For twenty years, Creative has designed, manufactured, and sold the world’s most popular PC gaming sound cards.
The company’s extremely successful X-Fi product line was launched in 2005 and ended its run five years later with the excellent audiophile-grade X-Fi Titanium HD that we reviewed in October of 2010.
Creative’s X-Fi software suite and or hardware chipset appeared in nearly twenty sound cards manufactured by Creative and Auzentech. Eventually, the hardware-based card’s audio capabilities, legacy software, and flexibility for further innovation were diminished by the limitations of the redesigned audio stack in both Windows Vista and 7.
Creative has finally retired the legacy X-Fi hardware chipset in favor of its brand new SoundCore3D quad core audio processor. Traditionally, PC sound cards can have many dedicated components that add DSP effects and perform digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversion, but the SoundCore3D processor performs all of those duties single-handedly.
Today, we will see if this all-in-one design coupled with the additional hardware and new software features of the company’s new flagship card can provide you with the PC audio experience you are looking for.
Today we are looking at Creative’s Fatal1ty Recon3D series of add-in cards for your PC. There are three variants in the Recon3D series of sound cards. The Recon3D PCIe is the bare bones model in the series. It can be found at NewEgg.com for $99.99 with $6.69 ground shipping and at Amazon.com for $85.82 with free Prime shipping as well.
The Recon3D Fatal1ty Professional adds a protective EMI shield to the card along with a beam-forming microphone, and a pair of red LEDs. The LEDs illuminate the card’s PCB inside of your PC case. It can be found at NewEgg.com for $149.99 with $6.69 shipping and Amazon.com for $132.45 with free Prime shipping.
Lastly, the Recon3D Fatal1ty Champion, that we received for review, consists of the sound card, protective EMI shield, beam-forming microphone, and an audio I/O expansion bay. NewEgg.com (with $8.86 shipping) and Amazon.com (with free Prime shipping), both sell it for $199.99.
All three cards have a headphone amplifier and identical back panel and front panel Intel HD-audio connectivity. The bare bones Recon3D PCIe cannot be upgraded in the future with the expansion I/O bay accessory, while the Recon3D Fatal1ty Professional can.
The Recon3D Fatal1ty Champion sound card sports Creative’s well-known SoundBlaster and Fatal1ty gaming logos on its red and black product box. The packaging highlights the card’s 600 ohm headphone amplifier. Creative’s previous flagship card, the X-Fi Titanium HD, only had a dedicated headphone-out port, not a true amplifier.
The product’s specifications, connectivity, and gaming API’s are listed on the box’s back and side panels. We do not see any listing for the product’s signal to noise ratio or any claims of “audiophile” performance. The Recon3D sound card line was designed with the PC gamer in mind, not music enthusiasts or recording professionals.
The Recon3D Fatal1ty Champion sound card and its included microphone were wrapped separately inside the box’s first layer of cardboard packing material. Below, we found the sound card’s audio I/O bay accessory, the product’s driver and application CD, quick start guide, and warranty statement.
All three products carry a one year limited warranty. In our experience, we have found that sound cards are not upgraded as often as video cards and CPUs are, so we would have hoped for a warranty period longer than one year.
Product Design and Appearance
When you shop for a dedicated, quality sound card in the $100-200 price range, you might find something like the Auzentech X-Meridian 7.1 2G or Creative’s very popular X-FI Titanium HD that we have reviewed previously. Those cards are literally packed full of dedicated, high quality components that maximize those cards’ audio quality and clarity. Both of those cards provided us with excellent music, movie, and gaming experiences.
Recon3D Sound Card
The Recon3D neither looks nor functions like either of those two sound cards. It has a square, rather than rectangular, shape and a compact design that measures only four by five inches in size.
The card has a thick, metal alloy EMI shield that usually serves to protect it’s components from electrical noise inside of your case. It also adds a little bit of “bling” to its appearance. As you can see from the card’s PCB, there are very few components that would require shielding though.
The Recon3D is a PCI-Express X1 compatible sound card that can be placed in any free PCI-Express slot on your motherboard.
Directly above the card’s PCI-Express connector is one of the sound card’s two red LEDs. When the user’s system is powered on, the red LEDs emit a very sharp-looking red glow that looks great on the inside of a windowed case. If you are a stickler for coordination, the Recon3D’s LED color is important to note if your other internal system components have different colored LEDs.
The Recon3D series also has 5.1 analog outputs on its back panel, a dedicated headphone amplifier port, combo microphone/line-in recording port, and TOSLINK optical input and output ports.
On the opposite end of the card, we can see the two proprietary male connectors used to connect the sound card to its audio I/O bay accessory.
