The Audio PC Conundrum
Like graphics card manufacturers AMD and nVidia Creative are busily creating the latest and greatest sound cards to get the best sound out of the PC. I have been using PC sound cards from long ago.
This here is a picture of the very first sound card I had an AdLib Multimedia card. This baby was top notch, using FM synthesis to emulate sounds. I had games that even had the sticker on the box talking about it using the AdLib card. I remember the day I bought it home, plugged it in and playing Quest for Glory, the game seemed to take on a new lease of life. The music alone was enough for me to know I did the right thing.
Now, the only thing I can use to demonstrate this progression of sound in comparison the standard beeps the PC speaker could produce is this YouTube video. But this is exactly as I remember it. Don’t worry I will get where I am going with this article.
Humble beginnings certainly, there was phases where they were trying to get more realistic sounds from the PC speaker, I certainly remember the game, Links the Challenge of Golf, it use PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) sound through the speaker and it sounded good. There was even a Windows 3.11 driver that enabled its use. Problem was based on the old way applications used the PC speaker, it was an exclusive interrupt and to generate anything more than a simple beep really did slow the system down. The game Links certainly was able to use it sparingly, bird tweets, sound bites, etc… and it worked, but it was nothing on the wave of sound cards that came from Creative Labs and the now supreme ruler of the sound card race.
My first taste of these cards was not one I owned but one my friend’s father paid a crap load for in his new full tower PC, complete with caddy CD-ROM and SoundBlaster Pro card. Late at night playing Alone in the Dark this was the first time I was genuinely scared of playing a game. It used PCM sound and certainly made me turn my head many a time. But, this was the very early 90s and late 80s.
I do have a point to this and I will get to it. This was the start of my love life with the SoundBlaster and though I have a very fond place in my heart for AdLib, I feel because I have devoted much of my life to the Creative brand, that is where it will stay, you never forget your first.
So, now, sitting nicely in my rig, the very same one I am writing this article on is, the once new and nearly top of the line audio card from Creative, X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro. A wonderful, THX certified, 7.1 sound card. We have come a long way from the beeps of the PC speaker, into the FM synthesis to PCM and now, the digital audio cards of today and not to forget the wonderfully new, and I will add, gorgeous looking cards from Creative, the Sound Blaster Z series
I mean just look at it, why is a card that looks like this on the inside of a computer. So, this is where it brings me to the point of this article. This and like my current card is a 7.1, that is right, 7 discrete channels and an LFE channel, this is the standard now, most on board sound cards even offer 7.1. The problem is…the speakers.
So a search on the internet for 5.1 channel surround sound speakers and you are likely to get a plethora of links to home theatre systems, setup guides and the like. But where are these speakers for the PC. To cast ourselves back sometime I had a Sound Blaster Live! card, this was a very nice card and for me was one of the first multi-channel surround sound cards I ever owned, and certainly not the last. To go with this I had a very nice DTT2500DeskTop Theater 5.1 DTT2500 Digital by Cambridge SoundWorks, this was a fantastic set of PC speakers it even came with a digital coax input and on board Dolby Digital decoder. I hooked this up to my DVD player which had a digital coax output and another love affair was born, but I will not get into that in this post.
I upgraded my PC, added a nice new Sound Blaster Audigy 2 card into the mix and included a decent set of PC speakers from creative, the Creative Inspire 6.1 6600. These provided a wonderful depth of field, worked wonderfully for a long time. Until the controller unit broke, rather than fix it, I did a bit of speaker reshuffling around the house. Prior to this I was looking into the 7.1 PC speakers since I did have the Audigy 2 capable of output more than a mere 6.1. So the one set of speakers on my mind at this point was Creative GigaWorks S750. This was a difficult set of speakers to get my hands onto, especially in Australia. But what came next was an interesting direction, it would replace the worn out DTT2500 sitting around my TV, move that to the PC, this was before the purchase of the 6.1 set (though the subwoofer at this stage was cracked) but was the very large box of the Logitech Z680. This blew me away, AU$350 for a 5.1 THX certified surround sound experience. This become my new Home Theatre system. But since I did have the 7.1 sound card the 5.1 wasn’t enough, looking at the 7.1 ones and that is where the compromise of the 6.1 came.
