The recent trend of PC integration into the user's living space finds the once small and dingy computer room becoming a thing of the past. With manufactures now offering PC solutions which showcase features that rival many mainstream audio components, families are now finding their "digital living room" to be the new media back-bone of their lives.
This is where Philips new soundcard, the PSC724 Ultimate Edge, steps in. Offering discreet 24-bit, 6-Channel High Definition Audio playback/recording, users can turn their PC into a high-end audio center with a simple upgrade. In addition to promising high end specs, Philips has integrated their newly redesigned Sound Agent 2 GUI to bring together all the features of the card into one highly configurable, easy to use interface.
Features and specifications aside, we here at HotHardware were looking forward to examining Philips' latest and greatest PC Audio product. A good majority of us here at HotHardware are audiophiles and this is our first look at a Philips product, so it should be an interesting showcase.
|Closer Examination and Philips Sound Agent 2|
Located in the bottom right hand corner of the PSC724 is the audio workhorse of the card, the VIA Vinyl Envy24GT. With ability to support 24-bit multi-channel audio and 192kHz sampling rates, the Envy24GT is firmly squaring off with Intel's "High Definition Audio" solutions incorporated in their next generation i915 and I925X chipsets. Users can have four 24-bit inbound streams passing through the card without having the streamed bit-rates altered. In other words, what you pipe into the card will be the same fidelity what as you pipe out.
In reference to the remaining pictures above, moving left to right, we find the information sticker with the product/serial number, headers for connecting the soundcard to the front control panel on your computer and lastly the AUX/CD ports.
Before we move on, if you are not fully comfortable in the world of bit-rates and kHz, take a few minutes and read through VIA's very comprehensive guide on 24-bit audio. It should clear up a lot of questions, and help the rest of this article make a bit more sense, if this technology is foreign to you.
The main portion of the control panel also hosts two drop down menus, one which gives access to the environmental (reverb) settings and the other which allows quick selection of preset configurations. The environmental list is pretty comprehensive, though some of the options are a bit strange. We can honestly say we've never had the opportunity to listen to music in a sewerpipe, but for those who have and enjoyed it, you are good to go. The present menu automatically adjusts the EQ, QSizzle, QRumble and Qxpander to what Philips thinks are the optimal settings for listening to whichever genre of music you choose.
Also incorporated with the Sound Agent 2 is a sampling program called Intelligent Media Processing. "IMP" continuously analyzes each audio stream, whether it is mono, stereo or surround and optimizes the output of each configuration. This means that the average user will spend less time adjusting the Volume/EQ and more time enjoying their choice of media.
For a more in-depth guide of Sound Agent 2: Click Here
Above are a few Gif animations which showcase the various environmental and reverb settings. As usual, click the thumbnail image to view the full size version. For those who are using dial-up, no need to fret, we took you into consideration and have made the images 56k friendly.
|HotHardware Test Bed and Rightmark Audio Analyzer 5.3|
HOW WE CONFIGURED THE TEST SYSTEM:
Lastly, you may note the Ultimate Edge has results for 24bit / 192kHZ, while the Audigy 2 does not. This is because the Audigy 2 is unable to record signals beyond 24bit / 96kHz. On the other hand, it is able to output signals at 24bit / 192 kHz. However, do to our choice of testing each card independently using an external loopback (line-out to line-in), we where unable to record these results.
The last half of the tests exhibited similar results. Throughout the THD (Total Harmonic Distortion), IMD (Intermodulation Distortion) and Stereo Crosstalk analysis the Sound Blaster continually held the lead over the Philips. Though the Audigy 2 was the leader in this round of tests, there are still a few areas to consider before we make our final verdict.
|Rightmark Audio Analyzer 5.3 Continued|
Total Harmonic Distortion is defined as "a signal, the ratio of (a) the sum of the powers of all harmonic frequencies above the fundamental frequency to (b) the power of the fundamental frequency." When a soundcard processes a signal, the output is an amplified version of the input signal plus any distortion that is created during the processes. Even though some signal processors may add very little distortion to the output, there is always some present. In the case of the numbers below, the closer the value is to zero, the less distortion and the more accurate the reproduced signal is.
