Hercules Game Theater XP 6.1
Post by Electoad @ 10:04pm 21/02/02 | Comments
Do you have a brand new video card with all the bells and whistles? The results are easy to see, are they not? Better frame rates, anti-aliasing to smooth the rough edges, pummeling and higher resolutions make a new video card's performance noticeable.
Then look at a sound card. Usually nothing more noticeable than a joystick and a few I/O ports behind the case somewhere. Unless you buy an expensive Sound Blaster Live! Platinum with Live Drive, no-one would ever know you had an expensive sound card under the hood and even the Live Drive is not instantly recognizable. Enter the Hercules Game Theater XP 6.1. the handsome black and blue rack with gold trim and with it's distinctive Guillemot stamped rack breakout box on the end of a two metre cable.
The Game Theater package is what you would expect for a sound card package with the gold plated headphone adapter as a nice touch.
Hercules round out the package with a nice free software bundle.
Two gems in this package are the Power DVD player with 5.1 & 6.1 sound decoding and the Yamaha Soft Synthesizer S-YSG50 for MIDI editing/mixing/creation.
Guillemot Australia support the Game Theater XP 6.1 with a two year warranty by exchange, technical service by phone and email and the latest driver updates.
The Sound Card
The Game Theater XP 6.1 hosts a CS4630 PCI Audio Accelerator and two Audio/Docking CODEC '97 (AMC'97) CS4294 also from Crystal Semiconductor.
The CS4630 is a high-performance upgrade to the CS4624 PCI audio accelerator. The CS4630 supports legacy compatibility modes, enables real mode DOS compatibility within PCI-only audio subsystems. This device, combined with application and driver software, provides a complete system solution for hardware acceleration of Microsoft's Direct Sound, DirectSound3D, Direct Input, and Wavetable Synthesis. WDM drivers provide support for both Windows '98 and Windows 2000™.
Features of the CS4630 PCI Audio Accelerator.
The sound card itself has two Crystal Semiconductor 4-channel codecs (Audio/Docking CODEC '97 (AMC'97) CS4294).
For a comparison the Soundblaster Live sports a 4297 Audio CODEC '97 with the following feature set.
From these feature list we can see that the CS4294 is a big improvement over the three year old CS4297 codec. The CS4630 PCI Audio Accelerator chip also looks to reduce the CPU utilisation during complex signal processing tasks like 3D audio, which is a good thing for the gamer.
The Breakout Rack
Unlike the Sound Blaster Live! Platinum Live Drive, an extension box that fits into a 5¼ inch drive bay, the Game Theater breaks the rack out with a fat two metre umbilical connecting it to the sound card. This allows you to place the rack on your desk for easy access to the connections instead of fighting through the rats nest of cable behind your PC.
The fat cable reminds me of removing a troublesome rack mounted service unit out to the floor with extender cables so we could fault find , I.E. prod and kick it, while it was running... ;)
The front panel has volume controls for the 6.5mm earphone and microphone sockets, two USB connectors and a joystick port. Handy if you dredge out your joystick or steering wheel for a spot of flight simulator or racing occasionally and hate getting tangled in the spaghetti at the rear of your computer.
The rear panel has Midi in and out for connection to a wide variety of audio equipment like synthesisers. Optical and coaxial (RCA) digital in and out as well as six coaxial analogue audio connectors for main, surround, center and subwoofer. Not to forget two 3.5mm socket connections as alternates for main and surround speakers.
After installing the driver, the Hercules Game Theater utility appears in the task bar giving access to the configuration options.
The "Main" bookmark contains settings for recording and reproduction levels, as well as a choice of connection scheme for output devices, Headphones, two, four or six speakers. It also has balance fine tuning for the speakers and a test feature.
The "Mixer" allows to adjust volume levels of different channels much like the standard Windows mixer with the added features allowing you to choose the source of the digital signal: optical or electrical RCA connector.
EQ is the hardware 10-band equaliser with 8 presets and manual slider adjustment.
The "MIDI" bookmark allows adjustment of the MIDI parameters. You can choose a DLS bank and adjust the number of hardware (up to 64) and soft MIDI voices (up to 256!).
The last bookmark is meant for adjustment of hardware acceleration for Sensaura, DirectSound 3D and MP3 algorithms, enabling of stereo base extension function, echoes suppression mode for teleconferences, and adjustment of digital output operation.
The Test Machine
Testing - Is this thing on?
I used Diablo 2 LOD for EAX compatibility as I've always found the sound of the torches in town to be extra special with EAX turned on and the Game Theater XP lived up to the task, proving to be even clearer and more distinct than the SB Live! through the digital out. The headphone out also gave better performance than the speakers, note that this test as with all games is highly subjective and requires good quality headphones. First person shooter games like Half-Life and it's modifications also benefit from 3D stereo positioning and the Game Theater is no slouch in this arena, using less CPU cycles allows the video system more use of the CPU and possibly better frame rates.
Ziff-Davis Audio Winbench 99 v1.01 gives us a raw CPU percentage use for a number of voices at a given frequency and bit quality. Out of this the Game Theater performed rather well against the SB Live!. Although I suspect but can't confirm that the VIA VT8233 Southbridge on the Asus A7V-266E doesn't suffer from the famous 686b Southbridge bug and is creating problems for the SB Live! (pun intended). Audio Winbench also gives us some subjective 3D testing in the form of Glass Breaking, Helicopter Circling, Red Book Audio and Doppler Train (towards and away from the listener) tests. All of which require listener input but levelled the two sound cards with the digital out and the Game Theater pulling ahead with the headphone performance (which is a difficult subjective test).
The hardware MP3 decoder enables MP3 playback to use even less CPU cycles. Since more game makers are using this compact format, hardware acceleration can only be a good thing. When we tried to measure the CPU utilisation of MP3 playback through the hardware codec, using task manager in Windows 2000, we had less than 1% utilisation. Without the hardware codec, using Windows Media Player, 1-2% was normal making the measurement almost trivial. Even at 1-2% each, multiple streams as used in game play can soon add up to a healthy total eating into the available CPU time.
For a Recomended Retail Price (RRP) of $AUD299 the Game Theater XP 6.1 is not a low end of market product though it's feature set/price competes well against the Sound Blaster Live! 5.1 Platinum.
You may enjoy playing games with 3D audio, dabble in mixing your own music tracks with an external keyboard and want a home theater system on the cheap, then the Game Theater is for you.
I especially liked the handy headphone volume control for late night internet gaming battles that don't wake up the neighbours, although I've got to learn to control the swearing.. ;), and the easy access USB ports.
If you can use most of the extra features of the Game Theater, it's well worth the money.