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2004 was a pretty good year for PC audio, though it wasn’t exactly chock-full of huge innovations. Creative took the Audigy 2 mobile, Turtle Beach brought out its first card in about four years, and E-MU shook things up a bit on the audio interface side. The real innovations occurred with MP3 players and subscription services, both of which made good strides last year.

What can we look forward to in 2005? Quite a lot, actually. PC audio is due for some changes, including new audio processors and some new speaker systems. Here’s a rundown on what you can anticipate seeing this year. Continued…

It’s been a long time since Creative has created a new audio processor architecture—a very long time, as in six years. The company has used its 10K1 audio chip and its derivatives (10K2, 10K25) to power the Sound Blaster Live, Audigy, and Audigy 2, respectively. The 10K2 bolted on a 96KHz/24-bit signal path, though the processor’s effects engine retained its 48KHz maximum sampling rate, and Creative has added other functionality and features like DVD-Audio playback and THX certification. The company’s most noteworthy recent product was its CardBus-based Audigy 2 ZS Notebook, which came out late in 2004. The new Audigy finally brought full-fledged Sound Blaster functionality to the laptop gaming crowd, giving laptop audio a seriously needed shot in the arm. Granted, there are other good CardBus-based solutions for music lovers out there like Echo Audio’s Indigo I/O, but it lacks the ability to accelerate DirectSound3D or EAX in games.

Need to catch up on things? Check out our Year in Review of audio in 2004.

We’ve been hearing rumblings (pun intended) that the company has a new architecture brewing in its Scotts Valley Advanced Technology Center (ATC), which also houses its pro audio subsidiary, E-MU Systems. We don’t have all the details yet, but we anticipate hearing some pretty big news from Creative in the first half of 2005.

A reasonable question to ask: What else needs to be done to PC audio that can’t be done already? Except for Creative, no other consumer PC sound card even has an onboard DSP anymore. Via’s Envy 24 audio controller has become very popular, both with consumer sound card makers like Turtle Beach, Philips, and M-Audio, as well as in the pro audio space. Via acquired IC Ensemble, which originally built the Envy24, and has since brought out several incremental versions of it. In 2005, Via has bigger plans for the Envy24, including a mobile version that could be used in a CardBus (PCMCIA) implementation. This would offer an alternative to laptop users considering Creative’s Audigy 2 ZS Notebook.

The Envy24 audio controller is capable and has proven its mettle in a variety of implementations, but the lack of a DSP core to handle effects processing does limit it, since it relies on the CPU for effects processing, and, for the most part, cannot process EAX-based effects in games. The Envy24 controller supports 24-bit/192kHZ audio resolution, has 8-channel inputs and outputs as well as a 20-channel, 26-bit wide built in mixer. This feature set, coupled with a good ASIO driver stack, makes the Envy24 well-suited for CPU-based synthesizer applications, which also do their effects processing on the host. It also fares well with pro audio apps like Cubase and Sonar, which also rely on ASIO for low-latency access to audio hardware. But in games, where complex audio effects processing can reduce frame rate, the lack of a DSP hurts the Envy24 somewhat, and it’s unfortunate that the PC sound card business is so cut-throat that PC sound cards with onboard DSP can now only come from Creative. But on the discrete sound card market, the choices have essentially come down to Creative or Via. Continued…

When Intel rolled out its Grantsdale (925) and Alderwood (915) chipsets in 2004, one of the prominent features the company touted was the revamped integrated audio architecture, dubbed HD Audio. However, HD Audio codecs have been slow to market from hardware makers like Analog Devices and Sigmatel, though we have seen solutions from C-Media and Realtek. Early implementations have thus far failed to impress us, and despite this platform’s support of multichannel 96KHz/24-bit resolution, HD Audio does not enable any new established content types like DVD-Audio or SACD. For DIYers building a Home Theater PC (HTPC), the digital audio output may be adequate for handling TV/HDTV audio, and pumping Dolby Digital and DTS out to a home theater receiver.