IMD is the "nonlinear distortion in a system or transducer, characterised by the appearance in the output of frequencies equal to the sums and differences of integral multiples of the two or more component frequencies present in the input waveform." Basically this means that when two signals at difference frequencies are produced simultaneously, additional signals at other frequencies and amplitudes are created. These new signals are found at the sum, and difference, of the two original frequencies.
So, if the original signals where 2 kHz and 8 kHz, IMD would create two additional signals at 10 kHz ( 2 + 8 = 10) and 6 kHz (8 – 2 = 6). Of course, it would be too simple of it ended there. Each of these new signals caused by IMD is able to cascade off of each other and create more IMD of their own. Obviously, this means many other frequencies will be created, thus causing a huge mess of distortion.
Just like the other tests, a lower value signifies less amounts of IMD, thus a better overall sound quality.
|Side-By-Side Result Comparison|
Due to the large amount charts in the previous pages, we have taken the two most common bit/kHz rates (16/48 & 24/48) and combined them into one set of easy to read visuals. The results from the Audigy 2 are displayed in both white and green, while the Ultimate Edge is in teal and purple.
Since the results have already been discussed on a previous page, there is no sense in us rehashing them again. However, in reference to the graphs above, you can clearly see the difference in sound quality produced by both cards. In most cases, the closer the plotted line is to the bottom of the graph, the better.
|Movie/Gaming Performance and Conclusion|
Using PowerDVD 5, we watched segments from two of our favourite DVD's; Dave Matthews Band: The Central Park Concert and LOTR: Two Towers. At first we tossed in Two Towers and skipped forward to the battle of Helm's Deep. The added benefit of 24bit sound really started to show as soon as we hit play. Whether it was the thundering foot steps of the Orcs, or the sharp clang of swords hitting together, the sound replication was superb. After watching the movie for far too long, we switched gears and fired up disc two of Dave Matthews Band's Live DVD. Skipping forward to track 3 we listened to Dave Matthews and the rest of the band lay down a pretty stellar 15 minute version of "Jimi Thing" with special guest Butch Taylor. Just as with LOTR the the Philips produced a very dynamic range of crystal clear sound which was impressive, to say the least.
GAMES: Doom 3 and Far Cry
Changing the pace a little, we fired up HH's new favourite, Doom 3. The reproduction of sound in the game was realistic, crisp and clean. We did catch the occasional pop coming out of the speakers, but that was mostly related to the entire system lagging during visually intense periods. Next we loaded up this editor's favourite, Far Cry. As we jaunted around in our "paradise gone wrong," the level of spatial and 3D effects was very eminent. Stopping in the middle of some dense foliage we could clearly hear the birds, monkeys, insects and of course, trijans around us. We were definitely pleased with the overall performance in this specific aspect of testing.
WINAMP 5 & WINDOWS MEDIA PLAYER 9: Various Media
Moving on to the last phase, we sampled a mixture of high bitrate Mp3's ( > 192kps) and audio CD's which spanned various spectrums of musical styles. Whether it was Metal, Classical or woofer pounding Techno, the PSC724 was able to produce distortion free audio streams with brilliant clarity. All in all we are delighted with sound output of all the audio sources we passed through the Ultimate Edge during this section of testing.
Overall, we are impressed with the Philips PSC724 Ultimate Edge. Coming in at just under $70 USD, this card falls somewhere in the lower price-bracket of soundcards. Physically, the Philips's is very well constructed and it seems as though this card is built to last. Featurewise, the Ultimate Edge is up there with the leaders of the pack. As the only 24-bit card (as of the date of this review) to offer 24bit/192kHz recording, it will surely catch the eye (or ear) of audiophile consumers.
The only "downside" of the card is the overall audio output performance. Though it will be a huge step-up for anyone who is currently running an older 16bit/onboard soundcard, those who are seeking the best 24bit output quality may look towards something a little higher-end. This is not to say that this Philips card is a slouch when it comes to playback. However, when compared to cards like the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 we tested, which admittedly are a bit more expensive as well, it pales slightly in comparison, at least in our technical analysis. Subjectively, the average end user may be hard pressed to detect the difference in audio fidelity but it is quantifiable, as you could see in our Audio Analyzer testing
So, based on its build quality, good performance, fantastic price point and pioneering the way for 24bit/192kHz recording, we are awarding the Philips PSC724 Ultimate Edge a rating of 8 on the Heat Meter.