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M-Audio Revolution 7.1 Review
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Date: Jun 24, 2003
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: HH Editor
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The MAudio Revolution 7.1 Review - Page 1

The M-Audio Revolution 7.1
Viva la revolución!

"Burned in" by Robert Maloney
June 23rd, 2003


The history of the audio card industry can be summed up by saying there has always been Creative Lab's SoundBlaster line, and then there have been the "others".  When Aureal disappeared from the picture in 2000, it seemed to spell the end of any true competition for the audio giant.  Other companies just couldn't risk going up against Creative's "beat 'em or buy 'em" strategy.  On one hand, that might not have really been too much of a bad thing.  I mean, after all, many games or applications were designed on and for SoundBlaster cards.  In fact, many system requirements would have the ubiquitous "SoundBlaster-compatible sound card" listing as a necessity.  But, times change, and not always necessarily for the better.  It's still safe to say the Creative Lab's holds a large part of the audio card market share, but there have been a handful of cards that have been produced in the last couple of years that pose a question; are Creative Labs cards really the best solution any more?

We've had a look in the past at a few of Hercules' audio cards, and have been mostly impressed.  Today, we have our first taste from M-Audio, a company well known for providing high-end audio solutions for professionals and consumers alike.  While M-Audio has produced a few other audio cards in the past, they look ready to hit "prime-time" with the production of their latest, the Revolution 7.1.   The Revolution 7.1 is positioned as a card that will provide a great experience when listening to MP3s. watching DVDs, or playing games. Combining 24-bit/192kHz fidelity with 8 speaker support, M-Audio has produced what could be the best sounding audio card to hit the market.  Let's take a deeper look into what makes this card rock.  

 

Specifications / Features of the M-Audio Revolution 7.1
Full Featured Audio


CLICK ANY IMAGE FOR AN ENLARGED VIEW

 

Technical Specifications

Data Transfer
  • PCI 2.2 bus
Chipset
  • VIA Envy 24HT 8 channel controller
Audio Quality
  • 24-bit/192kHz audio playback on all output channels
  • Analog line-in and mic-in supporting recording
     up to 24-bit/96kHz
  • Dynamic Range: 106 dB (typical, -60 dB input, a-weighted)
  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio (digital to analog): 107 dB
     (typical, a-weighted)
  • THD+N: 0.003% or -90 dB (typical)
  • Frequency Response: +0.0/-3.0, 80Hz to 17kHz
  • Crosstalk: -120 dB 
Gaming Support
  • Supports all of the following:  EAX 1.0 and 2.0, Sensaura,   DirectSound, DirectSound3D, A3D, EnvironmentFX, MultiDrive, MacroFX, I3DL2, ZoomFX
Audio Compatibility
  • Supports Dolby Digital 5.1 (AC3)?, Dolby Pro Logic?, DTS?, and other multi-channel formats.
  • SRS TruSurround XT? Technology delivering 5.1 virtual surround sound over stereo speakers, deep bass and dialog enchancement
  • Advanced Circle Surround II technology - creates true multichannel surround sound from stereo CDs and MP3s
External Connectors
  • 4 x 1/8" stereo mini jacks providing 8 discrete channels
  • S/PDIF digital coaxial RCA output - linear PCM or AC-3
  • Stereo 1/8" mini analog line-in
  • Mono 1/8" mini analog mic-in
Internal Connectors
  • None
Minimum System Requirements
  • Windows ME/2000/XP
  • Without CSII - P200MMX, 64MB RAM
  • With CSII (5.1) - PIII 500MHz, 64MB RAM
  • With CSII (7.1) - PIII 700MHz, 128MB RAM


The Bundle:

 
M-Audio Revolution 7.1 audio card
Revolution 7.1 User Guide
Quick Start Guide
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 (full version)
"M-Powered" Artists CD sampler
Applications CD
Drivers CD
 

At first glance, the silver and blue box exudes a certain sexiness, as if by marketing forces alone we will be in for a good time.  Once inside, we found two manuals and four CDs.  The Quick Start Guide is good for those who just want to plug the card in and go, while the User Guide covers audio basics and setup more thoroughly.  It really is a good read, and we recommend flipping through the pages as you will get the most out of the card this way.  The Drivers CD is just that, drivers for installing the Revolution 7.1 and Control Panel.  The Applications CD comes filled with various audio programs, some full versions and others in trial mode.  A CD sampler is included that showcase some of the artists who use M-Audio's products, and gives you a chance to hear their tunes. An odd choice, perhaps, was the addition of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3, especially a full version.  While we would never find fault in including a game in a bundle, Tony Hawk 3 does little to showcase the Revolution 7.1's strengths.  Instead, we might have preferred something more audio specific.  For example, a nRCA cable to be used with the S/PDIF port to connect with a mixer or receiver, is conspicuously missing from the bundle.  Still, the bundle offers a little taste of everything to test out your new audio card.

Installation and Drivers 

 
 
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The MAudio Revolution 7.1 Review - Page 2

The M-Audio Revolution 7.1
Viva la revolución!

"Burned in" by Robert Maloney
June 23rd, 2003


 

M-Audio's goal is simple: to provide high-quality technology and features, but at accessible prices for the consumer.  How can you combine the best audio with a bunch of features, and still come in under $100?  Their approach was to look for the one of the best audio chipsets out there, and provide some powerful, yet easy to use software.  Let's see if it stacks up.

Installation and Setup 
Quick and easy

Installation of the card was straightforward, and after hearing about earlier problems with the drivers on the CD, we opted to download the latest version from M-Audio's website.  The download was quick (about 8MB) and it's all that you need.  A quick check of Creative's website showed close to 20 downloads of various types and sizes for just the Audigy 2 alone, never mind their other cards.  Kudos to M-Audio for keeping it simple.

Windows XP started up, and as expected, a new multimedia device was found.  We cancelled out of this, and ran the installation of the new driver set, which then prompted us to shut down the system, ostensibly to install the card.  It struck us a bit odd, as if the drivers should be installed before the card, which we have seen with some hardware from time to time.  At any rate, we proceeded to shut down, and then reboot the system.  Again, a multimedia device was found.  We chose to automatically install the drivers this time, and were up and running.

     

The color coding of the ports makes attaching most modern speaker sets a breeze.  The Logitech Z640 speakers we were using had green, orange, and black cables which match the ports for a 5.1 speaker setup.  The last silver port would be used for an additional 2 speakers in a 7.1 setup.  Rounding out the connections were the microphone jack (red) and line-in (blue).  At the top of the bracket was an RCA jack for digital output, but unfortunately there was no jack for digital input.  We also noticed that no MIDI port was on the card either.  For a card touted to support high-end recording, we found these to be noticeable absences.

After a quick look at the card, we noticed that the typical CD-IN connectors were also missing, but this shouldn't cause any concern.  Actually, the card was quite clean with few traces mostly surrounding the AKM DACs.  M-Audio explains that this layout was designed in such as way as the keep the audio signals as clean as possible.  Placing components too close together could introduce noise into the signal, thereby degrading the quality of the sound.  This knowledge stems from M-Audio's long history in producing professional audio components, which they have brought into the consumer market.

At the heart of the Revolution is the VIA Envy24HT chip, also known as the ICensemble ICE1724.  With support for 8 outbound streams, it can easily support theatre quality audio in 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 surround sound systems.  The Envy24HT even enables hardware down-mixing, which allows users with 2 or 4 speaker setups to enjoy a complete surround sound experience.  The Envy24HT also supports 24-bit performance and 192kHz sampling rates for all 8 channels.  This brings the highest audio playback and recording quality to the mainstream PC enthusiast.

A closer look at the drivers
Bringing it all together

All of the best hardware in the world won't do much for you, unless you've got some decent drivers to get it working right.  M-Audio provides a fully functional control panel that provides the user with quick and easy choices to get up and running quickly, but also provides some fine-tuning for audiophiles.  Unlike some other companies, whose drivers have become somewhat bloated and arcane, here everything is presented in an easy-to-read graphical format.

     

   


The speakers can be set up from the first screen using pre-defined quick-switch settings at the top, but for more precise setups M-Audio has provided specific configurations obtained from a drop-down menu.  Scrolling through the list, I was able to choose my Logitech Z640 speakers, which then correctly set the size of the speakers in the original setup screen.  This leaves less guesswork to the user, and the list of speaker sets is fairly comprehensive.  At the bottom of each of the screens is a quick and handy slider for controlling the master volume.  The output and input mixers allow fine tuning for each of the speakers or input sources.  When testing your setup, you have the option of muting each device, or listening to that device only by clicking on 'solo'.  One section that we felt may have been missing here, especially considering the background of M-Audio, was an equalizer.  While general levels for input and output can be determined, the audio source itself cannot be manipulated.   

In the Surround Sound section lie some of the really intriguing options.  For optimal game compatibility, Sensaura/Game mode should be turned on.  This is mostly for games with 3D support, otherwise 'No Surround Processing' can be selected which can save some CPU cycles.  The last choice is labeled SRS Circle Surround II, and it is the same technology you can find in high-end receivers.  Basically, it takes a stereo signal, and translates over multiple speaker setups, thereby enriching the sound.  The sound can be further enhanced using the Dialog Clarity and TruBass sliders.  One note, however, is that with CS II enabled, a maximum sampling rate of 48 kHz is supported.  At higher rates, you are dropped back to stereo output only.

Some CPU Utilization benchmarks

 
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The MAudio Revolution 7.1 Review - Page 3

The M-Audio Revolution 7.1
Viva la revolución!

"Burned in" by Robert Maloney
June 23rd, 2003


So the early outlook is that the Revolution might not be the perfect gamer's card. The lack of DirectSound hardware acceleration appears to limit your frame rate to some degree.  But what about music and DVD playback?  What kind of quality can we expect here?  We ran one lest test, using RightMark's Audio Analyzer, and then went to our ears for the final word.

