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When considering the purchase of a sound card, there are a few questions that you might want to ask yourself to help you choose the right sound card. As was made clear by the review, not all cards are the same, and the features differ widely between cards.
As you have seen, sound cards were not a "one size fits all" solution. Therefore, what we chose to do was name an editor's choice in several different areas, so that you could choose what option works best for you.
If you need the flexibility of additional connections and are willing to live with the down side of having to take the External Rack with you if you move the system, the Hercules the Game Theater XP is the card for you. I felt that, for the money, it presented a little bit better sound and a little more flexibility feature wise than the Sound Blaster Live Platinum 5.1 with Live! Drive IR. I still wish that Hercules could have included the IR Remote feature as well as adding a headphone jack on the bracket of the card, the Game Theater XP did get a lot of things right with this card. The Sound Blaster Live Platinum 5.1 does finish a very close second, and does offer some unique features not found in other cards.
In what I would like to call the "mid range" category, the selection is pretty close. I think overall, the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz gets the nod over Philips and Creative. The Santa Cruz was not fancy, but it was stable performer, providing great audio quality and excellent performance for the price. The Creative Soundblaster Live without the Live! Drive IR also makes a fine choice in this price range, but the Santa Cruz just seems to have a little more oomph than the Creative did. As for Philips, I felt the Acoustic Edge was a fine effort, but they do need to work on tweaking the drivers in order to improve performance.
In the budget category, or what I like to call "the best bang for the buck", without question, the Hercules Gamesurround Fortissimo II hits the mark. It provides an excellent mix of features and performance for the money. The performance of the card was steady and was a true value, considering the fact that these cards are now showing up at local computer shows for as little as $43. Philips should not be overlooked, either, and although we didn't look at the Seismic Edge or the Rhythmic Edge, they feature the same DSP as the Acoustic Edge and can provide quite a deal for the money. The Hercules Gamesurround Fortissimo II was able to turn in the best score in both our Quake III and one of our UTBench tests. This only further proves that the Hercules is a very good performer for the money.
Well, there you have it: our first look at sound cards and sound card technology. Of course, this is by no means our last look at sound cards. We will look at the new Creative Audigy Platinum EX soon. Audigy is generating a lot of positive buzz. Also of note is that Guillemot is working on a new sound card for release. We don't know anything beyond the fact that it is in development. We have been told by Guillemot that they will submit it to us for testing as soon as it is finished. (Will the new Guillemot sound card be based on a new Crystal Audio chipset??) As always, we will also continue to refine and develop our sound card testing process and present another sound card round up soon.