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Sondigo's Inferno
Price (Street)$149.99
A simpler take on the Oxygen

Like Auzentech, Sondigo is a relative newcomer to the PC audio market. Dolby actually turned us on to the company, which has one of the minds behind Dolby Headphone technology at its helm. Sondigo's based out of British Columbia, Canada, so they're right in my back yard. But no, I don't actually know anyone who works there. And I don't know your friend Dave from Canada, either.

Although Sondigo makes a couple of USB and Wi-Fi audio products, the Inferno is the company's first stab at a PCI sound card. At only $149.99 through Sondigo's website, the card's $20 cheaper than the X-Meridian, too. Unfortunately, the card is a little scarce online, but Sondigo tell us that it should become available through NCIX, ThinkGeek, and CyberGuys soon.

At first glance, the Inferno looks like a much simpler design than Auzentech's X-Meridian. The card itself is about an inch shorter, and you won't find any flashy capacitors or OPAMPs here. Given Auzentech's claim that the X-Meridian is the first original card design based on the Oxygen HD, I suspect the Inferno is actually based on a C-Media reference design for the CMI8788 audio chip. Not that there's anything wrong with reference designs—just look at every GeForce 8800 GTX.

Unlike the X-Meridian, which features AKM chips to handle both digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversions, the Inferno has a Wolfson ADC. The WM8785 ADC supports 24-bit/192kHz audio, but its rated signal-to-noise ratio of 111dB is a few decibels short of what AKM claims for the ADC found on the X-Meridian. Oddly, Sondigo's website says that the card's AKM DACs have a SNR of 117dB, but the AKM data sheets claim a 120dB SNR.

We didn't let the X-Meridian slide for arriving with a PCI interface, and we're not going to cut the Inferno any slack, either. Yes, there are more PCI-equipped systems than those with available PCI Express slots, but if someone's considering a $150 sound card like the Inferno, we'd wager they have at least one PCIe x1 slot to spare.

The Inferno's relative simplicity continues at the port cluster, where we find a selection of color-coded analog outputs and decidedly less bling than we saw with the X-Meridian. S/PDIF input and output ports are only available in TOS-Link form, but that's probably the format most folks will want.

The TOS-Link ports also mate nicely with the optical cable Sondigo includes in the box. This cable is only six feet long, and it's not nearly as beefy as the one bundled with the X-Meridian. Fortunately, that doesn't appear to affect its ability to deliver a pristine bitstream to compatible speakers.

In addition to the optical cable, Sondigo also throws a copy of WinDVD 5 into the box. That would be a nice touch—especially since WinDVD 5 supports Dolby Digital Live output—if InterVideo weren't currently pushing WinDVD 8. DVD playback apps don't change much from release to release, but this one feels like it's been pulled from a Wal-Mart bargain bin, so it doesn't really add much to the overall package.