Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro PC Sound Hardware 
Home Theater Accessories Accessories
Written by Richard Elen   
Monday, 01 December 2003

Introduction
Despite its enormous name, the Audigy 2 is a worthy successor to the original Audigy and, in addition to prodigious capabilities aimed at the pro or semi-pro musician, it also is the first computer-based system to play DVD-Audio discs. The Audigy 2 ZS is a complete kit for Windows PC (there is no Macintosh version), incorporating an external I/O hub, audio card and accessories, which include a compact IR remote. The card fits into a PCI slot in the usual way, and you can also install the included joystick/MIDI bracket in an adjacent slot if you wish.

The I/O box is the coolest (and most visible) part of the system, providing inputs and outputs, with the exception of speaker connections, for the system. The box is 7.75 inches by eight inches by 2.25 inches in size (WDH). It is linked to the installed card via a dual cable, one leg with special high-density connectors. One is labeled “AD_LINK 1” and the other, presumably a Firewire extension cable, carries IEEE1394 Firewire data between the I/O box and the port on the card. The box has a front panel with IR receptor and indicator LED, master volume control and an array of I/O connectors including Toslink optical digital I/O, Firewire, one-quarter-inch jacks for Line/Mic in, a second Line In, a Headphone out and an input gain control. On the rear of the unit is a stereo line level input on two RCA connectors, MIDI in and out, S/PDIF (digital coax) I/O on phonos, a main digital speaker output (for example, to drive Creative Inspire 5.1 or generic 2.1 speaker systems), and a Firewire port, in addition to the ports connecting back to the card referred to earlier.

As well as plugging in the PCI card in the usual way, the card requires power from a drive connector internal to the PC. Cables are provided to carry analog and/or digital audio from the CD or DVD drive to the card. Two drives (one analog, one digital) can be connected simultaneously. The system will of course work with a CD drive, but quite honestly, unless your intention is to make music rather than play discs, you’ll want a DVD drive. In the old days, Creative supplied kits that included DVD-ROM drives, but these are now common, so your existing DVD drive is no doubt supported.

When it comes to options, this kit really excels. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the speaker department. You can connect digital speaker systems, either 2.1 or 5.1, to the mini-jack socket on the back of the I/O unit. However, it should be noted that these will not work during DVD-Audio playback because, as with most high-resolution players, the digital output is not allowed to output high-resolution signals. Alternatively, you can connect anything from stereo to 7.1 speakers to the analog outputs on the card using the three mini-jack multipole connectors on the card itself. The first of these sockets also doubles as a stereo line-level output.

A prodigious selection of software accompanies the unit, including an expanded surround mixer for controlling the input levels of the different available devices: the MediaSource Player, which is used to play most file formats, a very similar-looking Mediasource DVD-Audio Player, a start bar that allows access to the various control panels and your other applications, speaker configuration systems, THX calibration panels, a thing to rip tracks to your MiniDisc player, a control panel for EAX DSP audio and gaming sound environments – very nice when you’re creating your own music but not much good on anyone else’s – graphic EQ, and goodness knows what else. You also get Limited Edition versions of some heavyweight applications, such as Steinberg’s brilliant MIDI/audio recording package Cubasis VST, and a neat device called FruityLoops that enables you to create all manner of loop-based dance stuff and really annoy the neighbors. There’s Creative WaveStudio which is a bit like a basic version of Adobe Audition (formerly CoolEdit) for recording and editing in stereo, and an organizer to keep all your music files where you can find them, though iTunes blows it, and anything like it, clean away. Usefully, there’s also an audio stream recorder that will capture material like an online radio station and save it to MP3 or WMA files on your computer. Also useful is the ability to record anything coming out of the system with the “What U Hear” capability. You also get a basic version of InterVideo’s WinDVD5, which is an effective and expandable software DVD player – I’ll come back to this later.

On the card itself is the ability to decode Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES, which are able to drive surround speaker rigs up to and including those with side and center rear speakers. In addition, there is the ability to decode MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) data streams from a DVD-Audio disc in stereo or surround.

I have a decent 2.1 analog speaker system made by now-defunct S2, and I augmented these with a pair of small amplified rear speakers – I do not have access to suitable digital speakers and thus could not test this aspect of the system. The speaker set-up application allowed me to define my set-up as 4.0, allowing the S2’s crossover to handle the bass end, but although there is bass redirection capability, it didn’t want to become available with this configuration. As a result, any bass in the rear channels was likely to go the way of all flesh. The speaker calibration system is a mite bizarre, with the ability to fine-tune phase and level, which allows you to get sounds to pan apparently beyond the speakers – a nice way of getting around the limitations of having small multimedia speakers quite near to your head – but this was only partially successful and I was unable to get a really smooth panning of a virtual sound source around my head.

Then I tried the built-in DVD-Audio demo, which actually plays MLP files from disc, and compares excerpts in CD-quality stereo and DVD-A-quality surround. It was very impressive.

It is certainly possible to hook up the system’s digital or analog outs to a regular audio system, but why would you do that? The big hole in the entertainment PC theory is that people have their computers in a different room. And anyway, computers are a dreadful place for A/D and D/A conversion. What a system like this will be used for is casual listening (or possibly DVD viewing) in the office while you’re doing something else (that’s what I do), or alternatively, for serious gaming. In neither case is hi-fi audio really the order of the day, so in this review I will refrain from conventional evaluation of the audio quality of the system, because it simply wasn’t important – it was “what it was,” and great for what it was, but it was not a patch on my own audio system.

