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Sound Blaster Live

Turning Your PC into a Home Theatre

Sublime? Or Ridiculous?

By Jim Bray

I've found a new way to avoid doing any work!

Thanks to the technological convergence of audio, video, and computers, you can now turn your PC into a credible home theatre, and thereby waste what would otherwise be productive time spent in front of your monitor.In fact, your movie enjoyment factor is limited only by the size and quality of your equipment - including, of course, your monitor.

The heart of my "home office theatre" was a selection of delightful stuff from Creative Labs. The system incuded their PC-DVD Dxr2 DVD, coupled with the spectacular Sound Blaster Live and Cambridge SoundWorksPC Theatre 5.1. I also tried ATI's software-based DVD player, which can eliminate the need for an MPEG2 decoder board, and Cambridge Audio's FourPoint Surround speaker system, which is the PC Theatre 5.1's little brother.

All of these marvelous toys were stuck or plugged into a 300MHz AMD K6-powered computer and displayed on a gorgeous 19 inch Sony monitor (the Multiscan 400PS) that just happens to live at my place.

I know, it's a tough world. But somebody has to do this job…

Sound Investments…

The Cambridge SoundWorks DeskTop Theatre 5.1 (about $300US) is a lovely Dolby Digital unit that consists of five main speakers (left and right front, centre front, and left/right surround) and a subwoofer to add the "ooomph" necessary for explosions, crashes and more mundane things like music. There's also a six channel control unit with a built in Digital-to-Analogue converter that accepts digital and analogue inputs. It also comes with the normal array of volume controls and the standard test tone generator that helps you set the speaker balance throughout the system.As if that weren't enough, the DeskTop Theatre 5.1 also works with Dolby Pro Logic and PCM digital audio, as well as 4 channel and stereo audio inputs.

PC Theatre 5.1What all this means is that, if you have an audio source, the Desktop Theatre 5.1 will play it. And play it very well.

Each of the main speakers is a tiny cube, with the centre channel speaker a bit larger than the rest. A set of tripods about two feet high raise the rear speakers more or less to ear level if you have the space to mount them on your desk. Mounting them on the floor makes them virtually useless (they're too low), so if you don't have the desk space find some other way to hang them where they'll do the most good.

The control unit has front and rear inputs, so if you're lucky enough to have a four channel sound card like the Sound Blaster Live, and run software written with Microsoft's DirectSound 3D or that use Creative's Environmental Audio, you're in for an aural treat. If you don't have such a Lexus-like sound card, you can only use the front inputs on the control unit, but the results are still remarkable.

The Sound Blaster Live is one heck of a sound card! This PCI "audio accelerator" can handle up to 64 output channels at a time and features a built in effects generator that would do an audio engineer or recording artist proud. Creative Labs' "Environmental Audio" is a neat trick that delivers "real world audio experiences."

More than just surround sound, Creative says it actually models an environment that supposedly takes into account things like room size, acoustic properties, and effects like reverb and chorus. I dunno about all that, but sounds are definitely positioned all around you in space. This also makes the SB Live an outstanding system for games, and it comes with an array of built in settings for various titles.

I tried its marvelous 3D sound setting for LucasArts' Jedi Knight, for example, and it positively blew me away. I discovered that it definitely helps if you pay attention to all those sounds emanating from the space around: not only do doors whoosh open in front of you and shut behind you, but time and again I'd hear some suspicious noise behind me and whirl around to discover some bad guy taking a bead on me to do me in. Spectacular!

Not only that, but (though it doesn't really have anything to do with the "home office theatre" focus of this piece) the SB Live and its accompanying cornucopia of software actually gives you a complete, polyphonic synthesizer (with an onscreen virtual keyboard) with which you can create your own symphony or rock opera. It's really quite outstanding, though it's probably overkill for the average consumer.

Sound Blaster Live is pretty expensive, but it's a lovely product - and it contributed to the best sound I've heard on a PC, even when I only used it for playing audio CD's.

