by Ilya Gavrichenkov
01/10/2003 | 12:00 AM
It's no secret that Creative Labs is the trendsetter in the "audio for PC" field. Not so long ago the company announced a new generation sound card aka Audigy2, which brought about a real storm in the Web community. A lot of hardware sites touted the innovations Creative had in store for the happy buyer of its Audigy2. Most of the reviews agree in their tune: the authors praise the Audigy2, hang a lot of compliments onto it, but quite forget to mention its drawbacks.
Actually, Creative should make up for the wrongs it has been doing to users: the company didn't solve the problem of backward compatibility of the previous generation chipsets, gave up supporting digital output through its "exclusive" mini-DIN connector (for old loudspeaker systems, such as FPS2000) and didn't develop unified drivers. The users had to download huge driver and complementary software updates. It was a real hell if you had dial-up connection. Interesting that at the beginning of 2002 Creative approached paper magazines to put the driver updates onto their CDs. All this could do nothing but angry the user who had already counted out a round sum for the sacred sound card.
Anyway, the public love to the sound cards from Creative was beyond all these problems, while the main competitors (like Philips or Turtle Beach) couldn't catch up with Creative, which was providing its sound cards also for the value PC market. Today the user who isn't satisfied with the integrated sound wants to get an Audigy or, at least, Live!.
Well, the Audigy2 entered the market. What's so exceptional about it that it provoked such a sensation? What's so new that Creative offered to the PC community?..
Audigy2 main features look as follows:
The innovations look revolutionary enough, something that we had expected from the first Audigy. But I would call Audigy2 just another evolutionary development stage in this sound card family. Anyway, let's leave aside all suppositions and take a closer look at what Creative is offering us.
Audigy2 Platinum package includes:
Minimal system requirements:
On the hardware level, the card resembles the first Audigy. We have the same dark-brown PCB and gold-plated connectors for better electrical contact. Both cards have about the same dimensions (the Audigy2 is just a little larger than its predecessor). The key parameters also remained almost the same.
The Audigy2 features a renovated CA0102-IAT digital signal processor (DSP). The manufacturer doesn't tell its processing power. But considering that the E-MU10K1 provided 1000 MIPS (million instructions per second) and the first Audigy was four times more powerful, the processing power of the Audigy2 must be about equal to that of its predecessor. Is it much or little? For a better comparison: the Aureal AU8830 had 600 MIPS of processing power. The Cirrus Logic CS4630-CM processor that is used in Sonic Fury cards is 420 MIPS. We guess there was no need to invent a new processor for the new sound card, as the old one had a huge reserve left. Moreover, we didn't see hardware Dolby Digital and DTS audio streams processing. The Audigy2 can't process Dolby Digital streams in real time, as, for example, NVIDIA SoundStorm, but it can correctly output pre-encoded Dolby Digital 5.1/6.1 content. So, we have to admit that SoundStorm audio processor from NVIDIA outran Audigy2 in this respect, but maybe we will see some new things in the Audigy3? Maybe…
Creative brought nothing new into the analogous part: the Audigy2 still uses the SigmaTEL STAC9721 AC'97 codec. The company keeps loyalty to this codec since sound cards of the Live! family.
The Cirrus Logic CS4382 (192kHz / 24bit) chip serves as a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) in the Audigy2. This eight-channel codec is equipped with a per-channel volume control system, includes analogous and interpolation filters for each of the eight channels. The advantages of such architecture: no distortion-producing mechanics, low jitter and so on. This codec is an ideal solution for multi-channel audio systems, including DVD and SACD players, A/V receivers and effect processors. So, no wonder that Creative chose the CS4382 to be used as a DAC in Audigy2 (Creative was also expected to use a codec from SigmaTEL, especially considering the long-time partnership between the two companies). The Audigy2 Drive communication module, which we will discuss below, also carries this DAC.
Products from Creative feature an additional communication unit since the Live! sound card. Today it is a required part of Platinum and Platinum eX packages. During its evolution, the unit acquired an infrared receiver and an SB1394 (FireWire) port.
The Audigy2 Drive is intended to ease the user's life simplifying the routine connection of various devices to various ports. Moreover, some of those connectors just can't be laid out on the narrow brackets of daughter-cards. The exterior of the Audigy2 Drive remained the same, except the label, while its electronics did change quite tangibly.
So far, Creative released two Audigy2 modifications. The Audigy2 Platinum eX package with an external unit will hit the market in 2003.
The communication unit of the Platinum package is installed into a free 5-inch bay of the PC (in Platinum eX this module is external). It connects to the sound card with a special band cable and an adaptor cable for FireWire. Besides that, the Audigy2 Drive receives additional power, necessary for optical sensors, IR-receiver and other radio-electronic units of the module.
The front panel of the unit carries optical and digital RCA connectors.
