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Manufacturer: Creative
Min OS X: Not Supported

Sound Blaster Live!
April 30, 2001 | Jason Sims

So, besides making games sound really cool, what else does the Sound Blaster Live do for you? Its audio processor makes your music sound great. The various EAX effects let you simulate concert halls, several types of rooms, and many other acoustic environments. These effects really do make your music sound "Live", and they can enhance any audio in your system: CDs, MP3s, Internet radio stations--and even the little sounds in various applications such as your alert sound or new mail sound.

The Mixer application lets you control the volume levels for each of the sound sources on the Sound Blaster Live; each source can be muted/unmuted and enable/disable the EAX effect. It also lets you adjust the balance and fade of your speakers; you can use this simple, intuitive control to adjust the speaker output levels so they all play at the same level--an essential adjustment to get effective surround sound. It also lets you pan each source individually. The Mixer application has a couple of little quirks, but these should be addressed in future updates to the Sound Blaster software.

SoundJam is listed as bundled software on the Sound Blaster Live box, but I was disappointed to discover that it is only a demo that has been included, not the full version as the packaging suggests. Nonetheless, iTunes remains my preferred MP3 software, so I didn't mind much.

If you've got a DVD player in your Mac, the Sound Blaster can enhance your movie watching experience too. While we're on the topic of movies, we might as well discuss...

The Science of Surround Sound
Although it was developed to enhance all types of audio, surround sound technology is most often used in movies. Until recently, the standard in home theater surround sound was Dolby Pro Logic. Instead of requiring additional audio channels, Pro Logic uses a special encoding process to mix extra sound channels into the standard left and right audio channels. A receiver that supports Dolby Pro Logic then decodes the audio information and can then output left, center, right, and rear channels, as well as a subwoofer channel.

Over the last several years, Dolby Pro Logic has slowly been replaced with Dolby Digital and DTS--two different schemes for producing true 5.1 surround sound. 5.1 is a surround scheme that includes five separate channels and an LFE channel (for low frequency effects--a role that is a bit different than that of a subwoofer). Pro Logic extracts extra audio channels from a two-channel source, but 5.1 technology allows for five entirely separate audio channels--this greatly increases the effect of "localization", which is to say, the effect of hearing sounds coming from a particular location around your head. Pro Logic is basically a surround sound simulator, while 5.1 is the real thing.

Dolby Digital and DTS are also--as you might have guessed--based on entirely digital audio. This means the information is stored digitally and transferred digitally to the receiver. Of course, there is no such thing as digital sound--eventually the audio is converted to an analogue current that makes a set of speakers make sound. But keeping everything digital up to that point eliminates the interference picked up by analogue circuitry, so the signal doesn't lose any information or gain any noise along the way.

No 5.1 Yet
The Sound Blaster Live has a digital audio output, but you can't get Dolby Digital or DTS from it--yet. All the sound in your Mac is currently being handled by Sound Manager--the audio subsystem of Mac OS. Alas, Sound Manager mixes all your audio down to two channels before it gets output; 5.1 surround requires five distinct channels, so there is no way to send out true 5.1 audio from this card right now.

The only way around the Sound Manager is for a manufacturer of a sound card to write an ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output: a multi-channel audio transfer protocol developed by Steinberg) driver that directly handles the device. Some professional audio programs support ASIO drivers, but most of the sound on your Mac will only go through Sound Manager--so that's not really going to solve the problem. Hope lies in Mac OS X: Carbon applications are still supposed to be handled by Sound Manager routines, but in OS X it may be possible to bypass the Sound Manager altogether, which would allow Creative to output the complete digital audio data found on DVDs that support 5.1 surround--so you could hook the card up to a Dolby Digital or DTS receiver and get true 5.1 surround sound from the card. Forthcoming support for Mac OS X, however, has still not been made official by Creative.

In the meantime, what you do get is Dolby Pro Logic decoding, so you can still enjoy surround sound, which--if not full 5.1--still sounds much better than plain two-channel stereo.


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