||M-Audio Revolution 7.1 Review
May 29, 2003 Tuan Nguyen
Summary: Looking for the best possible audio fidelity in your games, movies and music but don't want to spend through the nose for sound cards that don't even come close? Look no further than the card we examine today. Tuan takes a look at a gem in sound cards and tells us why sometimes things do sound as good as they seem!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 7 )|
After the demise of Aureal, competition against Creative Labs became very sparse. There were the usual players of course, but not many of them were able to match the conglomerate grip that Creative held over the sound card market. Hercules’ GameTheater XP was one such gem, but quirks like having to reboot every time you wanted to switch between regular PCM audio out and DD or DTS over the digital SPDIF outs were annoying to say the least.
Today the situation is pretty much the same as it was, but the bar has indeed been raised, thanks to multiple competitors. One of the lesser known ones – at least in the consumer PC audio world – is M-Audio. M-Audio specializes in high-end professional recording products for the PC and Mac. Their products are very well known to artists that spend time with synthesizers and/or recording music from instruments. M-Audio’s products cater to those who want very pristine audio fidelity and very low latency. Things such as all-channel 24-bit/192kHz and ASIO support can be found in almost all of their products.
The Revolution 7.1
M-Audio recently started producing consumer products that took use of the USB features of most of today’s computers. Although this gives quite a convenience to mobile computers (as well as allowing you to stay out of your computers’ innards), it does present a few problems inherited by relying on USB. Because USB 1.1 isn’t very fast, there are a few performance tradeoffs that must be made, and because CPU utilization is relatively high, USB audio solutions aren’t very attractive to most users. Despite all this, M-Audio has managed to produce some very compelling USB 1.1 audio solutions that offer multi-channel audio, Dolby Digital and DTS output as well as high-fidelity 24-bit/96kHz output and input.
What comes in our hands today though, is M-Audio’s PCI audio solution targeted at just about everyone with a PC. Named the Revolution 7.1, M-Audio is indeed upping the ante in audio quality quite a bit as we’ll examine later. But the real bang for the buck with the Revolution 7.1 is its high-resolution audio. Capable of giving you 24-bit/192kHz processing and outputting on all eight channels, as well as full 24-bit/192kHz, the Revolution 7.1 is the answer for those seeking the utmost in sound quality.
SIDEBAR: M-Audio was previously known as Midiman.
| Specifications||Page:: ( 2 / 7 )|
The following are some brief specs of the Revolution 7.1:
VIA Envy 24HT 8 channel controller
AKM 4381 DAC – front
AKM 4355 DAC – multi channel
AKM 5480 ADC – input
24-bit/192kHz playback and recording on all 8 channels
Supports all speaker configurations from stereo (or headphones) up to 7.1
Analog line in supports recording up to 24-bit/96kHz
Analog mic in supports recording up to 24-bit/96kHz
Dynamic Range: 106 dB (typical, -60 dB input, a-weighted)
Signal to Noise Ratio (Digital to Analog): 107 dB (typical, a-weighted); THD+N: -90 dB (typical)
Frequency Response: +0.8/-0.0 dB, 20Hz to 20kHz; +0.8/-3.0 dB, 20Hz to 20kHz
Crosstalk: -120 dB
Supports 24-bit Linear PCM; 16-bit Linear PCM, 16-bit Dolby Digital 5.1 (AC3), Dolby Pro Logic, DTS and other multi-channel formats
SRS TruSurround XT technology
Circle Surround II technology
32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192kHz sampling frequencies
200kHz sampling rate conversion with MME drivers
Dynamic Range: 90 dB (a-weighted)
SNR: 90 dB (a-weighted)
Frequency Response: +0.0/-3.0, 80Hz to 17kHz
Dynamic Range: 105 dB (a-weighted)
SNR: 100 dB (a-weighted)
Maximum Input Level: 1.45 Vrms (+3.2 dBV)
4 stereo 1/8” mini jacks providing 8 discrete channels
SPDIF digital coaxial RCA output
Stereo 1/8” mini analog Line input
Mono 1/8” analog microphone input with power
EAX 1.0 and 2.0, Sensaura, DirectSound, DirectSound3D, A3D, EnvironmentFX, MultiDrive, MacroFX, I3DL2, ZoomFX
From a technical point of view, the Revolution 7.1 has pretty much everything a gamer and/or music lover could want. Even those seeking to do a little recording on the side would be very happy with the Revolution 7.1’s recording resolution and ASIO support. With the Revolution, audio is processed and converted to analog through a true 24-bit/192kHz pipeline, so there’s no loss of quality. Notice also, that the SNR for the Revolution is an ultra clear 107 dB on all channels! This is superior to even the Audigy 2’s 106 dB for the front/rear channels but only around 90 dB for the center, sub and rear-center channels.