At this point in the review, we would usually highlight a sound card’s digital to analog and analog to digital converters, capacitors, and swappable operational amplifiers. The Recon3D does not have any of thse components though. Beneath the red, black, and silver reflective badge in the middle of the card is Creative’s new, all-in-one SoundCore3D chipset. It is smaller in size than Creative’s previous X-Fi hardware chipset, as the company has moved to a new, more effecient manufacturing process.
Maxim’s MAX97220A low power/high gain headphone amplifier is located near the sound card’s back panel. It provides dedicated headphone amplification and output to the card’s back panel or I/O bay, but not both simultaneously.
STMicro’s M24C32-F EEPROM is used to provide flash firmware update capability for the sound card. Creative has issued firmware updates in the past for its USB sound cards that use a similar hardware module in order to fix hardware and software compatibility issues.
Audio I/O Bay
Similar to a DVD burner or rheobus fan controller, the Recon3D’s audio I/O bay accessory has to be mounted in a 5 1/4″ expansion bay in the front of a user’s PC case.
The front panel of the audio I/O bay has RCA stereo inputs jacks, DSP mode selection buttons, and analog volume and recording level knobs.
The volume and recording controls can be pushed inward and locked in place so that they remain flush with the I/O bay’s front panel when not in use.
The I/O bay looks very sharp in the front of Corsair’s black 700D full tower case that we used for our test system build.
The microphone included with the sound card is slightly less than three inches long across its face. There are actually two microphones inside that use “beam-forming” technology, much like radar or sonar. They lock onto the audio source of most importance while filtering out other extraneous or less-prominent sounds.
With its small, clear plastic stand, the microphone is meant to be placed out of the way, on top of the user’s flat panel monitor. The microphone however only has six feet of cable, so you might have a problem reaching the back of your PC to plug it in from the top of a display.
The card and its accessories look very sharp, but the lack of dedicated components on the sound card’s PCB make us wonder how well the Recon3D sound card will perform its playback and recording duties.
Line In / Microphone In: Shared 1/8″ mini jack
Headphone: 1 x 1/8″ mini jack
Speaker Out: 3x 1/8″ mini jacks
Optical In and Out: TOSLINK
24-bit Analog-to-Digital conversion of analog inputs : up to 96 kHz sample rate
24-bit Digital-to-Analog conversion of digital sources : up to 96 kHz sample rate to analog outputs
16-bit to 24-bit recording sampling rates: 8,11.025,16, 22.05, 24, 32, 44.1, 48 and 96kHz
16-bit to 24-bit playback sampling rates: 8,11.025,16, 22.05, 24, 32, 44.1, 48, 96, and 192kHz
The SoundCore3D chipset finally brings playback bit depth and sample rates up to 24 bit, 192 kHz to a Creative-branded sound card.
It seems that Creative is not looking to advance the input and output connectivity of its products with the Recon3D cards. We hoped the company might start including HDMI audio input and output capability. Only Auzentech offers that feature in a dedicated consumer sound card, and it ironically uses Creative’s own X-Fi chipset.
If you are a music or a legacy game enthusiast, you should know that the Recon3D series of sound cards does not support MIDI, ASIO, sound fonts, EAX, or OpenAL in hardware. These are performed through software emulation only.
Installing the Recon3D Fatal1ty Champion sound card and I/O bay was very simple. We located an empty drive bay in the Corsair 700D case of our test system and removed the corresponding front bezel cover. We slid the Creative I/O bay into place and secured it to the chassis with four small screws that were included inside the sound card’s retail package.
The sound card was placed in an empty PCI-Express X1 slot of our motherboard and secured in place by one of our case’s back-plate screws. We connected the sound card to the I/O bay with the two included cables. No external power source was required for either the sound card or its I/O bay.
For the card’s digital output, we used an optical cable connected to an Onkyo “home theater in a box” receiver. For either 2.1 or 5.1 analog output, we used standard stereo mini-jack cables plugged into the Recon3D’s back plate and the corresponding inputs on the back of the Onkyo receiver.
Installing this card and making the appropriate cable connections should be very simple for our readers.
When we powered up our test system, Windows detected the Recon3D sound card as a generic “high definition multimedia device.” We inserted the Creative driver and software CD and chose the full installation option. The entire process only took four minutes and one reboot of our test system. The Creative software and driver CD also offers selective and repair installations of any software, driver components, or product manual.
It is worth noting that Creative has already issued two driver and software updates for its Recon3D series of sound cards. The first update was released within days of the sound cards becoming available for retail purchase. It is good to see Creative ready to support its new products immediately after launch.
