Apologies for the posting constipation recently. I’m currently in crunch mode on the latest submission for my PhD, which is due in early next week and will consist of an introduction to my thesis, covering its origins, key aims and my working definition of what exactly a giallo is. (One of the downsides to choosing such an obscure branch of the movie tree for your research is that, at the start of every article you write or presentation you give, you have to squander precious words or minutes explaining what the hell you’re talking about.) Still, despite this being a pretty intensive period, I’m enjoying this phase a lot more than the last one (the literature review), which I felt dragged on for too long without me having a clear sense of direction.
Anyway, I just thought I’d check in to post that I decided to finally replace my PC’s ageing Creative Inspire 5.1 Digital 5700 speakers with a spruce new Logitech Z-5500 Digital package as an early Christmas present. I did this for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I wanted better audio than I was currently getting, and, while I knew I could never compete with my brother’s setup, at least not without having access to vastly more money and space than I currently have, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to go for the best setup I could get my hands on within my current means. Various reviews swung me towards the Z-5500, which, unlike most of the current generation of PC speakers, has the added bonus of including its own internal Dolby Digital and DTS decoders, should I ever want to send it encoded signals in either of these two formats.
The second reason is somewhat more logistical, and here things get a little technical. I bought my Inspire setup at a time when its maker, Creative, was aggressively pushing its own proprietary “surround sound with a single cable” solution. A common myth with PC audio is that you can simply output multichannel audio to a set of multichannel speakers using a coaxial or optical cable. This is wrong, and I learned it the hard way when I upgraded my system a couple of years ago, only to find that hooking my speakers up to my sound card using a coaxial connection only produced stereo sound. The reason for this is that coaxial and optical cables can’t pass anything more than 2-channel audio, unless the sound comes in a pre-encoded format like Dolby Digital or DTS. If that’s the case, the encoded signal can be sent to an audio receiver and then decoded in all its 5.1 glory. Games and other applications, however, are not so lucky. The normal solution, therefore, would be to use analogue cables and connect the speakers (or receiver) individually. Creative’s solution, however, was actually quite remarkable: a proprietary “digital DIN” system which used a modified DIN connector (looking much like an S-video connector). Essentially, it took up to six audio channels (i.e. 5.1) and sent each channel to the receiver using a separate pin. As a result, you could effectively get analogue 5.1 audio using a single digital connector. Weird, huh?
The problem is, Creative ultimately ended up abandoning this solution. The reason for this is unclear, but I suspect it was because the advent of 6.1 and 7.1 speaker setups made this 5.1-maximum system seem rather archaic. The only problem, for me, was that my 5700 setup was so tied to the DIN way of doing things that there was no way of sending it an analogue 5.1 signal: connectors only existed on the receiver for up to 4-channel analogue audio. 4-channel isn’t bad, but it’s not a patch on true 5.1, as it means that the centre channel and subwoofer are essentially sitting there doing nothing.
Earlier this year, when I put together my new computer, I ditched my aged Sound Blaster Audigy Player/Gamer (the name depends on which territory you live in) and picked up a swanky new Auzentech X-Fi Prelude 7.1. The Prelude, like all modern sound cards, doesn’t include a DIN connection, meaning that I had two options: either use the card’s built-in Dolby Digital Live feature to encode a Dolby Digital 5.1 signal on the fly to pass to the receiver using the coaxial connector, or buy a new set of speakers. The former seemed to be by far the more cost-effective option of the two, so I went down that route. The only problem was that, at the time that I bought the Prelude, its Dolby Digital Live support was buggy as hell, to the extent that, with the feature enabled, I couldn’t get more than 5-10 minutes’ worth of audio before the sound got caught in an endless loop and the sound card had to be reset. Result: the Prelude came out and the Audigy went back in.
Flash forward another six months or so, and Auzentech’s drivers have improved substantially, correcting the audio loop bug and introducing real-time DTS encoding to boot. So back out came the Audigy and back in went the Prelude. It was at this point that I discovered yet another problem: the real-time encoding introduced a slight delay, meaning that the audio now lagged ever so slightly behind the video. In most cases, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but when you’re playing a game that relies on split-second reactions, you need perfect coordination between audio and video. Besides, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a little more susceptible to noticing desynchronised audio than most people - to the extent that I find the widely lauded Toy Story 2 DVD slightly annoying to watch because of a minor but constant synch issue that virtually no-one else seemed to spot.
Which takes us to where we are now: a shiny new audio system that delivers a noticeable boost to quality and accepts analogue 6-channel sound, meaning an end to my synchronisation issues. The hulking beast of a subwoofer (see above) necessitated a fairly substantial reconfiguration of the positions of various pieces of equipment (the old one sat behind my desk, but the new one wouldn’t fit, meaning that it had to go where my PC’s tower, now crammed into a tight corner, used to sit), but this provided me with a much-needed opportunity to vacuum up years’ worth of dust and cobwebs. Incidentally, this rejig also convinced me to pick up the cables required to connect my PC to my brother’s projector, meaning that we now theoretically have everything in place to finally be able to watch Region B titles on the big screen, using my system as an HTPC. Fingers crossed for the local big screen premiere of Léon this weekend!
Anyway, I’m really happy with my new audio setup. I may be a videophile first and foremost, but I know improved sound when I hear it.