CES - High-quality computer sound moves outside the PC

High-quality computer audio is no longer limited to desktop PCs. Notebook users and owners of nonexpandable PCs will be able to get the same audio experience, thanks to a new product from Creative Technology Ltd.: the Sound Blaster Extigy.

Unveiled here at last week's Consumer Electronics Show, the US$149 card is Creative's first external sound card. The USB (Universal Serial Bus)-connected Extigy offers sound quality on a par with Creative's Audigy internal sound cards, which were the first mainstream sound cards to offer features like high-quality 24-bit, 96-KHz Digital Audio Converters.

"We've put a lot of work into engineering the signal path for [the Audigy products]," says George Thorn, Creative's director of audio marketing for desktop products. "And we've used that same path for Extigy."

The Extigy shares many of Audigy's features, including optical digital-in and -out ports, Dolby Digital 5.1 support for multispeaker surround sound, and support for some of Creative's EAX Advanced HD effects that can clean up poorly recorded audio tracks, speed up or slow down audio seamlessly, or up-mix stereo sound to use all the speakers of your surround speaker setup.

"For music playback and movies, we're delivering the same experience [as Audigy], outside of the box," Thorn says.

Making changes

Doing that required some changes from the Audigy design. Extigy connects to your PC through a USB port. Other connectors include a separate microphone, line-in and headphone connectors, MIDI-in and -out ports, a coaxial digital connector, a 1/8-inch digital-out connector, and three 1/8-inch speaker outputs, covering the six Dolby 5.1 channels.

Sending sound over USB is fine when simply playing two-channel audio, or working with MP3s, but the situation gets more complex when you move to digital surround sound. Audigy uses the PC's CPU (central processing unit) to decode Dolby Digital tracks. Extigy includes a hardware Dolby Digital decoder, which doesn't rely on the PC's CPU.

Including the decoder on the card allows Extigy to serve as more than a PC sound card. Extigy can connect to an Xbox, a consumer DVD player, or any other device that outputs surround sound and send that signal to a set of powered speakers.

The Extigy includes Creative's PlayCenter 3 music manager software, IM Networks's IM Tuner (an Internet Radio application), MixMeister Technologies' MixMeister (a DJ-style mixer), and basic recording software.

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