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 The Revolution 7.1 is a sub-$100 sound card that pairs a newer version of the Envy24 audio chip with high-quality DACs to ensure that the audio chip’s full 192kHz/24-bit precision is retained all the way to the card’s outputs.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.
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|
|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 cardthe 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.
To a casual observer, the Revolution 7.1 might look like a low-end sound card rather than one that supports high-precision output. The card itself is quite small, and could easily be mistaken for Hercules’ Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1.
Looks should be the least of one’s concerns when purchasing a sound card, but a quick glance at the board does reveal a few missing features that may be important to some. Unlike even many low-end sound cards, the Revolution 7.1 doesn’t have internal connectors for auxiliary devices like CD or DVD-ROM drives. Personally, I tend not to bother with internal sound card connectors, but some users may find the omission limiting.
Looking at the Revolution 7.1’s collection of external output and input ports reveals one area where the card’s lack of internal connectors could be potentially damning: digital audio recording. The Revolution 7.1 features a coaxial digital output port, but no digital input port, which limits the card’s recording capabilities unnecessarily. Even some integrated motherboard audio solutions feature digital output and input ports, which makes the Revolution 7.1’s absent digital input port especially disappointing. I wish the Revolution 7.1 had at least an internal connector where one could potentially wire up an auxiliary digital input.
Apart from its lack of a digital input port, the rest of the Revolution 7.1’s port cluster is well-equipped. The card’s digital output is coaxial rather than optical, which is an interesting decision since optical S/PDIF ports seems to be all the rage with sound card and motherboard manufacturers these days. Since I don’t have home theater equipment or speakers that support either digital standard, I don’t really prefer one over the other.
I do, however, have a set of headphones, which means I am affected by M-Audio’s decision to have the Revolution 7.1’s headphone jack share a port with the front channel output. To use my headphones, I’d have to go crawling around in the tangled mess of wires under my desk just swap plugs. Because the headphone output is shared with the front channel, using something like a 5.25″ drive bay insert to move an audio port to the front of a case isn’t exactly a workable solution, either. I’d wager that few users are going to take full advantage of the card’s 7.1-channel audio support, so it would have been far more convenient for the headphone jack to share a port with the extra rear audio channel.
Under the hood, the Revolution 7.1 is powered by ICEnsemble’s Envy24HT audio chip. ICEnsemble is owned by VIA, and VIA is now marketing the several flavors of the Envy24 for different markets. The Envy24HT is the top of that line, with support for 24-bits of internal precision at 192kHz across 8 output channels.
Like other chips in the Envy line, the Envy24HT supports 3D audio standards like EAX, A3D, and Sensaura. Unfortunately, the chip’s impressive internal precision can’t help the fact that it’s limited to only 16 DirectSound 3D hardware channels. Clearly, when ICEnsemble designed the chip, they meant for it to be a solution geared more towards audio and video playback rather than 3D gaming. AKM’s AK4355 digital-to-analog converter (DAC) maintains the Rev’s 192kHz/24-bit precision all the way to its output ports. The AK4355 was originally indended for high-quality DVD audio playback. Since the DAC supports 24-bit audio at a maximum sampling rate of 192kHz, the Revolution 7.1 doesn’t need to downsample the Envy24HT’s digital output before converting it to analog signals for the card’s speaker ports.
The AK4355’s rated signal-to-noise ratio is actually a little lower (106 versus 110dB) than the AK4524, which is used on Terratec’s DMX 6fire 24/96. The fact that these two cards use different DAC chips suggests that they might not sound as identical as I had hoped.
The Revolution 7.1’s drivers don’t offer any particularly new and exciting functionality, but M-Audio has put together a quick and relatively small (~8MB) driver package that’s quick to download and install. There’s even a nifty little control panel:
To make things easier for users, M-Audio’s drivers include QuickSwitch settings for different speaker configurations. It’s nice to be able to fiddle with settings for a particular speaker configuration, but users will still have to rummage around behind the backs of their PCs in order to switch between speaker and headphone connections.
Given the fact that no one really offers a 7.1 PC speaker package, users will likely restrict themselves to the driver’s 5.1 configuration settings.
Curiously, the Revolution 7.1’s drivers default to disabling the card’s support for Sensaura and 3D gaming audio standards. It’s not a big deal to click the checkbox and enable 3D audio, but it seems odd that M-Audio would require user input to unlock the feature at all.
