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Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space Sound Card Review

June 18, 2003



At the end of the last year Terratec announced a new series of sound cards that included three models: Aureon 7.1 Space, Aureon 5.1 Sky, and Aureon 5.1 Fun.

The Space and the Sky models are based on the Envy24HT chip and differ only in the number of analog outputs. The junior model Fun which is built on the C-Media chip and noticeably different from the new family has optical input and output. I must say that Terratec cards have digital Toslink connectors absolutely on all models.

Let me remind you of the successful predecessors of the new cards - 6fire DMX and 6fire LT cards based on the Envy24 chip (the old chip doesn't support 192 kHz in comparison with the new chip which has HT letters in the name). The cheaper modification named LT and deprived of an external 5" unit became more popular among customers. That is why the new models have no external communication unit bundled.

The Space and the Sky are developed for a wide range of PC users, and first of all, for owners of quality acoustic systems and MD players. Gamers and musicians can also consider this solution but remember that games will have Sensaura only in software, and although audio programs have ASIO in hardware up to 24/96, a MIDI keyboard has to be connected to a USB port.




Package and Contents

The card ships in a small traditionally (for Terratec) black package which contains: 

  • sound card;
  • CD with drivers and various applications;
  • optical cable for digital connection;
  • user guide.

The most interesting programs on the CD are Power DVD v4.0 (with support of the DolbyDigital Surround EX), Wavelab Lite audio editor, Jukebox Musicmatch universal player and Emagic Logic Fun 4.8 audio/midi sequencer. The user manual is available as a small booklet and on the CD. 

Appearance and connectors




Inputs Mic-in 
Line-in 
Digital optical (Toslink)
Outputs Front 
Rear 
Center/LFE 
Back Surround 
Digital optical (Toslink)
Internal connectors CD-in 
CD-in 2 
Aux-in 
S/PDIF-in



Hardware features

Digital controller


Envy24HT (24bit, 192 kHz; 
interfaces: 5 I2S/AC-link output, 2 
I2S/AC-link input)
Converters 2/8 I2S codec Wolfson WM8770
(DAC SNR >106 dBA, ACD SNR >102 dBA), 
AC'97 codec SigmaTel STAC9744
(for analog mixing of signals from internal card connectors, 
102 dBA in this mode)

Software features

Gaming features support of DirectSound, DirectSound3D, EAX2 based on the Sensaura algorithms

Control panel

The control panel consists of a single small window (the screenshots are of the actual size) with 6 tabs containing various parameters and settings. 




The first tab named Playback has volume level controls for the overall sound and separately for front, back, back surround, central and subwoofer channels. The paired channels can have their balance adjusted. Unfortunately, none of the controls in the control panel has a level indicator (peakmeter). 




The next two tabs - Sources and Record - allow mixing inputs and outputs by adjusting balance and levels, and by muting. 




In the tab named Digital you can make settings for the digital interface, change the sampling frequency and the ASIO buffer size. 




On the Speaker tab you can select a speaker set configuration. There are 5 presets in all: 7.1, 5.1, 4 speakers, 2 speakers and Headphone. Any of channels used in a certain preset can be tested on the picture of the satellites arrangement on the right. A noise signal is applied to a satellite highlighted. 




The Sensaura algorithms can also be enabled here. Unfortunately, you have to restart the computer to get the Sensaura enabled. If you remember, the M-Audio Revolution7.1 and Terratec DMX 6fire cards didn't require rebooting in case of changing the channels. 




The last tab (Misc) deals with statistics. At the moment of testing we used drivers v5.01.2600.11. The driver version 5.01.2600.10 supplied with the card has no Sensaura support. 

RMAA 5.1 Tests

Remember that measurements of a sound card with its input and output connected are to give us extra information about the card. The crude measurements the Internet is overfilled with now, with wrong settings and without a reference card, can be a tool of fanatic manipulations and may confuse inexperienced users. 

Measurements are to be made to get additional information on audio equipment. Analysis should be based on spectrograms rather than on integral values of spectrum characteristics. And a sound character is determined by spectral distributions of distortions rather than by their "record " weighted  power.

The card was measured with the reference card Lynx Two (117 dB SNR). A short low-noise microphone cable, Proel, with gold-plated connectors was used to connect the cards. The input sensitivity of the Lynx Two is standard: -10 dB V. 

