With great impatience we were looking forward to seeing new soundcards on Vortex2 chip in Moscow. Onlyfour companies announced the beginning of Aureal chip-based cards manufacturing. Besides, Aureal has alsomade up its mind to produce its own sound cards for OEM manufacturers. You have probably met an MX300Diamond soundcard or a Montego II OEM. However, we want to draw your attention to something moreinteresting. This is a company called VodeoLogic, and another even more exotic one - Xitel. As forVideoLogic, you certainly know this brandname if not personally then at least by hearsay, but Xitelappeared in our sight only due to its recent announcement that the company is about to startVortex2-based sound cards manufacturing. And only then we learned that there is a company called Xitel,which offices are situated in Australia and in the US, and that it has a rather petty and unremarkableweb-site, which actually became much better with the time. Moreover, we found out that Xitel produces notbad Vortex 1 soundcards. But our greatest interest aroused with the announcement that Xitel's new Vortex2card - also known as Storm Platinum - will be supplied together with some fantastic ForceFeedBackheadphones. No wonder everybody was very anxious to find out what was so special about these headphonesand their feedback feature. In any case, plenty of people were willing to see, to hear and to feel XitelStorm Platinum. And now since we've managed to get the sacred device for our benchmarks we are going tofinally satisfy your curiosity. So, let us introduce you a Xitel Storm Platinum soundcard!
Well, we will start from the very beginning. Xitel Storm Platinum can be supplied in three differentversions:
- Retail version: a colorful box wrapped in transparent plastic. When you open it there is a smallerbox with the soundcard itself, a CD-ROM containing drivers and other required software, and a user'smanual. And that's all. MSRP - $79.95
- OEM version: the only difference from the Retail version is that the colorful box isn't fixed andgoes simply as a separate package unit. Actually, there is a rather widely spread opinion that thisversion has been designed especially for Russia. MSRP - $79.95 (the expected price should be about $70)
- Gamers Pack: another beautiful box but this time besides the above described set it also contains themysterious ForceFeedBack TakStar headphones. MSRP - $99.95.
Of course, we got all three versions of packages but the soundcard itself was the same in all threethat is why further on we won't point out the package version the tested card is taken from.
First, a few words about the user's manual. Its black-and-white design won't impress you that much,and the information it contains has to do mostly with software setup. In this respect, MX300 looks muchmore attractive because there is a nice brief lead-in into A3D technology and a description of allsoundcard components.
It is also worth noting that neither any beautiful games, nor additional applications go together withthe Storm Platinum. On the one hand, this fact may discourage you because it looks as if Xitel tries tosave money by all possible and even impossible means. But on the other hand, if every dollar wasted ontrifles makes your heart bleed, this is a good way for you to save some money and to retain good mood.And as for games and applications you can easily find whatever you like in almost no time as soon asyou find it necessary.
For those of you who are already familiar with Vortex2 the next paragraph will probably be of noparticular interest but the newcomers may find a lot of useful information about Xitel Storm Platinumsoundcard. So, if you have never seen it, then take your time and get acquainted with it now.
The heart of Xitel Storm Platinum is a Vortex2 chip (AU8830) made by Aureal Semiconductor Inc.
- Supported API: DirectSound (DS), DirectSound3D (DS3D), A3D, A3D 2.0, DirectInput, DirectMusic
- SB Pro DOS emulation in applications (including the DOS boxes)
- SigmaTel 18-bit Quad CODEC (STAC9708)
- Better than 96 dB signal to noise ratio at 20Hz - 20kHz (-3dB intercept)
- Sampling frequency: 48kHz Full-duplex supported
- Total harmonic distortions and penetrating noise (THD+N): Less than 0.007%
- Samples conversion with 26-point interpolation
- Built-in connectors: MPU-401 MIDI/Game Port, Expansion (Upgrade) Header, Wavetable Header, MPC3 (Modem, CD, AUX)
- External connectors: 2 buffered stereo line outputs, one of them supports headphones, microphone and line inputs
- Optical digital S/PDIF Output (Toslink)
- Play through 2 or 4 speakers and headphones
- Support for 76 streams of 3D-sound (in fact, only 16 are available at the moment, and the rest is promised to appear in new drivers release)
- An on-board, 10-band, digital graphic equalizer
- 64 Wavetable voices + 256 software voices make a 320-voice wavetable
- Supports sound delay effects, sound spreading effects of various types (room, chamber, hall, cabinet), sound flange and distortion and a MIDI wah-wah effect
- Full DLS 1.0 support
- PCI 2.1 interface
- Minimum system requirements: Pentium 90 MHz, 8 Mb RAM, Win95
Well, if we compare Storm Platinum to MX300 we will hardly find any serious differences between them.The only thing that is really new in Storm Platinum is a Toslink S/PDIF digital optical output port fromSharp. As for MX300, it doesn't have this progressive component although Diamond has already announced anew MX-25 add-on card (MSRP - $35), which allegedly has this S/PDIF port though not an optical but acoaxial (RCA). And surely there is a special plug for this optical port as it is supposed to.
