Xtreme Fidelity

It's no wonder the public is confused about audio formats and sound quality, Consider claims such as the recent "major breakthrough" announcement concerning two audio technologies from Creative Technology, a company best known for making PC peripherals (most notably the Sound Blaster audio cards).

First, Creative has coined the term "Xtreme Fidelity," which it describes as "the new standard in audio," and coupled that with the release of the Creative X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity audio processor. "The combination of Xtreme Fidelity and the Creative X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity audio processor provides dramatic improvements to the recording and playback of MP3 music," says the company, adding that it "improves the capabilities, performance, and quality of audio creation."

Here's the best part from the widely distributed press release announcing the new processor, and I'm going to leave the entire paragraph intact:

"All CD music is in 16-bit resolution, which is typically compressed from an original 24-bit studio recording. When converting CD music to MP3 format, the music is compressed yet again. These types of compression result in a compromise of audio quality and clarity. The Creative X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity audio processor drives new applications that can enhance MP3s by bringing them back to 24-bit quality, and allows the user to upgrade the music to multichannel surround sound. This enhancement enables virtually all MP3 music to sound even better than it did on the original CDs."

The misinformation begins in the very first sentence with the implication that most music available on CD was first recorded as 24-bit digital audio (we wish!). This sets up the final paragraph where Creative asserts that reprocessing MP3 data into a 24-bit audio file will somehow make it sound better than a 16-bit CD. Sampling rates are not addressed.

To be fair, I have not sat down to carefully listen to the X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity audio processor work its audio Frankenstein magic, and the processing behind Xtreme Fidelity is impressive (at least on paper): 51 million transistors, capable of over 10,000 MIPS (million instructions per second, or roughly the number of machine instructions that a computer can execute in one second). The 24-bit output sports a "minimum SNR" of 110dB.

And for folks who want to use the X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity audio processor to record music, it is purportedly powerful enough to convert "any audio resolution to any other resolution at near transparency with 136dB THD+N and digital-matched recordings in resolutions from 44.1kHz to 96kHz."

However, my favorite claim from Creative for its new technology wipes aside high-resolution consumer audio formats in a single sentence: "Being able to upgrade an existing library of music to Xtreme Fidelity differentiates it from other high-end music standards such as DVD-A and SACD, which offer limited selection and require consumers to repurchase their music in that specific format."

There you have it. Run your MP3 files through the new Creative processor and you'll no longer need any of those pesky high-rez audio formats ever again. Or, as Creative puts it, "When consumers upgrade their CD or MP3 music to the new Xtreme Fidelity standard, they will be able to experience playback that sounds better than its original CD recording."

Who needs cumbersome high-resolution downloads—the future path for audio is clear: Download some MP3s, use Xtreme Fidelity to bring the music back to "better than CD" life and, presto, instant high-end sound at a fraction of the bandwidth! As Michael Fremer puts it, "Take a pile of hamburger and make a cow!"

Okay, I'm a little testy about this one. As audiophiles, we're ready to be skeptical when confronted with products (or processes) claiming to spin audio wool into gold, but the general public seems willing to swallow these kinds of promises in an effort to have it all. Our mission is therefore clear: Get out and educate your nearest teenager about audio reality (give 'em a subscription to Stereophile!) and this too shall pass.