March 30, 2005

Review: External USB sound card from Hercules

Author: Jem Matzan

External peripherals are not all that common, and external sound devices are even less so. We're so used to having competent sound capabilities built into our systems that most of us don't give it any thought. The Hercules GameSurround Muse Pocket USB is a unique external sound card that communicates through a USB port. It doesn't work as well with GNU/Linux as we'd like it to, but it still may be useful if you have a need for a portable sound card.

The first question that was on our mind when we heard of the GameSurround Muse Pocket was, "Why would you need an external sound card?" After all, nearly every motherboard manufactured in the past three years has a reasonably competent onboard sound chip, and there are internal sound cards available at reasonable prices. After some reflection, we found some good reasons:

  • Internal sound cards are subject to a lot of interference and that can cause distortion or background noise. An external device eliminates much of that.
  • If you have a problem with your sound, you can easily plug a USB sound card in and see if your problem is hardware- or software-related. Technicians can also use one to easily test USB and sound capabilities on new builds and repair units.
  • In small "cube" systems like those made by Shuttle, only one PCI slot is available. If that slot is filled with something you can't do without, and your onboard sound fails or malfunctions, or if you want an upgraded sound solution (for instance if you need to have surround sound and a microphone at the same time), an external device fits the bill.

Features and components

The GameSurround Muse Pocket is about 2 inches high and has a diameter of just under 3.5 inches. On top of the base is a volume knob not unlike those found on home stereo components. Turn the knob in either direction to increase or decrease the volume, and push in on it to "click" it into or out of mute mode. With the built-in volume and mute controls, you don't have to mess with your speakers or software mixer levels. The input and output jacks (speaker/headphone, microphone, front surround, rear surround, center/subwoofer, and line in) are on the side of the unit.

The device works with both USB 1.1 and 2.0 ports, and we tested it with both. Hercules doesn't say whether it supports the higher data transfer rate of USB 2.0 or whether it's just a matter of compatibility.

The GameSurround Muse Pocket can playback and record 16-bit stereo sound at 22, 32, 44, or 48KHz. That's fairly standard for any modern sound device.

Compatibility

All of the device's features work wonderfully in Windows, assuming you have the proper driver and memory-resident software installed. Unfortunately the story is different with GNU/Linux.

In 64-bit Gentoo, the device was detected, but it caused a repeating USB error that prevented the system from booting. Knoppix 3.7, using both the 2.4 and 2.6 kernels, also choked on the GameSurround Muse Pocket during startup. Fedora Core 3 could detect it -- the device could even be hot-plugged -- but ALSA was not able to output to two devices at once. Xandros Open Circulation Edition version 3.0 detected the device and could use it as long as all other sound devices were disabled or removed from the system, but it couldn't hot-plug the Muse Pocket. In other words, the results were mixed.

When we did get the Muse Pocket working, we had a serious background hum when using it on an IBM ThinkPad T23. Hercules/Guillemot tech support told us it was probably a power supply issue with the computer. On an Athlon 64 workstation it played sounds beautifully. Maybe it was just our imagination, but the Muse Pocket did seem to have a more full-bodied sound than the integrated sound chip on the MSI K8T Neo2-FIR motherboard in the workstation.

The startup sound in Xandros was stuttery; apparently the Muse Pocket needs a little more time to properly initialize in GNU/Linux before playing sounds. We tried to put the system under load by playing some MP3s while doing file transfers and starting programs, but the Muse Pocket refused to slow down or skip.

The big disappointment with this sound device is that the volume/mute knob doesn't work in GNU/Linux because it requires Windows-only software. According to tech support, the workaround is to declare USB HID commands that adjust the volume up and down. The support representative directed us to this PDF to accomplish that, but as it seemed like an unreasonable amount of reading and modification that the majority of readers will probably be unable or unwilling to do, we didn't try it. You can forget about 5.1 surround sound as well -- only the stereo sound output works properly. A Hercules/Guillemot representative told us that there are no plans to add surround sound support for GNU/Linux. As far as recording is concerned, the microphone jack works and will record decently enough.

Summary and conclusions

The Hercules GameSurround Muse Pocket USB is a capable sound device, but it just doesn't work all that well with GNU/Linux -- it's crippled outside of Windows. We hope that Hercules improves its Linux driver support in this and upcoming products, but it doesn't seem likely at this point.

Device External sound device
Manufacturer Hercules
OS Support Windows 9.x/2K/XP, GNU/Linux (limited)
Market Upgraders, those in need of a portable sound card
Price (retail) $70 directly from Hercules
Previous version N/A
Product Web site Click here
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