Way back when...
Recommend this product?
I had wanted to write a review about the Santa Cruz back in March of 2001 but Epinions wasn’t taking new suggestions at that time. Now, many moons later, I see that they have finally developed a category for it and four other reviewers have gotten there before me. That being said and given that the other reviewers have covered the technical aspects of the card, I’m going to take the opportunity to do something different.
I’ve owned my Santa Cruz for well over a year now and what I’ve decided to do here is talk about how it compares to the current competition in terms of audio quality, highlighting its strengths and pointing out its weaknesses. I’ll also correct a few misconceptions I’ve seen concerning the soundcard. If some of you read this and think there are similarities between the information contained in this review and the Santa Cruz FAQs on ViaHardware and Neoseekers, you’re right. Why? Because I wrote them both. So why read this review instead of those FAQs? Because the review will fill in some blanks that I didn’t or couldn’t explore in those other articles. I’m not going to talk about the software bundle since it’s easy to find better freeware or shareware for ripping and encoding mp3s on the web (AudioGrabber, Exact Audio Copy, LAME) or sound editing (Cool Edit 2000). This review will focus solely on the audible aspects of the soundcard.
So, why did I buy a Santa Cruz in the first place?
In October 2000, I owned a Creative Labs Live! and after a single month was thoroughly fed up with the sound quality (or rather the lack thereof) that it produced. I had bought it on the recommendation of a friend because he had insisted that it produced the best audio available in a consumer-grade soundcard. Having previously owned three Creative Labs soundcards, I was already less than enamoured with the line and after matching it to my Monsoon MH-500s, I decided there had to be something better so I went looking for it. That search resulted in the Santa Cruz, a soundcard that easily outclassed the Live! in every way except EAX support and the latter didn’t particularly matter to me. Suffice it to say that when I installed it, the audio quality very noticeably improved in every way and I never looked back.
Clearing up some misconceptions...
As I stated earlier, there are a number of misconceptions I’ve seen surrounding this soundcard and I think I’ll clear them up right here:
First of all, the Santa Cruz is NOT a budget solution. It is a well designed piece of consumer grade hardware with borderline “pro-sumer” audio capabilities. What does that mean? It means that the technical and sound quality capabilities of the card are on the border between a consumer grade card like the Live! and higher grade audio solutions. In terms of audio quality, its only real competitors are the Philips Acoustic Edge and Hercules Game Theater XP. Creative Labs new Audigy falls behind in terms of its real (not claimed) performance but I’ll get to that. The fact that the Santa Cruz costs less than its competitors does not imply that it has fewer or lesser capabilities as you’ll see.
Secondly, the Hercules Game Theater XP is NOT a Santa Cruz under the skin. The two cards use the same Cirrus Logic DSP (Digital Signal Processor) and that’s where any similarity ends. The Santa Cruz has far superior drivers and a more refined sound, due in part to the higher quality Texas Instruments amplifiers used for its output stage. Again, I’ll get to that later.
Finally, the Santa Cruz IS most definitely a 5.1 soundcard despite what others have said. However this feature is limited to solely DVD playback which I don’t view as a drawback since this capability is irrelevant for music.
Now that we’ve got these misconceptions out of the way, let’s get to the primary question about this and any soundcard:
What does it sound like?
The Santa Cruz is for the person for whom audio quality is a primary concern but who also likes to game. It has better analog output than any other consumer grade soundcard on the market today. What does that translate to in practical terms? When you pair the Santa Cruz up with a quality analog 4.1 or 5.1 speaker system such as the Polk AMR150s, the Monsoon MH-505s or MM-2000s, or the VideoLogic Sirocco Crossfires, it will sound better than if you hook those same systems up to an Audigy or a Game Theater XP. How will the sound be different? That’s best explained by comparing the characteristics of the sound produced by each soundcard.
