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Auzentech X-Meridian 7.1

Date: February 28, 2007
Author(s): Matthew Harris

Looking for a new high end sound card that isn’t a cookie cutter "me too" card? Want one that offers great sound with no compromises? Is gaming not very high on your list? Then you might take a look at the Auzentech X-Meridian.



Introduction


Auzentech. A name that’s fairly new in the PC enthusiast world is throwing down the gauntlet to the likes of Creative, Turtle Beach and the rest of the established sound card companies out there with the release of their new X-Meridian. The X-Meridian is aimed at the user looking for high quality sound with no holds barred. While sound quality is the primary focus of the X-Meridian, it doesn’t leave gamers completely out in the cold and it does offer support for EAX 1 and 2, but that’s about all.

There’s no hardware acceleration for games, so the DSP duties are offloaded to the CPU. If you’re not concerned with having bleeding edge gaming performance though, and instead having top notch sound quality, read on.

Let’s see what Auzentech has to say about the X-Meridian:

Designed by Auzentech’s award-winning team of engineers, the new X-Meridian 7.1 sound card marks the dividing line between audio that sounds great, and audio that sounds perfect.

Like the X-Mystique and X-Plosion before it, the X-Meridian is a highly-anticipated Auzentech "World first" as the only all-original sound card engineered specifically to maximize the potential of the C-Media CMI-8788 chipset. The result is the highest quality Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Digital Live, and DTS Connect certified soundcard for your PC. X-Meridian delivers a pristine bitstream to your AV equipment as well as the highest analog output levels of any sound card on the market.

Upgrade to X-Meridian and cross over to pure high-resolution digital surround-sound audio while playing games, listening to music, or watching movies. Surround yourself with 24bit, 192 kHz resolution and better than 115 dB signal-to-noise ratio. Experience audio you can believe in.

Key Features

Dolby Pro Logic IIx expands any existing stereo- or 5.1-channel audio for a 6.1- or 7.1- channel playback, creating a seamless, natural surround soundfield that immerses you in the entertainment experience.

DTS Digital Surround is the sound format found in movie theaters. The Auzentech X-Meridian turns your PC into a DTS-Connect enabled PC capable of playing full surround sound from DTS-enabled movies, music videos, music discs, and games, as well as providing surround sound from normal stereo sources.

Dolby Digital Live, a real-time encoding technology, converts any audio signal into a Dolby Digital bit stream for transport and playback through a home theater system. With it, your PC or game console can be hooked up to your Dolby Digital-equipped audio/video receiver or digital speaker system via a single digital connection, ensuring the integrity of the audio signal.

Dolby Headphone technology allows users to wear any set of headphones and listen to music, watch movies, or play video games with the dramatic surround effects of a 5.1-channel soundtrack. Listeners enjoy a spacious, natural soundfield without disturbing others.

Engineered for Sound by Auzentech, the X-Meridian is designed by the award-winning engineers at Auzentech and constructed to a level of quality in order to thrill the most demanding of audiophiles.

Enjoy pure high-resolution digital surround-sound audio while playing games, listening to music, or watching movies. Experience audio you can believe in.

Dolby Pro Logic IIx

The age of 7.1 surround sound for the home is here. But it’s not just reserved for DVD movies encoded in Dolby Digital EX. With Dolby Pro Logic IIx, any movie, CD, TV program or video game can be enjoyed through this enhanced surround sound technology.

Pro Logic IIx is the first and only technology to expand any existing stereo- or 5.1-channel audio for a 6.1- or 7.1- channel playback, creating a seamless, natural surround soundfield that immerses you in the entertainment experience.

Three listening modes–Movie, Music or Game–allow you to tailor the audio to meet the different needs of the programming. In Game mode, for instance, special effects signals are routed to the surround channels for fuller, dramatic impact. Music mode features three additional user controls:

DTS Connect

DTS Connect is the latest thing from DTS that turns your PC into an action-packed entertainment experience that surrounds you in sound. Make your movies, music and games come alive in exciting, dynamic, multi-channel DTS Digital Surround, the same sound format found in movie theaters. DTS Connect is a whole new way to enjoy your PC. DTS Connect makes it easy to turn your computer into the ultimate PC sound entertainment experience.

Dolby Digital Live

Enjoy audio from your PC or game console through your home theater with Dolby Digital Live. A real-time encoding technology, Dolby Digital Live converts any audio signal into a Dolby Digital bitstream for transport and playback through a home theater system. With it, your PC or game console can be hooked up to your Dolby Digital-equipped audio/video receiver or digital speaker system via a single digital connection, eliminating the confusion of multiple cables and ensuring the integrity of the audio signal.

