It Sounds Like War-- Battling for the hearts
and wallets of PC sound
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1999. First
published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, January 1999
It?s getting to be a war out there.
No, I?m not talking about operating systems. Not web
browsers. Not even
Microsoft against everybody else. I?m referring to sound cards.
?Sound cards?? I hear you wondering. ?How could it
While most everything about personal computers has
mostly for the better over the decade, computer audio has been
low-key. Sure, most PC-type computers in 1990 simply lacked any sound
the beeps and squawks of the built-in PC speaker.
But as soon as the concept that CD-ROM + Sound =
(around 1992), Sound = Creative Labs? Sound Blaster standard. The
Sound Blaster evolved slowly and modestly, through Sound Blaster Pro
Sound Blaster 16 to Sound Blaster 32, AWE and other enhancements. But
deep, change was really pretty modest. Even models with
names like Sound Blaster 32, 64 or 128 didn?t really offer 32 or 64-bit
sound quality?deep down, all were really 16-bit Sound Blaster 16s with
a few added features.
The result was low prices and even lower-priced Sound
In some ways, a situation that was good for an undemanding mass
market?as a result, every PC today is a multimedia PC, even those sold
to grey-flannel offices.
But the Sound Blaster (and imitators) were ISA-bus
devices, along with
modems, among the last of the peripherals to live on that legacy bus.
the ISA-bus is a dinosaur, sucking IRQ and CPU resources, and standing
in the way of easy and reliable plug and play. Newer motherboard
are offering fewer and fewer ISA slots, and both Intel and Microsoft
pushing PC-makers to drop the ISA-bus entirely. It was just a matter of
time before a new generation of sound devices left the ISA-bus and the
Sound Blaster heritage behind.
First off the mark was a series of devices featuring a
from Aureal. Available from a number of manufacturers, these all offer
so-called A3D?Aureal?s 3D sound offering. The idea is to move beyond
left to right panning, to offer more realistic sounds that seem to
the user, move forward and back as well.
3D sound is most desired by gamers, adding a new
dimension to game playing.
Look out! There?s someone behind you! And since game playing is the
force behind the home market, it has the potential of selling a lot of
Aureal models claim to be able to implement 3D sound
using only two
speakers, for software written to take advantage of their A3D standard.
The latest generation, A3D 2.0, works with Aureal?s new Vortex 2 AU8830
chip, a 3.3 million transistor unit. While Aureal?s first generation is
found in lots of clones, the company is limiting the new model to
from Diamond (their $150 Monster Sound MX300) and Turtle Beach. Aureal
claims that their newest generation offers advanced raytracing to
the 3D characteristics of a room, and occlusion, letting a sound from
room not just sound quieter, but realistically muffled.
Creative Labs is not sitting still and letting Aureal
pick off the cream
of the home gaming market, however.
The company is jumping, feet-first into the fray, with
a new generation
of PCI-based products, also offering realistic 3D sound.
The top of the line is the new Sound Blaster Live!
Creative?s Sound Blaster Live! earns its exclamation
$299 card simultaneously meets the needs of game-players, multimedia
musicians, and audiophiles. Built-around the EMU10K1 processor, the
features a clean, 115-decibel signal-to-noise ratio, for sound quality
that rivals home stereo systems.
The 4+ million transistors of the EMU10K1 are more
than the number found
on a Pentium CPU? using the processor?s 1000 MIPS power, combined with
the card?s PCI design, the Sound Blaster Live! can carry out complex
without putting a load on the computer?s main CPU (Amiga fans can sit
and gloat that PCs are finally getting a capability that Amigas had in
1985). The EMU chip comes from E-mu Systems?known to musicians for a
of well-respected samplers and synthesizers?and now owned by Creative
Like recent Creative Labs products, Live!
sampled instrument sounds. Unlike earlier models, this no longer
ram on the card itself?the card be set to use 2 to 32 megs of
ram for storing sets of SoundFonts for more realistic MIDI playback.
Creative is countering Aureal?s A3D programming
standard with its own
EAX Environmental Audio. EAX is an extension of Microsoft?s DirectSound
interface to allow programmers to produce realistic 3D effects. Unlike
earlier Creative standards, EAX is being opened to other companies?ESS
and QSound are currently on-board, and Creative is hoping it become an
The developing consensus among game developers seems
to be that A3D
2.0 is somewhat more realistic, but much harder to develop for. Both
and Aureal are reportedly throwing around money to encourage developers
to write games using their standards?some games, like the cutting edge
Unreal, support both.
Sound Blaster Live! is a small PCI card, with the
standard set of joystick/midi
port, line in, mike in, and speaker ports. Unlike older Sound Blasters,
there?s no support for unamplified speakers?the lack of a small
on the card helps account for its exceptionally noise-free output. It
however, support two pairs of speakers?Creative strongly suggests using
four speakers (as well as a sub-woofer) for the most realistic 3D,
the card can be used with a single pair of speakers.
In addition, this model comes with an additional set
of outputs, of
most interest to music and multimedia professionals. These outputs use
up an additional slot?and provide digital I/O. There?s a digital DIN
for connecting a multi-channel amplifier like Cambridge SoundWorks?
Theatre System (also owned by Creative Labs). SPDIF in and out jacks
connecting a digital audio tape (DAT) machine, and real MIDI in and out
ports beloved of pro-musicians.
The bundled software reflects this professional focus.
Along with the
Unreal game, there are copies of Cakewalk Express Gold and Sonic
Sound Forge XP 4.0. There?s also a collection of Creative?s sound
may appreciate that the old DOS Talking Parrot is back in a 32-bit
Most users won?t need the pro I/O hardware and
software. Those users
are best served by the Sound Blaster Live! Value Edition, dropping
features, but offering the same high quality 3D sound for the same $149
as Diamond?s MX300.
The war between Aureal and Creative Labs provides a
dramatic jump in
sound quality, and provides vendors a way to differentiate
models from the bargain units.