Bundling it up
Since the Revolution 7.1 is available only as a boxed retail product, it’s worth checking the card’s bundle for extra goodies. M-Audio claims that the Revolution 7.1 is bundled with “over $200” in software, although there are only four full-version retail titles included with the card. Full versions of MixMan Studio and VJ Lite should give audio enthusiasts something to play with, while WinDVD 4 (Dolby Digital EX compatible) and Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 should keep everyone else entertained. Unlike the games included in Creative’s Audigy2 bundle, which are specifically optimized for 3D audio, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of meaningful 3D audio support. The fact that M-Audio isn’t pushing 3D audio in its bundle hints that perhaps the card won’t be marketed on the strenght of its 3D audio capabilities.
Rounding out the Revolution 7.1’s bundle are trial versions of Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live. There’s also a sample CD featuring songs by a number of artists that M-Audio has worked with in the past, including Los Lobos, if that gets your foot tapping.
This review is meant to explore M-Audio’s Revolution 7.1, but since I’ll be comparing the card’s performance to a handful of other sound cards, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the competition. Our latest sound card comparison already details Creative’s Audigy and Terratec’s DMX 6fire 24/96, but we’ve yet to cover the Audigy2 we’ll be using in testing.
In many ways, the Audigy2 is what the original Audigy should have been: a real 24-bit sound card. Creative marketed the original Audigy as a 24-bit product, but the card’s only 24-bit/96kHz component is its DAC; the card’s audio chip and ADC are both both limited to 16-bit audio at 48kHz. With the Audigy2, Creative has upgraded the audio chip and ADC to support 24-bit/96kHz audio and even bumped up the DAC quality to support 192kHz output, giving the card a high-precision path from input to output that now measures up to Creative’s marketing claims.
Our testing methods
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.
|Processor||AMD Athlon XP 2600+|
|Front-side bus||333MHz (2x166MHz)|
|North bridge||nForce2 SPP|
|South bridge||nForce2 MCP-T|
|Chipset driver||NVIDIA 2.03|
|Memory size||512MB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair XMS3000 PC2700 DDR SDRAM|
|Graphics||ATI Radeon 9700 Pro|
|Graphics driver||CATALYST 3.2|
Maxtor 740X-6L 40GB 7200RPM ATA/133 hard drive
|Operating System||Windows XP Professional SP1|
All tests were run with an Athlon XP 2600+ processor on a 166MHz front size bus. To provide some insight on the Revolution 7.1’s CPU utilization and how the card might perform on a low-end system, all tests were also run with our Athlon XP running at 866MHz on a 133Mhz front side bus.
Although all tests were run on an nForce2 board, I had numerous problems getting the non-Deluxe A7N8X’s integrated audio to work properly, so an analysis of nForce2 audio performance and quality will have to wait for a future article.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
For our listening tests, we used the following tracks, all ripped directly to WAV with no compression.
- Clint Mansell (featuring the Kronos Quartet) – Summer overture
- Passengers (featuring Luciano Pavarotti) – Miss Sarajevo
- Propellerheads – The sound of history repeating
- Radiohead – Hunting bears
- Tori Amos – Winter
Tracks were selected to represent a wide variety of musical genres and audio landscapes, with the boy band genre left out for obvious reasons. The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1024×768 in 32-bit color at a 75Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests. Most of the 3D gaming tests used the high detail image quality settings, with the exception that the resolution was set to 640×480 in 32-bit color.
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
3DMark03’s audio component tests 3D audio performance with 0, 24, and 60 different sounds in a scene. Unfortunately, 3DMark03 identifies only the Audigy2 as capable of supporting the 60-sound test. Here’s how the cards stack up:
On our high-end system, the Revolution 7.1 is the slowest card of the lot with 24 sounds. The fact that all the cards perform identically with no sound playing should come as no surprise. It is, however, surprising that M-Audio’s Envy-based offering is slower in this test than Terratec’s. The two cards do use a slightly different version of the Envy24 chip, and of course have different drivers.
On our slower system, the performance difference between the cards is more pronounced. This time around, there’s a bigger gap between the Audigy cards and the Envy24-based offerings, suggesting that ICEnsemble’s audio chip needs to lean much more heavily on the CPU to perform 3D audio processing tasks. M-Audio’s Revolution 7.1 is again the slowest chip of the bunch, a full third slower than Creative’s slowest Audigy.
Quake III Arena
So how do the cards perform in a real-world game? Let’s see what Quake III Arena turns up.
On our Athlon XP 2600+, the Revolution 7.1 is barely behind the rest of the pack, and really only slower at lower resolutions.
