've used onboard audio. Let's see how much of a good idea this was. Tests were done using the excellent RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5 (the last version that would run on this hardware) and compared to the onboard audio on my decidedly non-90s era P8P67-M, a Realtek ALC892 chipset common in OEM systems today.

These tests were done using the WDM reference drivers (before installing the Creative Labs software suite). All tests were conducted using the external loopback model of line-out fed back into the line-in on the sound card. As such, all tests include both biases of the DAC components and ADC. We'll see why this matters later.

Hardware: Noise Spectrum

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The onboard audio has a very flat noise spectrum, except for the spike around 2.3kHz. The SoundBlaster had a lower noise most of the time, but interestingly made large noise components that rose above the onboard audio around 4kHz and at every harmonic after. This is probably attributable to intermodulation distortion - the Live! had an output of 44.1kHz but its compliance with the Intel AC'97 codec required internal conversion to 48kHz along the way - reports on the internet of a poor analog-to-digital conversion seemed to be correct.

After resampling back to 44.1, artifacts are introduced at every multiple of the sum and difference of these rates. Sadly, this effect presents itself on every test. Even a 20 - 30dB spike in noise around these points isn't the end of the world-full-amplitude signals are going to be 15 billion times more powerful so you probably won't notice noise problems in day-to-day hearing. Producers wouldn't be happy with this response, though.

Hardware: Intermodulation Distortion

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The distortion problem is really out in the open here, as undersampled peaks abound. Contrast this to the flat and lower response of the onboard audio and I'd want to start checking my test for problems.

Hardware: Overall

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Other than the frequency response which seems very unleveled, the Live! compares very favorably with the onboard audio of today, save for the previously - discussed IMD problems. Stereo channels are also isolated by about 6dB more on the Live!, which is nice.

Conclusions

The Live! has great performance for its time, with a low noise floor and 3D effects. Fifteen years later, onboard models easily surpass the signal processing capabilities of the EMU10K chip. It would be nice to try another reference board and isolate exactly which stage seems to cause the distortions on the Live! This "problem", while present on the graphs, didn't seem to make a difference to my ears when listening to music.

The software package is very reminiscent of the late '90s and while it contains some fun distractions, most consumers probably aren't going to play around with the MIDI features unless they were a producer or a music teacher. Still, playing Quake in a cave in 4.1 audio was a fun experience and novel at the time.