Could this be the ultimate sound card I’m looking for or at least the ultimate Gravis Ultrasound sound card? It may as well could be, with the name such as Extreme. This is gonna be kind of double review. First, Gravis Ultrasound Extreme as a sound card and second, ESS audio drive ES1688 sound chip, which is a part of this sound card.
It’s using Gravis’ GF1 chip for Gravis support, obviously and the ES1688 sound chip for Sound Blaster Pro support. This kind of set up was really unique. It was the first and unfortunately also the last Gravis Ultrasound, that was fully compatible with Sound Blaster Pro. Well, it was the last Gravis sound card. It was basically Ultrasound Classic with ESS sound chip onboard and that made it unique even among other Ultrasound cards. The GF1 chip survived for quite a long time. Ultrasound Classic was released in 1991 and Extreme in 1995. It’s probably the rarest and also the most expensive of all Gravis sound cards today. I was lucky I have got this card in exchange for Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold. When I checked the prices on ebay, some bloke wanted a £1000 for this card. That’s insane.
Advanced Gravis had released four sound cards and one daughterboard over their short lifetime. It’s not that many compared to billion sound cards released by Creative Labs. On the other hand, even though Gravis released such a small number of sound cards, these cards are unique on so many levels. Their red PCBs, sound clarity, sound quality, very special kind of wavetable or their incompatibility. And the last one is basically what this card is all about compared to the other models. If you want to know more about Gravis’ history, I’ve made a short video about it.
Well, to be proper, I have to say that Ultrasound Extreme wasn’t even produced by Gravis, it was produced by Synergy and it came out in three versions and three different names. First version is the one I’m reviewing. It’s called Ultrasound VIP and it has one 512kB memory module soldered on the PCB and one slot for SOJ memory module. Second version was named ViperMAX. It was the same card, only with two 512kB memory modules soldered on. And lastly and finally Ultrasound Extreme. And again, it was the same card with a different name.
The 0.5MB of RAM was upgradable to 1MB for instrument patches. I put another 0.5MB into the slot of my card, so I ended up with 1MB. It’s not much, but that’s all I have. If you want to use default instrument patches that came with installation CD, 0.5MB of RAM is enough, but with 1MB you’ll get better quality. Gravis doesn’t use single bank with all the instruments packed inside, which needs lots of memory to load, instead, it uses single file for one instrument, so it loads only the instruments it needs for the current track. There are, of course, some unofficial patches out there, some are quite good and some are not. 1MB of RAM is enough for most of them, some, however, need more, and the only card in the Gravis family, that can take more RAM is Ultrasound PnP. Most famous patch set is called Pro Patches Lite. I’ve tried the latest version, which is 161 and the difference is quite big. For every game that supports Gravis, I’ll record both official and Pro Patches, so you can compare those two.
All Gravis’ sound cards always suffered from Sound Blaster compatibility issues. But Ultrasound Extreme got rid of it quite elegantly. By adding ESS sound chip to the bloody card. While keeping compatibility with older Gravis cards by using GF1, adding ES1688 meant, it became also compatible with Sound Blaster Pro. Older Gravis cards needed an emulator to emulate Sound Blaster Pro, but it was always a little bit dodgy. This card is a different beast, though. For games, that are missing Gravis support, you don’t need to use some crappy emulator anymore, you can use Sound Blaster Pro in games’ setup directly. And for both, sound effects and FM music. Since ESS chip is really good, in terms of compatibility, sound clarity or FM playback, this card should be one of the best out there. But we’ll see about that. Since there are two chips onboard GF1 and ESS, I’ll have to find out which one produces less noise and thus which one is more suitable for sound effects playback.
All of the older Gravis sound cards, Classic, MAX and PnP, needed emulators to get some of the older games working. SBOS, which is purely Sound Blaster emulator and MegaEm, which can emulate Sound Blaster, General MIDI, Sound Canvas and MT-32. Ultrasound Extreme installation doesn’t come with either of those, because, honestly, you don’t need them at all, but I tried to run them anyway. SBOS didn’t work at all, it couldn’t find any Gravis card. The problem with MegaEm is, that it doesn’t work if you’ve got more than 64MB of RAM. So, I’ve installed 32MB of RAM to be sure, ran the MegaEm program, and……. it didn’t work either. I was a little bit disappointed, but as I wrote before, these emulators are not needed, really. I just wanted to test it.
