Creative SB Audigy 2 ZS Notebook: Serious Audio for Portable Systems

Take a look at a great solution that would bring high-end sound to your laptop. Beside its compact form-factor, it features the highest playback/recording quality, excellent performance in games, and compatibility with sound-recording software and media players. Read more about such a winning features combination of this product in our detailed review.

by Vasily Melnik
08/31/2005 | 03:20 PM

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.

An Engineering Masterpiece

If you compare visually an Audigy 2 ZS card for the PCI bus with this PCMCIA card, you may get a vague feeling of being deceived. You realize at first sight that there’s no chance to put all the components of the PCI card into this small case. The EMU10K2 processor alone would take up a quarter of the available space. So, is this miniature device really worth our time?

In fact, it is! For you to believe this, too, I am offering you its specification as compared with other Creative cards among which I also included the well-known Audigy 2 ZS. I marked in red some things I consider the most important.

So, the PCMCIA-interfaced Audigy 2 ZS Notebook card is the only notebook-oriented solution from Creative to support EAX 4.0 Advanced HD (for gamers) and ASIO 2.0 (for musicians). Its capabilities for organizing a home theater are officially confirmed with THX certification. In fact, this audio card is no worse than the PCI-interfaced Audigy 2 ZS in characteristics, at least the manufacturer claims so. Let’s see how it performs in practice.

Closer Look at the Device and Accessories

The case of this PCMCIA card is sealed, so its internals remained a mystery to me. On the outside, there are two mini-jack connectors (headphones output and line/microphone input) combined with optical SPDIF output and input, respectively. The special connector between them can take in a cable for connecting the card to 5.1 and higher speaker systems. To attach the latter you have to use a non-standard four-conductor mini-jack; this is a peculiar feature of all audio cards from Creative that support 5.1 and higher speaker systems.

Besides the card and the above-mentioned cable, the box includes a pouch for the device, rather good ear-phones, a user’s manual, a DVD Audio disc, and CDs with drivers and game demos.

There is also a paper sheet that informs you that the notebook’s integrated audio system won’t work if you use the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook (but the new version of the Feature Mode Selection utility permits you to use the integrated audio alongside with the Audigy) and describes how you should extract the card from the slot (you should first run the Safely Remove Hardware utility).

The software pack from Creative hasn’t changed much since the release of the Audigy 2 ZS, so you can refer to our previous reviews for details about it. But now that we deal with a PCMCIA device, the software pack includes one new utility which will be described in the next section.

Feature Mode Selection Utility

Evidently at the users’ requests, this utility allows using the notebook’s own speakers to reproduce sound through the integrated codec, but this is not its main function. The user’s manual says that the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook audio card has two operational modes: Standard Feature Mode and Advanced Feature Mode. The advanced mode offers you the full set of functions like hardware EAX Advanced HD acceleration and support of high-resolution formats, but the card needs a lot of the PCMCIA bus bandwidth in this mode. The standard mode gives you just the basic functions (formats up to 24bits/48kHz and software EAX Advanced HD effects), but required less resources.

The following table shows how the two operational modes of the card differ between each other:

The user’s manual says the only reason for you to use the standard mode may be problems with the PCMCIA controller in the advanced mode and recommends the latter mode for most situations. But the mentioned problems do arise sometimes and I have to dwell upon this issue a little more.

PCMCIA-Audio and Compatibility

If you are interested in computer audio solutions, you are probably aware that audio cards for the PCMCIA bus are rather rare. As far as I know, only Echo makes such products, besides Creative. There are much more notebook makers in this world, so some compatibility problems are unavoidable at times.

The obvious problem is physical incompatibility. Although such parameters should be standardized, the PCMCIA slot is placed deeper in some notebooks than in others. Creative, however, reacted quickly to users complaining about the card not reaching the pins in the slot and began to produce the card in a longer case.

However, other kinds of problems proved to be more serious and the most disturbing fact for Creative is that it’s not wholly in the company’s power to correct them. When it comes to PCI devices, it is most often the device manufacturer who is responsible for most of the arising troubles. In case of PCMCIA peripherals, the PCMCIA controller, an intermediary between the device and the PCI bus, may become a weak link.

