Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook Sound Card Review

by Reads (31,060)

by Dustin Sklavos, California USA

INTRODUCTION

The Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS PCMCIA. It’s generally considered to be the premier sound upgrade option for notebooks and since I’d been suffering with the unholy onboard sound of my notebook for a while, when I saw it on clearance for $62 at a local Staples, I pretty much picked it up and ran. I needed a better mic jack for doing audio work for my short films and for my friend’s animation projects, since my onboard was rife with noise. I also wanted an equalizer for my audio, and maybe to see a small performance boost in games.

The Audigy 2 ZS for notebooks sports every feature its desktop equivalent does, save a joystick port, but it also includes optical in and out jacks which the desktop one does not. It has 24-bit/192kHz playback, 24-bit/96kHz recording, support for up to 7.1 sound (via a dongle), THX certification, support for Dolby Digital decoding up to 6.1, DTS-ES decoding, ASIO support, and EAX up through 4.0. All in an impressively small package, requiring just a PC Card port. (Note that it will not fit in an ExpressCard port.)

Basically, it has everything ever.

Unfortunately, I can’t approach this article from anything other than a slightly humorous bent. I have a personal grudge against Creative that dates back to the first desktop I built for myself, featuring the Sound Blaster Live. I’m sure their hardware is fantastic, and that would be really great except for the part where they should probably fire their entire driver team and hire some new blood with actual…I don’t know…talent…or skill maybe? My loathing for Creative’s drivers knows no bounds.

This hardware has been almost universally lavished with praise. Nearly every site I’ve seen a review for it on has been extremely positive. Those websites…are communists. It’s not very hard to be best in class when you’re the only competitor.

INSTALLATION

The Audigy 2 ZS was installed on the following laptop:

  • Gateway 7510GX
  • Mobile Athlon 64 3700+ (2.4 GHz, 1MB Cache)
  • 1GB DDR333 RAM
  • Mobility Radeon X600 128MB using Omega Catalyst 6.3 Drivers
  • On-Board Sound from SB450 Southbridge (Conexant Audio)
  • Windows XP Professional SP2

There’s a crucial point to make here: the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS will disable your onboard speakers while it’s plugged in. So if you’re using it, you’ll need to plug external speakers or headphones into it. I’m sure there’s a way to run it through your notebook’s speakers, but every time I try to figure out exactly how to do it, my eyes cross and I decide it’s a waste of time trying to figure out how to make this thing play through a pair of miserable laptop speakers when I have a halfway decent pair of headphones.

Admittedly, this is always the worst phase with any Creative products. The geeks out there usually laugh and toss aside the driver CD that comes with their hardware when they open it, instead opting to download updated drivers straight from the manufacturer’s website. Well, go grab that CD and buff the scratches out.

Yes, you can download the driver for it off Creative’s site. You can NOT download all of the control panels that go with it, though. So if you lose your driver CD for your sound card, you’re out of luck.

When you do go to install this device, you’ll find yourself staring down an unholy list of “features” you can install, maybe a third of which you’ll actually need. Word of advice: if you’re not sure what it is, you probably don’t need it. All you really need are the drivers themselves and the control panels to manipulate the hardware.

Of course, any time you run the driver CD – ever – it’ll put an AOL free trial icon and a Creative Registration icon on your desktop. It’s not really up to you.

I do want to point out that it’s very easy to switch between using the Audigy 2 and onboard sound. As long as the Audigy 2 is plugged in, it’ll be your default sound hardware. When it’s not, the computer will automatically switch back to your onboard sound.


START-UP

My installation of the Audigy 2 ZS was fairly bare, so you can imagine my surprise when it drops two unnecessary programs into my system tray on boot. You can imagine the sheer unabashed rapture that followed as I pored through every blasted menu in the drivers trying to find a way to disable them before finally just running “msconfig” and manually disabling them from startup.

I received another pleasant surprise when I discovered that if I booted with the Audigy 2 plugged into my system, it occasionally prevented my antiviral software from loading, and would continue to prevent it from loading, so I’d have to reboot.

Again, Creative’s driver team should be fired.

SETTING UP


The more useful control panels available. I’ve actually wound up being a big fan of the “Techno” preset. (view large image)

Mercifully, mixer controls are fairly simple and self-explanatory.

The speaker calibration is a cool trick that winds up being for the most part useless. It’s a lot like a visit to the eye doctor, where it asks you if one way sounds better than another. I always feel like I keep failing those tests because I can almost never tell the difference, so the calibration tool didn’t do me a whole lot of good and in the end I disabled it and just used the equalizer like a regular person.