GUS classic was one of the first sound cards, that was able to play sounds in 16-bit 44kHz, and since Extreme uses the same chip, it’s able to play sounds in the same resolution. However, Extreme came out four years later after the Classic, so it’s nothing special anymore, and of course ES1688 can do the same. GF1’s got one little drawback when playing sound effects, though. Even though it is able to play up to 32 channels simultaneously, the problem is, that it is able to play only 14 channels in full resolution, more channels than that, it lowers the playback rate with each step. For example, when playing 20 channels, the rate is about 31kHz and when playing all 32 channels, the rate goes down to 19kHz. There is one big advantage to GF1, though. It uses hardware mixer, which means that it uses its own power, instead of computer’s CPU to mix the channels and thus it won’t impact the performance on slower systems like 386 or 486.
There’s no speaker out on the card’s backplate, which makes it a bit difficult to use with the headphones. You can, of course, connect your headphones to the line out, but it may be too quiet. Line out works best with some kind of amplifier or active speakers, because there is no amplifier on the card, which is a good thing, there is one less thing on the card, that could interfere with sound quality. Next to the line out are line in, mic in and game port for joystick or external MIDI module. Unfortunately, there is no waveblaster connector, so if you want to use different wavetable, you either need external MIDI module connected through the game port or a different sound card. As usually, there is an IDE connector for connecting CD-ROM drives. I wonder, if anyone ever, used this connector. Next to it are all types of audio CD connectors, which is a nice touch, but it’s missing PC speaker connector. I doubt anybody would miss this one as well. There are no jumpers on the card, so the resources like IRQ or DMA have to be set up by drivers. The driver installation in DOS is as easy as with other Gravis sound cards. Just run the installation program, follow the instructions and that’s it. Set proper IRQ and DMA for GF1, then for ESS, test all settings and crack on to another step. Setup will update system files and reboot the rig. I didn’t experience any problems, almost all resources were free on my BX and FX setups. The installation program installed drivers, default wavetable patches needed for MIDI to work and couple of utilities, like TSR program called ultramid and essvol for ESS chip volume control. Due to the card having two chips, it’s got two programs to control the volume. Ultramix for GF1 and essvol for ESS. There is no bass, treble, 3D, surround or other things like that to set up. They are really simple command line programs where you can set only volume. You can’t even swap left and right channels, but that’s just a minor drawback.
I couldn’t believe how clean the output is. This is clearly the most silent card, I’ve tested so far. Even Yamaha SW1000XG can’t compare to the Ultrasound Extreme. What I was also interested in, if the Gravis chip can work together with ESS. It can and it does it flawlessly, either Gravis used for MIDI playback and ESS for sound fx or vice versa. It means of course, Gravis has to be supported. My usual MIDI test is of course in the video
I’m inclined to call this card the ultimate dos sound card. But since I haven’t tested all sound cards, yet, I can’t do that. I have to say, though, it’s extremely good, almost perfect. Let’s wrap it up then.
Compatibility – I didn’t have any problems whatsoever with any of the games I tested. It either used Gravis natively or with some kind of patch, and if it didn’t have Gravis support, it worked as a Sound Blaster Pro using ES1688. The only drawback is that the card’s not compatible with General MIDI.
Sound Clarity – The output is without a doubt the cleanest of all cards I’ve tested so far.
MIDI Quality – This part is completely subjective. I fancy its wavetable, perhaps the official patches more than Pro Patches Lite. However, some games, like Dune 2 are pure rubbish, whatever patch set.
FM Quality – ESS chip has very good FM reproduction. It’s very similar to actual OPL3. Most of the time, you won’t know the difference, unless you wanna use game’s ESS drivers, which sound completely different.
Ease of installation – The installation is extremely easy and straightforward. One of the easiest out there.
Utilities – Well, there are not that many utilities that come with the card. The most important is volume control and it’s there and working fine. Moreover who needs crap like surround and 3D sound in DOS games?
This is one of the best sound cards in my collection, yet. Maybe even the best one, period. But it’s yet to be found out.