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Turtle Beach Santa Cruz
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.
Digital Playback (D-A):
Digital Recording (A-D):
Digital Output: 48kHz PCM audio or Dolby Digital® AC-3 for external decoder.
Games Compatibility: Supports most DOS games in Windows 95/98 (DOS box and Real Mode)
Analog Quad Mixer: Lets you pan analog sources between four speakers.
Like I said before, on paper the Santa Cruz is very worthy of being one of the best sound cards on the market. The frequency range is very large, so you will never have to worry about your sound card being the dead link. Another good feature on this card is the 2, 4 or 6 speaker support. There is an extra output jack on the Santa Cruz, called the VersaJack that acts as either a digital output for 5.1 or 4.1 setups or another output for speakers 5 and 6 in an analog setup, and it also acts as an analog input. I would say the main attraction to this card is the ability to output to Dolby Digital 5.1 or 4.1 streams, finally making those Klipsch 5.1's or Logitech Z560 speakers worthwhile (not that they aren't as is), the fidelity increase made by Dolby Digital in DVD movies are incredible. Another feature I want to note before going on with the rest of the review is the customizable audio settings you can assign for gameplay, music, movies, etc… There are special preset modes that you can choose from regarding music, games, and business. For example, music has optimized modes for: ambient 2 speakers, music bass boost, CD recording, MIDI, karaoke, internet music, and ambient 4 speakers. Gaming mode has: stereo game enhancement, bass boost, and turbo 3D performance. Finally, business mode has: internet conferencing, voice recording, CD audio recording, and voice recognition. All of these modes really are optimized and sound great and distinctive for their intended purposes.
Installation was fairly routine as compared with other sound cards, nothing new or exciting this time. You insert the sound card in a PCI slot (doesn't matter if it's bus-mastering), start the computer and install all the programs on the CD. In the back of the card, there are line inputs, as well as microphone and also of course the front and rear speakers. Also, the VersaJack is there too. All the color coding is relatively easy to figure out. I found out that a good use for the VersaJack is as a headphone back when set to analog out, so you can have speakers and headphone available. The drivers were stable for WindowsXP. The previous sound card in my system (Creative SoundBlaster Live!) had drivers issues with WindowsXP where the audio quality would be poor but the drivers included with the Santa Cruz proved to produce superior audio and performance compared to the SoundBlaster drivers.
As for the drivers, some other reviewers found the drivers to be unstable, especially with tinkering with audio modes on the fly, almost all of them were using the drivers on Windows 2000 so that could be a problem or they might be using the old shipping drivers. I chose to get the latest drivers at TurtleBeach.com and the card has been running and performing flawlessly for me, it could also be that WindowsXP is more stable altogether than Windows 2000 but being based on the same core, that is debatable.
The control panel that comes with the hardware is VERY nice and basically gives you control of the entire card and its features, from the preset settings optimized for the specific tasks to volume and recording, it has a full feature set that is impressive. The design of the software is very aesthetically pleasing also. The preset equalizer settings are also a plus, although they sounded off a little. Also, the great thing about the panel is that all of the changes you make to the settings occur on the spot without having to reset anything; you hear the difference as soon as soon as you make the switch. The control panel allows you to fully customize the outputted audio and even lets you save profiles so you can have different ones for different tastes.
This sound card is good in the aspects that it can do a lot of things in hardware, taking off the load that is usually on the processor. For example, found that playing an mp3 with my old sound card caused my CPU usage to hover around the 4-6% level while playing mp3's with the Santa Cruz lowered it down to around 2-4% with better audio quality. Since a lot of the reverb effects and EQ effects are done in hardware, it takes a lot of burden off while giving you better hardware assisted playback. It can be compared to software DVD decoding as opposed to hardware DVD decoding. The only drawback to hardware mp3 decoding is that you must use either the included AudioStation 4 (there is a new version 5) software or Windows Media Player, sorry all of you Winamp users, it's just not our day. 2-4% up to 4-6% is not noticeable at all so you might be wondering what the big deal is? I think Neoseeker.com did a test with the Santa Cruz in which they played multiple mp3 streams with Windows Media Player and also with Sonique, the Sonique decoding (which was not supported) taxed the CPU more than twice as much as Windows Media Player.
