HDA X-Mystique 7.1 Gold Distributed by BlueGears.com
By Brian Gray - May 8, 2005
GOING (DOLBY DIGITAL) LIVE
After spending several years with the nForce2 Soundstorm MCP, I still remember what it was like to play the same games using Dolby Digital Live. It is a fantastic experience. The joy of seeing my MidiLand Audio Controller flip its display over to AC-3 as the Digital and Surround modes when Dolby Digital Live was enabled got me misty.
AC-3 Input Detection
I tested both the optical and coax feeds and both behaved as they should. The S4 decoder locks quickly and stays synced through game changes and account swaps in XP Home. Using the tuning portion of the applet, I hit play on the chopper demo to make sure the the individual channels were doing what they were supposed to do. Sure enough, the chopper swirled around the room in convincing fashion. Good times.
I go to fire up Doom3 and enter the System settings to enable the surround speakers to give the creepy howls a run through and see if it is as haunting as I remember. Only one problem, the game says I do not have surround speakers. I exit and check the Windows properties and find that the speaker type is still set to desktop stereo speakers. I switch to 5.1 and restart the game to enable surround and game in creepy bliss.
Unfortunately, two driver bugs were found at this stage. The first happens upon restarting Windows; the OS will forget what speaker setting you have selected and reverts back to desktop speakers. According to BlueGears, it is a known bug that works backwards, as well, where the drivers will forget it is in DDL mode if you previously select the speaker settings in Windows. The second is that the master volume when in DDL mode does not adjust the levels of the main seakers, just the rears. A bit odd, and may be isolated to my system. I will follow up with any info as it comes to me, but I have hopes that the bugs should be cleared in time for release, though you may have to download the update.
I also spent a little time testing the X-Mystique's discrete channel outputs using a pair of headphones. It is hard to play Doom3 with just the rear channels or worse, the center in one ear and the subwoofer in the other. All seems to be in order.
Ok, so how do you benchmark a sound card? Seeing how this was my first sound card review, I first thought to look at what other sites have done to get a starting point. Naaaah, that would be too easy.
Instead, I decided to focus on answering questions about the C-Media's encoding on the X-Mystique, i.e. is it really done in hardware? For that, I used one of the few in-game benchmarks that leaves sound initialized by default, our old friend Quake3 Arena. By using s_initsound 0 and snd_restart you can disable audio to get a benchmark score with and with out audio calculations. Surely if the DDL encoding was not in hardware, it would raise a little ugliness here.
I started at 640x480, no AA, and took scores with the sound off and with the sound on in two channel analog output, six channel analog, and Dolby Digital Live. The interesting thing is that the DDL scores incurred about a five percent decrease in the timedemo run. Now, does this mean that the DDL encoding is software?
Timedemo Demo Four Results
I pressed on and increased the resolution up to 12x10 with some AA and AF. Now, the scores for 6ch and DDL are identical, or statistically identical as in the case of the 1280x1024 scores. So yes, there is some low priority work being done by driver software somewhere, but it is a not a system wide, five percent cut in performance by demanding more of your CPU when you need it the most.
Higher Resolution Results - DDL vs. 6ch
Next, I fired up Windows Media Player and started tested CPU load with and with out DDL enabled. I might as well have used the same screenshot of the task manager for DDL and 2ch stereo as they were identical. Load averaged 4% over the duration of the Killers' "Jenny was a Friend of Mine" at 64kbps.
You see any difference?
Six Channel Output Enabled
Dolby Digital Live Enabled
All that was left to do was to listen to music and jump around from one setting to the next. I alternated back and forth from PCM Digital out at 96KHz, which put my speaker system into Pro Logic mode, and DDL which left the system in AC3 mode. When in DDL, music is output to the four corners, with a light amount of sound processing giving echo and delay effects first dibs on the rear speakers. Everything I played sounded great. Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street" was particularly haunting, Rush's "Distant Early Warning" seemed like the Canadian power trio was in my office and Beck's "E-Pro" got my head nodding in a mindless manner.
Enough messing around, it was time for the final music test with number one on my Desert Island Discs list, Orbital "In Sides". I listened with delight to the one album I am most familiar with front to back. These MidiLands have never sounded better.
Being that this is a new system, the only games installed are the ones I am currently playing. Doom3, Resurrection of Evil, Half-Life 2, UT2003 and Quake3 all sounded great with DDL enabled.
DVD playback courtesy of an OEM copy of NVDVD with audio set to pass-through sounding perfect when watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. If I get my hands on the NVDVD full version, I will do a CPU load comparison of the player set to pass-through the DVD signal and set to hardware encode the software decoded six channel output.