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Mac Audio Column
Midiman Audiophile 2496 vs Soundblaster Live
Battle of the bad Drivers (updated 3/18/2002)
AudioPhile OS X 10.2 RC Driver Update: On 8/23/2002, a reader sent a note that there's a 10.2 (Jaguar) RC driver update for the audiophile at http://www.midiman.net/support/driversearch.php .
SBLive 1.1 Driver Update for OS 9: See this page for details and download link for the 1.1 SBlive driver update of 5/6/2002. This review was written using the 1.0 drivers. Note: There's no OS X SBlive drivers yet but an employee is working on them independently - See this xlr8yourmac news story.-Mike
I originally typed this article on the UBB board at XLR8yourmac and in my defense didnt bother to proof read or edit the article Greg Gant
Test System Details
To start, let me take you back to mid 2001. The G4 line had just been revised and I had brand new spankin G4. To my dismay, I quickly realized that my G4 lacked a sound jack in. How could Apple? After all, for a computer targeted towards total Multimedia immersion and the hub of your digital life, removing the sound in was somewhat of a slap in the face. Also, at the same time, one of my friends offered to sell me his midi keyboard for a good price. I had finally shelled out to get a receiver and speakers after selling my powerbook. So I then was faced with dilemma. I needed Sound In, Midi and digital out. It just so happened the SB Live had just been released which did all of the above and nifty things such as 4 point surround sound, EAX and Open AL sound libs. Plus it was also economical since a good USB Midi In/Out solution and USB Sound in would have cost roughly the same..
As you may or may not know, the Soundblaster Live has suffered bad drivers. Little to my knowledge, the 133 Bus Macs suffered the worst, with inputs that would disappear at random. I did revert to Quicktime 4 and I thought I had solved the problem, but it started up again within a day or two. After finally buying OS X, I decided to look else where to fix my disappearing inputs in OS 9 and have Sound in/out capabilities under OS X.
I recently purchased a Midiman Audiophile 2496 to replace it.
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. Other features include EAX sound lib support, 4 point sound, 5.1 capable chipset.
The Sound Blaster Lives target audience is for gamers, sound enthusiasts and budget musicians.
Price paid: $120.
OS 9 performance and glitches:
As of writing this, the SB Live has not had a single driver update and it shows. Under OS 9.1 boot, the Creative driver loads first on startup creating a 10 second or more pause before the rest of the OS proceeds to load. As soon as I began using the SB Live I noticed a significant increase of crashes and oddities under OS 9.
The SB Live shipped with an EAX enhanced copy of Dues Ex but games that supported OpenAL or EAX were few and far between. A forum member, Applenut compiled a list of current games that supported the SB Live and as it stands there are four other titles including, Alice, Rune, Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear and Diablo 2. The SB Live failed to speed up games as it does slightly for our PC cousins (and some cases slightly detracted from frame rates). Creative blamed Apple for OS 9s Sound Manager.
I mainly bought the card for the inputs, but as fate would have they'd disappear, frustrating the hell out of me. The midi port, thankfully, worked regardless if the Sound In/Outs were functional or not.
The SB Live on rare occasions would cut out under extreme CPU loads. More often it'd crackled under intense CPU stress. This complaint seemed to be more frequent with owners of older machines. Also important to note, when playing the games, the sound never cut out on my setup.
Recording with the SB Live was a joy when the inputs were showing up. The Mic-in input was too sensitive for anything besides the creative mic that came with the creative package, but still a welcome addition since Apple no longer includes cheap mics with its G4s. For the most part, the line in is comparable to the line in on my G3 450.
Since I had to use a RCA to 1/8 converter for analog sound, the SB Live took a very noticeable volume and sound quality hit. I recently had a chance to compare sound quality SB Live vs a Biege G3 with my Sony MDV-6s headphones. Surprisingly the sound quality difference was quite noticeable. The SB Live out was less noisy and clearer. Unlike the Midiman, the SB Live sports two sets of Analog sound out. This gives the opportunity to use two sets of computer speakers for four point surround sound for games or for one set of speakers or headphones. Strangely enough, the sound out for the back channel suffered from a noticeable amount of noise. Digital was crisp and clean as expected. As true with digital sound, the quality relies on the DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) which in this case is my receiver.
Another interesting feature is the SB Live can output to its Digital Out and its two Analog outs all at once. Also, one can mute any input/output. This presents an opportunity to the digital out for a set of speakers (with digital in) and analog for the headphones. The Audiophile is not capable of outputting to both analog and digital at the same time. Since the SPDIF on the SB Live is a 1/8 port (to be used with certain sets of speakers), I had to use a 1/8 mono to RCA converter so I could then use Digital Out to my receiver. Brian Sounder confirmed that this method will only transmit for a stereo signal. Creative does offer converters that will convert the signal while keeping the surround sound intact.
The SoundBlaster Lives support for games wasnt as impressive as the PC version of the aging SB Live in terms to sound effects to levels of implementation. I had a chance to talk to a few developers and most commented that OpenAL is inferior to MSs Direct X drivers and also more difficult to implement. Unfortunately, effects libs for the Mac have been left entirely up to Creative.
The software controls of the SB Live are very functional and straightforward. The SB Live gives one the power to apply EAX reverbs to the sound in or outs. This gives one the potential to give the back set of speakers a "Drugged Reverb" while the front speakers output with a "Small room" reverb. I found this somewhat useless but fun never the less. Also unlike the Midiman Audiophile, the SB Live also sports very basic Bass and Treble controls. One can also adjust the front to back volume, and L/R pan in a Source Panning window that consisted of position a dot in a rectangular room (see image). The dot scheme is fairly easy to use but lacks a reset button. This also presented some creative options for users. Any of the inputs or outputs can be positioned to play partial on either left or right speaker and front and back speakers. For example, one could use the line in to play thru the back set of speakers only. Some users complained the controls were very unmac like but from my experience with other soundcards, this is 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.
No OS X? Theres still hope maybe
While Creative doesnt seem very interested with Mac driver development, theres still hope thanks to individuals like CreativeOne, Brian Sounder, who has been actively pursuing Creative to continue its Mac support and even tinkering with drivers himself. Thanks to individuals like Brain, OS 9 drivers have hit RC1 (release candidate one) status although the drivers themselves havent had a publicly offered update to this date.
Midiman Audiophile 2496:
Midiman Audiophile sports 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)
Overview: The Midiman Audiophile offers a no frills, card with uncomprimised sound
The Midiman Audiophiles target audience is for project studios/budget musicians, people who want to replace their SB Live and audiophiles (hey its in the name)
Price paid $150.
OS 9 performance and glitches:
The Midimans drivers unlike Creatives didnt create a 10 second startup pause. The Midiman audiophile affected stability, but mainly caused crashes when bouncing between several audio apps. The stability decrease only occurred when the Midiman was in use for sound out. The sound out on the Midiman Audiophile was much less desirable than the SB Live strictly on stability terms due to the much more frequent sound cut outs under high CPU loads and recording / playing issues. Ill explain this in the next section. - Note: When original testing the Audiophile, I completely uninstalled the SB Live from card to drivers.
Recording with the Midiman Audiophile was as easy as recording gets but suffered from some unique oddities. Recording while playing a sound within or from another app at the same time often creates a bizarre sound glitch. Its best described as an echoy digital distortion where mainly certain treble frequencies chirp and make a crackled wry sound. It did not affect the sound in. Sound quality recording wise was better at 48 khz/ 16 bit. This could be partially to the fact that the Audiophile is outfitted with RCA jacks. Before for sound in, I had to convert my sound out on my mixer from RCA to 1/8 in cable for my SB Live, which is more signal quality lossy transition than from RCA to RCA. The Audiophile also uses the same base chipset as the rest of the Delta family of audio cards used in many mid-range professional solutions. The SB live sometimes added a little white noise when recording (if I had nothing connected and hit record with Line In, sometimes I'd get a very very minor blip). My receiver doesn't support 24bit 96 Khz sound digitally so I tried recording 96 Khz 24bit with my Mic. and playing it analog. The biggest difference was that the 96 khz 24 bit sound had a more fluid natural sound.
The SPDIF in also means its possible to use an external DAC. One must remember, the reason why many professional solutions use external break out box is because the inside of a computer is a fairly noisyenvironment.
Digital out was no change from the SB Live quality wise. Digital is digital and as mentioned before, the conversion is dependent on the DAC in my receiver. Analog out was a big difference mainly because the RCA out provided strong and higher quality signal than the SB Live. Once again, its expected to have better sound quality analog out with a higher quality DAC capable of 24bit/96Khz sound.
Unfortunately, I don't own any mastered music or anything else to test out the 96 Khz 24 bit. 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 on the market.
The controls for the card aren't nearly as straightforward as Creatives. One gains more control of the cards technical features but does lack a few basic features such as bass and treble adjustments. The Audiophile doesn't provide 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 options included various options for consumer and professional digital out signals to ensure compatibility with many audio devices and for (gasp) AC3 output. None of the setting tweaks were needed for my receiver seeing the defaults came preset for consumer hardware Unlike the SB Live, one can monitor the sound out levels with the Midiman software controls and check for clipping. The Midiman Audiophile cannot use analog out and digital out at the same time.
