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|How We Tested|
|Our test PC consisted of a Intel 3.6 GHz Pentium 4 CPU, 1 GB of RAM, a 120 GB Seagate HDD, an ATI X1300 graphics card, and a Creative Audigy 2 Platinum sound card running Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1.
We put the test candidates through an comprehensive set of intensive tests including a couple of DVD movie tests, multiple music tests and a game test.
The game test consisted of the Half-life 2 demo-d3_c17_12. We ran this demo with sound settings at "high." The demo contains a lot of multiple sounds, blending voice commands with firing and explosions, and is put to good use to test the capabilities of a speaker.
A DTS sampler disc with a couple of DVD movie clips (from Behind Enemy Lines and The Fast and the Furious) and a 5.1 soundtrack were used as the DVD test material. This sampler disc contains high quality content and is bundled with high-end Creative sound cards-perfect for stress-testing speakers. The soundtrack was rated under bass, treble and vocals.
For music playback we divided the tests into audio CD and MP3. This was further divided into Hindi and English tracks, and sub-divided into vocal-specific and instrument-specific for English tracks and contemporary and classical for Hindi tracks. The MP3s were encoded at high quality settings at 192 Kbps.
For the English CD we used Enigma's Sadness 1, an extremely instrument-intensive track that tests a speakers set's ability to reproduce a number of different musical instruments, and The Corrs' Brid Og Ni Mhaille, which is very vocal-centric Gaelic folk music track. For the Hindi CD we used Aapki Kashish, for testing vocals. This track also has some deep drum beats good for bass testing. We chose Ustad Zakir Hussain's tabla to test sound reproduction of each note.
English MP3's were Hotel California by the Eagles-a good mix of vocal and instruments, especially the drum and guitar accompaniments, and Whitney Houston's I will always love you, one of the most stressing vocal tracks, as the singer's voice, though rich, can take extreme high notes. On the Hindi MP3 front, we used Aashiq banaya aapne to see how a popular track would sound. This track has some beats and instruments with vocal emphasis. For classical, we used Pandit Bhimsen Joshi's rendition to see whether the entire range of his tone could be accurately reproduced.
We also used special test files of a constant frequency to test low, mid and high frequencies across the band. These were from 50 Hz to 15 KHz.
Last, we stress-tested the bass and treble drivers of all the speakers by playing special THX-certified bass and treble tracks.
The tests were carried out at varying volume levels, and in the case of separate bass and treble controls, these were kept at 50 per cent through the first run and 100 per cent through the second.
We also noted the different features (or lack of them) for the different speakers such as the various inputs, connectivity, controls, accessories, and build quality.
|Root Mean Square (RMS): The sustained power in watts that an amplifier or speaker can output at any given time. It is a much more realistic measure of the sustained power of a speaker than PMPO.
Peak Music Power Output (PMPO): The maximum power that an amplifier can output over a short period of time. More of an advertising term nowadays, PMPO isn't an accurate depiction of a speaker's capabilities.
Frequency Response: The range of frequencies that the device is set to operate within.
Dolby Digital 5.1 (Dolby AC-3):
Developed by Dolby, this system has five discrete sound channels in addition to Low Frequency Effects (LFE) that are directed to the subwoofer.
Dolby Pro Logic: An older standard, this packs in information for a centre and surround channel in the regular stereo channel. Essentially, there are no discrete left and right channels for the rear or surround speakers.
Dolby Pro Logic II: Audio encoded with Pro Logic II carries five channels of sound in a traditional two-channel stereo audio signal, which is then decoded back to five speakers using a Dolby Surround Pro Logic II decoder. This technology can be used on any console that does not support Dolby Digital 5.1. The advantages of using it in game applications include minimal latency, full frequency range, compatibility with existing cables, and backward- compatibility with mono, stereo and legacy Dolby Surround Pro Logic equipment.
DTS: Short for Digital Theatre Systems, this is a standard invented by Steven Spielberg, and made its debut in Jurassic Park. It uses a sampling frequency of 96 kHz with 24 bits allocated to each of the six channels. Collector's edition DVD movies generally feature two soundtracks, featuring both Dolby 5.1 and DTS.
Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES: These are comparatively new standards that add an additional channel-the rear centre channel-and is implemented in 6.1 speakers. Both standards implement the rear channel in a similar way. For Dolby Digital EX, a special Dolby Pro Logic decoder is added to the surround channels, creating a rear centre channel. This decoding method first came to light with the theatrical release of Star Wars Episode 1. For DTS ES, an additional rear centre channel is supplemented to the two surround channels.
Dolby Pro Logic IIx: This is a spanking new technology developed by Dolby Laboratories and is the first and only technology to process native stereo or 5.1 signals into 6.1 or 7.1 channel output. Different modes such as Movie, Music and Game are available with this technology, with the Music mode featuring additional user controls such as Dolby centre width, Dolby panorama, and Dolby dimension.
THX: This is an abbreviation for "Tomlinson Holman's eXperiment." It's not a surround sound standard, but a seal of approval that is granted to audio equipment and theatres that meet its standards. This standard is further divided into THX Select (for installations up to 2,000 cubic feet) and THX Ultra (for between 2,000 and 3,000 cubic feet).
S/PDIF: Sony/Philips Digital Interface; a standard audio file transfer format. Developed jointly by Sony and Philips corporations, S/PDIF allows the transfer of digital audio signals from one device to another without having to be converted first to an analogue format. Maintaining the viability of a digital signal prevents the quality of the signal from degrading when it is converted to analogue.
|Sound Card Matters|
|Now that you've got that set of speakers you've always wanted, what else is stopping you from turning that PC into a digital entertainment station? It's the sound solution a.k.a. the soundcard.
Another decision to be made is whether to invest in a discrete add-on soundcard or to utilise the Onboard Sound solution. Onboard sound is simply the audio controller that is part of the motherboard you purchase. A few years back any user remotely interested in decent sound would go with an add-on soundcard as onboard solutions just couldn't keep up.
Onboard sound has improved phenomenally and industry players like ALC and C-Media have been working hard at reducing the need to invest in an add-on soundcard. Intel has developed 'Azalia', an HD audio specification, capable of playing back more audio channels, (8 channels), at higher sound quality than other audio formats. What this means is sound with all its bells and whistles!
If you want immersive gaming and movies, and want your MP-3 playback to be truly spectacular an onboard solution just may not cut the ice. Onboard solutions as mentioned above are decent performers and nothing more. They cannot compare to a decent soundcard let alone a high end one for obvious reasons - they're integrated, to keep costs down!
The choice of whether, or not you need a soundcard is more or less up to your ears! An expensive speaker set can only do so much after all, without proper accompaniments. A entry level 4 channel soundcard costs around a thousand rupees and the higher end ones could set you back by as much as 25 grand! Generally a good buy is somewhere in-between with the decent 6 channel sets costing around Rs. 5000/-.
|2.1 Or Surround Sound-What do you really need?|
|As you try to decide which speaker is best for you, a fundamental consideration is the primary intended use. Define your usage patterns first-are you an audiophile, does music occupy seventy five or more percent of your 'speaker usage time'? Are you going to be using your speakers solely for movie watching with an occasional game?
The fact is, 2.1 speakers are ideally suitable for music, even more so than a 5.1 system. More does not necessarily mean better, and a good 2.1 set will outperform a similar priced 5.1 as far as those MP3s and audio CDs go. This is because all music today (5.1 DVD tracks being an exception) is encoded for two channel playback. A 2.1 speaker system can therefore pan and split the sound to its left and right channel easily and with minimum signal loss. 5.1 speakers have a more complex method of distributing sound to various channels and are not suitable for music. This doesn't mean that they won't play music well; but for the price of a decent 5.1 speaker you can get a really good 2.1 which will offer far more bang for your buck. So if its music you crave for, then it's 2.1 you need!
