Top 3 Products & Services
Dated: Aug. 13, 2004
The Revolution 7.1 sound card beats everything we've heard, by combining eight-speaker support with incredible clarity.
So you think your PC's sound system is pretty slick? If you're a high-end PC user, you probably have a 5.1-channel speaker system and a discrete sound card capable of 24-bit audio sampling, a 100 dB signal to noise ratio, and 96-KHz audio playback.
While those specifications are impressive, they don't hold a candle to the absolute best PC audio configuration you can get. For that, you need to look to M-Audio's new Revolution 7.1. This sound card even goes beyond the specifications of a Sound Blaster Audigy 2. The Revolution matches the Audigy 2's 24-bit sampling and 1 92-KHz stereo playback, and while the Audigy 2 is limited to just 96-KHz playback when outputting to more than two channels, the Revolution 7.1 generates crisp 1 92-KHz sound in any configuration. The card even surpasses the Audigy2's signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), delivering an amazingly clear 107dB audio stream with just 0.003 percent Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) as opposed to the Audigy 2's 106dB playback with 0.004 percent THD.
Eight is Enough
While the typical sound card can support up to six speakers in a 5.1 -channel configuration (five satellites and a subwoofer), the Revolution 7.1 can route sound to eight speakers in a 7.1-channel configuration (seven satellites and a subwoofer).
A 5.1-channel audio configuration places a pair of satellites in front of you, one to the right and the other to the left. A center channel speaker is placed between these satellites, and another pair of satellites is placed behind you to the right and left. A subwoofer is placed in a corner of the room. This speaker configuration creates surround sound, which makes you feel as if you're right in the middle of the action of your DVD movie, 3D game, or other entertainment source.
The drawback of 5.1-channel audio, however, is that sound is more robust and audio moves from left to right more fluidly in front of you than it does behind. This is because of the center-channel speaker in the front. This added speaker in between the right and left front satellites transfers sound from the left satellite to the right very smoothly.
Creative rectified this issue with its Sound Blaster Audigy 2, which supports a 6.1-channel configuration that places a rear center-channel speaker between the two rear satellites. This allows sound to move behind you as well as it does in front of you, though it leaves a hole in the audio playback to each side. This makes it difficult for sound to move from front to back, or vice versa, smoothly.
The 7.1-channel audio support of the Revolution 7.1 changes that. By adding an additional rear channel into the mix, the Revolution 7.1 allows you to reposition the speakers to better encircle you. This configuration places the two front satellites and front center channel in their typical placements, but moves what had been the rear satellites to your sides and the two new rear center channel speakers behind you.
The Revolution 7.1 won't force you to replace your existing 5.1-channel speaker system, though. The card can be set to output audio to a 5.1-channel setup, and can also connect to a 6.1-channel, 4.1 -channel, and 2.1-channel, or even basic two-piece speaker system.
Installing the Revolution 7.1
Despite its remarkably sophisticated features, the Revolution 7.1 is a snap to install. When we first took the card out of the box, we were amazed by how small it was; it's a fairly compact blue-colored card that will easily fit into any desktop PC. Interestingly, M-Audio has developed drivers to make the card fully compatible with the latest PowerMacs.
Looking over the card, we realized how M-Audio was able to keep its size down. While the Audigy 2 has a vast array of internal headers, the Revolution 7.1 doesn't offer a single one. The back plate of the card features a coaxial digital audio output, a microphone input, a line-in port, and four line-out ports to accommodate the left and right front, front center, left and right rear, and left and right rear center speakers. But, there aren't any internal ports where you can connect a daughter bracket that accommodates a game/MIDI, FireWire, coaxial digital input, or optical input or output port.
The loss of the first two isn't important, since virtually no one uses the game/MIDI port anymore and Fire-Wire ports are increasingly being integrated onto new motherboards. If you're a serious audiophile, however, the lack of the three digital audio interfaces could be a real problem-enough to steer you toward an Audigy 2. If you just want a sound card to play 3D games and DVD movies in the best surround sound possible, you should never miss these specialized ports.
