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.
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 precision||Hardware channels||Output channels||Price|
|Audio chip||ADC||DAC||DirectSound||DirectSound 3D|
|Hercules Fortissimo III||16-bit/48kHz||18-bit/48kHz||20-bit/48kHz||96||52||7.1||$45|
|Mad Dog Entertainer 7.1||24-bit/192kHz||18-bit/48kHz*||none||none||7.1||$59|
|M-Audio Revolution 7.1||24-bit/192kHz||24-bit/96kHz||24-bit/192kHz||none||none||7.1||$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?
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 192kHza 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?
On the surface, the Entertainer looks like, well, a sound card. What did you expect?
The Entertainer comes decked out on a dark brown board that’s just a shade away from black. Mad Dog even gives the card a little bling appeal with a gold-colored PCI back plate header.
The gold back plate is a little gaudy for my tastes, but it’s loaded with more than enough ports to keep me happy. In addition to TOS-Link digital S/PDIF ports, the back plate provides access to analog mic and line-in input ports, and all four analog output ports. In a perfect world, the Entertainer would also have coaxial S/PDIF ports and hardware to move mic and headphone jacks up to the front of a case, but the card should have more than enough inputs for most users as-is.
For whatever reason, Mad Dog chooses to mask the Entertainer’s audio chip under a sticker bearing its own name. Peeling the sticker back reveals VIA’s Envy24HT-S audio chip, which is the heart of the card’s capabilities and limitations.
As far as I can tell, this Envy24’s “HT-S” moniker is little more than a branding exercise to differentiate it from the Envy24PT, whose capabilities are nearly identical. VIA is targeting the HT-S at consumer sound cards, and it looks like they want to keep the PT name associated with motherboard audio and information appliances.
From a branding perspective, it might not be a bad idea to reserve the HT moniker for discrete sound cards, but it seems sort of silly considering the Envy24HT-S and Envy24PT’s similarities. Those similarities extend beyond the audio chips themselves and reach all the way down to the codec and DAC chips used in PT and HT-S implementations.
VIA’s VT1616 codec and Wolfson’s WM8728 DAC are frequently paired together in Envy24PT motherboard implementations, so it’s no surprise to see them sharing the stage on the Entertainer. Now that VIA’s Envy24 drivers support stereo output through the Wolfson DAC, the WM8728 could definitely be the Entertainer’s ace in the hole. Even if users don’t utilize the WM8728’s 24-bit capabilities, the high-end DAC should provide superior output quality to the VT1616 for basic CD audio playback.
We’ve whipped up a number of audio quality and listening tests to throw at the Entertainer’s two analog output options, but before we get into that, let’s have a look at how the drivers handle switching between them.
One would think VIA would make it easy to route stereo signal through the Wolfson DAC, but the option is buried under the driver’s S/PDIF tab labeled as “Enable Hi Sampling Rates.”
VIA is still tweaking its Envy24 drivers, and they’re apparently working on making routing output through the Wolfson DAC more intuitive. With the Entertainer’s shipping drivers, and even the latest Envy24 drivers from VIA, the “Enable Hi Sampling Rates” checkbox isn’t something users are going to stumble upon unless they know what to look for. Ideally, an upcoming driver revision will remind users that routing signals through the Wolfson DAC switches stereo output from the front output jack to the “Alt center” jack, too.
The rest of the Entertainer’s drivers are simple and easy to understand. Since the Entertainer uses reference Envy24 drivers, Entertainer owners can easily get driver updates straight from VIA.
Our testing methods
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.
|Processor||Athlon 64 3200+ 2.0GHz|
|Front-side bus||HT 16-bit/800MHz downstream
HT 16-bit/800MHz upstream
|North bridge||VIA K8T800|
|South bridge||VIA VT8237|
|Chipset driver||Hyperion 4.51|
|Memory size||512MB (1 DIMM)|
|Memory type||Corsair XMS3500 PC3000 DDR SDRAM|
|Graphics||ATI Radeon 9700 Pro|
|Graphics driver||CATALYST 3.9|
|Audio card||Integrated VT8237/VT1616||Audigy||Fortissimo III||Entertainer 7.1||Revolution 7.1|
|Audio driver||Realtek 220.127.116.1123||Creative v031031||Hercules v609a||VIA v143c||M-Audio v1026|
Maxtor 740X-6L 40GB 7200RPM ATA/133 hard drive
|Operating System||Windows XP Professional
Service Pack 1 and DirectX 9.0b
Today we’ll be comparing the Entertainer’s performance against a handful of discrete sound cardsand against the Abit KV8-MAX3’s integrated motherboard audio. I also added a VT8235/ALC650-equipped Tyan Trinity KT400 motherboard to our audio quality and subjective listening tests because, well, the ALC650 is practically an institution when it comes to motherboard audio.
