Breaking the sound barrier

Breaking the sound barrier

Sound cards are no longer the commodity business they were a few years ago. Many companies are seeing sales dive as much as 20 per cent as the capabilities of the once ubiquitous ISA sound card are absorbed into standard motherboard chip sets.

But while volumes have declined, specialist game players, DVD movie watchers and musicians are fuelling a new market for sound cards and carrying with them the promise of higher margins for resellers.

Graham Penn, head of research at IDC Asia-Pacific, pointed to a significant shift in the way sound and all multimedia technologies will be marketed by vendors and sold in the channel as diverging consumer needs contribute to a more vertical market structure.

Today's sound cards are beginning to employ many of the concepts used in developing sophisticated graphics engines such as sound "rendering" and the "fully immersive 3D-experience". Dedicated gamers and a growing population of digital and online music enthusiasts are driving this further.

The majority of sound cards sold today are based on the PCI, as opposed to the ISA BUS standard. PCI cards have a number of advantages due to the fact that they do most of the grunt work previously done by the computer in the ISA days.

With PCI, a dedicated hardware engine intercepts all the audio information before it actually hits the central processing unit of the computer.

This rapidly facilitates sample rate conversion, digital mixing, and PCI streaming, according to Ben Davis, manager of the audio products division of Australian engineering company Xitel. Xitel designs and markets the Storm Platinum range of sound cards.

PCI-based sound cards enable manufacturers to create intensive computational algorithms, Davis said, delivering what is now described as 3D positional sound, or the immersive surround sound experience.

Most of them are also programmable and carry drivers enabling fast and easy upgrading.

Much of the technology used in today's sound cards hails from research undertaken by NASA to improve simulation of flight and outer space for astronauts. This has contributed to the creation of very sophisticated sound engines which are now becoming standard in the gaming and multimedia enhancement markets, he said.

But while there appears to be a new wave of opportunities emerging from the booming games and digital music industries, the bottom line is that resellers are making less money on sound cards now than they were say two years ago.

"Most people don't see the need to upgrade their existing sound card because there's nothing that revolutionary out there on the market unless you're a real enthusiast," said Stuart Boyd, national peripherals coordinator with Harvey Norman.

"You just need to look at the average PC and how long it's been since it's come with a sound card," he said.

IDC's Penn said there is a lot of activity surrounding the integration of audio technolo- gies into computer motherboards, driven in the main by chip giant Intel and semiconductor manufacturer Texas Instruments.

"It's a market which is rapidly evolving as more and more bits are being stuck into the chip set as integrated circuitry," he said.

But despite this, Harvey Norman is still doing quite well with sound cards.

"Just like people assumed the modem market would crumble as they became absorbed into PCs, sound cards continue to plod along," he said.

However, many analysts and industry observers have pointed to big opportunities arising from the growing popularity of online music technologies such as MP3, as well as swelling numbers of very serious games enthusiasts.

"The sound card market is certainly still buoyant," according to Kamil Curgil, marketing man-ager of Creative Pacific, the Australian distributor of Creative Labs, one of the world's biggest sound card manufacturers.

The market is becoming more vertical with the growth of specialist areas such as digital music, online and LAN-based gaming, he said.

Jento Lim, marketing manager of Melbourne distributor Westan, was, however, much less upbeat about opportunities in the sound card space.

Early this year the company discontinued its only sound card range and has no immediate plans to revisit the technology.

"We weren't selling enough to make it worthwhile," Lim said.

A few years ago, people were very particular about the quality of their sound, Lim said, because it was an obvious add-on expense.

Nowadays most people are content with the sound offered by motherboard manufacturers.

While the sound capabilities are not as good as that for stand-alone sound cards, "for someone not obsessed with sound quality or multimedia, the motherboard does the job fine these days", said Scott Carlisle, managing director of Melbourne distributor Chips and Bits.

Andrew Cutting, product manager with Melbourne-based distributor Multimedia Technology, estimated that the company's sound card business has dropped 20 per cent over the last two years.

"Sales have certainly begun to tail off. A few years ago we would have considered it one of our main product lines."

Likewise, Chips and Bits has seen little movement in the stand-alone sound card market for some time, according to Carlisle.