Dolby Headphone: 5.1 surround sound through any pair of headphones.

Dolby Headphone technology allows users to wear any set of headphones and listen to music, watch movies, or play video games with the dramatic surround effects of a 5.1-channel soundtrack.

Specifications



Closer Look


The last page was a lot to digest ;-) but I’ll try to cover the important parts. First off is the signal to noise ratio of greater than 115db. This basically means that for greater than 115db of output you’ll see 1db of noise. This in turn means that under ordinary listening, noise will be a non-issue. Under normal listening at levels of 70db the noise will be -45db. Look at it this way, if the noise is -115db bellow 0db then it’s a matter of adding that -115 to the level you’ll be listening at and that tells you how far bellow that level the threshold for noise is.

Typically you’ll be running into distortion from your speakers or headphones before you run into noise from the card unless you’re running some mega wattage speaker system or using a set of electrostatic headphones with the out-board amplifier. Even then you’d be hard pressed to identify noise versus the distortion usually seen by human ears at high volume levels.

I know that anyone that’s into loud music will identify with what I’m getting at. You’re cranking the stereo, the walls are shaking, the dishes rattling in the cabinets and you swear that there’s some raspiness in the midrange. You leave the room or house and walk a few feet away and the sound is pristine. What you’re experiencing is the inner ear creating standing waves in the ear canal. Yes this is a highly simplified version of the phenomenon, but it is what’s believed to be happening. If you want a more detailed explanation, Google "Distortion in the human ear" and it will give the links you’ll need.

The OPAMPs for the speaker outputs (Operation amplifiers, basically, pre amplifiers for analog output) are listed as having a 120db dynamic range. This means that they’re capable of handling signals going from 0db to 120db with no compression or distortion. The input OPAMP is a slightly lower spec par, rated for 114db. This still runs in the high end though so it’s nothing to be discouraged by. You’d have to be recording Ted Nugent live at a distance of 1 meter to overload the input. Not likely to be much of a problem. If, on the other hand, you’re feeding a signal from a set-top cable box or HIFI VCR or DVD player, don’t worry about it. The chances are that the dynamic range of those devices will be lower than the input on the sound card.

The X-Meridian has a very unique feature that you won’t find on any other card on the market. The output OPAMPs are discrete two channel units rather than integrated units all on one chip. Furthermore they’re not soldered to the board, rather they’re socketed so you can swap them out for different units. If you want sound with more definition to it simply swap the OPAMPs. I think that it’s a pity that the input OPAMPs don’t give you that freedom. I can understand why they didn’t implement it but it’s still too bad that they didn’t.

Now, looking at the specs Auzen claims that their card can take a 24 bit 96Khz input on the SPDIF. I’ve found in use that this is not true. I only have a single set of speakers (Yeah, I know…how unconventional) and I simply detest having to swap speaker inputs from one rig to another during testing so I decided to run the optical output from my spare PC to the optical input on the X-Meridian in my main box. I then set the output on the card in my spare rig (the Turtle Beach Montego DDL) to SPDIF only and set the sample rate to 24 bit 96Khz. and let rip.

I got this sped up sound that was vaguely similar to a buzz saw coming from the speakers. Wha….? I open the DDL driver, verify that it’s indeed set to the right settings, go into the drivers for the X-Meridian, check to see that everything is kosher there and try again. Again with the sped up buzz saw. I’m confused as hell by this point so I start checking that everything is physically configured correctly, the cable out is indeed coming from the output, it’s running to the input, yadda yadda. Everything is aces there. Hmmm…. Out of curiosity (and a wee touch of desperation) I switch the signal to 48Khz and guess what, we have sound! I haven’t had a chance to check whether the output is putting out 24 bit 96Khz or 24 bit 192Khz as I don’t have anything that will accept those rates.

Now that I’ve jabbered your ear off let’s take a look at this beasty.

The box is… a box. It shows the features of the X-Meridian and supported technologies along with letting you know it uses the Oxygen chipset.

The back of the box is a bit more detailed about what the features mean to you, the end user.

Inside the box we find the card in an anti-static blister pack.

Unlike the Montego DDL, the X-Meridian is a large card. It’s easily as large as the higher end X-Fi’s.

Inside the box is a large well written manual a 9′ (3 meter) optical cable, warranty card, driver disk and of course, the X-Meridian itself.

Looking at the end we see that Auzentech went with metal connections for the speakers rather than the color coded plastic variety used by many other MFG’s. This is good in that it gives a better connection to the ground on the barrels of the inputs and bad in that it makes hooking up the speakers an object lesson in how well can you memorize the locations of the connectors. Yes, there are icons engraved on the PCI slot cover but unfortunately they’re covered by the metal strips between the slots.

