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Hercules GameSurround Muse XL

Tuesday, March 26, 2002 by TheDoc

Package Contents:
  • Muse XL PCI Audio Card

  • CD - See Software Bundle

  • Installation Guide

  • Yamaha License Card

  • Warranty Card

System Requirements:
  • Windows 95, 98, 2000, Millennium (or XP)

  • Intel Pentium™ MMX 233MHz & higher or compatible

  • PCI 2.1 slot, 32MB RAM

  • CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive

Technical Specifications:
  • Data Transfer - PCI 2.1 bus

  • Audio Processor (DSP) - New generation CMI-8738

  • Audio Quality - CD and Pro Audio quality; 16-bit mono/stereo 4kHz to 48kHz in full duplex

  • Game Compatibility - Sensura-based 3D positional audio with support for Microsoft DirectSound 3D, EAX™ 1.0, EAX 2.0 , A3D 1.0, I3DL2, MacroFX, MultiDrive, ZoomFX, EnvironmentFX

  • Audio Compatibility - Compatible with Microsoft DirectSound and DirectMusic™, Compatible with Dolby Surround

  • Yamaha S-YXG50 Specs - 676 instrument sounds and 21 drum kits

  • Effects - reverb, chorus, variation

  • Connectors Inputs - Mic-In, stereo Line-In, game port/MIDI MPU-401, internal CD audio connector & Aux-in, and 2 independent pre-amplified stereo outputs to connect 4 speakers

Software Bundle:
  • Game Commander 2 Special Edition

  • Storm The Virtual Home Studio

  • Sonic Foundry Acid Xpress

  • MusicMatch Jukebox

  • Siren Jukebox Xpress

  • Yamaha XG Player

  • Kool karaoke Lite

  • Power DVD 3.0 (trial version)

  • Hercules Muse XL Drivers for Win95,98,Millinnium, 2000, and XP

The mid-to-entry level audio market is crammed with low-cost solutions to providing computer sound. Ranging from Creative Labs to a plethora of overseas and smaller manufacturers, this market segment is certainly not lacking in options for value conscious users in search of a more affordable sound solution for their PC. Hercules is one of several "domestic" companies that offer a range of audio solutions, including ones targeted at the budget segment.

Hercules is nominally the marketing arm of PC video and audio products for Guillemot; Hercules itself has been doing business since 1982. Once a leader in after-market and OEM video card products, Hercules was acquired by Guillemot a few years ago in an effort to diversify its own company while acquiring the brand loyalty that gamers had come to instill in Hercules over the years. This has proved a successful venture for both companies.

Most of the draw for Guillemot was that Hercules has always enjoyed a lot of attention for its line of game oriented video cards. Part of the attention has been based on their ability to offer powerful cards based on different manufacturers' chipsets such as NVIDIA and ATI, while at the same time keeping their products affordable. Hercules is now doing the same in the audio card market, building and marketing a solid line of entertainment oriented audio solutions.

The Muse XL is one of three audio cards offered by Hercules currently. While many of their high-end sound cards rival the capabilities of the best PC audio products available, the Muse XL is built to a more modest set of specifications and targeted at a slightly different market. Make no mistake though, even with a low price tag, the Muse XL is quite feature packed, matching up well with even higher-end offerings at twice its cost.

The Muse XL is based on the C-Media CMI-8738 chipset, which provides a PCI solution utilizing DSP technology that supports almost all the major audio standards. The CMI-8738 also has Sensura audio built-in, providing virtual 3D positional sound on two speakers. By doing a little research, I was able to discover that the CMI-8738 chipset is capable of SPDIF and discreet output for four or six channels, however the Muse XL takes advantage of only four channel processing and does not provide an SPDIF output.

This budget approach in implementing the C-Media chipset firmly places the Muse XL in the low to mid-range audio card market; it aids in keeping the cost down while providing a basic and solid audio solution for end users. You would be hard pressed, however, to find a cheaper card with this good of a feature set.

Out of the Box - The Hardware

The card itself is standard PCI fare, with a variety of input and output ports on the back. The Muse XL sports two CD audio input jacks and a nice clean design that should make it a snap to install. My only complaint is that the CD audio input jacks are not oriented towards the top of the card to make cable management easier.

A standard MIDI/game port, front and rear speaker outputs, a MIC input, and a line-in input round out the back of the Muse XL. The ports are clearly color coded to make it as easy as possible to connect your two or four speaker system.

In the package you will also find a CD crammed full of demo and full software packages for taking advantage of your new audio card. Drivers are included as well on the CD, and C-Media as well as Hercules have updated drivers on their website regularly. The documentation is clear and easy to read, with simple instructions for the user to get the Muse XL installed and up and running in minutes.

