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Razer Barracuda AC-1 Sound Card

Date: April 6, 2007
Author(s): Rory Buszka

With the anticipated release of the Razer Mako loudspeakers, we have a look at Razer’s Barracuda AC-1 audio card, and compare it to two other common audio solutions. The Barracuda AC-1 boasts an impressive feature set, and its audio chipset has an excellent reputation for sound quality. Will it be a fitting partner for the new Mako speakers?



Introduction


One of the top contenders for “Most Underappreciated PC Component” definitely has to be the sound card. When it comes to spending money on upgrading our rigs, pristine sound quality typically takes a back seat to dazzling, high-definition graphics performance. However, apart from the improvement in sound quality that a discrete sound card provides, the sound card you choose for your machine can actually affect your machine’s overall performance (believe it or not).

This is because different audio chipsets put varying degrees of load on your machine’s CPU based on the methods they use for things like signal processing algorithms. You certainly won’t hamstring your PC’s performance by choosing a less-than-optimal sound card, but the impact that a sound card can have on 3D framerates (for example) should not be discounted. The more processor power a particular audio chipset requires from your CPU, the less it has available to devote to things like physics calculations and AI processing, and that can take a bite out of your machine’s maximum performance. Who knew?

Performance ramifications aside, music-lovers and home theater aficionados won’t have a hard time making the decision to jump from their motherboard’s onboard audio chipset to a discrete sound card. When choosing ancillary components to build into their motherboards, motherboard manufacturers typically focus on cost, not audio quality, and as a result these chipsets typically deliver middling sound quality at best.

What’s more, locating the audio card’s analog signal traces directly beside data and power traces on the motherboard can cause electrical interference to enter the sound card’s preamplifier circuitry, adding unwanted noise and absolutely killing the overall signal-to-noise ratio. That means you’ll have to crank up your sound card’s output even further to overcome the noise floor, and reduce the gain on your external amplifier or powered speakers to compensate.

A low-quality audio chipset can also inject intermodulation and harmonic distortion products, and can suffer from poor definition and lackluster bass. It’s easy to see why quality sound is important to audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts, but is there any reason for PC gamers to obsess over audio quality?

One company that wants to make the case for good sound to gamers in particular is Razer, most widely known for their line of gaming input devices. According to Razer, if you’ve got great visuals but not great audio, you’re missing half the picture. Modern games incorporate positional 3D audio and multichannel soundtracks. The former can make the difference in your ability to hear and respond to nearby opponents; the latter simply affects your overall immersion in the experience of the game.

Companies like Creative and AuzenTech have marketed their audio cards based on what improved audio fidelity can bring to your media experiences, but Razer has developed the Barracuda Gaming Audio System specifically for the needs of gamers. The Barracuda Gaming Audio System isn’t ‘just’ a sound card, nor is it ‘just’ a set of headphones. Instead, the two products (AC-1 7.1 sound card and HP-1 5.1 headphones) are designed to work together with a set of special software drivers to address the specific needs of gamers, though as you’ll see, they’ve managed to deliver up an audio solution that’s a solid all-around performer, whether you use it with the matching headphones or not, and regardless of if your primary passion in life is PC gaming.

At CES 2007, Razer unveiled the next stage in their quest for leadership in PC peripherals in general, and PC audio in particular: high-quality powered speakers. The Mako 2.1 loudspeakers feature engineering by THX, Ltd., one of the foremost authorities in quality sound and video. While THX has focused mainly on testing and certifying gear by other manufacturers in the past, Chief Scientist Laurie Fincham (of KEF fame) and his team of engineers have turned their attention toward providing engineering and design consulting services to loudspeaker manufacturers in order to push the envelope of audio performance and innovation.

With Razer’s matchless attention to detail, combined with THX’s years of know-how and experience with the world’s finest audio systems, it’s no wonder the industry press is abuzz with anticipation over Mako. When the Mako speakers finally become available this summer (we’re told), it’s likely that users will want to pair them with Razer’s Barracuda AC-1 sound card, so I feel this review provides a fitting prelude to the Mako’s eagerly awaited introduction.



