Resurrected from the depths of the Internet, here comes an interesting and useful historical resource. In 1994 and 1995, Rich Heimlich published several iterations of his “patch set overview” covering mainstream wavetable sound cards, daughterboards, and modules (“mainstream” being defined as under $400, later under $350).
The introduction to the first overview from March 1994 explains the motivation: You must really dissect what phrases like “It’s the best sound card I’ve ever heard”, mean. I find phrases like that are often VERY true. It is the best card that person has heard, but they often forget to mention that they’ve only heard one or two.
As the proprietor of a games QA company, Rich Heimlich was in a unique position because both software and hardware developers had need for his services. Given the cost of the hardware, there were probably very few people who could do such a hands-on comparison; even in the first overview the total cost of the gear covered was probably around $2,500, and it only went up from there with more products covered, ending closer to $6,000 in the final published overview (the later editions helpfully includes street prices).
The patch set overview evolved from a very short and simple list with ranking on a 10-point scale and a very brief description (“Costly, but the industry standard”, or “Inexpensive”) to a much more comprehensive sound card rating which also included digital audio, ease of use, etc.
The overviews were published in comp.sys.ibm.pc.soundcard newsgroup, with much discussion also in the newly created comp.sys.ibm.pc.soundcard.advocacy newsgroup.
Here are the actual published overviews; there were at least seven distinct editions published but it’s unclear if the set is complete. Note that the dates for the 1994 overviews are approximate and might be slightly off.
- Overview from March 1994
- Overview from May 1994
- Overview from July 1994
- Overview from August 1994
- Patch Set Overview #3, January 1995
- Patch Set Overview #4, May 1995
- Patch Set Overview #5, July 1995
The overviews are a useful historical resource because they’re both more narrowly focused and have broader coverage than a typical magazine review. The ratings are inevitably somewhat subjective, but it is very unlikely that any are wide off the mark.
The biggest flame wars ensued about the ratings of the Gravis UltraSound, not so much because the GUS was rated relatively poorly but because it was rated worse than Creative’s AWE-32—that was considered an insult. Ironically the AWE-32 was not rated particularly well either, largely because its ROM sounds were so-so and because the onboard synth could not be driven through the MPU-401 interface.
Note that the overviews use “not fully GM” as a somewhat misleading shortcut for cards (like the Gravis UltraSound and AWE-32) which supported General MIDI playback but not through the MPU-401 interface, and therefore needed big and finicky TSRs to work with the vast majority of games where selecting “General MIDI” implied an external or internal synth attached through an MPU-401 compatible interface.
Roland and Turtle Beach devices were consistently highly rated, while Orchid and Sierra Semiconductor Aria cards were always at or near the bottom. Ensoniq did well by offering good quality for relatively little money.
And of course within a few years, most of the companies on the list were gone (Gravis, Turtle Beach, Ensoniq, Media Vision, Orchid, AVM) or left the PC sound card business (Roland, Aztech). Only Creative survived, and Roland to some extent returned with USB audio interfaces.