SIDEBAR: M-Audio (aka. Midiman)
| Drivers||Page:: ( 3 / 7 )|
Control panels and stability
The Revolution 7.1’s drivers are very well implemented, with all the necessary features in one control panel applet. All settings ranging from speaker setup to bass management to surround field selections are accessible. The control applet itself is very well designed with a very clean and user friendly interface. As for the drivers themselves, system stability was never an issue. We tested the Revolution on three different types of systems: the venerable KT133A system, an AMD 760MP (dual Athlon) system, and an Intel i845PE system. All systems performed flawlessly without hiccups. We tested using the latest drivers (5.10.00.35 at the time of review) off of M-Audio’s website because the ones included on the driver disc were quite buggy.
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On first load, you’re greeted with a panel where speaker adjustments can be made. M-Audio has implemented an extensive list of pre-defined speaker configurations from a large host of known speaker systems from various companies. If you own a system from one of the many popular companies such as: Altec Lansing, Klipsch, Cambridge Soundworks, Creative Labs, Logitech, Harmon Kardon, JBL, and more, you’ll likely find your set defined. Selecting the set you own will automatically configure speaker sizes, crossovers and the number of output channels. This is a very handy feature for those who are uncertain of the system they own. Of course, if you’re connected to more advanced systems, like a separate HT receiver, you can configure everything manually.
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The Revolution mixer allows adjustments of all output channels individually and allows you to instantly play only one channel by selecting solo. One area we feel where the Revolution is lacking is in the area of selective recording: there are only two recording inputs and there’s no option to record any of the output channels, wave out, MIDI synthesis out, CD digital or the useful “What You Hear”, which records all outputs at once through the wave output mixer. We hope this is simply on the driver level and can be implemented with an updated driver release from M-Audio.
Surround Sound modes
The Revolution 7.1 comes with Circle Surround II, which makes use of a mutli-channel speaker system to expand any audio signal into the highest possible multi-channel configuration you are using. You’re basically given two useful modes (mono is included which just simply outputs the same signal to all available channels): Cinema and Music. During our testing, the Music mode sounded a lot clearer, wider, and much warmer than the Cinema mode, which actually sounded muffled and behind doors. Music worked for both movies and music and worked extremely well. So well in fact we left it on for just about everything we listened to.
Also available are two specialty features called SRS Dialog Clarity and SRS TruBass. Dialog Clarity enhances the frequency range where the typical human voice is located and emphasizes that range through the center channel. We found that this feature worked really well for stereo-only movies. Multi-channel movies usually already locate spoken dialog in the center channel. On regular audio, Dialog Clarity also worked very well, allowing us to hear the very small nuances in speech that we couldn’t hear so well with the feature disabled.
For those who want to enhance their low-range experience, SRS TruBass gives emphasis to frequencies from about 150Hz and lower but does give extra punch to frequencies 40Hz and lower. This feature adds more life to tracks that lack on the low end, but with more recent music, SRS TruBass works best at the half setting or lower, otherwise, bass just becomes a little too boomy at times. (This area though, largely depends on personal tastes so you’ll have to play around with these features to find out exactly what satisfies your ears.)
One must note that SRS CS II only supports a maximum sampling rate of 48kHz. If you playback audio files with a higher sampling rate, CS II will not function and you will only get 2-channel stereo output. Processing and DA will still be 192kHz but will only be two channels. We find this quite interesting because with CS II enabled, the Revolution 7.1 thus becomes a 48kHz sound card instead of a full 192kHz device.
SIDEBAR: Tuan currently uses a Sound Blaster Audigy Platinum EX for its optical out capabilities. He is considering giving that up for the Revolution 7.1’s unmatched sound quality.
| Audio Quality||Page:: ( 4 / 7 )|
Equipment and tunes
We auditioned the Revolution 7.1 against a SoundBlaster Audigy 2 Platinum EX with the following equipment:
JVC RX-DP10VBK receiver (THX Ultra, THX Surround EX, DTS, DD5.1/DDEX with 24-bit/192kHz CC Converter)
Samson S1000 dual channel 1000w RMS amplifier
ART 351 single channel 31-band EQ/Low-pass
ART 342 dual channel 15-band VU-metering EQ
Wharfedale Diamond 8 fronts
Klipsch ProMedia satellites for center/surrounds
Klipsch ProMedia satellites back-surrounds
SV Subwoofers (SVS) CS-Plus 20-39+ 525w RMS cylinder subwoofer
Both soundcards were tested using their analog output connections with BetterCables’ interconnects.
