Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro Sound Card: New Top Model Arrived!

We reviewed the latest top sound solution from Creative – a new Audigy 2 sound card. It supports eight-channel (7.1) speaker systems, has received the THX certificate, and, what’s most important, features the new application programming interface EAX 4.0 Advanced HD. Read more about it now!

by Sergey Samarin
01/07/2004 | 08:19 PM

As soon as we collected enough money for the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 Platinum eX audio card, announced in the spring of 2003 (see our article called Audigy2 Platinum eX: Top Sound Card from Creative), Creative came up with an update to the Sound Blaster family.

 

SoundBlaster Audigy 2 with the “ZS” index supports eight-channel (7.1) speaker systems, has received the THX certificate, and, what’s most important, features the new application programming interface EAX 4.0 Advanced HD. At the same time, the new family goes under the old “Audigy 2” trademark indicating that Creative doesn’t consider the new functions as anything revolutionary. I confess I thought this review would be about an Audigy 3; the new API and the eight-channel audio support would justify the change of the generation number. So the Audigy 2 ZS is a face-lift upgrade, which only slightly affected the hardware part of the card; you will see the changes shortly. But let’s be systematic and discuss the product features one by one.

Product Features and Accessories

So we’ve got a top-end model called Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro (they come up with ever longer names!). These are the most important characteristics from the product specification list:

And these are the things you find in the package together with the card:

Note that in the package of the Platinum eX, I found eight software CD discs. Now the ZS Platinum Pro box contained only five of them:

Technical Characteristics

The following table lists the technical characteristics of the new audio card in contrast to other products from the Sound Blaster family.

 

Sound Blaster Live! 5.1

Sound Blaster Audigy LS

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro

Audio Quality

Sound Blaster 24-bit ADVANCED HD Quality

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR)

90dB

100dB

108dB

108dB

108dB

Max. Audio Resolution Playback & Quality

16-bit/48kHz
16-bit CD-Quality

24-bit/96kHz
24-bit CD-Quality

24-bit/192kHz in Stereo
24-bit/96kHz in 5.1 DVD-Audio Quality

Max. Recording / Sampling Rate

16-bit/48kHz

24-bit/96kHz

DACs

AC'97

24-bit/96kHz

24-bit/192kHz

As you see, the declared signal-to-noise ratio for the Audigy 2 ZS series is 108dB already. Note that the SNR parameter for the Platinum eX was 2dB lower (106dB). It’s possible to improve this parameter by using high-quality converters, so I am eager to look for any changes in the electronic stuffing of the card (see the PCB Design section of this review).

 

Sound Blaster Live! 5.1

Sound Blaster Audigy LS

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro

Gaming

EAX

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

EAX ADVANCED HD

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

EAX 4.0 ADVANCED HD*

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Hardware Acceleration of EAX &/or EAX ADVANCED HD

Yes

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

No. of Audio Environment(s) Processed Simultaneously*

1

1

>1*

>1*

>1*

Max. No. of 3D Voices

32

64

64

64

64

Max. Channels in 3D Positional Audio

5.1

5.1

7.1

7.1

7.1

PC-to-PC Gaming with FireWire

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Speaker Calibration for Optimal 3D Positional Audio

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes


* Require driver or software update

The new Audigy provides the gamers with the support of the new API – EAX 4.0 Advanced HD. The owners of the previous Audigy 2 versions are not behind the times: driver and software updates are waiting for you at the Creative technical support page. Another most important thing is the support of eight-channel speaker systems, and all new games from renowned developers are supposed to featuer three-dimensional positioning of the sound sources among eight channels. The FireWire port is available in the new models, too, and serves gaming needs in the first hand. You can use it to connect two computers for a game of your favorite simulator.

