The Forte handles everything from games to HD soundtracks, but niggling irritations let it down and its audio quality doesn't justify its price.
The low-profile X-Fi Forte 7.1 PCI-E sound card is suitable for compact media centre PCs as well as standard systems.
Its dedicated headphone socket amplifier can power anything from dinky MP3 player earbuds to 600-ohm studio cans. The amplifier also provides your front-panel headphone connection if you connect the Intel HD Audio header. Irritatingly, the main speakers are disabled when the front-panel headphone port is used, but not when headphones are connected directly to the card.
The low-profile design allows only enough room for a handful of connectors: the 3.5mm headphone port, a combined coaxial and optical S/PDIF output and a 15-pin D-sub. The latter lets you connect the provided breakout box, which has female 3.5mm connectors for 7.1 surround sound, plus line and mic inputs. The mic input works with any basic microphone, and a jumper on the card switches it into ‘balance’ mode for professional-grade balanced dynamic microphones.
Using the provided outputs, you can connect a set of 5.1 or 7.1 PC speakers, and output digital audio to an external device. The driver supports Dolby Digital Live, plus DTS Interavailable, which provides surround sound in compatible games, and DTS Neo:PC virtual surround sound. All Creative’s X-Fi hardware processing features are present, including EAX 5.0 environmental audio, which alters sound effects in response to your surroundings in a game.
Music sounded notably better than through an on-board audio chipset, but it didn’t match the clarity of other cards, such as Asus’s Xonar Essence STX. We were disappointed by poorly defined mid-tones, although the powerful bass worked well for music with heavy beats. We encountered similar issues with 64kbit/s spoken-word audio, but improved this by enabling the X-Fi Crystalizer, turning the bass down and the treble up.
You can tweak the audio quality by replacing the Front channel Operational Amplifier (OPAMP) chip, but this is unlikely to appeal to most users. The card picked up external RF interference, which could have been reduced by the use of a metal electromagnetic shield. Audio quality was clearer through headphones, which use their own amplification circuit, but interference was also more audible.
Despite its wide range of features, the X-Fi Forte 7.1 didn’t live up to our expectations and we were disappointed by the occasional interference. For home cinema, the X-Fi Forte 7.1 can’t rival Asus’s Xonar HDAV 1.3 but that card is more expensive and larger. There are few options at the moment if you want high-quality sound for a compact PC. This card does a reasonable job, but we’d wait to see how Asus’s forthcoming Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim compares.