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Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live Platinum 5.1 10/10

The sound card is the heart of any music setup. This is a great card. It has all the features a computer musician could wish for. There is digital optical in and out (as well as SPDIF in and out), line in, two line outs, mic in etc. It records and plays back audio at 16 bit 44 kHz like most sound cards. The quality is better than previous Live cards, sounding cleaner and more crisp. The Live can also decode Dolby Digital audio and output it to analog (or you can output it digitally). The Live Drive unit (seen in the middle of the picture, which a headphone plugged into it), fits in a spare drive bay, and gives you access to most of the ports of this card instantly, such as a mic in (with gain control) and a headphone out (with a volume switch). At last there is also an RCA in for connecting external hi-fi separates to the computer. There is also a Digital DIN output, for connecting to the Cambridge Soundworks Speaker set for watching films. The remote control supplied can control many of the functions of the card, such as play, stop or launching programmes. I have not used the remote much, but I am sure users who use the computer as their DVD player of choice will end up using it a lot.

Installing the SB Live Platinum is a quick affair. Just open the computer, slot in the Live into a free PCI slot and place the Live Drive in a drive bay. Upon turning on the computer, Windows recognised the SB Live and the driver installation went without a hitch. In the past sound card installations took hours, now it seems to take minutes.

The software bundle is impressive considering that the card costs £140. There is Cubasis VST, Wavelab Lite, Recycle Lite and several other lesser known programmes, which I suspect most people will not install straight away. Together these programmes certainly cost more than £140. The software bundle is certainly enough for you to make a decent song. There is also a special upgrade scheme whereby you can upgrade these limited editions to the full versions. I suspect most people will take up this offer. There is also a download called LiveWare which is updated every months adding new features to you sound card. Like previous SB Live cards there are EAX effects, such as reverb, echo etc. These can be applied to the outputs, without straining your processor (since the effects are processed by the card's EMU10K1 chip). Creative Labs claim this chip gives you crystal clear audio files - I would have to agree with this. The card also provides hardware acceleration for DirectSound as well as the afore mentioned EAX effects. Also like previous SB Live sound cards, this Live supports soundfonts. You can load up all sorts of soundfonts and access them through the midi. Soundfonts are essentially instruments, which let you expand the range of sounds available from your sound card. There are many excellent sound fonts available for download including an excellent piano set (which is far better then the one included with the SB Live Plat). Check out http://www.hammersound.com for downloading free soundfonts.

Some people may be expecting 24 bit 96 kHz audio in this product, but frankly it is so fully featured I cannot see how Creative Labs could include this without considerably increasing the price. Now go out and buy this! The only other competitor I can think of is one of the Terratec range, which offers 24 bit 96 kHz but does not have the huge number of inputs and outputs on the Live 5.1.