Due to the fact that we’re using an Athlon 64 system, it was impossible to include NVIDIA’s nForce2 in our performance testing. Given the fact that the nForce APU is essentially dead, it didn’t seem worth including in our quality or listening tests, either.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Futuremark 3DMark03 Patch 340
- Quake III Arena v1.31
- Serious Sam SE v1.07
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.2
- RightMark 3D Sound 1.0
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.
RightMark 3D Sound
In RightMark’s DirectSound 2D tests, the Entertainer’s CPU utilization isn’t overly impressive, especially as the number of sounds increases. Still, it’s not as greedy about CPU time as the VT8237.
RightMark’s DirectSound 3D software tests show all the cards bunched together, which makes sense considering they’re all using the same Athlon 64 processor to handle audio acceleration this time around.
Despite its lack of hardware 3D audio acceleration, the Entertainer does reasonably well in RightMark’s DirectSound 3D hardware tests. The card manages lower CPU utilization than the Hercules Fortissimo III, but nothing comes close to the Audigy.
In 3DMark03’s audio tests, the Audigy claims the highest frame rates of the lot, but the Entertainer isn’t too far off the pace. Curiously, the Revolution appears to support more Sensaura-simulated 3D sounds than the Entertainer, despite the fact that both cards are based on the Envy24.
The Entertainer is right in the thick of things throughout the rest of our gaming tests, but there’s very little performance difference between the cards, especially at higher display resolutions.
RightMark Audio Analyzer
For RightMark’s audio quality tests, I used a Terratec DMX 6fire 24/96 and an extra-short audio cable for recording. Analog output ports were used on all systems. To keep things simple, I’ve translated RightMark’s word-based quality scale to numbers. Higher scores reflect better audio quality, and the scale tops out at 6, which corresponds to an “Excellent” rating.
The Entertainer’s performance in RightMark’s quality tests is mixed, but not stellar. Using the Wolfson DAC yields better total harmonic distortion (THD), but higher noise levels. Let’s take a closer look at what’s behind these RightMark scores.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Frequency response
It’s hard to match the Fortissimo III and Revolution’s frequency response, but using the Wolfson DAC makes a big difference with the Entertainer at higher frequencies.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Noise level
The Entertainer’s noise levels aren’t exceptional, and oddly enough, it’s the VT8235/ALC650 combo that yields the best performance here.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Dynamic range
RightMark’s dynamic range test measures noise levels under a test signal, so the results are related to the previous noise level tests.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Intermodulation distortion
Intermodulation distortion happens when a sound card can’t accurately reproduce two sounds at the exact same time.
The Entertainer with the Wolfson DAC has lower intermodulation distortion (IMD) than with the VT1616 codec, but neither can match the Audigy or Revolution in this test.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Total harmonic distortion
Total harmonic distortion happens when a recording picks up unwanted noise as it’s played back through a sound card.
The Revolution offers the lowest total harmonic distortion of the lot, but the Entertainer isn’t too far off when using the Wolfson DAC.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Stereo crosstalk
The Wolfson DAC’s stereo crosstalk hits a snag at the high end of the spectrum, but offers less crosstalk across the spectrum than the VT1616. Surprisingly, the VT8235/ALC650 excels here, too.
Subjective listening tests
RightMark Audio Analyzer is a great way to measure audio quality objectively, but it doesn’t tell us much about how the Entertainer sounds. After all, a card that can generate a great response curve might not produce audio that’s pleasing to the ears. That’s where listening tests come in.
Since differences in in-game audio quality are difficult to detect, our 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 tests are designed to evaluate overall audio clarity rather than the 24-bit audio capabilities of each card. A sound card’s component quality, drivers, and board 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 four-channel speakers with volume levels for the cards normalized to within a decibel and software equalizers turned off. To help with testing, I lured a couple of my friends over with promise of playing Desert Combat 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 first round of listening tests, subjects were asked to compare the Entertainer’s VT1616 output quality with a number of different audio implementations. The subjects were unaware of which audio card they were listening to at any given time, and the order of cards was randomized for each song. Our impressions of the Entertainer’s audio playback quality for each track are below.
Clint Mansell (featuring the Kronos Quartet) – Summer overture
“Summer Overture” blends symphonic and electronic elements to create one of the most moving and disturbing soundscapes I’ve ever heard.
