Cheaper than a night at the Opera.
Take a look at the current market of sound cards and you'll notice that most of them have gone zany for a feature that many PC gamers never use: DVD decoding. Soundblaster Live 5.1, Phillips Acoustic Edge, TurtleBeach SantaCruz - all are cards that put a great deal of stock in their ability to decode Dolby Digital audio for use with a 5.1 sound system. The problem is that 5.1 systems aren't great for gaming, since 3D sound works best with a 4.1 speaker system. While all those other cards can certainty handle 4.1, many gamers aren't too thrilled about shelling out extra dollars for expensive features they'll almost never use.
But remember that many of these popular cards, such as the SantaCruz and Hercules Game Theater XP, are based on the popular Cirrus Logic Sensaura 3D sound chipset. As far as 4 speaker 3D sound goes, there is little difference between cards that use this chipset.
Enter into this fray a mid-range solution for the budget gamer, the Hercules Gamesurround Fortissimo II, a straightforward, 4 speaker compatible gaming solution that won't bust your wallet.
Fortisssimo II Card
At the competitive price of $59.99, the Fortissimo II delivers almost everything that an average gamer needs for 3D sound. Sensaura 3D sound actually can produce all three of the most popular 3D sound algorithms, those being DirectSound 3D, Creative's EAX 1.0 and 2.0, and A3D 1.0. This makes for a card that can handle virtually any game on the market (save for those few games that worked best with A3D 2.0 or 3.0, which only the now-defunct Aureal Vortex 2 chipset could handle). The sound quality is clear and strong, easily the equal of the more expensive cards mentioned, even matching the venerable Aureal SQ2500, one of the main standards for gaming sound.
Despite the good quality, the Fortissimo II doesn't come with any games in its software bundle. Usually, soundcards come with a few games that show off the power of the card to great effect. In the case of the SQ2500, there were enough games included to more than justify the price tag even without the excellent card.
The Fortissimo II bundle includes Game Commander 2 SE, Storm Hercules SE v.1.5, MUSICMATCH Jukebox, Sonic Foundry Acid Xpress, SIREN Jukebox Xpress, Yamaha S-YXG50 v3.1 with Yamaha XG Player 4.0, Eatsleepmusic.com Koolkaraoke Lite, Hercules Media Station and Cyberlink PowerDVD 3.0.
That might sound like a lot, but most of the software is only mildly useful if you like to tinker with or play sounds. Most can be replaced with a free download of Winamp. Power DVD is a nice addition, though, as it's one of the better software DVD players around with good video quality and very good audio. Power DVD can decode and downmix a 5.1 track to 4.1, assuming you have a fast enough CPU.
Power DVD can also export a straight AC3 or DTS signal from the Fortissimo II's included Optical SP/DIF port. Here we find a little can of worms, though. Forgetting the 4.1 downmix (which is good, but not spectacular), the choice to include Optical output on the Fortissimo II flies in the face of its budget orientation. In order to use AC3 or DTs, you have to have an expensive external decoder (which is sold separately) and a 5.1 or 6.1 speaker system. However, the included Optical input port is useful for people with mini-disc players looking to port music into their computer at optimum quality.
To make things a little worse, consider that if you have a 5.1 system on your computer, then with the exception of the Cambridge Soundworks DTT2500 or DTT3500, you can't get 4 speaker gaming. At least with the other cards that handle DVD decoding on board and therefore don't need an external decoder, you can use the card to switch between true 5.1 and 4 speaker gaming. There is no such option for the Fortissimo II.
So what we have is a strange conundrum. The Fortissimo II is meant as a low cost alternative. Unfortunately, it seems one of the cost cuts was any type of decent software bundle. And the savings are slightly negated by the Optical cable requirement, but only if watching DVDs with true 5.1 is your thing. Honestly the Fortissimo II is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for a 4 speaker sound card with good quality and nothing else. For anyone looking for more oomph, purchasing a Fortissimo II just doesn't make much sense.