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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
By: Greg Gant
(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)
Both cards connected to the reciever digitally and analog.
OS 9 performance and glitches:
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:
OS 9 performance and gltiches:
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:
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.
Just for the record, Apple DVD player only supports Prologic as most know.
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.
(Gary offered to send photos, screeshots, etc. for an update to this initial review-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.
Another reader commented on this article:
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.
There's also a recent article with comments on 5.1, Gaming 3d audio and OpenAL on the Mac.
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