Monday, January 2, 2017

Sega Genesis - Is the Stinker really that bad?

Official Sega Genesis and Mega Drive consoles vary quite a bit in terms of their built-in sound quality.  When I was looking to acquire a Genesis several years ago, I read that the conventional wisdom was that the original Model 1 was the one to get because it had the best sound quality and did not have the TMSS copy protection scheme.

The original Model 1 is the one with the headphone jack and mono line audio output.  I did not know at the time that there were Model 1s with the High Definition Graphics text and Model 1s without the High Definitions Graphics above the cartridge slot.  The one I acquired did not have the High Definition "HDG" text. Sometime thereafter, I found out that the non-HDG Model 1s had such terrible sound quality compared to HDG Model 1s that they have been given the nickname "the Stinker."  Faced with this reputation, I quickly bought myself an HDG Model 1.  I believed that all HDG consoles would not have TMSS, but the one I got did.

Model 1 of the Sega 16-bit console had several motherboard revisions, as had its successor the Model 2.  Using the information here :, I have created this table identifying the distinguishing features of all models of the Sega 16-bit console where such information is known :

Model Type PCB Rev HDG Text TMSS Sound IC EXT Port/PCB Size# Territory$ Video IC
Model 1 VA0 Yes No YM2612 Yes J CXA1145
Model 1 VA1 Yes No YM2612 Yes J CXA1145
Model 1 VA2 Yes No YM2612 Yes J/U CXA1145
Model 1 VA3 Yes No YM2612 Yes J/U/E CXA1145
Model 1 VA4 Yes No YM2612 Yes J/U/E CXA1145
Model 1 VA5 Yes No YM2612 Yes J/U/E CXA1145
Model 1 VA6 Yes/No* Yes YM2612 Yes J/U/E CXA1145
Model 1 VA6.5 No Yes YM2612 Empty Space J/U/E CXA1145
Model 1 VA6.8 No Yes YM2612 Empty Space J/U/E CXA1145
Model 1 VA7 No Yes YM3438 ASIC Covered by Shell Bezel J/U/E CXA1145 or MB3514
Model 2 VA0 N/A Yes YM3438 ASIC Full U CXA1145 or MB3514 or KA2195D
Model 2 VA1 N/A Yes YM3438 ASIC Full U CXA1145 or MB3514 or KA2195D
Model 2 VA1.8 N/A Yes YM3438 ASIC Full U CXA1145 or MB3514 or KA2195D
Model 2 VA2 N/A Yes YM2612 Full U KA2195D or CXA1645
Model 2 VA2.3 N/A Yes YM2612 Full U KA2195D or CXA1645
Model 2 VA3 N/A Yes YM3438 ASIC 3-4 U CXA1145 or KA2195D or CXA1645
Model 2 VA4 N/A Yes YM3438 GOAC 3-4 U CXA1645
CDX/Multi-Mega N/A N/A Yes YM3438 ASIC N/A J/U/E MB3514
Nomad N/A N/A Yes YM3438 ASIC N/A U CXA1645
Genesis 3 VA1 N/A Yes YM3438 GOAC N/A U CXA1645
Genesis 3 VA2 N/A Yes YM3438 GOAC N/A U CXA1645

# - EXT Port presence on Model 1s, PCB Size on Model 2s
* - Different Text for Japanese Systems, no Japanese system with Text has TMSS
$ - The Model 2s were released in Japan and Europe, but no specific information exists as to which PCBs were available in each region outside the US.  I assume all revisions were available in every region.
YM3438s can come on discrete chips or be integrated into a GOAC, Genesis on a Chip,

Model 1s with motherboard/PCB revisions VA3-VA6.8 have the best overall sound quality of any Sega 16-bit console, according to the conventional wisdom.  Motherboard/PCB revision VA7 by the conventional wisdom is the "stinker."  My non-HDG Model 1 has a VA7, so if I had no other Sega Genesis, I would supposedly be stuck with the stinker.  My HDG Model 1 uses a VA6 motherboard, so by comparison it should have the ideal Sega 16-bit sound.

