That probably sounds a little melodramatic, but consider this. The iDomes were designed from the ground up with digital input in mind, and Abit has taken great care to ensure that they deliver every bit of the pristine quality of a digital bitstream to your ears. That bitstream—digital audio in its purest form—can be provided by fancy sound cards and “free” integrated motherboard audio alike, setting up the iDomes to challenge not only other speakers on the market, but the very need for a discrete sound card as well.
And so the stage is set. Can the iDomes, when paired with integrated motherboard audio, challenge the output quality of the best PC sound card on the market? Read on to find out.
PC audio starts in a digital format—a series of 1s and 0s that can be faithfully, and even perfectly, transmitted within the confines of a system. However, to get that audio content into a format that our ears can hear, it has to leave the safe, binary confines of the PC and enter our organic, analog world. Therein lies the problem: reproducing and transporting 1s and 0s in a digital world is a snap, but translating those bits into analog waveforms is not.
In most modern PCs, digital-to-analog audio conversion happens in an aptly-named piece of silicon called a DAC, or digital-to-analog converter. (The DAC is sometimes integrated into a cheap multi-purpose chip that acts as a DAC, ADC, and headphone amplifier, such as the Realtek ALC880. Fear the crab.) This chip sits on the motherboard or sound card and converts outbound audio bitstreams into waveforms that get piped to analog output ports. This crucial step is often where things go sideways in PC audio. Many a pristine digital audio signal has been butchered by the cheap DACs built into most motherboards and low-end sound cards.
Assuming the DAC does do a good job of converting the original audio bitstream to an analog signal, that signal is still subject to distortion on the way to the speakers. First it must pass through the confines of the PC, where it’s subjected to all sorts of electrical noise that can interfere with the signal. Once it leaves the system, it has to contend with the speakers, which probably apply some form of amplification that further manipulates the analog signal.
One way to combat such distortion and interference is to move the DAC closer to the end point on an audio stream’s journey. Digital signals can more easily maintain their integrity while navigating interference-riddled environments, and their very nature allows for more precise manipulation.
With the iDomes, Abit has moved the digital-to-analog conversion process right to the end of the line. Audio bitstreams maintain all their digital glory as they leave the system and enter the speakers, bypassing the DAC on the sound card or motherboard. Once the bitstream enters the iDomes, it hits a digital processing unit that handles equalizer functions and amplification. This work is all done in silicon, with a µGuru chip controlling one of several preset “SFX” processing modes.
Speakers can’t generate sound waves directly from a digital signal, so the iDomes do have to dip into the analog world eventually. However, that conversion doesn’t happen until the end of the line, which should help preserve the integrity of the original signal.
iDome DS500 speakers
The first element in Abit’s iDome equation is the DS500 speaker set. This two-channel setup combines 4″ satellites with 13mm tweeters and is rated for 25W RMS per channel. Abit claims a frequency response of between 20 and 300kHz and a signal-to-noise ratio of 86dB, and says the speakers can sample at up to 24 bits and 192kHz. So we’re off to a good start, then.
These iDomes are a little larger than typical PC speakers; each measures 186mm deep, 135mm wide, and 250mm tall. That’s 7.3″ deep, 5.3″ wide, and 9.8″ tall if you’re partial to fractions of the king’s forearm. The speakers aren’t that heavy, though. The right channel, which integrates all sorts of extra hardware, weighs just 2.5kg, while the left channel tips the scales at only 1.9kg.
Things get even better on the aesthetic front, at least if you’re a fan of glossy, piano black. The front face of each speaker is polished to a near-mirror finish that exudes class, at least until your greasy mitts leave smudged fingerprints all over it. You can’t get away with not touching the iDomes, either. They don’t come with a remote, so adjusting the volume, bass, treble, and SFX modes is done with knobs located along the bottom of the right-channel speaker. You’ll also find the power button along the bottom of the right-channel speaker, just above the requisite blue LED that lets you know the speakers are actually on.
