Philips Ultimate Edge PSC724

Philips Ultimate Edge PSC724

Philips_Card.jpgA complete alternative to Sound Blaster arrives, but with a cost in performance

Month Reviewed: January 2005
Verdict: 7
URL: www.philips.com

Once a solid purveyor of hardware audio acceleration, Philips/VLSI has made an abrupt reversal with its new Ultimate Edge PSC724 soundcard. The 24-bit Ultimate Edge dumps the Thunderbird Avenger DSP that Philips used in its older Acoustic Edge soundcard for the ubiquitous VIA Envy24GT chip. A similar VIA chip is used to power the M-Audio Revolution 7.1, AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1, and a host of other competing cards.

Note that the word “powers” does not mean the aforementioned chip does any actual audio processing. No. The Envy24GT is essentially a PCI bus-mastering chip that handles the flow of data between the audio converters and the PCI bus. Any crunching of data for positional audio, reverb, or other such effects are performed by the CPU.

When we test soundcards (an increasingly dying breed) in the Maximum PC Lab, we’ve found that the software, drivers, and algorithms often make a huge impact on the way a card performs and sounds. It’s clear from our tests that Philips spent a considerable amount of time polishing its drivers and supporting applications. Of the Envy24 cards we’ve reviewed to date, the Ultimate Edge has the most advanced audio applets and controls we’ve seen. The controls are centralized, easy to understand and much better than its competitors’ offerings.

Audio quality is a slightly different story. The card uses a pair of Wolfson Microelectronics WM8766 24-bit/192kHz codec chips to convert digital to analog. The same codecs are used in AudioTrak’s Prodigy 7.1, which explains the sound similarities between the two. In subjective listening tests using high sample-rate audio, we found the Ultimate Edge to sound a little dull when compared with an Audigy 2 ZS (and we felt similarly about the Prodigy 7.1). We were able to EQ the Ultimate Edge to compensate for the flatness, but even so, we still give the Audigy 2 ZS a slight edge.

In gaming, the Ultimate Edge holds its own in sound quality, even though it doesn’t support Creative’s proprietary EAX3 and EAX4. But you pay a steep price in performance. We’ve wondered for a long time now whether accelerated soundcards would go the way of the MPEG2 decoders. With gigahertz to burn, we’ve reasoned, do you really need a DSP?

It sure looks like it. We used our standard Athlon 64 FX-51 test bed and ran 3DMark03, UT2003, Quake III Arena, and Comanche in 5.1 mode (the highest the Ultimate Edge supports) and saw 10 percent frame rate penalties. That’s pretty painful, especially when you consider the performance hit in another way: If you spent $500 on your videocard, a 10 percent hit in frame rates is going to reduce your $500 videocard’s performance to the equivalent of a $400 videocard. The same reduction is also going to affect your CPU, robbing it of a bin or two of CPU clock cycles.

This may make gamers reel in horror, but there’s a massive counter-trend rearing its head that may ultimately render DSPs worthless, regardless: Games may stop supporting them. Id’s Doom 3, for example, does all audio on the CPU. Valve’s Half Life 2 and GSC’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are expected to do the same. If this practice continues, a hardware accelerated card won’t make any difference whatsoever in your gaming. --Gordon Mah Ung

+Strawberry Jam: Good value, integrated control panel.

-Toe Jam: Eats CPU cycles.

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