The equalizer is as complex or as simple as you like, which is nice. If you want to use an authentically detailed equalizer, you can adjust the bands, and there’s a toggle for the equalizer. Likewise, if you’re a tone deaf moron like I am, being able to manually adjust just the bass and treble is fine.

The EAX control panel will allow you to simulate different environments (concert hall, etc.), which was always sort of gimmicky and I never saw much use for. Your mileage may vary.


IN PRACTICE – MUSIC

I’ve used this thing on five different speaker sets of varying quality (unfortunately, I didn’t have access to a 5.1 system, which is admittedly half the reason you’d buy one of these) to see if there were any perceptible difference in sound quality produced by the Audigy 2 ZS against my onboard sound. I know a lot of people use their computers basically as jukeboxes at this point (I almost always have music running on mine), so this is an important thing, at least to me.

Old Sony Boombox

I was using an old Sony boombox (tape deck only) with the audio jack from the computer plugged into the line-in on the boombox. It had a built-in equalizer, but was decidedly lacking in fidelity in the high end and lacking in “oomph” in the low. I was unable to differentiate the Audigy from my onboard sound.

Cyber Acoustics 2.1 System


If you’re on a budget, $30 buys you this fairly solid little 2.1 system.

First, I can happily recommend this system. While it does distort a little when the volume is too loud, the satellites are surprisingly crisp and clear. Subwoofer’s a little bit thumpy and could be better, but is pretty satisfying overall, and they cost me $30 when I bought them. I’d’ve kept them if I hadn’t caught such a good deal on the next set of speakers. I’d definitely recommend them for music lovers and gamers alike.

Anyways, again, I could find little to no discernable difference between the Audigy and the onboard sound.

Logitech Z4 2.1 System


I wouldn’t pay $100 for them, but for $50 you could do a heck of a lot worse.

I was able to pick these up for $50 on eBay ($100 in stores). Subwoofer is incredibly powerful, but the satellites seem a little tinnier than they should be, especially at this price, and they lack “oomph.”

At this point is where I can start to tell the difference between the Audigy and my onboard sound, as the Audigy produces slightly cleaner, crisper audio.

Generic Two Speaker System

Where I work, all the computers usually have these mediocre el cheapo speakers connected to them, but they’re still better than my notebook’s speakers.

On these speakers, there was no difference between my onboard and the Audigy.

Altec Lansing 2.1 Speaker System

This is kind of a low end set of speakers, and I’ve found their quality to be decidedly lacking in general. I’ve never been a fan of Altec Lansing’s speakers and I’m not sure why other people keep saying they have such good quality when I’ve never heard a decent pair. The subwoofer’s solid, but the satellites are really weak.

Again, no difference between the onboard sound and Audigy.

Overall

You need to spend good money on good speakers to really tell the difference between crappy onboard sound and the Audigy 2 ZS. Of course, if you’re going to be running a 5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 system, this really doesn’t matter to you – you’ll likely need the Audigy 2 ZS regardless.


IN PRACTICE – GAMING

Creative gets one part of their marketing correct: they are DEFINITELY for gamers. I received improved audio quality in games across the board on the Audigy 2 ZS by enabling EAX. Note that the Audigy 2 ZS supports through EAX 4.0 HD, and it sounds GOOD. Games have higher highs and lower lows, and much more involving audio in general. I’ve played several games on it, including Doom 3, Quake 4, and Unreal Tournament 2004, and in each instance, enabling EAX produces substantially better, more involving sound. Disabling EAX, games still sound a bit better than they did on my onboard sound.

Now, one thing most people aren’t aware of is the impact that your audio hardware can have on gaming performance. Onboard audio tends to do its processing using your CPU, which eats up valuable cycles that could better be used by the game. Your framerate can definitely decrease if you’re using inefficient hardware, and driver support can have an impact, too.

To illustrate the impact sound hardware can have on game performance, I’ve benchmarked Doom 3, Unreal Tournament 2004, and World of Warcraft by playing through certain parts of each game in sixty-second intervals while running Fraps. I made three runs each time, then averaged them. Unfortunately, built in benchmarking utilities for the first two games don’t even take sound into account at all, so while these numbers are a good baseline, they aren’t perfect.

DOOM 3



When you get to Hell, these imps will be the least of your worries. (view large image)

I played through a portion of the game in Hell to try and maximize the number of effects that would be on screen, to properly simulate some of the more intense parts of the game. I used a specially written configuration for the game that has been optimized for my system. It runs at 720×576 Medium Quality at widescreen aspect.

