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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column

Midiman Audiophile 2496 vs Mac SoundBlaster Live!
By: Greg Gant
Published: 3/8/2002
(updated 3/12/2002 for more reader's comments)

[UPDATE: Greg sent a completely re-written review with photos/images, etc.]

When the SB Live! was new I purchased one right away for my G4 466 but the 133 Mhz bus computers had major issues with the SB Live. The inputs would dissappear and also created a noticably more unstable OS. (FYI: Some noted that Quicktime 5 was a problem with the card's drivers in last year's Mac SoundBlaster Live Comments/Performance Tests article.-Mike)
I recently bought a Midiman Audiophile 2496 to replace it.

    Test System Details
  • G4 466 (Digital Audio)
  • 512 megs of ram
  • OS 9.1 and OS X (classic mode is seperate OS)
  • Kenwood VR-409 reciever and JBL S310s
  • NT1 Studio Condensor mic connected to a Behringer Eurorack mixing board.

Both cards connected to the reciever digitally and analog.

SoundBlaster Live!:
The SB Live features Digital Out, Front speakers out, back speakers out, Mic input, Line In input, Midi In/Out . All sound in/outs are 1/8 in cable (also known as miniplug or headphone jack). Midi uses a dongle cable to gameport. Price paid: $120.

OS 9 performance and glitches:
The SB Live! never had [to date] a single driver update and it shows. Under OS 9.1 boot, the creative driver loads first on startup creating a 15 second or more pause then the rest of the OS perceeds to load. As soon as began using the SB Live I notice a significant increase of crashes and oddities under OS 9. OpenAL for Mac was fairly unimpressive seeing almost no games supported it. [Deus Ex (in the box and a released update) does and I think one other game, but can't remember-Mike] I mainly bought the card for the inputs, but as fate would have they'd disappear frustrating the out out of me, at least the midi port always worked regardless if my Line in and Mic were not.

The SB Live! occasionally would cut out under extreme CPU loads, never in games. It'd crackled under CPU stress more so than cut out.

Recording with the SB Live was fairly good when it worked but wasn't the best capture. The Mic in input was too sensitive for anything besides the creative mic that came with the computer

Since I had to use a RCA to 1/8 convertor for analog sound, the SB Live took a very noticable volume and sound quality hit. Digital was crisp and clean as expected. The back channel speaker out always had white noise (a slight static) which could be potentially annoying in a 4 speaker setup. The SB Live always was outputing sound across all 3 outs (back and front out, and digital) meaning you could have headphones plugged into the SB Live itself as well as speakers, just setup back out to desired level out out or you could use the front out for headphones and digital out to your speakers or reciever.

The software controls of the SB Live were good enough but nothing ground breaking. They were quick and easy to use. You could apply EAX reverbs to your sound outs so potential you could use have your back set of speakers with a "Drugged Reverb" and front with a "Small room". I found this somewhat useless but fun never the less. You could also adjust the front to back volume, and L/R pan in a window that consisted of position a dot in a rectangular room. It was very easy to use but occasionally annoying trying to get precision right. Some users complained the controls were very unmaclike. The window wasn't ugly or terrible but it sorta looked as if it could have been from a PC app. From my experience with other soundcards, this was a very well executed app.

As mentioned before, midi always worked and was very easy to setup. I only used my keyboard as controller and I can't comment on complex sequencing performance because of my lack of hardware.

Midiman Audiophile 2496:
Midiman Audiophile has two RCA in jacks, two RCA jacks out. SPDIF coax out, SPDIF Coax in, Midi In out (Digital in/out and midi is on a dongle cable). Price was $150.

OS 9 performance and gltiches:
The Midiman Audiophile didn't affect boot time and the inputs always appeared in OS 9. Stability was still affected but different than the SB Live. Freezing would sometimes occur when bouncing between several audio apps.

The audio on the Midiman Audiophile cut out much more frequently under CPU loads, mainly when a new app was loading, although sound never crackled.

Recording with the Midiman Audiophile worked all the time but had some strangeness. When playing and recording at created a very strange error. Currently its isolated to SoundEdit 16. If playing sound in another App, SoundEdit while many times cause the playing sound to glitch. Its best described as a echoy digital distortion where mainly certain treble frequency chirp and make a crackled wry sound. It did not affect the sound in. I'll have to try recording from other apps while playing sounds from other apps and see if this is isolated to SoundEdit. The sound quality was a little better. The SB live sometimes added a little white noise when recording (if you had nothing connected and hit record with Line In, sometimes you'd get a very very minor blip). The slightly higher recording quality at 48 khz 16 bit was expected seeing the card is from the Delta card family.

Digital out was no change from the SB Live quality wise. Digital is digital and the conversion is dependant on my DAC in my reciever. Analog out was a big difference mainly because the RCA out provided a higher quality signal than the SB Live. Also seeing the Audiophile is the consumer version of the professional Delta audio card family by Midiman its expected to have better sound quality analog out with a higher quality DAC capable of 24bit/96Khz sound. My reciever doesn't support 24bit 96 Khz sound digitally so I tried recording 96 Khz 24bit with my Mic and playing it back vs a 48 Khz 16 bit sound.The biggest difference was that the 96 khz 24 bit sound had a more fluid sound. I don't own any mastered music or anything else to test out the 96 Khz 24 bit out but when playing CDs it didn't affect the sound quality seeing that the sound card doesn't perform oversampling like some higher end CD players do.

