Sound cards have become a big market this past decade, with the introduction of high quality audio, sweeping changes have brought about a new period in which multimedia and A/V playback was available to computers. This period has only gotten bigger and more profitable as media formats such as mp3's and mpeg-2 video files demand the bandwidth and quality of high quality output cards. Throughout this period, we've seen many companies enter and exit the market of sound cards, as of right now, the 2 major players in the enthusiast/gaming market are the Audigy series by Creative and the Santa Cruz by Turtle Beach (Philip's Accoustic Edge uses the same chip as the Santa Cruz so I'm still considering there to be only two major players). The main breakthrough to come as of late is quadraphonic sound, meaning sound coming out of 4 speakers. This was popularized by the introduction of 4 speaker sets by Cambridge, VideoLogic, Klipsch, and Logitech just to name a few. Nowadays, you will rarely find a card that support for only 2 powered speakers. Although some might just say that the onboard sound on their motherboards are good enough, in my experience I have found that there is a huge difference between OEM audio on boards to the premium quality offered by the latest sound cards, especially when you have mid to high end speaker setups. Also, the low cost of today's sound cards give another good reason to enjoy the experience of high fidelity audio for music and gaming.
Say Hello To Santa Cruz
Turtle Beach was a pioneer in audio technology, making the first wave table synthesizer available on a sound card, and Santa Cruz is also the maker of the popular Montego and Montego II sound cards based on Aureal's Vortex. They are a very respectable and liked manufacturer of audio devices. Recently, they merged with Voyetra, Inc, the developers of the popular OEM product "AudioStation" (now in it's fifth incarnation) and many educational music software titles. Some background on the Santa Cruz, it is based on the Crystal CS4630 SoundFusion Digital Signal Processor chip. Crystal is a division of the parent company Cirrus Logic, a chip manufacturer. While comparing the specs, the Santa Cruz side by side in terms of features with the Creative Audigy, both support EAX 1.0 and 2.0 and A3D 1.0. Also, unique to the Santa Cruz is: MacroFX, MultiDrive, and VirtualEar. This is a very impressive list of supported API's although it is the first time that I have heard of both MacroFX and MultiDrive. The 3D audio technology enables, at least on paper, audio to appear above, below, and around you, providing true encapsulation. The DSP onboard the card accelerates 32 hardware and 16 software DirectSound streams, what does all of this mean to you? Better quality with less CPU utilization, as an added bonus, the Santa Cruz features hardware mp3 decoding, not that it takes that much processor power anyway, but always a nice feature for those moments when you know the audio's going to skip.