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Diamond MonsterSound MX300

The MX300 is the latest addition to Diamond's Monster Sound line of sound cards. But, unlike the previous cards in the family, the Monster Sound MX300 has a genuine Aureal Vortex 2 at its heart, instead of a customized Diamond DSP. Since it uses the Vortex 2 chipset, it offers the same features of other Vortex 2-powered boards, such as the Montego II OEM reviewed earlier:
-Aureal A3D 1.0 and 2.0 support
-a hardware-based 10-band equalizer
-digital playback and recording up to 48 KHz stereo, with full duplex support
-wavetable audio, with a choice of 64, 128, or 320 voices
-preset echo and reverb effects

Other features include a wavetable daughterboard connector, front and rear outputs, and an expansion connector termed the MX-LINK. To help it stand out among the crowd, Diamond bundles an assortment of games and sound applications.

Installation of the PCI board holds no surprises, although the drivers curiously refer to the Monster Sound MX300 as the Monster Sound II. Internal connectors for CD audio, auxilary (such as DVD or a TV tuner) are provided, just like on the Montego II OEM. There are two outputs, however; output 1 is used in a 2 speaker configuration, or for the front speakers in a 4 speaker configuration. Output 2 is used for the rear speakers, or for a single set of headphones. Unlike the Sound Blaster Live! which requires you to identify a 2 speaker configuration or a 4 speaker configuration, the Monster Sound MX300 automatically detects the configuration depending on which outputs are being used.

A system tray icon provides quick access settings for the Monster Sound MX300. The Status tab shows the number of streams being played, and has buttons for Sound Recorder and the standard Windows Volume Control applet. The EQ tab displays the 10-band equalizer, with a real-time analyzer display. The display is not updated quite as often as that found on Turtle Beach's AudioStation 32, but there are equalizer presets, as well as user definable presets, something that AudioStation 32 sorely lacks. The Config tab has a Test button for testing your speaker setup, as well as mode selection when using 4 speakers. You have a choice between Quad and Stereo X 2; Quad is best used for 3D positional audio, such as in games and with DVD movies. Stereo X 2 does exactly that, it outputs the stereo signal to both front and back equally. The MIDI tab provides selection of the predefined echo and reverb effects, the number of wavetable voices to use for MIDI (higher voices provide better quality at the expense of higher CPU usage), and the Download button. The Download button, similar to the Montego II OEM, provides for the selection of different wavetable patch sets, such as the Roland set licensed by Microsoft provided with DirectX 6.1. The included wavetable patch set is respectable, but still no match for the Roland SCD-15 daughterboard. The A3D Demos tab houses buttons for each of the Aureal A3D audio demos, including the A3D 2.0 room demo, which successfully demonstrates the new A3D 2.0 effects. You can also toggle the A3D Splash Audio and Splash Screen, which signal when A3D audio is supported, much like the spinning 3Dfx symbol seen in Glide games. The final tab, Preferences, toggles the system tray icon on and off, toggles Tool Tip help, and disables DirectSound hardware acceleration for troubleshooting purposes.

While A3D 1.0 on earlier Vortex 1 boards worked its magic best on a set of headphones, 3D positional audio is much improved on the Monster Sound MX300 with the A3D 2.0 improvements, especially with a four speaker configuration. The Monster Sound MX300 matched Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Live! game-for-game with a four speaker setup, such as the PCWorks FourPointSurround. In addition, the real-time environmental effects in games such as Half-Life seemed a little less exaggerated with the Monster Sound MX300. The difference is somewhat subtle, similar to over blurring of 3Dfx cards doing bilinear filtering; you don't notice it until you see it done differently on a RIVA TNT board.

The software bundle includes an assortment of applications. MediaWorks 98, like Turtle Beach's AudioStation 32, is a catch all media player for CD audio, video clips, MIDI music, and digital audio (WAV) files. It also has a Mixer panel, and a WAV editor. Zoran SoftDVD is a software-only DVD decoder that can be used to playback DVD movies. It has the ability of downmixing Dolby Digital AC-3 into the Quad mode 4 speaker configuration. True 5.1 output is available via an optional MX-LINK expansion. While I wasn't able to get SoftDVD to work with my 1st generation DVD-ROM, I have seen it in action with great results. MusicMatch Jukebox, familiar to MP3 music fans, is also included, although its MP3 encoding and playback features don't take advantage of the Monster Sound MX300 hardware in any way. Rounding things out include the special version of Half-Life known as Half Life: Day One, plus the full version of Recoil.


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