Creative’s X-Fi line of sound cards had the well-known, but cumbersome “three-in-one” console launcher interface. A user had to select game, entertainment, or audio creation mode depending on the demands of the audio task at hand. The new Recon3D cards have a new unified and modern looking tab-style interface that can be accessed by clicking a small black and blue icon that resides in the Windows’ systray.
The first tab gives the user options for activating and moderating the card’s THX Pro Studio DSP sound algorithms. Surround, bass, and dialog plus usually enhance movie and TV show playback and can offer more immersion for in-game cut scenes.
The second tab offers “Crystal Voice” options that are very relevant for the gamer constantly communicating with his teammates as well as those of you who voice chat with family and friends on Skype or similar program. The ‘Test’ option at the bottom right of the window proved very useful for previewing the various effects before we used them in real-time conversations.
The third tab allows control over one of the card’s most notable features: Scout Mode. This feature allows you to assign a keyboard function key, such as tab, alt, or ctrl, along with a letter key, to activate it. You won’t have to Alt-Tab out of your game to turn it on or off. Scout mode reduces bass and some of the high frequency sounds at the touch of the hot keys so you can hear footsteps or other subtle sounds you might miss in the middle of a loud, violent battle.
The fourth tab allows a user to choose between headphone or speaker output. This is the first time that Creative has incorporated the ability to switch between the two in its software interface. In the past, users would have to manually unplug the headphones or gaming headsets to return to speaker usage.
The fifth tab activates Dolby Digital encoding of the analog audio of your system so that it can be passed through a single digital cable to a home theater or stereo receiver. Creative used to provide both Dolby and DTS digital encoding, but only Dolby Digital remains. You will want to make sure your receiver or speaker set can accept Dolby Digital if you plan on using it with this sound card.
The sixth tab allows you to set the individual levels of analog and digital inputs and outputs. The analog microphone jack on the back of the sound card can also be reconfigured as a line-in audio input as well.
The seventh tab is a standard ten band equalizer that allows for the saving of user-defined presets. Creative has included a few presets of its own, such as jazz, acoustic, and rock, to give users an idea of how each preset will color the source audio.
The eighth tab allows for mixing of the sound card’s DSP effects along with your source audio to be digitally encoded and passed through to a digital receiver for decoding and playback.
The “Profile” radio button in the bottom left corner of the interface allows users to export their settings to small XML files. These are useful for saving your custom settings for later use after a system format. You can also trade these with teammates so they can hear gaming sounds exactly as you do.
The new control panel interface is very intuitive and easy to navigate after a few uses. It is much cleaner than Creative’s antiquated console launcher and it does not seem sluggish after a few hours or even several days of use, without a reboot, either.
All of the DSP sound and voice effects you see in the interface are performed in hardware by the SoundCore3D chipset. These effects will not cost you CPU cycles or hog system memory as host-based DSP effects would.
While the new software interface was a welcome change over Creative’s previous one, we immediately found a nagging flaw in the profile system. It does not save digital or analog output, speaker count, or headphone mode. Those still have to be manually selected after the user loads a profile.
Perhaps Creative will add to the list of options that can be saved in a future driver and software release.
During the time we spent with the Recon3D, the card and its software never caused any system crashes, blue screens, or random reboots of any kind. The software interface consumes between 40MB and 90MB of system memory.
We ran through a playlist of a few dozen songs of various musical genres in order to test the quality of music playback with the Recon3D. We used a set of 2.1 speakers as well as several pairs of stereo headphones.
At totally default settings, music playback was very poor or simply not much different than using our onboard Realtek ALC892 sound chipset. Music sounded very distant, as if we were sitting in the back of a room listening to a tired band playing up front. We could hear all of the music perfectly fine at low, medium, and high volumes, but there was no clarity or separation between instruments. Vocals were clear, but slightly flat and lifeless.
Imagine a band with a lead singer, guitarist, bass player, keyboardist, and drummer. We could hear bass and drums beats along with vocals, keyboards, and guitar, but these were all mixed together. It was not an engaging or detailed listening experience. We shuffled through the Creative EQ presets until we found one of these that gave music more energy and vibrance: the “Rock” setting. This preset enhances both vocals and high frequency sounds.
Music playback in general was now better for our personal taste, but still nothing special. We do have to say though, that the Recon3D’s headphone amplifier is extremely loud and clear, even at low volumes. We used several pairs of quality headphones with high and low impedance and sensitivity requirements. The Recon3D has no absolutely no problems powering any of these.
