The Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum 16 was a popular 16-bit sound card in the early 1990s. It attempted to do to Creative Labs what Creative had previously done to Ad Lib. When it’s didn’t meet that goal, the company became infamous for securities fraud. Two of its executives served prison terms.
Why I bought a Pro Audio Spectrum 16
The Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum 16 (also known as the PAS 16) was the sound card I had in my PC in the early 90s. We sold them where I worked, which was one reason why I bought it. I was able to use my employee discount. But we also sold Creative and Aztec cards. Why did I buy Media Vision?
Another employee talked me into it. He pointed out that the Media Vision was higher quality hardware, and in more than one way. The Media Vision multimedia kit came with a SCSI drive, as opposed to the bespoke Panasonic drive that everyone else used. The drive was a bit odd because the whole mechanism ejected, rather than just a tray. He argued that the smaller number of moving parts would make the drive more reliable. I liked that.
But he also pointed out that the sound card was also higher quality. The board was thicker, and it had a larger ground plane. This made the card less noisy. In practice, this meant you weren’t using the card, you wouldn’t hear the speakers humming the same way you might with a Creative card.
You can see the difference when you hold both boards up to the light. The Creative card lets a lot of light through. The Media Vision card lets very little through. That extra copper improves quality but increases cost.
From a price standpoint, it was about the same by the time I bought one. The difference was with one of the other kits, you got more bundled software. The Media Vision kit I bought came with one title while the comparable kits from the other companies came with more like 10. I wasn’t terribly interested in their software bundles, so I went with the better hardware.
As an aside, the title of this blog comes from my ability in my younger days to be talked into buying the better product that failed. It’s not the best technology that always wins. But my reputation for choosing the better solution that ended up losing led to me titling this blog The Silicon Underground.
Media Vision wasn’t the failure that bugged me the most, but I sure was good at picking these types of solutions.
The significance of the Pro Audio Spectrum
Early sound cards were only 8 bits wide. And this wasn’t altogether a bad thing. In 1987, a significant number of PCs still only had an 8-bit bus. But faster PCs with a 16-bit expansion bus were getting cheaper. By 1990, it was clear this was going to be a growing market. Media Vision was founded in May 1990 by Paul Jain and Tim Bratton, hoping to ride that wave.
The original Pro Audio Spectrum was an 8-bit card and wasn’t terribly successful. It had some capabilities competing cards didn’t have, but didn’t arrive early enough to grab significant market share. But the 16-bit version was something special.
Media Vision flew under the radar with the PAS16. The first really successful PC sound card was called the Ad Lib. Creative came along and extended the Ad Lib standard. Its product, the Sound Blaster, became even more popular. Creative did some questionable things to try to keep Ad Lib from following up with a successor it was working on, the Ad Lib Gold.
While Creative was distracted fighting Ad Lib, Media Vision caught them by surprise with its release of the Pro Audio Spectrum 16, which beat them to market by a month. The Pro Audio Spectrum 16 was compatible with the Ad Lib and with early Sound Blaster cards. So it worked with all existing software. But software could also be written to use the Pro Audio Spectrum 16-bit capability, which sounded better. And a fair number of titles did support it.
The Sound Blaster 16
Creative rushed its own 16-bit product, the Sound Blaster 16, to market in June 1992. The two cards were comparable in capability, but not software compatible with each other. Supporting both cards required extra development effort. Some software did, but some just chose one or the other.
And this was where Media Visions quality ended up being more of a liability than a strength. The Sound Blaster 16 was cheaper to make. That meant Creative had more room to play with the price. The two got into a price war, but with one less layer of copper on the board, Creative had more profit margin to work with. All Creative really needed to do was put their card on sale occasionally and buy some market share. More market share would mean more titles supporting its product, and in the end, that meant more to consumers than a bit of extra hum coming from the speakers. The difference between 16-bit sound and 8-bit sound with similar to the difference in sound between AM and FM radio. Even with a bit of hum, FM still sounds better than AM. Creative effectively had the power to force everyone to use a Pro Audio Spectrum like an older 8-bit card so theirs would sound better.
Initially sales and software support for the PAS16 were pretty good, but after a year, the momentum swung in Creative’s direction. Getting 16% market share first matters more than quality in free markets.
Sales fell off, and that led to the scandal.
