It will hardly be any news for our readers if I were to state that the notebook industry has been flourishing for the last couple of years. Notebooks have approached desktop systems in terms of functionality and performance and, what is very important, price. Many users have replaced their desktop PCs with notebooks, using them for work as well as for entertainment like listening to music, watching movies and playing games.
But still the main feature of notebooks, their portability, restraints them in some areas, especially when it comes to audio. Integrated audio codecs have improved recently in notebooks as well as in desktop PCs, but most notebook makers habitually limit their products with just the basic audio functionality. For example, notebooks with a line audio input are rather scarce on the market, not to mention support of multi-channel speaker systems of 5.1 and 7.1 formats. All you usually have is just a headphones output, a microphone input and, in some cases, an optical digital output. Any advanced features are missing, too. The maximum you have is software EAX 2.0 support that eats up a good dozen of frames per second in your favorite 3D games.
The audio quality of the integrated sound in notebooks is another point of concern. In those rare cases when you hear noise in your headphones after you’ve attached them to your desktop mainboard, it is a sign of poor integration of the AC’97 codec. But the component density is much higher with notebooks, so there is a higher chance of your hearing some unwanted sounds. Then, a high level of harmonic and other distortions doesn’t allow speaking about notebook’s integrated sound in terms of “clear” and “transparent”. You don’t generally notice these defects just because of the low quality of the integrated speakers, but as soon as you attach a high-quality speaker system or headphones, these deficiencies become too apparent to be ignored.
These things considered, advanced notebook-oriented audio solutions are not a luxury but a necessity for all who use their notebook as an all-purpose machine and are not satisfied with bad sound. This problem is not so easily solved, however, as with desktop PCs. You can’t plug in a standalone PCI audio card into your notebook and the choice has been limited with external cards connected via USB or FireWire interfaces. I won’t talk about them too much but will just single out the basic drawbacks of such devices: high CPU load at playback/recording and a considerable performance hit in games due to software-based 3D sound positioning; the dimensions of an external device limit its portability; some models require a separate power adapter.
But recently there has appeared an alternative to USB devices. It is SoundBlaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook from Creative, an audio card with a PCMCIA interface.