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Good audio on a notebook. No, really!
Month Reviewed: February 2005
Verdict: 9 Kickass
In its search for fertile markets, Creative has finally tackled the last bastion of piss-pour audio: notebooks. Creative’s new Audigy 2 ZS Notebook offers notebook users a solution to the low-quality, buzz- and static-filled audio they’ve historically been subjected to.
The Audigy 2 ZS Notebook is pretty much what it sounds like: an Audigy 2 ZS miniaturized into a CardBus-enabled PC Card. And while it doesn’t exactly match the features of its desktop soundcard sibling, this external soundcard comes pretty close. The main difference is that the signal-to-noise ratio for the notebook version drops from 108dB to 104dB. It also lacks MIDI support and RCA SPDIF support.
You do, however, get all flavors of EAX—including the computational-heavy EAX 4 and true hardware acceleration of DirectSound3D. The card features two mini-jacks, one for headphones/2.1 speakers and the other for mic/line-in. Both pull double duty as optical SPDIF I/O ports, but optical functionality is automatically disabled if you’re playing DRM-protected content.
To get full 4.1, 5.1, and/or 7.1 support, you have to use a small dongle cable with a tri-mini-jack connector. Typically, PC Card dongles turn us off, but instead of cheaping out and forcing you to unplug and carry the dongle with you (and risk losing it), the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook allows you to simply unhook the dongle from the card and leave it home when you travel, using the onboard mini-jack instead.
Of course, the card will let you record in 24-bit, and it supports 24-bit/192kHz playback in stereo mode and 24-bit/96kHz playback in multichannel mode. Additionally, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook lets you play protected-content DVD Audio discs.
Most importantly, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook excels in the one area that notebooks are the worst at: audio fidelity. To test the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook, we installed it on a notebook with a RealTek ALC202 AC97 CODEC rated for 90dB and listened to high sample-rate sources. While the output from the ALC202 actually sounded pretty good for a notebook, it couldn’t compare with the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook, which offered so much more presence and resolution that it was easy for our ears to tell the two apart.
It’s important to note that this soundcard won’t improve the audio quality of your notebook speakers, which are usually hard-wired to an onboard soundcard. The Audigy 2 ZS Notebook is limited to headphone or external speaker use, which is just as well—you would be unable to hear the differences between your notebook’s onboard 16-bit audio and Creative’s 24-bit enhancement using speakers that are the size of a quarter.
We were concerned about the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook’s power consumption, so we threw our notebook on a watt meter to see if our power consumption increased when using it. With the card installed and the DSP for EAX effects enabled, we saw a slight increase in power consumption but probably not enough to make a noticeable impact on battery life.
This soundcard falls into a strange category. For people who only use their onboard speakers for DVD and music playback, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook makes no sense at all. But for gamers who want to add multichannel audio to a notebook, headphone users, and anyone who is disappointed in the recording capabilities of their laptop’s onboard audio, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook is a clear winner. --Gordon Mah Ung
+ George Costanza: High-fidelity audio in a notebook.
- George Michael: Why not 108dB? Should include a real carrying case, not Saran wrap.