Audio Quality
How does it stack up?


RightMark Audio Analyzer is an independent audio measurements open-source project developed by iXBT.com/Digit-Life team.  The test suite performs various tests of electro-acoustical performance of sound cards and other real-time audio devices.  Testing is accomplished by playing the test signals and recording them after they pass through the testing chain.  These tests were performed in loop back mode, where the same card was used for playback and recording.  We ran two tests at two different bit rates/sampling rates.

 

 

This is where the Revolution really shows its true colors.  As you can see in the comparisons to the Audigy 2, the Revolution typically has a lower noise level, a much better dynamic range, and less crosstalk between the speakers.  This results in a cleaner sound when listening to music or DVDs.  A quick way to check these results with your ears is to turn up the volume on your speakers while playing back music.  We didn't hear anything but the music with the Revolution 7.1, but static was noticeable with the Audigy 2.
 

Performance
Sometimes, you just have to trust your ears

GAMES:

It was important to find games that truly took advantage of 3D audio to really make a good decision here.  As we mentioned earlier, Tony Hawk Skater really doesn't have any advanced audio setup, which made it a non-choice.  We settled on two popular games, both of which have EAX support; Neverwinter Nights and Enter the Matrix.  We found that we weren't overly impressed with the sound effects in Enter the Matrix.  Although we did hear sounds from the rear channels, they were sometimes muddled, although this could be more of an issue with the game itself than the Revolution.  On the other hand, Neverwinter Nights, was greatly enhanced by the surround sound support. An immersive game in its own right, the proper spatial placement of attacks and parries made battles seem more realistic.  The soundtrack came through beautifully from the front channels, with the melodic mix of tracks that NWN is known for.  We didn't notice any playback problems in either game that could be attributed to the Revolution, and on higher-end systems the CPU utilization complaint will most likely by a small issue.

MUSIC:

We listened to a number of MP3 tracks in WinAMP 3.0, and CD Audio in Windows Media Player 9, which supports 24bit playback.  For the MP3s we tried to find a good mix of music, choosing tracks from Enya, Pink Floyd, and White Zombie.  We also tossed in a few CDs by Blues Traveler and Prodigy. It should be noted that MP3s and CDs are played back in stereo - not surround sound.  We listened using two speakers and while they sounded fine, it was hard to say that it truly sounded better than on the Audigy 2.  It was only after enabling the Circle Surround Sound II, and choosing the 'Music' option, that we were truly impressed.  The upsampling from 2 speakers to 5 speakers plus subwoofer added a new life to anything we listened to.  We cranked up the volume and then sat back as the room really came alive with music.  I highly suggest to any music lover to give the CSS II a listen, as it made any track more symphonic and enveloping.  While the Audigy 2 also offers a similar technology, it didn't impress us the way the Revolution did.

DVD PLAYBACK:

Using the bundled WinDVD 4.0, we searched through our collection, and played back a few scenes from Star Wars Episode II - Attack of the Clones, Lord of the Rings - Fellowship of the Ring, and Pearl Harbor.  All three of these movies have received commendations for audio excellence, and the DVDs offered Dolby 5.1 playback.  First, a quick switch in the drivers back to "no processing" was needed.  Then, the correct choice must be made in the audio setup from the DVD menu.  As with games, the 3D placement of the audio added to the overall impact of the movie.  Nothing was compromised, as the music tracks played through clearly from the front channels, while the sounds of battle rang true from the correct location on screen.  Laser shots and flying planes rotated around our heads from the extra speakers.  Once you have used such a setup, it's near impossible to go back to a 2 speaker setup.  
 

M-Audio set out to provide the best audio card on the market for the right price, and our gut feelings are that they have done an almost perfect job.  From games, to music, to DVD playback, we were continually impressed by the sheer quality and liveliness of the playback.  The drivers that we downloaded from their website were a quick download, and were easy to use.  The only option missing there would have been the equalizer, but this could easily be fixed in a later release.  CPU utilization was higher than comparable cards, but this too may be solved with newer drivers. The audio quality would normally be found on expensive professional cards, but M-Audio has made it available to even mainstream consumers, listing the card at a sub-$100 price point, generally cheaper the the Audigy 2. 

One other note is that a soundcard is helped or hindered by the speakers attached to it.  Obviously, without a 5.1 or better setup, the Revolution 7.1 isn't able to live up to it's strengths.  True, the sound will be clear and crisp from two speakers, but it was when we were able to experience the surround sound capabilities of the Revolution 7.1 that the card really put a smile on our faces.  In a perfect world, we might have full DirectSound hardware support, easy to use drivers, and the best audio quality out there, but for now we'll settle for two out of three.  The M-Audio Revolution 7.1 audio card is a great solution for those who want to look outside the Creative camp, and we give it a 9 on the HotHardware Heat Meter.

Sound off on this review in the PCHardware Forum!

 

 

 
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M-Audio Revolution 7.1 Review Page 4


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