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Bluegears b-Enspirer Review


Audiophile on a Budget!


By Josh Walrath




            Bluegears made some waves in 2005 by introducing the first standalone Dolby Digital 5.1 encoding soundcard in North America, the X-Mystique.  Previously the only products that could do this were the nForce 2 and some other motherboard integrated products.  Of those products, only the nForce 2 could do DD 5.1 very well at all, as the other options were host based and relied on software to enable that functionality.  The X-Mystique was actually designed and built by HDA of Korea, but Bluegears was the distributor for North America and they were able to brand the card as their own.  The X-Mystique was a fairly successful card, and the ability to encode DD 5.1 made it an instant favorite of the HTPC crowd.  Apparently the success of this card gave HDA the impetus to dive into the North American market themselves, as well as rebrand their company as Auzentech.  While the exact details are unknown what happened between Bluegears and Auzentech, the result was that Bluegears no longer sold the HDA/Auzentech soundcards.

            The X-Mystique was a very interesting product, but there were quite a few blemishes with the implementation.  First off the default OPAMPs were not of the best quality, but the reality of the situation is that most users would not be able to tell the difference without really high end gear or really clean source material.  Next was that the card could only encode Dolby Digital 5.1, and not the higher quality/bitrate DTS.  Next was that the C-Media 8768+ chip featured integrated DACs that were of marginal quality.  This was perhaps the biggest issue with the soundcard, but it was also downplayed a great deal.  For most of the consumers looking at this card, the ability to encode a DD 5.1 stream was the prime selling point, and few of these customers would use the analog outputs.  The 8768+ officially could only do 24 bit/96 KHz playback, and there was some evidence that it might in fact only be 16 bit/48 KHz at max through the analog outputs (though all manufacturing parties have denied this).  The final issue that faced this card was the lack of ASIO support provided by C-Media in their drivers.

            The combination of all these things made the X-Mystique a good HTPC soundcard, but it was not the best option out there for PC users hoping to use the analog outputs.  Considering that these cards were competing against the Creative X-Fi series (namely the Extreme Music), most analog junkies went with Creative.  Also, because the X-Mystique had limited DSP functionality, most 3D effects were done by the host processor.  So if EAX 2.0 or A3D 2.0 was enabled, the CPU was taking up the slack.  Furthermore because Creative does not allow anyone to license EAX 3, 4, and 5 (where the more interesting 3D effects are enabled, such as occlusion and reflection) the X-Mystique did not shine in games where heavy 3D audio effects where utilized.  A prime example of this was Quake 4, which was a night and day experience with EAX 4 enabled vs. software surround sound.

Not the greatest packing job, but it certainly seems to work.  So far I have seen no complaints of shipping damage.

            C-Media also does not have the shiniest reputation for driver support and quality.  For the first couple of months of the X-Mystique’s existence, it was plagued by driver bugs and incompatibilities.  Throughout the next year C-Media did deliver a new driver about once every quarter.  By the time the X-Mystique was well known and taken over by Auzentech, most of those issues were resolved.

            So where does this all leave Bluegears?  Well, they no longer have to support the X-Mystique, as that was taken over entirely by Auzentech.  But with some decent name recognition, Bluegears thought it would probably be a good idea to stay in the soundcard business.  With many users tired of Creative’s apparent lack of consumer support, as well as many unresolved driver issues with their cards, there is a definite opening for a new and aggressive company in the soundcard market.  Bluegears certainly hopes that they can plant their flag here and make a few sales, and by adopting the C-Media CMI 8788 chip into a reference design at a very nice price, they could do very well.


Next:  The CMI-8788


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