Diamond Monster Sound MX200Review date: 4 December 1998.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
The most important thing to add to your computer for top-notch gaming fun is a good graphics card, perhaps a Voodoo 2 card (like the Diamond Monster 3D II or the Jaton 3D Game Card II) or a high-powered all-in-one like the Diamond Viper V550. A faster CPU is another good idea. If you've got both of these boxes ticked, though, a superpowered sound card should be your next port of call.
The Diamond Monster Sound MX200 has now been superseded by the MX300, but it's still a very powerful piece of gaming kit.
So what do you get for your $220-odd (Australian dollars)?
The Monster Sound MX200 is a PCI card which supports Microsoft's DirectSound and DirectSound 3D standards, and also A3D audio. It only works with Windows 95/98. Users of other operating systems need not apply.
The MX200 has very imposing audio power. It can simultaneously mix up to 23 audio streams in hardware, which lets you do show-off things like play multiple MP3 files simultaneously while playing your favourite game. Of course, playing multiple MP3 files simultaneously takes up so much CPU power that your favourite game will be unplayable, but the hardware capabilities are genuinely useful - games that play lots of sound effects at once will be able to play more sounds with less system slowdown when they've got the MX200 to play through.
The MX200 will also improve joystick-controlled games a little, with its onboard handling of input through the game port, which normally has to be dealt with by the CPU.
On the back there's the usual joystick connector and row of 1/8th inch jacks. Instead of the traditional Speaker Out and Line Out connectors, the MX200 has a pair of stereo line level outputs, using the traditional 1/8 inch stereo phone plug connectors. This four channel output lets it connect to four amplified speakers for real honest-to-goodness surround sound, not the ersatz variety that uses frightfully clever processing to try to replicate the effect of rear speakers when you've really got only fronts. Two speaker surround can actually sound quite impressive, but no matter what the promotional blurbs say, you need more speakers to do it properly.
The MX200's four speaker mode works with any game that supports A3D, DirectSound or DirectSound 3D. It's all taken care of by the sound card's onboard Digital Signal Processor (DSP).
The card also features a 4Mb Dream 64 MIDI Processor wavetable MIDI daughter-card, which attaches to a standard header connector and so can be replaced with a superior model if MIDI is important to you. Mind you, if MIDI is important to you, your PC is unlikely to be your sound source, no matter how cool its sound card is. Dedicated MIDI modules are much more capable than any PC MIDI board.
The 64 voices and quite good Roland sample set of the standard board are more than adequate for game music. Note that this means 64 real live hardware MIDI voices; cards like the SoundBlaster AWE64 only actually have 32 hardware voices, and use software mixing to double them.
The card has a header on it for the usual CD audio connector, but also has an Aux input and one for a sound cable from an internal modem.
Installation of the MX200 is trivial. If you've got Windows 95/98, you just open your computer, plug the MX200 into any spare PCI slot, screw it down, close the box again, power up, and Windows should auto-detect the card and ask for the software CD. Bingo.
If you don't have Windows 95/98, you can go and get knotted. This sound card does not work with any other operating system, including Windows NT.
If you're a newbie at this sort of thing, though, you won't be helped by the manual. Diamond include only minimal documentation with the MX200, in the cardboard sleeve of the bundled software CDs.
If you want to run old DOS games, and your game of choice will run from Windows, the MX200 can pretend to be a Sound Blaster Pro and should work OK.To use the Sound Blaster emulation you'll need to assign the MX200 a DMA and IRQ for emulation and . In Sound Blaster mode the joystick port doesn't work, though it does work as a MIDI connector if you assign it another IRQ for MPU-401 MIDI controller emulation. FM synthesis, the source of lousy MIDI background music for lo, these many years, also doesn't work in SB emulation mode. What a frightful shame.
If you simply must play something that disagrees violently with Windows, you'll need to use another sound card (this is a limitation the MX200 shares with some other PCI sound cards). Provision has been made for this, though; you can install an old fashioned ISA sound card and connect its output to the MX200's Line In, with a passthrough cable.
The card comes with a passthrough cable made by noted purveyors of preposterously overengineered audio connectors, Monster Cable. I question the wisdom of using a super-thick, ultra-low-loss connector at the head of a system that's likely to terminate in light gauge zip cord of the kind normally connected to computer speakers, and which starts with a crusty old high-noise DOS compatible sound card. But Diamond probably got the humungo-cables for free in return for including the Welcome To Monster Cable brochure, and the thing does work just fine, so what the hey.
Trying it out
In order to actually hear the benefits of A3D or surround DirectSound you need to play a game that supports one or another of the standards. The MX200 comes with a bundle of surround-supporting games - LucasArts' Wild West first person shooter Outlaws, a three level demo of Jedi Knight Dark Forces II and a four level demo of Incoming, the all-singing, all-dancing, lens-flares-and-shock-waves 3D shoot-em-up game that's bundled with pretty much every piece of gaming hardware at the moment, and is an absolutely marvellous way of impressing your mates with the capabilities of your newly enhanced PC. There's also a decent sound file editing program, and Midisoft Studio Recording Session, a genuinely useful score-based MIDI sequencer program that's a large cut above the quality level of most bundled software.
The surround sound is very impressive. It really works. footsteps, explosions, spacecraft, what have you - they all appear in the right place from your point of view. To get convincing three dimensional sound you need headphones and a small amount of imagination, but two dimensions are quite clear, even with just two speakers.
The MX200 comes with a system tray utility that lets you see what the card's Digital Signal Processor chip is doing and set the MX200 up for headphones - you plug the phones into one of the line level outs - or stereo or surround speakers. You can also play with reverb and chorus effects for MIDI, and load DSP "image files" to customise the DSP.
The MX200's MIDI sounds very good, for a PC sound card. Its digital audio playback is also excellent, with very low background noise. Wind it up all the way when there's nothing going on and you may, just be able to detect a bit of background hiss, but that's all. The quoted signal to noise ratio is better than 90dB.
Incidentally, if you get sound problems with this or any other PCI sound card - excessive noise or hum - try moving the card to a different PCI slot. You'll need to reinstall the card in Windows, which is no more difficult than installing it the first time, but your problem may be solved. PCI sound cards installed in the last PCI slot, next to the old ISA slots, sometimes have noise problems.
ISA sound cards load the computer's CPU more than PCI models, so your games will run a little faster if you trade up to a card like the MX200. This speed increase is certainly not worth the money by itself, though.
If you play games that support surround sound using the A3D or DirectSound standards, the MX200 is darn good fun. It might, conceivably, make you a better player - knowing that the bad guy's footsteps are behind you as well as to the right is an advantage - but it's mainly just nifty to be in the middle of a movie-style immersive audio experience. If you don't play surround-enabled games, though (Quake 2 doesn't support surround, for instance, though I'll be surprised if Quake 3 doesn't), the MX200 becomes just a rather expensive, high powered sound card with nice MIDI. You might as well just go for a cheap PCI Sound Blaster. If you play old DOS games, several PCI sound cards are a bad idea, and this is one of them.