 

Sound Blaster Live! 5.1

Sound Blaster Audigy LS

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro

Music Playback / Music Creation

Integrated Digital Music Player

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Integrated Digital Music Ripping (in Player) - MP3 & WMA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

True Bit Accurate Recording w/o SRC

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Advanced Resolution DVD-Audio Playback

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

EAX Music Enhancements

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

EAX Effects

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

CMSS 3D Upmixing of Stereo to Multi-Channels

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Audio Clean-up

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Smart Volume Management (SVM)

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Karaoke

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Multi-Channel Graphic Equalizer

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Bass Boost

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Virtual Surround over 2 Channel or Headphones

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Full Support for Windows Media 9 24-bit/96kHz 5.1 content

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

ASIO Low Latency Multi-Track Recording Support (16-bit/48kHz)

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

ASIO 2.0 Low Latency Multi-Track Recording Support (24-bit/96kHz)

NA

NA

NA

NA

Yes

ASIO 2.0 Direct Monitoring

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

For an audiophile, the Audigy 2 ZS offers karaoke and a graphics equalizer. Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro also supports ASIO 2.0, but that’s rather for professional musicians.

 

Sound Blaster Live! 5.1

Sound Blaster Audigy LS

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro

Movies

THX Certification

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

THX Setup Console

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Dolby Digital 5.1 Playback

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Dolby Digital EX 6.1 Playback

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

DTS-ES 6.1 Playback

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

All ZS series sound cards are THX-certified. The certification is the recognition of their quality reproduction of DVD audio formats. Note also two new features: DTS-ES 6.1 support and a special THX control panel. I will discuss them in detail shortly.

 

Sound Blaster Live! 5.1

Sound Blaster Audigy LS

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro

Connectivity

Front-Panel Audio Connectivity

NA

NA

NA

Yes

External I/O Module

GamePort/Joystick Port

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

High Speed FireWire port

NA

NA

Yes

Yes

Yes

Analog Speakers Support

Headphone, 2.1, 4.1, 5.1

Headphone, 2.1, 4.1, 5.1, 6.1, 7.1

Digital Speakers Support

Headphone, 2.1, 4.1, 5.1

Headphone, 2.1, 4.1, 5.1,
24-bit/96kHz speakers

As for communicative capabilities of the new card, Creative continues with its support of the legacy joystick port (many other sound card manufacturers consider it obsolete). Even the most advanced model, the Platinum Pro, supports the game port and comes with an appropriate bracket. Of course, this port is only necessary for people who still have old game manipulators. If you’ve got a modern device, you don’t have to install the bracket at all.

PCB Design

ZS Platinum Pro features a PCB of almost the same size as that of Platinum eX. It’s made of umber fiber-glass plastic and features gold connectors (for better electric conductivity). Colored connectors (and this is a requirement for a sound card that wants to comply with the Microsoft specification) are for simpler models. You can color-code the connectors of the ZS Platinum Pro yourself using the special stickers thoughtfully put into the package by the manufacturer.

When reviewing the Platinum eX sound card, I criticized Creative for not having implemented internal auxiliary audio connectors in the card for connection of such devices as optical drives or TV-tuners. I guess I was not the only one who grumbled about this fact and Creative’s engineering team seems to have heard our calling. Now the Platinum Pro has an onboard analog audio input (AUX_IN) and a digital CD_SPDIF. That’s quite enough to satisfy a user like me :).

The bracket of the card carries:

Internal connectors include:

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS features a potent digital signal processor - CA0102-ICT (Platinum eX has a CA0102-IAT chip). All the analog stuff is deposited in the I/O unit. That’s the same solution as we saw on the previous “top model”. The PCB only carries an eight-channel DAC - Cirrus Logic CS4382 (192kHz/24bit) and an additional converter from SigmaTEL aka STAC9721T (Platinum eX doesn’t have this chip).


Cirrus Logic CS4382 DAC is responsible for the analog outputs of the sound card

The CS4382 DAC:

By the way, eight-channel speaker systems should be only attached to the analog outputs of the card. The digital output in the I/O unit can only work with 2.1 – 5.1 systems equipped with a digital input.

External I/O Unit Design

Creative traditionally supplies I/O units to the Platinum series of the Sound Blaster sound cards, which are the topmost products in the company’s menu today. Audigy 2 ZS Platinum comes with an internal I/O unit, while Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro features an external one.

The unit is intended to make it easier to connect audio peripherals and musical instruments to the audio tract of your PC. The length of the cable (1.8m) gives you enough freedom to place the unit beside the instrument, far from the system case. Well, Platinum Pro is targeted at musicians (the support of ASIO 2.0 in the 24bit/96kHz mode, which is available in this card only, stresses this exceptional mission of Platinum Pro, too), while Platinum (without “Pro”) is targeted as a solution for all other mainstream users.

