Sound systems for Apple improve

Catch-up: With products from such PC standouts as Creative Labs, musical applications raise Macs into the realm of high-end audio performance.

September 03, 2001|By David Zeiler | David Zeiler,SUN STAFF

Compared with a Windows PC's dedicated sound card and an external sound system, the Macintosh's built-in sound - even in some newer models that boast custom-designed speakers - no longer cuts the mustard for users who yearn for the sounds of MP3 files and the latest games.

A decade ago, Apple's sound-system set-up was adequate for system beeps and primitive game sounds, but advances in sound card technology in recent years have put the Mac's once-venerable sound capabilities to shame.

While professional musicians could buy high-end audio add-ons, those were beyond the budgets of most Mac users.

That is, until now.

The past year or so has been good for average Mac consumers who have a variety of audio gadgets to enhance their sound experiences. Such hardware options not only improve sound but help with connectivity to other audio devices such as stereos.

Even Creative Labs, which has made the preeminent Windows PC sound card for years, the Sound Blaster, has brought its talents to the Mac world.

Among the latest audio-related devices available are:

The silver, disc-shaped iMic ($35) solves a serious audio input problem faced by those who have bought iBooks, the Cube or G4 tower models over the past six months. None of those computers has built-in audio input jacks. But by plugging Griffin Technology's iMic into a Universal Serial Bus port on your Mac, you get both 1/8th--inch RCA audio in and audio out jacks.

Once you plug the iMic in, the Mac's Sound Manager software recognizes it and adds the device to your list of options in the Sound Control Panel. While the audio quality doesn't compare with that delivered by the Sound Blaster card, it's surprisingly good and is a clear improvement over the sound from the Mac's built-in audio out jack.

Harman/Kardon's iSub ($69) subwoofer also uses USB to bring sound to the Mac. But this elegantly bulbous device with a clear plastic case is designed to work with the iMac's built-in Harman/Kardon speakers. The iSub produces bass sounds at frequencies too low for conventional speakers, thus adding a lot of low-end oomph to your Mac's sonic palette.

If you want a set of high-fidelity speakers with your oomph, you should look at Harman/Kardon's USB-based SoundSticks ($189) which have two, 10-inch-high, clear plastic-encased speakers with a hip, futuristic look to accompany their rich sound. While the subwoofer included with the SoundSticks package might look like the iSub, this one will only work with the speakers in the package.

If you bought a G4 tower this year, then you'll be able to use the Apple Pro Speakers ($59), which plug into a special speaker mini-jack found only on the tower. If you own the more popular iMac, iBook or a Titanium G4 PowerBook, skip these speakers. Though branded as Apple's, these baseball-sized, crystal-clear speakers also come from Harman/Kardon. And thanks to their creators, they produce an amazingly full sound for their size and price. They also work with the iSub.

You'll need a PCI expansion slot to enjoy the cool audio experience of Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Live! ($139) for the Mac. It is the first and only sound card aimed at the average Mac user offering high-quality sound. If the name sounds familiar, that's because more than half of all Windows-based PCs use some variation of the Creative Labs sound card.

What the Sound Blaster adds to your Mac is a dedicated audio subsystem that generates a full range of audio effects for your music and games while driving front and rear speakers. In addition, the card supplies separate input jacks for stereo, microphone and MIDI. You can plug a MIDI instrument into your Mac and record music that can be edited with software supplied on the installation CD. And you can record sound from one input while playing sound through another for multi-track recording fun.

Creative Labs includes a program called the "Mixer," which taps the Sound Blaster's abilities to put echo and other effects on your Mac's audio, including the system sounds. You cannot, however, use the Sound Blaster with any of the USB speaker options, although you can run the output to a stereo in the same manner that the iMic works.

A subsidiary of Creative Labs, Cambridge SoundWorks, has a line of speakers that work well with Sound Blaster cards. The recommended product for the Mac version of the Sound Blaster is the FourPointSurround FPS 2000 Digital speaker system ($150), which allows you to plug in two front and two rear speakers along with a subwoofer. If you can afford the speakers and Sound Blaster card, you'll be in audio nirvana.

Sound Blaster's only drawback is the lack of Mac OS X drivers. Although Creative Labs says it's working with Apple to develop the drivers, there's no planned release date.

All the USB sound options work in OS X, so if you're already using X as your primary operating system (current Macs ship with OS X but start up into the older, more compatible OS 9) you have to make some tough choices.

Once you've decided on your hardware, the software is easy: Apple's iTunes, included free with every Mac, will play and organize MP3, AIFF and WAV files. Best of all, it will take your customized playlists and burn them to a CD-R.

What iTunes doesn't do is record sound, which is crucial to digitizing your cassette tapes and vinyl album collections.

The best Mac program for recording was SoundJam MP from Casady & Greene.

This offered many of the features of iTunes - the ability to organize and play MP3s, for example - with additional features like an equalizer.

Although several other Mac sound programs offer various sound-playing and recording capabilities, SoundJam put it all together.

Casady & Greene stopped selling SoundJam MP in June.

The development team now works at Apple on iTunes, which supposedly is based on SoundJam code.

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