Diamond Xtreme External 7.1 USB Sound Card Review

airman - 2011-02-21 04:00:06 in Sound Cards
Category: Sound Cards
Reviewed by: airman   
Reviewed on: April 13, 2011
Price: $39.99

Introduction:

While many of the hardware enthusiast community enjoy storing their ultimate power inside of a self-contained, powerhouse of a computer, those who wish to have similar features and functionality in smaller PCs or laptops really only have the option of running external peripherals. This need by many different individuals opens up the market for external devices, mainly peripherals such as audio hardware. For audiophiles who want the best of sound quality along with portability, an external USB sound card is a great option. It will allow a user to run their precious listening gear at home on their desktop, then to the HTPC, and the out on the laptop. Sure, a 7.1 output may seem excessive for a laptop, but what about playing movies and music with crisp digital surround sound through just about any run-of-the-mill home theater system? For that need, a manufacturer by the name of Diamond has its Xtreme External 7.1 USB sound card. Recently reviewed, Diamond also has a neat USB to HDMI Adapter to accomplish a similar task, but with video as well! The ability to make high quality components in smaller and smaller packages makes this possible, and I am excited to see how this little box compares to my limited onboard sound. Let's get started.

 

Closer Look:

The packaging for the Diamond Xtreme External 7.1 USB sound card is made from cardboard that has a high quality finish along with attractive graphics. The front of the box features a photograph of the device, with a laptop, a flat screen TV, and two large floor speakers. A badge in the top right corner states that it is compatible with both Mac and PC, continuing to cater to as many folks as possible. Underneath the main picture is a list of benefits that this card has to offer, from dramatically improving sound quality to the Dolby Digital certified S/PDIF output. The rear of the box lists the functions of each port on the device and what each can connect to. For example, a home theater system could connect through the S/PDIF connection, and simple 2.1 headphones through the 3.5mm jack next to the USB port.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Included in the box is the external sound card unit itself, along with two user guides — one English and one French. Also included in a USB cable and a driver installation disk for Windows XP, Vista, and 7. It is not immediately obvious what Mac users would do for their drivers, however before looking inside the manual I have a pretty good feeling that it can be found on Diamond's website.

 

 

All in all, the Diamond Xtreme External 7.1 USB sound card is a simple box with some buttons and some holes in it, but it's what is inside of this box that will make or break the product. Fortunately, we have already seen several good reviews here at OCC with Diamond's name on them! Let's see if this name continues to hold up this time.

Closer Look:

The Diamond Xtreme External USB 7.1 sound card is a glossy white plastic, housing an internal circuit board that handles all of the connections. On the top of the external sound card, are four buttons in a radial layout that control play and pause, volume up, volume down, and a record button. These features will most likely be made fully functional with the installation of the Diamond software, though I have a feeling that if anything, the volume controls will not need a "suite" to operate. Also on top, are two LEDs — one blue and one green. There are not any markings around these LEDs, so referring to the user's manual will enlighten my mind to their function and purpose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the front face, there are six 3.5mm jacks. Four of these jacks are for the 7.1 channel analog output, and the other two are for microphone as well as line-in input. These already most likely represent more than a common desktop has with analog outputs, and certainly dwarfs any common laptop outputs. Turning to the left side shows the headphone output jack along with a standard, full-size USB jack, which will interface with the computer through the supplied USB cable. On the opposite side of these ports, we find two S/PDIF optical connections. One is labeled input and the other one is labeled output. It may not be uncommon to see a fiber output for audio on desktops, but it is rare to see one for an input. Being able to capture 7.1 channels of sound instead of simply playing it back through this little box is a very neat feature.

 

 

To look at the magic on the inside of this box, the two halves are separated by removing the four foam feet to gain access to and removing the screw underneath each one. Removing these screws does not allow it to come apart easily, as there are still several sets of clips that stay snapped shut until coaxed with a small, flathead screwdriver. On the inside, I found a green circuit board that does a good job at filling up the interior space of the enclosure. The switches for the external controls are not wired to the enclosure, but are momentary buttons that are integrated to the board. I discovered that this sound card uses the CM6206 chip, which is an I.C. that is very well-rounded for an external 7.1 channel device. For familiarity, the CM6206 is manufactured by C-Media Electronics.

 

 

 

To conclude, this seems to be a very simple piece of hardware with very standard components, all combined into a portable-sized box that can this power taken anywhere a user wishes. Now that I've taken a look at the hardware, it's now time to take a look at the software. Without a useful software suite, even the most extreme hardware cannot function properly. Hopefully, we'll be able to do a lot with this device if the software is powerful enough!

Closer Look:

The software included on the disk is a very slim installation executable, where a menu allows the user to install the open source audio editor Audacity, view user's manuals, visit the manufacturer website, and install the Diamond software for the sound card. I already have Audacity, and I have already read through the user's manual, so I chose to install the software. Installation took only about 60 seconds, and then it prompts for a reboot. After the reboot, I didn't find any start menu programs, new folders in the program files directory, but I did find a system icon of the Diamond logo. Clicking on this icon brings up the Diamond software for the sound card, which I found to be very easy to navigate — easy enough that those who choose not to read through the manual should still be able to understand it.

