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PURE Digital SonicXplosion Sound Card

PURE Digital ZXR-500 Speaker System

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80mm -> 60mm Fan Adapter

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PURE Digital SonicXplosion Sound Card 8th November 2002

The SonicXplosion is the successor to the SonicFury sound card, more famous outside the UK as the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz. The SonicFury was a very successful competitor to the SoundBlaster Live and then the Creative Audigy and was generally acknowledged to have lower PCI bus utilisation and admired by video capture enthusiasts in particular as it rarely caused dropped frames. The SonicXplosion is the new kid on the block and boasts full Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS compatibility as well as digital input and output. Here's what it looks like:

We can see 3 sockets dedicated to providing 6 channels of output and true optical digital connectors (not just SP-DIF), the digital input means you can loop your DVD player through this card if it has an optical digital output. This is a significant boost for PC audio and finally means that using a PC speaker system with your DVD player and getting full DTS is at last a viable alternative. Before getting too excited we should mention that the Creative Audigy 2 (review upcoming) is now also available which brings with it the capability of 24-bit audio processing and 192KHz sampling rate for the DVD-Audio standard but at twice the price. Unless you have a DVD player that supports DVD-Audio and one of the few DVD-Audio disks you will get no real benefit from the Audigy 2 over the SonicXplosion. In fact you could buy a SonicXplosion and a ZXR-500 DTS compatible speaker system (see review here) both from PURE Digital for about the price of an Audigy 2.

Here are the official specifications of the card:

Minimum system requirements: Intel Pentium® III, AMD K6 III 500 or equivalent processor; 64 MB RAM; Windows 98SE/ME with DirectX 8.0 or higher or Windows 2000/XP; PCI 2.1 expansion slot; headphones or amplified speakers. DVD-ROM drive required for DVD video playback. Six speaker system required for 5.1 audio output.

Audio processor: High-performance Cirrus Logic Crystal CS4630 audio DSP with 96 stream DirectSound/DirectSound3D acceleration and 64 voice hardware wave-table engine.

MIDI wave-table synthesiser: Up to 976 software voices and 64 hardware voices with high-quality 8 MB sample set supplied (custom up to 8 MB).

Digital audio: 8/16-bit playback and recording at up to 48 kHz (mono/stereo). Extended full duplex at playback and recording (mono/stereo). Recording and playback of all audio sources.

Driver/control panel features: Volume control for all sources. 10-band stereo equaliser with pre-sets. Choice of configuration for 2, 4 or 6 speakers, each DSP optimised for quality. Speaker positioning and testing feature. Optional copyright protection on recordings.

External connectors: Optical 48 kHz digital out (Toslink) with AC-3 pass through support; optical 32, 44.1 or 48 kHz digital in (Toslink). Three stereo line out jacks. Switch-able line in or amplified headphone out stereo jack. Mic in jack (mono). Separate WaveBlasterTM compatible 15-pin MIDI/joystick port with DirectInput acceleration; analogue/digital joystick interface; MPU-401 compatible (UART mode); SoundBlasterTM compatible MIDI interface.
Internal connectors: Digital in (32, 44.1 or 48 kHz) for CD audio input. 2 inputs for analog CD audio input (MPC3). Aux in (MPC3). Wavetable connector (WaveBlasterTM pin compatible).
Amplifier: 2 x 60 mW headphone amplifier.
High performance drivers: Microsoft Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP, DirectSound, DirectSound3D, A3DTM 1.0/2.0, EAXTM 1.0/2.0, I3DL2, General MIDI, MPU-401, DLS 1.0, Sensaura MacroFXTM, MultiDriveTM, Sensaura 3DTM, Sensaura EnironmentFXTM and SoundBlasterTM/SoundBlaster ProTM compatibility.
Bus architecture: 32-bit PCI local bus 2.1, 2.2. PCI Bus Power Management Interface Specification 1.0.
Approvals: PC 2001 compliant. Compliant with EMC directive (CE).
Technical support: Technical hotline and online support at www.PURE-digital.com.
Warranty: Five years.

The card went in without any difficulties and driver installation was relatively straightforward. This is in contrast with VideoLogic's (now PURE Digital) SonicFury drivers which caused intermittent lockups which could only be remedied by using Turtle Beach drivers (they sell the same card under license from VideoLogic under the name Santa Cruz). We didn't bother installing the bundled apps as they are never a deciding factor in the purchase of a sound card and a bug in one of them may appear to be a bug in the SonicXplosion drivers.