One interesting feature of the X-Meridian is the SPDIF interfaces used. Rather than using the 3.5mm jacks like Creative uses for their cards for their coaxial SPDIF Auzen went with RCA jacks that have optical elements in their center. The plastic that we see in the center of each RCA connection is the optical adapter that allows the use of a standard Toslink cable.

Looking at the back of the X-Meridian we see that it’s manufactured in Korea and that it’s RoHS compliant. A nice touch but I really doubt that many of these will find their way into the landfills as everyone can use good sound :-) Actually, I think that the only way a user of one of these cards would stop using it is if A.) it dies and is out of warranty, B.) PCI disappears completely or C.) driver support goes away after Vista is replaced.



Software and Driver

Now that we’ve had a look at the card, let’s take a peek at the driver.

The front page of the driver allows you to set up the speakers, SPDIF and DSP. The buttons on the upper right choose between the various output modes for 7.1 Virtual Speaker, Pro Logic II and DTS. Note that you can’t have DTS NEO PC and Pro Logic II running at the same time. It’s an either/or situation. That said you can choose to run either DTS or Pro Logic II and the 7.1 Virtual Speaker simultaneously. The 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter works with any speaker setting you choose whether you opt for headphones, 2 speakers, 4 speakers, 6 speakers (5.1) or 8 speakers (7.1).

What I didn’t show is that if you choose headphone you get an added tab for Dolby Headphone. This is a virtualization that mimics the sound of a 5.1 speaker setup through a 2 channel (left and right) headset. This will also work with the Virtual Speaker Shifter to expand the effect further from a 5.1 virtual sound stage to a 7.1 virtual sound stage In the virtual living room we see a representation of the speakers, the head of the listener and to the left of that are a pair of buttons which when clicked upon will allow for speaker level adjustments (upper button) or adjusting the time delay for the rear speakers (lower button).

When you click the tab above the Virtual listener (after clicking the hammer button which signifies configuration) you’ll bring up the soundfield display which shows the bias of the soundfield from front to rear. It also displays the focus of the center speaker’s soundfield. In the above example we see that the the movie mode is chosen so the soundfield is neutral and the center soundfield is focused on the center speaker.

Clicking on the Shifter tab brings up the Virtual Speaker Shifter soundfield. From left to right you can choose to have the virtual speakers rotate constantly either clockwise or counter clockwise, randomly rotate the speakers to the location of your choosing or drag the speakers where you feel like. As you can see I have the virtual center channel a bit closer to the virtual listener than the rest of the speakers. This increases the signal level from the virtual speaker in question. Simply increasing the levels for the front speakers won’t help to bring dialogue into focus, it will increase the ambient sounds normally heard from the front left and right channels along with increasing the center signal.

I run the virtual 7.1 soundfield and it works really well, even listening to my system from a point outside the soundfield gives the illusion that there are speakers on my back wall. My speakers are set up with two speakers about 3/4 of the way up the wall on either side of my monitor about 4 feet from the center of the monitor to each speaker and my surround speakers are to the side of me slightly behind my head also 3/4 of the way up the wall. Listening to movies though, I can distinctly hear content coming from behind me and with the center channel boosted slightly the dialogue is firmly anchored to the monitor and in no way muddy or muffled.

Remember when I mentioned the soundfield adjustments? Here’s an example of what I was talking about. In music mode the slider at the top adjusts the focus of the center channel either bringing it down to a point at the center or opening it up to spread it out to the sides. This gives more depth to the front sound stage and the slider to the side moves the bias of the soundfield from the front to equally situated to the rear. Bear in mind this is aimed at music listening so using it for movie listening might have less than desirable results. Note that this is available in DTS Neo PC and Pro Logic II mode.

Hitting the mixer tab brings up (taa-daa) the mixer. The unusual thing about this mixer is that you have access to both the playback and record functions simultaneously which is pretty cool all things considered. The buttons with the green insets are for muting the slider they’re attached to and the buttons below the mute buttons on the record mixer are the monitor buttons which allow you to listen to the selected channel through your speakers much like the tape monitor buttons do on home stereo receivers. Both the record and playback sections have a VU meter to let you monitor the signal strength of the respective functions.