Let’s start with the Audigy since it’s probably the most high profile market competitor:
Right up front, I’ll say that Creative Labs’ flagship product is not a premium grade audio quality solution in the consumer soundcard genre. In comparison to the Santa Cruz, the highs and midrange of the Audigy are harsh, much less so than what the Live! produced but still noticeably so. As an example, acoustic instruments such as guitar don’t have the proper decay and are somewhat brash and in-your-face. The bass also has problems - boosting the lower frequencies via software results in distortion quite easily. Finally, the highs suffer from rolloff well within the range of average hearing (16Khz). Since many of the multimedia speakers from companies like Altec Lansing or Creative Labs are incapable of producing sound above those frequencies (the rather poor Inspire line is a good case in point), this won’t be noticeable unless you have a higher quality multimedia speaker system like the Monsoons, Polks or VideoLogics mentioned above. However, if you do have such a system, it starts to become quite noticeable, dependant of course on your musical source and material (128bit mp3s of Eminem aren’t going to highlight this shortcoming but 192bit encodes of Ottmar Liebert surely will). Other issues with the Audigy are the claims on the box of 24bit playback and 100db SNR, both of which are “creative” in their truthfulness (pun intended). The Audigy is not at all a 24bit soundcard and only utilizes 24bit sound for playback of DVDs. In addition, since all internal sound operations are16bit, the claim of 24bit output for DVD playback is watered down as well. The Audigy has to downsample the 24bit DVD source to 16bit for internal processing and then upsample it again to 24bit for output. Finally, the actual SNR of the card is a lot closer to the mid 80s rather than 100.
Contrast this with the Game Theater XP...
The sound of the Game Theater XP is decidedly more well rounded and rich when compared to the Audigy but is not quite as refined as the Santa Cruz. What do I mean by “refined”? The midrange, while a definite cut above the Audigy isn’t quite as rich and full. For example, the all-encompassing warmth inherent in certain smooth jazz tunes by Boney James is somewhat cooler than on the Turtle Beach soundcard. There is also a bit more high-end rolloff with the Game Theater XP compared to the Santa Cruz and this shows up in tunes like Santana’s “Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile)”.
The Acoustic Edge...
The Philips Acoustic Edge is another step up again, positioned between the Game Theater XP and the Santa Cruz in terms of sound quality. The midrange is just as full as the Santa Cruz although it is a bit lacking in detail and the highs match those of the Hercules soundcard. As such, this is the only consumer-grade soundcard I’ve found to be a worthy competitor to the Santa Cruz. The Acoustic Edge can generate discrete 5.1 outputs from a stereo source, something the Santa Cruz either cannot or does not currently do. While this may be an advantage for games, I view it as a distinct disadvantage for musical playback.
And lastly the Santa Cruz itself:
The Santa Cruz sound is best described as silky smooth and detailed. The decay and timbre of acoustic instruments is well brought out: the guitarwork on tunes like Toni Braxton’s “Spanish Guitar” is appropriately sharp and clear without being harsh while the electric bass on Boney James is warm and mellow. The high-end rolloff is around the 18Khz mark as shown by the tests on www.pcavtech, not to mention Carlos’ solo on “Europa” and the midrange has a richness to it that is more prevalent than with the Hercules Game Theater XP. Vocals are not in-your-face at all unless they are supposed to be and attenuating the bass via software or the built-in 10-band hardware equalizer results in enhanced, clean bass with no distortion. This card has the highest SNR of any consumer grade card today, testing in the low 90s. However, not all is sweetness and light. As I pointed out above, unlike the Acoustic Edge the Santa Cruz does not generate discrete channel output to a 5.1 speaker system from a 2 channel source. The “Virtual 5.1" solution that it uses is actually a summation of the front two channels to the center channel and subwoofer and in my opinion the resulting output “muddies” the stereo image. If you choose to leave this feature on in the Santa Cruz Control Panel, the latest drivers (rev. 4142c as of this writing) automatically disable it during DVD playback and then re-enables it afterwards.
Digital output on the Santa Cruz is similarly clean because of the excellent resampling algorithms used. It should be noted however that the whole concept of digital output being automatically superior to analog is a myth. The ear is an analog device and somewhere in the chain a conversion from digital to analog HAS to take place. What matters is the quality of the DACs (Digital to Analog Converters) and the algorithms used to achieve this, be they located on the soundcard or in the speakers. If the soundcard has good DACs and resampling algorithms as the Santa Cruz does, then analog output can easily be better than the digital output of a card that has poor algorithms for digital output such as the Live! If the card has good resampling algorithms for digital output (again like the Santa Cruz) and the DACs in the speakers are flawed (as they are with the rear outputs for the Polk AMR150s) then you’ll still get poorer sound quality.