You can refer to the compatibility section of the Creative website to check what PCMCIA controllers may cause problems with Audigy 2 ZS Notebook. It is rather a lengthy list, considering that there are not so many companies that make such controllers:

The problems show up as clicks, distortions and faltering reproduction and make it impossible to work with the card normally. I encountered such problems on an MSI M630 notebook which was equipped with an ENE CB-1410 controller. By the way, the audio card from Echo also has compatibility problems with ENE controllers and the Echo website explicitly blames ENE on this point.

You should be aware that this controller is quite popular among notebook makers, being used in many models from HP, Dell, Acer and other renowned brands. So it is no wonder that the “PCMCIA Sound Blaster” topic is a popular and long one on Creative forums, chronicling the fight of notebook users with this incompatibility problem. It reads as a thrilling detective story, I should say.

As for me, I managed to make the ENE CB-1410 controller and the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook card work together properly by doing some research work and performing some magic rites. Besides updating the card’s and controller’s drivers (to version 5.1.2600.1011), I used the version 2.3 PCI Latency Tool to manually set up latencies for PCI devices.

By default, the controller and the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook card have zero latencies. When I set them at 16 and 32 for the controller and card, respectively (the numbers were found experimentally), the distortions were gone and the card began to work normally, allowing me to perform my tests. I don’t say this is a universal cure, though, because some users have reported that these measures haven’t helped them to solve the problem.

As for other PCMCIA controllers (not in the “black list”), I have no complaints about them at all. So, I can only express my regrets that Creative’s reputation is somewhat blemished because of problems the company seems to have no power to correct.

It would also be wise for you to check the card with your notebook before the purchase or at least make sure which PCMCIA controller is installed in your system. Also note that when the PCMCIA slot is located close to the CPU cooler, the audio card may get too hot at work. I could hardly hold it in my hands, so hot was the metal case of the device.

P.S. After I’ve done with my tests, I checked the card in other notebooks with different PCMCIA controllers. The same compatibility problems appeared on an Intel Centrino platform with a Texas Instruments 1410 Cardbus controller. In this case I couldn’t achieve anything with the PCI Latency Tool, but as I accidentally found out, the errors in reproduction vanished when an external USB drive was attached to the notebook’s USB port!

In other two notebooks the card worked normally. So, the above-described problems are quite serious and affect many modern notebook models, thus reducing the appeal of the card.

Performance

Sound Quality

It may seem we cannot expect a sound of good quality from so small a form-factor, but I knew I was wrong as soon as I listened to this card in my headphones. The card produces a transparent sound giving a new feel to compositions you seemed to know everything about and combining this with power and drive, especially in the low-frequency range. If your speaker system is not high quality, you can do frequency correction in a number of ways, from the Bass and Treble sliders in the Surround Mixer and the Bass Boost tab in the Speaker Settings panel to the 7-band Graphic Equalizer. The THX Setup Console is going to be helpful, too, in setting up a multi-channel speaker system.

So, the sound of the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook is subjectively no worse than that of the PCI card Audigy 2 ZS. In other words, the notebook version of this audio card sounds as good as the desktop one.

SpectraLAB Results

As usual, I checked the card’s analog circuit (Line Out – Line In) using the SpectraLab suite. I didn’t limit myself with 16-bit formats, but included all popular combinations of resolution and sample frequency. The results are rather interesting, especially for the 16bits/48kHz format, and even impressive if you compare them to the performance of an integrated AC’97 codec from Realtek.


THD (total harmonic distortion) and IMD (intermodulation distortion) spectrograms
taken in Advanced Feature Mode, 16-bit/44kHz


THD and IMD spectrograms taken in Advanced Feature Mode, 16-bit/48kHz


THD and IMD spectrograms taken in Advanced Feature Mode, 24-bit/48kHz


THD and IMD spectrograms taken in Advanced Feature Mode, 24-bit/96kHz


THD and IMD spectrograms taken in Advanced Feature Mode, 24-bit/192kHz


THD and IMD spectrograms taken in Standard Feature Mode, 16-bit/44kHz


THD and IMD spectrograms taken in Standard Feature Mode, 16-bit/48kHz


THD and IMD spectrograms taken in Standard Feature Mode, 24-bit/48kHz


For comparison:
THD and IMD spectrograms taken from Realtek AC’97 (ALC850) codec, 16-bit/48kHz

The most interesting thing is that the card sounds differently in its two operational modes. This is confirmed by the measurements and can also be heard by the ear: the results for the Standard Feature mode are much worse than for the Advanced Feature mode, even though they are still better than the results of the integrated audio codec. I am really perplexed at this fact. The same digital-to-analog converter must be used in both modes, so where could this discrepancy come from?