What does this digital optical port serve for? Let us quote Aureal because no one else can give youa better answer: "For true audiophiles Toslink optical S/PDIF output port provides perfectdistortion-free connection to latest digital devices such as Dolby Digital receivers, DAT players,CDR recorders and MiniDisk players." If you have anything from the above mentioned list thanthis soundcard is exactly what you need, and if you don't then it doesn't actually matter which soundcardto purchase.
Besides, if you feel happy having saved a buck or two and if your PC has the required digital opticalport for a soundcard then you may decide for the Xitel Storm Platinum. Why? It's very simple: StormPlatinum is just a bit cheaper than MX300 - shall we say $1 cheaper, but if you dream of a digital porton your MX300, you will have to wait until a new MX-25 comes out. And believe me: it will cost youanother $25-35!
An attentive reader has definitely noticed the word "may" in the previous paragraph. Andhaving noticed it, he is definitely puzzled, what this means.
A Short Lyrical Digression
Generally, how can we evaluate the new soundcard? Of course, we may perform some synthetic benchmarkschecking its hardware characteristics and offering some tests for subjective sounding perception. We maycheck the way it sounds in real applications (see: games) and in demo programs. But anyway, your personalevaluation and reaction will remain the key factor. If you are satisfied with the sounding quality inthe applications you are working with then the soundcard is worth buying.
Though we didn't expect anything extraordinary we carefully carried out all the available testingprograms.
Minerva test showed that Storm Platinum doesn't differ from MX300 at all. No wonder, since both cardsare Vortex2 based. Both of them have one and the same CODEC. It is possible to distinguish them only bytheir appearance: MX300 is longer and with a smaller number of capacitors. And those who considerthemselves great aesthetes will undoubtedly point out Xitel's nobly black textolite and complete absenceof any gilding on the external connectors.
But romantic mood caused by perfect sounding is not enough for most true music fans, and very oftenthey also like to check the features of their soundcard. For instance: a signal to noise ratio, harmonicdistortions and its amplitude-frequency response (hereinafter called AFR). AFR values are often thecause of great disputes. Well, let's see everything with our own eyes. To get all necessary AFR valuesof both MX300 and Storm Platinum we utilized a program called Analyser. Here are the resultsobtained:
|Diamond MX300||Xitel Storm Platinum|
All the tests were performed 5 times and then the most illustrative data was chosen and offered to youon the figure above.
Actually, no need to comment about anything here. As you can see, MX300 has smoother AFR and it isa point to its credit. Well, to do Diamond the justice they beat Aureal having created a better soundcardthan A3D interface manufacturer.
So, it should be clear by now, why we expressed some doubts concerning Storm Platinum seemingadvantages. A low-cost digital optical port won't always turn the scale for true music lovers. And sincemost of us always strive for the best it seems quite reasonable that we will prefer to pay an extra sumof money for an MX300 but to be sure that AFR is stable and the digital port is made through an extendedMX-25 add-on card.
As for the average users, they will have to draw the conclusions themselves. Certainly, the digitalport provides distortion-free sounding but unfortunately not everyone has the opportunity to plug in StormPlatinum to an external receiver.