Clicking the effect tab brings up the sound effects, room size and EQ. The effects and room size are only implemented if you choose one of the soundfields or click on more options and choose a soundfield from the drop down menu. Personally I think that this is where all the C-Media powered cards that I’ve encountered fall glaringly short. The only way to control the mix of the effects is by choosing a room size. There is no mix or depth controls so if a soundfield is to wet or has too much reverb to suit you it’s either try to find another soundfield that suits your tastes or failing that choosing to go dry with no effect at all. The room size is basically useless. All it does is change the rate of the reverb. Faster for a small room and a bit longer for medium and a bit longer for large. The depth remains the same no matter what.

The EQ on the other hand is great. It goes all the way down to 30hz and all the way up to 16Khz in full octave steps. That’s 10 full bands that are extremely effective, the slightest movement of the sliders is immediately and distinctively audible. Given the massive output on the analog speaker outputs you should use a bit of caution on the bass sliders. I found that at high levels moving the 30hz and 60hz sliders above 0db really over drove my sub.

Now you might notice that there’s no way of disabling the EQ, in fact you can’t, instead if you don’t want any equalization you click the default button to set it to flat and it’s the same as not having the EQ engaged. When you move the sliders from any position in a preset it switches the EQ mode over to user defined. If you like the sound of the EQ as you’ve set it to you just type a name for that particular EQ curve in the box below the drop down box next to the user defined button, click the + sign and that curve is saved. After that your preset is just a drop down menu away.

The karaoke tab brings up the karaoke and magic voice features. For karaoke you can choose to shift the key of whatever is playing back through your speakers by 4 keys either sharp or flat. You can also cancel the vocals on music that you want to sing along with. The success of this depends largely upon how the vocals on the music in question are laid down. If they’re in the center of the soundstage it works better but if they’re off to one side or the other (biased either left or right) the effect can go from minimal to none at all.

There’s also the mic echo/magic voice setting that you can switch between using a drop down menu. The echo is reverb that you can set from minimal to really wet or effect laden. Magic voice is a gimmick that allows you to change the timbre of your voice from a high pitched squeak to a bass heavy rumble. You can use this to disguise your voice in audio chat if for some reason you want to sound like Jennifer Tilly or Lurch.

Flex bass is the name used for the setting of the subwoofer’s crossover point and choosing the size of the speakers you’re using. If you choose large speakers the bass for those channels will be sent to the speakers themselves. If you choose small speakers the bass will go to the sub instead. The crossover point for the sub is continuously variable from 50hz up to 250hz. I’d advise against setting the frequency of the sub above 100hz unless you just have tiny main speakers as bass frequencies above 100hz are readily identifiable by the human ear.

This means that unless your sub is on your desk smack dab in the center of your front soundstage it will seriously screw with the quality of your sound. Yes, I know that it’s set to 120hz in the picture but that’s the default setting from the driver. I’m using a 4.1 setup so my bass is summed by the amp and sent to the sub at the frequency chosen by the MFG. Happily mine are are below 100hz because I can’t locate my sub with my eyes closed :-) I just enabled the flex bass to show you what it does and how.

Hitting the information tab brings up, well, information. It tells you your driver version, codec, audio controller and other information along those lines along with showing the various technologies employed by the X-Meridian. Clicking the DSP information button brings up a smaller window that outlines all the digital signal processing versions in use by the card.



Selective Listening, Conclusion


I’ve used to X-Meridian for some time now. I’ve used it for gaming, music listening and movie listening.

Gaming

This card offers very good gaming performance from a sound standpoint. Shotgun blasts, rocket launcher explosions and sniper rifles sound as real as if you’re in the middle of an honest to god battle. It’s saved my butt a few times when someone would think they were being cute trying to sneak up behind me and I’d hear them creeping up on me just in time to spin around and blast them. From a raw FPS standpoint you’re going to lose out to cards with dedicated hardware rendering but that’s the way it goes when your DSP is software based.

If wringing every last frame per second out of your gaming is your motivating choice for choosing a card then you need to look elsewhere because this card does come with a penalty but if you want a lush experience that’s rendered cleanly with no noise during high sonic impacts then this card will suit you down to the ground.

Music Listening

I’ve listened to every type of music that you can think of (aside from country western) and I’ve got to say that I love the sound from this card. The music sounds as it should, there’s none of the compromises usually associated with listening to music on a PC. Vocals are strong and musical with no edge in female vocals, no muddy vocals from the male singers. They’re both rendered with clarity and authority. Bass is sharp and deep. It doesn’t sound rounded or wallowed out.