Limited Support for Your CDs
The more questionable omission was the internal audio header. Optical drives have three ways to play the music from audio CDs. The first, and most common, is through a three-wire analog audio cable that connects between the four-pin analog CD audio port on the back of the optical drive and the four-pin analog CD audio header on the sound card. Think of this plug on the back of the optical drive as the internal equivalent of the headphone jack that you'll find on the front of most optical drives.
The second way that CD audio can be outputted is via a two-wire digital CD audio cable connected between the two-pin digital audio output on the back of the optical drive and the two-pin digital audio header on the sound card. This interface provides a pure digital signal that relies on the sound card to convert this audio stream into an analog signal that the speakers can reproduce. In reality, the difference between using the analog and digital internal audio cables is indistinguishable to most listeners, but if you demand the best, go with the digital connection.
The third way is Digital Audio Extraction (DAE). In this method, the optical drive transfers the audio data from the disc to the system RAM as fast as it can via an IDE cable that connects the drive to the motherboard. The sound card then picks up this data and converts the digital audio stream it generates into an analog waveform that your speakers can understand.
This method generates audio that's as clear as the second method, but without the need for a separate internal audio cable. The downsides to this method, however, are it adds traffic to the PCI bus, older CD-ROM drives don't support DAE, and since optical drives transfer this audio data to the system as fast as they can read the disc, the drives make a fair amount of noise. Since the Revolution 7.1 doesn't offer any internal analog or digital audio headers, you'll have to use the DAE method when playing a CD.The Revolution 7.1 could have improved on the Audigy 2 by including a pair of digital audio headers, but it missed the mark. As most desktop PCs today feature two optical drives (usually a DVD-ROM and CD-RW), each offering an analog and digital output, it makes sense to include two digital inputs. But the Revolution, like the Audigy 2 before it, neglects to include a second digital input, instead opting for one digital and three analog inputs.
We installed the Revolution 7.1 as we would any PCI card: We opened the case, removed the old sound card from the motherboard, and plugged the Revolution 7.1 into the last PCI slot to minimize electrical noise from the video card. After securing it with a screw and closing the case, we turned on the PC, waited for Windows to load, and loaded the card's installation CDs. We used these to install the Revolution 7.1's drivers and the collection of software that comes with it, including WinDVD 4, MixMan Studio, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3.
We then made sure that DAE was enabled. To do this in Windows XP, we right-clicked My Computer and selected Properties from the drop-down list. We clicked the Hardware tab and then Device Manager. Next, we clicked the plus sign to the left of the DVD/CD-ROM selection on the list, right-clicked on our CD-RW drive, and selected Properties from the dropdown list. We clicked on the Properties tab and made sure there was a check in the box beside "Enable digital CD audio for this CD-ROM device." After following the same procedure for our DVD-ROM drive, we played an audio CD in each drive to make sure they both worked.
Our next step was to connect our speakers. True 7.1 sets are currently expensive and hard to come by, so we jury-rigged two sets of 5.1-channel Logitech speakers: the Z-680 ($399) and the Z-640 ($99). We attached the side and rear channel speakers to one subwoofer and attached it to the corresponding jacks on the sound card. We attached the front and center channel speakers to the second subwoofer, and attached it to the front channel jacks on the sound card. This technically created a 7.2 setup, since two subwoofers were connected. We turned the sub-woofer for the front channel speakers all the way down so it was inaudible. Front channel speakers receive very little of the bass signals.
You can use a set of 5.1 or 6.1 speakers with the Revolution 7.1 and be ready for the future when 7.1 speaker sets become common and affordable.
The card was now ready to go, so we popped in The Matrix on DVD and were blown away by the immersive audio stream on our seven satellite speakers. While we'd like to see a few more interfaces on the card, we have nothing but accolades for its sound quality.
Now that you've gotten free know-how on this topic, try to grow your skills even faster with online video training. Then finally, put these skills to the test and make a name for yourself by offering these skills to others by becoming a freelancer. There are literally 2000+ new projects that are posted every single freakin' day, no lie!