SAN FRANCISCO (01/24/2000) - You love music and games and want a new PC. You might not need horsepower, but great sound is a priority. Thanks to integrated audio on the motherboard and new software technology, good sound doesn't have to be expensive.
Analog Devices Inc. is updating SoundMAX, software that works with audio controllers on chip sets and negates the need for a PCI sound card. On Monday, ADI announced SoundMAX 2.0, which promises audio technology and a feature set equivalent to Creative Labs' leading SoundBlaster Live card, at half the cost.
Systems equipped with SoundMAX 2.0 are scheduled to ship in May or June.
"Today, you can only get SoundBlaster Live-type audio in high-end PCs," says John Croteau, ADI's product line director for PC audio products. But SoundMAX 2.0 technology will go into systems (PCs) priced as low as $499, he says.
The Chip is Key
ADI worked with Intel to develop its sound technology. Intel's 440MX, 810, 815, and 820 chip sets, as well as those of other chip makers, use integrated audio controllers.
"It provides us with a simple interface to plug into on the motherboard," Croteau says. ADI adds software that promises analog fidelity on par with high-end PC sound cards.
Released last year, the first version of SoundMAX is shipping in low-priced business PCs like the sub-$500 Compaq iPAQ and Dell Web PC, and the $799 Gateway Astro. SoundMAX 2.0 is aimed at consumers who want better-quality audio on a home PC.
"It's the difference between getting this capability in a $2000 PC or a low-end one," Croteau says. "I don't think you'd even find SoundBlaster Live in midrange models."
With a 94-decibel signal-to-noise ratio and support to 120 decibels, SoundMAX II produces the same quality as a CD player, Croteau says. It lacks the digital output capabilities of SoundBlaster and other high-end sound cards, but should meet most people's needs, he adds.
Software Surround Sound
SoundMAX 2.0 mimics the major elements of the SoundBlaster Live experience to produce professional-quality sound. It supports 1024 simultaneous instruments and downloadable sound for MIDI, the protocol for exchanging music information among instruments, synthesizers, and PCs.
Downloadable sound lets musicians select their own sound sets for MIDI, Croteau says.
SoundMAX 2.0 also has full environmental audio capabilities. Its 3D rendering engine can create the reflections and reverberations to mimic the sound of different environments. For example, a flight game developer could use the EAX to create the appropriate audio environment for a cockpit, Croteau says.
Most PCs shipping today support only two speakers. SoundMAX 2.0 supports 3D positional audio, a technique that makes sounds seem to come from behind you.
Applications can take advantage of this function to control the movement of the sound.
"You can hear the effect zipping by your head," Croteau says. "It's like throwing your voice."
By replacing the PCI sound card, SoundMAX not only reduces the cost of a PC, it frees a PCI slot. But will the lack of a sound card slow down the CPU?
Not when CPUs are cranking at today's high speeds, Croteau says. "The level of CPU needed to do this stuff is under 5 percent, so it's basically a background task."