Every time I go to a lan party and I ask what's in somebody's machine, they say "Celeron blah blah. Oh, and this kickass Sound Blaster Live. It's the best thing ever".


I got a new sound card recently. All I wanted was something cheap and with PCI. I ended up with an AW744 Pro, which cost me $45AUD (probably $25 US or less). On the way home, I read the manual; it had a lot more features than I thought. EAX, Sensaura, 4 speaker output, S/PDIF, DirectX acceleration... All I was going to use it for was MP3's.

Of course, I tried the extra features. EAX is really nice in Counter-Strike, and 4 speaker output is fun when I can be bothered hooking up the extra speakers. It didn't have Linux support at the time, but ALSA has pulled through recently to get some very nice drivers together (last time I checked they were in CVS, but they seemed 100% stable). The DirectX acceleration gave a small but noticeable speed boost. I was happy. I got a kickass sound card for practically nothing (my mouse cost twice what the card did).

So I start asking SBLive people what makes their card so special. The most common responses are "4 speaker surround", "EAX" and "sound effects". I calmly explain that I have all that stuff, and better driver support to boot. They don't seem interested, until I ask "How much did you pay for your card?"

This usually gets their attention a bit. They usually give a figure between $200 and $500 AUD. I say "Oh. Mine was $45", and then usually change the subject.

This is always a shock to people that I don't know particularly well. And to this day, I still can't figure out why people buy SBLive's when there are sound cards just as good, at under a quarter the price. Probably the same reason why people buy Voodoo 3 cards while nVIDIA is here.

A sound card from Creative Labs. One of the first consumer-affordable cards to do environmental audio.

SBLive! is the peak of Sound Blaster evolution - and I must say that SB cards are finally nearing the HiFi level I expect them to be. (Previously, I bought an Aureal Vortex2 card that obviously sounded better than ISA SB16... unfair comparision.) I'm not sure if they're still enough for truly serious professionals, as SB series is something that the pros have frowned on for a while now. Anyway, ItWorksForMe™...

SBLive! series ranges from "gamer" cards to professional level (the Platinum cards). What's confusing about these cards is that they're sold under many, many different names - I'm not sure if there's that much difference in the cards themselves (aside of capabilities like Dolby 5.1 decoding and such that my particular card seems to do), but the amount of bundled software and peripherals are different. For example, the Player cards seem to come with games and such, and Platinum cards come with a really sweet-looking 5 1/4" drive bay panel unit with many connectors.

All of the cards are based on EMU10K1 chip that is capable of MIDI wavetable synthesis, has effects engine for real-time sound butchering and supports environmental audio via EAX.

Oh yeah, one thing should be mentioned. My SoundBlaster driver CD came with all sorts of unnecessary junk and more tools than I can count with my fingers and toes. More media players, more sound editors and more demos anyone ever can want or use. It was all simpler back in the days of SBPro when I only got two floppies of stuff...

I have been told that it also installs spyware - Something called "NewsUpd.exe".

2001-11-14 update: Well, SBLive! still sounds as sweet as it used to, but Creative Labs has, since the above stuff was written, released a new product line called Sound Blaster Audigy - and this is not the end of the road.

There have been several versions of the Sound Blaster Live! released since the line's introduction:

Eventually Creative Labs began releasing versions of some of these cards (the X-Gamer, MP3+, and Platinum) that supported Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (these can be identified from their predecessors by the inclusion of "5.1" at the end of their names). These models were slightly better than the previous ones but weren't much different. The main differences between the versions was what extras came with them. The X-Gamers came bundled with some popular games (which changed a bit as the years went by). The MP3+ models came loaded with software for creating and editing music. The Platinum model came with both software bundles, a control panel that fits into a 5.25 inch drive bay with various plugs and knobs on it for convenient connecting of other sound equipment (speaker systems, microphones, etc.), and a remote control. The "Value" variant has much less in terms of software but the card itself is no different.

The whole line is based on the EMU10K1 chip and has been a top of the line choice for non-professional (i.e. not in a recording studio) sound recording and playback for quite a few years. Recently Creative Labs has released the Audigy which is better than the Live!, though not by enough that Live! owners should go out and buy one expecting to be blown away by the improvements.

I would also like to point out one often unnoticed difference between the higher-end SB Live! cards compared to the lower-end ones. I believe the difference is between those labelled 5.1 and those not, but I may be mistaken (the difference was found when using a SB Live! X-Gamer and SB Live! 5.1 of forgotten type).

The Sound Blaster Live! cards have an interesting feature called SoundFonts, which make MIDI playback better. Unfortunately, the 5.1 cards seem to have "better" SoundFonts in some unknown way (though possibly total simultaneous playback). I have only noticed this to be a problem in one instance (and I do a lot of MIDI listening). When playing some Playstation games on both bleem! and ePSX, the sound will run slow, and some sounds will run quite poorly (running on wood floors will sound like bells).

Other than that, a great card. I can live with the emulation problems.

SoundBlaster Live! sound cards come complete with two main (front and surrounds) outputs, mic input, line input, and SP/DIF output. Some support 5.1, I think that they all have a Dolby Digital 4/6 speaker decoder onboard. They have about 2MB of RAM for MIDI instruments, and the software package supports sampling WAV clips for synthesized playback. The drivers are available on CD or on Creative's website.

Well, I bought a SoundBlaster Live! Value at a computer shop for $40, and it's about the best sound card I've ever used. It's supported by every operating system I've used, and it's got great surround sound. I play Half-Life, and I can hear boxes crumbling behind me, and life is sweet. If I had $200 to fork over for the better model, I would. Otherwise, the Value is enough. I usually don't buy generic, because I have found too many generic parts fail, and generally Creative is the best in audio for the computer, with Aureal a close second.

About the nVidia vs. 3DFX thing, I think that 3DFX cards are nice, and have a lot of cool sounding features that mostly have no affectation other than sounding cool. Full Frame Anti Aliasing? Great if you're running at 320x240, where the frames are so small that it takes less than 5MB to render, but at 1024x768, 32BPP, I don't really care too much if the lines are jagged, as long as I can see the guy I'm trying to frag at a decent framerate. nVidia cards do great work, great framerates, as long as you can find drivers for them...

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