The Envy24-based sound cards are a little slower than the Audigy cards in Quake III Arena on our low-end system, which is especially interesting considering Quake III Arena doesn’t use 3D audio at all. Based on our results, it looks like Creative’s drivers consume fewer system resources overall, not just in 3D audio applications.
Technically, the Revolution 7.1 again comes in last place, but for all intents and purposes it’s still very much in the running. Really, can anyone tell the difference between 110 and 120 frames per second?
Serious Sam SE gives us the unique opportunity to test the Revolution 7.1’s performance across a number of different audio APIs. How does it perform relative to the competition?
On our fastest system, the Revolution 7.1 brings up the rear again, just behind the rest of the cards with Serious Sam SE’s Waveout audio setting.
The Revolution 7.1 stays at the back of the pack on our 866MHz system. This time, the performance gaps are a little larger.
Using Serious Sam SE’s DirectSound audio setting, the Revolution 7.1 is the slowest card again, a full ten frames per second slower than the Audigy cards at 640×480. Terratec’s DMX 6fire 24/96 is consistently faster than the Revolution 7.1.
On our slower 866MHz system, the cards spread out. The Revolution 7.1 comes in 15% behind the DMX 6fire 24/96 and a full 25% slower than the Audigys.
The Revolution 7.1 seems quite comfortable at the back of the pack, where it continues to sit with Serious Sam SE’s EAX audio enabled. Even at 1600×1200, the card give up nearly 10 frames per second to the Audigys.
On our low-end 866MHz Athlon XP, the Revolution 7.1 is way behind the competition. Even with its latest drivers (as of March 31, 2003,) the card is nearly 20% slower than the DMX 6fire 24/96 and more than 30% behind the Audigy cards.
Listening tests are inevitably subjective, but really there are few other ways to evaluate a sound card’s performance with the equipment available to me. If you’re looking for fancy response curves and double-blind tests done in soundproof chambers, sorry.
My initial testing found negligible differences between the positional audio and in-game audio quality produced by these cards, so the listening tests were confined to music playback using WAV rips of off-the-shelf CDs. Because CD audio quality is only 16-bit/44.1kHz, our listening tests are designed to test overall audio clarity rather than the 24-bit audio capabilities of each card. For these tests, a sound card’s component quality, drivers, and even layout can influence its performance more than the absolute precision limits of its audio chip.
All music playback tests were conducted with a set of Philips MMS305 4.1 channel speakers with volume levels for each card normalized to within a decibel of each other and software equalizers turned off. To help with testing, I lured a couple of my friends over with promises of playing Raven Shield on Radeon 9700 Pro cards. Little did they know they’d be strapped to chairs and subjected to a set of blind listening tests.
During the listening tests, neither subject knew which card was being played or even what order the cards were being presented in. Overall, the Audigy2, DMX 6fire 24/96, and Revolution 7.1 were closely matched, but there were a few consistent differences between the cards. Our impressions of the audio playback quality for each track are below. You won’t find any mention of the original Audigy, which consistently sounded worse than the other cards. For a look at how the Audigy stacks up against cards closer to its price range, see our latest sound card comparison.
Clint Mansell (featuring the Kronos Quartet) – Summer overture
This haunting track from the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack combines symphonic and electronic elements to produce one of the most disturbing soundscapes I’ve ever heard, making it an ideal track to see what kind of emotional response the Revolution 7.1 could incite.
In “Summer overture,” the Revolution 7.1 had excellent clarity, especially with the track’s string content. The strings and background instruments were less muffled on the Revolution 7.1 than the Audigy2, but the DMX 6fire 24/96 rose above both cards with a flawless performance. As one listener put it, “[the Revolution 7.1] sounds great, but [the DMX 6fire 24/96] makes me want to cry.”
Passengers (featuring Luciano Pavarotti) – Miss Sarajevo
“Miss Sarajevo” makes the cards adapt to wildly different sounds by contrasting mellow pop stylings from U2 with a booming performance by Luciano Pavarotti.
While Bono’s voice sounded just a little sweeter on the Audigy2, the Revolution 7.1 had a more even performance throughout the track and excelled with Pavarotti’s voice booming. Background instruments were again clearer on the Revolution 7.1 than on the Audigy2, though both cards bow to a slightly superior overall performance from the DMX 6fire 24/96. In “Miss Sarajevo,” the difference between the Revolution 7.1 and DMX 6fire 24/96 was less apparent, but the latter’s performance was still judged to be the most pleasing; it just had more punch.
Propellerheads – The sound of history repeating
“The sound of history repeating” has Shirley Bassey singing over a thumbing drum line that just begs to be turned all the way up.