Packaging; Specifications

In my experience, one of the defining characteristics of a Razer product is meticulous attention to detail in all aspects of the product’s design, including the packaging. The Barracuda AC-1’s product box incorporates design characteristics that are common to all Razer packaging, among them eye-catching foil lettering, dark metallic hues, matte-finish black accents, and a big, clear photo of the product itself. More importantly, however, the design is distinctively Razer, with the characteristic distressed visual elements Razer incorporates into almost all their graphic design. It’s a box design that definitely appeals to the gamer in me.

The back of the carton lists the sound card’s features and technical specifications in ten different languages, and provides a detail view of the sound card along with numbered points that identify some notable features.

Lifting the top reveals Razer’s enigmatic three-serpent logo and even more inky black blackness; this is one of the most tastefully-packaged sound cards I think I’ve ever encountered. Even the inside of the box is black – it’s great. Lifting away this second layer of cardboard reveals the box’s contents, neatly packed in their respective wells of a pressed cellulose-fiber tray. I find that these trays are becoming more commonplace in product packaging as manufacturers turn to more environmentally-conscious alternatives to Styrofoam.

The AC-1 card itself is wrapped in an anti-static bag and nestled in one of the wells of the internal tray. The card itself features a striking black powder-coated rear cover, black PCB, and a large metal enclosure that covers most of the card. I’ll explain more about this later. The Razer Fidelity chipset is exposed, however.

Also included with the Barracuda AC-1 is a dongle that plugs into the back of the card and offers full 7.1 connectivity. You’ll need this if you aren’t using Razer’s matching Barracuda HP-1 headphones. A CD with drivers is provided, and Razer also supplies a quick-start guide and a more detailed “Master” guide.

Specifications

Conspicuously absent on Razer’s web site are any technical specifications. The ‘specs’ page is actually a “features and benefits” affair, without much that can be included here. In this section, I typically try to bring you some numbers, but they aren’t to be found, which is a disappointment. I hope Razer will come to understand that gamers care about image, but PC enthusiasts also care about numbers. These specifications were taken from Newegg.com and my own research.

Spec
Comments
ModelBarracuda AC-1 The Razer Barracuda gaming audio system is comprised of two components, a multichannel sound card and a multichannel headphone system.
Audio CoreRazer Fidelity (CMI8788)This is the same chipset that is used on the Auzentech X-Meridian and the Sondigo Inferno.
Channels7.1This sound card is capable of handling the most demanding multichannel formats available today; still, this is becoming industry standard for high-end audio cards.
Sample Rate192kHzThis high sample rate ensures that this card won’t add artifacts when playing material that samples at 44.1kHz, like audio CDs.
Digital Resolution24-bit24-bit audio is the same resolution that’s used by the DVD audio specification, so this card will have no trouble getting the most out of a 24-bit format digital recording.
Signal-to-noise ratio117dBThis is the signal-to-noise ratio associated with the CMI8788 audio processor, but it isn’t necessarily the final SNR at the card’s output.
InterfacePCIMy motherboard has two PCI slots and three PCIe 1x slots. Where, oh where are the PCIe sound cards? Oh well, at least it’s backwards-compatible with much older motherboards.
PortsToslink SPDIF In
Toslink SPDIF Out
HD-DAI Connector
I’m happy to see that Toslink optical connectors were used here, so that a Toslink-to-Toslink optical cable is all that’s required to connect this card to my multichannel receiver. The HD-DAI connector is good news to some and bad news to others, for different reasons.


Barracuda AC-1 Features Overview

Up until recently, Razer hasn’t been a company that’s known for their audio products. They are, however, well-known for doing their homework when it comes to the development of a new product, and the Barracuda AC-1 serves up a bevy of features that gamers, HTPC enthusiasts, and music lovers alike can get excited about.

The front of the Razer Barracuda is dominated by a large metal box, which covers most of the card. The box is meant to function as a shield against electromagnetic interference (EMI) from the other devices in the case. An operating PC can generate significant EMI, which can leak into the analog portion of the signal chain (part of the reason why onboard sound cards usually have such a low signal-to-noise ratio, or SNR). This shield conducts any magnetic fields away from the sensitive analog components (opamps and the like) which are underneath, helping keep the analog output of the sound card as pure as possible.

