We begin with the lightweight of the bunch, at least in terms of price. The Gamesurround Muse XL is available for as little as $26 for the boxed retail edition or $15 for the OEM modeleither way, quite a bargain for a four-channel sound card. Unpacking the retail package, we find the card itself, a drivers CD and an instruction manual. The manual is somewhat short (twelve pages) but does a capable job of explaining both the hardware and software installation process.
The Muse XL features fewer connectors than some of the other sound cards featured here, but it still offers a fairly impressive array. On the backplate, you'll find the requisite game connector along with microphone and line-in jacks and front and rear stereo speaker jacks. On the surface of the card itself (for internal connections) is a PC speaker connector, an aux-in, and connectors for the analog out of your CD player.
One possible issue here is the orientation of these internal connectors. As you can see from the picture, the Aux In and one of the CD In connectors are designed so the cable will be perpendicular to the board. This may cause interference problems with the adjoining PCI card, and I would've preferred connectors like the ones on the Fortissimo II, which we'll see in a minute.
The Muse is built around a CMI 8738 chip; you can read more about it on the manufacturer's web site here. The 8738 is a popular chip that is found not only on the Muse but also on the Soyo SY-K7V DRAGON Plus motherboard and the motherboard of the Shuttle SS50 cube, to name just a couple. The CMI 8738 features 16-bit audio at up to 48KHz. It supports a substantial number of positional audio standards, including DirectSound 3D, EAX 1.0 and 2.0, and A3D 1.0.
Unlike the other chips featured here, the CMI 8738 has its CODECs on-chip with the audio processor. The idea behind separate CODEC chips is to keep electrical noise from the audio processor chip from affecting the analog stages of the CODECs and degrading the sound. It will be interesting to see if the CMI 8738 suffers from putting everything on one piece of silicon.
The drivers for the Muse XL are relatively basic, in that the standard Windows multimedia controls are used. The Muse XL was the only card here that didn't feature some sort of custom driver interface. That's a statement, not a complaint. Some of the more portly driver packages on the other cards had me longing for the Muse's standard interface. The drivers included on the CD weren't Windows XP compatible, but newer drivers to solve this problem were only a download away.
You probably wouldn't expect much more than drivers and a readme file on the install CD of an $26 sound card, but here the Muse XL is a pleasant surprise. The accompanying CD includes a number of "Lite Edition" style software packages, including Yamaha XG Player, Media Station and ACID XPress. Also notable is a trial version of PowerDVD, as well as several other software titles. More detailed information on the complete bundle can be found here.
Though the Muse XL's capabilities are dwarfed to some extent by the other cards in the comparison, it's important to note that those capabilities are still respectable. Throw in the bargain-basement price and the voluminous software bundle, and the Muse XL is still in contention, especially for the budget-minded consumer.