Earlier this year, Turtle Beach released the Catalina, the follow-up to the popular Santa Cruz sound card. Based on Via Technologies' Envy 24HT-S audio controller, the Catalina includes a few notable improvements over the older model as well as a few disappointments.
On the upside, the Catalina supports up to 7.1 speakers through either the three minijack outputs or the optical-out (S/PDIF) port, both of which are capable of high-resolution 24-bit audio at sampling rates of up to 96KHz. Unlike other cards in this class, such as Creative's Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Gamer LE, the Catalina includes an optical-in connection (also 24-bit/96KHz), which is a plus for those seeking an easy way to record digital audio from an external source--perfect for MiniDisc owners.
Performance-conscious gamers should keep in mind, however, that the Catalina does not include a dedicated digital signal processor (DSP), relying instead on the system CPU to convert the audio signal from digital to analog and vice versa. During especially demanding gameplay, and even sometimes while watching DVDs on lower-end PCs, this lack of a dedicated DSP chews up CPU power, which can lead to problems, such as dropped frames and general system-performance drag.
Installing and setting up the Catalina was easy in our tests, as there are no additional daughtercards or components to deal with. After installing the card into an open PCI slot and loading the drivers from the applications CD, we hooked up our speaker system and used the Catalina control panel to configure the card for 7.1-channel output. The intuitive control panel features a graphical representation of the hardware, letting you test and adjust playback levels for each channel simply by clicking the associated speaker. The CD includes an online manual with easy-to-follow instructions for hooking up various speaker configurations. It also provides several applications: Record Producer LE for creating songs, Recording Station and MusicWrite LE for recording and displaying musical notation from MIDI sources, SoundCheck for troubleshooting recording and playback problems, and AudioSurgeon for editing digital audio. There's also a 3D headphone-tweaking utility called Sensaura Virtual Ear and , which supports multichannel sound.
Once we installed the Catalina, we fired up Halo: Combat Evolved to test the card's 3D-gaming chops. We were pleased with the overall experience. The additional side channels, courtesy of 7.1 output, lent a more immersive feel to the action, compared to 5.1-channel sound, and the quality sounded on a par with that of the Audigy 2 ZS Gamer LE. Enabling Stereo Expander in the control panel's Advanced Controls tab expanded stereo or 5.1-encoded media to play on all 7.1 channels, breathing new life into rock classics on CD, such as Blind Faith's Had to Cry Today and Elvis Costello's Pump It Up, creating a virtual wall of sound. For desktop home theater, the Catalina fits the bill for the most part, although we thought the Audigy 2 did a better job rendering rear-channel sound in The Matrix Reloaded's "Trucks Amuck" scene.
Despite its omission of DVD-Audio support and a DSP, we think the Turtle Beach Catalina is still a fair buy for casual gamers and mediaphiles looking to upgrade to 7.1 sound for less than one hundred bucks. We don't recommend it to the performance-conscious, but otherwise, this card provides an easy way to expand your audio experience.