|A3D & PCI Sound Cards, those are two terms which are rapidly gaining popularity and ground in the Computer Gaming Arena. The reason for the increased use of the terms boils down to this commonly asked question: "If we have 3D games, why not have 3D audio?" The whole 3D-First Person Shooter scene has been done a million times over, it is time for something new and revolutionary.|
Companies like id Software and Epic Megagames are constantly working on improving the visual quality of their titles, and companies like 3Dfx and nVidia are meeting the challenges they pose with newer and more advanced hardware to supplement the games. Unfortunately, until recently, little attention has been granted to improving the audio experience a gamer gets when he/she sits down to play their favorite game.
The industry has been using the same old ISA standard for sound cards ever since the sound card became more of a 'must have' device for a Home PC back in the early 90's. The sound card is one of the last devices to make the journey from the aging Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) Bus over to the more advanced Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) Bus, however it is finally making that journey and Diamond Multimedia using Aureal's A3D Technology has made their presence noticable in the journey.
What is A3D?
With the advent of DVD Technology there has been a strong move towards more advanced forms of Surround Sound to improve the sound quality associated with the term, Home Theater. The high quality speakers available for Home Theater systems are also available for Home PC's either through the use of an external receiver, or through the use of really expensive speakers, in any case the limiting factor in the case of the Home PC's sound evolution has been the sound card. Speakers have become increasingly more powerful, more advanced and able to produce a more crisp and realistic sound, but you must keep in mind that a speaker can only do so much. Without a good sound card, even the best pair of speakers will be rendered useless as far as high quality sound production is concerned, and without good speakers even the best sound card is reduced to nothing more than a place holder for an expansion slot.
The first obvious step in the evolution of the sound card was the move to the PCI bus, with a greater available bandwidth the PCI Bus paves the way for an entirely unexplored realm of realistic sound, which brings us to the topic of 3D positional audio. The theory behind being able to produce 3D audio is very simple, it basically states that since humans are equipped with only two ears and are able to hear sounds in three dimensions there should be a way to produce sounds to be heard in three dimensions using only two speakers. Simple enough, right? This is where A3D comes in.
While surround sound has been around for ages now, surround sound does have its limits in the PC gaming scene. This is mainly because unlike movie theaters, the common playground for surround sound systems, you are not a stationary object when playing a game. While watching a movie you are a static being who receives the sounds sent out by speakers surrounding you, since you aren't moving or changing your perspective any this approach works out perfectly. If a glass bottle breaks to your right, a speaker on your right will produce the sound associated with the glass breaking, and since you aren't moving the speaker on your right will always be the speaker on your right. However when playing a game, especially a 3D-first person shooter like Quake 2 or Unreal, you have the ability to change directions, turn around, and even move deeper into an area. If a glass bottle breaks to your right, and you turn to face the bottle as it breaks, the sound should no longer be coming from your right hand side rather from directly in front of you. This is where surround sound is limited, in its level of interactivity, which is basically nothing.
A technology called A3D, from Aureal, was designed to break the limits of surround sound, taking PC gaming to entirely new levels. According to Aureal, the creators of the technology, A3D Interactive "is a new technology that is interactive and allows for realistic, fully three-dimensional placement of sounds."
A3D Interactive is the technology commonly referred to as just A3D, however in reality there are two types of technology referred to by the name A3D. The first has already been discussed, and is A3D Interactive, however A3D Interactive is mainly for gaming and other interactive situations. But what happens when you are not interacting with the environment around you? That question brings us to the next type of A3D technology from Aureal, A3D Surround.
Aureal's A3D Surround technology allows for a computer using as few as 2 speakers to produce the desired effect of a surround sound decoding technology (i.e. Dolby ProLogic or Dolby Digital AC-3). A sound card equipped with A3D Surround technology will interpret the sound signals generated and will use your two speakers to project other, "virtual" speakers into the space around you essentially providing the desired surround sound effect using just two speakers.
Building on the Foundation
Now that we have the technology to immerse a user in high quality 3D positional audio, let's take a look at one of the most popular multimedia companies, Diamond Multimedia and their three attempts at the PCI Sound Card industry as AnandTech explores the Diamond Monster Sound MX200, Diamond Monster Sound M80, and the Diamond Sonic Impact S70.