Overall EM Rating
(1 through 5):
4M-Audio's Sonic Theater is a USBaudio interface that allows for multiformat surround output as well asstereo input.
Successful surround-sound production requires not only a thoroughunderstanding of mixing and encoding techniques, but also the rightgear. It's particularly important to have a flexible and well-laid-outmonitor-mixing environment. To that end, M-Audio's Sonica Theater($119.95) offers a versatile and inexpensive solution for gettingsurround audio from your computer into your monitoring system.
Marketed through M-Audio's Consumer division, Sonica Theater is aUSB audio interface and software package for the Mac (OS 9 and OS X) orPC (Windows 98SE, 2000, ME, and XP). Although it's small enough to fitin the palm of your hand, it includes features that can turn yourcomputer into a fully functional multiformat surround-sound monitoringenvironment. In addition, the unit gives you 24-bit, 96 kHz stereoaudio input. (M-Audio also offers a more fully featured PCI version,the Revolution 7.1, for $119.95.)
Bells and Whistles
The front of the self-powered Sonica Theater has a solitary blueLED; the back panel is where the action is. There you'll find a USBport, an RCA S/PDIF digital output, an ⅛-inch stereo Line In forrecording, and an array of ⅛-inch line-level stereo outputs forFront L/R, Surround L/R, Center/Subwoofer, and Surround-Center L/R.These outputs can be used to connect Sonica Theater to powered monitorsor a surround receiver. Sonica Theater can output a variety of formatsranging from stereo all the way to 7.1 surround, with audio resolutionsas high as 24 bit, 96 kHz.
Control and configuration of Sonica Theater is achieved by using theintuitive, software-based control panel that can be opened by clickingon the M-Audio icon in the Taskbar (Win), the Control Panel (Mac OS 9)or the Applications Folder (Mac OS X). At the top of this panel arefive icons that let you quickly change stereo and surround monitormodes. Below these are a series of tab menus for tailoring the systemto your specific environment.
First is a Speaker Setup tab that's used to adjust the output tomatch the size of your main stereo speakers. The Speaker BassManagement tab allows you to tailor the speaker-to-sub crossoverpoints. Surround test tones can also be selected from this tab to setlevel balances.
The Output Mixer lets you adjust individual speaker levels, withfull metering and solo-mute capabilities. The Surround Sound tabgraphically shows your surround setup and includes options formonitoring in full SRS Circle Surround II. This handy LRCS(left-right-center-surround) decoder is similar to Dolby ProLogic inthat it generates a pseudosurround mix from an ordinary stereo —or Dolby ProLogic — recording.
The Input/Other tab lets you change input levels and choose thesampling rate and bit depth. An Enable Monitoring feature can also beused to route the line-in source directly to the Front L/R speakers.(That comes in handy when using editors that don't allow directmonitoring through the software.) Finally, a Master Volume fader and aMute button are always present at the bottom of the panel, no matterwhich tab is selected.
My Two Cents
After traveling around the country with my laptop and Sonica Theaterfor over six months, I can report that I've never had a lick of troublefrom the M-Audio unit. Even the install was completely painless. Innumerous studio and surround-sound settings, Sonica Theater has simplyand consistently put out good-quality surround mixes from myportable.
Sonica Theater is an ideal choice for anyone who's interested inbuilding a DAW-based surround-sound monitoring environment. Speaking assomeone who has a surround-capable personal studio and two surroundtheater systems, this approach is more cost-effective and easier tooperate than its hardware counterpart, especially if you're usingactive monitors.
On the entertainment side, it's nice to know that Sonica Theater canplay Dolby Digital and DTS surround from any software DVD player thatcan decode surround on the fly. Finally, using its Circle Surrounddecoder, Sonica Theater can really open your ears to a whole newplayback experience by extracting a convincing pseudosurround imagefrom a surprising number of stereo recordings, even from thosefavorites that you've known for decades.