The Bumpy Road to PC 5.1 Surround Sound

When building the PC for gaming on the TV one thing I had in mind was leveraging the already existing 5.1 sound system. After the move from the TV screen back to a desktop monitor I thought my headphones would suffice for the time spent playing games. At first that assumption turned out to be true, however, not only did I use the headphones for gaming but also when watching TV shows. In the evening, after work, I wanted to enjoy the audio but had no interest in disturbing my neighbors. After a while this led to the headphones becoming quite uncomfortable for all those hours wearing them, especially during the weekend gaming session when having them on the head for several hours.

So, what does a tech-nerd do about that? Buy himself a dedicated sound system for the PC, he does!

The thinking process began about what to buy. Stick to a simple solution with only two speakers to not have to rely on the headphones all the time or to be a true nerd and attach five speakers to the sound card? Well, since I prefer renting movies on iTunes over other solutions simply for the 5.1 audio there was no way I could resist the temptation of surround sound – even though I don’t watch any movies on the PC any more. As is the case with mouse and keyboard I chose to look at solutions from Logitech. The product of choice was found pretty quickly (Logitech Z506 ) but one thing that bugged me was whether to go all-out and be the king of nerds or be content with some speakers only.
It should be no surprise that I elected to go for the “king of nerds” and started to dig into dedicated sound cards. I’ve read good things about the ASUS Xonar series but was also interested in what the former pioneer of gaming sound, Creative, had to offer. As it turns out, they just released a new series, the Soundblaster Z, which was getting high praise from the press. Even the drivers, a big issue of past generations, seemed to be of good quality. In the end I decided to go with the bundle of sound card and microphone.
Notice the theme here? All products are labeled with a “Z”, I can’t go wrong with that, right?
The first impression of the Z506 is a lot of cables! But that was to be expected of 6 speakers. The sub is made of wood and contains all logic board and circuits that are needed to drive the system. The sattelites are made of plastic and the cases are pretty big for the tiny speakers contained within. Cables are quite thick and seem to be sturdy.
First off was Borderlands 1, still with on-board sound because the delivery of the Soundblaster took some days, and guess what: there was surround sound, something I didn’t really expect. It was a fun experience having gained another dimension of audio. The same goes for Counter Strike Source and Anno 2070. Zooming into your cities as close as possible yields noise of virtual citizens and industry from all over the place. Brilliant! Only S.T.A.L.K.E.R. didn’t work out of the box, being the only game so far. It contains a dedicated option for enabling Creative’s EAX features, something the Realtek sound seems not to offer. So, there was one particular reason for longing for the delivery of the Soundblaster Z.
Unfortunately it took about a week for the card to arrive, very atypical for Amazon, but that only added to the excitement. Once I had it in my hands I couldn’t wait for closing time to come in order to race home and play with it.
Kids and grown-ups, always drive carefully – or ride carefully if you prefer the bike like I do.
Once I arrived at home (all sweaty of course – and breaking a new record!) I carefully unboxed and installed the card. The packaging had a valuable feeling to it with its felt and the way the card was fixed to the box. It really seemed to be worth its money. After removing the old driver and installing the new one it was about time to listen to the hopefully awesome sound. Firing up the driver management, 5.1 was automatically selected and I made sure I connected the cables correctly by testing each channel individually. The quickest game-test for me was running CS:S as there is no game state binding one to the game in case some tuning is necessary.
First impression: Wow! Really, wow! Positional audio with the on-board sound was quite nice but the Soundblaster definitely plays in another league. So I played a few more minutes and enjoyed the details. But wait, what was that? Did I just hear my gun fire from behind? No, it switched to the front left? What? Wait a minute! What? I suddenly recalled my objections about the drivers. I continued to run around and paid particular attention to where the sound came from and where it should actually have originated from and what do you know, every now and then the channels continued to switch.
I returned to the OS with the four colored squares and fired up the Soundblaster control panel to check the settings. Looked good, so I tried the channel test. Sounds wrong. Tested again. Sounds different, but still wrong. Crap! After some searching on the internet I found out that I wasn’t the only one but only one of very few. Suggestions like switching the card from PCIe slot x16 to x1 didn’t help – I was desperate and it was already pretty late – so I decided to return the card and requested a replacement. I’ll make it quick: didn’t help. Crap!
So what should I do, return it again and request a refund? I really wanted to have it. That particular problem couldn’t have been a widespread issue. There weren’t many complaints about it, in fact, most things I read about the soundcard was pretty high praise. Did I do something wrong? Hardly! 😉
Despondent me, the only thing I could think of was trying – please don’t hurt me, I know it’s a crime – Windows 8. I had a licence from my media PC that I could test. Paranoid as I am I created a backup of my system and installed the operating system that doesn’t really know whether it belongs on a PC, a tablet or a phone. I hope you can tell that I was really desperate at this point. I had gotten a glimpse into more fun and had no intention of letting it go. Now, while I’m writing this, it quite sounds like an addiction…
Anyhow, after several hours of installing the OS, drivers – restarting for nearly all of them – Steam and restoring some games for testing from the backup, I started CS:S and hoped for the best. Five minutes went by and nothing was wrong. Another five minutes went by, still ok. Then it was twenty minutes without incident and I slowly began to relax and actually enjoyed the game. Maybe it had to do with the way Microsoft changed access to the sound hardware, which would be the 2nd time after Vista where they removed hardware accelerated sound. Whatever it was, I had to get myself another licence for the gaming rig.
It has been several months now and everything works fine. Especially S.T.A.L.K.E.R. gained a lot of ambient depth. Even Diablo 3, which I recently played for a few minutes, sounds much more dynamic. My earlier statement “seemed to be worth its money” is true for the actual result but the overall experience could have been better. Creative’s drivers are still a big question mark for me. Maybe they should print “Only works correctly with ” on the box. They need to do better than this, especially when they charge 90 bucks for their stuff – and that wasn’t even the luxurious version.

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