 SOUND HARDWARE  MIN. FPS  MAX. FPS  AVERAGE FPS
 No Sound Enabled  20.5  62  41.1
 On-Board Sound  15  62  39.6
 Audigy 2 ZS  19  62  40.7
 Audigy 2 + EAX  18.3  62  40.3

Note that the Max. FPS peaks at 62 in each one; Doom 3 has its FPS capped and since most people never disable this option, I left it enabled. Understanding that this does affect its overall performance measures, the average player is not going to disable it, so it’s representative of what you can expect to see in the game.

Note that the Audigy 2 ZS provides a slight improvement over on-board sound in minimum frames and overall frames, creating a slightly smoother gaming experience while substantially improving the immersion of the audio. It’s worth noting that for Doom 3 (and games based on its engine, like Quake 4), the Audigy’s impact on the sound quality itself is dramatic. If you’re a fan of these games, you’ll definitely note a significant improvement.

UNREAL TOURNAMENT 2004



But you can’t see the guy behind me about to jam a cartridge full of flak into the back of my skull.(view large image)

I played the Desolation map with seven bots in it, to again maximize the amount of action occurring and make use of the audio.

 SOUND HARDWARE  MIN. FPS  MAX. FPS  AVERAGE FPS
 No Sound Enabled  25  79.7  47
 On-Board Sound  28.3  89.3  47.5
 Audigy 2 ZS  22.7  73.3  39.6
 Audigy 2 + EAX  24  65.7  39.1

These figures are unusual and I couldn’t explain them to you if I tried, but here you are. I get the feeling Creative’s drivers aren’t terribly optimized for this game; that, or this game isn’t terribly optimized for Creative’s drivers. While the Audigy 2 does sound a bit better than the on-board, sound quality was never this game’s strong point, and it’s pretty clear you’re probably better off using your on-board sound unless you want to play this in surround sound.

WORLD OF WARCRAFT



Trying to figure out why nearly every other addictive substance is under such tight government control. (view large image)

I basically did laps around the Trade Quarter of the Undercity, looking in towards the banks.

 SOUND HARDWARE  MIN. FPS  MAX. FPS  AVERAGE FPS
 On-Board Sound  25  47  37.1
 Audigy 2 ZS  23.7  49.6  34.9

This game I’d actually put these figures within the margin of error. It’s absurdly hard to reproduce benchmarks in World of Warcraft, especially given how populous the game is. I will say that the improvement in sound quality from the Audigy 2 ZS is also not hugely notable here.

OVERALL

As I said in the introduction to this section, the Audigy 2 ZS is definitely hardware for gamers. They’re the subset of users that will see the most benefit from using this card, and for them, the investment may be worth it.


IN PRACTICE – MISC.

Recording

If you’re ever planning on recording any sound, congratulations on your new Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS. I’ve found this is an area where on-board audio hardware tends to be sorely lacking; I got a lot of noise across the channel recording on mine. The Audigy 2, however, provides notably clear, rich audio. It’s the difference between clean and dirty here.

DVD

Again, the Audigy 2 brings up quality here a bit, but if you’re stuck on two channels the difference isn’t going to be terribly pronounced if at all noticeable. It does decode a variety of sound formats, though, like Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS, and its THX certification makes it a good candidate for a portable home theatre laptop (is that even possible?).


CONCLUSION

To be frank, the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS is more often than not underwhelming. Uneducated ears and budget hardware aren’t going to see a whole lot of help from it except where gaming is concerned. Worse still, the irritating set up, mediocre benchmarking (I yearn for the halcyon days of my nVidia SoundStorm), and general load of crap the thing plunks down in your system and your system tray make it a bit of a nuisaince.

Unfortunately, for many of us it’s going to be a necessary evil. As I said earlier in this article, it’s not hard to be best in class when you’re the only competitor. While there are alternatives to it, none are as easily found in retail, and you wouldn’t really know they existed unless someone told you where to find them (for example, NewEgg). More than that, none of the competition really has quite the complete feature set of the Audigy 2 ZS.

Am I happy with my purchase? Only when I fire up Doom 3, Quake 4, or have to do some recording, really. Beyond that, it doesn’t seem to be offering a whole lot above my miserable integrated audio. I’ve had a strong bias against Creative products for a long time and unfortunately it wasn’t mitigated very much this time around. Their site is at least as pitiful as Sony’s in regards to both navigation and actually getting the software you need.

But when you do finally get it running, there are benefits. There’s the seemingly endless feature set which is admittedly fairly remarkable given the size of a Sound Blaster Audigy 2 PCI card. And there’s no replacement for having a good equalizer handy.

I recommend the Audigy 2 ZS with caution. This is really only going to be of use to hardcore audiophiles, gamers, and people who need to do audio work on their notebooks. For everyone else, the middling improvement in audio quality at best just doesn’t make the Audigy 2 ZS a worthwhile investment.

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