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Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro PC Sound Hardware Print E-mail
Monday, 01 December 2003
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Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro PC Sound Hardware
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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.


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