It would be much better if Storm Platinum also had an S/PDIF port of RCA type. Then you could connectto the soundcard an external AC-3 decoder with the Cambridge Desktop Theatre 5.1 accelerator with anRCA S/PDIF port only. In this case you get a perfect system for watching DVD movies with Dolby Digitalsound. To our great disappointment, this option isn't available yet. However, those of you who have aMX300 will manage to get it if they buy an MX-25. Otherwise, the only thing you can do about it is tohope that one day Cambridge Desktop Theatre 5.1 won't be the only one of the kind any more, and you willbe able to find an alternative product with an optical port. Till then you will have to use a DVD decoderto get a satisfactory AC-3 sound.
And again if you have been following us attentively you will have a natural question: weren't wemistaken having called Aureal a Vortex2 chip and Vortex2 soundcards manufacturer? Moreover, you seemto be wondering about the subtitle of this article from the very beginning, don't you?
When we opened the beautiful Storm Platinum box the first thing that struck us was the card marking.Nothing reminded of Xitel. All the inscriptions confirmed that it was Aureal who produced this card: theserial number, the company name written in large letters, and their homesite URL www.aureal.com. This factcaught us unawares and we started searching the Internet. Very soon we came across a very interestingdocument (114KB) in Acrobat format, which contained Aureal Vortex2 SuperQuad Digital PCI soundcarddescription. But the most surprising thing was the photo of that soundcard. We could hardly believe ourown eyes - it was an absolute copy of the soundcard we had just taken out of the Xitel Storm Platinum box!
You may be familiar with Aureal's marketing plan concerning soundcards for OEM manufacturers. In thetimes of Vortex 1 Aureal often suffered malicious attacks and was accused of letting various doubtful"handicraftsmen" use its excellent AU8820 chip for low-cost and low-quality soundcardsproduction. Besides, its marketing policy was also a cause for public displeasure. Now we have toadmit that Aureal has learnt its lesson and often surprises us with new original solutions. So, we findit very wise on Aureal's part to let OEM manufacturers and other interested companies sell Vortex2SuperQuad Digital PCI soundcards (and also another release with only two-speakers support) with all thenecessary documentation and package under their own brandnames. In other words, Aureal will continuemanufacturing these soundcards on Vortex2 chip with the drivers, which hardly differ from the referencedrivers. Only this time Aureal marks the card with the name of the customer company where necessary.
For example, a Storm Platinum soundcard goes together with a CD-ROM containing adapted referencedrivers 2016, multilingual DirectX 6, Acrobat Reader 3.0 and demo programs from Aureal. After unimpededdrivers installation the Storm Platinum soundcard was registered in your system registry. Moreover, Aurealwasn't even too lazy to change the message in the status bar, which appears on the screen during SBPro emulation DOS driver loading.
It may help to somehow protect us from defective soundcards, whichare overwhelming the market right now. According to some official sources only 2 companies havedeveloped their own design. They are Diamond and Voyetra Turtle Beach. VideoLogic is also most likelyto have its own design different from the reference drivers, and the photographs prove it.
So, now we have every reason to believe that chipset engineers and software developers are familiarwith all the technological peculiarities of Vortex2 soundcards manufacturing. Moreover, our tests provedthat Aureal soundcards are of rather high quality.
Concerning Aureal marketing course it should be noted that the company has initially intended itssoundcard to be rich in cool features, i.e. the digital optical S/PDIF port can be found even in thebasic version. Though I wouldn't dare to consider it a 100% determinative feature while buying thisparticular soundcard. Then the textolite looks very fashionable and beautiful with its new blackcoloring. The marking on the card surface fills you with confidence because if you see that the cardis based on the chip of the same manufacturer you are pretty sure that they can cope with their owntechnologies and provide high-quality products.
In practice, the only serious drawback of the Storm Platinum turned out to be an AFR value.
On the other hand, the soundcard is rated as "A" (Revision A) that is why you have everyreason to hope that the above mentioned drawback will be removed in further revisions because MX300 hasalready lifted the veil and disclosed the main problems, which could cause low performance: they haveto do either with soundcard components or with scheme.
An Excellent Solution for an Excellent Business
Actually, now any company has a brilliant opportunity to do business together with Aureal, no matterif it is big or small, if it is a retail company or a manufacturer. It means that any Mr. Johnson cansell cool Aureal soundcards under his own brandname, e.g. "Johnson's Cursing" or"Deadly Scream 2000". :-)
Since we have mentioned the drivers we would like to say a few words about them. A few words willdefinitely be enough because there are no interesting discoveries or results, which are worth detailedanalysis. These are standard reference drivers, though this time they are marked with Xitel StormPlatinum brandname.
