- DVD audio support
- advanced 3D effects
- 6.1 surround
- on-board decoder and digital output
- advanced audio processing options
- FireWire port.
- Irritating splash screen
- unclear ports
- no DVD movie software.
Creative Labs has been at the forefront of practically every major development in sound card technology ever since it released the first Sound Blaster product. The Audigy 2 is the latest addition to Creative’s extensive product line-up, and promises improved audio performance for both the gamer and the audiophile.
Like the Audigy before it, the Audigy 2 offers an impressive range of features, but as you’d expect, adds some new options to tempt you into buying one. The most obvious of these is the support for DVD-Audio (DVD-A). Put simply, this means that the on-board DACs chipset can handle the 24-bit / 192 kHz data used by stereo DVD-A disks or 24-bit / 96 kHz for multi-channel DVD-A, and is the first PC-based product to do so. It’s a little ahead of the market in this as DVD-A has yet to achieve widespread market penetration and the target market remains relatively limited. However, this is likely to change as more of us own DVD players that provide DVD-A playback, so you’re buying a degree of future-proofing here -- assuming you want to use your PC as a playback device.
On top of this, the Audigy 2 claims an impressive signal to noise ratio of 106dB, as well as providing support for regular 2, 2.1 and 5.1 surround speaker setups and the new Dolby Digital EX 6.1 arrangement -- it adds an extra rear centre channel -- without the need for an external digital decoder. It also includes the FireWire port introduced by its predecessor, giving you network or device connection options that your PC may have previously lacked.
With three speaker ports, one line-in, one microphone, one digital output and a FireWire port all on a single backplate, there’s not much room left for the rarely used joystick port, which has now been relegated to a separate plate with an internal ribbon connection. Irritatingly, none of these gold-plated ports are colour coded, so it can be rather tricky finding the right connector that when you’re fumbling about under your desk.
MIDI musicians will appreciate the 64-voice polyphony of the Audigy 2’s integral hardware synthesiser, while gamers will look for the 3D audio effects provided by Creative’s much improved EAX Advanced HD, which now includes multiple environment effects, audio blending and more accurate reverb/reflection effects than before. They may also appreciate the inclusion of the full versions of Hitman 2 and Soldier of Fortune: Double Helix in the box, both of which use this popular 3D audio standard.
On top of these adult-rated titles, the Audigy 2 comes with a generous combination of feature demos, a DVD-A sample disk and the MediaSource application. As well as arranging and playing your MP3/WMA music collection, MediaSource also lets you rip to 320kbps MP3 or 160kbps WMA with online CDDB referral and CD burning, and of course file transfer to the Nomad Jukebox 3 via FireWire. It also lets you play back your DVD-A disks and apply EAX environment effects. More interesting are the two new tools, Smart Volume Management and Audio Clean Up. The former automatically evens out the volume levels between different tracks (very handy if your collection is taken from a variety of sources), while Audio Clean Up helps to take any hiss and crackle out of rips from vinyl or tape, assuming you want it to. A less welcome addition is the Creative splash screen and jingle on your Windows boot-up – just imagine what it would be like if every component in your PC did this. The software bundle is also missing a DVD movie player, which will increase the overall price if you need one.
Software aside, the performance of the Audigy 2 is superb. Even if you don’t have the ear to spot the difference between DVD-A and regular CD audio, you’ll certainly appreciate the total absence of any hiss or crackles from this sound card’s output. Where the previous SBLive! card in our rather noisy test PC would pick up crosstalk from the hard drives and CD-ROMs, the Audigy 2’s signal was clean and crisp in all circumstances. Games and DVDs will both benefit from the surround sound support, while musicians and audiophiles will appreciate the 24-bit / 192 kHz support for playback and recording, and may also be interested in the Audigy 2 Platinum which includes the internal connector bay (£153.18 ex. VAT).
Admittedly, the PC is not an ideal platform for audio playback (although rumours of a silent, liquid-cooled product in development at Creative may change this), and the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 is an expensive product. But if you have to have the best consumer sound card on the market, there’s no question which one it is right now.