For this review I chose to use a more modest computer system given the budget nature of this sound card. The system is a Dell Dimension PC that is just a bit over two years old and that has seen numerous upgrades over time. Normally this computer is used for a wide range of applications and functions, including acting as a very low-end home studio when hooked up to a MIDI keyboard.

Here are the specs:

  • PIII 800MHz Processor

  • ATI Radeon All-In-Wonder Pro 32MB AGP4X

  • 512MB of PC133 Ram (Generic)

  • 10GB Maxtor UDMA 66 HD

  • 40X CD-ROM

  • Plextor 20X10x40 CD-RW

  • I/O Magic Hurricane Extreme

  • Altec Lansing ACS54 4 point speakers with subwoofer

  • Windows XP Pro Edition

  • Windows Office XP Pro

  • Note: You might be surprised to see that I am using the I/O Magic Hurricane Extreme on this system. I am happy to report that a recent driver change, in combination with a better shielded Dell CD-ROM drive, has gotten rid of the annoying popping and extraneous noise I had experienced during my initial review of the Hurricane. The Yamaha synthesizer issue has also been addressed with the XP driver release, resulting in crisp and clear MIDI playback. The Hurricane, in my opinion, is still flawed due to its susceptibility to electronic interference from lesser shielded devices inside the computer case, but in this configuration it performs well and produces excellent sound. Installing the Muse XL is straightforward: After uninstalling the I/O Magic Hurricane Extreme from the hardware applet panel in Windows XP, I shut down and swapped the old sound card for the Muse XL. A quick boot up into Windows XP prompted me for drivers, which I had downloaded from the Hercules support website. The whole process took less than five minutes from start to finish.

    Once the drivers were installed, a quick check in the control panel showed everything to be performing nominally, so I proceeded to install the Yamaha MIDI/Synthesizer software. This installation took only a minute or two as well, leaving a new tray icon. A final reboot and everything was up and running.

    I tested the Muse XL in four key areas: Music, MP3, MIDI, and Gaming. Throughout my testing I felt that the sound quality was excellent, with no faults in sound reproduction that I could notice. Bass was deep and powerful, while the mid- to high-signals were reproduced with great clarity. Positional audio support was good as well in my gaming sessions, with sound moving and transitioning from speaker to speaker smoothly as I would expect and want.

    CD Audio Playback: I decided to try the Muse XL out first with CD playback. Pulling out my favorite CDs from Pink Floyd's Learning to Fly, Metallica's Ride the Lightning, 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, and Janet Jackson's All for You, I kicked back and listened to the music through my speakers and headphones. Audio quality was excellent, no matter whether sound was delivered via the cable-less digital audio connection provided by Windows XP or through the hardware CD Audio cable. Bass was full sounding, while mid- and upper-range music was crisp and clear.

    Note: Windows XP can send the audio from the CD player directly to the audio card without the use of a CD audio cable. This is a handy feature that can make your installation even simpler. All you have to do is check off the appropriate box in the drive properties tab and leave the cable out.

    MP3 Playback: MP3 Playback through both Winamp and Windows Media Player was basically perfect. With audio compression at or above 128 bits, audio sounded excellent with no noticeable faults or hesitations. MP3s played at a compression rate below 128 bits suffered some loss in sound quality, but this is naturally due to the lesser amount of sound data available.

    MIDI Playback: MIDI playback through the Yamaha MIDI panel was flawless as well. MIDI files played back and could be manipulated during playback with no noticeable hesitation or loss of continuity in the sound. My previous experience with the Yamaha MIDI software was not a stellar event (see the I/O Magic Hurricane Extreme review), so I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and stability of the Yamaha software with this card.

    Gaming: I chose to try out several games with positional audio schemes. While backwards compatibility with the Sound Blaster DOS standard is built-in, I no longer own any game titles that require a DOS environment so I opted not to test this aspect of performance.

    Unreal Tournament: The Muse XL did well in UT. Sound clarity was fine, and the positional audio scheme was smooth in action.

    Medal of Honor: Allied Assault: I have been very impressed with this game since its initial release and I feel that it has some of the best sound effects of any PC title released in recent memory. The Muse XL reproduced them flawlessly, with every sound as crisp and clear as watching Saving Private Ryan on a good home theater DVD system. Positional audio support for my Altec Lansing speaker system was just fine, with sounds moving smoothly from one speaker to the next as I moved about in the game.

    DVD Audio Playback: I did not test the Muse XL in DVD playback for the simple reason that it is only a four channel card and not capable of supporting surround sound as found on most DVDs today.

    Overall: If you are on a budget and want to upgrade to a sound card that provides four channel support and has great sound quality, you really can't beat the Muse XL from Hercules. The included software is nice but basically not very useful, audio reproduction was flawless and stability was great in all applications. This is an excellent budget audio solution for those of you with a low- to mid-range gaming system looking for the best audio you can get for the least amount of dollars spent.

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