I love the sound of napalm all around me in the morning.
A long, long time ago, in a day and age less flashy than our own, sound was a matter of low expectations. 16-bit soundcards were all the rage, and their tinny FM synthesis (unless you had a midi card) and low quality digital audio were good enough for most of us. Later, advances in technology were featured in cards like the Soundblaster Awe 32, and the stakes were raised. However, sound in video games was a mere echo of the reality that soundcard developers strove to create.
3D sound burst onto the scene two years ago when Diamond, using A3D technology (developed by a company called Aureal for NASA), debuted it's Diamond Monster Sound. By very specific audio manipulation, we could hear things all around us, not just in front. More than that - we could also hear them above or below us. Cool we thought... mega-cool!
Improvements were soon made. Creative, father of the ubiquitous SoundBlaster line of sound cards, unleashed the Live! card, which upped the ante with it's EAX technology that let 3D sounds be generated within virtual geometrical situations, like a pipe or a football stadium. We were all floored.
Not to be outdone, Aureal released the Vortex 2 chip, which featured A3D 2.0. This included "wavetracing," which was essentially EAX that used the actual geometry of the specific game you played and therefore, even more mega-cool.
So now, Aureal has finally released their own soundcard, the SQ2500. This Vortex 2 powered wonder puts the rest out there to shame and gives you more bang for your buck than the Holiday Ammo Sale at K-Mart.
Basically, Aureal took the Vortex 2 chip, tweaked it to make it use even less CPU time (resulting in marginally higher framerates in sound-intensive games) and threw in a RCA S/PDIF jack. Plus, it's got the best games bundle I've ever seen in a card... video or sound.
The sound quality of the SQ2500 is fantastic. Featuring a signal to noise ratio of more than 98dB, the sound from the card is always crisp, full and clean. Or, as they would say at Radio Shack, 'High Fidelity.' The wavetable synthesizer can handle 576 voices, 48kHz digital recording and playback is included, and the SQ2500 can even emulate a SoundBlaster Pro if you just have to play an old DOS game. The ports on the back include Line 1 and Line 2 outputs, Line input, Microphone input, a Game/Midi port, and the coaxial S/PDIF output jack.
The 3D sound aspect of the card is, quite simply, phenomenal. To fully comprehend the full potential of A3D 2.0, just load up Half-Life and ride the train in the opening sequence. The sound of the computer 'welcoming voice' moves around you as the car turns. Even the sounds of the train's locomotion are altered by the shape, objects within, and wall-material of the different rooms and passages.
In combat, the A3D 2.0 support is apt to save your life many a time. The full 3D sound enables you to position off-screen enemies with your ears, increasing your situational awareness exponentially.
As far as the framerate improvements, the most you're likely to see from the SQ2500 is probably 5 frames per second, and that's only in a few games. But, any speed increase is a good increase, and even if the SQ2500 is only a little faster than your average PCI audio card, it'll absolutely trump an older ISA card, making the SQ2500 a great way to finally upgrade that aging rig.
Finally, to make the buying decision all the more laughably easy, Aureal threw in Drakan: Order of the Flame (cool), Heretic 2 (extremely cool), and a 7 level OEM preview version of Slave Zero (one of the coolest upcoming action games in the pipe right now), all of which show off the power of A3D 2.0 nicely. The cost of just the two full version games (Heretic 2 and Drakan) cover the cost of this $99 sound card, making either the games or the card effectively free. Nice!
In all ways, the SQ2500 is an absolute 3D audio winner from the company that started it all. It's the best sounding, fastest card available at the consumer/gamer price level and it includes what is bar-none the coolest game bundle anyone has ever included with a retail card. Unless you already have a good 3D audio card (such as the Diamond Monster Sound MX300, Montego II Quadzilla, or the Sound Blaster Live!), you've got no business not running out to the store right now and grabbing a SQ2500 to lovingly insert into your computer. Trust me, you won't ever be sorry.