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6 channel surround sound for gaming... What does it take?

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February 7, 2006 6:23:27 PM

I just built a new box and the VIA southbridge on the motherboard has Realtek AC97 onboard sound built in. I've been using an old but nice stereo amp and 3way speakers for years with my computer. After downloading the latest software and drivers for my mobo the onboard sound is just as good as my old sound blaster and no problems running any games.

Since the onboard sound advertises 6 channel 5.1 surround and I'm now able to play Doom3, I said to myself, "What the hey... let's give it a shot" So I went out and bought a cheap 6 channel 5.1 surround speaker set with 5 speakers and subwoofer/amp.

The speaker set came with a stereo phono plug that splits into two RCA's that you plug into subwoofer/amps input. I chose 5.1 on the sub/amp and 6 channels on the setup software that came with the updated drivers. I tried it out and all I get is stereo out of the left and right front. I've played with every setting in windows and the setup software to no avail. I've tried plugging the phono plug into all of the jacks and still no joy.

There's no documentation to be had and research of internet forums doesn't really address my problem, although I seem to see hints of maybe the only way to do surround with the Realtek AC97 is to make a seperate analog connection to each of the six speakers.

Since I've also read during my research that onboard sound can slow the processor down as much as 10% compared to a plug in audio card, I'm considering picking up a soundblaster live 24 bit 7.1 surround audio card. They're very reasonable and the specs on the internet site say for sure that the green line out jack on the card outputs front/rear/center/sub/rear center from this one jack.

So my questions are:

Will the onboard Realtek AC97 work the way I'm trying to do it and I'm just missing something? Or is my suspicion correct and the only way it actually does 6 channel surround is by connecting each speaker seperately with it's own wire.

Does disabling the onboard sound and using a sound card really boost CPU performance?

And last but most importantly, if I buy the SB Live 24bit 7.1 audio card, can I just plug the one cable from the green line out on the card to the left/right RCA inputs on my 5.1 speaker set and get true 6 channel seperation?

Thanks in advance for any and all input!

Jim
February 7, 2006 10:32:27 PM

Okay this is gonna be a long one. First off with the onboard sound you need to go into the advanced sound settings and change from 2 speaker mode to 5.1 surround sound. Now what this does is make it so that instead of having a mic port, now the mic port acts as the center speaker or sub hehe I cant remember. So for 5.1 you should be using all 3 of the ports on your onboard sound. One for center/ sub channel, 1 for left and right front, and 1 for rear left and right. Now you have to make sure and plug the marked cables into the right jacks. Also I have had problem with my onboard 5.1 realtek. I have been playing quake 4 recently and the sound crackles a bit. The problem with onboard sound is sometimes it can also get feedback from the rest of the motherboard that can distort the sound. So after my experience I grabbed a sound blaster 5.1 card that I had lying around and it works a hell of a lot better. Also its nice having a seperate sound card because if your board only has the 3 jacks you have to use your mic port for the 5.1, thus disabling your mic usage in a game such as CS. Anyways I hope that helps, if you need more just reply and I can try to sort you out.
February 7, 2006 11:23:48 PM

Mrwumastakiller,

Thanks for the reply! It sounds like you've already done what I'm trying to do, so if you don't mind I have a couple more questions...

You've confirmed what I was afraid of, to get 5.1 surround all 3 phono jacks must be used. So my question is, where do you connect all those RCA plugs??? That would be 6 RCA plugs. Does the average 5.1 speaker system have 6 RCA jacks, i.e. a jack for each speaker? The 5.1 system I bought only has two RCA jacks for input. That's the way my home theater system works as well. Two RCA jacks in and the receiver splits the signal to each of the six speakers.

Thanks again for your help.

Jim
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February 7, 2006 11:33:28 PM

When you have a little more time and money. Pick up an Xfi and some decent speakers. The xfi EAX 5.1 is really nice. I'm playing Quake 4 now, and I have shaken the dishes in the kitchen with some of the sound.

If you want to go quite, get an xfi and a good pair of headphones. I have the Sennheiser hd495. The 3d positioning from the xfi is good.
February 8, 2006 9:42:53 AM

yeah, X-Fi is surely a good card but if jim has only 2 inputs on his spk set this will not help him.

Quote:
The 5.1 system I bought only has two RCA jacks for input. That's the way my home theater system works as well. Two RCA jacks in and the receiver splits the signal to each of the six speakers.