As for A3D testing in Unreal Tournament, the audio outputted was similar to a Vortex 2 SQ2500 sound card using the same API. CPU usage and FPS hits were also similar, no improvements to A3D unfortunately. On the bright side, it's pretty hard to improve a discontinued API such as A3D, no matter how good it is. When testing with EAX, the Santa Cruz showed lower numbers and higher performance hits than the SoundBlaster Live, it could be the drivers but obviously something was wrong, the sound quality, although, was very similar. Games remained playable without a doubt. I'd say that this card performs up to par and past it at times when it comes to games, it's universal API support is a good feature when it comes to choosing a single card for today's machines.
As for music, I think this is the area that the Santa Cruz excels in and completely blows away all of the other cards. In terms of taxing the CPU and quality of the output, the Santa Cruz is in a class all by itself. I considered the SoundBlaster Live! On Windows 2000 to be a great solution for audio but the Santa Cruz on WindowsXP completely surpasses it with a cleaner and crisper output. I am under no terms an audiophile but I know what sounds good and what doesn't sound as good and in my humble opinion, I would say that the Santa Cruz, with the Cirrus Logic chip, has much better audio quality than it's competitors. In games, however, the distinction shrinks as the 3D audio sounds similar because of the common API's. On another note, one of the preset effects the control panel has for games is Turbo 3D performance; I found that to be quite nice in games.
I tested this card with a 2 speaker setup with Klipsch 2.1 speakers and the sound was great, especially with 3D stereo enhancement turned on, it emulated immersive sound and that made even a little 2 speaker setup sound like gold. But I realized that this sound card was not made for a 2-speaker setup, and then I moved to the better-known 4-piece ProMedia's, that's when the fun started. With 4 speakers, the sound card finally does the Klipsch's justice. The audio quality in my opinion was better than what I have ever heard out of computer speakers before and a huge upgrade to what I was using before, even with the same speakers.
As for the 5.1 experience, I needed some 5.1 speakers but more on that later. The Santa Cruz supports Dolby Digital and 5.1 setups, which sound great for music and DVD's but the Santa Cruz doesn't support 5.1 audio in games, at least not natively. Instead of supporting true 5.1 gaming, the Santa Cruz uses an algorithm to convert a stereo stream into a virtual 5.1 stream. Although it sounds good, it really doesn't sound all that impressive, it just sounds like someone turned on the 3D option, the sound get blurred and you don't end up really saying anything like "wow, that was amazing," it was more along the lines of "wow, I'll keep that feature off". As for movies, the quality was amazing but not really comparable to expensive DTS or DD decoders that are available for home component and theater systems. But it does make the computer DVD viewing experience better.
Pros & Cons
The Santa Cruz is a card for people who like to do a little bit of everything while maintaining their hold on the latest and greatest hardware. The Santa Cruz offers people great audio quality at an affordable price while keeping the little boys with toys happy and up to date with the latest in audio technology. With a feature set as packed as this and quality as good the Santa Cruz, there might be some big competition for Creative. The customization options given by the control panel are great and there's something for everybody, mp3 decoding is a great feature if you have a low end system, if you're running anything higher than a 500MHz Celeron, you'll probably not even notice the acceleration, but you will notice the quality enhancements the EQ and the reverb options give you. As for driver stability, I noted before that the newest drivers for XP are great and I have never had a problem with a driver issue while using this card. The VersaJack is also a good feature to note on the scoresheet. This card has a bit for everybody and at a price as low as $50; this card is something that everyone should give a good hard look at. The best bang for the buck lies in this card.
Re-Printed From SLCentral