That Time Microsoft Released Speakers From The Future
Pure Digital Sound hit the PC Desktop in the late 90's
In 1998, Microsoft was mostly known for the Windows operating system and their suite of Office productivity software. The original Xbox hadn’t yet entered development. Flight Simulator was their biggest game title, receiving updates every few years. And “Microsoft Hardware” consisted mostly of the Sidewinder(TM) game peripherals and a few decently-reviewed mice, as it would be another year before the IntelliMouse Explorer launched and crushed the mouse ball into the halls of irrelevance with its optical tracking technology.
All of that provides the context for how weird it is that in late 1998, Microsoft decided to release a powerful digital desktop speaker system called the Microsoft Digital Sound System 80. It debuted at E3 that year, and its marketing push targeted PC gamers. Unlike other computer speaker systems of the era, it didn’t require an analog connection to your sound card. Instead, it had its own DAC and amplifier built-in which received pure digital audio data directly over USB.
This sort of sound transmission is common in 2020. Almost mundane. Even budget gaming headsets often come with a USB DAC/amp dongle in the box. But in 1998? It was weird, different, and mind-blowing. Now any computer with a USB port could output pure digital audio without expensive add-in sound processing hardware.
The system had a powerful girth to its sound, with explosive bass punch thanks to a subwoofer co-developed with Philips. It used a passive radiator to pump up its bass output which Philips named “WooX.” If that isn’t branding from the 90’s, then I don’t know what is.
I first encountered the DSS80 on the sales floor at my local Costco, where it was hooked up next to the PC games on top of an unexciting plywood table. In spite of having no walls to reflect off of, the demo station produced powerful, exciting theater-like sound.
It even offered surround virtualization technology, which immersed me in fake game noises and the dulcet tones of the hired narrator voice guy right in the middle of the Costco. I can still smell the hot dogs. Reviews of the time cautioned that you’d need a beefy CPU in order to send all the data to the sound system’s processor in a timely fashion, a concern that’s now patently absurd.
Teenager-me listened to that demo a hundred times, and never got tired of it. However, the DSS80 carried a price tag of ~$200, unheard of for computer speakers in that era. I ended up buying a basic Cambridge SoundWorks PC Works 2.1 speaker system for $50 or so from the nearby Office Depot, which was far easier on the budget of a 15 year old. Its small cubes sounded rather impressive when the subwoofer had my home walls and desk to amplify its less powerful output. But I had to make due with lowly analog audio. Shudder.
When I first heard the DSS80, its clean signal was the most impressive sound I’d ever heard coming out of small computer speakers. But direct digital audio for the home quickly became commonplace over the next few years, and these days it’s considered a mundane to transmit digital audio wirelessly throughout your home and straight to a device on your head.
Sadly, the Digital Sound System 80 did not lead to a wave of Microsoft sound hardware which still has a legacy today. Indeed, Microsoft largely ignores the hardware side of audio. They’ve done wonders for virtual surround on the software side of things, but the only consumer audio products they make right now are the Surface Headphones and a basic gaming headset for the Xbox.
Ironically, that Xbox headset would probably benefit from having some USB sound hardware inside, as its basic analog connection drains the batteries faster on Xbox One controllers, and its sound is relatively drab.
From their early explosion in the late 90’s, I’ve watched desktop computer sound systems explode out into full 7.1 surround setups and then shrink back down to sound bars. I’d imagine lots of folks now just use their laptop speakers, or if they’re really invested in audio, some kind of desktop studio monitors or headphones.
To me, the Digital Sound System 80 is the perfect example of 90’s future tech. It did things no one ever thought to do before, and with a brash powerful sound that didn’t care if it interrupted your Costco shopping experience. If Microsoft released the original sound loop from that demo kiosk as paid content for the current Windows Sonic/Dolby Atmos software package, I’d throw them a couple of bucks to hear it again just for the nostalgia.