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  Analog Devices' SoundMAX 3.0 with SPX 
  May 30, 2001, 09:00am EDT 


By: Dan Mepham

We’re not going to tell you that SoundMAX is perfect for everyone. It’s not. What we are going to tell you, is that SoundMAX, for a very large number of individuals, could very easily replace a PCI sound card, and likely will within the near future." alt="SoundMAX w/ SPX" border=0>

There are numerous advantages. Upgrading is as easy as downloading new drivers – simply install the latest software, and you can upgrade from SoundMAX 2.0 to SoundMAX 3.0 with SPX. There are no hardware conflicts – since SoundMAX is done through drivers with the assistance of the hardware CODEC, there are no interrupt or memory address conflicts. For an OEM like Dell or Compaq, SoundMAX is beautifully simple. One system can ship with standard stereo sound, while for the cost of a small CNR card, that can be upgraded to full digital 5.1-channel sound. And let us not forget cost, which is obviously the greatest advantage.

Conversely, there are disadvantages. While the drivers are upgradable, should the hardware CODEC itself become obsolete, and no longer supported by the latest versions of the drivers, the entire motherboard would have to be replaced in order to upgrade. CPU utilization is higher than an add-on sound card as well, which will be a concern for some. Lastly, SoundMAX doesn’t present quite as much flexibility as an add-on card. While the digital output has helped quite measurably, you’ll still find more connectivity options on a standard SBLive!.

With regard to CPU utilization, we’d like to take a moment to make the issue perfectly clear. AC’97 audio has been criticized by performance enthusiasts for its higher CPU overhead. Granted, SoundMAX incurs a higher amount of CPU overhead versus most PCI sound cards, but we submit to you that it's absolutely not noticeable. Your Quake 3 benchmark will drop one or two frames per second, but that’s the only way you’ll be able to tell. We’re talking about 1 GHz processors these days – that’s more than enough to handle SoundMAX. Unless you need every last CPU cycle (and we realize some of you do), the issue of CPU utilization in most cases is moot.

One issue we feel needs to be corrected immediately is the visual artifacts we began to see in Unreal Tournament when the SoundMAX drivers were installed. They were apparent regardless of video or sound quality settings, and affected only the game's root menu (they were not visible during gameplay). In order for SoundMAX to be successful, the drivers need to be perfect, so this is definitely an issue that needs to be cleared up.

In the end, we are fairly impressed with SoundMAX with SPX. For gamers, we still recommend an add-on card, as it will prove to be the most flexible and highest performing option. And considering an SBLive! Value is only about $40, it’s really not tough to justify. Likewise, SoundMAX is absolutely not intended to be a replacement for professional systems. Those who create or mix music or MIDI files on the PC will, as well, wish to stick with a high-quality professional solution.

However, for a solid 80-90% of the PCs out there, SoundMAX is an incredible option. The audio quality is literally miles ahead of current AC’97 solutions, and even support for 5.1-channel digital audio is available now for a total cost under $10. If you own, or are building a system with an Intel desktop board, SoundMAX with SPX is most definitely something to check out. We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what it can do.

Dan Mepham.

1. Introduction
2. AC'97, Too Cheap For Its Own Good?
3. SoundMAX, Taking AC'97 a Step Further
4. The Latest SoundMAX, SoundMAX 3.0 with SPX
5. CNR Makes an Appearance
6. Test Setup & Procedure
7. Test Results
8. Sound Quality
9. Conclusions

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