In “Summer Overture,” the Entertainer was most comparable to the Revolution, which is pretty good company to keep. Though its instrumentation was a little more muffled than the Revo, the Entertainer produced a much fuller sound than the ALC650, and better strings than the Audigy and Fortissimo III.
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.
Blending subtle strings with Pavarotti’s booming voice isn’t easy, and the Revolution and Entertainer were the only ones to get it right. Again, the Entertainer wasn’t as crisp as the Revo, but it was an order of magnitude better than the ALC650. Against the Fortissimo III and Audigy, the Entertainer produced a much more balanced sound that didn’t prop up Pavarotti’s vocals at the expense of background sounds.
Propellerheads – The sound of history repeating
“The sound of history repeating” has Shirley Bassey singing over a thumping drum line that just begs to be turned all the way up.
Apart from the ALC650, which sounded flat, the rest of the cards were pretty well matched in “The Sound of History Repeating.” The song is dominated by deeper tones that sound marginally better on the Fortissimo III than on the Audigy, Entertainer, or Revolution, but there’s little difference between the four discrete sound cards.
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.
One of our test subjects was almost moved to tears by “Hunting Bears” when we did listening tests for our M-Audio Revolution 7.1 review, but the Entertainer didn’t have quite the same emotional impact. Still, the Entertainer produced a cleaner sound than the Fortissimo III, whose guitars were a little muffled, and a fuller sound than the Audigy, which came off as a little flat. Again, the ALC650 came off sounding dull and flat.
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.”
Although it couldn’t match the Revo’s perfect piano and vocals in “Winter,” the Entertainer did a better job of balancing vocals and instrumentation than the Fortissimo III and Audigy. Tori Amos’s voice was a little more vibrant on the Audigy, but at the expense of the track’s piano and string content. And once again, the ALC650 plain sucked by comparison.
Bonus listening tests: “Enable Hi-sample rate” explored
Although few users may opt to use the Entertainer’s Wolfson DAC for music playback because it requires swapping speaker plugs and limits output to two channels, I was curious to see how the Wolfson WM8728’s output quality compared to the VT1616. I managed to bribe my girlfriend to sit through a blind listening session that compared the Entertainer’s music playback quality with the VIA codec and the Wolfson DAC, and the results were an eye-opener about just how much impact codec and DAC quality can have on audio playback.
Though I randomized the playback order throughout this bonus listening test, the subject consistently identified the Wolfson DAC as producing the more balanced sound. While the VT1616 tended to muffle background vocals and instrumentation in favor or whatever sounds were dominating the track, the Wolfson DAC was able to produce foreground sounds accurately without sacrificing background quality. Overall, music playback on the Entertainer’s Wolfson DAC sounded brighter, crisper, and more balanced across the board.
At just under $60 online, the Entertainer 7.1 looks like a pretty good deal, especially considering that it comes with a 6-foot optical S/PDIF cable and a lifetime warranty. Don’t forget the Entertainer’s eight output channels and support for 24-bit/192kHz audio using its digital input and output ports.
Although it’s not advertised on the box or even easy to find in the drivers, the Entertainer also supports stereo 24-bit audio through its Wolfson DAC and “Alt center” analog output jack. Even without 24-bit source files, CD-quality audio playback is noticeably crisper through the Wolfson DAC. It’s really a shame that the switch to route signals through the WM8728 is so hard to find.
Thankfully, the Entertainer sounds pretty good even when signals aren’t being run through the Wolfson DAC. The card did well in our listening tests and consistently offered a more balanced playback than the Fortissimo III and Audigy. If you like to hear foreground vocals drowning out background instruments, the Audigy’s sound may be more appealing, but those looking for something that sounds like the Revolution 7.1 will do well with the Entertainerreally, it all comes down to personal taste.
The Entertainer’s only real weaknesses are its lack of analog 24-bit recording capabilities and nonexistent hardware audio acceleration. Overall, though, hardware audio acceleration isn’t a big deal, especially since VIA’s Sensaura drivers often outperform the Fortissimo III’s true hardware acceleration.
At the end of the day, the Entertainer 7.1 is a great upgrade for anyone looking to improve the audio output quality of his desktop or home-theater PC. The Entertainer provides balanced playback across a wide range of soundscapes that is almost indistinguishable from the Revolution 7.1 unless you run the two in back-to-back tests. For those who are really picky about 24-bit audio, the Revolution’s definitely worth the extra scratch, but for everyone else, a $60 Entertainer 7.1 sounds pretty sweet.