If a headphone amplifier is incapable of adequately powering a demanding pair of headphones, the master volume has to be raised to very high levels to hear audio clearly, but background hiss and distortion can also be heard as a result. This was not the case as there was absolutely no hissing of any sort and any volume over 55% of our system’s setting was too loud to listen to for any long period of time.
Creative bundles its own proprietary program, Creative Music Server, with the Recon3D sound cards. The program plays music in many popular digital formats and also manages your personal playlists as well. The notable feature of the program is that it provides the capability to stream music to more than one digital or analog output source simultaneously.
We began to play our first song using our analog speakers. We picked another song and chose the Recon3D’s SPDIF out for digital output and playback with a stereo receiver. We played a third song using the HDMI output of our video card and speakers connected to our test system’s Dell U2410 monitor. This may seem like an unusual feature to some of you, but the playback or all three songs simultaneously worked perfectly and the Creative software only consumed 20MB of system memory.
Some of you enjoy gaming and listening to your own music at the same time. This program will achieve that for you easily. Although there are other programs that can do the same thing as Creative’s Music Server application, it was a nice extra to include free with the card’s driver and application bundle.
Recording and Voice Chat
The microphone included with the Recon3D Fatal1ty Champion that we received for review is very small. It is slightly shorter than an adult male’s pinky finger. We placed the mic on top and in the middle of the Dell U2410 monitor that we use with our test system.
We chatted with a few friends using Skype and our conversation experiences were outstanding. With some brands of gaming headsets, the included microphone sometimes has to be right next to our lips for us to be heard clearly by the other party. The same sometimes holds true for clip-on mics as well. With the Recon3D’s beam-forming microphone, we were able to sit five to seven feet away from our desk and chat with friends using a very normal tone of voice. We did not have to repeat ourselves or project our voice unnaturally in order for the microphone to register our voice clearly. Our key to success in using this microphone was finding the right settings appropriate to our current environment.
The “Focus” slider in the picture above was one of the key settings that we had to learn to experiment with. If we sat with friends and talked to another friend offsite using Skype, we had to widen the “wedge angle” setting in order for all of our voices around the room to register clearly.
The “acoustic echo” and “noise reduction” settings were best used when there were other friends in the room, chatting or making noise behind us. Otherwise, we left those unchecked. “Smart Volume” was best used when we were alone and having one long, continuous conversation. No matter how loudly or softly we spoke, the other party had no problems hearing or understanding us. Doing simple dictation was very easy as well. If we simply rambled on and on, without paying attention, just talking to ourselves basically, the microphone registered every word.
We plugged the included microphone into the front panel I/O bay and it worked well also, but we did have to adjust the recording level occasionally in order to eliminate feedback. Engaging any of all of the voice DSP effects did cause our recorded output volume to be ten to twenty percent lower than without any of the effects present.
Overall, the Recon3D’s beam-forming microphone performance was very good. We simply had to customize and save a few presets that would suit our particular environment and the number of people in the room that would be speaking at any one time.
For TV show testing, we purchased both the stereo and HD 5.1 versions of an episode of the series White Collar from Amazon.com.
In the episode’s opening scene, con man Neal Caffrey is testifying at his own parole hearing. The scene darts back and forth from Neal to the board members as they question him. Neal is on screen in front of us as he offers testimony. We hear a board member speaking off-screen and Neal replying, as the show’s score plays in the background. Using a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-A900 headphones with the Recon3D, we heard the scene’s action very naturally but dialogue was slightly muddy with these particular headphones. We used the Recon3D’s “Dialog Plus” option and it made character voices much more upfront, but slightly sibilant. We lowered its level slider slightly and voices became much more natural and clear. Dialog Plus is also a very good feature for those of you with any sort of mid-range hearing loss.
We switched to 2.1 speakers for the next scene, where we see FBI Agent Burke and his supervisor arguing over who should have custody of Neal. We hear the two debating back and forth and a few muttered whispers coming from office workers in the background. We activated the ‘Surround’ option in the Recon3D software hoping it would give us more environmental sounds from the scene rather than just character dialogue. As a result, we immediately heard several telephones ringing in the background, dialog onscreen and in front of us, and the show’s musical score surrounding us.
Lastly, we used the 5.1 version of the episode with the Onkyo Home Theater in a Box setup. Playback with this setup was very good as we did not need any sort of dialog enhancement and the musical score had a more spacious sound around us, rather than on top of the show’s dialog and sound effects.
We tried the Recon3D’s “Smart Volume” setting to see how it would affect our viewing experience. With it enabled, we could have the volume of the episode louder in general, but we never heard any unexpected shrill sound effects or musical breaks. Voices sounded a bit hollow, but for the most part, this feature would be useful for watching a TV show or movie late at night when we would not want sudden loud bursts of volume to disturb our viewing experience or anyone sleeping in a nearby room.