Front-out

Mode of operation: 16 bit 44 kHz 
 

Frequency response (40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB: +0.03, -0.04 Excellent
Noise level, dB (A): -95.2 Excellent
Dynamic range, dB (A): 95.2 Excellent
THD, %: 0.0011 Excellent
Intermodulation distortions, %: 0.0054 Excellent
Channel crosstalk, dB: -95.6 Excellent

General performance: Excellent 

The detailed results for the front output for 16 bits 44 kHz are here




The THD spectrogram at 44 kHz indicates minor 2nd and 3d harmonics and a clear spectrum



The IMD (SMPTE) spectrogram at 44 kHz reveals no artifacts from oversampling

Mode of operation: 16 bits 48 kHz 
 
Frequency response (40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB: +0.04, -0.32 Very good
Noise level, dB (A): -95.4 Excellent
Dynamic range, dB (A): 95.3 Excellent
THD, %: 0.0011 Excellent
Intermodulation distortions, %: 0.0055 Excellent
Channel crosstalk, dB: -96.4 Excellent

General performance: Excellent 

The detailed results for the front output for 16 bits 48 kHz are here




The frequency response measured at 48 kHz shows a small smooth drop in the HF range over 10 kHz but it's beyond the aural perception

Mode of operation: 24 bits 96 kHz 
 

Frequency response (40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB: +0.04, -0.34 Very good
Noise level, dB (A): -100.2 Excellent
Dynamic range, dB (A): 100.1 Excellent
THD, %: 0.0011 Excellent
Intermodulation distortions, %: 0.0055 Excellent
Channel crosstalk, dB: -97.1 Excellent

General performance: Excellent 

The detailed results for the front output for 24 bits 96 kHz are here

Mode of operation: 24 bits 192 kHz 
 

Frequency response (40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB: +0.03, -0.33 Very good
Noise level, dB (A): -100.2 Excellent
Dynamic range, dB (A): 100.0 Excellent
THD, %: 0.0011 Excellent
Intermodulation distortions, %: 0.0097 Very good
Channel crosstalk, dB: -97.0 Excellent

General performance: Excellent 

The detailed results for the front output for 24 bits 192 kHz are here

Line-in

Mode of operation: 16 bits 44 kHz 
 

Frequency response (40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB: +0.05, -0.29 Very good
Noise level, dB (A): -86.1 Good
Dynamic range, dB (A): 86.1 Good
THD, %: 0.0020 Excellent
Intermodulation distortions, %: 0.016 Very good
Channel crosstalk, dB: -84.8 Very good

General performance: Very good 

The detailed results for the line-in for 16 bits 44 kHz are here




The noise spectrogram in case of recording from the line-in demonstrates even and odd harmonics of the power-supply noise

Mode of operation: 32 bits 96 kHz 
 

Frequency response (40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB: +0.02, -0.30 Very good
Noise level, dB (A): -86.2 Good
Dynamic range, dB (A): 86.1 Good
THD, %: 0.0044 Very good
Intermodulation distortions, %: 0.020 Very good
Channel crosstalk, dB: -82.3 Very good

General performance: Very good 

The drivers work incorrectly in the record mode "24 bits 3 bytes int", that is why for 24 bits you should select "4 bytes int" for tests and wav editors. In general, the 32bit mode is more convenient and loads the processor to a less extent, that is why the lack of "3 bytes int" is better than it would be vice versa.

The detailed results for the line-in for 32 bits 96 kHz are here

Digital interfaces

The digital input and output were connected with a cable supplied. The actual results will be a bit worse because of the source and the receiver being mistimed. Actually, an optical connection is a home version of the S/PDIF format for hot connection of equipment, that is why the Toslink interface would hardly be a bottleneck for quality. 

Mode of operation: 16 bits 44 kHz 
 

Test Original signal 1644 Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space
Frequency response (40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB: +0.00, -0.00 +0.00, -0.00
Noise level, dB (A): -97.8 -96.2
Dynamic range, dB (A): 97.7 96.4
THD, %: 0.0003 0.0003
Intermodulation distortions, %: 0.0037 0.0037
Channel crosstalk, dB: -99.3 -97.7

Unlike multimedia cards of the AC'97 standard, the digital interface of the Envy24/Envy24HT based cards do not suffer from oversampling of everything to the fixed frequency of 48 kHz. The test results prove it as information is transferred nearly bit-to-bit. 

The detailed results for the digital interface for 16 bits 44 kHz are here

RightMark 3DSound Tests

DirectSound diagnostics
(with the Sensaura support enabled)

Device: Aureon Wave (ttp9.sys) 

Features:
DirectSound 3D Hardware present 
DirectSound 2D Hardware present 
EAX 1 present 
EAX 2 present 
Device has no EAX3 support 

Rates:
dwMinSecondarySampleRate 100 
dwMaxSecondarySampleRate 192000 

Free buffers stats:
dwFreeHw3DAllBuffers 32 
dwFreeHw3DStaticBuffers 32 
dwFreeHw3DStreamingBuffers 32 
dwFreeHwMixingAllBuffers 32 
dwFreeHwMixingStaticBuffers 32 
dwFreeHwMixingStreamingBuffers 32 

Max buffers stats:
dwMaxHwMixingAllBuffers 33 
dwMaxHwMixingStaticBuffers 33 
dwMaxHwMixingStreamingBuffers 33 
dwMaxHw3DAllBuffers 33 
dwMaxHw3DStaticBuffers 33 
dwMaxHw3DStreamingBuffers 33 

CPU load




Windows XP SP1, DirectX8.1, Athlon XP 2100+, KT333, DDR333. 
 

  Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space M-Audio Revolution 7.1 Audigy2
DirectSound 3D 
16 buffers 
6.6/0.3 10/1.2 1.7/0.3
DirectSound 3D + EAX2 
16 buffers 
8.7/0.2 12/1.2 2.1/0.3
DirectSound 3D 
32 buffers
10/0.4 12/1.4 3.6/0.7
DirectSound 3D + EAX2 
32 buffers
17/0.3 21/1.3 4.0/0.7

CPU load (%) for different modes of operation and a different number of DirectSound buffers. The average value and dispersion go after the slash (mean of distribution and standard deviation) for the 2-minute test and with accidental releases of the system discounted (swap etc.). 

The Aureon loads the CPU less than the Revolution though they are based on the same Envy24HT chip. Probably, it's a contribution of the drivers. 

Operation in Cubase SX

The Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space card perfectly works in the Cubase SX audio/midi sequencer in all modes available. 




In the ASIO Control Panel invoked from the control panel or the Cubase SX sequencer you can select a buffer size to optimize latency depending on the number of tracks, VST instruments, effects and sampling rates. 

Subjective tests

Music

The Event 20/20bas active monitors were used in the comparison tests. Being direct competitors, the Creative Audigy2 and M-Audio Revolution7.1 were used as reference cards. 

The sound quality of the Terratec Aureon 7.1 is identical to that of the M-Audio Revolution7.1 - it is clear and has no distortions in the HF range (the LynxTwo is used as an absolute referent). The only reason why we would prefer the Aureon card is its higher volume level. 

Regarding the Audigy2, the situation is very similar to comparison of the Audigy2 and M-Audio Revolution7.1 cards. The Terratec Aureon 7.1 card plays a bit better on expensive acoustic systems. The difference can be noticed in compositions with saturated highs. In parts of various cymbals and hi-hats the Audigy2 demonstrates a high level of distortions in the HF range. 

But it's impossible to catch the difference with inexpensive PC speakers. Unfortunately, quality of even expensive miniature PC acoustic systems priced at around $400 doesn't match modern sound cards priced at $150. If you prefer high-quality sound, forget about PC speakers and consider pro-audio acoustics or brand-name magnetically shielded consumer electronic speakers. The only downside is that they are not cheaper than $400, that is why I doubt that it makes sense to arrange a multi-channel sound on a computer. 

Tests in movies and games

In these tests we used the Logitech Z-680 5.1 acoustic system which has fairly good sound for PC speakers. The listening tests were carried out in Unreal Tournament 2003 and Soldier of Fortune II. To estimate quality of 5.1 audio tracks in movies we used DVD trailers full of sound effects. We listened to the same DVD trailers and game episodes switching the cards as quickly as possible. 

In movies all three cards play equally. Speaking of games, the Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space performs quite well, it's very similar to the M-Audio Revolution7.1. But in game episodes with a great deal of simultaneously played streams the Aureon 7.1 Space adds some exterior sounds which reminds reproduction of a digital signal by the analog section. Obviously, this is a problem of drivers. Besides, some sounds of the scene were not played at all. In games the Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space wasn't as detailed as the Audigy2, and it doesn't cover the whole HF range. It's caused by the Sensaura algorithms used for 3D sound. 

Sound in headphones

To test the Headphones option we used the Senheiser HD600 headphones. The signal level is quite high and it's possible to listen to anything only when the volume control's position is very low. The sound is very good, and quality of realization of this mode is very similar to the Audigy2 and M-Audio Revolution 7.1 cards. 

We also compared sound quality of the headphones in games for the Audigy2 and Aureon 7.1 cards. As expected, the Aureon 7.1 yields to the Audigy2. The sources' positions are not that distinct, the sound lacks for details and it's blurry and dim. 

Conclusion

The Terratec Aureon 7.1 Space card has proved to be a good performer when it's used for listening to music and when optical digital inputs/outputs are made benefit of. 

Thanks to high-quality converters the card has good results in the measurements and listening tests. The support of the professional interface ASIO makes possible to use the card in a home studio. Besides, it supports the Sensaura algorithms so that you can use the card in games. 

Highs

  • quality converters of the Wolfson WM8770 codec;
  • excellent sound in music;
  • no distortions at 16 bits 44 kHz;
  • Sensaura support;
  • ASIO support.

Lows

  • scanty settings in the control panel;
  • no MIDI interface;
  • 3D sound quality is inferior to the Creative Audigy2.

 


Grigory Liadov (grigory@ixbt.com

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