Creative own the audio market. When people say PC audio, the reply is Creative. No one has really had the balls to try and take them on in the gaming audio arena. That is, until now. Step in the Razer Barracuda AC-1, built by and for gamers.
Razer is the world’s leading brand in high-end computer gaming peripherals. We reinvented the computer gaming industry by bringing the competitive edge to gamers when professional computer gaming was in its infancy. In the mid 90s, with the advent of networked gaming and competitive first-person-shooter (FPS) games, gamers found that their legacy peripherals were inhibiting rather than enhancing their gameplay.
In the late 90s, after years of research and development, the Razer Boomslang™ gaming mouse, the stuff of gaming legends, was launched. Featuring an unprecedented precision of up to 2000 dpi when other mice maxed out at 400 dpi, the Razer Boomslang™ offered up to five times the accuracy of other gaming mice of its time. The Razer Boomslang’s™ precision technology was powered by proprietary opto-mechanical technology developed by the Razer engineering team and its sleek design and profile sculpted by ergonomics experts of its day.
And the rest is history.
NB: Razer’s full history is a little long, if you want to read all of it, click here
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- Razer Fidelity™ gaming audio engine
- S/PDIF receiver/transmitter
- Dolby® Prologic IIx surround processor
- Dolby® Digital Live 5.1 hardware encoder
- Dolby® Headphone technology
- Dolby® Virtual Speaker
- DTS® NeoPC
- DTS® Interactive real-time hardware encoder
- 7.1-channel digital audio playback
- Supports EAX™ 2.0, Aureal3D™ 1.0 and DirectSound
- Signal-to-noise ratio (output): 117dB
- Frequency response (at 24-bit / 96KHz): 20~20,000Hz
- Dynamic range: 116dB
- Total harmonic distortion + noise: -97dB
- Simultaneous voices: ≤ 128
- PCI 2.2 interface (burst modes and bus mastering)
- Four synchronous I2S input/output pairs
- Razer High Definition-Dedicated Audio Interface™ (HD-DAI™ connector)
- S/PDIF in/out Toslink connectors
Covering its bits
The Barracuda AC-1 is packaged in a typically Razer way with everything black with green highlights. After a little bit of foil writing, the front of the box is how they like it.
After popping open the front, you see a black insert which once removed shows you what the box contains. You get a whole bunch of promotional leaflets, a manual, certificate of authenticity, a quick start guide, the card itself, a HD-DAI adapter and an all important lanyard.
The card itself is clad in a metal box which has a Barracuda graphic on it. This is apparently meant to passively protect the components underneath from EMI which your PC makes. This will hopefully stop any very minor distortions in sound. I can’t honestly see an aluminium box doing that but we shall see.
As anything covered is interesting, I took off the cover to see what’s underneath. You’ll find a whole bunch of capacitors which will make the sound, well sound good. At the top of the card is a load of green LED’s that will shine through the EMI ‘shield’ and light up the logo. I’m surprised it’s not blue, like every other Razer component.
On the side of the ‘shield’, you’ll find internal connectors that allow you to plug in front audio ports, CD and Aux in. The addition of the front audio socket is nice to see as often sound cards miss out this important connectivity.
The chip that’s not under the shield is the ‘Razer Fidelity’ chip which is essentially the brains of the unit.
Looking at the back of the card, it looks fairly simple with the tracks of the PCB being fairly widely laid out. The card looks far from crowded.
The specs of the card look very good on paper, and the SNR (signal to noise ratio) is better than the Creative X-Fi’s which shows how much noise there is per amount of wanted signal. Higher numbers mean less noise. There are little enhancements that the AC-1 has, which are completely Razer’s innovations. One of the more ridiculous is the HD-DAI connector. This sits on the back of the card next to optical in and out ports (S/PDIF).
This is basically a DVI port with the last 3 pins missing (so you can’t plug it into your GFX card by mistake). The only benefit to using this port compared to the standard sockets is to a) reduce space used on the back of the card, and b) to provide power to the Barracuda headset that this card is designed for. Fortunately if you don’t have a Razer headset, then the packaged adapter will allow the usual audio connector to be used. This adapter terminates in 7 sockets allowing for 7.1 surround sound and a microphone to be used.