The module allows using coaxial and optical SPDIF in- and outputs to connect any external Dolby Digital decoder to the audio card. Thus, you can enjoy listening to sound in some "tricky" digital format, like DTS-ES, which is not yet supported by the Audigy2.
The front panel of the communication unit carries full-size sockets (6.3mm) for headphones (professional ones required) and a microphone. Each socket has a dedicated volume control knob. If you happen to use mini-jack headphones, you will find the necessary 6.3/3.5 adapter in the box. To the right of these sockets there are mini-MIDI sockets (the adapters are also included with the audio card) and SB1394 (aka FireWire). To the left, there are two separate RCA inputs for analogous audio monitors. To cut it short, every musician will find all he/she needs in the Audigy2 Drive.
The unit is also equipped an IR-receiver hidden behind a dark glass. It receives commands from the external remote control panel. The remote control was inherited from the first Audigy. Of course, with a remote control unit and the communication module the sound card became super functional. It's a real pleasure to sit in your favorite easy chair and enjoy your favorite music: all the necessary operations can be done with the remote control (and the software, of course). The PC can even be shut down without coming up to it.
While DVD-movies are widely spread now and little by little force out video tapes, DVD-music is not that popular. At least, we only saw demo samples of such DVDs. Anyway, let's check the advantages of this upcoming format. First of all, it's the huge capacity of a DVD disk (up to 17GB against the 650MB in an ordinary CD) that allows storing 25 times more audio data on one DVD disk than on a CD. But the capacity is not all. A DVD-Audio disk can give out six-channel sound (while we get only two with a CD) in a much higher sample rate. Creative decided to support this (not very popular yet) format in the Audigy2 by developing the necessary software. The software suite that comes with the new card includes MediaSource DVD Audio Player that is automatically initialized when you put an appropriate disk into the DVD-drive.
So, if you have a DVD-ROM and an Audigy2 sound card, you can experience the best sound quality of DVD Audio. Creative included a DVD-disk with a few demo tracks for us to feel the difference.
What are our impressions? Well, it's rather hard to describe the unquestioned advantages of DVD Audio in a few lines of the review. And you can compare DVD and CD only when listening to both simultaneously. We can only say that the sample left an impression of very natural, live music. We hope that after the DVD-Audio standard became supported by Audigy2 sound card, the recording companies will take note of it and get to producing albums of popular groups and singers in this format.
As for the DVD Audio player itself, it won't work in Windows 98. It's intended for Windows 2000/XP solely. However, there were problems with the player in Windows XP, too. From time to time it caused the system to freeze. After reading the FAQ, we learned that the Player does hang up the computer with the installed Audigy2 if the South Bridge of the chipset is VIA VT82C686B. Well, this was our case. Creative recommends updating VIA 4-in-1 drivers and BIOS, but this didn't solve the problem. A curious hardware conflict. Those people who own mainboards based on this chipset should be aware of the problems when buying the Audigy2!
The Audigy2 sound card is equipped with an integrated Dolby Digital EX decoder that allows enjoying movies, which soundtracks imply the use of an additional rear central channel. This channel is necessary for smooth audio perception of the rear sound panorama. For example, a fly is flying from right to left without leaving an impression that it's not real. To cut it short, the extended Dolby Digital format is required for better realism. The seven sound sources guarantee a smooth panoramic sound picture around the listener.
As we have mentioned above, the Audigy2 is unable to encode Dolby Digital in real time yet, and can only perform some preliminary processing (pre-encoding) of this digital content. In order to please yourself with this multi-channel format, you will need an additional hardware decoder that will distribute the streams among the speakers. Audigy2 supports Dolby Digital EX 6.1, which is enabled by default. The decoder properties can be found in the corresponding AudioHQ page.
But of course, even if you have got the Audigy2, a seven-channel speaker system and the additional decoder, you won't be able to enjoy the format without the disks. To tell the truth, we haven't seen movies in the extended digital sound format yet, besides some sample DVD-disks. It's even worse with DVD-Audio: there must be a fraction of percent of such disks available.
We bet you haven't heard of THX and have no idea what hides behind this word. What is it? To cut a long a story short, THX is a quality certificate for devices that playback DVD audio formats. The certificate has the following life story. George Lucas, being much of an esthete, didn't enjoy his own movies during weekend tours into cinema with his wife. The cause of his outrage was nasty sound quality. The man noticed that his movies sounded differently in every given cinema house, and the quality of this sounding fell far behind the high professional audio standards. Lucas didn't fire his sound director. No, he just composed some rules monitoring the sound quality in cinema houses. All this happened in the far-away 1980, and three years later the THX Company was founded. Lucas named it after his first feature film "THX 1138". THX developed a special sound quality control system and used it into two acoustically "correct" cinema houses for the first night of "Return of the Jedi" movie. Then the company opened the requirements. Of course, a lot of cinema houses wanted to be "correct" from the THX point of view and tried their best for George Lucas not to spit with popcorn when watching movies. So, today there are over 2000 cinemas already that comply with the THX requirements. Moving with the times, the company presented the THX Multimedia standard in 2001 (Lucas must have bought a PC with a DVD-ROM). This is the certification the Audigy2 has successfully passed. By the way, the Audigy2 is a pioneer among sound cards in this field. On the whole, this certificate may be viewed as an award or acknowledgement. Two speaker systems from Creative also underwent THX certification. They are MegaWorks THX 5.1 550 and Cambridge SoundWorks THX 5.1 550.