With their heads bobbing, our listeners both agreed that the Revolution 7.1’s drums sounded great and hit hard, but the card’s performance with the vocal element of the track was disappointing enough to put it behind the Audigy2 and DMX 6fire 24/96. Despite being in agreement that the Audigy2 sounded better than the Revolution 7.1, our listeners were split on whether the Audigy2 or DMX 6fire 24/96 sounded the best. Those who dig the Propellerheads’ funky drum line will probably prefer the DMX 6fire 24/96’s playback of the track, but Shirley Bassey’s vocals do sound clearer on the Audigy2.
Radiohead – Hunting bears
“Hunting bears” is mellow, meandering instrumental track almost completely dominated by an electric guitar that stands out like a splash of color on an otherwise bleak black and white landscape.
Despite the relatively simple nature of song, it was surprisingly easy to hear the difference between each of the cards tested. The stark, raw nature of the track was most faithfully reproduced by the DMX 6fire 24/96. Both the Revolution 7.1 and Audigy2 sounded a little more filtered and “produced.” On the Revolution 7.1, the guitar had more body than on the Audigy2, but the subtle hint of fingers sliding over the guitar strings sounded better on the Audigy2.
Tori Amos – Winter
Tori Amos’s “Winter” is a soft vocal and piano performance that was a comforting comedown from the emotionally devastating “Summer overture.”
Overall, the Audigy2 handled the solo vocal elements of “Winter” better than the Revolution 7.1, but didn’t blend the piano and vocals together as well. The Revolution 7.1 balanced the track’s instrumental and vocal components well. While the Revolution didn’t feel quite as good as the DMX 6fire 24/96, it was closer to the 6fire than it was to the Audigy2.
I’ve been enjoying the DMX 6fire 24/96’s impeccable sound quality for a while now, so I had high hopes for the Revolution 7.1. Of course, thinking that the $91 Revolution 7.1 could compete with the $250 DMX 6fire 24/96 probably wasn’t entirely realistic. The DMX 6fire 24/96 is very much targeted at high-end audio enthusiasts, while the Revolution 7.1 is more appropriate for general PC enthusiasts looking for true 24-bit audio that sounds really, really good.
As far as playback goes, the Revolution 7.1 more closely approximates the audio quality of the DMX 6fire 24/96 than any other sound card I’ve heard, including the Audigy2. In fact, without being able to refer to the DMX 6fire 24/96 with back-to-back listening tests, I have a hard time telling the difference between the two. The Audigy2, however, is easier to pick out of a crowd because it tends to favor foreground vocals at the expense of percussion and background instruments.
Quite simply, the Revolution 7.1 delivers the best sound quality I’ve heard from a sub-$100 audio card, making it an ideal addition to any PC used primarily for audio, video, or DVD playback. Those with home theaters brimming with speakers should appreciate the card’s support for 7.1 output channels, too, although the extra rear channels may go largely unused by PC owners. Our listening tests also show that it’s not necessary to have a 24-bit audio source to hear the difference a high quality sound card can make. Even with off-the-shelf CDs, the Revolution 7.1 sounds much clearer than the original Audigy, and generally better than the Audigy2.
As well suited as the Revolution 7.1 is for media playback, the card still needs a little work. For starters, the lack of internal connectors and the absent digital input make it feel cheap, especially since the Audigy2 and even some of Hercules’ sound cards offer a wide array of internal connectors and Firewire ports. Those looking for an audio card to play back and record digital audio will have to pass on the Revolution 7.1.
Throughout our 3D gaming performance tests, the Revolution 7.1 was consistently slower than even the DMX 6fire 24/96, especially when paired with our slower 866MHz Athlon XP test setup. It’s possible that the situation will improve with new drivers, but it seems unlikely that the Revolution 7.1 will challenge the gaming performance of Creative’s Audigy cards, especially as developers incorporate more complicated audio engines in their next-generation games. Those equipped with powerful systems should have enough CPU cycles to spare for the Revolution 7.1, but hard-core gamers with low-end systems will be better off with an Audigy2.
In the end, the Revolution 7.1 has the fidelity to bring a grown man nearly to tears, but a price tag that might make him smile. With sound quality that flirts with high-end audio enthusiast gear like the DMX 6fire 24/96, the Revolution 7.1 is an affordable fit for any PC tasked with audio, video, or DVD playback. The Revolution 7.1 works well for games, too, but in that realm Creative has a competitive and perhaps more tempting alternative in the Audigy2.