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Mad Dog Multimedia's Entertainer 7.1 sound card

Who's the man now, dog?

ManufacturerMad Dog Multimedia
ModelEntertainer 7.1
Price (street)$59.99

FOR THE last eight months, mobo manufacturers like Albatron and Chaintech have been using VIA's Envy24PT as an integrated audio solution. With support for digital 24-bit/192kHz audio and 7.1 output channels, the Envy24PT has a more robust feature set than many discrete sound cards, but thus far the chip has only been featured in an integrated audio solution; those looking for Envy24-based sound cards have had to cough up $100 or more for high-end sound cards featuring VIA's Envy24HT chip.

Those high-end cards are worth every penny for those picky about fidelity, but not everyone aspires to be an audiophile and can justify dropping $100 on a sound card. If only there were some middle ground between the Envy24PT and HT that offered high-quality audio without breaking the bank or forcing a motherboard upgrade.

VIA must be reading my mind, because they've introduced the Envy24HT-S to do exactly that. Mad Dog Multimedia's Entertainer 7.1 is one of the first discrete sound cards to use the Envy24HT-S, and I've put one through a punishing trifecta of performance, quality, and listening tests. Let's find out if this affordable alternative to high-end audio can delight the ears without sucking up too many CPU cycles.

The specs
Before we take a closer look at Mad Dog Multimedia's bid for the mid-range audio market, let's see how the card's specs stack up against the competition.

 Internal precisionHardware channelsOutput channelsPrice
Audio chip ADCDACDirectSoundDirectSound 3D
Creative Audigy16-bit/48kHz24-bit/96kHz64325.1$42
Hercules Fortissimo III16-bit/48kHz18-bit/48kHz20-bit/48kHz96527.1$45
Mad Dog Entertainer 7.124-bit/192kHz18-bit/48kHz*nonenone7.1$59
M-Audio Revolution 7.124-bit/192kHz24-bit/96kHz24-bit/192kHznonenone7.1$100

The Entertainer's most obvious deficiency is its lack of hardware acceleration for 3D audio. The card comes with a set of Sensaura-powered drivers that emulate hardware audio acceleration, but software emulation carries an unavoidable performance hit. In 3D games with lots of positional audio, the Entertainer could leech enough CPU power to reduce frame rates. However, future games like Doom 3 may be more dependent on software audio engines than hardware acceleration, which wouldn't put the Entertainer at a disadvantage.

Though it lacks DirectSound hardware channels, the Entertainer comes loaded with eight output channels. 7.1-channel audio might seem like overkill, but DVD movies encoded with Dolby Digital EX will make use of all eight speakers. Unfortunately, there aren't too many 7.1-channel PC speaker systems available on the market.

Price-wise, the $60 Entertainer is certainly affordable. The card is a little more expensive than Creative's Audigy and Hercules' Gamesurround Fortissimo 7.1, but neither the Audigy nor the Fortissimo offers true 24-bit audio support. M-Audio's Revolution 7.1 does offer 24-bit audio across the board, but it's quite a bit more expensive than the Entertainer.

Support for 24-bit audio may be the Entertainer's most important feature, at least for audio weenies, but it's also the card's most convoluted attribute. Unlike the Revolution, which supports 24-bit/192kHz audio throughout, the Entertainer's support for high definition audio depends on which outputs are used. The Envy24HT-S audio chip supports 24-bit/192kHz audio, as does the card's digital S/PDIF input and output ports. However, the Entertainer's VT1616 codec, which is responsible for handling analog recording and six of the card's eight analog output channels, is only capable of sampling 18-bit audio at sample rates up to 48kHz. So much for analog 24-bit audio, right?

Not exactly.

Mad Dog has an ace up its sleeve in the form of a Wolfson WM8728 DAC, which the card uses to power the rear center speakers in its 7.1-channel output scheme. Unlike the VT1616, the WM8728 supports 24-bit audio at up to 192kHz—a perfect match for the Envy24HT-S's 24-bit/192kHz capabilities.

Normally, I'd get on Mad Dog's case for wasting the Wolfson DAC's 24-bit capabilities on a seldom-used rear center output channel. However, VIA's latest Envy24 drivers let users route stereo audio through the Wolfson DAC instead of the VT1616, unlocking 24-bit stereo playback through the "Alt center" jack (used for channels 7 and 8, whose speakers typically sit directly behind the listener). When the WM8728 is used in this manner, the Entertainer essentially becomes a two-channel sound card. That should be just fine for music playback, where the Wolfson DAC could really shine.

See, I told you it was convoluted. To recap, the Entertainer supports true 24-bit/192KHz audio across not only its digital input and output ports, but also its "Alt center" analog output. The drivers can also re-route stereo output through the "Alt center" jack for 24-bit/192KHz stereo audio. Any questions?

The Entertainer 7.1