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Philips' Ultimate Edge sound card

Envy on the edge

ModelUltimate Edge
Price (MSRP)$69.99

IN WHAT SEEMS LIKE no time at all, VIA's Envy24 audio controller has successfully infiltrated every level of the consumer PC sound card market. The Envy24 isn't a single audio controller per se but an entire family of chips targeted at different applications and market segments. At the high end, the Envy24HT can be found in sound cards like M-Audio's Revolution 7.1. For mid-range markets, the Envy24HT-S is available in cards like Mad Dog Multimedia's Entertainer 7.1. Not to be left out, motherboards from Chaintech, Albatron, and others offer integrated Envy audio with the Envy24PT.

Although I've been impressed with every Envy24 implementation to grace the Benchmarking Sweatshop, there's no getting around the fact that M-Audio, Mad Dog Multimedia, Chaintech, and Albatron aren't exactly household names among mainstream consumers. However, Philips is, and they've jumped onto the Envy bandwagon with the Ultimate Edge sound card. The Ultimate Edge also marks the arrival of a new addition to the Envy family, the Envy24GT.

Targeted at high-end sound cards, the Envy24GT brings true 24-bit, 96kHz audio to six output channels for only $70. Philips has also stirred in some special sauce of its own, giving the Ultimate Edge a little more spice than your average Envy24. How does the Ultimate Edge perform, and more importantly, how does it sound? Read on to find out.

Card specs
Before we embark on a photo tour around the Ultimate Edge, let's take a moment to look at how the card's key specs stack up against the competition.

 Internal precisionHardware channelsOutput channelsPrice
Audio chip ADCDACDirectSoundDirectSound 3D
Creative Audigy2 ZS24-bit/192kHz24-bit/96kHz24-bit/192kHz64327.1$79
M-Audio Revolution 7.124-bit/192kHz24-bit/96kHz24-bit/192kHznonenone7.1$89
Philips Ultimate Edge24-bit/96kHz24-bit/192kHz24-bit/192kHznonenone5.1$69

Loads of audio card manufacturers claim 24-bit audio support, but if you read between the lines, you'll find that many implementations aren't 24-bit throughout. Audio cards are only as good as their weakest link, so the original Audigy's combination of a 16-bit/48kHz audio controller with a 24-bit/96kHz digital-to-analog converter (DAC) isn't exactly kosher. Envy24HT-S implementations that combine the 24-bit/192Khz audio chip with VIA's 16-bit/48kHz VT1616 codec aren't true 24-bit, either.

Fortunately, the Ultimate Edge's 24-bit claims are legit. The card's analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) and DACs are both capable of 24-bit audio up to 192kHz, while the Envy24GT audio chip is capable of 24-bit audio at sampling rates up to 96kHz. The Envy24GT can actually do 24/192 output, but only through a digital I/O meant for S/PDIF output.

With fingers crossed and a little fine print, Philips could probably boast that the Ultimate Edge supports 24-bit/192kHz audio. However, the company's marketing materials and box art take a more conservative approach and stick to a more accurate 24/96. Philips' honesty is appreciated, but it also highlights that the Ultimate Edge can't match the 24bit/192KHz output capabilities of the Revolution 7.1, Audigy2 ZS, or Intel's High Definition Audio.

In addition to being at a slight sampling rate disadvantage, the Ultimate Edge suffers from the same DirectSound hardware channel impotence of other Envy24 implementations. Without DirectSound hardware channels, the Ultimate Edge's drivers will have to do all the heavy lifting for 3D audio in software, eating up CPU cycles in the process. The Ultimate Edge does support EAX 2.0 and A3D 1.0, though, via software.

Also notice that the Ultimate Edge offers only six output channels. Both the Audigy2 ZS and Revolution 7.1 offer more output channels, though finding a DVD or game that actually takes advantage of those extra channels may be challenging. Unless you're really, really into positional audio, a 5.1 speaker setup is probably going to be enough.

It's really no surprise that the Ultimate Edge's specs aren't leading the way. The Ultimate Edge is $10 cheaper than the Audigy2 ZS and $20 cheaper than a Revolution 7.1, so expecting feature superiority is probably unrealistic. However, Philips still has a few tricks up its sleeve that neither Creative nor M-Audio can match. More on those in a moment.