If we compare them to the ones for MX300 we'll manage to find just a couple of insignificant changes.
Here is another possible equalizer outlook with channel dividing feature:
Here was added the possibility to operate sampling frequency in the output because it is very importantif you are using the S/PDIF port:
The package includes 5 demo programs though the fifth one is our old friend "A3D Player",which used to go together with Vortex 1 soundcards.
The connected speakers type is configured in a bit different way, and especially in case you haveonly two speakers you can exactly define their location: if they are built-in, or fastened to the monitor,or simply stand on the table.
The speakers playback test was carried out differently.
And that's all, nothing more.
Among the demo programs, which go together with Storm Platinum, "A3D Room" is the only onethat deserves our attention and that is destined to show A3D 2.0 at work.
In fact, Aureal has another demo program, which demonstrates Wavetracing technology in practice. Itseems quite logical to include it into the package, however, Aureal doesn't share this opinion.Nevertheless, if you cannot put up with this injustice you may simply download this program from Aurealsite.
By the way, it is not a single demo program but a set of 4 demos. Wavetracing allows you not onlyto hear the sound itself but also to observe the sound spreading along the straight paths, itsreflecting and its getting through various obstacles until it reaches your ears. It is a great sight, youhave to try it yourself!
Besides, it can be also added here that MX300 drivers don't match Storm Platinum.
And another small misfortune: a Zoran soft DVD player, which is included into MX300 package, failsto work with Storm Platinum, and we stick to the opinion that these drivers are to blame for it. It's apity actually, because Aureal is not going to make us happy with a new adaptable programmable DVD playerin the near future, though who knows, if it were not for hope, the heart would break! :-)
After finishing with the drivers we also installed the last Aureal patch 2.05.
The testing system was configured as follows:
- Chaintech 6BTM / Intel Celeron 450A / 128 MB SDRAM, SEC, PC-100
- HDD 6.5 GB Fujitsu, UDMA / DVD-ROM Hitachi GD-2000
- Wicked3D Vengeance 16 MB SDRAM (3Dfx Voodoo Banshee), PCI
- Diamond Monster Sound MX300 / Xitel Storm Platinum
- Cambridge SoundWorks Desktop Theater 5.1
- TakStar Stereo HeadPhones TS-V H830
- OS: Windows98/DX6.1
To check the CPU utilization we used the synthetic Audio Winbench 1.01 test and a real-time gamingapplication - Half-Life (1.06).
Audio Winbench showed a slight decrease (in %) in CPU utilization, which could be caused by driverschanging.
And in Half-Life all the results remained the same.
|Half-Life (1.06) BlowOut 800x600@16bpp|
|A3D 2.0||Wavetracing Off||A3D Off|
|Montego II OEM||29.838||32.3175||34.102|
|Xitel Storm Platinum / Aureal||29.830||32.862||35.455|
Note that we applied patch 1.06 because the another one - patch 1.08 - won't enable you to run anytesting demo. If you want to turn off acoustic parameters calculations based on gaming environment geometry, you mayuse a console command "s_geometry 0". All tests were performed three times after the firstloading of the demo program.
So, now we can do nothing but wait until Aureal launches new drivers, which were announced to appearin the second quarter. They promised to reduce CPU utilization to minimum, to provide the support of32 DS3D streams or maybe even more. But the most important thing they promised to introduce was thesupport of all existing reverberation interfaces: EAX 1.0, I3D2 and EAX 2.0. It sounds ratherunbelievable though Aureal hasn't yet lost its credibility, that's why there is still time.
Of course, High-Life was not the only game we used for testing. Another one was Heretic II with aninstalled EP patch (1.04). All Vortex2-based soundcards owners were waiting for this patch to come outwith great anxiety because it supported A3D 2.0. And it perfectly coped with this task, we should say!Applications like that if they come out enviably frequently will undoubtedly strengthen Aureal'srating position. Heretic II impressed us with the magnificent sounding, which made our hearts beatfaster and faster. You could really feel! the action, the space and the time, and you could always tellwhere you were guided only by the sound. You could easily distinguish if you were in a big or in a smallroom, or even under the water. You could feel the bullets ricocheting here and there, the barrels andfurniture smashing into thousand pieces, and you could also feel the presence of your enemies and identifytheir location when they were shooting at you. It leaves an absolutely unbelievable impression, trust us!While enjoying the game we haven't noticed any evident trouble: everything seemed to run perfectlysmoothly.