The EMI shield is removable, revealing what’s underneath: a maze of analog and digital circuitry. In addition to plenty of tiny capacitors and resistors, I discovered four AKM AK4396VF DACs (digital-to-analog converters; likely each is a two-channel unit), six Analog Devices ADA4850 opamps, a Wolfson WM8785G 24-bit/192KHz ADC (analog-to-digital converter), and a Razer-branded IC marked “RZR 1532”, whose purpose I can’t discern. Perhaps it incorporates a couple more opamps, to make up for the two missing from the overall number of discrete opamps. Also under the hood are sixteen green LED lights, which illuminate a ‘Razer’ logo on the side of the card.

The Razer Fidelity chipset on board the Barracuda AC-1 is actually a re-branded C-Media CMI8788 chipset, better known as OxygenHD. It’s the same chipset that’s used by the Auzentech X-Meridian (which Techgage has also recently reviewed), though the Barracuda AC-1’s PC board uses a different design, with different output stage components. The CMI8788 OxygenHD chipset is essentially a multichannel signal processor with software control and support for 32-bit D/A conversion, though the Barracuda’s DACs don’t support this level of resolution.

If 24-bit resolution is good enough for DVD-audio, it’s good enough for just about any other currently-available format. The CMI8788 operates at 24.6MHz, and provides programmable channel routing with 4 input data stream pairs (8 total streams) for up to 7.1-channel operation (the eighth channel handles the discrete subwoofer information). In fact, I discovered that C-Media’s own CMI8788 drivers are capable of operating the Razer Fidelity card, though the Razer-supplied control panel loses its functionality, and it’s just a better idea overall to use Razer’s included drivers.

C-Media claims a 117dB SNR for this card, besting even the Creative Audigy4, though this is only through the CMI8788 processor itself, not necessarily through the entire signal chain on the card. Each of the AKM DACs is rated for 120dB SNR, and the entire analog output stage of the sound card is EMI-shielded, so this spec doesn’t seem impossibly optimistic. However, the Wolfson ADC used here is only rated for 111dB SNR, so audio input to the card won’t be as pristine as the card’s output is capable of. That factor may also limit this card’s score on RightMark Audio Analyzer’s Loopback tests in the testing that is to follow.

The Barracuda AC-1’s black-painted input panel has a fairly clean appearance, with a pair of optical Toslink connectors, one input and one output, and a larger connector that Razer calls HD-DAI (High Definition Dedicated Audio Interface) – which is essentially a DVI connector repurposed as a quick-connect solution for Razer’s Barracuda HP-1 5.1-channel headphones. The two products, the AC-1 and the HP-1, are designed for each other, and intended to function as part of a complete audio system.

Gamers who regularly tote their rigs to LAN events will certainly appreciate this touch, since it eliminates the need to fumble through multiple connectors in low light to set up multichannel headphones. Razer provides a dongle with the HD-DAI connector at one end, and six 35mm stereo miniplugs at the other end, for connecting third-party headphones, speakers, or other audio systems that don’t use the HD-DAI connector.

The included dongle actually makes it possible to add the convenience of the HD-DAI connector to any set of multichannel headphones or powered speakers, at the expense of a little of the elegance of the HD-DAI solution. That said, it would seem a bit pointless if Razer did not carry the HD-DAI concept with future audio products like the upcoming Mako 2.1 speakers.

On the anterior of the card, there are three connections – two connectors for analog audio input from CD players (a vestige from the days before Windows Media Player’s digital playback mode), meant to ensure compatibility when used in significantly older machines, and a large block connector for audio input/output jacks on the front of the PC case. However, the front audio connector provided by my Antec P150 case is a different type entirely.

According to Razer’s supplied Master Guide, this type of connector (AC ’97 standard-compliant) will need to be connected directly to jumper group J26, found on the PCB, right behind the HD-DAI connector. Simply remove the existing jumpers and attach the AC ’97 connector. I’ve never even seen a case that uses the bigger type of connector found on the front of the card. I would rather have seen only one AC ’97 connector on the front of the card, instead of hidden at the very back.

Overall, Razer has delivered a solid hardware package, based on a well-reputed and widely-used third-party chipset, and fleshed out with some thoughtful feature additions. Next, we’ll examine the drivers and software included with the Razer Barracuda AC-1.