For our movie test, we chose the new Tom Cruise film, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, on DVD. In one of the film’s opening scenes, Cruise’s IMF team attempts to break him out of a foreign prison. A Dean Martin song begins to play in the background as the prison’s inmates begin to riot. As Cruise walks through several of the prison’s many doors, we can hear them opening and closing in front of and behind us, but the accompanying sound effects were very dull. With the Recon3D in 5.1 analog mode, surround sounds came from the proper speakers, but the sounds once again lacked vibrancy and took away from the movie’s immersion.
We switched to a 2.1 speaker setup and set the sound card to stereo mode with its “surround” DSP effect activated. In this test, the card’s Dialog Plug feature was very good for providing clear character dialog without the need for a dedicated center channel speaker. The surround feature of the card did a decent job of up-mixing sounds and giving us a wider sound stage than onboard two channel sound, but the movie still sounded bland in general.
We tested a set of Audio-Technica M50 studio monitor headphones with a few scenes from the movie as well. The Recon3D provided loud, clear audio in both low frequency sounds from explosions and mid-range sounds for character action and dialogue, but high frequencies sounds from gunfire and musical passages were poor.
The biggest difference between the Recon3D and our onboard sound chipset was that the Recon3D had no constant flutter or audible white noise distortion that is present and very detectable when we use onboard sound.
For our next movie test, we chose the animated film, The Incredibles.
At the movie’s one hour and nine minute mark, we see three members of the Incredibles flying in their plane as they search for Craig Nelson’s character, Mr. Incredible. Several enemy missiles are launched at the plane and we could hear each of them flying and roaring through the air in various directions. As the missiles approach closer, we could feel and hear solid, rumbling bass from the rockets’ exhaust. Dialogue was very crisp as we could hear all three characters on and off-screen yelling back and forth at each other.
The plane blows up upon the missile’s impact and the family begins to free fall through the sky. We could hear pieces of the plane’s debris and high speed winds whipping and blowing all around them. The special effects in this movie were much sharper and vibrant than those we heard in Mission Impossible. Sound engineers manually place sound cues in animated films and the resulting surround effects were good with the Recon3D in 5.1 and 2.1 modes. The Recon3D’s headphone playback signature with this film lacked bass, but the card’s “bass boost” feature helped immediately. You would definitely want to save a few presets in the Recon3D interface for the best and most consistent results with TV shows and movies.
Overall, our movie and TV show experiences were decent and watchable, but we have used and reviewed sound cards in the past that definitely give a much better and more vibrant experience, such as Auzentech’s X-Meridian 7.1 2G and Creative’s original X-Fi Titanium 7.1.
For our first gaming test, we chose the multiplayer map, Noshahr Canals. We began by plugging a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-A900 closed headphones into the Recon3D’s I/O bay and we used its surround setting for headphone up-mixing duties and the Recon3D’s first person shooter EQ profile.
We spawned into this level on the waterfront, slightly above the water line. To our right, we immediately heard vibrant gun shots being fired at us, from above. As we fled for cover, we could hear own footsteps hitting the ground directly below us. We knew by the obvious noise that our rapid footsteps were making, that our enemies nearby would hear us approach if we did not slow to a walk. We ducked behind a cargo carrier to get our bearings. We quickly heard two shots hitting the ground and ricocheting in front and to the left of us. The gunshots were razor sharp in intensity and directionality. An active grenade landed behind us as we heard it bounce a few times before exploding.
We heard and felt a series of loud explosions in the distance to our right that prevented us from hearing enemy gunfire as precisely as we had hoped.
Using our keyboard’s ALT and O keys, we activated the Recon3D’s scout mode feature. The force of the explosions we were previously hearing suddenly lessened and we were now able to perceive two enemies approaching on our left. Playing this level with a bass-heavy pair of headphones like the A900 was literally the best of both worlds. We were able to quickly pinpoint enemies when necessary, and at the touch of two keys, we could resume our normal and much more intense sound profile.
Scout mode is not something we would use during an entire match. It is something we would use sparingly to give us a different, more precise point of view of what is happening on the battlefield. We turned it off and on several times and then we occasionally “camped” to see who or what we could hear. We definitely feel we could play this game competitively with the Recon3D. Some gamers in DICE’s forums say that scout mode does not work in this game, but the newest drivers on Creative’s website worked much better in this game than the ones on the CD included with the product.