Well, that's weird. You *should* have either 6 mono inputs and/or one digital input. 5.1. spk set with with stereo analog input makes no sense...
What speaker set is it EXACTLY?
February 8, 2006 1:21:25 PM

Hey, thanks for the replys everybody!

Sorry for the confusion, let me try to explain a little better what I have. First, the motherboard with the onboard sound has three sound jacks for what I call stereo phono plugs and Stranger is calling 3.5 mm mini plugs. I call them phono plugs because that's what Radio Shack calls them, but we're talking about the same thing. The cable is standard and what I've been using for years to connect the sound output from a computer sound card to a stereo amplifier. It has the 3.5mm stereo plug on one end and splits into 2 RCA plugs on the other end. I have the 3.5mm plug plugged into the green line out jack on the mother board. The two RCA plugs are plugged into the left and right inputs on the subwoofer/amp.

My speaker system is just a no name brand that was advertised as a 5.1 surround sound system. It has two RCA jacks for input on the subwoofer/amp. On the front control panel you can choose between 2.1 sound or 5.1 sound. It has speaker output connectors for two front, two rear, and a center channel.

This is pretty much how all the home theater amp/receivers I've bought in the past have been setup. The signal out from a surround sound producing device like a digital satellite receiver or a DVD player has always been a left and right RCA plug. You just plugged the two RCA plugs into the RCA jacks in the receiver/decoder and it split the six combined signals and sent them to the appropriate speaker.

If I understand what you guys are saying correctly, computer sound cards don't work that way? They put out 6 seperate signals to the three 3.5mm jacks and are then split into 6 RCA plugs? Then the subwoofer/amp for computer surround must have 6 seperate inputs? One for each channel? If this is the case then the home theater surround sound speaker system I bought WILL NOT work with my computer (except for 2 channel stereo of course).

I hope I've explained my situation a little better. My questions now is, does a plug in sound card such as a soundblaster live 24bit 7.1 card put out a combined signal from one 3.5mm jack that can be plugged into the left and right RCA inputs on the speaker system I have now? Like the way my home theater system works that I described earlier. The Creative web site says that the green jack on this card has all the channel outputs combined onto it if I'm reading the specs correctly. Or do I need to return the speaker system I have and get something specifically designed for computers?

Either way is going to cost me about the same, I just want to make sure I don't spend the money and then still not have surround in games like Doom 3.

Thanks again for any and all advice and input!

Jim
February 8, 2006 9:21:36 PM

Stranger,

You are correct, I bought a home theater system not a computer specific speaker set. I had no idea there was a difference. I thought if a product said it was 5.1 ready then that was good enough for any kind of 5.1 surround output. It has no provision for a digital connection, just the RCA inputs.

I can take the speaker system back and exchange it for a computer specific set for about $20 more, so that's not a big deal. However I'm still concerned about how it will be connected to get true 6 speaker signal seperation.

My motherboard is a Mach Speed Viper64 based on a VIA chipset. I went back and reviewed the manual and the only connectors are the three 3.5mm jacks. Now that I've talked to you I think I'm starting to make a little sense of what I've seen while playing with the software that came with the motherboard.

There are two screens related to changing settings about sound output. One screen lets you choose between 2/4/6 speaker output. Depending on your choice a picture of 2, 4, or 6 speakers appears with volume sliders next to each. In this screen each speaker icon can be clicked to test the sound and positioning of that channel and set the volume.

In the other screen that relates to the sound configuration, a picture of each of the 3.5mm jacks is shown. Beneath each picture is it's function such as green being line out, yellow line in, etc... Below all this is a check box with the text, "Enable smart 5.1 surround sound with green as RF and LF, Yellow as RR and LR, Red as CTR/LFE."

So now my question is, do PC specific 5.1 speaker sets usually have 6 RCA inputs? If I'm understanding this correctly now that's the only way this onboard sound can output 5.1 surround sound signals.

Here's a link to my motherboard
http://www.machspeed.com/v64_k8t8as.htm

Here's a link to the speaker set I'm thinking of exchanging the home theater system for
http://www.walmart.com/catalog/product.do?product_id=33...

Thanks for your help Stranger and I'd appreciate your opinion on how to proceed.

Jim
February 9, 2006 12:50:30 PM

I'm not surprised that the speakers are cheaper mail order, but after you add in shipping it's not that much cheaper on a box this large and heavy. I was already locked into exchanging for something from Walmart anyway since that's where I bought the other surround system. Thanks for the link to the review, it was interesting!