Tracks/CD and games used
The Eagles – Hell Freezes Over (DTS CD)
Nat King Cole – Aquellos Ojos Verdes (CD – In the Mood for Love soundtrack; Wong Kar Wai)
Shigeru Umebayashi - Yumeji's Theme (CD – In the Mood for Love soundtrack; Wong Kar Wai)
Philip Bailey – Soul On Jazz (Hybrid SACD)
Glenn Gould – Goldberg Variations 1985 (Dolby Digital 2.0 DVD)
Bruno Walter Conducts – Schubert: Unfinished Symphony (New York Philharmonic) (CD)
Eminem – Marshall Mathers LP (CD)
Queen – A Night At The Opera (24-bit/96kHz DTS DVD)
Various other tracks were used but with less focus and examination.
Quake 3 Arena
Unreal Tournament 2003
What it’s all about
Right off the bat, with just our typical collection of MP3 files, we were shocked by the immediate differences that we could hear between the two sound cards. The Revolution 7.1 always sounded much more enveloping, with a wider sound stage and a lot warmer in the mid and low range. We’re not talking about minute differences that should be taken with a grain of salt here. The Revolution 7.1 is very noticeably warmer and more enjoyable to listen to than the Audigy.
With the range of music that we played, we noticed a few things from each category ranging from classical all the way up to recent rock and in-between. With oldies, we found that the combination of Circle Surround II Music and SRS Dialog Clarity offered a totally new and awesome listening experience, giving the impression that the old tracks were recently remastered. With classical, there are usually two categories: wide soundstage symphonies and small rooms with one or two instruments like a piano. With concert and symphony type tracks, Circle Surround II Music worked well, expanding the soundstage and making things seem more expansive than before. With singular instrument tracks, things sounded warmer and truer to life with CSII left disabled.
Some of the very noticeable improvements we heard were with Jazz, R&B and most pop. Tracks where there are a lot of vocals will really sound enhanced with a bit of Dialog Clarity dialed up. DC helped most in older tracks from way back when and also made a lot of Hip Hop sound enjoyable. Most of the time we left TruBass off as it was just a tad on the boomy side and bass just sounded warmer and rounder by using the level adjustment provided by our subwoofer.
Inside games, the Revolution 7.1 faithfully reproduced all the sounds we expected using the various API’s found in today’s games and older ones. EAX effects sounded very slightly better on the Audigy 2, but were still well within range on the Revolution 7.1. With Half Life, where sound is one of the main features of the game, the Revolution 7.1 did not fail and gave an excellent performance that actually sounded better than the Audigy with Circle Surround II Music enabled.
SIDEBAR: In the Mood for Love, by Wong Kar Wai, is definitely not your typical romance movie. But I totally recommend it to those who just love to watch movies of different genres. It can be found on Amazon.com.
| Gaming audio||Page:: ( 5 / 7 )|
What we found interesting in the Revolution 7.1 is its ICEnsemble Envy24HT controller. While it supports very high sampling rates – double that of the original Envy24 – it leaves out hardware accelerated support for DirectSound. These days, virtually all sound cards in this range come with hardware support for DirectSound. For those who don’t know, DirectSound (DS) allows the soundcard’s controller to process audio, leaving the main CPU free of those tasks. Without it, sound streams are processed by your main processor.
The times have changed, and with the power and speed of today’s processors, there’s little to be concerned about hardware accelerated DS. For those who are still using systems that are somewhere below the 800MHz mark, no hardware support for DS may show up in the loss of frame rates and higher CPU utilization.
We tested the Revolution 7.1 against a SoundBlaster Audigy 2 in RightMark’s Audio Analyzer, which tests a variety of things. We tested the frequency response, signal purity, and speed of the Revolution and received the following.