One other aspect of sound that is becoming increasingly important today is 5.1 surround sound output for DVD playback. The Santa Cruz in concert with PowerDVD XP or WinDVD 3.0 will output Dolby Digital 5.1 analog output to an appropriate speaker system, thus obviating the need for an external AC3 decoder. This is exactly how I view DVDs on my system using PowerDVD XP. The placement of the sound is accurate and realistic and the bass response packs a punch - just watch the Diva Dance / fight scene in “The Fifth Element” if you need convincing. However, this soundcard requires a speaker system that does proper bass management, also known as small speaker mode. Fortunately, there are only a handful of systems that don’t have this feature built in such as the Polk AMR130 and various models by Midiland and Altec Lansing.
So what else can it do?
As every reviewer known to God and man has stated, the Santa Cruz has something called a VersaJack. What is the VersaJack? It’s essentially a programmable port that one can use for an additional line-in, a digital output for digital speakers or the analog center and subwoofer outputs of a six-speaker system. I currently use mine set for this latter purpose, driving my analog 5.1 Monsoon MH-505s. There is also a separate headphone jack. The Santa Cruz uses Sensaura’s algorithms for positional 3D output and arguably has the best headphone output for audio or gameplay of any soundcard on the market. Hearing Max Payne over headphones and feeling the surround effects inside a set of cans is a truly creepy experience best not “enjoyed” in a dimly lit room. For all its considerable sound warping expertise, the Audigy doesn’t even come close to achieving this. If you’re one of those folks who has to use headphones for gameplay or audio because of finicky neighbours, this is the soundcard to buy.
Want to record?
A number of people have asked on various bulletin boards and on Usenet about recording from tape or vinyl with the Santa Cruz. Having done this myself, I can give a first hand account of the results. There is significant resampling above the 18Khz level but there are a number of mitigating factors. First of all, most people can’t hear above that frequency range. Secondly, most music doesn’t extend that high unless the selection is something with wide dynamic range such as Classical. Finally, unless a top quality turntable / cartridge combination or tape deck is used, the signal source isn’t going to be above that range anyway and even then, those media are much more prone to distortion and audio imperfections than CD. What’s the bottom line? I used a Rega 3 / Elise combination though a Yamaha integrated amplifier to transcribe vinyl selections to CD and I couldn’t hear a difference between the original and the resulting .wav files.
Roses have thorns...
Of course every product has flaws and the Santa Cruz is no different. The microphone jack suffers from apparent bleed-through of .wav sound from the outputs of the soundcard. It does not appear to be correctable via software so if you’re one of those folks who wants to use this card with a headset, this could be an issue for you.
Another potential minus of the card concerns gameplay. The positional 3D sound capabilities of the card match up to the Audigy quite easily courtesy of the Sensaura algorithms so Max Payne is going to sound terrific. On the other hand EAX capabilities are not quite as refined, particularly the reverb function. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since Creative Labs did after all create EAX and no other soundcard has as complete an implementation of that API as they do. Also, there is a bug that produces “warbling” with games that use the Infinity sound engine - the “Baldur’s Gate” series. Who exactly is responsible for this issue (Turtle Beach who builds the card, Cirrus Logic who makes the DSP or Sensaura who makes the 3D sound algorithms) is difficult to pin down.
All the great hardware in the world isn’t worth anything if the drivers for it crash your system. The drivers of the Santa Cruz are top notch, certainly head and shoulders above anything Creative Labs or Hercules has produced. The Game Theater XP drivers are typically one or two revisions of Cirrus Logic reference drivers behind the Turtle Beach versions and the overall quality has been sadly lacking. Regarding Creative Labs’ efforts, the less said about them the better. Philips has a good driver program in place with active betas to improve their offerings. Returning to the Santa Cruz, the WDM drivers are WHQL Certified and Signed, and the hardware itself is Logo Certified for Windows 2000 and XP. Overall, these drivers are extremely stable and Turtle Beach remains committed to improving them, having systematically done so on a roughly three month cycle since the soundcard’s entry into the market. There are VXD drivers available for the Santa Cruz but development has ceased for that obsolete driver model. I don’t view this as a drawback since the superior WDM driver model inherent in Windows Me, Windows 2000 and Windows XP has been out in the market for three years as of this writing.
When all is said and done...
The Santa Cruz is the best consumer-grade PC soundcard that I have purchased to date. That viewpoint comes after owning five Creative Labs soundcards, a brand I will never spend money on again. This soundcard is greater than the sum of its parts because its output and recording quality, overall versatility and solid drivers remain unmatched by a single product at even twice its price of $59US. All those who value superior sound for music and DVD playback but still want to do gaming or simply want the best audio available in a consumer card can get off at this stop.
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Amount Paid (US$): 59