- Supports higher sample rates and bit depths
- eight speaker outputs.
- Few recordings available in new audio and surround sound formats
- Windows XP needed for many benefits
- no external MIDI connection.
Music fans -– that is, listeners rather than creators -– could find something in the Aureon 7.1 Space from TerraTec to tickle their fancy. Its impressive technical specifications make it suitable for playback of the latest audio format (DVD-Audio), although whether the specs translate to an enhanced audio experience remains unproven. For the rest of us, there are few compelling reasons to upgrade.
This card supports no fewer than eight speakers, and you may be wondering where you put them all. Two front, two rear, a centre and a subwoofer will be familiar to home cinema enthusiasts -- this 5.1 system is what's normally encoded on DVD movie titles. A 7.1 system adds a pair of 'rear surround' speakers -- the rear speakers in a 5.1 system are meant to go at the side of the audience, not directly behind them. Not that this will affect your average DVD-viewing experience, as the vast majority of movies are encoded in 5.1 format. Even newer movies that use more surround channels than this only have a single rear channel (6.1 format), so you'll get the same signal from both rear speakers. The theory is that by having two rear speakers rather than just one, you'll get a better sound even if you're not sat in the centre of the sound field. Windows XP is the only OS to support eight channels; earlier Windows versions support six. The Aureon 7.1 Space also supports higher sample rates and bit depths than older sound cards. With Windows XP Service Pack 1, you can get up to 192kHz sampling at 24 bits -- if you're running an earlier version of Windows you're limited to 96kHz sampling. These higher specifications seem impressive, but they're not necessarily going to deliver better sound quality, irrespective of application. If you're using standard PC speakers the chances are that their frequency response will be worse than your existing sound card anyway, so getting a new card isn't going to improve that aspect of the audio experience. You should also bear in mind the quality of your source material. CD Audio is sampled at 44.1kHz at 16 bits, and playing this information back at higher sample rates or resolutions isn't going to add any more information to the signal. Only when your source media are recorded using the higher sample rates and bit depths -- DVD-Audio being the most immediate example -- are you going to get the benefit of these capabilities. Even then, if the rest of your playback system isn't up to the same standard, you may not notice the difference.
Physically the card only differs from most other sound cards in the connectors available. There are six 3.5mm jack sockets on the blanking plate, covering the eight output channels (the centre and subwoofer share a stereo connection), the mic and line level inputs. Two optical sockets allow digital S/PDIF input and output. There are four internal connections: two analogue CD inputs, an auxiliary analogue input and a digital CD input. Note that the internal and external digital inputs can't be used at the same time. The speaker outputs aren't colour-coded, despite the existence of an informal standard for at least six-channel speaker outputs. The two input sockets are blue, while the outputs are green. There's no game port connector, and TerraTec makes no apologies for not including one, claiming quite rightly that most new game controllers use USB connections. However, this also means there's no external MIDI connection, which means you can't use external synthesiser modules with the Aureon 7.1 Space -- not good news for electronic musicians.
Along with the drivers for the card, a mixer applet for the Aureon 7.1 Space gets installed, which you can use to control the volume of each of the surround speakers, as well as of each sound source on your PC. The mixer also allows you to alter the properties of the card's digital interfaces. When communicating with an external digital audio device, you can choose to use the card's own digital clock, or use that of the external device. You get an image of your speaker setup on another page, and clicking on an individual speaker plays white noise through that speaker, which helps you position speakers correctly. You get a good bundle of software that allows you to exploit the functionality of the Aureon 7.1 Space. This includes a surround sound-enabled version of PowerDVD from Cyberlink that supports both 5.1 and 7.1 modes. However, as we've mentioned, your movies are probably all encoded for the former of these setups. You'll need to use the supplied Steinberg WaveLab Lite 2.0 sound editor to use the higher sample rates and resolutions supported by the Aureon 7.1 space -- the standard Windows sound recorder accessory won't do it. Note that if you're planning on giving the sound file to anyone else, you'll have to downsample to a more common sample rate and bit depth before distribution, but editing using a higher-rate file should produce better results. MusicMatch Jukebox is an MP3 jukebox application that allows you to rip tracks from CD, organise them in a library and play them back. It also supports downloading music to some portable MP3 players.
If you already have a card capable of 5.1 surround, or you have no need for such things, then buying this card right now isn't going to give you much extra -- either when watching movies, playing games or listening to music. DVD-Audio discs -- the only real reason for needing higher sample rates and bit depths for playback -- are still few and far between and probably won't become common until late this year or early next year. Similarly, by the time 6.1-encoded movies are common, other sound cards -- probably including some from TerraTec -- will have been released with even greater capabilities than the Aureon 7.1 Space. Alternatively, this card may have come down in price by then. So although the Aureon 7.1 Space does everything its manufacturer claims it will, we think that for the time being, if you're happy with your existing sound card, there's little reason to upgrade.