Drivers & Software

The Razer Barracuda AC-1 is an impressive piece of hardware, but like any sound card, it relies on a stable and functional software driver to make it go. By all appearances (matching file names and such), the underlying driver provided with the Barracuda AC-1 is the same as the driver provided on C-Media’s web page, the same one that’s bundled with the Auzentech X-Meridian and Sondigo Inferno. However, the Barracuda AC-1 driver set includes a special Razer-developed control panel that’s much improved over the basic C-Media one.

Razer’s control panel is more than just a new ‘skin’ for C-Media’s own control panel – the Razer control panel features a completely redesigned layout that places all the controls within easier reach. Instead of the C-Media control panel’s tabbed interface, the Razer Barracuda AC-1 control panel uses slide-out panels for adjusting advanced settings and DSP modes. This makes changing settings faster and more convenient, if a little less organized than C-Media’s tabbed interface.

Also missing from Razer’s control panel are controls for the “Karaoke” features of the C-Media driver, which include microphone reverb, voice changing, pitch shifting, and vocal filtering. These features may be gone from the control panel (since most gamers I know wouldn’t be interested in them), but I was able to access them through the C-Media Xear3D control panel while testing the card with the reference drivers.

The main panel of Razer’s control panel features the main system mixer, which can be switched between playback and recording controls by clicking on the label at the upper right corner of the mixer, which toggles between views. At the upper right corner of the main panel, you can select your speaker configuration. The HD-DAI option is essentially the same as enabling the “5.1” output; I can’t tell that it does anything different. You’d choose this option if you’re using Razer’s HP-1 headphones, which connect directly to the HD-DAI connector on the back of the card. A drop-down menu provides options for the card’s digital output, which include sampling rates up to 192kHz, and a couple of DSP options as well, which I’ll cover in a moment.

The graphic below, labeled “Sound Stage Options”, displays the active number of speakers, and allows you to adjust each channel’s level independently. The speaker icon activates the level controls; the 3D Test icon causes the sound of a helicopter to circle your head. Directly under the graphic are controls which allow a time delay to be applied to each active channel. If your room isn’t perfectly square, or you aren’t seated directly between your two speakers, adjusting the delay settings will help you achieve a more natural soundstage. Here’s a hint: sound travels at about 13,500 inches per second.

At the bottom of the main panel is a tab labeled “advanced…” Clicking on this tab causes another panel section to slide out, containing a graphic equalizer (with user-definable presets and broad +20dB/-20dB adjustment range) and a “Bass Control”, which allows the adjustment of the subwoofer crossover frequency when using a multichannel system configuration, or Razer’s HP-1 5.1-channel headphones (which incorporate discrete sub-bass transducers). If no separate subwoofer control is desired, the control can be enabled/disabled by clicking on the ‘power switch’ beside it.

Even if you don’t have a subwoofer, the bass threshold control can be helpful when using very small speakers that don’t have a lot of bass capability. Trying to cram too much bass through a pair of tiny drivers generally results in a generous helping of distortion. Simply set the bass threshold to a low frequency, in the neighborhood of 50-60 Hz, and the bass control will act as a subsonic filter, filtering out the lowest lows and reducing distortion over the rest of the speakers’ range.

The upper right corner of the Razer Barracuda control panel contains a tab similar to the one on the bottom of the control panel, but labeled ‘modes’; it conceals a second slide-out panel containing the various DSP (digital signal processing) modes offered by the Barracuda sound card. These aren’t half-hearted proprietary DSP algorithms, either – they’re all industry standards.

The Razer Barracuda AC-1 features Dolby Digital, Dolby Headphone, Dolby Virtual Speaker, and Dolby Pro Logic IIx processing, as well as DTS Neo:PC enhancements. Still more DSP options are available on the card’s digital output; they’re accessed via the S/PDIF drop-down menu in the main panel, and include Dolby Digital Live and DTS Interactive. The ‘modes’ panel also contains environmental effect settings, which include various room options and three environment sizes that affect the duration of reverberation. I didn’t expect much from these additional effects, but I was surprised by their realism and quality.



