You have an older AMD or Intel based system, when you purchased it they didn't have "HD" audio components included on the motherboard. Does this mean you have only one choice for upgrading your audio without upgrading the entire system?
This is of course one scenario of many that is hopeful you run into so that you can sample and then choose the Inferno for your required solution. Reducing the load on your CPU is another, increasing the quality and features over onboard sound one more.
Who is Sondigo?
Well, to quote directly from their website:
"Sondigo is a company based in British Columbia, Canada & founded by me, Len Layton -- one of the inventors of the technology behind Dolby Headphone and someone who cares passionately about sound.
Our mission is to create great sounding products that make it easy for everyone to enjoy the latest audio technologies at home. It would be hard to find a more dedicated group of audio enthusiasts than us!
We are totally committed to supporting our customers and continuously improving our product line up to provide even more features, quality and value. Please explore our site and do not hesitate to contact us anytime.
--Len Layton, President and Founder"
appears to have a solid background of knowledge in the audio industry; add to that a small company that's sole purpose in life is to please the customer and you have a viable force in the Sound Card space.
While reviews of Sound cards have drastically fallen off, it is still nice to know there are options, and by options I mean more then just onboard sound or Creative. Let's look over the specifications :
7.1 Channel Output
|Optical S/PDIF Input/Output
|HQ Stereo Input (96KHz / 24 bit)
|EAX™1.0&2.0, A3D™ 1.0, and DirectSound
|Dolby® Virtual Speaker
|Dolby® Digital Live
|Dolby® Pro-Logic IIx
|DTS® Connect with DTS Interactive and DTS Neo:PC
|10 Band EQ
Intelligent Speaker Management
C-Media Oxygen HD Chip
The Inferno came packaged nicely in an understated box that once open you are surprised to see a WinDVD CD as well as a TOSLink cable to uplink to or from the Inferno. I say surprised in that I honestly expected nothing more then the sound card and therefore I feel it is a nice touch.
On the back of the Inferno we see the standard array of ports, from top to bottom (or left to right as pictured), Front L/R. (headphones), Side Surround, Center / Sub woofer, Back Surround, MIC IN, LINE IN, S/PDIF Out, S/PDIF In
While 7.1 surround sound is not unique in the industry, S/PDIF In is. This means you can take input from an external source as digital and then perform whichever decoding is necessary (DTS / Dolby Digital / Dolby Pro Logic etc) and then deploy that sound out of your System into its speakers. Most on board solutions only have S/PDIF out. The other thing you might notice is that the back plate is gold which while this looks nice, it unfortunately clashes with everything else that is silver. Sondigo are not alone in this unusual coloring scheme though.
The workhorse on the Inferno is the C-Media "Super High Performance PCI Audio Processor", the Oxygen CMI8788. The numbers are impressive with 12 outgoing and 8 incoming channels, each consisting of a multi-channel DMA. Sondigo is playing hardball by bringing one of the highest bitrates offered up to consumers who are not in the recording industry. The Inferno even has built in S/PDIF transmitters and receivers to eliminate the need for extra IC's that affect the clarity of the digital audio.
The analog audio is specifically handled by the CMI9780, an 8 channel AC'97 2.3 codec. The codec is coupled with 117dB SNR AKM AK4396 DACs. Compare this to the Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi Xtreme Music, Platinum and Fatal1ty soundcards at ~109dB and the Elite Pro at ~116dB. Typical onboard HD Audio only has ~90dB SNR DACs, apparently Sondigo wanted to offer up a board worth mentioning.
|Stereo Operation Amplifiers
|Discrete ADC's (Analog to Digital Converters)
|CMI9780 8 Channel AC'97 Audio Codec
|Wolfston WM8785 Stereo ADC
|Cmedia Oxygen HD PCI Audio Processor
Labeled in Section 3 on the far right, the Inferno uses Discrete ADC's (Analog to Digital Converters) and DACs (Digital to Analog Converters), just one of the reasons the Inferno holds an audio advantage over the onboard solutions. Discrete ADCs and DACs are like those found in high end Audio/Video Receivers. In section 2, middle of the card, you see the Stereo Operation Amplifiers; there are 6 in total.
Not to dissimilar from typical Intel HD Control Panels, the Inferno CP gives you control over many aspects of the audio output and input. The Inferno CP only utilizes a single background process and a single tray icon (which can be disabled).