I hooked up the system last night and can you believe it? Same result!!! I'm only getting sound from the front left and right speakers. I think the subwoofer is working though so I guess that's a difference. I'm very happy with the sound though. I was worried that those small speakers would sound tinny and weak, but combined with the sub under the desk the effect is just as pleasing as my old stereo system.

I played around with software that comes with the onboard sound briefly last night with no result. I'm going to try again tonight after work and also look in windows to see if there's a setting I'm missing. If I don't get anywhere right away I'm going to pick up that SB Live Value 24bit 7.1 card I was talking about in an earlier post. It's very reasonable locally and I'm tired of messing around with this issue. I'm ready for it to work!

Thanks for your help Stranger and I'll let you know how it turns out.

Jim
February 9, 2006 1:56:08 PM

I have my computer running throgh a receiver like you and I currently have it set up for stereo because I prefer listening to music in stereo. In one of your post I think you said it is your receiver/amplifier that decodes the signal, i.e., determines if the sound goes to 2 speakers or multiple speakers. Your sound card (computer) is just another source to your receiver, the same as a DVD player, TV, or CD player. If your using RCA plugs into your receiver, I believe the signal is analogue, which the reciever converts to digital. If you are using an optical connection, the signal is sent and received as a digital signal. If this is the case, I think you would set up your sound card for 2.1 and use the primary output plug on the sound card, usually the green one. Once this signal goes into the receiver, the receiver will either separate into 2 or 5 signals, i.e., stereo or surround. So it's your receiver not your sound card that determines if you are listening to surround and not your sound card. If you have output from the sound card plugged into the primary out and running this into the receiver, then you would have to set up your receiver to play surround, same as if you connected a DVD player or TV. If you are doing this and not getting surround, then the problem is either with how you have your speakers connected to your receiver or, more than likely, the settings on your receiver. Most receivers have a setting to "fake" surround if it's not getting a surround signal. To make a long winded post short I 'd suggest the following. Use the Green output on your sound card and set the card for stereo, that should ensure all of the sound is being sent out. Connect this to the receiver using the 2 RCA plugs, do not conect this to the Phono in if your receiver has this, then play around with the settings on your receiver. You could also try different inputs into your receiver. Also keep in mind the .1 is nothing more than the subwoofer and again your receiver not your sound card will handle this. While I don't like to admit it publicly, I have resorted to reading the manual that came with my receiver :D 
February 9, 2006 2:35:21 PM

Quote:
i know i'm not the original poster but ive been trying to help him and you have not even read the whole post. he originally bought a home theater sytem for his pc thinking they were the same as pc speakers. he has now decided to get some logitech 5.1 pc speakers. true surround anaogically has to be done through multiple stereo signals. yes digitally you can pass a signal to a receiver for decoding but as a sound card does this their is no need for that. the setup he is going to be using now is the optimum for a pc. try not to confuse the issue ny further.


Did not mean to confuse him but in his original post he says he is running his sound card through an amplifier and he keeps making referrance to RCA plugs. As far as I know, most audio cards do not use RCA plugs. Secondly, if he has a surround sound amplifier/receiver, he could use that to get surround sound using his sound card as the source. Obviously, the alternative would be simply use the sound card and not his audio system.
February 9, 2006 3:38:45 PM

When he said amplifier I thought the same thing that it wasn't surround becaue generally you have to get a receiver not just an integrated amp for surround,, but I wasn't sure. Just wanted to let him know that if it he did have an audio system with a surround receiver, he could use the sound card as his source and use his home theater system. If he doesn't have a surround receiver, definitely cheaper to go with surround computer speakers given a decent entry level audio surround system would be around $1000. Hope this ends any confusion.
February 9, 2006 6:31:52 PM

Hey gpaw,

Thanks for the input. You've helped clear up some of the questions I had. Let me explain what I thought I could do when I bought that $50 cheapo 5.1 home theater surround system at Walmart.

I've been doing 6 channel surround sound for my home theater system for years. I've had three receivers over the years and they've all been set up the same way. First you take the output from a device that is rated for generating a dolby surround signal such as a DVD, HiFi VCR, or cable box. Then you input that signal into a surround sound receiver/decoder. The signal transfer has always been a simple RCA cable with nothing more than a left channel RCA plug and a right channel RCA plug. The surround sound receiver/decoder then has 6 speaker outputs, (LF/RF/LR/RR/CTR/Subwoofer). You connect your speakers and place them appropriately then WALLAH! 6 channel surround.