Playing this game with a two speaker setup was very good as well. The Recon3D gave us a 180 degree sound field in front of and to our sides. Onboard sound only gave sound between our two speakers with no sense of surround whatsoever.
If we played this game with 5.1 speakers using our Realtek onboard, we did hear sounds in front of and in back of us, but we never perceived the vastness of our surroundings. The Recon3D’s THX Surround setting allowed us to hear sounds traveling overhead and enemies shooting from above and below us.
Left 4 Dead 2
For this game, we chose the multiplayer map, the Parish. We set the game to its 5.1 audio mode to match the Recon3D’s headphone configuration.
As we entered the boarded up town, our three teammates surrounded us as we began walking forward. As each of them spoke their canned phrases, we noticed how easy it was to hear and pinpoint their individual positions by their voices alone.
As a charger ran toward us to attack, we could almost feel his pounding footsteps against our heads, the closer he came to us. Our teammate directly to our right started shooting at the charger, each one of his shots made a sharp, piercing sound, right to left. Any and all sounds of gunshots traveling across the screen were vibrant, but not piercing or shrill.
When a hunter pounced on a teammate to our right, we heard him fly directly over our heads. Onboard sound merely gave us sounds to our left and right and were simply not precise enough for competitive play in this game. The Recon3D plays Left 4 Dead 2 as well as its hardware-based X-Fi predecessors.
The Recon3D’s headphone amplifier was both extremely loud and very clear when gaming, but the card’s scout mode did not seem to have any effect on this game’s sound or positional audio cues.
Batman: Arkham City
Arkham City is easily one of the best games of the last year with its excellent single player immersion.
We were playing as Catwoman when we landed of the roof of the Joker’s factory. We activated scout mode and it instantly let us hear the sounds of Catwoman’s boots hitting the shingles. If we were in the middle of a street fight, building our XP, we could hear enemy footsteps approaching behind us, as they attempted to knife or punch us. The sound cues we heard do not drastically affect our personal style in this single player game, but these are nice touches that the game designers included, which we simply never noticed when listening to the game’s full sound track.
When we played the game’s “Funhouse Extreme” challenge map, we could hear enemy taunts all around us, Abromovitch’s heavy hammer striking the ground, and the growls and screams of the venom zombies as they randomly charged at us. The only difference we noticed when we played this game in the past with the X-Fi Titanium HD, compared to the Recon3D, is that the game’s musical score was more prominent and detailed. The challenge maps and the entire single player campaign in general had a richer, more cinematic sound. The Recon3D did provide a solid 3D up-mix of game sounds: traffic and police sirens in the streets below us, crows screeching above us, wind blowing through Batman’s cape as he flew through the city, and the sounds of helicopters constantly flying overhead.
This game is filled with thousands of lines of character dialogue. The Recon3D’s dialog plus feature brought those voices to the forefront on both speakers and headphones.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
For this game, we chose the multiplayer map, Summit. In this level, we are faced with traveling across snow-covered terrain. Logically, we wanted to see what scout mode would let us hear that we normally would not hear with other sound cards or onboard sound. We heard our footsteps as well as those of our opponents as they crunched loudly through the snow. We hid just inside the entry doorway of the strategic command center. We heard an enemy approaching from behind us and outside. He was literally on the other side of the wall. We waited a few seconds for him to appear in front of us and then we simply knifed him to score our kill. We re-entered the building and went up the stairs and then to a balcony to wait for any more approaching enemies.
A new enemy crept into the building from behind us and shot directly over our heads several times. The sounds of his rapid gun fire made sharp, piercing sounds as it traveled towards us and flew over our right shoulder. We had an absolutely excellent sense of sounds coming from in front of and beneath us. A second soldier threw a grenade to our left as we were exiting the building. We heard it fly over our heads, land behind us, and then explode.
We would definitely play this game competitively with the Recon3D.
Scout mode is a very interesting feature of the Recon3D sound cards. It does not guarantee that you will hear footsteps perfectly in every first person shooter or adventure game that you may choose to play, but it does do a very effective job of instantly providing contrasting sound signatures that the player can switch between at will.
Headphone audio was very loud, precise, and clear with every set of headphones we used. The 360 degree surround sound effect that we constantly heard through both headphones and 5.1 speakers provided outstanding immersion.
Gaming on a 2.1 set of speakers was not a step down from the other experiences either. It gave us sound above, in front, and to our sides. So no matter which audio setup you can afford or accommodate, you will have a great gaming experience with this sound card. While we miss the music qualities that other sound cards bring to games, this sound card’s headphone amplifier was a welcome addition.
