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Turtle Beach Montego DDL Sound Card

Date: December 5, 2005
Author(s): Matthew Harris

We all have the desire to have the cleanest sound on our computers, but like everything else, there are far too many sound cards to choose from. Turtle Beach has been known for their high quality audio products, so we are taking a look at their top of the line Montego sound card. It looks good, but how does it perform for our audio junkie?



Introduction

Todays PC audio is getting more and more sophisticated. It used to be that all you had were a pair of desktop speakers and a 2 channel soundcard and you were happy. Back around 2000 that all started to change with the advent of quadraphonic soundcards and 4.1 speaker systems beginning to hit the scene. It wasn’t too long after that that we began seeing 5.1 surround soundcards followed slowly by a good selection of 5.1 capable speaker systems, but, this is always the case.

You won’t see support for a new feature until the manufacturers are certain that the new feature will actually be embraced by consumers. Then we saw the first 6.1 soundcards followed pretty quickly by 7.1. With the second generation of 5.1 soundcards we also saw more manufacturers begin including optical S/PDIF outputs which allow you to hook your 5.1+ home theater system with optical digital inputs up to your soundcard for surround sound from Dolby Digital sources. Up until recently (except in the case of nForce 2 based motherboards with SoundStorm audio) this meant that you were only able to get Dolby Digital support from DVD audio since no other audio sources (games, music, ETC.) featured Dolby Digital audio support.

Up until recently this lack of on the fly Dolby Digital encoding has been the norm amongst even the most high dollar soundcards. Enter the Montego DDL. The Montego DDL from Turtle Beach features real-time Dolby Digital encoding on the fly so that all your sound sources going to your 5.1/6.1/7.1 home theater systems with optical digital inputs will have surround. This means if you are using your PC as a HTPC/gaming rig you’ll no longer need to have dedicated 5.1 computer speakers for surround support in games or do without surround if you were just using your home theater sound system exclusively for sound playback.

Listed below are the specs for both the Montego DDL and the onboard audio that I’ll be comparing it to in the listening and user interface areas.

Specifications for Montego DDL


Features and Specs

Versus the onboard VIA Envy24 sound featuring:

The above feature listing on the VIA Envy24 are from the page my motherboard manufacturer has for my particular board. Not one to be content with minimalistic facts I went to the source for the audios chipset, VIA.

Here’s a few more detailed features:

Key Features

Not quite as feature rich as the DDL but still, it is pretty decent.


Montego Software

On a side note I’d like to point out that while the DDL supports 96khz sampling rates for analog playback it only has 16bit DACs which means you’re actually not getting full 24bit resolution on analog playback. Whether this will be an issue will come out in listening.

First up we’ll take a look at user interfaces.

On the Envy24 side of things we start out with the control panel which has the different tabs for Playback, Record, Source, Digital in, Speaker Configuration, Advanced Controls, Information and Q Sound. It offers a pretty well rounded set of features for onboard really.

As you can see, for an onboard soundcard the Envy24 offers pretty decent options for choosing things like S/PDIF rates, Stereo expander, analog sampling rates, center/LFE swap which is nice because it won’t force you to use a jumper.

Here’s a quick overview of the Q Sound control panel, for a more detailed look at all the features of Q Sound you can go here and take a look. Since I’m not doing a review of my onboard audio I’m only interested in comparing certain things which are directly comparable between the two cards and those features are environmental modeling and comparative listening experiences.

Onto the Montego DDL! When you put the install CD for the DDL in your drive after physically installing the card, you’ll be met with the following options which are all pretty self explanatory.

Here you’ll find the included applications with your audio card, I didn’t play with the demos due to time constraints but I did install the recording station. Recording station which is like a multitrack recorder which will allow you to combine multiple tracks of digital music and/or MIDI music.

I also installed Audio Surgeon which is quite a complex piece of software, it allows you to open almost any digital soundform and edit, add echo, clean up audio artifacts such as hiss, pops and distortion. You can do this to the entire waveform or selected areas which makes it really nice for converting older audio formats to digital and allows you to clean up trouble spots in an otherwise fine file.


Software Cont. & Customer Service

The DDL control panel allows you to set the speaker configuration via a drop down menu and offers volume controls for all the speaker outputs along with the S/PDIF options in another drop down menu and visual indicators of what sound effects you have functioning.

The effects tab offers a virtual speaker positioning effect for helping to clean up any discrepancies in your speaker placement versus ideal placement. In the position effect you’ll also see the rotate buttons which set the virtual speakers spinning around your actual speaker array which is pretty interesting.

The environments section has a drop down menu for choosing the simulated “room” that you’re listening in and the size buttons below that set the amount of reverberation in depth, speed and decay unfortunately though there’s no setting for mixing the input signal with the processed signal output and sadly the signal you get by default is very “wet” (a musician’s term for saturated with effect) which makes it difficult to follow either lyrics in music or spoken dialogue in movie listening. I was using the environmental effects in my old sound setup which had an effect depth control, in use it wasn’t so much of a change in the level of the effect as in the mix with the incoming signal. It made it possible to use practically any effect and set it to where it wasn’t overpowering.

This got me to wondering why there wasn’t such an option on the DDL’s control panel so I fired off an email to Turtle Beach about it:

Hello,

I’m currently evaluating the Montego DDL and I’ve got a question about mixing the base sound signal with the “wet” (processed) environmental audio signal in the environments setting.

I’ve been all over the control panel and I can’t seem to find a setting for this and frankly it concerns me since at best I’m finding the environments useful for light music listening and at worst only a couple of them are useful for that.

I just thought I’d ask you directly so that I could get your input on this and find out if there are any plans to possibly implement such a control in future driver revisions.

Thank you for your time.

And this was the reply that I got an hour and forty five minutes later (very nice speed in replying):

Matthew,

Thank you for contacting the Turtle Beach technical support team.

Thank you for your interest in our products. Your request has been forwarded to our developers for future consideration. If they consider it essential to the functionality of the sound card, it will be implemented on the next revision without notice.

We do appreciate your suggestion.

Best Regards,

Jimmy
Turtle Beach Technical Support Team

I guess some response is better than none. On a personal note I think they should consider it essential to the functionality of the card since without it the environments are essentially broken for anything other than novelty effects. I’ve found one environment that works for music listening without overpowering the vocals and even it is useless for movie watching.

In the sound FX section is the key shifter which will speed up or slow down the playback speed of digital music which is just a gimmick really, I can’t see as it would be of any practical use to a musician since there’s no way of getting an exact change in pitch out of the slider.

The center canceller changes the relative phase of the parts of a stereo recording that is equally reproduced in both speakers, this in effect cancels the sound out. The control should change the phase of those parts of the signal from 0° to 180° between the signals going to the speakers which will result in an electrical cancellation of those parts of the signals.

The voice changer control is pretty fun to play with, it works by either adding echo to the mic input or by morphing the mic input though something akin to a flanging affect, when you choose the morph you get 5 predefined levels of effect, the center is more or less normal and moving the slider to the left results in 2 steps of lowering in pitch and timbre and moving the slider to the right results in a rise pitch and timbre, pretty amusing in general.

The mixer tab presents your basic mixer panel, in general. The recording source for sound recorder doesn’t have a group of sliders, instead you have a drop down menu that allows you to choose one source or another or a setting for a mix of all. Happily you can still use windows mixer to mute any sources (such as the mic or line, aux, CD, Etc.) that you don’t want contributing noise to your recording.

As you can see from the rear of the card there are a ton of outputs along with the line in, mic in and S/PDIF ins and outs. This being the case there is no game port/midi input so if you’re a midi user you’ll have to buy a converter to use it with this card. This isn’t a ding against the card because the midi input has basically gone the way of the dodo ever since the advent of multi channel cards due to the real-estate taken up by the ports.

A quick glance at the card and the package contents shows that the card is fairly simple, small and doesn’t require an aux power input. We also see the single driver/software disk plus the few pieces hardcopy that accompanied the card.

Which leads me to ponder their decision to use such a huge box…

On to the test (yes I know I left out the equalizer tab, bear with me):


Testing and Conclusion

The system I will be testing the sound card in is as follows:

For my subjective listening, I used the following music to evaluate both cards with both headphones and speakers: Nine Inch Nails; Closer and Pantera; Hollow. For my movie listening I watched Batman Begins.

Here’s where the EQ comes into play… When I listened to my old setup I never used any EQ which is why I neglected to get a screenshot of it but that’s ok since it and the DDL EQ are both basically the same, 10 band full octave EQ’s with center frequencies at 30, 60, 120, 250, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 4,000, 8,000 and 16,0000 hertz.

I bring this up because when I began my listening evaluation of the Montego DDL I noticed a large spike in frequencies around 120 and 60hz and a bit of a lack at 30hz. The result of the tweaking is what you see in the above screenshot, yes I know I added a little treble at 16k but that was just to get a bit of sizzle going since the high end seemed to be a bit muted.

After the tweaking I can say that the DDL had stellar sound quality across the board, the low end has good extension and you can really feel the air being moved by the sub during hollow but as great as this sounds it was virtually indistinguishable from the Envy24.

I wouldn’t consider this a bad thing really, I’ve had an Audigy Platinum EX in this rig as well and the Envy24 actually surpasses it in terms of sound quality.

Overall the DDL is a mixed bag, it offers really good sound subjectively speaking, there’s no extraneous noise, no noticeable distortion and unlike the Audigy it has really good output when using PowerDVD. The Audigy required me to crank the volume on the PC to 100% then turn the volume on my speakers up past halfway to get a decent listening volume on any movie but as soon as I exited PowerDVD the volume would be insanely loud. Vexing at best. This is the reason I had no qualms trading it off for my current PC case and returning to the Envy24, it did not have this issue either.

The DDL has the little problem of the noticeable peak around 100hz and the slight rolloff in the 16khz range but happily it has the EQ to help even these things up. The two main detractors are the lack of a mix control for the environment effects and the lack of a full complement of record level controls, for a card that comes with a pro-sumer set of audio such as the Audio Surgeon and Recording Station, the lack of individual recording level controls is nothing less than a sin.

On the plus side are the aforementioned pieces of software if you’re of the ability to use them and the real-time Dolby Digital encoding and the overall stellar sound quality. Not to mention the speed which their tech support department takes in evaluating and answering their customer’s issues. I’ve had automated responses take longer to get back to me.

When it’s all said and done I give the Montego DDL a 7/10 with the hopes that the interface problems can be taken care of in the next driver revision.

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