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Mac users will no doubt be aware that if you're using an iMac as your desktop computer then you're limiting your expandability options to a memory upgrade somewhere down the line. My work and living room computer is unfortunately an iMac and when I wanted to fit it out with surround sound, I encounter the Apple expandability roadblock. I'm not sure what output sockets modern iMacs come equipped with but mine, circa 2006, comes only with a simple 3.5mm headphone jack. I was informed that there is an optical output hiding inside this port that requires a special adaptor, unfortunately the adaptor had been discontinued.
That cut down my options essentially to this, the Trust Sound Expert external sound card. These are available online, though I had a fair bit of trouble finding one in stock at the time, and fortunately for me are stocked occasionally at computer megastores such as PC world.
The sound card is basically a small, silver box, connected to your PC or Mac via USB. It features three 3.5mm jacks as outputs, one for each pair of speakers and an illuminated mute button on the top for quick killing of the sound. The package came with a driver disk that only provided drivers for Windows, the only operating system this sound card officially supports. Connecting to the computer and then to speakers was very easy, though it does not have any amplification function and so you'll need powered speakers. A cheap, PC compatible 5.1 speaker set can be found anywhere now for as little as £15 and this soundcard is clearly designed for equipment such as that and features no optical or other outputs.
This was simple to set up on a Windows PC, Vista and later will probably not require the driver disk but you will need to go to your speaker settings in the control panel and configure them. However, I really couldn't recommend you buying this for use with a mac unless you're particularly computer savvy. It took nearly a week of googling and fiddling to get 5.1 output through this device and the machine fought me all the way. I have not deducted any stars from the product rating because of this as the device is only intended to be used with Windows machines, I did get it running on my mac in the end but it wasn't what you'd call "compatible."
The Trust Sound Expert is very much a WYSIWYG device. If you configure the speakers correctly on either PC or Mac then the device will function. If you play a 5.1 source it will output to each speaker and the quality of the sound is superb. However, neither the card or the included software will perform any kind of matrixing or processing. That means that if you get everything set up and then play a stereo track, it will only output to the two front speakers. This isn't a major flaw, it is a budget device to designed to overcome a specific problem, not a fully featured surround sound receiver, but it is a shame. Fortunately, most DVD playback software will decode Dolby and DTS audio tracks and output this as a 5.1 stream. That means this device will provide surround sound from your DVD collection without too much fuss.
I suppose I would describe my opinion on this product as mixed. It's cheap, that's the first point. The box is a little, cheap plastic piece of tat really but it does do exactly as it claims to and it's probably the cheapest external, 5.1 surround sound card you will find. It's very much a DIY device but if you put the time and effort in then the results can be very rewarding. If you're currently using a laptop or desktop computer without a suitable surround sound output option then this card will meet those needs but it won't do much else.