Auzentech, Asus, and C-Media: As the CMI-8788 Turns
Subject: Editorial | July 25, 2008 - 11:58 PM | Josh Walrath
In Q1 of 2007 Auzentech announced the upcoming availability of the eagerly anticipated X-Meridian. This was a top end sound card with tremendous features, unique engineering, and sound quality that was promised to be the best in the world. A few months later Auzentech released the card to a host of excellent reviews. While the card was not exactly perfect (the analog outputs were a wee bit hot and caused distortion if levels were not adjusted) it was a step up from nearly everything else in the market, including the mighty X-Fi. While other manufacturers like B-Gears, Turtle Beach, and HT Omega all had competing products that were using the CMI-8788 chip, the X-Meridian was the luxury option of the group.
The X-Meridian with its wonderful swappable OPAMPS.
About two months after the X-Meridian was released, Auzentech announced that they were no longer making the product available. This left a lot of people scratching their head, as the X-Meridian was selling out at retailers as fast as they were coming in. Sure, Auzentech was not Creative, and they could not endlessly produce as many cards as they wanted, but this announcement seemed rather strange. Here was a product which on paper was superior in most aspects to every other card on the market, which was high end and presumably had some healthy margins to it, and it was taken off the shelves far sooner than anyone expected. When asked Auzentech would not really nail down a reason why they were discontinuing the product. It was odd at the time, as other companies such as B-Gears, HT Omega, and Turtle Beach were all still continuing to ship CMI-8788 chips.
The truth finally came out in June of this year, but very few people seemed to notice it. Stephane Bae, President of Auzentech, wrote a little open letter concerning this situation, a full year after Auzentech stopped producing the X-Meridian. The long and short of it is that Asus had negotiated with C-Media for exclusive rights to the CMI-8788 chip after a certain date. This meant that Auzentech would have to purchase a significant number of chips within a week of the original introduction of the X-Meridian to keep that part running for the next few years of its potential lifespan. Considering that Auzentech is still selling the older X-Plosion two plus years after its introduction, we can imagine that Auzentech would have had to throw down a significant amount of money to get the potential supply of product needed for the next several years. At that point, Auzentech had to make the decision to bet the company on that move, or to pursue another route. The other route involved adopting the X-Fi processor from Creative.
Asus must have made a hell of an offer to C-Media, as Auzentech (and HDA before it) have been very solid customers, and the quality of their products have helped create a new and improved appreciation of C-Media products. I know in talking to other editors several years ago that when C-Media was mentioned, it was often followed by a resounding, “Yuck” from those editors. Two years ago this was the overwhelming feeling towards C-Media, but because of the success of Bluegears (later to be B-gears), HDA, Auzentech, HT Omega, and others, the overall opinion of C-Media sound chips has improved dramatically. With Asus releasing their latest sound cards based around the C-Media chip, opinions have further become more positive towards these products.
As compared to the X-Meridian, the X-Prelude only has one swappable OPAMP, and it does not fully integrate with the X-Tension DIN from Auzentech.
Asus has done a lot to the CMI-8788, not so much in changing the overall chip design, but by improving the software and drivers for the product. The Xonar series features DS3D-GX, which enables “hardware accelerated” DirectSound 3D and EAX in a Vista environment. Previously these effects could only be emulated, since Vista has moved the audio stack away from hardware acceleration. OpenAL on the other hand requires an OpenAL compliant card (namely Creative or Creative based) as well as applications which have been modified and recoded to support OpenAL in Vista. Supposedly DS3D-GX sweeps this aside and allows users to utilize EAX 5.0 (not licensed by Creative, and not officially available except from Creative and the Auzentech X-Prelude) in any application which supports it, regardless of OpenAL support within the application.
The X-Tension DIN was designed specifically with the X-Meridian in mind. Unfortunately this part was not ready at the time of introduction of the X-Meridian. Due to specifics of the X-Fi chip, the X-Tension DIN is not fully functional with the X-Prelude.
I can see how Asus would want to protect their investment in these software technologies. If another manufacturer were running the CMI-8788, then likely some enterprising individual (like Dan of Creative fame- just ask Auzentech what they think of someone modifying their drivers to work on Creative cards which do not have the DDL or DTS licenses) will get these drivers to work on other manufacturers’ cards. But by signing a deal like this with C-Media, the biggest loser is really C-Media and their potential customers. I’m not talking the other manufacturers, but the end users. While Asus is doing well in selling their products, C-Media would likely be doing better by addressing more manufacturers and allowing competing products onto the market. Not every consumer out there is in love with Asus, and brand loyalty with sound cards seems to exceed that of video cards. And when we consider that most onboard motherboard sound is more than adequate for most users, cutting back on potentially interesting products from multiple manufacturers is only going to make it worse.
While Asus says the Xonar is powered by the "Asus AV200 High Definition Sound Processor" it is in fact the CMI-8788 under the hood. But hey, it does have a metal cover with LED lighting! I really can't complain though, as Asus has made some of the best PCI-E based sound cards yet.
Excluding Auzentech from using their high end sound chip was not a very sound business decision from my standpoint, but then again I do not know the details of the agreement from Asus. It could just be that Asus offered a virtual treasure chest to C-Media, and after doing the math for projected earnings by selling the chips to everyone they possibly could C-Media possibly took the better offer? Asus is not exactly a company one can push around, and we could also see other potential products that Asus would give preference to for C-Media chips. Consider that SoundMAX will no longer be developing audio codecs, and with their current relationship perhaps C-Media is cooking up another motherboard based codec that will find a willing buyer with Asus? That would be a serious coup for C-Media, as Asus sells over 1.5 million motherboards a month. If the majority of those were outfitted with C-Media codecs, it could mean a serious boost in the bottom line for C-Media.
All theories aside, I am disappointed with C-Media and their exclusive deal with Asus. Other board partners like Auzentech would continue creating unique and viable designs which would further expand the sound card market. As it is, fewer manufacturers and a smaller selection will mean fewer reasons to go outside of integrated audio.
You can read Stephane’s entire post here (near the bottom).
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