Many people do exhaustive research looking for the perfect laptop, and are in awe of the amazing new unit until they plug in their headphones. Laptop design is exceptional in most areas, but most of the time, audio is a design afterthought. Stuffed in a cramped box, audio delivered out of stock notebook soundcards often produce less-than-satisfactory sound.
The Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Micro is a small USB audio interface that replaces the integrated audio on a laptop or a desktop. You can then plug in headphones, powered stereo speakers, or a digital TOSLINK cable to your favorite digital speakers or A/V receiver with digital input.
For $30 or under, you get a very nice budget audio setup. Turtle Beach was kind and smart enough to provide a USB extension cord because they understand that USB ports aren’t always easy to access, and the unit may not always fit when crammed next to other cables. An SPDIF digital adapter allows you to connect a TOSLINK cable to your favorite digital receiver or speakers, although a TOSLINK cable is not provided. A cap for the Audio Advantage Micro is also quite useful for protecting the unit when traveling. Other than that, you get a driver CD and manual. Nothing excessive, but again, more than expected for a budget product.
Installing the drivers was extremely easy. All you had to do was find a free USB port, stick in the CD, and then insert the Audio Advantage Micro into the socket when prompted. The CD includes several demo applications which are mostly useless, but are kinda fun nonetheless.
There are multiple demos that let you experience the surround sound, like a helicopter game, a home theater simulation, and an Asteroids-like game. It’s cool to be able to hear in-front and behind as well left and right. The CD also includes demo versions of music editing software. AudioSurgeon allows you to edit music, MusicWrite allows you to compose music, and Music Producer allows you to record music. Since these are all demo and not full versions and I did not have any real use for the software, I didn’t bother installing them.
So how does it sound?
Now that I’ve successfully bored everyone by running through the product background, I can finally say how it sounds. The following tests were performed using several sets of headphones (Audio Technica A500, Koss KSC-75, Sony MDR-EX70), a set of computer speakers (Logitech z-2300), and high quality MP3 rips (LAME alt-preset extreme). I don’t have a receiver or speakers with digital input, so I was unable to test digital output. I do know, however, that the Audio Advantage Micro resamples everything to 48 KHz; if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you don’t need to worry about it. (I’d like to note that everyone’s ears are different, and that different equipment produces drastically different sound, but the following is what I heard, and I hope it helps some of you decide if the Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Micro is for you)
The first thing I noticed is that it was dead silent when I plugged my headphones in. Most other laptop sound cards have noise or static present, even when no music is playing. Another very important and prominent fact is that the gain on this USB soundcard is huge! I have to put Windows volume close to the lowest setting in order not to blow my eardrums. If you have to crank the volume to max on your notebook in order to get sound out of your headphones, go out and buy this thing right now; this will give you the power you need. For others who are curious about how this thing sounds, keep on reading.
Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Micro (TBAAM) vs. Intel AC’97
Here, the difference is night and day. Plugging my headphones into an older Dell 8600, I was immediately greeted with a high-pitched static signal, which stayed no matter what volume I put the windows master volume control at. I played Louis Armstrong’s “La Vie En Rose” and the entire song was smothered in static. The bass line on the AC’97 was loose and scratchy, whereas the TBAAM provided punchier and cleaner sound.
There was better extension of bass and highs, less noise, and cleaner representation of the music.
TBAAM vs. Intel HD Audio (Azalia)
The Azalia audio specification is surprisingly good, but there are still differences between the TBAAM and Azalia. The extremes of the TBAAM still extend further; there are lower bass notes and cleaner highs. Playing some more jazz and some progressive rock, I noticed that the Azalia sound chip muffles the music. Bass notes with the TBAAM resonate a little more, whereas the bass notes with Azalia sounds veiled. There’s still no denying that the Azalia sound chip is quite good; it is a significant improvement over the older architecture (AC’97).
TBAAM on Movies and Games
I tested the TBAAM with several action movies and some games including UT 2004 and Fable. The TBAAM definitely reproduced 3D sound significantly better than the stock Azalia on my laptop, but the fact remains that I’m using a 2 channel setup. Playing games, I could tell in which general direction enemies were coming from, but it was by no means specific. In short, the TBAAM helped with sound placement, but headphones or 2 channel speakers just can’t accurately recreate surround sound.
I actually prefer to use the Audio Advantage Micro without their drivers, as their surround sound simulation isn’t all that spectacular. The demos are pretty cool, but anyone with headphones can experience 3D sound with the wonder known as binaural recording: http://media.putfile.com/Cereni—Holophonic. The actual usefulness of surround sound simulation isn’t all that amazing in games and movies, but the signal is just so much clearer than that of most stock sound cards.
- Excellent sound considering its price of $30
- Provides cheap optical digital output (with Dolby Digital or DTS) for those without SPDIF built into their notebooks
- Very compact and easily transportable
- Easy to use and USB bus-powered
- Surprisingly powerful amplifier provides a loud signal (good for those whose laptops have very weak audio signals)
- Includes a USB extension cable and an SPDIF adapter
- Doesn’t quite live up to the hype of recreating a surround-sound system
- Supplied drivers add some noise compared to native Windows USB Audio drivers
- The new generation of Intel HD Audio (Azalia) is quite good, and not everyone will notice a difference between the two
- Resamples all audio to 48 KHz (most CDs and thus MP3s are 44.1 KHz)
In short, those unhappy with the sound on their laptop and are looking for a cheap way to upgrade, the Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Micro is the way to go. At such a low price, it’s hard to go wrong. If you’re looking for high (audiophile) quality audio or a better gaming audio experience, you won’t find it for $30. If you’re looking to clean up a noisy or weak audio signal, eat Ramen for a few meals and pick up this gem.