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BlueGears X-Mystique 7.1 Review

 

Good, but not Creative (thankfully)

 

by Josh Walrath

 

            The sound card market is a very strange one these days.  When Creative released the Sound Blaster series computer sound really took off and there were quite a few competitors in the market at that time.  The big chip firms were Ensoniq, Creative, Cirrus Logic, Aureal and others.  Through the years though, due to market pressures, buyouts, and legal action we now have only three major manufacturers of standalone sound chips.  I am not simply talking audio codecs and the integrated sound functionality on the chipset level, but true standalone sound chips that work independently of the CPU.  Creative just released their X-Fi series of chip which brings some incredible DSP prowess to the table and continue to produce their Audigy 2 and SB Live! 24 chips.  VIA has carefully nursed their Envy series of chips to be a solid product for a wide range of products from the average desktop to the recording studio.  The last big audio chipmaker is C-Media.

            C-Media has been around a long time, and they really hit it big in the audio market with their CMI-8738 chip which was utilized by a wide range of 3rd party add-in cards and used extensively as a high quality motherboard audio solution.  The C-Media chips were fairly powerful for their time, and they were significantly cheaper than anything that Creative was offering.  The company had solid products, but none of them were ever as well received as most of the Creative products.  Application compatibility was also an issue, but one that they would slowly overcome.

            C-Media has not been standing still since the 8738 though, and this past year they released their CMI-8768 series of chips which offered true 24 bit audio.  These were a big step up from previous products, and the addition of Dolby Digital Live in the 8768+ certainly gave this chip a very valuable feature.  Previously the only other product that was able to encode Dolby Digital 5.1 material was the NVIDIA nForce 2 MCP-T (technology also used in the original X-Box).  The ability to encode DD 5.1 has many uses, one of which is to decrease the cable clutter coming from the back of the computer (as long as the speakers have the ability to decode DD 5.1- in my case the Logitech Z-680).  Another option for this card is for use with a home theater system.  Sending DD 51. content to the main receiver via coax or optical cable saves the end user a lot of hassle as compared to making sure their home receiver has the inputs necessary to handle a sound card with three analog outputs for 5.1 sound.

The card is well protected in its box and anti-static bag.

            One of the first companies to release a standalone product based on the CMI-8768+ was Korean based HDA (HiTeC Digital Audio).  They produced a very high quality card that had some interesting features not normally seen on a consumer card.  This was great for the Asian market, but HDA did not have a presence in North America.  This is where Blue Gears comes into play.  BlueGears takes the HiTeC card and co-brands it as their own.  They are the primary distributor of this card to the North American market, and also supply support and technical assistance for their customers.  They do have a say in which drivers are released, and work closely with C-Media and HDA to deliver a quality product. 

The CMI-8768+

            This is a true 24 bit, 8 channel chip that does feature some solid DSP functionality.  C-Media is very tight lipped about the DSP performance in particular, but it has enough power to handle encoding 6 channels of audio into a Dolby Digital 5.1 stream.  It also hardware accelerates DirectSound 3D Hardware and Software, A3D 1.0, EAX 1.0 and 2.0, as well as HRTF based 3D positional audio (C3DX).  I was told that the chip would be able to handle EAX 3.0 without issue, but currently Creative isnít licensing that functionality.

            The biggest selling point for this chip is the Dolby Digital Live support.  This will encode sound to DD 5.1, but that is the limit of it.  It does not encode Dolby Digital EX or Dolby DTS-ES.  The chip does support Dolby DTS-ES and Dolby Digital EX playback with compatible software decoders like PowerDVD and WinDVD, but it cannot encode these types of streams.  DD 5.1 is a high quality stream, but it is not as accurate as DTS-ES or the 7 or 8 channel DD-EX (6.1 or 7.1 streams).

            Overall the chip is very well rounded and feature packed, especially considering the price that C-Media asks for this chip.  While it may not have the DSP processing capabilities of the Creative X-Fi, it is certainly a solid product for its marketspace.  The 8768+ has been picked up by a few companies with products ranging from $59 to $99.

 

Next:  The HDA X-Mystique 7.1

 

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