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Review: Gainward Hollywood@Home 7.1

by Ryszard Sommefeldt on 10 January 2004, 00:00

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Eight channels without breaking the bank

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I've had a good think about the reason for eight channel consumer PC audio existing. I can't think of one, besides "because it can". Eight channel speaker setups are as rare as rocking horse shit and applications to take advantage of eight discrete audio channels are even rarer. Sure, you can upmix an audio source with less the eight channels, but what's the point? Why not have ten channels in that case? The benefits of two more speakers than 5.1 positional audio, at this precise moment in time, are slight at best, pointless and expensive at worst.

But that hasn't stopped anyone forging ahead anyway. With Windows XP, the OS and its DirectX technologies are now able to support more than six discrete channels of positional audio without any real difficulty. The OS support is there. On the hardware side of things, there are now a range of audio controllers that can process and generate eight audio channels, giving DirectX something to play with. VIA's Envy24 controllers, a lovely set of ASICs that they purchased in a fine deal with ICEnsemble, are the most popular. Supporting 24 bits of audio precision at sample rates of up to 192kHz, Envy24 is now cropping up everywhere.

But despite operating system support and hardware for the OS to drive, you still need another layer of things on top of that, applications. I talked about upmix of fewer than eight channels, but the benefits of that approach are minimal. When listening to music, it's just two more channels for your brain to merge together and true multi channel music is exceedingly rare. DVD Audio is about your only source for that and of course, it's a 5.1 recording and playback format, so six channels is your lot, you're upmixing to support the other two. The majority of music is still recorded in stereo playback formats and can often sound worse when played back using more than two (and a low frequency effect) channels.

Hmm, so what else is there? Other true multichannel audio sources include DVDs, but again, the overwhelming majority are recorded using a six channel 5.1 system, so we're upmixing again. Games that generate positional audio are pretty much our prime candidates then, but with eight channels a new thing, again we're generally upmixing for the new channels and gaining no real benefits.

So we're on the bleeding edge. Eight channel audio is in its infancy, support is thin on the ground in terms of applications to drive it, but hardware and operating system support are ready and waiting for it to take off. In the PC arena, that's all the excuse that hardware manufacturers need. Whether it's needed or not, eight is a bigger number than six and as long as things aren't too expensive, you may as well give the consumer eight channels if you can, immediate benefits and eight actual speakers or not.

We've recently seen a motherboard or two around these parts that ship with an Envy24 ASIC beating at its audio heart. But what about PCI cards using the hardware, for those that want to upgrade their existing audio solutions? We can't forget Creative, they have their own method of eight channel madness, but it's expensive. They just want any excuse to sell their eight channel speaker setups anyway. We can do better than that. How about eight channel PCI audio, featuring VIA's spectastic Envy24, for less than a copy of the latest PC game.

Sounds good, even with all the inherent weaknesses of eight channel audio at the time of writing? Gainward would like you to keep reading.