Here Comes the "Dessert"!
And for the last course we've got the mysterious TakStar ForceFeedBack headphones. Xitel managed toassure us that it is not only beautiful boxes and unattractive user's manuals it is capable of making.Besides that, Xitel is also very good at finding really interesting products. Xitel and TakStar signedan agreement about supplying Xitel Storm Platinum Games Pack with TarStar so-called ForceFeedBackheadphones. And the whole thing means only $20 price increase.
Quite possible that true music lovers will stumble upon this sum after making a number of simplecalculations and will be surely indignant at such cruel injustice: a good thing cannot be sohumiliatingly cheap! Well, it's hard to object. But when we saw the scandalous headphones with our owneyes, the first thing that occurred to us was again the price: it simply couldn't be true! In order tofind out public attitude towards this product we carried out a small survey and discovered that someindividuals are ready to spent $70 - the whole mint of money! - on it.
What is so particular about these headphones?
First a brief specs list:
- TS-V H830 model from TakStar
- Play the sound within 5Hz to 28kHz frequency range
- A wire remote control unit with 2 AAA batteries (one set is included into the package)
- In order to feel the sound, i.e. to activate ForceFeedBack, you have to put the small Power leverinto "on"-position. This lever has three positions: on "off"-position (the headphoneswork as the usual ones without any particular effects), and 2 "on"-positions: maximum effectand medium effect. This is what the batteries are needed for - to activate these regimes.
- When ForceFeedBack is on, a special "Vibration" control light is also on. It also servesto signal battery recharging/replacing time.
- Besides, there is a volume regulation wheel on the remote control panel.
- Headphones have a 4-meter long cord, which is great. Unfortunately, it will not let you fetch acoffee from the kitchen but can allow you to "escape", if you get killed in a desperate fight,by pushing the table as far from you as possible. :-)
- The headphones core has a mini-jack plug, but a full-size decoder is also included into the package.
- Headphones are made of plastic, rubberized parts, porolon and leather-like material.
Frankly speaking, these headphones don't have any principally new features. About a year ago Panasonicoffered something like that, however, this fact doesn't detract TakStar's merit.
The ForceFeedBack feature implies the following effect. During playback tangible vibrations ofheadphones (to be more precise of a special double membrane) accompany all low sounds. There is alsoanother membrane, which is responsible for headphones own vibrations. Theoretically, you shouldfeel the effect of two sub-buffers as if they were on your heard instead of the headphones. But inpractice they provide almost the same effect, as listening to a very loud music in a room with perfectacoustics. For example, when you are at a hot rock-concert you feel the vibrations of the sound witheach body cell, and with the TakStar headphones on the similar thing happens to your ears, though despitethe small contact surface the effect spreads all over you body.
The described vibration appears at all low sounds, for instance, the sound of the drums, airplaneengines or a starting missile. And we should point out that the achieved effect is really cool: yousimply start feeling the sound! Can you imagine that? Moreover, it makes you merge completely with whatis happening on the display, the action swallows you up and you can no longer tell the virtual worldfrom reality.
Most of all we liked to use ForceFeedBack headphones in such popular action games as Unreal, Quake2,Half-Life, and Heretic II. In the games of this sort vibrations are not permanent, they occurdepending on the action development. That is why this vibrating effect neither annoys, nor tires you anddoesn't pall on you even after half a day playing. On the contrary, due to this fantastic effect not onlyyour alert eyes and ability to react are involved in the action: vibrations activate all your senses andmake you feel shock-waves, enemies bullets luckily missing your head, and the recoil of your weapon.
3D-sound, 3D-graphics and now we can even feel the action on our own back, in the full meaning ofthis word! In this respect TakStar headphones deserve to be awarded with a new name - "The Gamer'sDream" and can rank with famous EyeScream stereo glasses.
