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M-Audio's Revolution 7.1 sound card

Talking 'bout a revolution

Manufacturer M-Audio
Model Revolution 7.1
Price (street) US$91
Availability Now

LAST YEAR, Terratec's high-end DMX 6fire 24/96 opened my eyes to how good PC audio can be. In our audio card comparison, the DMX 6fire 24/96's audio quality blew away every other card we tested. Not only did the card offer support for 24-bit/96kHz audio via ICEnsemble's fabled Envy24 audio chip, it also produced incredibly clean, crisp sound with normal CD-quality audio. Against an array of sound alternatives, ranging from integrated VT8235/ALC650 audio to Hercules' Gamesurround Fortissimo III to Creative's Audigy, there was no contest; the DMX 6fire 24/96 was in a class all by itself. I didn't know PC audio could sound that good.

Of course, the DMX 6fire 24/96's price was in a class all by itself, too. At $250, the card is out of reach of many consumers, it's not even widely available in North America. So where's an enthusiast to get their fix of high-fidelity PC audio?

From M-Audio's Revolution 7.1, perhaps. The Revolution 7.1 is a sub-$100 sound card that pairs a newer version of the Envy24 audio chip with high-quality DACs to ensure that the audio chip's full 192kHz/24-bit precision is retained all the way to the card's outputs. Available at retail outlets like CompUSA, the Revolution 7.1 has the potential to bring the kind of clean, crisp, high-precision audio that's traditionally been reserved for audiophiles to the masses. Does the Revolution 7.1 have the fidelity to compete with a high-end audiophile card like Terratec's DMX 6fire 24/96 and the gaming performance to take on Creative's Audigy2? Let's find out.

The specs
Deciphering sound card specs can be frustrating, because some manufacturers seem to go to great lengths to obscure the internal capabilities and precision of their audio products. I've done some digging to get at the real dirt on the Revolution 7.1 and its competition, and this is what I've found:

Internal precision Hardware channels Output channels Price
Audio chip ADC DAC DirectSound DirectSound 3D
Creative Audigy 16-bit/48kHz 24-bit/96kHz 64 32 5.1 $58
Creative Audigy2 24-bit/96kHz 24-bit/192kHz 64 32 6.1 $70
M-Audio Revolution 7.1 24-bit/192kHz 24-bit/96kHz 24-bit/192kHz none none 7.1 $91
Terratec DMX 6fire 24/96 24-bit/96kHz 32 16 5.1 $250

The most important specification to note is the lowest level of internal precision supported by each sound card—the weakest link. Fortunately, the Revolution 7.1's weakest link really isn't weak at all. The card's Envy24HT audio chip has a maximum internal precision of 24 bits at 192kHz, which is better than even Terratec's DMX 6fire 24/96. (The 6Fire uses an earlier of the Envy24 audio chip that tops out at 96kHz.) Though the Revolution 7.1's DAC shares the same 24-bit/192kHz sampling rate as the card's audio chip, the ADC is limited to 96kHz. The Revolution 7.1's slightly lower maximum ADC sampling rate won't hinder audio playback at all, and I would imagine that 24-bit/96kHz ADC precision should be enough for even picky audio recording enthusiasts.

The Revolution 7.1's Envy24HT audio chip offers higher internal sampling rates than the vanilla Envy24 found on Terratec's DMX 6fire 24/96, but the "HT" revision of the Envy24 doesn't keep the original's support for hardware DirectSound acceleration. With future titles like Doom III using software audio engines, DirectSound hardware acceleration may become less important for gaming. However, with today's games that take advantage of DirectSound hardware acceleration, the Revolution 7.1 will have to lean on the CPU.

The Revolution 7.1's hardware support for DirectSound hardware channels may be absent, but the chip does offer eight output channels for those who want to completely surround themselves with a 7.1 speaker setup. Support for 7.1 audio may seem a bit excessive, but quite a few new DVD titles support Dolby Digital EX, which will take advantage of thsee extra channels. Those wanting to maximize the Revolution 7.1's output potential will, however, have to cobble together a set of 7.1 speakers. To date, I'm not aware of any manufacturer selling PC speakers in a 7.1 configuration.

Price-wise, the Revolution 7.1 isn't exactly a bargain, but it's not as expensive as its specs might suggest. The card uses an audio chip that's very similar to Terratec's DMX 6fire 24/96, which costs more than two-and-a-half times as much. OEM Audigy2 cards are cheaper than the Revolution 7.1, which is only available in a full retail package. However, since Audigy2 cards sell for over $100 at retail, the Revolution 7.1's price will be lower on store shelves.