PC-DVD EncoreVideo on Demand…

DVD is arguably the most exciting product of the late 1990's. The discs' ultra high storage capacity allow for unprecedented quality video and audio - and that's just the beginning!

While PC software for this next generation optical disk format is only slowly trickling out, the number of movies, concerts, and other entertaining tidbits that have been "DVD-ized" is growing by leaps and bounds. And once you've watched a movie on DVD, you'll never be happy with VHS (or even laserdisc) again.

DVD players comes as standalone, home theatre units and as DVD-ROM drives for your computer. The latter are often packaged with MPEG-2 cards, and the ones I've tried have TV output jacks with which to plug your computer into your home video system. You may need a really long cable, though, if your computer's in a different room! Still, it's a way to kill both DVD birds with one stone.

The $375US Creative PC-DVD Encore comes with the PCI-based Dxr2 MPEG-2 decoder card and gives high resolution video and Dolby Digital sound. I watched a number of movies - from Stallone's "First Blood" and John Carpenter's "Village of the Damned" to "Contact" and "Starship Troopers" (note: see TechnoFILE's DVD section for features on these films). All were very enjoyable on the 19 inch Sony, which in my office is close enough (and good enough) to be reminiscent of a larger screen TV in the family room."Starship Troopers" is an especially good example of a high quality DVD pressing, and makes a great test disc.

I don't think the PC picture is quite as good as I get from the "conventional" DVD player in my home theatre, but if I hadn't seen them virtually side by side I don't think I'd have known the difference. In fact, after my movie watching marathon it took three washings to get the drool out of my T-Shirt…

The PC-DVD Encore's software offers an assortment of features and aspect ratios, and is controlled via an onscreen "remote control" panel. On the whole, it works like a standalone DVD player, and it performs very well.

DVD drives are backward compatible, so they play today's CD's (both audio and CD-ROM) as well as the new disks. The drives are priced fairly reasonably, too, considering their technology, so if you're looking for a new optical drive, this format is definitely worth a look.

An alternative to the Creative drive/MPEG card combo is video card maker ATI Technology's DVD software. ATI's RAGE Pro-based AGP products have a coupon for the software in the box, your only financial requirement being a nominal shipping and handling charge. ATI RAGE 128-based products ship with DVD player software CD in the box. You still need a DVD-ROM drive, but you can theoretically get away without the MPEG card.

Creative argues that such software solutions eat up resources, and they may be right. It worked well on my reasonably hefty system, though - as long as I wasn't trying to use both systems at the same time.

Ridiculously Sublime…

Convergence definitely marches on. In the early 90's, CD-ROM drives and sound cards brought audio, music, and limited video to computers. Then, a couple of years ago, add-on TV tuner boards and video cards like ATI's All-in-Wonder/Pro made TV available on the desktop. The introduction of the type of DVD, high end sound cards, and top line speakers and monitors featured here have resulted in a blurring of the line between home office and home theatre.

Toys like these can hardly be considered necessary for the average consumer. However, if you have limited room or funds, or want a single solution for all your productivity and entertainment needs, you can get extraordinary results by stocking your computer with the right equipment.

Between TV, movies, music, and the Internet, there's a whole world of information and entertainment only a few mouse clicks away. In fact, if my office had room for a fridge, stove, bed, and Port-a-Pottie, I'd never have to set foot out of it again! This would probably please my kids…

The other side of the convergence coin is digital television, which is marrying the computer monitor with the TV, while products like WebTV and WebSurfer bring the Internet to the idiot box. Adding a soon-to-be-widely-available TV-PC - a real computer that displays on your TV - will complete the other side of this convergence.

What this means is that before long you'll have the same abundance of "infotainment" choices regardless of whether you're hunched in your office, peering at a 13 inch monitor or sitting in your family room, watching a wall-mounted, ten foot flat screen.

Necessary? No.



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Updated May 13, 2006