Hercules' Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1
Every so often, a product comes along that seems a little ahead of its time. This sort of thing happens all the time with graphics cards, whose features and capabilities often far outpace what software developers are actually using at the time. However, before Hercules' Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1, I'd never seen a sound card that was advanced beyond the capabilities of almost every one of its intended users. The big feature for the Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1 is, as the name hints, support for 7.1 output channels. I suppose that's the next logical step after 5.1 and 6.1 audio products.
The Fort III's 7.1-channel audio abilities offer one center channel, left and right front channels, left and right surround channels, and two effective rear channels, in addition to the subwoofer channel. A 7.1 audio setup essentially surrounds the listener with speakers, a separate one roughly every 50 degrees. Hercules' 7.1 audio implementation supports Dolby Digital EX, which will take advantage of all of those speakers. Dolby Digital EX hasn't been widely embracedyetbut a number of DVDs do support the advanced positional audio format. That said, you'll still need a set of 7.1 speakers. As far as I can tell, there are no 7.1 PC speakers systems available on the market. Until that happens, your best bet is to jerry-rig a 5.1 and 2.1 audio setup to get your 7.1 groove on.
The Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1 card is roughly the same size as the Muse 5.1 DVD, but the Fortissimo packs in quite a few more chips, components, and connectors. Included on the board are internal connectors for two CD drives, an auxiliary input, and also an input for an external S/PDIF connector. The connectors are all mounted flush with the board, so you don't have to worry about bending wires to get around adjacent PCI cards or tight-fitting cases. The card also has a connector for the Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1's game port, which is available via a PCI back plate header. With so many game peripherals supported via USB ports these days, you probably won't have to bother with the game port at all, but you don't need to connect it to get the card running.
Hercules' Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1 uses Cirrus Logic's CS4624-CQ audio chip, which according to this review over at Tom's Hardware, only supports 16-bit/44.1kHz audio. I asked Hercules specifically about this one, and they've assured me that the CS4624 is capable of sampling up to 48kHz. However, Hercules did confirm that the CS4624's maximum resolution is 16 bits. This wouldn't be an issue if Hercules didn't list the Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1 as being capable of 20-bit/48kHz output, and 18-bit/48kHz input. Those input and output specs jive with the specs for the card's CS4294 codec chips, but they're a little misleading because the audio chip is only processing a 16-bit signal.
Technically, Hercules deserves a bit of a thrashing for giving the card's technical specifications a little too much spin. I'm a little more forgiving of Hercules because it hasn't plastered the Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1 with stickers and hype touting the card's 18/20-bit/48kHz audio quality. Hercules isn't hiding the CS4624's specs, either. It's Cirrus Logic's own spec sheets that don't make the audio chip's resolution and sampling rate details clear.
Not only has Hercules been a little Creative with its sampling rate and resolution claims for the Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1, they've also been quite Creative in leveraging 7.1 audio from a chip that's only supposed to support 5.1 channels. This particularly clever bit of engineering combines the CS4624 audio chip with two codec chips to process 7.1 channel audio using only the 5.1-capable CS4624. All 7.1 channels end up being decoded in hardware, and the outputs are split between the two codec chips. The card's front and center channels use one codec chip, while surround and rear channels use the other. So, while the Gamesurround Fortissimo III's 7.1 audio support isn't handled exclusively by the CS4624 audio chip, Hercules has done an admirable job splicing in an extra codec chip to generate 7.1 output.
Supporting 7.1 output channels requires a lot of speaker jacks, and Hercules manages to squeeze them all onto the Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1's PCI back plate. There you'll find center, front, surround, and rear channels in addition to a traditional line in jacks. The rear speaker output jack is shared with the headphone jack, which is annoying, but not an issue unless you've actually put together a 7.1 speaker system. Hercules also provides a digital S/PDIF output if you're sporting digital speakers.
Hardware-wise, the Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1 is quite a step above Hercules' Muse line, so it's only fitting that the Fortissimo III gets a more complete driver package and software bundle. Instead of using a standard Windows control panel, Hercules provides its own attractive driver interface with the Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1. Of particular value are the control panel's speaker testing options, which could come in handy when dealing with the tangled mess of wires that a cobbled-together 7.1 speaker setup is likely to produce.
To take advantage of the card's unique 7.1 audio support, Hercules includes a 7.1-compatible version of PowerDVD in the Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1's software bundle, along with the requisite copy of MediaStation II. Sonic Foundry's Acid Xpress loop-based music creation software is also included, just in case you have aspirations to be the next Crystal Method. What's particularly interesting about Hercules' bundle, and indeed the software bundles of all the cards we're testing today is that none of them include game titles. Game titles have been a staple of graphics card bundles for years now, but that trend never really caught on with audio cards. Perhaps we'll see bundled games when games themselves start featuring more advanced audio engines.