Rightmark Audio Analyzer – Part 1
Rightmark Audio Analyzer is a benchmarking program used to gauge a sound card’s ability to reproduce and record sounds accurately at various bit-depths and sampling rates. The program can be used to compare objectively one sound card’s results to another’s regardless if the two devices are external, internal, or onboard. Below, we show you the Recon3D versus the onboard Realtek 892C sound chipset of our test system’s motherboard.
On the left, we compare the back panel output of the Recon3D against our onboard audio’s back panel output. On the right, we compare the front panel jack of our test system case against the Recon3D’s I/O bay accessory as it provides pass-through audio of the Recon3D’s back panel headphone amplifier and microphone port. Rightmark ranks each category on a one to six scale of poor, fair, average, good, very good, and excellent.
Frequency response is the range of frequencies that a sound card can reproduce without distortion. We are hoping for a nearly straight, flat line in the graphs below. If we were to see a relatively flat line, then we would say that the card has a nearly neutral output signature of lows, mids, and highs. If we were to see multiple occurrences of peaks or valleys in the graph, then we would know the card does not reproduce certain frequencies accurately at those points of the frequency spectrum.
The onboard sound surprisingly provides a more neutral sound through both its front and back panel connections. The Recon3D’s back panel result shows that the low frequencies its reproduces are slightly overstated compared to its mid-range and high frequencies. The Recon3D’s front panel result shows understated lows but with more neutral mids and highs. We generally prefer the more neutral response because it is already balanced. We would definitely have to change the Recon3D’s EQ settings in order achieve a more neutral sound.
Rightmark rates the onboard sound’s frequency response through both front and rear jacks as “excellent” while the Recon3D was rated as “good” through its back panel Stereo Out jack and “very good” through its I/O bay pass-through of headphone amplification.
The noise level is a measure of the unwanted noise present in our final audio output that arrives at our speakers or headphones. We want to see results as low as possible on the y-axis of the graphs. A desirable or minimal noise level is usually achieved in part with quality capacitors and shielding on your sound card. If we were using a dedicated sound card or onboard chipset with very low quality or unshielded components, we would expect higher noise levels.
In this test, it is easy to see that the Recon3D performs slightly better than the onboard sound in the back panel comparison, but much better in the front panel comparison. This result should help you to decide if the I/O bay accessory is worth its added cost. The Realtek onboard sound was ranked as “average,” while the Recon3D was ranked as “good” and “excellent” at the two different bit depths and sample rates.
Dynamic range is the lowest to highest range of sound frequencies that a sound card can reproduce.
In this test, we see the Recon3D performing better than the onboard sound with results further down the y-axis of the graph. The Recon3D’s back panel result is not much better than the onboard, but the front panel result clearly is. The Realtek sound was ranked as “good” while the Recon3D was ranked as “very good” and “excellent.”
Rightmark Audio Analyzer – Part 2
THD + Noise
Total Harmonic Distortion plus Noise (at -3 dB FS) will show us how much distortion is added to our audio output compared to our original signal input. This test usually reveals how poorly a sound card or onboard audio chipset is shielded and it can also reveal whether or not this dedicated sound card and its I/O bay have quality capacitors and shielding of their own.
In this test, the Recon3D performs only slightly better than onboard sound in back panel testing. The Recon3D’s front panel I/O bay though, definitely performs better than both it’s back panel and our onboard sound through our test system’s front panel jack. If the Recon3D had better quality capacitors, like the Titanium HD or X-Fi HD USB sound cards, we probably would have seen better results ten to fifteen decibels further down the y-axis.
Intermodulation distortion occurs when two or more signals of different frequencies are mixed together creating non-harmonic frequencies. One seems to overpower the other.
In this test, Rightmark ranked the onboard sound as “good,” while the Recon3D was ranked as “average” and “poor.” There were more peaks and valleys in the Recon3D results.
These last two tests show that the Recon3D’s I/O shield really does not do much to actually shield the card from electromagnetic interference, but the I/O bay accessory definitely does.
Crosstalk is sound from one channel that tends to leak into the other. The presence of heavy crosstalk results in poor stereo imaging. As a result, we would hear more of a flat, mono sound and this is not at all desirable for a gamer trying to pinpoint enemy locations.
In this test, the onboard sound was ranked as “very good,” while the Recon3D was ranked as “excellent” through both front and back panel results.
The Rightmark tests from today and our past reviews tell us some very interesting things. Onboard sound is quickly catching up to and rivaling dedicated sound cards. The tests also tell us that for the best results with Creative’s Recon3D sound cards, you would have to buy both the sound card and its I/O bay accessory to see much of an improvement over your onboard sound chipset’s analog sound quality. It seems clear that Creative chose to emphasize the card’s gaming ability over its basic audio quality.