The I/O unit from the Platinum Pro package looks very similar to the analogous unit from Platinum eX. It differs only in the label on the front panel. The thing is still made of black plastic with two silver insertions in the front and rear panels. The unit stands on four rubber “legs” to prevent it from sliding all over the desk. Our “autopsy” operation revealed that there is a massive metal bar inside the unit so that the plugged-in cables wouldn’t topple it over.


The metal bar at the bottom of the I/O unit prevents it
from toppling over

The front panel of the I/O unit carries the following connectors:


The front panel of the I/O unit

Besides the connectors, the front panel accommodates a digital volume control and a control for setting the microphone sensitivity. The stepping of the volume control is discrete, without a mechanical limitation to either side. The current volume level is indicated on the display.

There is a knob to activate the CMSS mode (Creative Multi Speaker Surround); it is located next to the window of the infrared receiver. Enabling this mode will imply virtualization of a standard stereo signal among the components of a multi-channel speaker system (that is a nice feature for listening to CD tracks or MP3 files).

The remote control unit has undergone some design changes, too. The new model, RM-1500, seems to be more elegant and handy. Its purpose remains the same, though. You can still control the sound card and the running applications from a distance.


RM-1500 remote control unit

There are three analog inputs in the I/O unit. The Line-in 1 connector is combined with a microphone input: you can switch between the two operational modes of the jack using the microphone level control. The Line-in 1 (Mic-in), Line-in 2 and headphones connectors are implemented as ordinary 6.3mm jacks, with the jack/mini-jack adapter included with the sound card. Line-in 3 is implemented with left and right channels set apart as two RCA connectors; it is intended for connection of such analog devices as TV-set, VCR, CD player and so on. The analog inputs are only found in the I/O unit, not on the sound card. The manufacturer preferred this solution because it allows reducing the effect of electromagnetic noises on the sensitive circuitry. Take a look at the snapshot below: the entire circuit board of the I/O unit is screened. The screen is soldered up to the board; you cannot remove it.


The circuit board of the I/O unit is covered
with a metal screen

As usual, Creative equips its I/O unit with a FireWire port. The controller itself resides on the PCB of the sound card from where it communicates across the AD_LINK 2 connector (the other connector, AD_LINK 1, is for attaching the I/O unit to the sound card). We’ve got a FireWire port in both front and rear panels. Besides the FireWire port and the third Line-in, the rear panel carries a coaxial input, a coaxial output and a composite digital output for certain speaker systems. We’ve got two full-size MIDI sockets here, too.


The rear panel of the I/O unit

The back panel of the I/O unit is equipped with:


The circuit board of the I/O unit with the
protective screen removed

The electronic stuffing of the unit hasn’t greatly changed since the times of Platinum eX. Creative put its stake on high-quality PCM1804 analog-to-digital converters from Texas Instruments. These converters, coupled with low-noise operational amplifiers, support the three analog inputs of the unit. The main characteristics of the PCM18704 include:


PCM1804 ADC from Texas Instruments


PCM1804 ensures low level of harmonic distortion

The scheme above indicates that there is very low level of harmonics when the signal peak is at 1kHz. This testifies to the high quality of the converter.

The characteristics of the digital-to-analog converter (the CS4392 chip from Cirrus Logic) match those of the PCM1804 ADC:


The flowchart for Cirrus Logic CS4392 DAC

As you see in the flowchart, CS4392 has circuitry for independent discrete control over the volume, which takes place before digital-to-analog conversion, and the volume can be changed with 1dB increment. It is implemented in practice via a digital level indicator on the front panel of the I/O unit.

Software Bundle from Creative

While Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro cannot boast any dramatic changes in its hardware (compared with Platinum eX), the software department of Creative did a much better job. Well Creative is known to be paying due attention to the quality of its own software. The release of a new product series is usually accompanied with a release of a revised software pack including support of numerous exclusive technologies. So I will only dwell upon the changes in the software since the previous versions.