The main software panel offers varying DSP modes depending on your speaker / headphone selection. There are 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter and Dolby Digital 7.1 Speaker Shifter, which in turn enables either DTS Neo PC or Dolby Pro Logic IIx. Selecting 2 or more speakers also enables the use of the Dolby Digital 7.1 Speaker Shifter, unfortunately headphones shows only the Dolby Headphone option. Difficult for me in that I have 5.1 surround Headphones, so I chose the 5.1 solution for that part of the testing (in other words, I did not do a typical headphone test on the Inferno).
Mixer allows you to adjust output and input volumes of various devices. Effect allows manipulation of the audio, combinations of the three options can be used, giving you a variety of effects to the audio. While some offer a fuller audio experience, others appear to affect it negatively as they appear to conflict with each other.
Karaoke effects (invite the friends, its a party) and magic voice microphone allow you to sound like a Monster, Cartoon, or opposite sex (if you are auditioning for the Howard Stern show apparently). Granted on the Karaoke side of things, there will be no text for you to follow along with. LFE Crossover Frequency selection provides more bass if your audio doesn't offer as much as you like.
What does all of this do you ask? According to Sondigo:
7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter allows a circular rotation of the speakers around the listener as well expansion and contraction of the speaker circle to make the audio sound closer or further away.
DTS Interactive is similar to Dolby Digital Live, but enables a DTS surround audio output over S/PDIF to a DTS decoder unit.
DTS NEO:PC is the DTS equivalent to DDL IIx which converts stereo or multichannel audio sources into a 6.1 multichannel audio experience.
Dolby Digital Virtual Speaker expands a set of stereo speakers to simulate a 5.1 surround sound speaker system.
Dolby Digital Pro Logic IIx can process stereo or 5.1 audio signals (DVD AC3 for example) and use matrix up scaling to provide discrete outputs of 6.1 or 7.1 channels.
Dolby Digital Live is enabled over S/PDIF to provide upscale and conversion into 5.1 AC3 audio for a Dolby Digital receiver unit.
Plenty of stuff to play with, even for the true audiophile. The choice of Dolby or DTS sound is dependent on personal preferences, Dolby typically working better on lower data rate sound samples and DTS on higher bit rate. Dolby Digital was designed to be used between 192-448Kbps (AC3 audio is at 448Kbps), DTS was designed for use at 1411Kbps, DTS can work between 754 and 1509Kbps (with 754 being used on DTS DVD disks).
Oh and by the way, you know that one thing that I love to ding all the manufacturers on; turns out Sondigo knew this somehow (drat them to hell) as they have Linux drivers built for the Inferno ready for your enjoyment (minus the Dolby and DTS).
While there are not a lot of tests we can do with a high end sound card, outside the realm of "what it sounds like to me", we do have one synthetic benchmark we can use. I used Rightmark 3D to test CPU utilization throughout the 2D / 3D / EAX+ spectrum.
Taking into account that the typical CPU used today is of the dual core variety and this is a measurement of a single core, you can see that even at these levels, the Inferno is far from CPU intensive. The Realtek Onboard tested here is far from CPU Intensive as onboard audio solutions go, but it cannot hold a candle to the low numbers from the Sondigo Inferno
So how did it sound to me? I thought the reproduction of sound was of a very high quality although the difference between the Inferno and the Realtek HD solution was minimal to my ears. Albeit my ears are not as discerning as many others out there but the fact that I noticed a difference in favor of the Sondigo speaks for itself. I did notice a more robust sound while I watched “Master and Commander” from the Inferno. Playback of music files, CDA or MP3 was almost identical with a slight nod to Inferno for reproducing bass that seemed to pound your chest, even though I was wearing headphones. A huge advantage for me, was the ability to take SPDIF inputs and process them on the Inferno, gaining high quality 5.1 sound (7.1 if you have the setup) with an audio card that costs 1/5th that of a high end 7.1 Amplifier.
While reviewing sound cards at VL is a rarity the is a nice surprise and a great addition to those with discerning ears that want an audio upgrade rather then an entire system upgrade. Most people out there today are fine with their integrated audio solutions, especially with Intel's High Definition Audio and nVidia's past and present push for better quality onboard audio. This does not mean that everyone is satisfied with these solutions, as good as they are, they are not to the standards set forth by Creative and now apparently, .
The card is featured packed, and doesn't come alone despite the price as have seen fit to include a TOSLink cable for your use as well. The features of the card range from the well known Dolby formats to 7.1 output to some lesser known and more technical abilities such as 117dB SNR. All in all, this is a fine card for the price.