My assumption was that the dolby surround capable device passed along a combined signal from the dolby surround media and transfered it over the standard left and right RCA cable. The receiver/decoder then split this combined signal appropriately to each of the 6 channels to get true seperation. The last receiver I bought set me back about $200. I don't even see surround sound receiver/decoders sold seperately in this price range anymore. You must either buy a complete set of speakers along with the amp/receiver/decoder starting at $300 for a cheap set, or pay close to a $1000 as you said for a high end receiver.

I guess I was doing a little wishful thinking when I bought that $50 special. What throws me is that it is advertised as a 5.1 system and comes with the six speakers (including the subwoofer). It has the two left and right RCA jack inputs I'm used to form my past experience. I didn't try it on my DVD player, but I assume it would have produced 5 channel separation had I hooked it up to my DVD player and played a 5.1 surround sound movie.

So what's the difference in a computer's output? I didn't try playing a movie on my DVD drive to see if that got me surround sound. Maybe it would have but I bet I wouldn't have gotten 5.1 surround while playing games. I'm basing that statement on what I've learned in the last few days researching this problem. I'm thinking that when playing a game such as Doom 3 the sound card doesn't produce a combined signal, but when playing surround sound media such as a 5.1 DVD movie, the sound card can just pass along the combined signal to the speaker system from the DVD player. Does this sound right guys??

This is all great and I've really enjoyed the learning curve on this aspect of computing. However I still don't have surround sound on my computer as of yet. My situation now is that I exchanged the cheapo 5.1 home theater speaker set for the Logitech X530 computer 5.1 surround system (see link in earlier post).

This setup has three 3.5mm stereo plugs that connect to the three output jacks on the motherboard. Each speaker has it's own individual RCA connector/cord that plugs into the combination subwoofer/amp. Surely this setup must be able to produce 5.1 surround from software that has been coded to do so. I read some where that Doom 3 is such a game that outputs 5.1 surround. The software that comes with my onboard sound (see link to specific motherboard in earlier post) has a screen to test the output of each idividual channel. Last night after hooking the X530 system up I still could only get output from the LF/RF/subwoofer. I tried playing Doom 3 with the same results.

I'm hoping that I'm just missing some software setting and intend to dig into windows setup screens as well as the onboard sound software. Any suggestions on what might still be wrong are greatly appreciated. If this doesn't do the trick, my next step is to disable the onboard sound and install a SoundBlaster Live Value 24bit 7.1 sound card.

Sorry for the long post and I really appreciate everyone's help and input so far!

Jim
February 9, 2006 6:44:28 PM

1st, when I said a $1000, I meant for surround speakers, receive, and sub. For just a receiver, Circuitcity as 2 low price Onkyos, one at less than $200 and the other less than $300. They also carry a couple of packages of Polk speakers (5 plus a sub) for under $500. Sub probably is that could so the $1000 would include a Velodyne sub for around $250 o5 $300.

As for surround using the computer speakers you have, the onboard audio should have come with software that lets you set up either for 2 speakers or 5 speakers so that's where I'd start.
February 9, 2006 7:45:43 PM

I'm sorry I stopped reading the post after like 20 minutes. If your problem isnt fixed I have some answers. ever single system is compatible with everything. some just dont have the right jacks or whatever. On a computer the 3 mic stereo and line in are ussed for surround sound. but its compatible with everything you just need an adapter or for it to have the right jacks. there are 2 other ways. both are somtimes called s/p-dif (sony/philips-Digital Interface... um I forget) a coax cable, not like a tv think it looks just like a rca jack, but its orang usually, somtimes black or yellow. Or optical wich is my favorite. If you have a choice I'd pick optical then coax then the other, because optical is lighter and cooler. but coax is still nice cuz its still just one plug. and lastly the 3 plug way sux cuz its analog and uses 3 wires. With just two stero plug things you can get quadrophonic sound( four speaker sound) wich can use like fake surround sound like dolbys pro logic. but optical coax and the 3 plug thing is the only way to get surround sound 5.1 plus if you want 7.1 you need optical or coax.
February 9, 2006 9:02:08 PM

No I got that far in the posts. I just like digital much better cuz is less cumbersome.
February 9, 2006 9:16:24 PM

Stranger is correct inuyashafly, my onboard sound system and the Logitech X530 5.1 computer speaker set have no provisions for digital signal processing. Even if I go ahead and get the SB Live Value 24bit 7.1 card, I don't think it does digital processing either.

