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Manufacturer: M-Audio
Min OS X: Any Version

Sonica Theater
September 25, 2003 | Greg Gant

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Nearly a year ago, M-Audio started its consumer line with a USB sound output device called the Sonica. The Sonica was a revolutionary little device that gave Mac users the ability to watch movies in true multi-channel surround sound in Mac OS X for the first time. Since the Sonica, M-Audio has released the M-Audio Revolution 7.1 PCI sound card, which received high marks from Mac and PC publications alike, and the Sonica Theater. The Sonica Theater is a mesh between the original Sonica and the Revolution.

USB Sound!
Anyone who has seen the original Sonica would probably agree that it looked more like a USB dongle than a sound device. The Sonica Theater styling is a large departure from the original Sonica’s form factor. From the front, the Sonica Theater looks like a slim USB hub with a glowing blue LED. On the back, the arsenal of sound ports are nearly identical to the Revolution, minus the microphone input for electrete mics..

The Sonica Theater features four analog speaker outputs for up to 7.1 surround sound (supports stereo, 4-channel, 5.1 6.1), coaxial digital output and a standard stereo analog line input. The Sonica Theater can play and capture up to 96-KHz/24-bit sound. Due to the constraints of USB’s bandwidth, 96-KHz/24-bit sound is limited to stereo only and cannot be played and recorded at the same time.

Surround Sound via USB
For the most part the Sonica Theater functions exactly like the Revolution 7.1. Surround sound is obtained through one of two routes: digital or analog. Before I dive into pros and cons of each, it is first important to understand Circle Surround II. The Theater has the ability to make any stereo signal (game, music or movie) into surround sound. It uses SRS Lab’s Circle Surround (CSII) to interpret the stereo source into surround sound. CSII is not without its faults, however. It cannot decode Dolby Digital or DTS into discrete multi-channel audio. CSII yields results that are not nearly as accurate or clean as if the Dolby Digital or DTS soundtrack were played on a surround sound setup. Also CSII cannot be used with the digital output.

Here are the features and functions that can be used with digital or analog:

The digital port is able to output discrete multi-channel audio formats like Dolby Digital and DTS through the VLC media player* but you’ll need an external decoder such as a home theater receiver or a speaker set with a digital input (and internal decoder chipset) to use them. The downside of using digital is you cannot use SRS Lab’s CSII. (*See “When things get ugly”.)

The analog output uses CSII for all surround sound purposes. This allows you to enjoy any content in surround sound although not in true multi-channel glory. Currently, there is no consumer solution on the Mac that can decode discrete surround sound formats so Mac users cannot watch movies in discrete multi-channel audio without using the digital output.


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