Another ability of the card is Razer ESP. This stands for Enhanced Sonic Perception. This beefs up your ability to position sounds so that you know exactly where your enemy is coming from. Should be interesting…
Installation is pretty easy, or at least should be. I installed this card on several machines, and when using a Lian Li PC-B20 case, the HD-DAI connector was positioned slightly too low and meant that the card wouldn’t fit. I had to unscrew the PCI bracket, install that then plug the card in afterwards. Other cases where fine with the card however.
Before you plug in the card, make sure that on-board audio is disabled in your BIOS and any other audio card removed and all audio drivers uninstalled.
Now start up your PC with the Barracuda AC-1 plugged in and run the driver setup, after clicking next a few times the drivers will install and you get a ridiculously unnecessary video of a silver blob chasing a green blob inside the Razer logo. This video is even in the downloadable version of the drivers and must double the size of driver package.
You’ll be asked to restart your PC, and then you are ready to go.
To test the Barracuda AC-1 I’ll be using it in direct comparison with the Creative X-Fi FatalTWO-ONEty board reviewed here. I’ll also compare it to on-board sound which I’m sure many of you use.
First thing that could be a problem is that as EAX is a Creative idea, the Barracuda won’t support the latest version. EAX makes audio sound like its coming from the room that you are in. For example, say you were shooting in an auditorium, it would add extra echo, or if you were playing in a padded cell it would dampen the sound slightly. EAX (now in its 5th version) is supported by a huge number of games and allows for truly immersive gameplay.
EAX has been released for everyone, but only up to version 2. Subsequent version are now noted as ‘HD’ and produce much better atmospheric sound. The X-Fi supports the latest version with is 5 HD. The Barracuda simply can’t.
Another disadvantage is that the X-Fi has on board RAM which offloads sound data to the card, rather than fill up your system RAM (granted supported games only, but BF 2142 is one of them). The Creative FatalONEty X-Fi Xtreme Gamer has both EAX 5.0 and 64mb of XRAM. Not to mention it retails for slightly less than the Barracuda.
The Barracuda will have to shine to beat the well established Creative X-Fi and brand name.
The drivers are a little confusing to begin with, as everything is poorly marked and its more the case of clicking stuff to see what it does to the sound. Most of the time, you’ll enable an option and it’ll sound great, then the music track changes and it sounds worse. Finding the right options takes a while but you’ll get there in the end.
Once you’ve installed the drivers, the Windows audio panel doesn’t really help much. Razer disable the usual bass modification settings, and instead you have to use the ones in the Razer control panel.
There aren’t any clearly laid out ‘Enhance Bass’ or even a bass knob to change. Instead, you have to use the cards built in EQ which when on causes volume drop-outs when the bass kicks in. Its fine on externally amplified speakers or a headset, as you can set the AC-1 volume to mid. If you have unpowered headphones then you are in for varied volume music, and a fairly low max volume. The card will be fine where there is no bass played, and then play the first note at max volume, then the volume dips until the bass stops and then the volume returns to the original level which results in disjointed playback.
When using the Barracuda headset with the card the effect was less noticeable but it was still there at high volumes. I would advice against using this card with normal headphones, unless you play at lower volumes.
Speaking of the Barracuda headset, courtesy of some rumble-pack type extras to the ear cups, the subwoofer actually shakes the headset rather than play sound. This is a great idea, and works for the most part, but when listening to music with repetitive bass, you end up with a slight lag where the motors have to get started and so the rumble is a few microseconds behind the actual bass note. In game, the lag is less pronounced as often the bass is a one time thing (i.e. explosion).
After a while, the rumble feature is too much, and I found myself turning it off by changing the bass cutoff point in the Barracuda drivers which means that you hear the bass rather than feel it. Sometimes, the rumble in on constantly (if, say, you are in a vehicle) and gets irritating. Your best bet is to set it to low so the effect is less pronounced.
Much like EAX, the Razer control panel allows you to choose an environment that you want your audio to sound like its being played in. There are a lot to choose from, and they included ‘Padded Cell’, ‘Drugged’ and ‘hanger’ (the non-capitalisation is intended). These are all pretty pointless from a gaming point of view but can make some music sound better.