The main window has only a few drop down menus, all of which are self-explanatory. These drop down menus include one for the number of channels on input, output, audio format, and S/PDIF output format. Choosing the number of channels for the input is important if you wish to up-mix the audio from only 2 channels to up to 8 channels. Having this ability allows every speaker on a 7.1 channel system play audio, which the general integrated sound card on my desktop cannot do easily. Enabling DSP for 7.1 virtual surround sound brings up a different window in the output device window. It allows the user to configure placement of the speakers so that the audio can be compensated for. As an example, if you drag a the left rear speaker further towards a corner, the effective volume of this speaker increases to even out the volume mix at the listener's station - allowing for powerful customization and DSP controls. For a more simple approach, leaving DSP turned off will still allow for up-mixing along with still retaining the ability to adjust individual volume levels of each speaker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even with this feature-rich main tab, there are still four other tabs, three of which are for toying around with more options. These four include a level mixer for inputs, a 10 band EQ, karaoke controls, and an information page. The karaoke features include microphone echo, key change, and vocal removal, which, though of no use to me, could be interesting to have. The pictures below are rather self explanatory, though I will mention some extra things about the "Effect" tab - which includes the 10 band EQ. This tab offers the ability to simulate and compensate for different room sizes, which can be useful in achieving the best sound quality. Generally, these settings would be configured and left alone, but someone may like to tweak these settings regularly, so they are in an easy to access location in the software.

 

 

 

With the software installed, speakers hooked up, and settings configured for my setup, the time to put it through some testing is near.

Specifications:

Model Number
XS71USB
Product Dimension
5.0 x 2.5 x 1.0
Product Weight
0.30 lbs
Interface
USB
Inputs
1 x 3.5mm microphone
1 x 3.5mm line in
1 x S/PDIF optical
Outputs
4 x 3.5mm stereo (analog 7.1 channel)
1 x 3.5mm stereo (headphones)
1 x S/PDIF optical
Operating System
Windows 7, 32-bit/64-bit
Windows Vista, 32-bit/64-bit
Windows XP, 32-bit/64-bit
Windows 2000, MCE
Linux
Mac OSX
System Requirements
Intel Pentium III or K6 500 or above
128MB RAM
50MB HDD space

 

Features:

 

Information provided courtesy of Diamond Multimedia @ http://www.diamondmm.com/

Testing:

We all know that testing sound quality can be very subjective, and unfortunately I don't really have any other testing methods at my disposal for testing this card other than comparative listening. I will compare analog and digital playback and recording of the Diamond Xtreme External 7.1 USB sound card to the typical onboard sound card on a desktop. I will also perform a blind test with two other individuals, to eliminate the possibility of the "sugar pill" effect. For audio equipment, I will be using a set of Logitech Z-530 5.1 speakers for analog testing, and a high-end Yamaha RX-A700 7.1 channel receiver equipped with all eight speakers. Each criteria will be evaluated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being superb, and 1 being terrible.

 

Testing Setup:

 

Comparison sound card:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn't expect to find such close results, but it seems that we did. The main excelling point for the Diamond card is the analog music playback, which was due to its ability to up-mix 2 channel stereo, up to 8 channels, which, was 6 in my case. It did a great job at making the room offer a fuller music experience, while the onboard sound without 3rd party software can only play in 2 channels. Everything else was very similar in quality and it was difficult to tell a difference between the two options since movies and gaming are easily configured for 5.1 or 7.1 through the onboard sound. Without putting too much else here, I'll save the rest of my thoughts for the conclusion on the next page.

Conclusion:

For such an inexpensive little box, the Diamond Xtreme External 7.1 USB sound card seems to be an excellent option for a simple upgrade to onboard sound, or to expand the abilities of products with limited sound setup — such as laptops or older HTPCs. I did find that the overall sound quality between the onboard S/PDIF and the S/PDIF output from the Diamond card was almost indistinguishable, so I wouldn't recommend this device to someone who already has hardware with S/PDIF unless they wanted to use S/PDIF input for recording multi-channel audio. I would, however, say this is a perfect and cheap way to upmix your stereo music to a 5.1 or more channel stereo system that cannot up-mix itself. The volume adjustment works (though I leave it at 100% in windows and control it on the speakers, but this could be a benefit on a laptop), along with the pause/play button. Hardware-wise, it works very well.

The software itself allows for a large amount of customization, but I did find some things that may not be necessary or I coup-mixt get to work well. The best part of the software is allowing music to be played through all speakers rather than just two, as well as the "room placement". For example, your audio set up could be configured to be facing one wall, like a TV, but if one wished to use a projector on a wall at a different angle, the user can use this software to "turn" the sound in the room to simulate the speakers in the correct position. A 7.1 channel system would be better at this, because only the rear of the room would be lacking a center channel. The rest of the tabs, other than the mixer and info tab, I found to be rather non-important. I can't say useless, because they aren't, but I really have no use for them. The equalizer, in default, flat form, seems to be more or less stock which already sounds good so that's not something I would touch, or have a need to. Most integrated equalizers are well configured, and using the one in this software would probably be redundant. Also — the karaoke tab — I don't think I'd ever want to add a cheesy echo/reverb to my loopback microphone, so that's out, and the vocal cancelation wasn't very effective. On the other hand, the key change slider seemed to work well, and didn't appear to be off key — but again, I can't think of a place I'd use it.

So long story short, the hardware is good and works well, especially for how inexpensive it can be acquired, and can upgrade many stock sound devices to expand their limited features and slightly turn up the sound quality on analog devices. As far as cons, I can't really list things that I won't use nor see the point of as a bad thing. This is simply Diamond wanting to satisfy a need by 1% of users, where the remaining 99% probably wont even know it's there. Overall, I'd recommend this product and I'm probably going to continue using it on my desktop to achieve surround sound on stereo music and movies at the hardware level.

 

Pros:

 

Cons: