Having conquered the mouse, keyboard and game
controller markets, with cordless phones to come, Microsoft recently
released its new speaker system, the Digital Sound System 80 (http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/speakers).
The system is black and blue-grey, typical of Microsoft's
Sidewinder products, and consists of two satellite speakers and a
subwoofer about the size of a large cat. They offer powerful and
crisps sounds similar to a
NHT powered speakers.
The "80" in the name means 80 watts, and this system is definitely loud enough to annoy the neighbors. The subwoofer, using a technology licensed from Philips called wOOx, is 32 watts while the two satellites are 16 watts each. The subwoofer delivers satisfying boom while the satellites generate very crisp midtones. Contrary to the documentation, however, midtones tend to sound better when the speakers are at or above ear level.
Unlike Altec Lansing's "USB" ACS-305 speakers, which only use the USB cable for volume control, the DSS 80 set can actually transmit digital audio via USB if your system can handle it. Because the subwoofer has its own DSP, sound can bypass your sound card altogether, leaving your machine as unfettered digital information. In all-digital mode, CDs sound fabulous and games are crystal clear. A ten-band graphic equalizer and Microsoft Surround Sound technology are both available strictly through USB as well.
That said, there are plenty of compelling reasons to keep your sound card and use the speakers in analog mode. Without a sound card, you'll probably lose your joystick port and you'll definitely lose any 3D sound features in modern sound cards. Some CD-ROMs (primarily SCSI and slow, cheap units) can't output CD audio as digital data, so you'd need a sound card. DVDs, right now, can't be output as digital audio without using SP/DIF, which the DSS 80 doesn't natively support. Even in analog mode, the speakers sound fabulous, though audio nuts or technofreaks will want to go all digital.
Because the DSS 80 DSP shares the burden of producing sound in an all-digital scenario, there can be some performance issues as well. On a Pentium 233MMX, EA's World Cup 98 showed some sound stuttering in all-digital mode, though a faster machine would probably not have that problem. The speakers also didn't like digital mode with a Umax Astra 1220U USB scanner attached to the same machine. A combination of digital and analog mode seems to work best.
Installation is fairly simple -- though probably more complex than any other set of speakers you'll ever use. You'll need your Windows 95/98 CD handy.
Despite the high-quality sound, the DSS 80 has a couple of annoying quirks -- typical of any 1.0 product. Most obnoxiously, the speakers have a ten-second auto sleep mode that seems a little too quick to engage. While watching "The Exorcist" on DVD, the speakers would periodically go to sleep during quiet parts of the movie and stay that way until a loud sound would wake them again. At louder volumes, it isn't a major problem, but hopefully Microsoft will release a patch that will disable this "feature." The mixer controls also get annoying complex -- with a Monster Sound installed and analog-digital mode enabled, my taskbar had three separate audio utilities: the Monster Sound control, the DSS 80 digital mixer/equalizer and the standard Windows mixer. That, my friend, is two sound controls too many. Additonally, the hardware controls don't always conform to the volume set in the mixer, leading to yet more confusion.
The hardware controls, in fact, are a problem of their own. A series of buttons on the right speaker control subwoofer volume, master control volume and mute. The mute button is a great feature, but, like most soft control devices, it's impossible to know how loud the speakers are without checking the mixer. A dial would have been a welcome addition.
Those quirks aside, the speakers are better than nearly anything else you'll see at the $189 price point, though the Cambridge Microworks are a great set at about the same price. Through the end of the year, Microsoft is offering a generous $50 rebate, which sweetens the pot somewhat. All in all, though, the DSS 80 is a very powerful, clear set that will make CDs and games sound terrific.
To use Microsoft Digital Sound System 80 PC Sound Card (Analogue) Support you need:
To use Microsoft Digital Sound System 80 USB (Digital) Support you need:
To use Microsoft Digital Sound Software you need:
* The 10-band Graphic Equalizer and Microsoft® Surround Sound features function only if your PC is capable of digital audio
** Capabilities vary by operating system
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