64 or 32?

From the hardware point of view, the Home Studio Pro 64 is an outstanding product, simply because of its combination of power and innovative features as well as the marketing insight of MaxiSound.  Whereas the AWE64 is powered by Creative Labs' own propriety chipset, the Guillemot Home Studio Pro 64 is driven by the ESS AudioDrive chipset in conjunction with Guillemot's Dream 9407 Digital Signal Processor.  What's the point of having an ESS AudioDrive chip on-board the Home Studio Pro 64 when the real muscle behind the card lies in Guillemot's Dream 50MIPS DSP?   One word, compatibility.  The ESS AudioDrive ensures 100% compatibility with the Creative Labs SoundBlaster/Pro for gamers although the HSP64 isn't mainly designed for gamers. 

So what makes the Home Studio Pro 64 a better buy than the equivalently priced AWE64 by Creative?  Well, the Home Studio Pro 64 differs from the AWE64 in that the Home Studio Pro's title actually refers to the number of voices the card can process simultaneously in hardware.  the AWE64 can only actually process 32 simultaneous voices in hardware, the other 32 must be emulated via software.  The Home Studio Pro 64 however, can process a full 64 voices entirely in hardware, a limit that can be upgraded to 96 by making use of the second feature connector on the Home Studio Pro 64 with an additional Daughter board. 

What is the real need for the ability to process 64 voices in hardware?  Taking advantage of such a support in old DOS games is quite difficult to achieve, however in the event that a program does attempt to process more than 32 voices you will not experience any type of performance hit with the Home Studio Pro 64 since it doesn't have to emulate any of its 64 voices in software like the Creative Labs AWE64.  It is for this reason that the AWE64 isn't recommended for use with the IBM/Cyrix 6x86 line of processors due to their weak FPU which the AWE64 makes use of when emulating voices.  All of you 6x86 owners out there can be content that the Home Studio Pro 64, has the ability to process 64 voices in hardware...however there's one more advantage the Home Studio Pro 64 holds over the competition.

Process this...

With all of this talk of "processing" sound it would seem almost insane for a manufacturer not to equip a sound card with an on-board processor for handling these tremendous requests.  Of course the processor wouldn't have to be too incredibly powerful, just a simply unit for processing sound.  It is sad to say that most cheaper sound cards don't come with a method for removing some of the load off of your CPU when processing sound requests.  Fortunately, Guillemot designed the Home Studio Pro 64 with an on-board RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) processor capable of processing 50 million reduced instruction set operations in a second.  To put this into a real world perspective, the on-board DSP (Digital Signal Processor) has the power of a tiny 486 sitting on your sound card. 

Why would you want to have that kind of power on a sound card?

Let's take an example about playing an MP3 file.  Decoding a Layer 3 Encoded file [MP3] takes quite a bit of processing power to accomplish.  While playing an MP3 actions such as scrolling up and down a web page can create distortions/interruptions in the playback.  Why?   Well, just like playing an MP3 uses a lot of system power, video functions also utilize system power.  When sending two requests to the system bus at once, the one with a higher priority naturally takes precedence over the request with lower priority.   Therefore, the video request, being one of higher priority, temporarily interrupts the MP3 playback process in an attempt to achieve temporary "superiority" in order to complete its request.  There are two solutions to this problem, the indirect solution would be to use a dedicated bus for either your sound or video card.  Since we currently don't have a bus dedicated to sound processing, and we conveniently have a dedicated bus for video (Accelerated Graphics Port - AGP Guide) by using an AGP Video card you can avoid this type of playback interruption.  However not all of us are lucky enough to have an AGP equipped motherboard, so the more direct solution to this problem would be to outfit the sound card with a processor of its own to handle the requests therefore leaving more CPU power for the graphics card to make use of without interrupting the playback process.  If you really feel like showing off your power with the Home Studio Pro 64, try playing two MP3 files at once, or three, or four, or even eight!  It is all possible with the Guillemot Home Studio Pro 64 and its wonderful Dream Wave DSP unit.  Also while playing an MP3 with the Home Studio Pro 64 you can still play other sounds, you can even play an MP3 while running Quake 2!


Compatibility

Many sound cards out there boast "SoundBlaster Compatibility" however very few of them are actually compatible with the 16-bit Sound Blaster 16 rather the old 8-bit Sound Blaster Pro.  Fortunately the Guillemot Home Studio Pro 64 is actually compatible with the Creative Labs SoundBlaster 16, and you shouldn't have any problems running your old DOS games with the HSP64.


System Requirements

  • IBM Compatible Pentium 90 or above

  • 1 - 16bit ISA Slot (full length)

  • 8MB RAM

  • Windows 3.1x / Windows 95 / DOS 5.0

  • 3.5MB/s Hard Disk Data Transfer Speed for 16 track Direct-to Disk

  • CD-ROM Drive

 

 


The Test

Test Configuration

Processor(s): Intel Pentium II 300 (512KB ECC)
Motherboard: ABIT LX6 LX Based Pentium II Motherboard
RAM: 2 - 32MB Advanced Megatrends SDRAM DIMMs
Hard Drive(s): Western Digital Caviar AC21600H
Sound Card(s): Creative Labs AWE64
Guillemot Home Studio Pro 64
Video Card(s): Diamond Viper V330 (4MB SGRAM - AGP)

Although the Home Studio Pro 64's on-board DSP is capable of processing incredible amounts of data, how much does it help the real world performance of your system in a gaming situation for example?  In order to answer this question, let's turn to Quake 2, one of the most popular games out today.

Quake 2 Frame Rate (TIMEDEMO DEMO1) - Higher is better

22KHz Sound (High Quality) 11KHz Sound (Low Quality)
Pentium II - 300 (no MP3 Playing) 18.6 fps 19.0 fps
Pentium II - 300 (1 MP3 Playing) 14.9 fps 15.2 fps
Pentium II - 300 (2 MP3s Playing) 11.3 fps 11.7 fps

Using Quake 2 frame rates as an example we notice that there exists a small, but noticeable 0.4 fps performance hit between the 22KHz and 11KHz scores.  However when we add one or two MP3 decompression tasks to the scene that performance hit between the two sound qualities still remains pretty much standard at 0.4 fps.  It seems as though if you have an extremely fast processor, in this case a Pentium II at 300MHz the load the DSP takes off of the CPU isn't significant enough to make a difference. 

Quake 2 Frame Rate (TIMEDEMO DEMO1) - Higher is better

22KHz Sound (High Quality) 11KHz Sound (Low Quality)
Guillemot - Pentium II - 120 (no MP3 Playing) 8.6 fps 9.2 fps
CL AWE64 - Pentium II - 120 (no MP3 Playing) 8.2 fps 9.0 fps

At a lower clock speed (120MHz = 60MHz x 2.0) we notice that the Guillemot's on-board DSP slowly begins to show its power, although not by that great of a degree when compared to the Creative Labs AWE64.  I should mention that with a processor with a weaker FPU (i.e. Cyrix 6x86/MX) the difference between the Guillemot and the Creative Labs cards is illustrated more clearly, with the winner being the RISC DSP equipped Home Studio Pro 64 by Guillemot. 

 


The Final Decision

If you're looking for a strong alternative to Creative Labs' AWE64 Gold, the Home Studio Pro 64 by Guillemot provides the perfect combination of an excellent bundle, quality in a product, flexibility, and is an overall great sound card.  Especially for those of you with slower processors the Home Studio Pro 64 is a much better choice over the AWE64, if the price is too much for you however, Guillemot has a scaled down version of the HSP64 designed for gamers, expect to see a review of that card shortly.

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