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Valentine's Day 2007 Buyer's Guide

SIIG USB SoundWave 7.1 Audio Adapter

If you've ever wondered how much capability could be shoehorned into a package the size of a Flash drive, this miniscule device will quickly convince you that the answer really is "one heck of a lot!" The SIIG USB SoundWave 7.1 Audio Adapter - which looks eerily like nothing more than a compact storage device - plugs into any unoccupied USB port, and handles high-quality audio output from any notebook or desktop PC that can run its Windows drivers. Note that it works with Windows 2000 and newer versions, and drivers are included on an accompanying CD, but it makes no mention of Vista in current offerings.

This tiny add-on device provides support for 7.1 channel surround sound, and can even synthesize multi-channel sound from monaural or stereo sources on the computer to which it's attached. It can also handle multi-channel sound encodings for DirectSound3D, EAX 2.0 and A3D 1.0, which means it can handle most forms of computer audio, though it may not be able to decode multi-channel sound for all conceivable DVD formats. The device draws power from the USB port, so no external power source is required, though this does mean you can only use this audio adapter in a powered USB port, to provide power for its built-in amplifier.

The circuitry between the USB input and the mini-jack output provides surround sound for headphones or stereo speakers.

The SoundWave also comes with some interesting extras. The Xear software included on the CD with the drivers lets listeners position virtual sound sources without requiring them to move physical speakers. The same program also offers 27 different sound environments - such as theater, jazz club, stadium and so forth - so that listeners can tailor sound output to match specific sonic environments. It even includes a software equalizer that supports presets for 10 sound bands, much like standard EQ hardware. Situating sound circuitry outside a PC helps reduce static and interference that might otherwise color sound output for digital to analog conversions - that's especially important for notebooks, where parts are necessarily crammed together in close proximity.

The SoundWave isn't a magic bullet for high-end audio, of course. It doesn't support SPDIF, optical, or other high-fidelity audio connections, and it really doesn't work as a sound card upgrade or replacement for those who'd like to make the connection to a true 5.1 or 7.1 AV receiver or signal processor. But for what it does do - namely, produce good audio output for headphones or stereo speakers - the SoundWave is a real peach of a purchase. Note that SIIG does offer an Optical 5.1 channel USB sound box for only $5 more than the SoundWave, which provides a high-quality digital TOSLINK audio output.