So all was OK until I had the 6.1 controller broke, as I mentioned, and now I am without a set of multi-channel speakers for my PC. Logitech came to my rescue once again with the Z5500 THX Certified 5.1 speakers. These new speakers were cheaper than the ones I previously had, looked a little newer were pretty much the same specs as the Z680 and the box was just as big. So I moved the Z680 onto the PC, have the Z5500 on the TV as the home theatre and so far I am fairly happy with this arrangement.
That was until I started looking as I often do, for some 7.1 speakers for my PC. This was not the results I was looking for. Logitech do two 5.1 speakers one is the newer version of the set of speakers I have had for a while.
Z506 – 5.1 surround sound speakers but these do not have a decoder in them, not an issue for the PC, but it is for home theatre.
Z906 – 5.1 surround sound speakers with Dolby Digital and DTS decoder built in. A nice looking set of speakers and will most likely be my next set.
But this is 2 sets of speakers, one more expensive than I wanted the other not really the power or the configuration I was looking for. I have also noticed recently the glut of 2.1 speakers hitting the market. I am guessing this is due to the popularity of the tablet, iPod, iPhone, iPad style devices since they do not have multiple channel and an LFE is a simple frequency diversion from the main speakers to the subwoofer.
But out of what I have posted, max is 5.1, only one has close to the power output I have with the Z680 around my PC, and I am certainly looking to upgrade to a 7.1 system, maybe. Where have all the PC speakers gone. Everything seems to have lost a lot of channels and perhaps the companies were banking on the multi-channel boom lasting longer or being larger than it was and felt most people, except gamers will have a need for only 2 speaks on their desk.
It doesn’t help since I don’t want a pair of really good sounding 2 channel speakers. I want all the channels, 3D positional audio, not simulated or “virtualised” as often seems to be. It works but it isn’t like having 5.1 speakers sitting around you.
There is this option for me
I have 2 pairs of the Turtle Beach headphones. I have 1 for my laptop, if I am gaming away and one for home when I want to do it without waking the house and pounding out the sounds of Star Wars. The Z6A are possibly the best headphones I have ever put on my head. The only drawback is the cables but since it sits next to my PC it isn’t a massive issue. But it is an issue, if I want that sound and it is warm which it will be soon in Australia. Closed in headphones are good, but do get a little hot after long periods of play.
The Razer’s caught my eye, a physical 7.1 headphone solution, am curious to know how heavy they are, 10 speaker drivers is a lot for headphones. But it still brings me back to the long gaming sessions and the warm days and nothing will replace the physical speakers, the bass felt in the chair the position of sounds from all directions, though you get it with the headphones it isn’t as clear cut as one might think and it is due to the proximity of the speakers to your ears which I think is the issue.
So, I have provided all the details and have read a lot of information that shows that the 5.1, 6.1 and 7.1 setup around the PC is a dinosaur, despite the sounds cards now and into the future are supporting multi-channel surround sound. That the gaming companies like Turtle Beach and Razer, et. al. are getting into the headset space more than the speakers. It seems that I will need to either spend more money on a proper 7.1 home theatre system for my PC, which is overkill in the long run.
Maybe I will go the next progression, get the Z906 speakers put them around the TV and move the Z5500 to the PC. Though there is nothing wrong with the Z680, by far, they are a fantastic set of speakers that has been working without fault for a long time. So one might say do I need to. No possibly, but if we didn’t need to upgrade much of our digital lives would you be holding that new smart phone or tablet, no possibly not.
If you could help, send me links to where I might be able to find myself some good 7.1 speakers suitable for a PC that sound good and can be delivered to Australia and do not cost me that much.