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Upgrading Your Upgrades, Part 4: Super Sound Cards

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Upgrading Your Upgrades, Part 4: Super Sound Cards

Many of todays low-cost and mid-range PCs have integrated sound on-board. If you dont play games or listen to music very much, integrated sound may be adequate, and it certainly saves you some money (and an expansion slot). However, before you use up your last PCI slot with another type of add-on card, you should find out what youre missing if you dont use one of todays high-performance sound cards.

Even though a high-performance sound card can cost you anywhere from $80 to as much as $250, I believe that if you care about the quality of music and 3D sound effects and want the best sound input/output options, youll find that high-performance sound cards are well worth the price.

This article helps you discover some of the reasons why and the products you should consider:

Digital Output for Digital Sound

Most systems with integrated sound offer the same limited input-output options available on the sound cards of the mid-1990's:

  • three mini-jacks for audio input and output
  • a 15-pin joystick connector

Mini-jack output is analog output designed to drive basic 2-speaker (stereo) or 4-speaker (directional) sound systems. However, if youre wanting to drive a digital 5.1 speaker system or get the full benefit of Dolby-enhanced DVD movies, mini-jack output just isnt going to do the job for you.

While a few motherboards with integrated sound offer ACR risers with S/PDIF digital output and the software drivers necessary for high quality output, this option is rare. However, todays best sound cards feature various kinds of digital input and output, enabling you to connect to digital speakers, home theater systems, and other types of audio devices.

Getting the Connections You Need

The space for I/O ports at the rear of a conventional sound card is limited; if you need output to Dolby 5.1 digital speakers, S/PDIF output to home theater systems, or MIDI jacks, you need more outputs than can fit on the rear of a sound card. And, if you’re among the increasing number of computer users who are editing digital video, you might also need to add an IEEE-1394 (FireWire) port to your system.

Look for sound cards that feature a breakout box or DIN ports to provide the additional connectors needed.

Faster and Better 3D Audio

Motherboards which feature chipsets with integrated sound, rather than those which use a separate sound chip, often suffer from slow 3D performance in both video and audio modes. Using a separate sound card can free up the chipset to perform its other duties. The newest sound cards also feature advanced programmable sound chips to enable game designers to produce increasingly realistic soundscapes.

The Contenders

Although the rise of integrated audio has led to a big decline in the numbers of name-brand sound cards on the market, there are several recent models worth considering if you’re in search of better sound:

  • Sound Blaster Audigy (Creative Labs)
  • Game Theater XP (Hercules)
  • Acoustic Edge PSC706 (Philips)

Here are the highlights of each of these in turn, starting with the least expensive.

Philips PSC706 Acoustic Edge

The Acoustic Edge, which sells for around $80 US, uses Philips’ own SAA7785 ThunderBird Avenger sound chip (originally developed by VLSI, now a division of Philips) to drive its features. Unlike the competition, the Acoustic Edge doesn’t have a breakout box, but it does offer dual 9-pin DIN connections. The analog output DIN connector provides output for front, rear, and center/subwoofer speakers, while the digital DIN input/output connector supports RCA-jack S/PDIF input and output cables. Whether you have digital or analog speakers, the Acoustic Edge will help you get high quality sound with either 4.1 or 5.1 speaker configurations. Unlike some cards, the separate analog and digital connections allow you to connect to both analog and digital inputs at the same time.

The Acoustic Edge uses Qsound’s QEM engine which supports Creative Labs-compliant EAX positional sound, Direct 3D, MIDI with 6MB of samples and Yamaha’s XG50 MIDI synthesizer, QSurround and QMSS surround sound. It features a signal to noise ratio of over 92dB, which means that you will hear high-quality sound with virtually no background noise.

You can’t connect an IEEE-1394 card or a breakout box to the Acoustic Edge, but it provides high-quality sound at up to a 48KHz-sampling rate (DVD quality) for both digital and analog applications.

Hercules Game Theater XP

The Game Theater XP is remarkable for both its price (street price around $130) and its features. It offers an external breakout box (“external rack” in Hercules-speak) and support for up to 6.1 digital sound to enable you to get the full benefit of the latest DVD movies with Dolby Digital EX sound, such as Fight Club and Seven.

