It Sounds Like War-- Battling for the hearts and wallets of PC sound card buyers

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 be??.

While most everything about personal computers has dramatically changed?and mostly for the better over the decade, computer audio has been amazingly low-key. Sure, most PC-type computers in 1990 simply lacked any sound except the beeps and squawks of the built-in PC speaker.

But as soon as the concept that CD-ROM + Sound = Multimedia clicked (around 1992), Sound = Creative Labs? Sound Blaster standard. The original Sound Blaster evolved slowly and modestly, through Sound Blaster Pro and Sound Blaster 16 to Sound Blaster 32, AWE and other enhancements. But down deep, change was really pretty modest. Even models with grandiose-sounding 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 Blaster clones. In some ways, a situation that was good for an undemanding mass consumer 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. And 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 designs are offering fewer and fewer ISA slots, and both Intel and Microsoft are 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 sound chipset 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 stereo?s left to right panning, to offer more realistic sounds that seem to surround 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 driving force behind the home market, it has the potential of selling a lot of computers.

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 products from Diamond (their $150 Monster Sound MX300) and Turtle Beach. Aureal claims that their newest generation offers advanced raytracing to duplicate the 3D characteristics of a room, and occlusion, letting a sound from another 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! card.

Creative?s Sound Blaster Live! earns its exclamation mark. The  $299 card simultaneously meets the needs of game-players, multimedia developers, musicians, and audiophiles. Built-around the EMU10K1 processor, the card 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 tasks without putting a load on the computer?s main CPU (Amiga fans can sit back 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 series of well-respected samplers and synthesizers?and now owned by Creative Labs.

Like recent Creative Labs products, Live!  supports SoundFonts?actual sampled instrument sounds. Unlike earlier models, this no longer requires ram on the card itself?the card be set to use  2 to 32 megs of system 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 industry standard.

The developing consensus among game developers seems to be that A3D 2.0 is somewhat more realistic, but much harder to develop for. Both Creative 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 amplifier on the card helps account for its exceptionally noise-free output. It does, however, support two pairs of speakers?Creative strongly suggests using four speakers (as well as a sub-woofer) for the most realistic 3D, although 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 jack for connecting a multi-channel amplifier like Cambridge SoundWorks? Desktop Theatre System (also owned by Creative Labs). SPDIF in and out jacks for 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 Foundry?s Sound Forge XP 4.0. There?s also a collection of Creative?s sound utilities?long-timers may appreciate that the old DOS Talking Parrot is back in a 32-bit Windows edition.

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 those 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 higher-priced models from the bargain units.

Search WWW Search

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan