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Terratec Aureon Vs. AudioTrak Prodigy
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Date: Sep 18, 2003
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: HH Editor
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Terratec Aureon Vs. AudioTrak Prodigy - Page 1

Terratec Aureon Vs. AudioTrak Prodigy
Two 7.1 24-Bit/192kHz Cards Under $150

by Jeff Bouton
September 18, 2003



For a long time, when you thought of a sound card there were two basic choices; there were cards from Creative Labs and then there was everyone else.  However, over recent years, there has been an increasing number of challengers, both new and old, looking to take a piece of Creative's pie.  Recently, we've seen some compelling choices arrive from M-Audio, AudioTrak and Terratec.  Each offers a moderately priced, yet powerful audio card based around VIA's ICEnsemble Envy 24HT audio processor, which provides 5.1, 6.1 and 7.1 surround sound functionality.  The processor also offers up some advanced features, that help the card reach the widest audience, from the casual gamer to the audiophile looking for advanced recording and editing functionality.  While there are a few flavors of the Envy such as the 24 and 24PT, the 24HT is a powerful, cost effective processor that can be utilized in audio card designs or motherboards, to provide high end features for a reasonable price point. 

A while back our man Rob Maloney took an M-Audio Revolution 7.1 for a spin, pitting it against an Audigy 2 from Creative.  This time around, we have a go at two offerings from some seasoned veterans of the audio world, the Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space and the AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1.
 

Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space Bundle And Setup
A Lot of Potential



The Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space Bundle
 
Terratec Aureon 7.1 audio card
Aureon 7.1 User Guide
Cyberlink PowerDVD4
WaveLab Lite 2.0
MusicMatch Jukebox 7.1
Optical Audio Cable
Drivers

The Terratec Aureon 7.1 package included a fair amount of useful software including MusicMatch Jukebox and Cyberlink's PowerDVD 4.  For advanced editing capabilities, a copy of WaveLab Lite is included.  To top things off, Terratec included a "HotStuff" folder on the CD with a great selection of popular shareware titles.

The multilingual manual included an overview of the basic features of the Aureon 7.1 Space as well as detailed installation instructions.  Beyond that, we found the documentation rather brief, failing to cover the intricacies of the driver's features.  While it's doubtful that the experienced user will have any major questions, the novice will be left with little documentation to help get their questions answered, or to just get more familiar with their new audio card.

Along with the card and documentation, Terratec also included an Optical Audio Cable for connecting to the optical audio input/outputs of the Aureon 7.1.


Setup:

The Installation CD automatically runs, launching an intuitive interface as a portal to all of the CD's contents.  Along with the necessary drivers, there was a nice collection of other features to be found.  This is where the installers for the included software can be accessed as well as the Hot Stuff folder that has an ample collection of audio editing software demos.


 

AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1 Bundle And Setup
Looking good

The AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1 Bundle

AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1 audio card
Prodigy 7.1 User Guide
InterVideo WinDVD4
FASOFT nTrack Studio
Emersys Maven 3D Pro
SpinAudio
Drivers

The AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1 included its own complimentary software, including InterVideo's WinDVD4.  For the advanced user or the novice looking to dabble in audio editing, copies of nTrack Studio, Maven 3D Pro and Spin Audio are included to take advantage of the card's native sound processing capabilities.

AudioTrak included a monolingual manual which included details of every aspect of the card.  Along with a complete overview of the Prodigy's features, detailed instructions were provided as well as thorough coverage of the complimentary software included on the setup CD.


Setup:

The menu of the Prodigy installation CD is behaves more like an advertisement than an clean, intuitive menu.  Once it loaded, we selected the card out of the list and followed the instructions along the left side of the page.


 


First impressions of these two cards show each package has its pluses and minuses.  We were pleased to see two useful software titles included with the Aureon, where the Prodigy had one in WinDVD4, and even then, we feel PowerDVD is the better choice.  When you run the two DVD software packages head-to-head, PowerDVD utilizes less CPU power and has a more intuitive interface.  On the flip side, the Prodigy's documentation was quite good (although there is a typo on page 24 that may make some blush).  The manual covers all of the bases thoroughly, especially with its advanced capabilities, namely the Native Sound Processor and DirectWire.  The Aureon documentation, on the other hand, was rather brief in our opinion.  Users looking to explore the features of the Aureon will need to access additional documentation on the installation CD to get their answers.

Now that we have a good idea of what each product has to offer right out of the box, let's take a more intimate look at each card and see what these two products bring in quality and functionality.

First Up...The Aureon 7.1 

 
 
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Terratec Aureon Vs. AudioTrak Prodigy - Page 2

Terratec Aureon Vs. AudioTrak Prodigy
Two 7.1 24-Bit/192kHz Cards Under $150

by Jeff Bouton
September 18, 2003



 

Specifications of the Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space
Short and Sweet

 

Features and Specifications:

DirectSound/DirectSound3D, A3D 1.0, EAX 1.0, EAX 2.0, I3DL2
PC 2001, PCI specification rev. 2.1, 2.2
PCI Bus Power Management Interface Specification 1.0


Digital Audio
24 Bit / 96kHz recording
24 Bit / 192 kHz * playback
Extended full duplex stereo for recording & playback (mono/stereo)
Record and playback all audio sources
MultiDrive
MacroFX
EnviromentFX
ZoomFX

Audio Mixer
Individual level controls for all audio sources

Digital optical output, 44.1 kHz / 48 kHz / 96 kHz / 192 kHz * (TOS link)
Digital input, optical, 44.1 kHz / 48 kHz / 96 kHz (TOS link)
4 Line Outs, stereo (3.5 mm) 24 Bit / 192 kHz *
Line In, stereo (3.5 mm) 24 Bit / 96 kHz
Microphone In, mono (3.5 mm) 24 Bit / 96 kHz

Onboard connections
2 separate CD audio inputs, stereo (MPC3)
Aux In, stereo (MPC3)

Drivers/ControlPanel
Windows 98 SE / Me
Windows 2000 / XP


Software

Software DVD Player
Musicmatch Jukebox
Emagic Logic Fun
Free- & Shareware

System requirements
One free PCI 2.1 compatible PCI slot and one other free slot
Intel Pentium III or AMD K6 III 500 or higher
64 MB system memory
Screen resolution of at least 800 x 600, 16 bit color
CD-ROM drive / DVD-ROM drive (for the DVD Player)
50 MB free hard disk Space
* 8-channel-playback requires Windows XP. Other Operating Systems support 6 channels. 192 kHz-playback requires Windows XP with Service Pack 1 (for free download visit www.microsoft.com).

The Card:

The Terratec Aureon 7.1 is a potent little card with a clean layout built around VIA's ICEnsemble Envy24HT processor.  At the top of the card are 4 connectors, two for CD inputs, one auxiliary and one CD-ROM digital input. 

On the backplate lie all of the external connections of the card.  A total of 8 ports are provided including an Optical digital input and output.  The optical connections provide the cleanest possible connection through the use of fiber optics, effectively eliminating resistance and noise associated with typical copper conductor cabling.  The card includes both a microphone and line-in analog input for recording purposes.  The remaining four green outputs supply outputs for front and rear speakers, center channel-LFE and Back Surround.

Overall, the Aureon is a clean card with a wide range of features in a small package, but that is only half of the picture.  As with any piece of PC hardware, the unit is only as good as the drivers it uses.  So let's take a quick look at the Aureon's installation and driver package.
 

The Drivers Behind The Aureon 7.1 Space
How Do You Do The Things That You Do?

The layout of the Aureon 7.1 driver interface is concise and easy to understand.  The designers at Terratec labored to bring a driver menu that is organized in a way that presents the card's different capabilities in a simple collection of submenus.  The main Playback screen offers volume and balance controls for each of the Aureon's outputs as well as a master output volume control.  The Sources panel provides output level controls for Wave, Synth, Aux, Line, CD and Mic inputs.  The Record menu handles all of the recording levels for the cards various inputs as well as a global Mix controller.

The Digital menu allows for the adjustment and setting of the various digital related settings.  For digital inputs, the card sampling rate can be configured to use the internal clock of the card or rely on an external input clock source.  The input range can be adjusted from 8000Hz to 192000Hz with a wide range of common steps in between.  This panel also offers SPDIF input and output options as well as ASIO sampling rates.  Lastly, the Speaker and Misc panels provide speaker configuration options and general information about the card and its drivers.

In general, we liked the breakdown of the Aureon 7.1 Space driver menus, making it easy to sort through the various options.  However, the drivers were not without their problems.  For one, in order to enable Sensaura, the system needs to be rebooted for the option to take effect.  While this isn't a tremendous issue, it is a drawback in our opinion.  Another thing to keep in mind with the Aureon 7.1 Space is that you must use Windows XP with Sensaura disabled to utilize 7.1 mode, which limits the capabilities of the card for some users with older operating systems.  We also experienced sound anomalies with various programs, where you can hear the drivers adjust to the correct clock rate.  For example, those of you familiar with MusicMatch, know that it has startup audio that plays when the software loads.  With the Aureon 7.1, that audio starts off as a high pitched screech for a split second before the drivers step the sampling rate to the correct speed.  One of the more disconcerting issues with the drivers was when we toggled between Line Output and Headphone Output.  We found that when we selected the Headphone output, the volume level would nearly double through the speakers, jolting both the hardware and the listener.  With such a setting possibly damaging speakers with this sudden surge, we feel there should be a warning that there will be a boost in output and adjust the volume accordingly or have the drivers offer a confirmation screen before applying these changes.

As we wrap this section up, we do feel that there were two features missing that would really improve the overall product.  For one, we found no way within the drivers to clone MP3 or CD playback through any of the other speakers.  By default the drivers only output to the front channel and rely on the application to offer any output options from there.  This seems to be a common feature on lesser cards that was definitely missed by this reviewer as was a graphic equalizer.

Now that we've acquired a clearer picture of what the Aureon 7.1 Space has to offer, let's give some air time to the AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1.

Next Up...The AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1

 
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Terratec Aureon Vs. AudioTrak Prodigy - Page 3

Terratec Aureon Vs. AudioTrak Prodigy
Two 7.1 24-Bit/192kHz Cards Under $150

by Jeff Bouton
September 18, 2003



The Hot Hardware Test System
How We Get It Done


AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1 Audio Card

Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space Audio Card
 

ASUS A7N8X Deluxe Motherboard Rev. 1.3
AMD AthlonXP 2500+ (Barton)

512MB Kingston HyperX PC4000 (2-2-2-5-2)

2 IBM ATA100 7200RPM 80GB HD (RAID-0)

ATi Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB

Standard Floppy Drive

Windows XP Professional SP-1

DirectX 9.0b

ATi Catalyst 3.6

nVidia 2.45 Chipset Drivers

Logitech Z640 5.1 Surround Sound Speakers
 

Audio Quality With Right Mark 5.1
Comparing Capabilities


RightMark Audio Analyzer is an independent open-source project developed by the iXBT.com / Digit-Life team.  The tool takes a variety of audio measurements and displays them for comparison.  To complete this test, we used a loop back wire running from the speaker out to the line in.  We then set the program to run the tests at both 44kHz and 192kHz.  Below are the results.

With the cards running at 44kHz, the Aureon 7.1 had the edge over the Prodigy 7.1 across the board.  While both cards were good, the Aureon's quality was better overall, with the Aureon turning in lower crosstalk and noise levels.  While the Aureon did put out the best overall results, the Prodigy was quite good in its own right.  But what about 192kHz?  Unfortunately, we had no success getting any version of RightMark, either 5.1 or 4.3, to run properly at 192kHz.  When we first launched the loop back test, a screen appeared for adjusting the levels to approximately -1db.  While this worked fine on the 44kHz test, when we selected 192kHz, we only got audio out of the left channel while the right remained anywhere from -50db to -70db.  On our test machine we experienced this with the Terratec Aureon 7.1, yet the AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1 had equal levels.  Consequently, the reverse was true when we installed the two cards on a separate test system, where this time the Prodigy levels were off balance.  RightMark does state that the higher the audio quality the more instability may be encountered, but in this case we're simply not sure.  A post on the Right Mark forum has resulted in no leads, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.
 

General Audio Performance
Can You Hear Me Now?  Good.

GAMES:

To get a good idea of how well the sound cards performed during game play, we loaded a couple of familiar titles.  For starters, we loaded one of our all time favorites, Medal of Honor - Allied Assault.  MOH was one of those games that got its teeth into virtually everyone here at HH.  There is a good reason for that, it's a phenomenal game.  With all of the audio qualities set to their highest, we loaded the scene where you storm the beaches of Normandy. This is one of the most disturbingly realistic scenes in the game.  As we worked our way up the beach, the sound quality with each card was excellent.  The explosion of mortars hitting all around us was positioned quite well and the head on machine gun fire had us ducking for cover as if our monitor was firing at us.  Overall, the playback was very good and believable.  Another title I chose was Combat Flight Simulator 3.  For this test we set all of the audio settings to maximum and jumped right into a dog fight.  As we approached the battle zone, explosions from antiaircraft guns appeared all around us.  As they exploded, a deep distant thud was heard and felt in front of us and when we flew through the explosion, the audio traveled along either side as it should.  As an enemy pilot shot at us from behind, we had a little difficulty trying to discern which direction he was coming from, but the flak sounded very real, as was the sound of the bullets ripping through the plane as we spiraled to the ground in a ball of fire.   

All in all, each card performed well in both games and since their basic design is virtually identical, so was the playback.  However, from a purely subjective standpoint, the Prodigy 7.1 seemed to have a slight edge over the Aureon.  For example, when shooting in CFS3, we could hear effects simulating the mechanics of the planes gun after firing a burst of rounds.  This was not heard with the Aureon.

MUSIC:

With Music playback, we used both Windows Media Player 9 and MusicMatch 8.0.  Being used to a Hercules Game Theater XP for the last year and a half, I thought the difference would be obvious, but it wasn't.  The bottom line is that CDs are recorded at 44kHz and that is the best you are going to get, regardless whether we are talking about CDs or MP3s ripped from CDs.  We loaded a broad spectrum of artists from Static-X, Radiohead and Stabbing Westward in both CD and MP3 format.  In the end, the quality was good, but it was really hard to tell the older Hercules card from the new ones.  Where you should really hear the difference is with Audio DVDs which are recorded at 96kHz.  Unfortunately we did not have one on hand to test, but from what we've heard, the quality is amazing.  The bottom line is that if you are planning to collect Audio DVDs, these cards will be able to play the audio at its fullest quality.

DVD PLAYBACK:

Using PowerDVD XP, we loaded the Revolutionary War epic, The Patriot, and advanced to several battle scenes.  The first scene has Mel Gibson's character and his two sons sneaking up on some redcoats in the woods.  As Mel runs around the perimeter of the redcoats position, the audio realism was true to form.  It seems as though what ever we were witnessing was happening around us.  Later on we forwarded to one of the grander battles where Cornwallis was having his way with the revolutionaries and again, the realism was terrific.  Regardless of which card we had installed, the quality was great all around.

Benchmark Performance
Efficiency is the name of this game

3DMark03:

While the jury is still out on whether synthetic benchmarks are all that useful with today's video cards, we were surprised to find they are very useful for other applications.  For example, 3DMark03 offers a Sound test that can be run independent of the graphics test to demonstrate the effects of DirectSound processing on frame rates.  This benchmark runs three rounds of the test, first with no audio and then with 24 and 60 sounds to demonstrate impact on game play.

With no audio both cards returned frames in excess of 35FPS.  Naturally as the sounds increased the performance was affected accordingly.  With 24 sounds the FPS dropped roughly 7FPS while we saw an additional drop of 5FPS with 60 sounds.

More Benchmarks and Conclusions

 

 
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Terratec Aureon Vs. AudioTrak Prodigy - Page 4

Terratec Aureon Vs. AudioTrak Prodigy
Two 7.1 24-Bit/192kHz Cards Under $150

by Jeff Bouton
September 18, 2003



Benchmark Performance Continued
Efficiency is the name of this game

Comanche 4 Demo:

Novalogic's Comanche 4 Benchmark is heavily dependent on CPU and Memory bandwidth which is why it is the perfect tool for audio testing.  For this test we first ran the benchmark with the "No Audio" option selected followed by a run with no audio processing and then with Sensaura enabled in the drivers.

Like the 3DMark03 test, the results were quite similar, although the drop off in frames were less dramatic with each pass.  With "No Audio" both cards hovered in the 48FPS range whereas with Sensaura enabled the two dropped to the 44FPS range.  All-in-all, these two cards were virtually identical in performance with the two tests so far.  Lastly, we saved Audio Winbench 99 to do a detailed assessment of performance that can be broken down into several different areas.

Audio WinBench 99:

Audio WinBench 99 is a tool that measures the performance of a PC's audio subsystem.  The benchmark tests all aspects of audio output including the driver, the audio processor, DirectSound and DirectSound 3D, and the speakers.  We focused on the results pertaining to DirectSound and DirectSound3D performance.

This test helps make it a little more clearer why the Aureon 7.1 Space was slightly faster in most of the prior tests.  Terratec did an exceptional job programming their drivers to let the Aureon 7.1 run as efficiently as possible.  Whether testing DirectSound or DirectSound3D, the Aureon was very efficient, most particularly as the voices increased.  That isn't to say the Prodigy was all that bad either, running less than 5% at the worst is a good task and with all of the advanced programming that went into the Prodigy's driver set, we think the results are very good as well.  The bottom line is when you look at the gaming tests and see the differences between the two cards, a few percentage points don't add up to a whole lot of difference.

Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space:

If one thing is certain, it's that Creative has serious competition on its hands with several affordable alternatives from Terratec and AudioTrak.  Each card brings its own flavor of features and functionality to the table, while both offer a solid bang for the money.  The Aureon 7.1 Space provides solid features and excellent complimentary software as well as optical inputs and outputs.  The Prodigy 7.1 on the other hand provides its own feature set geared around exploring the features of the Native Sound Processor functionality as well as great complimentary software.  Clearly each has its strengths and weaknesses, but both are a good buy depending on your needs.

When it comes down to which card is better than the other, it's not a cut and dry answer.  Each card performed almost identically, with minor fluctuations from test to test.  To say there is a clear winner from a performance standpoint is simply not possible.  From a features perspective, however, there are a few things to consider.  We like the drivers screens of the Aureon 7.1 Space, finding the screens clean and intuitive.  We were impressed with the overall layout, but there were some problems.  We were not thrilled that enabling Sensaura required a reboot and 7.1 surround was only available with Windows XP.  We also noted some minor bugs with the headphone controls that could possibly cause damage to components.  The changing of sampling rates between applications could be audibly heard as we noted when loading MusicMatch 8, which was another bug in the driver set.  While the Aureon 7.1 Space performed well overall, it was not without its issues.  In the end, however, the Aureon's drivers helped make this card the most efficient performer we've seen to date.

Taking these factors into consideration, we give the Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space a Hot Hardware Heat Meter Rating of an 8.


 

AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1:

When we take a look at the Prodigy 7.1, the experience was completely different.  We did not encounter any problems with audio playback in any way and the driver menus were layed out out in a more concise manner.  It seemed that the drivers worked as they should and the Native Sound Processing functions were far more robust than the Aureon 7.1.  The main difference will be whether you demand the optical input/outputs of the Aureon 7.1 Space or you can get by with the coaxial connections of the Prodigy 7.1.  We suspect that most casual users will not get hung up on these two differences. 

While the Prodigy and Aureon are basically the same in construction, we have to give credit to AudioTrak for putting together drivers that explore all of the hardware's capabilities.  We were pleased to see that Sensaura could be enabled without a reboot and there did not appear to be any Operating System limitations associated with using surround 7.1.  While there was no graphic equalizer integrated into the drivers, we were pleased that we could have standard audio output forced to 4 channels rather than the default 2 for expanded listening.  In the end, the Prodigy 7.1 from AudioTrak seemed to have a better all around package with solid drivers, a good collection of complimentary software, and excellent advanced features for the user interested in audio editing.  While its CPU utilization was not as efficient as the Aureon's, the Prodigy still used few CPU cycles and it competed on the same level as the Aureon in the other benchmarks.  For this reviewer, the Prodigy 7.1 was the clear choice for replacing an out-dated Hercules Game Theater XP.

For offering an excellent all around product that should satisfy a broad spectrum of users for a reasonable price, we give the AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1 a Hot Hardware Heat Meter Rating of a 9.

 

 

Sound off on this review, in the PCHardware Forum!

 

 

 
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Terratec Aureon Vs. AudioTrak Prodigy - Page 5
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