So, the exclusive software bundle from Creative for Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro sound card includes the following components:


MediaSource Go! toolbar

For the user not to get strayed among the components, they are all grouped together in the MediaSource Go! toolbar.

Some of the card properties are set up from the Device Control AudioHQ panel. The window is divided into six pages:

The software pack from Creative now includes a ten-band (octave) graphical equalizer (I saw it first reviewing the Sound Blaster MP3+). Its interface looks very professional, save for the lack of such components as indication of clipping and adjustment of the volume by arrow keys (for better precision). But there are numerous presets with an option of creating your own ones.

The speaker system configuration window is divided into three topical sections:

The standard mixer has two sections: basic properties where you set up the desired levels for various inputs and outputs and advanced properties where you set up volumes of the speaker system components.

The THX Setup console is an independent application. This configuration tool is analogous to the Speaker settings window, but surpasses it in fine-tuning options. The console consists of two sections: Speaker Selection and Calibration. When in the first section, you choose the type of your speaker system, point at the central speaker (by defining its position relative to the monitor), test the attached equipment.

If you have some time to calibrate your audio environment, visit the Calibration section. You can set up precisely each speaker by entering its distance, level and angle with respect to the central one.

The EAX console is a repository of all audio surround settings, supported by the sound card. We’ve got five pages here:


This is the standard skin of the MediaSource Player

As you see, there are enough skins for the Creative MediaPlayer to satisfy anyone’s taste.

Performance

I tested SoundBlaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro sound card on not the most powerful system that was configured as follows:

To check out the performance drop experienced when we enable the sound, I ran Comanche 4 Demo and 3DMark03 (Sound Tests).

The diagram is indicative of the sound processor efficiency: it occupies very little system resources: the difference in fps between the two modes is negligible. When reviewing other Audigy models I saw practically the same picture. I think there is only one sound solution that can compete with the Audigy 2 in performance hit tests. It is the APU integrated into NVIDIA nForce2 chipset (see our article called Contemporary Integrated Sound Solutions: Storm is Coming).

The difference is noticeable in 3DMark03, especially in the test with 60 sounds.

Performance in SpectraLAB

To test the sound purity, I ran the SpectraLAB utility (version 4.32.17), which is none other but a FFT spectrum analyzer. This utility is shareware coming with a limited license for 30 days. You can download it from this site.

I explained the testing methodology in my previous articles, which you can find in our Multimedia section. During the tests I did my best to comply with Creative’s recommendations concerning sound card testing. The results below refer to the Line-out 1 – Line-in 3 circuit.


44,100Hz/16bit


Determining IMD at 44,100Hz/16bit


48,000Hz/16bit


Determining IMD at 48,000Hz/16bit

The table contains all obtained results:

Conclusion

Highs:

Lows:

Eight-channel sound cards from other manufacturers appeared as far back as the end of 2002, and we reviewed some most remarkable samples (the TerraTec Aureon 7.1 Space and the M-Audio Revolution 7.1). Creative was not rushing to announce a “new generation” product, waiting for its speaker system department to get ready first. Thus, Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS cards are accompanied by eight-channel speaker systems (as you remember, there were no systems to use the eight-channel capabilities of the Aureon and Revolution when they appeared). Creative recommends using Creative Inspire T7700 or a more serious model, Creative Gigaworks THX E7, with the Audigy 2 ZS.

But an eight-channel sound card from Creative was actually released back in 2002. It was Audigy 2 Platinum (Platinum eX appeared a few months later). That card used an eight-channel converter from Cirrus Logic (CS4382). The hardware part of ZS Platinum Pro, as we have seen today, differs very slightly from the predecessor.

Today, the retail version of Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro is priced at about $250. This is the topmost offer, but Creative also offers more affordable products from the ZS family. I don’t think the owners of a pervious Audigy version should bother about an upgrade. The sound card with an external I/O unit may be all right for a musician providing some flexibility in peripherals connection, but is unlikely to appeal to an audiophile (for example, I like Revolution 7.1 more as far as precision and purity of the played sound).

I should also point out that the revised software bundle accompanying the ZS family is a worthy bit. I really wonder whether Creative is going to update its sound card family once again, but with some tangible improvements on the hardware level? Who knows…