Unlike Philips and Creative Labs, Hercules went to an outside source for its sound chip, using the Cirrus Logic Crystal CS4630 Sound Fusion chip as the heart of the card. The CS4630 has a 90db+ dynamic range, support for all popular 3D sound APIs including Direct3D, Aureal A3D 1.0, and Creative’s EAX 1.0 and 2.0.

Unlike other cards, which split up I/O connectors between the rear of the card and extension cables or a breakout box, the only connectors on the rear of the Game Theater XP are a proprietary DB44 connector to the double-sided external rack (Hercules’ term for its breakout box) and a mini-jack (1/8 inch) for line in.

The external rack’s I/O ports provide an immense number of interface possibilities, since they include these front-side connectors:

  • 1/4 inch headphone output
  • 1/4 inch line-in or microphone jack
  • RCA left & right line-in jacks
  • 15-pin game port
  • 2 USB ports

The back side of the rack has the following ports:

  • mini-jack stereo line out
  • mini-jack surround sound line out
  • RCA stereo, surround, and center/subwoofer line out
  • 2 USB ports
  • DB44 connector to computer
  • RCA-plug and optical S/PDIF input and output jacks
  • MIDI input and output jacks

At first glance, the USB ports might seem out-of-place next to the dedicated audio ports, but they allow you to connect USB speakers (and other USB peripherals such as input devices and printers) to your system without crawling around behind your desk. If your USB peripherals don’t require a lot of power, you might be able to use the external rack’s USB ports (which are powered by the PCI bus) as a replacement for your current USB hub.

The Hercules Game Theater XP provides outstanding 3D gaming and music sound and has very low CPU utilization. If you don’t need the breakout box, but want the performance of the Cirrus Logic/Crystal CS4630 chip, look for the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz card (around $80).

Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy

The Audigy series, like the Sound Blaster Live! series it replaces, features a variety of hardware and software bundles customized for gamers, digital audio fans, and hardcore audio producers.

Audigy bundles include the following:

  • Audigy Gamer (Creative games bundle)
  • Audigy MP3+ (support for IEEE-1394 DV camcorders and drives, digital sound editing software and MP3/WMA rippers)
  • Audigy Platinum (internal breakout box, wireless remote control, music creation tools)
  • Audigy Platinum eX (external breakout box, wireless remote control, music creation tools)

All Audigy products are based on Creative’s Audigy audio chip, also known as the E-Mu 10K2, which features a signal-to-noise ratio of 100dB, the highest of any sound cards in this overview. Audigy also supports the next generation of EAX positional audio, EAX Advanced HD, which is designed to more accurately simulate sounds as they are influenced by interior walls, corridors, walls, and so forth. While most sound cards create different effects for the different sounds, EAX Advanced HD creates different environments for up to four sounds. EAX Advanced HD also cleans up noise and clicks from old analog music sources and MP3s, provides for distortion-free time scaling (no more “Alvin and the Chipmunks” effects from speeding up a song), and enhanced surround sound. Although Audigy cards record using the DVD-standard 16-bit/48KHz sampling rate, they use a 24-bit/96KHz DAC (digital-analog converter) for better sound quality. The Audigy card, unlike any other soundcard, can also record from multiple analog sources.

All Audigy products feature an impressive array of I/O ports on the rear of the card, including:

  • line in
  • microphone in
  • front speaker out
  • rear speaker out
  • digital out/Center-subwoofer analog out
  • IEEE-1394 port (SB1394)

Because Creative Labs isn’t satisfied with the results of industry compatibility testing for IEEE-1394 devices, it is testing devices for compatibility with its SB1394 port. You can see the latest list of SB1394 compatible devices on its Web site www.soundblaster.com/sb1394/.

Opt for one of the Platinum-series cards, and you get even more I/O options. The Audigy Platinum comes with an internal AudigyDrive internal breakout box (which fits into a 5.25-inch drive bay), while the top-of-the-line Audigy Platinum eX features an external Audigy Drive breakout box. Both feature the following ports:

  • S/PDIF out
  • Optical I/O
  • Additional aux in
  • Additional line in
  • Additional mic in
  • Headphone out
  • IR Receiver (for remote control)
  • SB1394 I/O

The Audigy Platinum eX offers automatic microphone mode-switching, won’t take up a drive bay, and has more bundled software than its kin, the Audigy Platinum. The bundled remote control can be used to tweak audio playback from across the room with either the Audigy Platinum or Audigy Platinum eX.

