Little Monster Sound MX300
For this little
spotlight I would like to take a close look at how technology
advances, specifically in the field of 3D sound. For me, and
historically for a lot of folks, sound cards are sometimes an
afterthought. As long as the sound produced is in stereo and is free
of noise and hiss, I was satisfied with my good old Sound Blaster 16
ISA card. Then, just like the evolution from 2D SVGA graphics to 3D
Enhanced, trilinear filtered yadda, yadda, yadda... came the birth
of 3D Positional Audio. The visual gaming experience just got more
lifelike, so let's make it sound like the real thing too! First came
A3D1 of the Vortex 1 chipset from Aureal Semiconductor and it was
good. Then came A3D2/Vortex 2... Is it better? Should you run out
and replace that old legacy card for this new hip 3D Sound
Biscuit??? Let's take a look...
Althought I am
in the Semiconductor Industry and live and breath this stuff, I am
not going to get into the specific chipset differences between A3D1
and A3D2. I don't know enough about Aureal's chip level technology
and you'd be sleeping on me if I went into Delta Sigma DACs and all
that happy b.s...:-) If you want, go check out Aureal's
White Papers and Technical Briefs.
They'll give you all the bits and bytes your little propeller head
can stand! So what are the main differences between the old and the
new technology that we PC Gamers really care about? Check it...
2 support more 3D sources, higher sample rage, bigger HRTF
Wavetracing & Trade: real-time acoustic reflection, reverb
and occlusion rendering
host CPU based A3D emulation mode for non-accelerated PCs
resource management features
information from Aureal Semiconductor)
What does this
mean in terms of performance? IT SOUNDS BETTER... supposedly. Well,
in other words, better 3D positional effects. HRTF stands for Head
Related Transfer Functions, so things will sound more realistic with
respect to the virtual positioning of objects and sounds as they
relate to your position to the speakers. Better sampling rate (which
is like saying higher resolutions in video terms) for higher
fidelity, and resource management means lower overhead to the host
So how does Aureal's grand daddy A3D1 differ physically from their
new baby A3D2 chipset? A picture says it all. Both the Aztech PCI
338A3D and the Monster Sound MX300 are your basic "reference
designs" around their respective Vortex 1 and Vortex 2
chipsets. Take a look...
Monster Sound MX300
I know, not much to the A3D1 card but then again the MX300 really
only has a few extra components. What amazes me is that the entire
Vortex chipset on both models still fits neatly into a 144 Pin TQFP
package! That stands for Thin Quad Flat Pack. I think Creative's SB
Live is a multichip soluonti. By the way, sorry for the lousy
pictures here folks. They don't do the boards justice. I've got to
get me a digital camera fast!
Ok, so now for
the sound. This is the subjective part. As you know, Sound Cards in
many ways are like speakers when it comes to what makes one better
than the other. My opinion may differ greatly from the next
person's. Having said that, there is also a point in which there is
a general consensus of opinion on a given product. I think that's
what we're talking about here... I ran a few games both with and
without A3D support. However, there are darn few right now that
support A3D2.0. One that does is Half Life and it is spectacular! I
also ran both with a two speaker setup, at least initially.
The 338A3D only
has two speaker output so to compare apples to apples, I set the
MX300 up that way as well. The difference in Half Life between two
cards is quite dramatic. The Aztech card gave a good sense of left,
right, and spatial positioning. When a monster was approaching from
either side, I had a sense of depth and distance etc... Also, the
reverb and echo effects were very impressive.
with the MX300, however, I was propelled into a real sound
environment. I was absolutely shocked when one of those annoying
little crawling creatures in Half Life jumped up from BEHIND me and
smacked me in the head. The effect with even two speakers was quite
pronounced. The sense of depth and spatial perception was MUCH
better with the Diamond card as well. When I set up the card with
four speakers, the sound was simply AMAZING. In the true sense of
this word, I was amazed at how well the technology actually worked!
It was as if I was hearing the game. for the first time, the way it
was intended to be heard. At times, I was unnerved by the
uncomfortable feeling I was getting when being exposed to some of
the creepy and grating sounds Half Life produces. The card IS that
good... :-) This little gem is staying in my machine.
Now for the
"bells and whistles." I'm a bells and whisles fan. Love to
have the gadgets! You probably are too, if you are reading this. The
Monster MX300 has some nice utilities for tweaking the sound and
playing different media, etc...
EQ for tone control
final note, I did some benchmarking on the MX300 just to see what
kind of hit A3Dsound put on the CPU when running Apps in A3D1, A3D2
mode and with no A3D at all. Here are some very basic numbers from
Half Life. These numbers may be Half Life dependant, so make your
own assumptions. This is a good reference point however.
scores taken at 1024x768 on a PII-333 Oc'ed to 515 w/ 160MB PC100
RAM and an STB V4400 AGP card (Half Life Build 738)
As you can see
Ladies and Gents, both A3D1 and 2 hit the CPU somewhat. No big deal
for me. The sound quality and experience is worth it. The difference
between Vortex 1 and 2 performance is probably a driver maturity
thing. Also, the above scores look a little low because I am still
using the initial release of Half Life. Your scores could be
significantly higher. However, if you have a low-end machine, this
may or may not be the kind of performance hit that could make things
unplayable. On that note however, A3D1 and 2 are very accessible
APIs. That is to say, you can turn on and off different effects with
console commands or option adjestments from most well written games
that use A3D.
All in all kids,
this is great stuff from Diamond.
I highly recommend this card. It is such a value for the money! $99
or less on most online sites! Such a deal! Now, go get one. Would I
ever steer you wrong?