However, in various games simulating cars or airplanes the ForceFeedBack effect should be turnedon the medium level or even turned off at all. Not everyone can bear the continuous noise of the workingengine or constant din, rumble and vibrations. As for the influence of this new technology on ourphysical condition, we haven't noticed any side effects - headaches or ears fatigue, but we refrainfrom guaranteeing it in each separate case.
Of course, we have also used TakStar headphones for listening to our favorite music. In this caseyou can connect them to your receiver, walkman or Rio and you will be able to feel the music the sameway as it happens in games. Despite this, here we ranked them as average because of the stereo basis,which, to our mind, provided a bit dry and flat sounds. Besides, when the vibration was on, low soundsappeared slightly distorted. In other words - nothing special, and taking into account these drawbacksthe headphones are hardly $40 worth. As for other headphones manufacturers, TakStar is undoubtedly not apatch on Sennheiser, for example, but as a product intended directly for gaming purposes it is for surebeyond all comparison.
The only really unpleasant thing about it is the batteries, which discharge too often, and it meansthat if you become a true ForceFeedBack headphones admirer you will have to buy a new battery set everysingle day. On the other hand if you are smart enough, you will buy a set of rechargeable batteries anda recharging device: this purchase will pay later on! As for me, I would prefer an external powersupply for my headphones because I'm not going to have them on day and night and when sitting at my PC ausual 220V wall outlet is always within reach.
High Time for Conclusions
While reading the conclusions concerning Storm Platinum, please remember that it refers in full toall the Aureal soundcards produced for OEM manufacturers and third companies, and in a month or so,these cards will dash into the market under various brandnames.
The naked truth is that Xitel Storm Platinum soundcards are intended directly for gamers. And hereit violently competes with MX300. However, MX300 has some really good features:
- MX300 has a much better AFR than Storm Platinum (though in the next releases Aureal may manage toimprove the situation)
- Diamond has officially announced MX300 development with the new extension cards and the first oneof this type - MX-25 - has already been launched. There is every reason to think that Diamond won't stophere. And as for Aureal, it prefers to keep all the plans and prospects to itself, which is of coursea negative point.
On the other hand, Storm Platinum Gamers Pack is a 100% leader in gaming. If you like to spend hoursshooting monsters and exploding spacecrafts and if it doesn't matter for you whether your soundcard willundergo upgrading from time to time or not, then Storm Platinum Gamers Pack is the right choice for you.For the price of a Retail MX300 you will get not only a cool gaming soundcard but also a pair offantastic headphones, which will let you not only hear the sound but feel it as well.
Unfortunately, we don't have any information concerning the possibility of purchasing TakStarheadphones separately without the whole Storm Platinum package. That is why now there is no otherway than to buy the whole Gamers Pack. However, everything may soon change for the better - eitherthe headphones become available without all the rest or another similar devices appear,for instance.
Some critics consider the absence of CD S/PDIF IN a serious disadvantage of both: Storm Platinum andMX300. We want to disagree with that. Things are not so bad as they might seem. You can always disarmyour opponent with a very clever argument: PC is not intended for playing music. But in another case,if users still regard the lack of this digital port as serious drawback, then Aureal and Diamond willhave to revise their marketing policy. Especially, taking into account the fact that nothing preventsthem from installing this input port, which will allow to play CDs avoiding CD-ROM drive DAC. All theyneed is a new scheme and a connector. Well, let's see what comes out of it.
No EAX support is considered to be another low point of soundcards on Vortex2. We have already mentionedit in our review, and the only thing we can add concerns SB Live!, which doesn't support A3D at alland is unlikely to start supporting it one day, while Vortex2 gives us some hope.
And now a few words about the quality of MIDI playing and of music sounding in general. Actually,this discussion has no end. Some of you will say that MIDI is a very important feature, the otherswill deny that. So, you should make your own choice: nobody can help you here. Decide, what is moreimportant for you and don't forget to pay attention to alternative products of other companies, whichmay show better performance in several applications. Then you will definitely do the right thingbecause each of us perceives different sounds in his own way and there simply cannot be a singleopinion about it.
Anyway, if you feel like buying a gaming-friendly soundcard, Storm Platinum is worth paying attentionto it. Especially, Storm Platinum Gamers Pack with TakStar ForceFeedBack headphones.
And if you have hardware with digital optical S/PDIF input-port, Storm Platinum with its Toslinkdigital optical output-port will definitely catch your eye.