To attach the external AudigyDrive to the Audigy Platinum eX, you must first connect the Audigy card to the Audigy Extension, a PCI card which brings Audigy signals out to the rear of the system along with a gameport. Then, you attach a cable between the external Audigy Drive and the Audigy Extension. Thus, an Audigy Platinum eX installation uses two PCI slots. The Audigy Platinum uses a second slot only if you need to use the 15-pin joystick/MIDI adapter, since it connects directly to its internal Audigy Drive with a ribbon cable. This same adapter is also used with the lower-cost Audigy models which don’t include the Audigy Drive.

The Audigy Gamer and MP3+ versions retail for about $100 each, while picking up the Audigy Platinum with its additional software bundle and internal Audigy Drive will run you about $200. Go for broke with the Audigy Platinum eX and your wallet will be about $250 lighter. Keep in mind that the integrated IEEE-1394-compatible SB1394 port means that you might not need to buy a $60-80 IEEE-1394 card for your system. Thus, if you’re planning to upgrade both your I/O and your sound then the Audigy series can put you dollars ahead.

Which Card is Right for You?

If you are primarily concerned about connecting to multiple-speaker arrays, any of the sound cards profiled here is an excellent choice, either as an upgrade to integrated sound or as a replacement for an older, less-capable PCI or ISA sound card. If you want an external breakout box but have only one slot to spare, the Hercules Game Theater XP fits the bill. Sound Blaster’s Audigy series offers you the widest assortment of software bundles, along with an integrated IEEE-1394 port, which may enable you to remove an existing IEEE-1394 card to free up a PCI slot. You may be able to add an Audigy Drive to your Audigy Gamer or MP3+ card in the future, but at present, if you want the extra ports, buy the Platinum-series model you prefer.

While it may be difficult to choose between these products, any of them will provide you with a big step upwards from typical integrated sound, especially if you’re a dedicated gamer or audiophile.

If you use Windows XP, you'll be pleased to know that it has support for all of the cards in this roundup, although a visit to the vendor’s Web site for a driver download may be needed.

For Further Reading
Philips PSC706 Acoustic Edge

Visit the Philips Web site for the PSC706 Acoustic Edge at:
www.pcsound.philips.com/acoustic.html

Check out recent reviews:
3D Sound Surge
www.3dsoundsurge.com/reviews/AcousticEdge/AcousticEdge.html

The TechZone
www.thetechzone.com/reviews/soundcard/philips/acoustic_edge/index.shtml

ZDNet
www.zdnet.com/products/stories/reviews/0,4161,2699763,00.html

Read the datasheet for the SAA7785 ThunderBird Avenger chip used by the Acoustic Edge and other Philips sound cards:
www.semiconductors.philips.com/pip/SAA7785HT/4

Hercules Game Theater XP

Visit the Hercules website for the Game Theater XP at
us.hercules.com/products/product.php3?id=17

To get 6.1 speaker capabilities (and improved 5.1 speaker capability and Windows XP support), download the newest drivers from
us.hercules.com/support/driver_view.php3?prodid=344

Get a close-up look at the external rack and the card’s features with the 3D Spotlight review:
www.3dspotlight.com/reviews/hardware/gametheaterxp/index.shtml

3D SoundSurge digs deep into the GameTheater XP’s speaker configurations in its review:
3dsoundsurge.com/reviews/GameTheaterXP/gtxp.html

Read the datasheet for the Cirrus Logic/Crystal CS4630 sound chip which powers both the Game Theater XP and the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz at: www.crystal.com/design/products/overview/index.cfm?DivisionID=2&
SubdivisionID=2&ProductID=42

Creative Audigy Series

Compare the features and prices of Audigy-series cards at the Creative Labs SoundBlaster Web site:
www.soundblaster.com/products/

Wondering how the EMU 10K1 chip used by the SoundBlaster Live! series compares to the Audigy’s EMU 10K2 (Audigy) chip? See the Motherboard.Org review and comparison at:
www.motherboards.org/articlesd/hardware-reviews/967_2.html.

Check out Tom’s Hardware for the history of the EMU-series chips used by both the Creative Live! series and the new Audigy series cards in its review at:
www6.tomshardware.com/video/01q3/010927/index.html

Comparison Shopping

See how these and other recent sound cards compare; read the “More than a SoundBlaster” shootout at the Tom’s Hardware web site
www6.tomshardware.com/video/01q3/010925/

Copyright©2002 Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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