New quality sound cards

The competition for both external and internal mainstream, feature-rich sound cards is heating up. In the May 2003 edition of Australian PC World we looked at M-Audio’s Sonica Theatre external USB sound card that competes with Creative’s Extigy device, and in the January 2003 issue we reviewed Creative’s SoundBlaster Audigy 2, an internal PCI sound card. New offerings abound, and some of the latest are reviewed below.

To appreciate the quality of a sound card you need a decent set of PC speakers. At the time of writing, there were no 7.1 channel speakers on the market with which to test these 7.1 channel cards. However, Creative has a set of $299 Inspire 6600 6.1 speakers available (also in January 2003), so it can’t be long before you can buy speaker sets with seven satellites and a subwoofer.

M-Audio Revolution 7.1

Courtesy of an Envy 24HT sound chip, the Revolution can play back eight channels of DVD-Audio-quality sound (24-bit/192KHz) using the included Intervideo WinDVD software. Two features in the Revolution’s drivers — SRS Labs’ TruSurround XT and Circle Surround II — help it fill a room with sound through just about any speaker arrangement.

The Revolution has no internal analog or S/PDIF connectors, which simplifies setup but also means that your CD or DVD drive must support digital playback (some older drives don’t; check your PC first). A simple but effective control panel lets you adjust your speaker setup, including the crossover points and delays.

In my tests of a shipping unit with MP3, CD, and DVD audio, the card produced remarkably crisp and accurate sound (it boasts a 107dB signal-to-noise ratio). A coaxial digital-audio-out connector lets you connect to either a standard home stereo or powered speakers.

The one drawback: the Revolution package feels a little short on extras. You get MixMan Studio, Vjay Lite, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, but an editing app for .wav files such as WaveLab would have been nice, too.

This aside, I found the Revolution to be a top-notch product. Audio-loving PC owners should seriously consider it alongside the better-known SoundBlaster Audigy 2 from Creative Labs.

- Eric Dahl

Price: $269
Distributor: Electric factory
Phone: (03) 9480 5988

Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space

Terratec’s new flagship consumer card, the Aureon 7.1 Space, not only adds high-quality audio entertainment for PCs, but supports impressive eight-channel sound. With this card hooked up inside your PC you can set up one centre satellite, two fronts, two sides, two rears and a subwoofer for serious audio pleasure.

The card features 24-bit/96KHz digital-to-analog converters (DACs) with 24-bit/192KHz for resolution recording. You’ll need Windows XP for eight-channel support and Windows XP with Service Pack 1 for 192KHz playback. Although the DVD-Audio format is supported, no software player is bundled. The signal-to-noise ratio is more than 100dB and the card has gold connectors for the best signal connection. The specification list is similar to that of Creative’s Audigy 2 sound card, as is the impressive output quality. PC musicians will be pleased to hear there’s also a dedicated ASIO driver to help with low latency audio or MIDI recordings.

Bundled software includes Wavelab Lite and Emagic Logic Fun. The Aureon would benefit from coming with a breakout box for a wider array of inputs/outputs, but we’d recommended it to anyone looking for one of the best sound cards on the market.

– Spencer Dalziel

Price: $399
Distributor: Major Music
Phone: (02) 9545 3540

Terratec Aureon 5.1 Fun

This entry-level card may lack the high-end specifications of the flagship Aureon but it’s superb value for money and will suit anyone working on a budget.

The 5.1 Fun card offers 16-bit/48KHz playback and recording, so it can’t compete with the quality of its bigger brother. That said, audio quality is impressive enough and you can pick up budget 5.1 speakers for about $150. Overall, then, you can get an excellent 5.1 audio solution for under $300. The port selection on the card is the same as the 7.1 Space, but this card is also bundled with a MIDI game port.

We were impressed that Terratec left in most of the software bundle. Not only do you get the versatile Musicmatch, you also get Emagic’s Logic Fun so you can use your PC as a recording studio.

– Spencer Dalziel

Price: $119
Distributor: Major Music
Phone: (02) 9545 3540

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