1993 was a disastrous year for Media Vision. The problem was, that’s not what they reported. Media Vision lost $99 million in 1993, but they reported a profit of $20 million by counting products as sold before they had even arrived in port. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, three Media Vision executives, including the co-founder Paul Jain, made $2.3 million from the misreporting.
By late spring 1994, Media Vision couldn’t hide it. Their stock fell from $46.50 in January 1994 to $4.875 by May. They filed for bankruptcy in July. The SEC investigated, and the investigation dragged out until 1998. Media Vision products remained on store shelves, and not a lot of people were talking about it at the time. No one at my store was even aware they were bankrupt, and I was just casually explaining the differences between the different multimedia upgrade kits we were selling in that aisle. Multimedia sales were still booming, and I sold a number of kits from a bankrupt company under investigation for fraud without even knowing.
The technology industry is much bigger news now than it was in 1994. Information flows much faster and more freely today. Industry pioneer Gary Kildall’s death in 1994 wasn’t big news either. They’d both be much bigger stories today because of 24-hour news channels, 24-hour financial channels, and the Internet.
Eventually, the stores sold through the stock and the Media Vision name faded away.
SEC charges and trial
Multiple executives were charged as a result of the fraud, but two executives, Paul Jain and CFO Steven Allan, ended up serving prison terms. Jain pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months, serving 13 months. He testified against the Allan, who ended up receiving 41 months and losing his CPA certificate. Two more executives received probation.
For what it’s worth, the average Federal drug sentence is 97 months and the average Federal racketeering sentence is 70 months.
At the time, it was the largest financial scandal in Silicon Valley history. It was also the longest running. Jain wasn’t sentenced until 2003, by which time, Media Vision’s successor company, Aureal, had been out of business for three years.
What happened to Media Vision
In 1996, what was left of the company reorganized itself under the name Aureal Semiconductor. Aureal sold chipsets rather than complete cards, relying on companies like Diamond Multimedia to manufacture the cards.
Aureal ended up giving Creative another run for its money late in the decade. Those cards are rather sought after today, but after trading lawsuits with Creative, Aureal ran out of money and ended up selling out to Creative in 2000.
The Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum’s value today
The Pro Audio Spectrum 16 is valuable today, selling for around $50-$70 on Ebay. That’s because of its historical significance and good sound quality. Even when running older software, it gives cleaner sound than the Sound Blaster cards it can emulate. It also sounds good with native titles, and when you use it with Windows 95 and native Windows 95 software, device drivers take care of the software differences. Under DOS, since it has an actual Yamaha OPL chip, it sounds how one would expect, just with less noise.
And the PAS16 usually has a SCSI CD-ROM interface. This lets you pair it up with a period correct and high quality NEC or Toshiba SCSI CD-ROM, for a multimedia solution that looks the part and works better than most other early 90s CD-ROMs.
The PAS16 doesn’t have the following that Creative has, and it doesn’t have the cult status of a Gravis Ultrasound, but it still a historically significant card.
As for the 8-bit version, it’s rather difficult to find today because it wasn’t terribly popular. It has good backward compatibility and some titles support it specifically. I can’t give a ballpark on value for that card because I can’t find one that’s changed hands recently.
How the Pro Audio Spectrum could have succeeded
Of course the question is, what went wrong? Media Vision bet on the wrong kind of quality. It’s easy to say this in hindsight. What Media Vision could have done was offer two versions of the card, a value card and a premium card. Give the premium card the extra ground plane and all the hallmarks of quality, and make the value card as cheap as possible while compromising reliability as little as possible.
Then they would have been able to use the value card to buy as much market share as possible, while trying to upsell the premium card to upscale buyers.
But ultimately, the whole business model didn’t have all that long of a shelf life. Once developers understood how to program games for Windows, device drivers took care of any differences in the hardware. All they needed was the ability to play back sampled sound.
And soon after Media Vision ran into financial trouble, any number of cheaper sound chips capable of providing passable Sound Blaster emulation and playing back sampled sound came available. These cards were a mixed bag under DOS, but it didn’t matter much under Windows. And it wasn’t long before motherboard makers started building sound into the motherboards themselves. The ones who put brand name chips on the board didn’t fair as well as the ones who used low bidder chips. Because when you were running Windows, it didn’t really matter much.
For a little while, it was a big deal. Today, it’s more of a historical curiosity.