Creative offers technical support for its products through e-mail and a web based forum. The forum’s moderators occasionally step in to provide product specifications and e-mail referrals, but for the most part, it is a user to user forum.
We always e-mail the manufactures of the products that we review with any issues we may encounter. This allows us to gauge the company’s response time as well as the thoroughness of the answers that we receive.
While testing the Recon3D, we set the card to two channel stereo playback at 16 bit, 44.1 kHz to prevent up-sampling of the music we listened to. Whenever we plugged or unplugged a set headphones, the Recon3D control panel changed itself to 5.1, full range speakers, 24 bit, 48 kHz playback. This would cause crackling and garbled sound until we re-ran the sound setup wizard in the Windows’ control panel.
We wrote Creative about the issue and we received a response in less than twelve hours. The technician stated that this automatic switching behavior was no mistake, it was by design. The card is definitely meant to be in 5.1 mode when using speakers or headphones. He also included a listing of proper connections for our speakers, some additional troubleshooting steps, and a link that would download the newest drivers from Creative’s website.
While this is not the answer we wanted to hear, we liked the technician’s straight forward answer about our issue.
We spoke directly to Creative’s product marketing manager, Ryan Schlieper, about the issue as well. He stated that Creative may include an option in a future driver revision to leave bit rate, sample depth, and the number of speaker to be used unchanged. Many of Creative’s X-Fi and Audigy sound cards had such an option, so we believe it is very likely that Creative will add that feature in the future to the Recon3D series’ drivers.
Documentation and Product Updates
In past reviews of Creative products, we pointed out that the included documentation and instructions were sparse to say the least. The Recon3D reverses that trend with a forty page PDF document that covers all of the card’s functions and connectivity quite thoroughly. Since the Recon3D’s release, Creative has issued two standalone updates for the product. Creative has really stepped up its game in the last year when it comes to supporting its new products.
The newest driver update for the Recon3D cards was issued just a few days ago. The update solved both the crackling and channel switching issues we had when switching between speakers and headphones at various bit depths and sample rates.
The Bottom Line
If you are currently shopping for a new sound card that will provide you with a much better all-around audio experience than what your recent onboard sound already provides, then the Recon3D sound cards in any of its three forms is likely not for you. Listening to music with the Recon3D Fata1ty Pro sound card was a disappointing experience to say the least. Our movie experience in both stereo and 5.1 modes was slightly better, but still a very hit and miss situation.
Creative’s past hardware-based Audigy and X-Fi cards with and without the I/O bays offered more value over these cards simply because those were superior performing products for the time when used for movies, music, and games. Those solutions are still simply better than what we have today in the Creative Sound Blaster Recond3D series.
In Creative’s defense, if you go to its website and start looking for how these products are marketed, you will not find the Fatal1ty Recond3D listed for use with music or movies. The product reviewed here is specifically listed for gamers. Of course this makes us wonder how many gamers watch movies or listen to music on their computers? Surely not many! Seriously, we get how Creative is trying to cater to the market with a more diverse product stack, but the company has somewhat missed the mark here in terms of music, movies, and TV shows.
However where the Fatal1ty Recon3D shines, and yes you might have guessed this, is gaming. If you are a competitive gamer that is only looking for a solid gaming sound card with a great headphone amplifier, then the Recon3D and Recon3D Fatal1ty Champion are definitely worth your consideration. The I/O bay accessory was very convenient to use, but it is not a “must have” in our books. The sound card already has a microphone and headphone amplifier out ports on its back panel, we would simply need longer audio cables. Surely though this is a personal choice though.
Although these Fatal1ty Recon3D products seem slightly overpriced for the base audio quality that is delivered, there is no question in our minds that the Recon 3D cards with surround and Scout Mode gaming effects will definitely give you much a better stereo, 5.1, and headphone gaming experience than what onboard analog sound can provide. Scout Mode alone might be worth the entire product cost to some of our readers however as it surely has a way of giving you an advantage you are likely without now. Some might even say Scout Mode is cheating.
Bringing it all home however, we know that the Fatal1ty Recon3D is engineered to a very specific demographic, and that leaves us a little flat as we would have like to see the product a bit more well rounded. It is a very good gaming product, but a somewhat anemic overall product. If you are going to go this route, your best value would likely be in the $85 card without the bay. We understand what Creative was focused on with the Fatal1ty Recon3D series, we just think it left its abilities a bit too narrow unless you have very specific gaming needs.
Maybe we need to take the “non-gaming” Creative SB Recon3D for a test drive and see how it compares?