By Maxim Lyadov
Today we are dealing with Sound Maker Live 5.1 sound card produced by KYE Systems under the Genius trademark ( http://www.geniusnet.com.tw ). The card is equipped with ForteMedia FM801 sound chip and a pair of AC'97 codecs from Sigmatel. A distinguishing feature of the card lies in the fact that you can create a home theater on a PC base with minimal money invested. You just need a 5.1 set of active acoustic system (e.g. Set 5.1 Genius SW-5.1 Surround) in order to get a normal 5.1 sound at $100 (totally for the card and acoustic system). And with decrease of prices for DVD-ROM drives and DVD video discs for the last year you can turn your computer into a modern entertainment center.
Briefly on the product
The main feature is 6 analog linear outputs which are intended for output a decoded audio stream Dolby Digital 5.1 (the most popular format of asound track for DVD movies) by any appropriate soft DVD player. The complete set contains
a licensed version of PowerDVD Pro 6 (note that there is also a card version without a DVD player!). The Genius Sound Maker Live 5.1 has no any digital in- or outputs. That's why in order to connect 5.1 sets of acoustic system you will need only those receivers and amps which have 6 analog inputs. Apart from it there is a possibility of connecting headphones, stereo and 4-channel sets since such modes are supported in settings. The Genius Sound Maker Live 5.1 is compatible with main 3D sound APIs in games, A3D 1.0 and EAX 1.0 by QSound algorithms at the drivers level. To get a proper benefit from the card I recommend you to use a modern processor and sufficient size of RAM.
The heart of the Genius Sound Maker Live 5.1 is a digital controller ForteMedia FM801 which was described in the article on ABIT AU10 sound card.
A colorful retail-package includes:
Q3D version is 2.03 (in the lately published review on ABIT AU10 sound card drivers were of 2.05D version). Unfortunately, ForteMedia doesn't display reference drivers for downloading on their site, and Genius doesn't release an updated version for drivers for Sound Maker Live 5.1.
After installation the System has received the following devices:
For connection of 5.1 acoustic set you will need 3 stereo cables with minijacks on the ends (they are usually supplied with speakers). The cables are connected to an adapter, which is included in the complete set, and to an amplifier or a receiver. I liked the idea of marking output connectors with special labels.
Audiotrack parameters measurement
The Sound Maker Live 5.1 card has two AC'97 codecs: a dual-channel SigmaTel STAC9721 and a 4-channel SigmaTel STAC9708. They are time-proved chips which were installed on such popular sound cards as SB Live!, SB Live!5.1, Aureal Vortex2. However, comparing an analog part of our card with these models you can easily notice some difference: developers have saved on capacitors and power supply stabilizers. Let's see how much it influenced the characteristics of this board.
The measurement procedure is given separately.
An audio track of the Sound Maker Live 5.1 performed quite well in the tests. It's typical characteristics for a modern PCI sound card.
However, there is one unpleasant trend for all Forte Media FM801 based sound cards (for example, ABIT Home Theatre AU10 sound card). A mixer (a volume control regulator Sndvol32.exe, enabled with a double click on a yellow horn located in the system tray) can worsen considerably the sound with position of regulators higher than 50% for Wave/DS fader and 15% for recording fader. It causes uneven distortion growth (it means that FM801 digital mixing algorithms are specific). That is why I recommend not to exceed the limits, and ideally you'd better leave all regulators at default and use only the master volume regulator.
AFC tests revealed no surprising: together with quite good codecs the developers managed to supply rather good (according to even plot, with only a slight -3 dB fall in the 10 - 20 KHz range) operational amplifiers, whose manufacturer and a brandname turned out to be unknown.
The parameters measured can't give a complete idea on the card's sound, therefore we are moving to hearing tests.
An inexpensive 5.1 active speaker set from the same manufacturer, Genius SW-5.1 Surround was chosen as an acoustic system for sound reproduction. Since the card isn't intended for working with Hi-Fi/Hi-End equipment, you should handle it correspondingly. Unfortunately, today it's fashionable to take an audio multimedia device at $20-30, compare its sound with that of an audio complex priced 5 - 10 times more, and pass a condemnatory sentence. We will compare our card only with competitors from the same price niche (we used a Live! Value CT4830 with Creative and Philips codecs) in real conditions. That's why I attached speakers and got prepared to enjoy MP3 compositions of MTV hits (160 Kbit/s and not very "convenient" for PC sampling frequency 44.1 KHz).
Due to specific amplifying part of Genius 5.1 speakers, the best mode for listening to music was achieved when applying a stereo signal only via one stereo cable. Frankly speaking, listening to ordinary MP3 files and audio CDs on 5.1 speakers is not a good idea. Such sound would tire anyone very quickly. Probably in the future there will be more AC3 compositions edited specially for 5.1 acoustic system but today the best variant for enjoying music is just front (2.0) for full range Hi-Fi AC or front+subwoofer(2.1) for computer speakers.
The card's sound corresponds to an average level. It's surprising thateven on a such cheap speaker set the Creative SB Live! sound is better than that of the Genius Sound Maker Live 5.1. That's why I would hardly recommend this card to music lovers. However for background playback of MP3s such card will be satisfactory.
Sound track playback in DVD movies
So, a main feature of any modern 5.1 sound card is reproduction of soundtrack on 6 channels in Dolby Digital 5.1 format. For this purpose the box contains a special version of soft DVD player PowerDVD Pro6 (note that there are variants without this program, they are cheaper). It is PowerDVD 2.55 player with 6-channel audio card support. As you know decoding of a sound track from Dolby Digital 5.1 to 6 analog channels is made on soft level. If a system contains a rather powerful processor (PIII-500 level) and not the oldest video card (TNT2 level, with overlay support) then there is no ground for worrying: resources will be more than enough both for video and audio. Even for a simple downmix 5.1 in stereo all 6 audio streams are anyway extracted from a digital stream AC3. And it won't be difficult to direct 6 streams to 6 audio-outs of the card, considering that FM801 supports PCI bus mastering.
Sound of the card in DVD movies on 6 analog outputs won't suit those who get used to high quality audio equipment. But for a beginner it will be a trial step in a modern sound 3D sphere. Further it will be possible to make upgrade. For Genius SW-5.1 Surround speakers the sounding qualityis quite good. So, for entry-level sets of active 5.1 acoustic system without a built-in decoder the FM801 based cards, including the Genius Sound Maker Live 5.1, are quite rational and well balanced solution.
The Genius Sound Maker Live 5.1 sound card is a very interesting 5.1 solution.
As always you are to make a choice.
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