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Hercules Game Theater XP soundcard review

Creative Labs were, once upon a time, the only real name in PC Soundcards. If it wasn’t Creative Labs on the box, it wasn’t really worth getting. A lot’s changed since then though with the arrival & subsequent demise of Aureal, then great new Soundcards appearing from Philips & Cirrus Logic CS4630 based Soundcards too.

That said, the one area where Creative hasn’t really got any competition was in the area of connectivity thanks to the Live! Drive range. At least they hadn’t until the Hercules Game Theater XP arrived.

Installation & Manual

Installation of the Game Theatre XP was semi-unique as compared with, say installing well…. any other Soundcard you can think of, with 1 or 2 exceptions. Simply insert the Game Theatre XP into a free PCI slot & connect the DB44 cable from the Game Theatre XP to the External rack. If you intend to use the USB ports available on the External Rack then you also must hook up the USB cable on the DB44 cable to a free USB Port on your PC. The Soundcard itself appears rather bare as the shot below reveals, with only 2 inputs available (CD-Audio & Auxiliary 2 In), the SonicFury/Santa Cruz in comparison offers CD-Audio, TAD, Auxiliary, S/PDIF In & Wavetable header. The absence of these feels all the more prominent given these Soundcards all use the CS4630 DSP.

The External rack is where everything really goes on. In what can be assumed to be Hercules attempt to outdo Creative’s Live! Drive they’ve decided to go for a fully external box, rather than something that neatly fits into a 5 1/4” drive bay. This Soundcard is connected to the rack via a DB44 expansion cable & every other Input/Output (Bar a single Line Input jack on the Soundcard itself) is connected to the rack itself – More on this later however.

The Manual for the Game Theater XP was rather sparse, containing how to install the Soundcard correctly in Windows Operating Systems &… well that’s pretty much it really. Unlike the Hercules Gamesurround Fortissimo 2 there is no manual for Power DVD 3 contained either.

External Rack

The main (well, only) thing that separates the Game Theater XP from other CS4630 Soundcards is the rather large In/Output Rack that it’s hooked up to. Here’s a shot of the front of the box;

From Left to Right the front panel contains a 1/4" Headphone jack, 1/4" Microphone jack (Both with volume control knobs & a single 1/8” to 1/4" adapter comes bundled with the Soundcard from those of you who need it), Left & Right Line Input jacks, 2 USB ports & a Game port.

For testing out the Front In/Outputs I tried connecting up a Microsoft Sidewinder Gamepad to the Game port, an Epson Stylus Color 680 Printer to the USB port, a Philips headphones & finally a Microphone to their respective jacks (Using the included 1/8” to 1/4” adapter where appropriate). All these devices run correctly & other than having to change the Audio Output mode in the Game Theater’s control panel applet (To change to Headphone output, or enabling/disabling the Microphone) there wasn’t much required to use these In/Outputs.

As you can guess this is extremely convenient to use & once the Soundcard is installed & the External rack is positioned you shouldn’t need to have to reach around your case to mess around with Soundcard connections at all – Everything you need is on the Rack.

Now let’s take a look at the back of the Rack.

Again, we’ll start from the Left & go Right. In the upper left there are 2 1/8” mini-jacks for Front/Rear speakers, which will be used for connecting to most PC Speaker systems available, e.g. Cambridge Soundworks FPS 1000 or DTT 2500 (Both of which I own). There are also 6 RCA outputs available for connecting up to Speaker Systems with (up to) 6 Analog Inputs available (Corresponding to Front Right, Front Left, Rear Right, Rear Left, Subwoofer & Center). Next up there are another 2 USB post available – totalling up to 4 USB ports on the Rack. The Computer connection refers to the rather large cable that is connected from the Rack to the Soundcard itself. Now we have Coaxial/Optical In/Outputs for connecting to an AC-3/DTS decoder, Tape deck or perhaps MiniDisc player (More on this later). Finally on the Right there are MIDI DIN In/Output jacks.

Perhaps more than anything else 2 things stand out about the Rear In/Outputs. Those being 6 Analog RCA outputs & Coaxial/Optical In/Outputs (Well, guess that’s 10 things J). In comparison with other CS4630 Soundcards available the 6 Analog outputs are a new addition to the range, although in an odd twist the Game Theater XP firmly remains a 4 Channel Soundcard. This is something of an oddity given the pseudo (Virtual) 5.1 Channel output available with the Santa Cruz/SonicFury. As it happens 6 Speaker output is only available with the bundled Power DVD (& other 6 Speaker capable software DVD decoders). Hopefully in the future Hercules/Sensaura will be able to add a true 6 Speaker output mode, or in the interim Hercules may choose to enable the Virtual 5.1 option available with the SonicFury/Santa Cruz.

 



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