As shown by the above table, there were three types of FM sound chips used in the 16-bit consoles.  The first is the YM2612, the second is an ASIC with an integrated YM3438 core and the third is a YM3438 integrated into a Genesis on a Chip.  All have a DAC built into them.  A discrete YM3438, used only on the Sega Teradrive, is a YM2612 with an improved DAC and the Sega integrated versions improve on the DAC even more.

From what I have read, you cannot simply characterize a YM2612 console as good and a YM3438 console as bad.  The key to the overall sound quality is in the filtering and amplification done to the analog sound signal coming out of these chips.   There is a board called the Crystal Clear Audio Mod that can improve any YM3438 output to a level equivalent to a YM2612 found in the VA3-VA6.8 motherboards.  You can even replace a YM2612 with a discrete YM3438 and use the CCAM for cleaner sound, as described here :  However, there are games that rely on the distortion produced by the YM2612's DAC, and you may hear some audible differences in the recordings below.

Ultimately, any judging of the "stinker" must be done with the same music coming from a "good" console.  The goal of this blog entry is to provide samples recorded from my "good" Model 1 and my "stinker" Model 1 and let the listener make up his or her own mind on the respective qualities of each console.  I have recorded the "attract mode" audio of several games using both consoles and have placed the audio in rough chronological order by the game's release date.

First we start with Truxton, an excellent early vertical shooter.  Its attract mode only uses sound effects, which is useful to judge the audio processing on sound effects.

Next I have recorded the title song to Streets of Rage, done by the great Yuzo Koshiro.  

Then comes the most well-known Sega Genesis tune of all time, courtesy of Sonic the Hedgehog :

Some soothing music from Ecco the Dolphin :

Now for some later music.  Here is Phantasy Star IV, and note the distortion from the non-HDG console at around 0:53 and more noticeably at 1:24 and 1:32 and 1:57 :

Finally we have the awesome Contra : Hard Corps, this clip emphasizes sound effects more than music :

Having listened to these samples, you will obviously note the more muffled sound from the non-HDG console.  The HDG console is crisper at the cost of more noise.  The "stinker" is not unique in this regard, many of its successor motherboard revisions also sound more muffled than the HDG units. However, except for unusual issues like the distortion in Phantasy Star IV, the same fundamental sound is being output across all these Sega 16-bit consoles.

But as a public service, even the stinker is miles better than the modern Genesis clones from atgames.  atgames sells the "Sega Genesis Classic Game Console" and the  "Sega Genesis Ultimate Portable Game Player."  Even though these are officially licensed Sega products, the hardware used in these things sounds like garbage.  Despite having multiple reissues of these clone consoles, some of which come a cartridge slot, the sound has not improved.  Here are one good YouTube video demonstrating how awful one of the more recent consoles sounds in Sonic the Hedgehog :

and here is one of its clone predecessors, the Firecore, from 2010 :  You would think that in the six years since 2010 they would have improved the sound, but they can't be bothered.  The sound output is mono only whereas the original Sega Genesis (except for the unmodded Genesis 3) consoles had stereo outputs.  Not that it would matter, this garbage would sound no better in stereo.


h1ghju1ce said...

Turns out the Genesis 3 DOES have stereo audio, its a myth that has been long repeated without much testing it seems.

The problem is the connector, its deep and the hole surround cutout is very tight, so (especially non Sega) cables can be connected, and give a picture, but the audio doesnt connect properly.

Unknown said...

That Atgames console sounds like ass. How did SEGA think this was acceptable?

Great Hierophant said...

The Atari atgames flashback consoles don't sound very faithful to the original hardware either, but Atari and Sega don't seem to care. Even the NES Classic Edition and Nintendo's Virtual Console releases had audio flaws not heard in second rate emulators.