Blue LEDs are a little passÃ© for those looking for bling, but the iDomes do include an additional red LED that backlights the translucent panel at the bottom of the right-channel speaker. The red is a little much for my tastes, but Abit lets you turn it off with a switch at the back of the speaker.
Joining the red LED switch at the rear of the right-channel speaker are TOS-Link digital S/PDIF input and output ports, RCA analog input and output ports, and a little switch that toggles between them. Despite being designed primarily for digital input, the iDomes can accept an analog signal. The digital and analog outputs are there to connect to the iDome SW510 subwoofer—or any other subwoofer, for that matter.
With the iDomes so focused on digital input, it’s a little disappointing Abit doesn’t also include coaxial S/PDIF ports. We’ve seen a lot of motherboards sporting coaxial rather than TOS-Link S/PDIF outputs, and while you can get an adapter that converts between the two, it would have been nice to have coaxial ports out-of-the-box.
Digging through the DS500 box does produce analog and optical cables, though. You also get a 2m length of speaker wire to connect the left speaker.
The iDome SW510 subwoofer
Unlike most high-end PC speaker sets, the iDome DS500s don’t come with a subwoofer. Depending on how much you like bass to punch you in the chest, you might not need one, either. However, for those who want to feel their music as much as hear it, Abit has created the iDome SW510.
The SW510 follows the same aesthetic as the DS500s, but at 320mm deep, 200mm wide, and 350mm tall, it’s quite a bit larger. (12.6″ deep, 7.9″ wide, and 13.8″ tall for those of you who would rather water freeze at 32 degrees as opposed to 0.) As one might expect, the subwoofer weighs in at a heftier 5.2kg, too.
Like the DS500s, the subwoofer’s controls are located at the front of the unit, this time along the top edge. There isn’t much to control beyond the subwoofer’s power button and bass and volume knobs, though. Subwoofer volume and bass control are independent of the left and right speakers, which is either a great feature or an annoying inconvenience depending on how you like to tweak playback settings.
From the rear, we can get a good look at the subwoofer’s 6.5″ driver. The sub’s exhaust port is located at the bottom of the unit, and Abit says its design equalizes airflow to prevent distortion. Showing its motherboard maker roots, Abit calls this design DBX, or Digital Bass eXhaust. You know, because the speaker world doesn’t have enough oddly-capitalized Xs.
Abit says the SW510 pumps out 50W of RMS power with a 16-160Hz frequency response and signal-to-noise ratio of 93dB. The subwoofer isn’t limited to working with just the iDome DS500 satellites, either. You get standard analog and digital input and output ports, and since all the sub’s controls are independent, you can use it with any other speaker system, but again, no coaxial S/PDIF ports.
As with the DS500s, the SW510 comes with RCA and optical cables. The optical cable is of the thin, flimsy variety you find bundled with some sound cards and motherboards, so it feels a little cheap next to the solid construction of the iDomes. That shouldn’t affect the cable’s ability to deliver a clean digital signal, though.
The iDomes look promising on paper and gorgeous in the flesh, but how do they actually sound? Very good indeed. I’ve used various incarnations of Logitech’s high-end PC speakers over the years, and to my ears, the iDomes deliver superior clarity toward the middle and high end of the spectrum. You really need the SW510 subwoofer to get satisfying bass, though. Even then, the lows won’t knock you back in your chair, but you will feel them.
If you’re looking to wake your neighbors or fill a cavernous room, the iDomes are probably a little too quiet. They do offer plenty of power for mid-size rooms, and they can even fill larger spaces as long as you’re not throwing a rave for a bunch of rowdy teenagers who have all but driven themselves to deafness with their iPods.