Needless to say, I tried a DVD-Audio disc first, namely the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The Mediasource player handles the majority of the system’s playback capabilities, and as a DVD-Audio player it behaves as a unit with no display: Pet Sounds duly came up with a screen indicating that I needed a different kind of player if I wanted to see the pictures.

There is a special mode for DVD-Audio players without a screen, and this is exactly what you’ll get if you have a player in your car. Discs are specially authored to deal with this and in this situation play and handle just like a CD – but in incredible multichannel surround and up to 24-bit, 192 kHz sampling audio quality. The converters in the Audigy have this capability, too, and they sound by far the best I have ever heard in a computer-based audio system. But I noted that, for all their bits, the noise floor was comparable to that of a reasonable CD player (at around -96 dB), due not only to hiss but from a mild spiky buzz that could have been the result of anything from switch-mode power supplies in the computer to hum loops that were impossible to clear in an unbalanced system, where everything was connected with mini-jacks. Such are the limitations of the environment in which the Audigy has to work.

However, one of the big things about DVD-Audio is that it doesn’t just deliver super-quality sound: there are images and extras, too. Virtually all DVD-A discs have a DVD-V zone, which makes them playable on a DVD-Video player, but even in the DVD-A area itself, there can be lyrics that change with the music, slideshows and other goodies. I wanted to see them.

The answer was to be found in the supplied WinDVD player. This player is the ideal companion to the Audigy system, and quite honestly is the player to use with DVDs of any stripe. The version supplied is the basic one, but on the InterVideo website, you can update it to the full version and add a package to handle DVD-Audio. I did so, and within a few minutes I was able to not only hear but also see all the content of the disc, although I did have to tell the Creative player to go away by turning off its detection of DVD-A discs.

With the fully-enhanced WinDVD 5, you can play any DVD-type disc in its full glory. Now I could see the DVD-A menus in Pet Sounds, access all the features and generally fully enjoy the disc.

While I was at it, I bought and downloaded Fengtao Software’s DVD-Idle Pro, which adds, among several other things, multi-region capability to WinDVD and many other players, largely by disabling their region-checking (though its behaviour is not entirely reliable). I live in Region 2 now, so I would quickly run out of region switches in my DVD drive if I had to switch each time I played a different region’s disc. In the U.K. and Europe, virtually all players are multi-region. Thankfully, the result is the essential internationalization of movie and DVD release dates, in tacit recognition of the fact that regionalization is stupid and unnecessary in the first place.

DVD-Audio discs are essentially region-free, although once in a while, you’ll find one on which the DVD-Video zone has accidentally been regionalized. Another red herring is the TV standard for the video. There are some record companies that have been tardy releasing DVD-As in Europe because, they claim, they “have to do the PAL version.” However, just as most European DVD players are multi-region, most European players and display devices are capable of handling both NTSC and PAL. As a result, the answer is simple: when authoring a DVD-A, you only need to include NTSC video material. Almost nobody will be inconvenienced, wherever they are in the world. Just as with a CD, you can play the same disc anywhere.

A nice feature of the Audigy is the compact IR remote, which is about half the size of the one that came with the Audigy 1, and much more ergonomically designed. The first time you try to use it, for example to control the volume, there is a lag while it does some processing, but thereafter changes take place at once.

Let’s move on to evaluation of another disc, this time Philip Glass’ magnificent Koyaanisqatsi. This consists of music composed for Godfrey Reggio’s film of the same name and now available in a new recording that includes almost everything that appears in the film, unlike the original release, which truncated it to suit the music medium of the time, the LP. The sound was excellent, and in the title track, the deep, sonorous voice came unmistakably from all around.

Unfortunately, however, I found that both Creative and InterVideo players did not respect the fact that the disc was supposed to play smoothly from one track to the next without a break, inserting pauses where there should be continuous music. This was a problem with some early hardware DVD-A players, but it’s very unusual to encounter it today. In addition, the InterVideo player was a little more temperamental than the simpler Creative player, not always responding correctly to menu clicks. Occasionally, the InterVideo player had some kind of problem and the audio broke up into short segments, as if the computer was very busy doing something else at the time – though exactly what it was up to was not at all evident. Quitting and starting again cured the problem.

The Downside
It’s in a computer. That’s the big one – a computer is just not a nice place for audio. Even with digital I/O taken to external high-quality converters, without the kind of careful attention to power supplies and other factors that you’ll only find in an expensive pro-audio type PC, there is bound to be jitter, and when using the analog outs, noise from digits gets into the audio. So the performance is not what you would expect from a regular DVD-A player connected to your hi-fi.

The software is a bit cranky playing DVD-A discs, especially the InterVideo player (which admittedly is not part of the basic kit, but you’ll want it if you want to experience all the content on DVD-Audio discs).

Conclusion
What you do get with this system is the best audio I have so far coaxed out of a computer sound card. The external I/O box is ideal for the home studio – though that’s not an angle I’ve covered in this review – where the EAX audio environments add a good deal to your on-board MIDI instruments. I actually augmented that side of the Audigy (which has its own quite decent MIDI sound generating capability) with an up-market Yamaha sound card, bringing its S/PDIF output in via the digital input on the I/O box, which is very nice.

I owned the original Audigy with the I/O tray that fitted into a drive slot: the Audigy 2 is much nicer in every way and the ideal system for an audio-conscious PC user. It enables you to listen to surround in your office while you’re working, and even watch movies. It supports up to 7.1 speakers. And of course it is an example of how, increasingly, you can play DVD-Audio discs everywhere.
Manufacturer Creative
Model Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro PC Sound Hardware
Reviewer Richard Elen





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