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Warming PC sound with vacuum tubes

The quest to bring the qualities of hi-fi sound to PC audio leads start-up AOpen to explore a century-old technology.

Putting vacuum tubes in a PC might sound a little like adding a hand crank to a Porsche, but at least one company thinks it might be the future of computer audio.

Taiwanese components company AOpen, part of the Acer Group, is selling a PC audio card based on a vacuum tube--the same century-old technology that sends electric guitar players and hi-fi aficionados into paroxysms of listening delight.

The idea, according to AOpen, is to replicate the "warm" sound of traditional tube-driven audio equipment inside PCs, which are increasingly being used as stereos by digital music lovers. The company quietly released a first version of the product in the United States in August, and an updated version, now available in Taiwan, will reach U.S. shores in January, just missing the holiday shopping season.

Will AOpen's audio card revolutionize PC audio? Unlikely, analysts say. But the company's focus is one of a number of increasingly clear signs that the intermingling of PCs with other household entertainment devices is steadily marching along and that PCs are beginning to hold their own in terms of quality.

"I wouldn't call (the tube-driven board) a novelty, but it certainly falls into the enthusiast segment," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research, a firm covering the PC component market. "On the hi-fi side, there are some very strong tube proponents."

Even if it remains an evolutionary--or devolutionary--dead-end, the tube-driven audio card does help highlight an ongoing renaissance in PC audio technology, driven by the prevalence of downloadable music and musicians' growing use of inexpensive, powerful computers for home recording.

The standalone audio card market was considerably stronger in the mid-1990s, when companies like Creative Labs, with its Sound Blaster audio card, first helped PCs become multimedia machines. But in 1997, technology for integrating audio directly into a computer's motherboard became widespread, and the standalone audio market soon collapsed. The ability to do signal-processing functions inside software programs--once the exclusive purview of hardware--also helped undermine audio card sales.

Most PCs today are sold with integrated audio capabilities that let listeners play music, if not with particularly high-quality sound, without any specialized hardware. Creative's Audigy and Sound Blaster lines of audio cards still sell fairly well among game players and music lovers looking for a richer sound, but the company continues to have only a fraction of the market it commanded half a decade ago, McCarron said.

AOpen's card falls into a slightly different category, however. There's already a long list of existing high-tech add-on equipment designed for musicians creating PC music. But there are fewer high-end cards targeted more specifically at hi-fi connoisseurs.

The company itself says the idea was initially a "lark," dreamed up by an audiophile engineer in the course of a brainstorming session. But a lab test of the idea convinced enough people that sound quality was noticeably different that the company decided to produce the product.

According to product manager Richard Jen, the company has sold about 5000 of the tube boards in the United States since August. They aren't available in retail stores--the company distributes mostly through resellers, who in turn sell the product for between $180 and $220.

Jen said the customer base has been split evenly between gamers and hi-fi enthusiasts.

The idea has won both raves and jeers online. Audiophiles and sound engineers in message boards have differed, often bitterly, on whether the tube would make a difference to the sound. Tube amplification gives a "fuzzier" sound, many say, and while that might make it sound "warmer" to some ears, it would lack the precise reproduction of digital signals that a good-quality computer audio codec can provide, critics say.