Midrange cracks but it’s not raspy like is associated with digital music. It sounds natural not forced. Overdriven guitars don’t sound like you’ve actually got a fuzz box in the line instead you can hear the instrument and the amplifier that’s being driven to the brink of destruction. Drums and cymbals pop. The treble is clear and ringing without the airiness associated with too much emphasis and drums are distinct and not blurred. Snares have the proper ring, stand toms ring and floor toms pound, the kick from a double bass makes you worry your head will implode when you’re pushing the volume to 11! I kind of wonder if the drummers from Spinal Tap were beta testers for the X-Meridian ;-)

There’s no colorization from the card at all aside from the EQ you choose to use but even that is quality. It doesn’t add noise unlike some equalization I’ve encountered over the years. It doesn’t add noise to the signal chain by causing the signal in the frequency center to clip, instead it smoothly raises the sound in that range and just gives you what your after, either a boost or cut in that area. No distortion, no compression, just a tonal shift.

One thing I need to address about the X-Meridian is the analog output. The X-Meridian is capable of ungodly output, it puts out 5V RMS on the speaker outputs. This means that you don’t have to crank the gain on your speakers to reach full volume. What this translates into is a cleaner signal since it’s less likely that you’ll be hearing electrically generated noise from your speakers. Noise from your house AC can be picked up through the low level wiring on the analog inputs on your speaker system. This means that you can hear static from AC motors, switches and other sources as EMI (electro magnetic interference) when you increase the gain on your speaker system.

With the X-Meridian you typically won’t need to use more than 1/3 volume on the volume knob for your speaker system to obtain full output from your speakers since most other soundcards on the market can’t put out more than 1.5V RMS so speaker MFG’s set this as the limit to shoot for. Setting the gain (volume knob) on your speakers above 1/3 to 1/2 way up will only result in causing your amp to distort and could possibly result in damage to either the amplifier or your speaker’s drivers. This also means that headphone users need to be a bit more tender with the volume control in windows since most headphones aren’t designed for more than 2.5V RMS.

Cranking the X-Meridian up to full steam wearing headphone can result in damage to your hearing and your headphones. One is an annoyance and the other is a tragedy. I’ll let you decide for yourselves which is which.

Movie Listening

I’ve listened to a wide variety of movies on the X-Meridian. From fantasy to action to horror to comedies to science fiction. One thing that I’ve found is how immersive the experience is. I’ve been using the 7.1 virtual speaker shifter to run a virtual soundfield and it’s simply amazing how much the psychoacoustics (no, not crazed sounds, rather sounds you think you hear) from this little soundfield enhancement really open up a movie experience.

As I said earlier it really sounds like there’s something going on directly behind your head when you’re in a crowd scene or in the middle of a blazing action sequence the rear information that is imparted by what it does to the side mounted surround speakers is simply amazing. The virtual center channel really does help bring dialogue into focus. I’ve been using a 4.1 set for years and for the most part I love it but one thing I’ve always found lacking was dialogue. I’ve found that to get clear dialogue I had to crank the sound up to the point that when music would play or something big like an explosion would happen I’d end up getting blasted out of my seat. After setting the 7.1 v.s.s to active and toggling 7.1 speakers in my DVD playback software I found that dialogue was crisp and easily followed. No more hair trigger volume explosions.

Final Thoughts

The X-Meridian is a fantastic card if you’re not heavily dependent upon hardware acceleration for gaming. If gaming is something you do for fun and you’re not running a marginal system that needs every CPU cycle to keep your games running at a smooth rate and you place a lot of emphasis on quality sound then you can’t go wrong. This card has capabilities above what I’ve covered but unfortunately I’m unable to test it on those fronts. That said I do plan on getting a home theater system that can do this card justice and leverage it to it’s full potential. Realtime DTS encoding? Gaming in DTS surround? Oh yeah baby.

What I have witnessed of this card, though, is simply amazing. The sound is second to none. I’ve heard the same sources through the top of the line X-Fi and the X-Meridian is by far the better sounding card. If you’re running Vista though you’ll need to be running the 32 bit version to run this card, 64 bit drivers aren’t out at the time of this writing. There are Linux drivers but they don’t support DTS nor Dolby. This isn’t a failing of the card or chipset but rather the license holders of those technologies. They have no plans to allow their tech into open source.

Other than the one problem I ran into with the SPDIF input I’ve yet to encounter any issues with this card. The drivers are stable and I haven’t seen any compatibility issues, at all. I do wish that someone running the C-Media chipsets on their cards would go the extra mile and give us more customizing abilities with soundfields, it’s something the VIA cards and Creative cards have had for years. Leaving it out on C-Media cards is nearly criminal. After looking at the card and experiencing what it has to offer I’m awarding the Auzentech X-Meridian an 8/10 and our Editor’s Choice award. Fix the SPDIF issue and add in some soundfield controls and we’ll talk about a natural strike.

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