Unfortunately, this review has taken much longer than planned. The first card Scott gave me turned out to be a dud. I spent about two weeks e-mailing with a helpful tech support guy from Guillemot (he apparently went on vacation in the middle of helping me) trying different things (updating motherboard BIOS, installing VIA 4in1s, checking for conflicts, etc.). He finally concluded that my card was D.O.A. and it was time to send me a new one. He then sent my info on to someone else to take care of it. About 8 days later, I got a nice package from Guillemot in Canada with a new Fortissimo II in it. Yes, it took a little while to get resolved, but their tech support was very knowledgeable and friendly, and I didnt get grilled before they sent me a new card. So I guess I can review the tech support too, and I give it an 8 out of 10. On to the card ..
Hardware Technical Specs
As you can tell from these specs, the goal of this card is a budget solution for gamers, digital music fans and DVD lovers. The specifications for this sound card are as follows:
· Data Transfer PCI 2.1 bus.
· Digital Signal Processor (DSP) Cirrus Logic SoundFusion CS4642.
· Audio Quality CD and Pro Audio quality: 20-bit quad output and 18-bit dual stereo input codec. Up to 48kHz sampling rate.
· Game Compatibility Sensaura based 3D positional Audio with support for Microsoft DirectSound 3D, EAX 1.0 and 2.0, A3D 1.0, I3DL2, MacroFX, MultiDrive, ZoomFX and EnvironmentFX. Legacy support for older DOS games.
· Audio Compatibility Microsoft DirectSound and DirectMusic. Popular music applications like Cubase VST, Cakewalk, Logic Audio, etc. Dolby Surround and Dolby Digital and DTS formats are supported by PowerDVD through the digital output.
· Software Wavetable Synthesizer DSP accelerated engine for unlimited number of voices (64-voice hardware). 8MB General MIDI/GS sample set. DLS 1.0 compatible. GM and Yamaha XG Player compatible.
· External Connectors analog din with: mic in, headphones, front and rear speakers. Line in, digital S/PDIF in (optical 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz), digital S/PDIF out (optical set to 48 kHz), MIDI / game port.
· Internal Connectors CD-in and aux-in.
An analog adapter cable is included and is plugged into the external din connection. This makes it a little easier to plug and unplug your audio devices when necessary, but since you can plug in your 4.1 surround sound speakers and headphones at the same time, you shouldnt have to crawl back behind your PC too often.
In the Box
· Gamesurround Fortissimo II PCI sound card
· Analog adapter cable (to connect to external din)
· Installation CD-ROM
· Software bundle (see next section for details)
· Installation and user guide
· PowerDVD user manual and insert card with install key
· Yamaha license card
The following software comes on the same CD as the drivers.
· Game Commander 2 SE
· Storm Hercules SE v 1.5 (virtual home studio)
· MUSICMATCH Jukebox
· ACID Xpress (25 free loops)
· SIREN Jukebox Xpress (20 free MP3 rips/encodes)
· Yamaha S-YXG50 ver 3.1 and Yamaha XG Player 4.0
· Kool Karaoke Lite
· Hercules Media Station (multifunction interface with mixing panel, WAV file player and recorder, etc)
· Cyberlink PowerDVD 3.0 (software DVD player)
· Gamesurround Fortissimo II control panel
Yeah, this looks like a lot, but if you dont care about music or already have programs for music recording, production, etc, then these programs may not mean much to you. They are kind of fun to play around with though, and the PowerDVD player is a good program that I have been pleased with. A full version game would be a very nice addition to this set, but you cant always get what you want. All of the programs are fairly simple to install from the nice, user-friendly install screen that automatically pops up when you put the CD in your CD-ROM drive. As you can see in the image below, each program has its own button that you can click to begin installation of that program.
One disappointing thing about this install screen and process is the lack of a thorough description of each program. The user doesnt get a clear idea of exactly what each program is and cant make an intelligent decision about whether or not to install them. If you are strapped for hard drive space, you should definitely do a little research about each program before you just start clicking away and installing like a mad man (or woman).
The Fortissimo II control panel is very impressive and provides the user with an easy way to view and manipulate all of the cards settings. The control panel includes tabs for Main, Mixer, EQ, MIDI and Other. Here are just several of the tabs and their options.
Here you see the Main tab in the control panel. This is where you set the record source, such as mic, line in, aux in, etc, and the record volume. You can also adjust the master volume and chose your speaker setup and balance. This is also where you can test your sound card and speakers to make sure it is all set up correctly.
This is the Mixer screen, which I think is a nice replacement for the standard Windows mixer. You can adjust the volumes and balance of all your inputs here and even mute them if you want. Nothing too exciting happening here, but it is useful.
Here you can see the Other tab, which allows you to enable or disable hardware acceleration for Sensaura 3D, DirectSound 3D and 2D. You can also choose to enable stereo expansion. Additionally, on this screen, you are able to adjust the digital output configuration.
As I mentioned in the intro, installation wasnt very fun for me at first. You all know how much it sucks to install a new piece of hardware and then install the drivers and it not work. Needless to say, I got very frustrated and was ready to throw the card out my apartment window. It wouldnt work regardless of what I tried. On the other hand, with the new card, installation was a breeze. I should note that I did not use the included 1.0 drivers and instead got the 1.2 version off the web for WinXP support.
I bet youre starting to wonder how it sounds. I hooked my Klipsch ProMedia 2.1s up to it and let the fun begin.
Well, I have to say I am very surprised and impressed with the sound of this card. My first test was the music test. I decided to see how it would handle a wide mix of music in both CD and MP3 format. First I put in a Charles Mingus CD and then a Miles Davis CD to see if this card could do justice to these jazz greats, and Id have to say it did so beautifully. Next up was Carlos Santanas latest CD Supernatural, which also sounded great. Then I decided to go with some Mixmaster Mike Anit-Theft Device MP3s. The sound card really didnt please me quite as much here for some reason. I think it was because I am used to hearing a little bit deeper bass with my SB Live 5.1. I didnt think anything of it until the other MP3s (some City High, Oceans Eleven Soundtrack, P.O.D. and Beethoven) I played didnt quite sound as good either. I cant quite figure out what I like better about the SB Live playback but my ears just seem to like it better (no, not just because they are used to it). Regardless of this, the music CDs and MP3s sounded clean and playback was flawless.
The next test was games. I decided it was a good time to download the demo of Dungeon Siege and give it a try (oh and of course listen very carefully). Everything sounded great in this game. The music and ambient sounds were very clean and clear, and the battles sounded real. Next, I decided to compare it to games I am more familiar with — Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike. The sound was excellent in these games as well. There were no audio hesitations of any kind and EAX support seemed to work well. I had no problems telling which side (left or right) my enemies were coming from.
My final test was with The Matrix and Face/Off DVDs. Both of these movies sounded exceptional. The audio quality was excellent, with outstanding clarity and thundering bass. Too bad I didnt have time to watch more.
Unfortunately, I do not have a 4.1 or 5.1 speaker setup, so I was unable to fully test this cards ability. I did plug the speakers into the rear jack during the tests, and the sounds were just as powerful and clear as they were through the front connector. Im sure most people with surround sound wont be disappointed.
The Fortissimo II has many great features and is an exceptional value. The large software bundle, user-friendly control panel and excellent performance should appeal to all types of users. Whether you are playing the latest games, watching the latest DVDs or listening to the latest pop hit, I am confident the Fortissimo II wont disappoint you. Even though I had some problems initially, I still recommend this card without hesitation to anyone building or upgrading a PC and wanting to save some money in the process.
The Hercules Gamesurround Fortissimo II receives a 9 out of 10.