As time progresses, the role of computers in our lives progresses and evolves into machines that are commonly used for a host of different tasks - companies are now creating computers meant for digital video editing, gaming, serving, and acting as a media center. With this so called "evolution" of computers, components have been universally standardized (companies such as Dell now use non-proprietary components,) which has allowed for the component market to expand with new vendors, as well as new chipsets.
For a long time, Creative has been known for their dominance in the sound card industry, their DSP (Digital Sound Processing) is boasted by many an audiophile to be the best for a non-professional sound card. Companies have taken up Creative as a rival in the past before, such as Aureal, and even now, Creative has competition in the market - such as M-Audio, Hercules, and C-Media now present consumer sound cards that have been successful. Today I will be reviewing Chaintech's C-Media based sound card, the .
The first thing that I must point out about Chaintech's AV-515M is that it is a budget sound card. In this review, I will be pitting it against a Creative Soundblaster Audigy Platinum. Pricewatch shows the card retailing for $126.00 USD + shipping, while Chaintech's AV-515M is listed for $21 USD + shipping. That's roughly a $100 difference between the two.
However, certain extras are included with the Audigy that boost up the price - so I will instead disregard the Platinum features of the Audigy and treat it as the non-platinum version, which retails (boxed) for $80 USD. Is the $60 dollar difference between the sound cards really worth it?
Chaintech AV-515M: New Multi-channel sound Chip: C-Media 8738 - 6 Channel MX
6 Channel Output Support
Supports 6 output speakers
Supports Dolby AC-3 5.1 channel specification
OP101 SPDIF IN/OUT daughter board
Supports Toslink optical fiber input/output
Free Bundle: AudioRack stereo center
Control/Edit wave, mid, MP3 on a stereo center
New Version supports 6 channel speakers
Free Bundle: Software DVD
Intervideo WinDVD (5.1 Channel) software DVD player
Some of these specifications are implicitly true for the Chaintech card (such as AC '97, Plug and Play, DirectSound, and PC 2.1 compliance.) The only feature that really stands out in the Audigy is that it by default has a firewire compatible port onboard.
The Chaintech card is approximately two inches smaller (lengthwise) than the Audigy, and has a somewhat substantial section of PCB that is unmarked, whereas the Audigy's PCB is littered with connections and small IC's (Integrated Circuits.) Included with Chaintech's card is Intervideo WinDVD, and a daughter board that allows for optical input and output. Unfortunately, I do not have the proper utilities to test optical sound input and output, so they will not be covered in this review. Both cards support 5.1 sound output, which will be tested with headphones, and individual speakers.
There are three stages of testing which each card will undergo:
1) "Real Application Testing" - Quake 3 Benchmarking
2) Audio Winbench Testing
3) Perceived Hearing - Differences that are noticeable in the audio stream
The system used for testing has the following specifications:
Processor: Athlon 1700+
Motherboard: Abit KR7A-Raid
Memory: 512 Mb of Crucial PC2100
Video Card: MSI Geforce4 Ti4200 with 8xAGP
Real Application Testing - Quake 3 FPS
Quake 3 was run at 1600x1200 as to strain the CPU and video card as much as possible, thereby dumping any remaining work onto the sound card for audio processing.
The low quality scores reflect the ability for both sound cards to handle the smaller audio processing load, when compared to the high quality settings. The AV-515M takes a large hit during high quality testing, almost a 19 FPS difference from the Audigy.
Audio Winbench is a utility created by Ziff Davis to test DirectSound output based on cpu utilization. The following is the comparison summary between the two sound cards:
In every test, the Audigy once again beats out the Chaintech for CPU usage. Yet, the Audigy doesn't clobber the AV-515M by any means. In many of the tests there's a 2 to 5 percent increase in CPU utilization, which I do not feel is an enormous gain, however for extreme users, that might make a difference.
Finally, there is the human ear testing. Each of the sound cards were tested with wav, ogg, mp3, game sound reproduction, and midi. Constant tones were used when testing midi and wav, and the same ogg and mp3 files were used on both sound cards, ranging from hard rock to soft jazz. I found that the Audigy produced slightly richer tones, and that the AV-515M seemed a little flat on the low end (bass.) However, the differences were not significant enough for me to notice had I not been truly exerting myself to try and find a difference.
The truth is, the AV-515M had an unfair disadvantage throughout this whole review - it is aimed to be an all-purpose, cheap solution with good sound; while the Audigy is aimed at the higher-end spectrum of consumers. Considering the price difference between the Audigy and the AV-515M, the AV-515M did surprisingly well.
This is the first AC '97 compliant card that I personally have tested that I have found to be personally fulfilling when taking its' price into account. For someone that doesn't need to have the best of the best audio, or can't shell out a lot of money for a sound card, the AV-515M might just be the card for you.
Pros: Cheap, Great Price to Quality (bang to buck) ratio
Cons: Not for audiophiles, in real world gaming, can take a big performance hit in system performance while playing a game with high sound quality
Bottom Line: This card is meant for the budget consumer, and it does a great job of catering to its intended prospectors.