"It's hard to say whether the market has shrunk, but it's certainly not grown much over the last four years," he said.

"Everyone wants sound as part of their standard configuration. As a result, sound cards are being displaced by the motherboard."

And with consumer sales lagging, Carlisle was also doubtful that demand for audio-enhancing technologies would increase in the corporate market despite what appears to be solid growth in videoconferencing and other Net-based communications solutions.

"We are not doing a lot of high-end card sales in the corporate space," Carlisle said.

According to Steve Cooper, founder and director of Sydney-based reseller and systems integrator Plug and Play, sales of sound cards have dropped dramatically over the last 12-18 months as a result of market saturation.

Cooper estimates that sound card sales at the point of sale for a PC were 20 per higher for Plug and Play than at this time last year.

"Most computer owners have sound cards now and most PC manufacturers bundle them in these days."

Most of Plug and Play's sales were for products combining sound with video and other multimedia features, Cooper said. Also, sales of sound cards had become less of an add-on accompanying a PC sale, with existing users accounting for the majority of interest.

Cooper added that these customers are looking at high-end sound gear enabling better midi output, live importing of wave files and four-point surround sound with the "real tech-heads" showing the most interest.

"They want all the bells and whistles. Bundling and value adding is what this market is all about these days," he said.

Like Carlisle, Cooper was also sceptical of achieving meaningful sales in the corporate space.

As a provider of networks and Internet configuration services, Plug and Play has found that corporate users are impervious to whether or not they have sound.

"We do a lot of 5-25 machine networks and these users don't care if they get sound or not."

Plug and Play carries a wide range of PC multimedia products but Cooper said that Creative's Soundblaster Live is by far the best seller and "one of the hottest cards in the sound market".

One of the reasons the Soundblaster has performed so well, Cooper believes, is that Creative was one of the first companies to provide a dedicated Web site for users to download upgrades and access dynamic multimedia content.

"It's the first sound, multimedia add-on product which enables users to connect to the Internet," Cooper said.

Earlier this month, Creative Technology announced the free availability of its new online interactive music technology LAVA (Live Audio Video Animation).

Creative claims that LAVA is the first software solution enabling interactive viewing and editing of 3D music videos on the Internet. The technology debuted at Woodstock 99.

Previously only available to Soundblaster Live Customers, the LAVA MusicVideo Player is now improved and free to download from It supports any PC-based sound card, and will soon support the Windows Media format, of which there are an estimated 40 million users.

Creative believes that LAVA will do for music video what MP3 has done for music on the Internet, promising to make it simple for anyone to create professional-quality music videos.

Sim Wong Hoo, chairman and chief executive officer of Creative, said: "With the introduction of this free LAVA! MusicVideo Player to the mass market, Creative is taking a major step to fuel an entirely new dimension for consumer music entertainment beyond our traditional PC audio customers. We believe this is going to be the MTV of the Internet."

LAVA uses a number of sophisticated audio analysis techniques which, when combined with an Open-GL compatible graphics card, deliver a whole new way of experiencing Internet audio and marketing MP3 and Windows Media content.

One of the main advantages of LAVA is that it is a low bandwidth solution allowing users to interact with 3D Music Videos in real time. LAVA files are small and therefore easily e-mailed over networks.

Industry shake-up

On September 24, S3, provider of multimedia enhancements for PCs, and Diamond Multimedia, creator of the Monster range of sound cards and the RioPort MP3 players, announced they would merge.

Details relating to branding and product synthesis are expected to be announced early next month.

Diamond's Australian offices were closed last week as marketing operations for the region were consolidated into Singapore.

In addition to multimedia products, S3 also develops broadband communications solutions for the home and small office. Last week, the latest Monster card product, the MX400, was released under the S3 brand and is expect to be available in Australia early next month.

Things to look for in a sound card

The number of direct memory access (DMA) channels and how many are actually dedicated to 3D acceleration (the more there are, the better the performance)The number of channels for direct sound accelerationDoes the software use some sort of "positional algorithm"?

Is there support for four speakers?

Does the card offer digital output capability such as optical fibre?what's new from . . . Creative LabsSound Blaster Live PlatinumThis is the latest audio accelerator from Creative with a number of features designed to improve the online music, gaming and music applications experience and simplify device connectivity.