The Audiophile also has basic hardware routing features, allowing one to route in terms of sound out. For example: SPDIF out can be routed internally to the SPDIF In or RCA In. This is useful if for some reason one needed to capture audio from an application or multiple apps at once for a mixdown. The basic hardware routing places the Audiophile a step above the SB Live in terms of production capability.
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. Various forum members tell me that the Delta series does have less latency than the Creative cards.
OS X support:
As everyone knows the SB Live has absolutely no OS X support. The Audiophile automatically wins.
The Audiophiles support is sketchy under OS X at best. I noticed the same strange garbling error (when trying to record and play at the same time in OS 9), this time when I had iTunes or Audion's volume too loud under OS X. I checked levels under the card 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 is launched, the sound almost sure to cut out. I didn't notice any stability decrease with the Midiman Audiophile.
The control panels style for OS X is almost the exact same as its OS 9 brother. The Sound panel in OS X works much like OS 9, one select the sound in and sound out. The Audiophile's card specific controls under OS X function exactly the same as OS 9, but thanks to Aqua, 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.
Apple and AC3
Although each cards chipset is 5.1 capable, neither card is able to support AC3 transfer via SPDIF. AC3 is the codec used for Dobly Digital surround sound on DVDs. Brian Sounder pointed out that Apple sends its AC3 data via ATA, which eliminates the possibility of using the SPDIF on a DVD player out to the SoundBlaster Live In. Apple has continued its bizarre treatment of DVDs, and all AC3 data interpretation remains completely handled by Apple DVD player, thus only extracting two channels of sound. Both Midiman and Creative approached Apple on terms and havent had any success.
I personally feel that seeing two companies with excellent hardware and lackluster drivers says more about Apple than it does the products themselves. While Apple is graciously accepting awards for its technical merits for its role in the audio industry, at the same it is very ironic that Apple has little to no consumer audio solutions compared to the PC world.
The SB Live could be a great card if the drivers ever mature. Fully working drivers (outside of games) without glitches would make 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.
Im somewhat disappointed with my experiences with Midiman Audiophile 2496. I was expecting a solid replacement for my SB Live. Instead, each card suffers from similar problems but the SB Live loses for very poor drivers that hinder complete areas of functionality and no OS X support. The SB Live sports more features than the Audiophile but the Audiophile stays true to its role as an budget professional card. The Audiophile without a doubt isn't a 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 a more widely used standard such as DVD-Audio (not the DVD audio on Movie disks but DVD-Audio music disks) the Audiophile will continue look like a better investment.
The Audiophile does offer improved sound quality for those actually have sound setups that can benefit from it. For a 96 Khz/ 24bit receiver, one will be hard pressed to find one for less than $300 (assuming you'll be using the digital out) and one will also want a set of speakers to compliment the receiver. I must emphasize that 96 Khz, 24 bit looks prettier on paper than it really is unless one owns very high quality samples and uses a soft sampler for Midi work, or will be using the Audiophile for recording high quality works.. In the case, if one is doing high quality recording one may want to invest in an external recording device since the innards of a computer is far from the ideal place do any DAC work.
I'm impressed that the SB Live and Midiman Audiophile work as well as they do in conjuction. Under OS 9, I'm currently using the Midiman Audiophile sound input and midi and the Soundblaster Live for output. If either card maker was able to provide what these do combined (no sound playback glitches, great recording, ASIO support and Midi) the Mac would have an ideal card. Sadly neither do deliver individually even though the hardware is quite capable on either card.
The main reason for soundcards on Macs now is the fact Apple doesn't ship Macs with serial bus (for midi) or Sound in anymore. For a USB Line device, expect to pay $50 and one will need a USB Midi device, which will cost anywhere between $50 to $150 depending on what one gets. Also USB Digital Out devices eat CPU cycles and cost a fair amount. If one needs two of the following items - Improved Sound out, Sound In, Digital Out, Digital In or Midi then one should most likely should get an audio card seeing one will pay nearly the same as two USB devices and benefit from the improved sound quality of a Sound card.
In the end I can only truly recommend one card for anyone who uses OS X or owns a newer PowerMac, the Midiman Audiophile. Otherwise Sound card buying for the Mac is optional.
Resources to check out
SoundBlaster Live! Mac Reviews
Midiman Audiophile 2496 Reviews (PC)
http://www.midiman.com/company/media/reviews/computermusic_ap2496/cmreview.html (from Computer Music Magazine)
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