Reviewed: November 10, 2003
Type: Sound Card
Inside the Box
- Creative Media Source® Go!
- Creative Media Source® Organizer
- Creative Media Source® Player
- Creative Audio Stream Recorder 2
- Creative Audio HQ
- Creative Diagnostics
- Creative MiniDisc Center
- Creative WaveStudio®
- Creative Restore Default
- Creative Speaker Calibrator
- Creative SoundFont Bank Manager
- Creative Surround Mixer
- Creative Speaker Settings
- Creative MediaSource DVD-Audio Player
- Creative EAX Music Console
- Creative Graphic Equalizer
- THX Setup Console
- EAX ADVANCED HD
- Dolby Digital® EX
- DTS-ES Extended Surround
As computer games continue to evolve they are quickly approaching the same level of quality as mainstream theatrical productions, both in visual and sound presentation. It’s not uncommon to see just about every game released today to feature some sort of advanced 3D sound presentation whether it be Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS, or the ever-popular EAX.
Back in the late 90’s Creative Labs introduced EAX technology to go up against the other emerging standard of the time, A3D. The battle didn’t last long and EAX rose from the rubble as the undisputed winner. Over the years the EAX technology has been tweaked and improved upon to give gamers the ultimate in 3D audio immersion. Today’s new EAX 4.0 HD standard supports incredible 3D spatial sound with up to 8 channels across a vast array of supported industry formats.
The Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum surround system from Creative Labs, is the latest and most advanced sound card in Creative Labs ongoing quest to give PC owners the ultimate home theater experience. The new ZS comes in three variations all based around the same core audio card with the extra features making up the main differences. The Platinum version is the “middle version” coming with the Internal I/O drive not found on the basic version. The high-end version, the Platinum Pro, comes with an external I/O allowing the power-user all sorts of creative freedom.
The Audigy 2 ZS is a 24-bit, 8 channel audio card with an unprecedented 108dB SNR for crystal clear audio presentation that will literally surround you in sounds. Most of you who are into the DVD scene will already know about 5.1 surround whether it be Dolby Digital or DTS. There are also EX versions of both formats that take the technology to a 6.1 level adding an additional rear-center channel. 7.1 surround is the latest in technology offering side channels to smooth the 3D transition from front to rear.
Note: To get the ultimate performance from this card you are going to need supported 7.1 speakers. Please refer to our companion product review for the Inspire T7700 for additional information on 7.1 speaker systems.
Installation - 9
Installing the Audigy 2 ZS Platinum is a bit more complicated than your typical sound card due to the Internal I/O Drive. This unit fits into any available 5” drive bay then connects to the sound card with a special cable. This front panel offers analog stereo connectors for four channel input, optical and coaxial digital I/O, MIDI I/O, microphone with gain control, headphone with volume control, and a second 1394 FireWire® port. Admittedly, for most casual gamers, this is probably a luxury that most of us don’t need and will never use, which is why they have the non-Platinum bare bones edition of this card.
Before installing the new sound card it is highly recommended that you remove your existing sound card and reboot without it then remove any existing Creative Labs drivers, software, and directories. This will avoid any possible confusion or glitches when the new software gets installed. The new card will take the place of any existing card or if you are replacing on-board audio simply disable that feature in your CMOS and plug the ZS into any available PCI slot.
When you restart your computer Windows will detect the new hardware and prompt you for drivers. Run the installation CD to install those drivers as well as a bevy of software tools and demos that will allow you to configure the card, speakers, and then show off your incredible new sound card.
Aesthetics - 8
Normally I would remove this category from what is traditionally an internal piece of hardware but since the Platinum does feature the I/O Drive I am compelled to tell you just how cool this faceplate actually is. It comes in black with a white replacement panel and knobs. The ports are color-coded and trimmed in gold. It’s a very attractive piece of hardware that will give your PC a high-tech look and impress your friends. All it needs are some flashing lights.
The ZS Platinum also comes with a nifty little remote control (wireless) that you can use to adjust the volume or control any of the functions found on the faceplate. Again, this seemed a little extravagant since I seldom use my PC from a distance that I cannot reach by hand, but I supposed if you are using your PC as part of a home theater then this could be a very useful device.
Durability - 10
There’s not much to break in this package, especially once you have it all installed. The faceplate has two moving knobs and the rest is all input jacks. The remote is about the size and shape of a cell phone and you’ll have a better chance of losing it before you break it.
Performance - 10
As you can guess, the performance of any sound card is going to be directly related to the source material driving it. For the purposes of this review we tested the Audigy 2 ZS with some of the latest game and movie titles that make use of 7.1 technology. To experience these wonderful sounds we hooked up the Inspire T7700 8-channel speaker system.
The first thing we fired up was Activision’s Call of Duty, arguably the best sound gaming currently available and only one of a very few that support the new 7.1 EAX surround. Prior to the Audigy 2 ZS I had a normal Audigy Gamer card in my test PC. The difference literally blew me out of my chair. The new EAX 4.0 HD offers a spatial quality that words cannot begin to describe. Running across the battlefield I was surround by gunfire, explosions, soldiers yelling, planes roaring by overhead – there was just so much sound going on at so many levels and it was all layered and positioned perfectly.
Previously, in 3D games, there was a noticeable “audio jump” when you spun your character around and the sound shifted from front to rear channels. Now, the panning not only shifts from front to side to rear, but the new EAX technology also adjusts the volume of each channel to make these transition perfectly seamless.
We tested some other titles like the new Jedi Academy, TRON 2.0 and an advance copy of Deus Ex 2: Invisible War. These games make the most of the new EAX 4.0 HD standard and really showed off the true power and potential of this exciting new sound technology. Even on games that don’t support 7.1 the CMSS technology does a fantastic job of upmixing the source material and outputting it to all 8 channels.
Just to be thorough I popped in a few DVD’s including Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Lord of the Rings, and the new Indiana Jones Trilogy. These movies sounded phenomenal and prove conclusively that a well-equipped PC can rival the most expensive home theater rig.
Value - 10
True audiophiles will probably want to look at the Audigy 2 Platinum Pro package for $250 with its fancy external I/O drive while the basic gamer will have no problem dropping $100 for the basic package. Somewhere in the middle there is a target audience that will find the Audigy 2 ZS Platinum and its Internal I/O Drive quite useful and the $150 price very reasonable. Considering the rich and amazing sound quality and full support for just about every industry standard currently being used, this is the last sound card you will need to buy for a long time.
And if quality hardware isn't enough Creative Labs has packaged in enough software to choke your hard drive including two complete games; Lara Croft Tomb Raider : The Angel Of Darkness and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield that are fully enhanced for EAX Advanced/HD effects and really show off the power of this card in a gaming environment.
Overall – 10
Whether you are looking for the ultimate in audio immersion in your games or just want to enjoy DVD’s in all their glory on you PC you won’t find a better sound card that offers 7.1 capabilities in this price range. This is the ultimate in sound technology and when combined with a set of 7.1 speakers your won’t believe your ears. Creative Labs is even offering some attractive bundles that include both the sound card and speakers.
Some of you might not think 7.1 surround is that big of a deal but until you actually hear the Audigy 2 ZS Platinum in action you can’t possibly understand how much this extra dimension really adds to the immersion in a game or movie. With more than 400 existing games that support 3D sound and more games and movies being released every week you can’t afford not to get this card and start listening to your multimedia entertainment the way it was meant to be heard.