The Sound Blaster comes with Live!Drive which provides a front panel connection to any source, eliminating the need to connect consumer devices directly to the back of the Sound Card.

Users looking for immersive entertainment experiences will value the music playback and movie sound capabilities enabled by AC-3 pass through support.

Sound Blaster Live! Platinum also offers easy connectivity to Creative's DeskTop Theatre 5.1 DTT2500 Digital speaker system. It uses the EMU10K Digital signal processor.

The Creative Digital Audio Center Software lets users encode, decode and archive MP3 files while converting and cataloguing an unlimited number of CD tracks. It comes with a docking bay and an RRP of $599.

A nomadic experience to follow. MP3 music fans have a new option on which to spin their favourite files: Creative Labs' tiny Nomad portable player. Expected to start shipping in Australia shortly, a 64MB version currently sells for around $US250.

The Nomad, which plays MP3 files you download from the Net, is small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Compared with the popular Diamond Rio MP3 player, the Creative Labs product offers two unique features: an FM tuner and the ability to record up to four hours of voice clips.

You could use this for personal notes or for recording audio clips to post on a Web site.

The Nomad holds about one hour of high-quality MP3 music. It runs on a rechargeable battery, and you can slip it into a bundled PC docking station to recharge. The device transfers MP3 files through your PC parallel port. It also transfers regular data files.

Creative's bundled Music Match software lets you add environmental audio effects when playing MP3 files on your PC.

For example, you can simulate the sound of a concert hall, the outdoors, or a small room. The software also lets you create an MP3 play list for your PC.

As with other options, the company offers headsets and an adapter that lets you pop the Nomad device into your car's cassette tape slot and play MP3 files.creative labs's new from . . . XitelStorm Platinum A3D 2.0 PCI Sound CardThe Storm Platinum A3D 2.0 Sound Card features the Aureal Vortex 2 processor for acceleration of A3D 2.0 and DirectSound 3D for better "positional" audio.

Vortex is said to provide the most potent hardware acceleration available and offers onboard support for 96 DirectSound streams at full 18-bit 48KHz resolution.

Other features include:

l Professional 320 voice DLS wavetable synthesiser

l 10-band digital graphic equaliser and hardware DOS support

l Play through two speakers, four speakers, headphones or optical S/PDIF

The gamers pack with "force feedback" headphones is $199.95 RRP.

The standard pack is $179 RRP.

Storm Platinum is distributed by: Tecksel (02) 9648 5822xitel's new from . . . S3/Diamond MultimediaThe Monster Sound MX400Monster Sound MX400 provides an advanced 3D positional audio solution for gamers and enthusiasts who demand the highest quality sound from their PCs. It uses ESS Technology's Canyon3D processor.

With 32 DirectSound hardware streams and quadraphonic HRTF-based "true" four-speaker playback, the Monster Sound MX400 allows consumers to experience realistic sound effects in PC games, enjoy high-fidelity playback of digital music and utilise Dolby Digital PC home theatre features for enhanced audio in DVD movies.

The Monster also comes with loads of other goodies: Slave ZeroTM by Infogrames; Test Drive 2 Off Road; Mixman Studio FXTM including 50 free exports to MP3; and Yamaha'sTM Soft SynthesizerTM S-YXTMG50. Also shipping with the Monster is a number of digital audio jukebox applications. Finally the product comes with a suite of MP3 files of various musical artists.

The MX400 will be available in Australia late next month for $229 RRP.

Distributors: Ingram Micro (02) 9741 2000 chips and bits australia (03) 9696 1911what's new from . . . A-TrendThe A-Trend 3DS624A PCI Sound CardThis latest card from Californian vendor A-Trend features the Yamaha Y724 chipset and hardware and Sondius-XG wave-guide synthesiser to appeal to the budding digital muso.

It comes with S/PDIF digital audio output port, PCI interface and Sensaura real-time 3D positional audio.

Sampling and playback is offered at 44.1KHz with DirectSound/DirectMusic hardware acceleration. It is also ACPI power management compliant and comes with a two-year warranty. RRP is $ multimedia technology (02) 9741 2000

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