We started by using the line out with a high-end Hi-fi system and a pair of Sennheiser HD-580 headphones. Audio CDs, MP3s and MIDI files all sounded as good as the limit of their respective formats allowed. Audio capture was played back at 16-bit/48KHz without any cracking, hissing, popping or distortion. Video capture was done using raw AVI uncompressed and PCM audio with the card at its maximum parameters without dropping a frame after 2 hours flawless capture from SKY Digital. We were unable to find a movie on sky digital with an AC-3 soundtrack, which would have allowed us to try the digital input and capture from there.

There were 2 additional sets of speakers we tried - PURE Digital's ZXR-500 and Logitech's Z-560. The 5.1 channel ZXR-500 proved to be a better match than the 4.1-channel Z-560 despite the latter having a price tag of over twice as much as the ZXR-500 and is DTS compatible to boot.

Sounds from PC games came across cleanly, particularly Unreal Tournament 2003 where noises appeared to come from their actual positions - the first time this has been fully utilised in a computer game. Watching TV on a video capture card made the most of audio tracks broadcast from satellite, giving a good soundstage with even ordinary stereo material.

The real test came when we plugged our DVD player's optical digital input into the card and output the same into our reference system and there was no loss of quality at all. To the reader this may seem obvious as it's logical to assume a loop-through but this is not the case for optical in/out connections and is a feat in itself to achieve. The sound quality was better through our reference system than with the ZXR-500 but this is hardly surprising as the ZXR-500 retails for £79 and our reference system cost a four-figure sum.

Our reference disks are Saving Private Ryan and The Matrix so we spun these and were very impressed. Straight away it was clear that the SonicXplosion's decoding capabilities were better than the DTS decoder on our DVD player as the quality was not as good using the phono outputs to connect to the speaker system. Full marks to PURE Digital for utilising the Cirrus Logic DSP to its maximum potential.

The explosions and vehicle noises were loud and impressive without obscuring the crisp dialog throughout SPR, showing good channel separation and consistent subwoofer crossover. The lobby scene of The Matrix was the best we have heard (time to get a new DVD player perhaps?). WinDVD was certainly producing better results with the SonicXplosion decoding than our DVDs internal DTS decoder.

Our tests showed a CPU utilisation of around 1% while capturing audio in PCM mode and about 2% while playing back MP3s, results very similar to those of the SonicFury. This compares favourably with the Audigy with figures of 2% and 3-4% respectively. The Hercules Fortissimo is removed from our test range permanently and we will not include it in any future comparisons. We will have figures for the Audigy 2 soon.

This rosy picture should not inspire complacency, however, as the bar is already being raised. The Creative Audigy 2 is released with the ability to record and play back in 24-bit stereo at sampling rates of up to 192KHz. This has major implications for DVD playback as the DVD standard has always supported 24-bit sampling (not used that often though) and 96KHz frequencies. In the past if a sound card plays this back at 16-bit and 48KHz this has been perfectly adequate, as we are talking about CD quality or better. Recently a new DVD standard has been formulated - DVD Audio, which supports 24-bit sampling at frequencies up to 192KHz and the Audigy 2 is fully compatible with this. The price though will be about twice that of the SonicXplosion.

Conclusion

PURE Digital have another winner on their hands and a worthy successor to the SonicFury which has been the underdog's champion and a thorn in the side of Creative who otherwise would have completely dominated the market by now. The versa-jack on the SonicFury is still implemented here in a form allowing the user to select whether a connection is line-in or a headphone connector all selectable from the control panel - a feature Creative has yet to incorporate into its products. The full DTS decoding capability and optical input & output mean that for the first time a PC sound card can compete with Hi-fi DTS decoders at a fraction of the usual cost. Of course it still caters for every possible computer related use of a sound card (from playing games to audio capture & processing).

The RRP of this card is £49.99 for the SonicXplosion retail pack and there is also a special bundle called the SonicXplosion DVD that includes a Dolby Headphone and the full 5.1 version of WinDVD 4 for a RRP of £79.99. As usual, actual street prices will be lower if you shop around.

So what do we recommend? Don't hesitate to buy the SonicXplosion, as you won't get a card this feature packed at this price point anywhere else. The explanation of DVD-Audio is only to inform the reader of future trends and there is a very limited selection of DVD-Audio disks available at this time, a situation that will not change for a year or two and will probably only affect music DVDs.

The SonicXplosion will become a permanent part of our test system, and for now, is the new yardstick by which we will measure future soundcards. Let's hope the designers at PURE Digital can keep up the good work.

We would like to thank Julia Horne of PURE Digital for the sample SonicXplosion soundcard.

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