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An interview with VIA's Keith Kowal

Exploring the Envy24 audio chip lineup

VIA'S ENVY24 family of high-fidelity audio processors is easily the most exciting challenge to Creative's dominance of the PC audio market since Aureal took a stab at the SoundBlaster giant. Recently, I had the chance to check out an Envy24-equipped DMX 6fire 24/96 from Terratec in our sound card comparison and M-Audio's new Envy24HT-powered Revolution 7.1. What I heard from both cards was nothing short of breathtaking. Never before has PC audio sounded this good, and in the case of the Revolution 7.1, never before has high-fidelity PC audio been so affordable.

But there's more to the Envy24 line than the high-end Envy24 and mainstream Envy24HT. VIA's Envy24PT, which could revolutionize integrated motherboard audio, is also waiting in the wings. The Envy24 is coming to VIA's tiny EPIA small form factor platform, too.

To help get to the bottom of a number of burning questions we had about the Envy24 and its derivatives, we've interviewed VIA's own Keith Kowal, the marketing manager for VIA's audio division. Read on as he reveals some key differences between the various Envy24 flavors, which manufacturers have already signed on to integrate the Envy24PT in their motherboards, why VIA chose to cut hardware 3D audio acceleration from the Envy24, and much more.

VIA: The original Envy24 Audio Controller was designed for the niche hi-end audio market with a total of 12 inputs and 12 outputs and a built-in digital mixer, among other features. I think today you will find most cards in that segment are based on the Envy24 solutions. Even some consumer solutions like the Integra NES-2.3 . . . integrate the VIA Envy24 controller.

Then around Computex last year we came out with the Envy24HT Audio Controller. This device has the same hi-end core as the Envy24 but we took out some of the Pro features. At the same time though we added features like support for 192kHz sampling rates, making it the first audio controller to support all the formats found on a DVD-Audio disc. The Envy24HT is aimed at the hi-end consumer market as we have seen with design wins for M-Audios Revolution 7.1, Terratec's Aureon Space and Sky, and Audiotraks Prodigy192.

Finally we came out with the Envy24PT Audio Controller, which is aimed more at the onboard audio market as an integral part of the VIA Vinyl Audio Strategy. This audio controller features 24/96 support on the digital outputs and 7.1 20/48 support for the analog outputs. There is also an enhanced version of the Envy24PT that offers 24/96 analog outputs.

VIA: For all the devices vendors are free to choose from any I2S or AC-link device they choose. For the high end I believe that most of our partners either go with AKM or Wolfson offerings.

For the Envy24PT our customers typically pair it with the VIA Vinyl Audio Six-TRAC codec to best complement its performance.

VIA: VPSD has shifted its focus a little towards the EPIA line of boards, and currently have no plans to release an Envy equipped P4 motherboard. Regarding integration on the EPIA boards please see my comments below in regards to ques. 7.

VIA: Actually we do not try to control the market segmentation very aggressively. The majority of motherboard customers currently choose a SB/AC'97 solution. However, as audio standards go up for integrated solutions we run into the limitations of the AC'97 specification. In order to overcome this and add more value for customers I think there will be more and more motherboard makers looking towards using the Envy24PT, to initial integrate 7.1 and 24/96 digital support, and later bring in 24-bit analog support.

VIA: The requirements of our True24 Initiative are fairly straightforward: a device must be able to both record with 24-bits and playback 24-bits in the analog and digital domains. This may seem fairly simple but I think all the overly aggressive marketing claims that have been made (I think you know who I am talking about) have really confused the market about what a 24-bit solution should comprise. Hopefully with our effort behind the True24 Initiative we should cut through a lot of this and help restore some consumer confidence.

VIA: Actually in the first implementations of the Envy24PT we expect that most motherboard makers will implement it with our Six-TRAC codec an additional 3rd party codec resulting in a 7.1/20-bit/48kHz analog section, and 24/96 for the digital. In later implementations I think we will start seeing motherboard makers bringing 24-bit analog connections to the motherboard with our enhanced version of the Envy24PT.

VIA: The box with the dashed lines just represents the other Play DMA inputs. In order to achieve a 7.1 configuration most of our partners are using a the VIA Six-TRAC codec for 6 of the channels and a third party 2-channel I2S codec that rounds out the 8 channel support.