Creative SoundBlaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook Review

The SoundBlaster Audigy 2 soundcard is an exceptional piece of hardware for home computers. For many years now Creative have been in the soundcard market and the Audigy 2 made way for technologies for games, music and movies.

For laptop owners the built in soundcards are very basic compared to their desktop equivalents. With technologies like 24-bit playback and recording, EAX enhancement for games and 7.1 channel surround, notebooks had to contend with the 2 channel 16-bit on board sound. One way around it is using the USB port on the notebook with USB soundcards as there are many USB devices on the market including a few from Creative themselves, however it is not always ideal to have an external device to carry around with you.

Recently Creative have released the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook version which instead of using the USB port, fits into your notebooks PCMCIA slot. By using this expansion port not only do you have a nice tidy solution for your audio product, but you also add many additional features. The only thing that will be visible is the small connection ports block which is only a minor niggle and indeed only pokes out the side by a small amount.

As a musician one of the main reasons you are likely to invest in this type of card is for the recording benefits it provides. If you wish to publish or store your music on to Audio CD be it from your Yamaha TYROS or other keyboard and also wish to edit the recorded wave file, you need the use of a computer with a good soundcard to capture the information as cleanly and crisply as possible to create the most professionally sounding recording possible. One of the problems using a desktop machine is that with all the fast processors and other hardware located in one box, interference can occur distorting the quality of your recordings. This can be mainly due to the fact that personal computers have so many fans to cool down your case causing background noise. Using the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook with a laptop computer, I was very pleased to see very little background noise when using an analog connection. This was a great improvement on my desktop machine could provide which also has an internal Audigy 2 PCI soundcard.

So for sharing or storing your cherished works, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook already provides a great way of connecting your Yamaha keyboard and laptop together to store, edit and publish. If this was not enough to tempt you into considering this device, you also can record in 24-bit quality which adds a great depth of information which is perfect for editing and using new codecs such as Windows Media Audio Technologies to publish in this new 24-bit format on the internet to share on a far greater scale. On Yamaha Personal Keyboard Owner we now use this device and 24-bit/96kHz recording on many of our sound captures to present our visitors a great example of how Yamaha keyboards perform. Bundled with the card is a good little sound editor and in most circumstances should suffice for simple editing and recording. Using the software included you can record in 24-bit/96kHz if you so wish and even accomplish basic editing such as normalizing, fading etc.

As for inputs and outputs, for such a small device and I mean really ‘small’, there are plenty of ports to use. To start with directly on the card you have 2 main connections. These are actually shared depending on how you wish to use the card. For example there is one main input port that supports all these: optical-in, line-in, mic-in. Then one output port that supports optical-out and line-out. To take advantage of the 7.1 surround or maybe even 5.1 surround which is much more common for linking to surround units via analog cables, you get an extra cable which splits into three outputs. For such a small device you can only grin at the amount of options you are given.

On receiving this card which is still as I write this very early in its life, the drivers are therefore still quite early as well. There are some problems with this card which is currently being investigated by Creative which they hope will be eliminated with a future driver release. The problem incurred is a popping noise when using some of the more advanced features of the card. Personally the popping is not by any means extreme and only occurs rarely, however when it is apparent it is very annoying and I hope a fix is released shortly. Other problems include compatibility issues. With all the advanced features of the PCMCIA card, this requires a large use of the internal workings of your notebook. Bandwidth is required in the bucket load to get the 24-bit quality working and EAX effects for your games. You will need to verify before purchasing your card what your laptop is capable of by checking the Creative website to check the compatibility list. Although your card may work fine, you may not be able to access all the higher functions of the card depending on your laptop model, thankfully for this review my Dell Inspiron 8600 is capable of all the features and you even get a piece of software to measure your systems capability to be advised how capable your notebook is detailing which mode is best for the machine.

Recording is one thing, but what about playback? Well again this card will not let you down with its superb crisp sound reproduction, however if you use this PCMCIA card in your notebook, you will not be able to use your internal notebook speakers. They are disabled as soon as you enter the card as these are directly linked to the on board soundcard. Instead you will need to either hook up headphones or link to external speakers, which is preferable anyway as built in speakers on notebooks are very small and lack in sound amplification and range. Listening to movies in full surround, listening to mp3, wma, wav or any audio format, you will notice a huge improvement over the standard soundcard included with your notebook. There are surround like enhancements for any speaker specification called CMSS, however I would personally avoid this like the plague as for musicians the true sound is much more important then a virtual effect.

With providing support for 24-bit recording and playback, you also have the bonus of being able to play DVD Audio disks which include 24-bit recordings in stereo and multi-channel 5.1 surround. These disks are far richer then Audio CD’s and one day may even replace this format.

This card is also brilliant for playing games adding many effects and surround sound up to 7.1 (with the appropriate speakers), however for this site there is little need to cover this. To put it briefly games will be transformed in a very positive sense.

Specifications

High Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR) exceeding 104 dB using high linearity, low distortion 24-bit converters with resolutions of up to 192 kHz

  • Playback: 24-bit Digital-to-Analog conversion of digital sources at 96 kHz to analog 7.1 speaker output, 192kHz for Stereo DVD-A
  • Recording: 24-bit Analog-to-Digital conversion of stereo analog inputs at 96 kHz sample rate
  • Supports Sony/Philips Digital Interface (SPDIF) format of up to 24-bit/96 kHz quality at selectable sampling rate of 44.1, 48 or 96 kHz

Note: SPDIF output is not available during playback of protected digital audio contents authored with Microsoft DRM (Digital Rights Management) technology.

Audio Performance

Signal-to-noise Ratio (AES17, A-Weighted, 20kHz bandwidth) = 104dB (2V Rated Output)
Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise @ 1kHz (AES17) = 0.006% (2V Rated Output)
Frequency Response (+/-3dB, 24-bit/96kHz input) = <10Hz to 46kHz (2V Rated Output) * Some features and specification levels may be unavailable or limited by your notebook system configuration.

Conclusion

For musicians who wish to record their performances to store, share or edit, this PCMCIA card is ideal with its small size and feature packed design. A little research is required to check its compatibility with your notebook. At present there are some popping issues which will be fixed in a later driver release, however for the price and features, the SoundBlaster ZS Notebook is a great way of adding life to your laptops average sound capabilities.