A 5.1 setup excels at movies (especially DVD movies) and games. This is because the positioned speakers put you right in the middle of the action. Standards such as DTS and Dolby Prologic IIx make it a must to have a 5.1 system to accompany those DVD movies if you want to experience the movie the way the film makers intended. For gamers standards such as EAX Advanced HD ensure gripping game-play and realism. A 2.1 system just cannot give you the sheer immersive experience that a 6-channel setup can. For the movie buff/game freak the choice is clear-it's the 5.1 way, or the highway.
|Demystifying the channels|
|The nomenclature 2.1, 4.1, and 5.1 denotes the number of channels of sound that a speaker can reproduce. Simply put, the number of satellites is represented by the figure before the dot, and the subwoofer-which is almost always 1-after it.
A 2.1 speaker set will have two sound channels, and two satellites and a woofer. A 4.1 set similarly implies four speakers (two front and two rear) and a woofer. The term 5.1 denotes a 6-channel setup with five satellites (two front, two rear and a centre) and a woofer. Similarly, a 7.1 system will have seven satellites and one woofer. There are also systems that have two woofers; in case of a 6-channel setup, this would be shown as a 5.2 setup. However, such systems for computers are extremely rare.
|4.1-A Dying breed|
|This time round we received just three 4.1 speakers to test. Certain large vendors such as Logitech and Altec Lansing have done away with the 4.1 product line almost entirely. There is a strong technical reason for this. Let us explain.
4.1 speakers are of two types-true 4.1 and pseudo 4.1. A true 4.1 speaker set has four channels and a subwoofer that derives low frequency sounds from the front two channels. Pseudo 4.1s have four satellites but actually have just two channels, and the rear speakers and woofer do not have discrete sound channels. A Pseudo 4.1 is therefore nothing more than a 2.1 with two extra speakers. In movies supporting Dolby surround, a 4.1 will not be able to deliver accurate positional sound. Coming to the gaming segment where EAX rules, 4.1 is once again a big no-no.
A 4.1 is therefore not suitable for either the music or gaming/DVD segment, which is better served by 2.1 and 5.1 systems respectively.
For those of you still hanging on to that old SoundBlaster 4.1 channel sound card, we tested the three 4.1s (two sets out of these were "Pseudo sets"). The Creative Inspire 4400 surprisingly lost out badly and was placed last. Sadly this was the only "true 4-channel speakers" of the lot. The winner among these bad boys (pun intended) was the Frontech JIL 1867. The other contender the Intex IT 2880W was marginally better in Half Life 2.
For music playback, the Frontech JIL 1867 came out tops. In case you absolutely must have a 4.1 for whatever reason, this is your best bet.
For an overall picture, it must be said that the 4.1s are worse than the smaller 2.1 sets, and don't even come close to 5.1 territory.
4.1 sets were originally meant to be a cheap replacement to the discrete six-channel 5.1s, which were costly up until a few years ago. Today, the cost of an entry level 5.1 speaker set is just a couple of thousand rupees more than a similar 4.1 set. Anyone wanting a surround sound experience is, in our opinion, better served by investing a bit more in a 5.1 system. We feel the number of 4.1s we received as compared to the other categories speak volumes about good old "Pseudo Surround." R.I.P.!
|Altec Lansing||Rashi Peripheralsfirstname.lastname@example.org||www.alteclansing.com|
|Artis||Kunhar Peripherals Pvt Ltdemail@example.com||www.artis.co.in|
|Creative||Creative Asia Labsfirstname.lastname@example.org||in.creative.com|
|Frontech||Jupiter International Ltdemail@example.com||www.jil-jupiter.com|
|Genius||Transtek Infoways Pvt Ltdfirstname.lastname@example.org||www.geniusnet.com.tw|
|Gigabyte||Transtek Infoways Pvt Ltdemail@example.com||www.giga-byte.com|
|Logitech||Logitech Electronic India Pvt Ltdfirstname.lastname@example.org||www.logitech.com|
|Philips||Philips India Ltdemail@example.com||india.philips.com|
|Tech-Com||Shree Sagarmatha Dist Pvt Ltdfirstname.lastname@example.org||www.techcomindia.com|
|Xfree||Transtek Infoways Pvt Ltdemail@example.com||NA|
|Zebronics||Topnotch Infotronix Pvt Ltdfirstname.lastname@example.org||www.zebronics.com|
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