Measurements


When it comes to sound cards, the differences between one model and another can be fairly evident; other times, they can be so subtle that they’re almost imperceptible. However, one way to fairly reliably determine the differences between sound cards is by measuring their output. The method I’ve used here is fairly low-tech, called a ‘loopback’ test. Essentially, the sound card’s output is piped back through its microphone input, and the resulting waveform is analyzed by a program. This type of test won’t be as accurate of a measurement as could be achieved by dedicated (expensive) testing equipment, but it can give a fairly decent picture of how cards compare to one another.

For this exercise, I’ve borrowed a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy4 card, and I’ll be testing the Razer Barracuda against both the Audigy4 and the onboard Realtek HD Audio chipset on my ABIT KN9-Ultra. I don’t personally use this motherboard’s onboard sound, but it’s interesting to see, even with how far onboard audio solutions have progressed in terms of quality, just how much can still be gained by going with a discrete audio board.

I’ll also be comparing these three audio solutions based on CPU usage, to quantify how each card will affect your system’s overall performance. This test will be based on 16, 32, 64, and 128 simultaneous buffers (concurrent sounds).

RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5

This is a full test battery, run in loopback mode and minus the IMD+Noise Swept-Frequency Test, which delivered inconsistent results. Some difficulty was encountered in testing the Razer Barracuda AC-1, because during the level-setting portion of the test, one channel’s level would drop to -70dB or below at random. Most likely, this was caused by the driver not playing nicely with multiple input-recording sessions in rapid succession; it appears that this did not affect the normal operation of the test battery, however.

This test isn’t useful for determining absolute values of the measured parameters, because it is dependent not only on the output stage of the sound card, but the input stage as well (which is typically of lower quality than the output). These values should only be used to compare one sound card to another; they should not be taken as a verification of the sound card’s specifications. All tests were run in 16-bit mode, at a 44kHz sampling rate.

Measurement Type
Realtek
Audigy4
Barracuda AC-1
Comments
Frequency Response + 0.320.10.06(+ dB)
Frequency Response – 0.90.26-1.17(- dB)
SNR83.290.887.4(dBa)
Dynamic Range 83.290.687.3(dBa)
THD0.20%0.01%0.0025%less than
IMD+Noise0.35%0.01%0.102%less than
Stereo Crosstalk -79.9-88.5-85.6(dB, unity-referenced)

Frequency Response
Of the three cards, the Audigy4 turned in the best frequency response results. For some reason, the Barracuda AC-1 displayed a maximum response dip with a magnitute of -1.17 dB, which is worse than the Realtek; however, when the overall range between these two measurements is calculated, it is only 1.23dB, which results in an overall +/-0.615dB variance. This number is still high; I’d expect to see variance that large in the frequency response of a well-designed studio monitor loudspeaker, but not a sound card. The similar Audigy4 chipset only varied over a range of 0.18dB.

This suggests that the problem isn’t actually with the frequency response of the CMI8788 chipset or the card’s output stage, but rather with the microphone input stage, or else a problem with the execution of the test battery itself. As I mentioned, a driver issue with the C-Media card made it difficult to calibrate the card’s output for the test; perhaps this same issue caused problems with the frequency response measurement. This strange result occurred repeatedly, and consistently within +/-1% throughout multiple tests of the Barracuda AC-1 card.

Signal-To-Noise Ratio (SNR)
The signal-to-noise ratio of a card describes the difference in overall sound level between an output signal and the card’s output noise level. The card’s overall SNR is dependent on more than just the chipset; it can also be affected by each and every additional component in the output stage of the signal chain. Since this test is a loopback-type test, it’s also dependent on the components in the analog input stage of the card under test.

Overall, the Barracuda fared 5.0% better than the onboard Realtek audio, while the Audigy4’s SNR was 9.1% better. Most likely the discrepancy here is mostly due to the sound card’s input stage. Across the board, these SNR values are significantly higher than the manufacturers’ published claims, which either suggests that the output circuitry of each card is having a significant effect on the SNR that is achieved, or else there is a flaw in the testing methodology, which would be most likely the lurking variable of the input ADC and analog circuitry. Unfortunately, the metal shield over the analog signal output components doesn’t seem to do very much except look pretty.

Dynamic Range
This parameter describes the difference in level between the noise floor of the card and the output level that produces clipping and distortion. For all three cards, the measured value was approximately equal to the card’s measured signal to noise ratio.

Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)
Harmonic distortion is produced by oscillating systems while producing sinusoidal waveforms, and is caused by nodal deviations from the perfect sine wave. Harmonics occur at frequencies equal to f*2^n, where n is the harmonic number, or the number of nodes at which the deviant waveform lies exactly on top of the theoretical perfect waveform. The total harmonic distortion of a waveform is given as a ratio of the sum of the power levels of all harmonics to the power level of the fundamental frequency (f).

In listening, harmonic distortion manifests itself as harmonic overtones, or ‘hash’ in the upper midrange and high frequencies. A THD of 0.1% is virtually inaudible. Here, both the Razer Barracuda AC-1 and the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy4 card excel, with the Barracuda showing vanishingly small THD overall. The result is a very clear, pristine sound, with exceedingly high definition.

Intermodulation Distortion + Noise (IMD+N)
Intermodulation distortion arises when two sinusoidal waveforms of different frequency are overlaid on top of each other in the output signal such that they sum constructively and destructively, causing additional signals that are not harmonics of either waveform. These distortion products occur at f1+f2 or f1-f2, where f1 and f2 are the frequencies of the two desired waveforms. Intermodulation distortion is important because it measures the linearity of amplifiers, and it manifests itself as just more ‘hash’ which gets in the way of perfect sound. Here, the powers of the intermodulation distortion products are added to the overall noise floor, to describe the ratio of overall signal to both noise and distortion. Here the Barracuda AC-1 and Audigy4 perform about the same, with any difference being negligible.

Stereo Crosstalk
This parameter describes how much of one stereo channel ‘leaks’ into the other stereo channel throughout the signal chain on the sound card. This parameter is given as the overall level of the signal that has leaked into the other channel. These are all multichannel sound cards, but typically the front left and right signals are routed together through the card. One potential way of reducing crosstalk through a stereo signal is to route stereo pairs of signals through separate DACs and preamplifier circuits, but this is a board design thing, and not something we can adjust.



Performance Testing


At the start of the review, I explained how a sound card can affect your PC’s overall performance while running sound-intensive applications. Here we put the rubber to the road and actually see how the Razer Barracuda will affect your maximum machine performance. In my last test, I compared an onboard Realtek audio chipset, a Sound Blaster Audigy4 sound card, and the Barracuda AC-1. I’ll be comparing these three audio solutions based on CPU usage, to quantify how each card will affect your system’s overall performance. This test will be based on 16, 32, 64, and 128 simultaneous buffers (concurrent sounds).

To make these measurements, RightMark 3DSound 2.3 was used to generate random noise and load each audio card with a number of concurrent buffers, which was varied to show a trend in the increase of CPU usage based on different cards. The program’s algorithm monitored CPU usage over a period of 1 minute for each test, and then averaged the values over time. All other programs running on the computer were closed to minimize variance based on other programs vying for the CPU.

So, what does this all mean? The Audigy4 stayed below 2% CPU utilization through all tests, making it the best performer of the bunch – it will make the least impact on your CPU usage. Because the C-Media CMI8788 audio chipset performs most of its signal processing in software, there’s very little hardware acceleration available, which means that your CPU will take more of a performance hit with the Barracuda (or any OxygenHD-based sound card) than it would with one of Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster solutions, like the Audigy4 or X-Fi. However, in the grand scheme of things, either sound card is a significant improvement over using a Realtek HD Audio onboard chipset, which was shown to be by far the worst offender in CPU loading.



Listening

In any sound card purchase you make, the final judge will be your ears. I’ll confess – the Razer Barracuda AC-1 is a product (‘reviewable’) I’ve been sitting on for quite a while – several weeks, at least. During that time, I’ve had an opportunity to hit it with everything from a Ben Folds DVD-Audio to full-on hardcore rock, and even some gaming. No matter what I threw at the Barracuda AC-1, it performed admirably in every case.

Ben Folds Songs for Silverman DVD-Audio
This album exemplifies Ben Folds’ lush-yet-percussive piano style, merging it with rhythm elements and warm vocals. The Barracuda AC-1 remained free of hash throughout the loudest crescendos, and delivered the most subtle detail of the cello on “Gracie”. In addition, bass was tight and well-defined, but without the boomy ringing effect that some mistakenly identify as “slam”. This is an engaging recording, and the Barracuda AC-1 doesn’t disappoint.

