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MS Digital Sound System 80

Microsoft's Digital Sound System 80

Boom in a Box

by Jim Bray

Microsoft's first major foray into the audio market is a USB-based satellite/subwoofer combination that cranks out the power and the sound - and thus can be a "sound investment" for people wanting to up their audio ante.

Utilizing technology from the Dutch electronics giant Philips (co-inventor with Sony of the compact disc standard), the Digital Sound System 80 is an 80 watt, 3 piece system that handles analog and digital duties with aplomb.

The combo is efficient, sounds excellent, and is almost loud enough to satisfy one who cut his teeth listening to The Who. In short, it offers a terrific listening experience on your PC - and the fact that it's USB-based means many users can now get by without a sound card and thereby free up an expansion slot inside the PC for other technological toys.

Of course that's just the beginning. The DSS lets you customize the sound to your own taste via a ten band programmable graphic equalizer, so if you like to hear that blood splatter in your favorite game - or merely prefer the lush sounds of strings - there's a setting with your name on it.

You can tell the system pumps out 80 watts, too, and cleanly. I had the subwoofer perched near my feet and when the sound got hot and heavy I received a gentle massage from the waves emanating from the beast. So not only was I thankful for the audio, my feet were grateful for the "ultrasonic therapy" as well.

The DSS features an onboard DSP (Digital Signal Processor) chip that handles the processing - which is why chances are you'll be able to dump your sound card. Controls are adjustable via either software or hardware, and adjusting one affects the other.

The Digital Sound System's satellite speakers' frequency response is from about 160Hz to 20KHz and the subwoofer takes that down to 40Hz, which is plenty for almost all real world applications, and better than some home audio systems can claim.

Setup is very easy. The system is plug and play and an added bonus to that is that it actually works, as opposed to some plug and play devices that merely say they work and then force you to mess around with them...

Microsoft claims you can get 3D surround sound via DirectX, and you can to a point - but it's no substitute for real rear speakers. On the other hand, not having rear speakers leaves your desk freer for other junk

The company also says you can connect the system to your TV or audio system, though I didn't try this.

Using the system with my PC, I experienced solid low frequencies, with clean midrange and highs. Microsoft says they give a boost to "selected mid-frequencies" so vocals are brought more to the "front". I don't know about that, but I noticed very nice stereo separation, with good width and depth perception - in all, a very musical performer that didn't seem to favor any sounds or frequencies over others.

The nice power rating and terrific "oomph" also comes in handy with explosions and crashes, so gamers should definitely feel at home.

All in all, the Microsoft Digital Sound System 80 is my favorite PC audio setup to date. I even preferred it to a real PC surround, Dolby Digital system because, while it lacks that other system's multi-channel and multi-format capability (which I must admit are wonderful assets), the sound quality - and the resulting standing waves - really knocked off my socks.

 

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January 31, 2006