Prospective sound-card upgraders tend to think of Creative - specifically its Sound Blaster models - before any other manufacturer. And why not? After all, Creative makes great hardware that's reasonably priced and widely available.

But Creative's market dominance means lesser-known brands are often overlooked - and this is a shame. Take Bluegears, the company behind the b-Enspirer tested here. If you value strong audio quality, this card is worthy of serious consideration.

The heart of the Bluegears is the C-Media Oxygen sound processor, which is capable of full 24bit audio and 192KHz output over eight channels. The b-Enspirer will feel right at home among home-theatre buffs' 5.1, 6.1 and even 7.1 speaker configurations, and it supports all manor of Dolby wizardry. If you have speakers that are compatible with DTS or Dolby Digital, you're in for a real treat. But you don't need full surround-sound speakers to get a fulfilling experience from this card, which can replicate surround sound on lesser speaker systems and headphones.

The C-Media processor supports most 3D industry standards, although it does lack the latest EAX support. It features Asio (audio stream input/output), which bypasses Windows' meddling audio mixing and ensures sound remains unspoilt.

Whether you're belting out an MP3 or film, or blasting through an online game, the b-Enspirer's sound quality is exceptional, with excellent positioning and clarity that really capitalises on a good surround setup. Even on a humble pair of stereo speakers, audio is remarkably crisp and clear.

Bluegears b-Enspirer: Specs

  • 7.1-channel PCI sound card
  • 110dB Oxygen 8788 processor
  • 24bit/192KHz
  • DTS Interactive
  • DTS NeoPC
  • Dolby Digital Live (AC-3)
  • Dolby Pro-Logic IIx
  • Dolby Headphone technology
  • C-Media FlexBass
  • C-Media Magic Voice
  • C-Media Xear3D 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter technology
  • 10-band EQ for each channel
  • supports EAX 1.0/2.0, A3D 1.0, DirectSound
  • 7.1-channel PCI sound card
  • 110dB Oxygen 8788 processor
  • 24bit/192KHz
  • DTS Interactive
  • DTS NeoPC
  • Dolby Digital Live (AC-3)
  • Dolby Pro-Logic IIx
  • Dolby Headphone technology
  • C-Media FlexBass
  • C-Media Magic Voice
  • C-Media Xear3D 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter technology
  • 10-band EQ for each channel
  • supports EAX 1.0/2.0, A3D 1.0, DirectSound

OUR VERDICT

The price tag simply doesn't prepare you for the audio quality the b-Enspirer can produce. It's incredibly feature-rich, has excellent software and, in our opinion, is the best card around at this price. Creative may have the name, but if you rank results ahead of reputation, this really ought to be considered by anyone hunting for a new sound card.

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