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.