Anyway, the card is at its best in the Advanced mode and reproducing 16bit/48kHz audio: a record 101.2dB signal-to-noise ratio and minimal THD (total harmonic distortion) and IMD (intermodulation distortion) values. So I recommend you to use this format for the most accurate reproduction of musical compositions. You can find appropriate plug-ins for all popular media players.

Performance in Real Applications

I launched Unreal Tournament 2004 to see how hardware 3D sound positioning as performed by the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook card affect the performance of the system. The two operational modes of the card are compared with the results of an integrated AC’97 codec from Realtek and of a PCI Audigy 2 ZS card (this card was tested on another computer, so the numbers should not be compared directly).

The results of the audio subsystem tests from 3DMark03 are quite interesting, too:

As you can see, you have an excellent performance at hardware effect processing in the Advanced Feature mode and a rather average performance at software processing in the Standard mode. Don’t also forget that the Standard mode does not support EAX 4.0 Advanced HD, but only the previous version (3.0) also known as EAX Advanced HD. Thus, the Standard Feature mode is virtually useless for gaming purposes, just like it is for high-quality reproduction.

Sound Recording

I decided to discuss this point at more length than we usually do because there is currently a high demand for portable mobile studios in the music world. And what could suit better for this purpose than a high-performance notebook equipped with a high-quality audio card?

Of course, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook cannot be regarded as a professional tool for serious projects since it is only an all-purpose consumer product with a single stereo input. Yet it can be indispensable in home studios, which are so popular today, exactly because it is a multi-purpose audio card.

A musician or a sound producer would want the following from a home-studio audio card:

The Audigy 2 ZS Notebook meets the first requirement as you have seen above. The effects are also present. Although I find the interface of the EAX Control Panel inconvenient, you can perform such basic tasks as applying compression, filters and reverberation to the sound from the line/microphone input.

As for ASIO 2.0, I decided to check its support in Steinberg Cubase SX 3.0.

The card’s driver offers the user several ASIO devices, two of which (Creative ASIO and SB Audigy 2 ASIO – I don’t know for sure what is the difference between these two) support the 16-bit/96kHz format. To work with the popular 24-bit/48kHz format, which is a compromise between speed and recording quality, you have to use the SB Audigy 2 ASIO driver. I could use ASIO Direct Monitoring at that and the system worked normally and recorded without drop-outs at a 2ms delay. It is a really excellent result! The same was observed with the rest of the formats, too.

Some music professionals may be disappointed at the lack of MIDI ports on the card, but I don’t think it is a serious drawback. Most MIDI keyboards for home studios can connect to the computer via a USB port. As for controlling external sound-processing devices using the MIDI interface, you can use third-party gadgets, like M-Audio’s MIDI-to-USB module, for example.

So, I can’t find any obstacles to using this audio card in a portable notebook-based sound-recording studio for home users. The Audigy 2 ZS Notebook plays this role quite well.

Conclusion

The Audigy 2 ZS Notebook audio card plays all its intended roles well. Beside its compact form-factor, it features a highest playback/recording quality in the Advanced Feature mode, excellent performance in games, and compatibility with sound-recording software, media players and so on. As far as I know, no other audio device for notebooks can boast such a winning combination of features.

That said, the cost of a sample of this card (about $100 in retail) doesn’t seem too high, especially for those people who value good sound and are not satisfied with the limitations of the integrated sound in their notebooks. But you should also add the cost of about 50MB of your Internet traffic – this is the total of driver (~25MB), Feature Mode Selection (~7MB) and other software updates we recommend you to download from the Creative Support site right after the purchase.

The downside of this product is its limited compatibility with PCMCIA controllers. My personal statistics isn’t very comforting: the card would not work normally in the Advanced Feature mode with two out of four notebooks I tried it with and I had to resort to special and non-obvious methods to solve that compatibility problem.

So, my advice for all who want to buy this card is check it on the spot with your particular notebook in the Advanced Feature mode or at least make sure you can return it to the shop if the incompatibility problem arises. Even though I managed to make the card work even on a notebook with a “black list” controller, I had to risk programming PCI devices at a low level with a third-party utility and set up their latencies manually after each reboot to make the card and the controller work together. This is unacceptable, of course.

I hope, however, that Creative will collaborate with PCMCIA controller makers to solve this single serious problem of the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook card in near future.