All that's missing is the popcorn.
In the beginning, there was a void of darkness and silence. Then one day, the void got bored and erupted into a potpourri of cosmic dust, celestial debris and most importantly…sound. And there was much rejoicing.
A few billion years later, man walks the earth wielding instruments of sound and noise so loud and intrusive that the void now needs to wear earplugs. The crew over at Hercules hasn't been helping matters much by releasing quality board after quality board. However, the earlier cards all seem like prep work for the main dish, an amazing, incredibly versatile piece of audio hardware. The Game Theater XP is the Geforce 2 of sound cards, and everything is about to get a hell of a lot louder.
Game Theater XP
The Game Theater is loaded from top to bottom with extras, stocked with more features than a movie theater. The most obvious is the external rack. Sporting a multitude of high-end connectors and ports, this device allows for serious connectivity. You've got a 4 port (2 in front, 2 in back) USB hub for endless plug and play peripheral madness. Digital cameras, nerdy flight sticks and game pads can be attached in a snap.
You'll also find a standard gameport on the front of the rack. Coupled with the USB hub, this allows a great number of options for multiplayer PC gaming and should widen the eyes of any serious gamer.
For the inclined musician, the rack is a godsend. You've got connectors that come in both coaxial and optical flavors for use with your digital audio devices or DAT machines. There are MIDI device ports for synthesizers and enough connectors for two sets of speakers: one 2-speaker set and a 4-way surround sound speaker setup. It goes without saying that this easily qualifies as a full game/music theater.
For a full list of features and specs, click here.
Installation is a breeze. I inserted the card into PCI slot number 2 on my motherboard in an effort to not crowd the area around my video card. This allows more airflow to run across your video card to help keep it cool.
Connecting the board to the rack is a cinch. Simply grab the included 6' snake cord and insert the end without the USB connector to the port on the sound card. Then take the other end and insert it into the "Computer" connector on the back of the rack. Finally, install the drivers found on the first of two provided CDs. Voila.
In the Readme file it states that the drivers may have some incompatibility issues on some AMD powered systems. Apparently, they were right. After installing them I quickly noticed that tweaking the fabulously intricate and intuitive equalizer was having no effect on the throng of diverse music I was playing. Also, the surround speakers only played when using Hercules' nifty 'test' option. I quickly surfed on over to the Hercules website, where I found new drivers anxiously awaiting a DSL transfer to my happy hard drive.
Problem solved, though not without some flaws. Although the updated utilities look flashier and more colorful, they just aren't as good as the originals. With these new drivers there's no place to save your equalizer presets. This really sucks, because now I need to reset the equalizer every time I power up my computer. Grumble, grumble. Perhaps the next update will include some the of lost features. AMD owners, consider yourself warned.
While we're on the topic of software, let's talk about the bundle. Hercules has packaged the Game Theater with a decent if standard crop. Many of these inclusions we saw in Terractec's DMX Fire 1024. You get Musicmatch Jukebox, which records and plays MP3s, Siren Jukebox Xpress for digital music management and Yamaha XGStudio, which throws up a handy interface for your MIDI files. For music lovers in general, this is a solid package.
However, I'm not a musician (unless you count two years of the violin in 4th and 5th grade). I'm a gamer who's appreciation for good sound equals that of most music pundits, and the game side of the software bundle is lacking, to say the least. Hercules scoured the gaming world, but apparently someone was asleep at the wheel. All they could come up with are demos of ancient games like the first Midtown Madness, Rogue Spear and a batch of forgettables. I know they can do better than that. Bad Hercules! Wait until Zeus hears about this paltry game bundle...
The main selling point for any sound card is also the most subjective feature to cover. How does the darn thing sound? Hmmm...in a word? Supercalafragilisticexpealadocious! The sound is incredibly clear. Bass tones are deep and solid, and everything I tested (after the brief fight with the equalizer) - rock, reggae, blues, classic R&B, jazz and even classical Chinese melodies - are magnificent to hear with the Game Theater XP.
Compatibility for all the standards such as A3D 1.0, Microsoft's Direct Sound, Sensaura MacroFX and Creative's Environmental audio: EAX 2.0 complete this already bulging package.
Somehow, this puppy rings in at a surprisingly affordable $149.99. It might be a little more than you would pay for a relatively high-end sound board, but you're getting so much more. That's a great deal.
This piece of hardware is just stellar. The crisp clarity and tremendous connectivity possibilities make it well worth the price of admission. If you can see past the minor incompatibilities and the relatively weak bundle, you'll find a steal. Highly recommended.