Cirrus Logic 4630 chip
How About 3D Sound?
For gamers, the primary deciding factor when buying a 3D sound card should be the quality of its 3D positional audio. While every card available will boast of full 3D sound API support, 3D sound quality can vary greatly between cards. The most telling factor in positional audio is the accuracy of the sound from the rear. Although these sounds are easy to produce with a four speaker system, which actually places speakers behind the user, they are much more difficult to simulate with two speaker or headphone setups.
The Santa Cruz shines in two-speaker situations. Depending on the game, sounds coming from the rear are fairly well positioned, albeit a little subdued. Unfortunately, in some titles the rear sounds aren't very well positioned, and even in games with good rear positioning, a small audible jump can be heard as the sound shifts from one speaker to the other. However, since most 3D sound events aren't 180 degrees behind the gamer, any poor positioning on part of the Santa Cruz is not too noticeable. In Half-Life and its ever-popular CounterStrike mod, the Santa Cruz's two speaker output is as good as I've heard to date on a 3D sound card. In Quake 3, which only uses DirectSound3D, as opposed to the full EAX support in Half Life, the Santa Cruz's 3D virtualization with two speakers proved to be very useful, as it greatly aided in tracking down opponents.
Headphone output on the Santa Cruz is a small step up from the two-speaker output. More frequently, rear sounds are accurately placed, and no noticeable shift between the left and right ear can be heard. At times, however, rear sounds on headphones can seem a little disconcerting. Traditionally, headphone output has offered much higher positional quality than two speaker output. The fact that the Santa Cruz's headphone output is only slightly better than its two-speaker output, however, speaks more of the good quality of its two-speaker output than of any discrepancies in its headphone output.
Sensaura's Virtual Ear software greatly helps the Santa Cruz's headphone output. After listening to a few 3D sound samples and picking their most accurate representation, a custom 3D sound algorithm, tailored to the user's ear, is created. If you've tried 3D sound before and found it to be highly inaccurate, it is likely that standard 3D sound algorithms don't fit your ear dimensions. On the same token, if you've never tried 3D sound, but are wary of spending $99, the Santa Cruz with its Virtual Ear software is probably your safest bet for good 3D sound.
Setting up the sound card
More HRTF Setup
In practice, 3D sound with a custom Virtual Ear HRTF can make a noticeable difference in gameplay. Although not nearly as drastic, the shift in quality is similar to moving from stereo to 3D sound. Without Virtual Ear, 3D sound can be heard just fine in front and on the sides of the gamer, but sound coming from behind the user is very loosely placed. Once a custom Virtual Ear HRTF is used, however, this situation changes dramatically, with 3D sounds being accurately replicated 360 degrees around the gamer. In terms of 3D sound development, Virtual Ear technology is definitely a step in the right direction. We wouldn't be surprised to see similar configuration utilities on most sound cards within a year or two.
Of all possible 3D sound speaker configurations, a four-speaker setup is by far the best. Encompassing great positional audio while retaining the benefits of a booming loudspeaker setup, a four speaker system provides an impressive 3D sound experience.
Compared to its main competitor, the SoundBlaster Live!, the Santa Cruz's four speaker output doesn't really stand out. Although its up/down positioning is relatively good, the Santa Cruz still suffers from speaker placement issues (they have a small margin of error in their placement), as most sound cards do.
The Santa Cruz uses a Virtual 5.1 mode for games; it doesn't have true 5.1 support. Virtual 5.1 basically combines the left and right channels for the subwoofer, and all four streams for the center. Also, 5.1 output in DVDs and Virtual 5.1 is not bass managed, which means the subwoofer out isn't a low frequency effect channel but a full-range mono output. It's up to the speaker to cut the high frequencies. The problem is that sets like the Midiland S4 7100 and DTT2200 expect the sound card to do it for you.
Nonetheless, the 3D audio was useful in all the titles we tested, regardless of the 3D sound API. Having the ability to hear enemies approaching from around a corner, or to hear their location inside a room, which is possible with the Santa Cruz, is a huge gaming advantage.