Creative and Analog Devices (AD) inked a deal wherein Creative would bring some of its EAX functionality to some of the latter company’s AD’s HD Audio codes, but we have yet to see either come to market. We haven’t heard timelines for release from either company, though we anticipate seeing this sometime this year.

In early January, Sigmatel announced two new HD Audio codecs, the STAC9221 and STAC9220, both of which are 8-channel parts designed for PC and convergent media applications. These are currently being sampled to customers, and we’ll likely see motherboards using them in the first quarter of this year, according to the company. Of note is that the STAC9221 will carry the Dolby Master Studio certification logo, and will provide Dolby Digital Live, Dolby Headphone, Dolby Virtual Speaker, and Dolby Pro Logic IIx technology with 7.1 channel audio and S/PDIF out. The STAC9220 is targeted at the Dolby Home Theater specification, which provides the same set of Dolby features, but in a 5.1 channel environment. Sigmatel has stated the STAC9221’s SNR to be 105dB, though mileage will vary depending on motherboard implementation. Continued…

MP3 players have had an interesting growth and shrink evolution over the past few years. When hard-disk-based players first hit the market, 10GB of storage seemed almost infinite compared to the wimpy 128MB or 256MB flash-based players that preceded it. Then came 20GB, 30GB, 60GB, and now even 80GB MP3 players. The great news is that an amazing amount of storage can be encoded at high bit rates (192Kbits/sec VBR, 320Kbits/sec CBR, etc.). The bad news is that they were big and battery life was all over the map. Pretty soon music lovers came to a realization: They didn’t need all their music with them all the time. Couple that with the arrival of the 5GB 1-inch drives from Seagate, and you have yourself a whole new product category: the 5GB MP3 player.

Apple has had trouble making enough iPod Minis to meet demand, and Creative has had the same happy problem: more demand for the company’s Zen Micro than it can meet. To remedy this, Creative announced 1GB, 4GB, and 6GB disk-based players to try and meet the huge demand. Players of this capacity/physical size seemed to have found the sweet-spot for many music listeners. Creative showed off its Zen Micro Photo at CES, and will be bringing that to market later this year.

Music subscription services and stores are going to keep growing, and the per-song cost will also likely be ratcheted down from the current 88-cents charged by Wal-Mart. Subscriptions for some are seen as a kind of musical heresy. The thinking goes: “It’s my music. I paid for it. I want complete control over it.” Fair enough, provided you haven’t set up a duping house in your garage. And Fair Use in copyright is still very much in danger of getting trampled by the RIAA and its running scared tactics. With that said, the subscription model is not the musical anti-Christ. You can still own the music you love, but have access to the music you like, so take one for a test-drive. Continued…

2004 saw some good innovations for PC audio, but we didn’t really see any noteworthy new PC speakers. Virgin shipped its BoomTube portable system, which is kind of interesting, though you pay $200 for a portable system that sounds pretty good. It’s a neat idea for taking your MP3 files with you to the beach, but the price is a bit much.

None of the three high-profile PC speakers makers—Logitech, Klipsch and Creative/Cambridge—delivered any new mind-bending speaker systems, though we did like M-Audio’s Studiophile LX4, which was a 5.1 set of near-field studio monitors marketed toward the PC speaker market. As it turns out, because the PC audio experience is a near-field experience, near-field studio monitors meant for home recording studios turn out to be very good PC speakers. Companies like Event Electronics, Alesis, Blue Sky, and Tapco are making both 2.0 and 5.1 studio monitor systems that also make terrific PC speakers, especially for music aficionados looking to get the most out of their PC music experience.

Loyd Case recently showed how to integrate a set of home audio speakers into an existing PC speaker system (http), with very good (albeit expensive) results. This year at ExtremeTech we’ll be reviewing some “off the beaten path” options including studio monitors and alternate methods for creating an optimal PC speaker system.

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