After being a little disappointed with the bass and volume, I moved onto gaming tests.
When using the AC-1 at ultra high level in Battlefield 2142, the card sounded good, but not a patch on the cheaper X-Fi. It’s far better than on-board but it’s a step down from Creative. The lack of EAX was quite obvious after playing with the X-Fi for a while. Shooting in a corridor sounded the same and shooting in the blinding snow. The Crystallizer on the X-Fi really makes a difference when you compare it to the AC-1 as the sounds aren’t as sharp and sound a little muffled.
ESP is a fairly interesting feature of the card. I didn’t really notice a great deal of difference between when it was on and vice versa. When at max however, there would be random clips of distant sounds played, especially noticeable in Battlefield 2142. Often your own footsteps are amplified making you paranoid as to where the enemy is rather being able to pinpoint them.
Counterstrike: Source didn’t exhibit the distance sound clipping, but there was still the amplification of your own footsteps. ESP seems to just amplify sounds, and bring distant sounds closer. While I found this eerie and paranoia inducing to begin with, you learn to use this to your advantage, but the learning curve is annoying as you are constantly on the look out for the enemy which usually turns out to be your own footsteps.
Other games such as Command and Conquer 3 and Zero Hour saw no real improvement with the card installed as directional sounds are less important. In fact audio as a whole is less important, unlike FPS where it can give you an advantage.
The AC-1’s ability to upmix stereo headphones to surround sound isn’t fantastic, and it
sounds like the audio is coming from further away, but there is a small amount of directional information added. It’s an improvement over stereo, but obviously physically having 7 speakers is better.
The main advantage of this surround sound upmixing isn’t gaming, but movies. When playing a movie with the AC-1 working, surround sound was noticeable and I felt more involved in the movie.
With the other options in the control panel such as Dolby and DTS enhancements changed the sound so it was different, but not necessarily better. I found the options to be a little pointless, but at least they are there for someone who would use them.
I did a little test to prove that the EMI ‘shield’ is pointless. Using the card with or without the ‘shield’ made no difference to sound, no matter how loud or quiet. Even when there was a ‘high powered graphics card’ next to it (as the box says they produce the most EMI). At best, this EMI ‘shield’ adds a little extra colour to your PC.
The drivers are surprisingly light-weight in comparison to Creative’s. They use less CPU and less RAM (uses 16mb) which is also nice to see. Unlike Creative, Razer don’t install 4 separate programs to run the sound card, and neither do you have to choose ‘gaming mode’ to fully use the card in a game.
If you are using an older PC, like my 3.2ghz P4 with 1gb of DDR400, then the X-Fi is essential in Battlefield 2142. The 64mb of XRAM actually gives me smoother frame-rates and better sound quality as it takes the load off the system RAM. The Barracuda couldn’t do this, so I had to drop the sound quality and graphics to get playable FPS. On a more powerful computer, this is a null point.
Unfortunately, Creative also has the edge in compatibility. There are currently no drivers for Vista for the Barracuda, while there are for X-Fi. Granted gamers have yet to migrate to Microsoft’s latest offering but not to have the ability to is a poor show.
With its price tag of around £130, it’s not really worth it in my opinion. A superior X-Fi card goes for £100 direct from Creative. The lack of EAX is a major downfall, and the poor bass capabilities can completely ruin a music track. The quiet max volume will also be a bad sign to any serious gamer or music lover. I’m far from a Creative fan boy, but this card simply isn’t as good.
The card seems to only be designed for the Barracuda headset, rather than the majority of computer user’s hardware. The HD-DAI adapter seems tacked on, rather than being added for additional usage with their headset. The HD-DAI is useful for Barracuda headset owners, and a minor annoyance to everyone else.
This seems like just a sound card, not something ready for gamers. Funky looking GUI and proprietary connectivity fail to disguise the less-than-perfect audio processing beneath. Unlike the X-Fi there is nothing that really strikes me as worth the fairly hefty price tag.
While the card is certainly better than most on-board audio solutions, it’s not yet ready to take Creative’s superior and less expensive throne.
|Better than on-board sound
|Not the best
I’d like to thank Meroncourt for providing us with the sound card.
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