Switchfoot Nothing Is Sound DVD-Audio
Listening to the powerful, fast-moving second track “Stars”, and the slower track “Happy Is A Yuppie Word”, I noticed a clearer and better-defined edge on the lead singer’s voice, though overall the presentation didn’t strike me as particularly transparent. Perhaps that’s because rock music in general is heavily compressed anyway. Ben Folds’ Songs for Silverman was more transparent and open than this recording, even in DVD-Audio format.

Just Cause
To test this card’s abilities in a gaming scenario, I threw in Just Cause for a few minutes of shootin-em-up. I decided this would be a good time to test the card’s Dolby Headphone DSP, to see if it lent new depth to the game’s positional audio. The Barracuda AC-1 handled the game well, locating the origin of gunshots and explosions accurately, while delivering plenty of low-end power to add authority and definitude to the sound of exploding vehicles.

These are only three examples of the various ways I’ve had a chance to put the Barracuda AC-1’s performance to the test. I also had the opportunity to test the AC-1 with the matching HP-1 headphones, and found that the combination provided a convincing surround sound experience though I wasn’t particularly impressed with the HP-1’s cupped midrange. What did impress me about the AC-1/HP-1 duo was the big, bad bass that the HP-1s were able to achieve. Even my fairly inefficient Sony in-ears could be driven to uncomfortable levels, thanks to this card’s massive +/-5V output capability. I was thoroughly pleased with the overall sonic experience of the Razer Barracuda AC-1 audio card.



Conclusion

Until recently, Razer hasn’t been known for their audio products; however, they are quite well known for doing their homework when it comes to a new product release. By pairing a high-quality off-the-shelf audio chipset with a robust board design, adding thoughtful features like Toslink optical input/output and HD-DAI, and including an easy-to-configure control panel, Razer has delivered a product that will appeal on multiple levels to their target market: gamers.

My favorite feature of this card is the Toslink output, which makes it easy to connect the Barracuda AC-1 to a multichannel home theater receiver, for a decidedly powerful music and gaming experience. The Dolby Headphone and Dolby Virtual Speaker processing are also particularly helpful, since I don’t typically use my PC with a multichannel audio system for gaming – I prefer to use a pair of stereo headphones, or a pair of stereo loudspeakers, and Dolby Headphone and Dolby Virtual Speaker produce a very convincing surround sound experience.

Even so, this card has a few shortcomings. The first, perhaps, is its price. Retailing for $200, the Barracuda AC-1 doesn’t come cheap. On the one hand, you’ve got to pay to play, and Razer realizes full well that with a sufficiently high-end product, the cost of admission is one of the product’s selling points, as a status symbol. In the other peripheral markets that Razer addresses, they have focused on delivering both a high-end product and a high-end image of the brand, and both those factors help to sell products.

The second shortcoming of this product is that in our loopback testing, the weakness of this product’s analog input stage was revealed, resulting in a higher SNR measurement than I think this product delivers in actual use. The third is the HD-DAI dongle, which I have a love/hate relationship with. On the one hand, the HD-DAI connector provides a quick way to connect and disconnect a multi-channel sound system to the card, but on the other hand, it hangs off the back of the PC like a vestigial tail, and I’ve found that it generally needs to be removed when transporting the PC. And finally, the fact that the C-Media OxygenHD chipset performs its DSP functions in software added measurable overhead to the CPU, though it was nowhere near as bad as an onboard audio solution.

In the end, however, the Barracuda AC-1 is a seriously solid performer, delivering audio that’s crisp and detailed, bass that’s deep, impactful, and remarkably distortion-free, and a plethora of configuration and DSP options to suit any preference or program material. Its feature set alone is enough of a selling point without the fact that the Barracuda AC-1 actually delivers on its marketing promises, and Razer’s meticulous attention to the small details makes this card a joy to use. I can recommend this card without hesitation, particularly if your intended application is gaming. If you’re a golden-eared, ultra-critical listener, you might want to go for the Auzentech X-Meridian, with its upgradeable op-amps, or a Creative X-Fi card, but the Barracuda AC-1 satisfies my ears. And that’s the final judgement.

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