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In terms of fidelity, the Revolution 7.1 is indeed better than even the Audigy 2. Thanks to its high quality AKM DACs, the Revoluion 7.1 is able to sustain a greater frequency response range as well as maintain a very solid signal throughout the entire spectrum. Synthetically, it doesn’t perform as well as the Audigy 2 in speed. This is due to the absence of hardware support for DirectSound. Worried, we tested the Revolution 7.1 in Quake 3 and found the performance difference to be negligible if any. Those with 1GHz of faster systems won’t even notice a difference. Besides losing a few frames, you won’t notice anything if you play games higher than 640x480, and even then, the differences are but a few frames – we never witnessed frame rates between the two sound cards greater than 10FPS. Remember, at resolutions of 1280x1024 and up, your video card’s fill-rate and memory bandwidth will limit your performance in games, not the sound card.
Is the lack of hardware DS support critical? No. We prefer that our audio sound much better, which the Revolution 7.1 so finely delivers.
SIDEBAR: M-Audio Revolution 7.1 Webpage
| Ballistics Report||Page:: ( 6 / 7 )|
24-bit/192kHz on all channels: This is definitely one of the primary attractions of the Revolution 7.1. There aren’t many soundcards out there that can claim having 24-bit/192kHz processing and DACs to process all 8 channels. Also, you’re able to record using the same audio resolution. Indeed the 24-bit/192kHz is the cream of the crop, and it’s noticeable.
7.1 Channels: 8 channels is definitely a must have for any recent sound card these days as more and more people find their computers playing more and more DVD movies. And if not for movies, gamers are demanding multi-channel games. The Revolution 7.1’s channel management in the drivers are very well done and can be tweaked if so desired.
Circle Surround II: Circle Surround II is one of the best features to come along since the A3D days. We definitely can hear significant differences in our ensemble of tracks and games. Most of the time these differences are very welcomed, except for the movie mode, which sounded pretty muffled. We really enjoyed the Dialog Clarity feature in many of our tracks and while TruBass wasn’t appreciated much considering our equipment, we’re sure many out there would enjoy it.
Excellent audio fidelity: The Envy 24HT controller combined with excellent AKM DACs reproduced our music with noticeable improvement across the board and everything we listened to sounded more alive. Those familiar with AKM will recognize that M-Audio packs very respectable high-end digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converters. The AKM units definitely gave a performance that’s unheard of on any soundcard we’ve previously tested.
ASIO support: Those doing recording will appreciate the Revolution 7.1’s low-latency ASIO support. You can even download an ASIO output driver for Winamp.
Large selection of pre-defined speaker sets: M-Audio really went the extra mile and provided the listener with a barrage of speaker definitions.
Compatibility: The Revolution 7.1 is compatible with both Windows and Mac systems and with the most recent drivers from M-Audio’s website, we found that system stability was never an issue. Gamers will also appreciate the Revolution’s support for a wide array of sound API’s. If your game has it, the Revolution likely supports it.
Bundle: M-Audio includes a respectable bundle that includes: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 (full), MixMan Studio (full), VJ Lite (full), Intervideo’s WinDVD 4 DD EX version, over 100 ProSession sounds/loops, and trial versions of other audio applications.
Price: At about $99, M-Audio provides excellent value. The Revolution 7.1 includes very high-end components that are seen on higher-end systems, and the differences you hear in your games and music totally make up for the price. It’s like listening to a new selection of music again from our old collection.
No hardware DirectSound: This might affect those with computers around the 800MHz mark or slower, but even then, the performance hit is minimal and we’ve found these drawbacks to be next to nothing in the end. It still would have been better if the Revolution did have hardware support for DS though, as the performance dropoff in next generation games could be dramtically worse.
Circle Surround II 48kHz: We’re slightly disappointed that CS II only supports a maximum sampling rate of 48kHz, which limits the overall value of the card. The upbeat is that there aren’t many stereo recordings that are higher than 48kHz.
No optical SPDIF out/in: We really wanted an optical out connection but what’s really missing is a way to input signals digitally. The Revolution does not accept digital inputs from either optical or coaxial lines.
Recording options: We were a little surprised to find that the Revolution 7.1 only provides recording functions for Line and Mic inputs. Gone are the typical options that are available on many other sound cards.
SIDEBAR: Winamp is 6 years old this year.
| Final Verdict||Page:: ( 7 / 7 )|
The primary obstacle holding back M-Audio and its Revolution 7.1 is Creative’s installed base of users. The fact that the Creative brand is known worldwide doesn’t help either. Despite this, M-Audio really has a diamond in the rough. We’ve been calling for a sound card that really stands above the rest in terms of audio quality and multi-channel support and M-Audio clearly delivers. What you get is a product that boasts electronics found on high-end home theater systems in a package usable by just about anyone with a computer.
