After reporting about the Intermedia Conference and Exhibition in San Jose in the April issue of Information Today ("Intermedia '94--We Got the Picture") a number of people asked if I had heard the sound. One of them asked if I was deaf (and probably thought also dumb) for having ignored the sound devices demonstrated during the show. You may recall that I discussed in detail some of the video developments in the multimedia marketplace, but I remained silent about sound boards and speakers, the other key components of multimedia.
I had two reasons for not discussing the sound boards demonstrated in the exhibit area. One is that it is impossible to judge the quality of sound in an exhibit hall where boom boxes in adjacent booths produce sheer cacophony. Text-based products, databases with illustrations, animation, or video clips do not have this interference.
The other reason for not having mentioned sound devices was that I did not find them to be sound devices for the multimedia mass market--yet. While there are more and more companies involved in producing sound boards and speakers, there have not been many significant developments since the first 16-bit (theoretically audio CD-quality) boards were introduced well over a year ago. Now that I see some hope for an important trend to develop, I'll write about the sound that has caused most of us so much fury in the past few months and sent one of the largest sound specialist companies onto the brink of bankruptcy due to thousands of sound boards returned by dissatisfied customers after the Christmas season.
Sound as an Afterthought
Users of IBM compatible PCs have envied Mac users from day one for the sound capabilities built into the Macs. For IBM users, sound capability has meant an add-on card, clumsy external speakers and cables, a lot of fumbling around with conflicting DMA (direct memory access) addresses, IRQ (interrupt request) identifiers, twiddling with the Windows SYS.INI file, patching the AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files, and taking a hit on the wallet--often winding up with much less than you bargained for.
Let's face it. The sound boards that promise CD audio quality fall short of that promise (with the notable exception of the Turtle Beach Multisound that costs an arm and a leg even today after a 60% price cut). You can test this without having a PC magazine lab. Listen to your favorite music on a decent CD-player, then toss the same disk into a CD-ROM player and use one of the utility software packages to play back audio from the CD-ROM. You do not need to be a Sir George Solti to tell the difference.
The difference is not the fault solely of the sound boards (assuming that you use a self-powered good quality speaker). Despite all of their virtues, the sound that they are capable of pushing through is inferior to that produced by a $100 CD-player. The reason for this is the interference with the other components in the PC and the lack of chemistry between the CD-ROM player and the sound board.
Numerous tests done in professional labs have proven through quantitative data that the quality of the sound (total harmonic distortion, signal-to-noise ratio, frequency range) is significantly worse than those coming off of CD-players.
The Most Antisocial Component of Multimedia
It adds insult to injury that in order to get less than perfect audio quality you have to go through an arduous installation process. I have installed CD-ROM players, tape drives, hard disks, video controllers, and modems left and right, but none of this compares to the frustration caused by trying to get a sound board up and running.
I worked with different boards and different PCs and one was a more discouraging experience than the last. Installing a sound board is more unproductive than teaching English drama to a class of high school students with the shortest attention span that can be measured. …