Creative Labs takes SoundBlaster to USB

For the PC user with discerning ears and who doesn't want to settle for the modest audio capabilities of the motherboard, Creative Labs is preparing a pair of new USB SoundBlasters that don't require access to a PCI slot--meaning even a notebook can get better sound.

The SoundBlaster MP3+ is expected to ship in May priced about US$60. The SoundBlaster Go, which is basically the same product bundled with headphones, is scheduled for release in July, carrying a US$80 price tag.

This sound card doesn't require cracking open the PC case and inserting a card--an intimidating operation for many users. The audio that comes with the PC is good enough for many people, and it's cheaper; but Creative Labs hopes its products' ease of installation will persuade users to consider their new options.

Sort of Portables

Despite their USB connection--and the words "MP3" and "Go" in the product names--these are not portable MP3 players. They play music only when plugged into a computer.

But thanks to their external nature and USB connection, they should be very easy to install. Just plug them in, run the driver-installation software, and they're ready to use (they will work just as well in USB 1.1 and 2.0 ports). This makes them especially useful for notebooks, where there's simply no option to open up the PC and insert a PCI card.

In fact, the more expensive SoundBlaster Go, with its noise-cancellation headphones, is targeted specifically at notebook users. These headphones will contain microphones that sample ambient noise to better cancel it out, according to Creative Labs. The idea is that you can listen to music in an airport or airplane without hearing the annoying hubbub in the background.

The headphones, if sold alone, would cost about US$70, says Danny Sanchez, SoundBlaster product manager. He declined to say which overseas firm is making the headphones.

Why Go for More?

The MP3+ and Go have features similar to those in Creative Labs' lower-cost sound cards, which still puts them above the built-in capabilities of most PCs.

They can boost bass and remove noise, including the pops and clicks from old analog sources. They come with a software-controlled ten-band graphic equalizer with presets for musical genres like rock and jazz. They can even out the volume of multiple MP3 files so you don't have to keep fiddling with the dial. Implementing an idea similar to Dolby Headphone technology, they can create a surround-like illusion through standard stereo speakers or headphones. And they come with Creative MediaSource software for managing and creating music files.

But they won't measure up to the best high-end audio cards. They can't decode Dolby Digital or directly feed a true surround setup (they can pass a Dolby Digital signal through to something that can decode it, such as a good amplifier). And they don't support 24-bit audio or DVD Audio. But as Creative Labs points out, they do work with notebooks.

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