I'm committed now to playing games and watching DVD's in 5.1 surround since I've made a significant investment in the idea (a lot of money to me for computer sound anyway). I'm even willing to cough up another $30 for the SB sound card, but that's as far as I want to go. I'm a family man and if my wife sees me spending anymore than this she going to kick my a$$!! I appreciate your iput though.

Gpaw,

I don't have a Circuit City nearby, but I bet if I went to Best Buy I could find one of those $200-$300 receivers you're talking about. That's pretty much the kind of equipment I've been using for years in my HT system. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be happy with the X530 system once I get it sorted out, but I'm curious if what I was trying to do is actually possible. Is there some way to get the 6 channel separation using the output from my onboard sound or a Sound Blaster Live 7.1 and one of those home theater receivers? What connectors/adapter/etc... would be needed to make it work while playing PC games like Doom 3?

Stranger,

With your and everybody's help it seems clear that the hardware I've got now should get me some 5.1 surround while playing games and watching DVD's played on my DVD drive. By process of elimination that must mean that problem is either a hardware failure of the onboard sound in the motherboard or a software setting. Does this sound correct to you?

I'm going to play with the software again tonight (especially windows settings) and see if I can't get some results.

Thanks, Jim
February 10, 2006 4:18:44 PM

Also for dvd's I heard that a lot of dvd player software doesnt even support dolby difital. I recently got LTB ac3 5.1 headphones, they sound great but I cant get the computer to send a 5.1 signal I done like everything its soo pissing me off. i have no rear and no center its crazy. and I did my gomework before I bought them so I can garantee you that it does give you real surround sound. So in battlefield vietnam I use eax2(for some reason eax 3 wont work) and things can blow up behind me and I will not have a clue, man I gotta figure this out... um sorry for going a little off topic.
February 10, 2006 5:38:00 PM

Well here's the latest....

After an hour or so of trying all the possible settings and deleting and reinstalling the latest drivers for my onboard sound, same result. I'd had enough at that point so I went and purchased the sound blaster live 24bit. The install went smoothly and I had surround right out of the gate without having to set anything (the installation software asked for my speaker setup during the install). I confirmed all speakers were working in their proper positions with the Creative diagnostic screen. The software that comes with this card is awesome and made the purchase worth it for that reason alone!

I fired up Doom3 then and selected 5.1 sound. It worked! The positional effect really adds a new dimension to the game and the subwoofer rattles the windows when something expodes!! I'm very pleased. The wife was complainig about it being too loud. I tried to enable the EAX HD 4.0 function in Doom 3 but it said it couldn't find any hardware to support it. I don't even know what EAX HD 4.0 is, I only know I read somewhere that it makes the sound even more realistic. The SB live 24bit card says it is EAX 3, 4, and 5 ready, does anyone know what this function is and why Doom is saying it's not supported even though the SB card says it is?

I'm still not completely out of the woods on this deal yet. The next thing I tried was to play my copy of Star Wars recorded in THX on my DVD drive. I'm pretty sure theres some kind of hardware setting conflict. The movie was definitely doing 5.1 surround, but it was stuttering and scratchy. The video was also stuttering in time with the sound. Any ideas on this new problem? The DVD player was working fine before.

Jim
February 10, 2006 6:05:46 PM

Inuyasha--

A lot of free DVD player software have dolby digital locked unless you buy the full version.
February 10, 2006 9:33:56 PM

astralite,

You are absolutely correct, the free DVD player software I got with my DVD drive has the 5.1 surround disabled. Do you think this is why the sound and video was garbled and stuttering?

Stranger,

Do you mean the SB card has hardware built into it to decode the output from the DVD when playing a movie? I did see something in documentation about enabling some feature in win2k to allow the SB card to get it's data directly. If I understood it correctly it was going to get it's data directly through the data bus instead of through the analog cable that usually channels the output from a CD/DVD drive to a sound card. Is that what you're referring to?

How about the EAX HD deal? Any input on what that's about and how to get it working?

By the way Stranger, I have to say I really appreciate all your help. You've hung in there from the beginning of this adventure and have been a great help.

Jim
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