- Creative LabsVideologic Sirocco Crossfire - Videologic Although we pay a lot of attention to the insides of our PCs, it's often forgotten just how important the interface elements; mouse, keyboard and monitor, really are. When buying a new PC, old timers will tell you that the monitor is the first and most important purchase decision. For gamers these days though, a good sound setup is just as important as a high resolution and refresh rate.
There are a lot of options for gamers in the sound department, and unfortunately with the growth of the market has come variety and dissonance. The PC sound market is now almost at a stage of convergence with the audiophile-driven hifi market, with people complementing their existing hifi setups with MP3-playing digital soundcard outputs and the like. But when it comes to PC gaming, the most important thing is positional audio. Many gamers use headphones almost exclusively, but that's not always ideal, so today we're going to take a look at two reasonably priced speaker setups, the Creative Labs Desktop Theatre (DTT) 3500 and the Videologic Sirocco Crossfires. Both retail for about £200, and thus offer a reasonably priced surround sound option to buyers. Some say the easiest way to buy a pair of speakers is to assess how much oomph they have and how large a frequency response. So for some of you, this will be a short read. The Creative system boasts a power output of 79 watts RMS total (30w for the Subwoofer, 7w for each of the satellites and 21w for the centre speaker) with a 20Hz-20kHz frequency response. The Sirocco Crossfire on the other hand, outputs 80 watts RMS, with 40w for the (larger) subwoofer and 10 watts for each of the four satellites. There is no centre speaker, and the frequency response is 35Hz-130kHz.
Interestingly, the Creative setup is biased toward the SoundBlaster Live 5.1 sound card, while the Videologic set seems happy to function with its sibling the SonicFury, Aureal-based cards and even the rival SoundBlaster Live 5.1. In setting the two systems up, it was noted that the subwoofer and satellites on the Crossfire were individually beefier in their power consumption. The Creative won some immediate kudos though for the number of features on its amplifier box. The box features several multi-speaker surround modes (Music, Movie, FourPoint/5.1 DIN/Stereo), a button to control the input from its Dolby Digital/PCM inputs (Optical, Coaxial, Digital DIN or off), the option to select a couple of multi-channel inputs and also one to activate Dolby Pro Logic decoding on either an analogue or a digital source. The usual level controllers are included for each speaker too, which are absent on lesser models in the range. Through this wide variety of options, you can do a number of useful things. For example, at the same time as playing a game that uses positional 5.1 surround sound, you can also listen to an external source of music (e.g. a stereo).
The Crossfire box, on the other hand, features one front and one rear analogue and standard speaker wires to connect to the subwoofer and each satellite. Like the Creative set, the length of speaker wire varies depending on the position of the speaker. Also included on the Crossfire box are two stereo inputs and one LFE input, incredibly useful if you have an AC-3 or DTS decoder with a 4.1 surround mode or the sound cards mentioned above that feature 4.1 surround. The two stereo outputs allow you to do multiple things at once, but you can only hear one at a time (thanks to a switching knob on the front), which is a bit of a letdown compared to the Creative amp. It bears noting here that although Creative's setup is 5.1 and Videologic's 4.1 surround, many audiophiles believe the centre speaker is too strong in setups like this and draws attention away from the positional audio. Certainly in general use it's not really utilized much, and gamers won't really notice the difference, but DVDs often pipe all the speech through the centre speaker. Personally I don't know that one is a better solution than the other. I didn't really mind either way. The important thing is what gamers make of it in terms of how it sounds.
My control for the subwoofer test was how bassy the shotgun sounded in Doom II. An old game, certainly, but it would definitely show off the woofing of each of the respective systems. Double-barrelled imp death literally shook the ground with the Crossfires, but the Creative woofer was less "DOOM" and more "dim". The trend didn't really continue into the speakers though. Despite their relative sizes, they all put in a good performance and I was hard pressed to tell them apart except for the slightly sub-standard woofing on the Creative set. Some would say the presence of a remote control in the Creative arrangement makes up for this, and certainly the ability to vary what you do instead of being limited to a single channel of sound was appreciated. It allowed me to play DVDs on my Panasonic set-top DVD box and all sorts of other things without the need to discard my popcorn and walk half way across the room to fiddle with the input knob. Ultimately the decision of which speakers to buy will be decided by your current system more than anything. If you have a SoundBlaster Live 5.1, there's no denying that both will do a good job, but the centre speaker and multiple inputs, plus the built-in digital to analogue converter means users will probably want to opt for an all-Creative system. On the other hand, Aureal and SonicFury owners may want to consider the Crossfires, because the fifth speaker isn't available to them anyway. Or, the decision may simply be a case of how much you value the Doom II shotgun bass. It certainly made my mind up for me.