Windows and Mac users alike will thoroughly have their breath taken away with the audio fidelity of the Revolution 7.1. Having gone through a few sound cards in my day, I was initially skeptical of what the Revolution 7.1 was capable of. Alan, who initially received the card, told me “it’s really good”, which already increased my expectations because he’s rarely impressed. Of course, upon my use of the card, I almost instantly became an M-Audio convert – the Revolution 7.1 is really that good. Sure, it doesn’t come with an optional break-out box like the Audigy Platinum EX series, but it also costs significantly less. And to that, it even offers a much better listening experience.
The Revolution 7.1 really gives a lot more than it takes. With a full 8-channel 24-bit/192kHz pipeline and extremely high-end (for a soundcard and even some home theater components) AKM DACs, you’ll be able to immediately realize the improvements in your audio collection. We found that the Revolution 7.1 improved the music we listened to regardless of genre. For those looking for a new breath of life, Circle Surround II will add a whole new dimension to both stereo and multi-channel tracks and actually sounds really good. We’ve never been a fan of stereo expansion features before, either from sound cards or built into speakers, but Circle Surround II made things interesting and we recommend its use.
Despite some minor draw backs in recording features, the Revolution 7.1 shines supremely in audio playback for games, music and movies. It will be interesting to see if the lack of support for DirectSound in hardware will significantly degrade the Revolution 7.1's performance in next generation games. Audio performance with today's games is lower than Creative at low resolutions, but once you crank up the screen res and turn on the AA your video card will be the limiting factor, not the soundcard.
If you’ve been searching for a soundcard replacement for what Creative hashes out every year, the Revolution 7.1 is what you’ve been waiting for. For those looking to jump to 7.1 channels or for those seeking premium audio resolution and fidelity that can be well heard, M-Audio’s Revolution 7.1 tops it all.
Alan’s thoughts: Just a few months ago, I said that high-end PC gaming audio should mean: nForce2 or the Audigy2. With the Revolution 7.1, we’ve now given another high score to a very deserving sound card. So now lies the difficult task of deciding between these three audio cards. We’ve always said that the nForce2 is a solid starting point as it offers a robust feature set with good performance, and particularly because it’s dirt-cheap. But what about the Audigy2 vs. the Revolution 7.1?
For music, the Revolution 7,1 has no competition. Both the nForce2 and Audigy2 APUs will resample 44.1 kHz audio (essentially all CD and MP3 music) to 48kHz. Unfortunately, going to 48 kHz adds round-off error. The Revolution 7.1 is able to preserve the 44.1 kHz tone all the way through resulting in more transparent audio. Combined with the good quality AKM DACs, the audio performance from the Revolution 7.1 is unequivocally superb. Anyone with a decent pair of headphones (we’re talking $50 Sony headphones) will be able to immediately discern the improvement in audio quality. You won’t need side-by-side A/B comparisons.
When it comes to DVDs, 48kHz audio is the standard. Now, the Audigy2 and Revolution 7.1 start off on equal footing. The difference in quality will then arise from the DACs and OP-AMPs. Here, the difference in audio quality is less. Think of comparing 44.1kHz audio as comparing 3D image quality via VGA output, and comparing 48 KHz audio as comparing 3D image quality via DVI. The CS4382 used in the Audigy2 is excellent and on our initial impressions, we’d have to say that we prefer the multi-channel tone of DVDs with the Audigy2, although it’s a very small difference
In terms of gaming performance, the Audigy2 is the clear winner just as the Revo7.1 was the winner in music fidelity. The Revolution 7.1 doesn’t offer the same level of hardware acceleration as you’d get from the nForce2 or Audigy2. Of course, the Revolution 7.1 is also significantly cheaper than the Audigy2.
So where does this leave us? Well, our dream sound card would now be a product that had the drivers and Dolby Digital ICE of the nForce2, the music fidelity of the Revolution 7.1, and the performance of the Sound Blaster Audigy 2. But what would I do?
The only gaming sound cards I’d install in an nForce2 motherboard are the Audigy2 and Revolution 7.1. Since I watch DVDs on a home theater / AV Receiver system and not my PC, I’d take the nForce2 + Revolution 7.1. Personally, I’d run the nForce2 for games, when the extra performance helps and extra fidelity doesn’t, and stick with the Revolution 7.1 when listening to MP3s and music CDs.
SIDEBAR: What do you think of the M-Audio Revolution 7.1? Does M-Audio have a winner, or does the lack of DirectSound support prevent it from earning a place in your PC? Voice your thoughts in the news comments!