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Auzentech X-Meridian Review

 

Very Little Skimping Here

 

by Josh Walrath

 

            Auzentech is a name that is gaining a solid reputation in the soundcard market.  Originally known as HDA (Hitec Digital Audio) of Korea, the company created soundcards for the Asian market, and started selling some models to Bluegears for distribution in North America.  With the success that Bluegears saw with their new card, HDA decided to address the retail market on their own.  In doing so, they decided to change the name of the company to Auzentech to potentially increase their brand recognition.

            Auzentech’s first new product was the X-Plosion which featured a slightly upgraded C-Media CMI-8768+, which was rebranded the CMI 8770.  It had all of the same specifications as the older 8768+, but added DTS encoding to the mix.  It was based on the same design as the older X-Mystique that Bluegears made famous, and still had some of the limitations of the design (namely being limited to 24 bit/96 KHz resolution).

            With two previous products under their belt, Auzentech apparently decided to do their best to wow the industry with one of the most advanced, clean, and flexible sound card designs to ever hit the streets.  The X-Meridian is almost a “no holds barred” type of solution which could easily find a home in many audiophiles’ computers. 

The C-Media CMI-8788

            C-Media has been making sound chips for a long, long time now.  While their products were viewed as fair competitors to Creative, they often featured host based functionality and their driver support was dismal at times.  With the loss of other 3rd party sound chip makers, it seems that within the past three years C-Media has really woken up to the situation and put some serious engineering effort behind many of their new chips.  The CMI-8788 is the most advanced product that C-Media has put out in the sound field, and the chip’s featureset is probably the most impressive out there.

            If you want an in-depth overview of the CMI-8788, then please read my Bluegears b-Enspirer Review which covers the chip in great detail.  Basically the chip features 24 bit/192 KHz playback, a host of Dolby Digital and DTS encoding/playback functionality, and great flexibility in terms of both input and output.  It also features A3D, Directsound 3D, and EAX 1/2 playback.  The only major thing it is missing is EAX 3/4/5 support.  I have been told that through the chip and host based processes, the card could support EAX 3 and 4, but due to licensing issues with Creative they cannot support those advanced features.

The inside box acts as a cushion around the card, which is itself encased in a rigid plastic container.  Oh yeah, it's really orange too.

            The CMI-8788 does have some DSP functionality, but it is not the monster that the Creative X-Fi chip is.  Some functionality is handled by the host system rather than in the chip itself.  In most situations this is not entirely apparent from a performance point of view, but the CMI-8788 based cards show a small drop in performance when compared to competing X-Fi based soundcards in some gaming applications which utilize EAX or DS3D.  The digital encoding to Dolby Digital or DTS is handled in the chip itself, and nothing is offloaded to the host.  As such there is no appreciable drop in performance going from analog 2 channel sound to Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS.  Nor is there any appreciable lag while doing the realtime encoding.  This is actually a significant issue with other DD 5.1 and DTS encoding products, but it is one that thankfully the CMI-8788 does not share.

            The change in the driver stack in Vista has really evened the playing field when it comes to DSP functionality.  With un-modified drivers the X-Fi loses all of its DSP power and performs on par with other soundcards that use host based processes.  Creative is trying to address this with their ALchemy initiative, which allows their soundcards to flex their DSP muscle once again.  Currently this is a very beta project, and support is still being built up.  Alchemy is only available at this time for X-Fi based products, but Creative is looking to implement it for their older Audigy cards for an “upgrade price”.  Other manufacturers have yet to sign onto the initiative, if they are even allowed to by Creative.  Also the list of applications which benefit from ALchemy is limited.

            The CMI-8788 is the most advanced consumer chip of its kind outside of Creative Labs.  Auzentech has taken this chip and created what is probably one of the most well- rounded, clean, and feature-rich soundcard the world has yet seen at consumer level prices.

 

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