The controls for the card aren't nearly as straight forward and give you a bit more control. The audiophile doesn't provde any sound lib support for the Mac so there isn't any nifty EAX sound libs to play with or audio libs to load onto the card for Midi (at least not to my knowledge). Some of the tweaks included various options for consumer and professional digital out signals to ensure compatiblity with many audio devices. None of the setting tweaks were needed for my reciever seeing the defaults came preset for consumer hardware. Unlike the SB Live, the Midiman Audiphile cannot use analog out and digital out at the same time. This disappointed me since I hoped to run an analog RCA cable another room for music listening but not a huge loss. Still worth noting.

The audiophile worked with Midi just as easily as the SB Live. The latency wasn't improved or decreased at all. Again I don't have enough hardware to test multitrack sequencing.

OS X support:
As everyone knows the SB Live has absolutely no OS X support. So the Audiophile automatically wins.

The audiophile support is somewhat sketchy at times. I noticed the same strange garbling error when trying to record with SoundEdit in OS 9, when I had iTunes or Audion's volume too loud under OS X. I checked for clipping but it wasn't. Due to Aqua's insane CPU load, sound cut outs are more frequent under OS 9. It still works quite well but anytime an app loads, the sound almost sure to cut out.

The control panels style for OS X is almost the exact same for OS 9. The Sound panel in OS X works much like OS 9, you select the sound in and sound out. The Audiophile's card specific control panel under OS X functions exactly the same although looks much better.

Recording worked fine and provided the same results as OS 9.
I don't have any midi programs for OS X to test.

Just for the record, Apple DVD player only supports Prologic as most know.

Final Comments:
The SB Live could have been a great card if the drivers would have matured. Fully working drivers (outside of games) without glitches would have made this a better card all around than the current drivers for the Audiophile. Due to the lack of use outside of recording for 24 bit sound and 96 Khz, and the fact most places the Audiophile costs $170 the SB live would have been the better of the two for the average user. Each card suffers from similair problems but the SB Live loses for very poor drivers and no OS X support. The SB Live has more features than the Audiophile but the Audiophile is a great compliment for the multimedia oriented user. The Audiophile without a doubt isn't bad card and with Digital in as well as analog offers potential for work with DATs and other musical devices. Also important to note the Audiophile's shelf life will probably be longer than the SB Live. As 96khz/24 bit becomes more widely used standard such as DVD Audio (not the DVD audio on Movie disks but DVD-Audio music disk) the Audiophile will look like a better investment.

The Audiophile does offer improved sound quality for those actually have sound setups that can benefit from it. Most people don't have $1000 invested on their computer's sound setup. For a 96 Khz/ 24bit reciever, you'll be hardpressed to find one for less than $300 and you'll also want a set of speakers to compliment your reciever.

The main reason for soundcards on Macs now is the fact Apple doesn't ship Macs with serial or Sound in anymore. For USB Line device, expect to pay for $50 and you'll need a USB Midi device which can cost as low as $50 to $100 depending on what you get. Also USB Digital Out devices eat extra CPU cycles and cost a fair amount. If you need two of the following items - Improved Sound out, Sound In, Digital Out, Digital In or Midi then you most likely should get an audio card seeing you'll pay nearly the same as two USB devices and benefit from the improved sound quality of a Sound card. Otherwise Sound card buying for the Mac is optional.
-Greg Gant

(Gary offered to send photos, screeshots, etc. for an update to this initial review-Mike)
*Update* - Another reader sent comments to add to this article:

    " Hi Mike,
    Just read the latest audio review, the comparison between the SoundBlaster Live! card and Audiophile 2496 card. I can add a bit to the review, since I own both a SoundBlaster and a Midiman DeltaDiO 2496. (The Delta has no analog in and a few more on-card mixing options, but is very similar to the Audiophile 2496.)

    I was one of the early advocates of the SoundBlaster (I posted a mini-review to your site after seeing the early preview at MacWorld SF in 2001) and was excited by the potential of the card for use on Macs without audio in. Like many people, I now regret purchasing the card, as the lack of driver updates makes the card all but unusable - since the audio in's often disappear, you can't use it for what I see its main purpose, adding audio in to new Macs.

    The Midiman cards offer more advantages than Greg points out. One of the big ones (besides OS X support) is the availability of ASIO drivers. With those drivers (and an audio app that supports them) you can record up to 24-bit samples, as opposed to 16-bit which SoundManager and the SoundBlaster support. You also get significantly lower latency times.
    -Barry "

Another reader commented on this article:

    " I thought I should point out that there is one statement in the review of the Audiophile 2496 vs Soundblaster Live that is false. The claim that "Digital is digital and the conversion is dependant on my DAC in my reciever" is not entirely true. While the differences in the sound quality of sound cards are more evident in their analog outputs than their digital ones, there are still significant differences. In this case, one of the most important ones is the fact that all Creative sound cards will resample the audio signal to 48KHz (they also do a poor job of it). What this means is that sound sources that were not recorded at 48KHz, will be converted to this frequency, and distort the sound. This problem will affect most sources, including audio CDs, and the vast majority of MP3s. The Audiophile 2496, on the other hand, will not resample any signal. Instead, it will dynamically change the frequency at which it outputs sound. In fact, it supports all the commonly used frequencies between 8000Hz to 96KHz (including 44.1KHz, used by audio CDs and MP3s).

    Also, I should note that if you use decent headphones (ones that cost approx. $50 or more), you will quite likely notice this difference between the two. Headphones are much more accurate and revealing of the imperfections of sound cards than speakers.
    Mark Jia "

There's also a recent article with comments on 5.1, Gaming 3d audio and OpenAL on the Mac.


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