Of course, we expected the iDomes to sound pretty good. At roughly a combined $250 for the speakers and subwoofer, they had better. But do they sound as good when paired with the digital output of built-in motherboard audio as they do when powered by a high-end sound card like Creative’s X-Fi XtremeMusic? To find out, I enlisted a friend for some blind listening tests. Our subject listened to a selection of 30-second WAV clips from our latest sound card comparison played back on the iDomes connected to the analog outputs of an X-Fi XtremeMusic and to the digital output of an EVGA 122-CK-NF68 motherboard with a relatively common Realtek ALC885 codec.
Through several songs, our subject was unable to distinguish reliably between digital motherboard output and analog output coming from the X-Fi. The two sounded all but identical to his ears, and I couldn’t discern a meaningful difference in playback quality, either. Score one for the iDomes.
Out of curiosity, I also tried out our integrated motherboard audio against the X-Fi’s digital output. Again, there was no difference in playback quality.
These results aren’t surprising given the nature of digital audio output, but it’s still mildly shocking to hear sound that good coming from onboard audio. The sound quality tanked when we switched to the onboard audio’s analog outputs, of course, but that’s not the iDomes’ fault. And with digital input, there’s no need to fall back on analog, anyway.
Time to ditch your sound card?
Combining a motherboard’s digital audio output with a set of digital speakers like Abit’s iDomes seems like a good way to cut a sound card out of the equation and save some money, and it works rather well if music playback is your only concern. However, it’s far from a universal solution.
For starters, the iDomes are only available as a two-channel speaker set, so you don’t get true surround sound. Surround audio is a handy feature to have for movie playback, but it’s even more vital for games, where being able to place the source of gunfire accurately can mean the difference between life and, uh, waiting 15 seconds to respawn. To be fair, software algorithms can fake surround sound environments using just stereo speakers. However, current virtual surround sound implementations aren’t as good as the real thing, and they’re not available with the majority of integrated motherboard audio solutions. Thanks, Realtek. Ironically, speaker virtualization schemes are actually more commonly supported on the very discrete sound cards you might want to supplant with the iDomes.
Whether the iDomes can replace your sound card will depend on just how fancy you want your positional audio and surround sound—and whether your motherboard’s integrated audio software is up to snuff on those fronts. 3D audio buffs will no doubt have a hard time matching the EAX Advanced HD 5.0 support of Creative’s X-Fi, which allows for 128 high definition 3D voices—with hardware acceleration to boot. However, some folks may be more than happy with the EAX 2.0 support offered by most motherboard audio, even if it is limited to just 32 concurrent 3D voices. When combined with the right positional audio algorithm, multi-core processors can largely mute the appeal of hardware acceleration, as well.
Abit’s iDomes aren’t the first digital PC speakers to hit the market, but they sound better than any others I’ve heard. For music playback in medium-sized rooms, they’re fantastic. More importantly, you don’t need to go out and spend a lot of money on a high-end sound card to make these speakers sound good—the “free” integrated audio on most motherboards should do, provided you have a digital output.
Of course, you will have to spend quite a bit of money on the iDomes. If you get the DS500 speakers and the optional SW510 subwoofer, which we’d recommend for those who appreciate a little chest thumping, you’re looking at about $250. Sure, you save a little on a sound card, and yes, speakers should last through several upgrade cycles, but that’s still a heck of a lot of money to spend on a two-channel setup.
What hurts the most about the iDomes’ lofty price tag is that they could use a little extra polish. Not to their exterior—they look gorgeous as-is. Playback quality doesn’t need any work, either, but the lack of a remote control and coaxial input options is disappointing. Independent controls for the satellites and subwoofer make the missing remote even more annoying, especially when gaming, where Windows or application volume controls aren’t readily accessible.
If you’re looking to make the most of your motherboard’s digital audio output, Abit’s iDomes will give you playback quality rivaling the best consumer-level PC sound cards. That’s a victory in itself, and although it’s a pricey one, Abit’s digital speakers make ditching your sound card a tantalizing option if you have little need for positional audio or true surround sound. Even if you do, the iDomes are just a couple of competent software audio algorithms away from a viable alternative to discrete audio cards.