As always, Creative includes a lot of software into the card's package. The paper Installation Kit envelope contains eight CDs and an installation poster. This will be a real gift for every Audigy2 Platinum buyer. Well, here is what you will find in the envelope if you get yourself a card:
The first installation disk contains drivers and Creative's own MediaSource software. The second CD is a demo one showing the user what his new sound card is capable of. The next one is a DVD disk in the DVD-Audio format with a lot of full-length soundtracks. The names Traktor DJ and Ulead VideoStudio speak for themselves, while the two 3D action games will please any fan of the genre. Especially, since they feature Advanced HD audio surround effects.
Well, it's time now to discuss the company's software. We should admit that the company's designers and software developers did a great job. The interface of familiar programs has completely changed. Windows overloaded with graphics have sunk into oblivion now. All the software utilities look solid, we would say, they look corporate, following the general Windows XP style.
After the installation has been complete, a quick launch panel appears in the upper part of the screen.
If you press the Go! button, the MediaSource main panel will appear. It has all the programs sorted out by category.
First of all, we ran a diagnostics program, although we heard the usual greeting melody on Windows start-up. Besides the ordinary channels testing program, Creative offered the option for calibrating the speaker system. The program walks you through seven steps of adjusting the sound basing upon your own impressions and perception.
After that, a table appears with all the user's adjustments. By the way, the calibration program can identify improperly connected phases and advises to correct it accordingly, if necessary.
The mixer program has become more informative. In the Basic tab, the user can adjust the volume of various audio sources, choose a recording channel and adjust trebles and basses to his taste.
The Advanced tab contains sliders to set subwoofer and central channel volume levels. Moreover, if the loudspeakers are placed asymmetrically, you can make up for the volume misbalance with the help of an interactive yellow fader-ball.
A separate Speaker Selection tab allows changing the type of the acoustic system (if you have set it wrong during installation, have bought another one or want to use the headphones).
Subwoofer configuration options are stored in the Bass Management tab, where you can set crossover frequency and adjust subwoofer volume (this may help those who have low-cost speakers with poorly implemented low frequencies).
The software package from Creative also includes Audio Stream Recorder for online content recording. This tool may be useful for those, who have a broad Internet connection for real-time listening to some online radio station, which are numerous on the Web. The program records sound in any format with a defined quality.
For some editing of the recorded audio file there is specialized Creative WaveStudio tool that can be a replacement of SoundForge and the like in some respects.
Audio files playback is left to the traditional PlayCenter that is now called MediaSource Player. Not only its name, but also its skin has changed. The Player can playback and record music, can convert audio tracks from Audio CD into popular digital formats, can address CDDB service and do a lot of other things. Creative made some improvements of the playlist editor. Now you can search and select tracks from playlists much more easily. Audigy2 also boasts a completely new feature leveling out the volume of all the files in a selected playlist. It's called Smart Volume Management (SVM) and is activated by clicking on the appropriate button in MediaSource Player. This option will save you a lot of time and trouble and prevent from running up to your PC every time you want to raise or reduce the volume: all audio files will sound with equal volume level.
The fans of various special effects, including dedicated gamers, of course, will be happy to find a separate EAX Advanced HD console. The first tab allows configuring the effects. There are a lot of them there and you can add something new to any default value.
The next CMSS 3D tab allows turning on up-mixing of the usual stereo for multi-channel speaker systems or create 3D effects in stereo headphones. This is done by means of special math1ematical algorithms and they are activated here.
Everyone who has ever listened to old records knows that there may often be some crackling during their playback. To clear the recording from this, you can use the intellectual Clean-up function. Here you can choose the audio source, it may be an MP3 file or an LP Player, connected to the sound card. The "cleaning" parameters are set with three sliders.
The last tab of the EAX console allows increasing or decreasing playback speed without distorting the solo part. This effect is used by DJs to create dance mixes from slow melodies.
We can't omit SoundFont Bank Manager that has become most functional now. The standard interface looks like a virtual keyboard, which helps you to evaluate the sounding of an instrument from the bank and add some effect from the drop-down presets editor.
So what's the most pleasant thing here? Firstly, it's now possible to dynamically allot memory for the sample bank. This allows loading very large banks that couldn't be used before because of the 512MB RAM limitation imposed by Windows 98/Me. Moreover, the user can now choose a desired display mode for the bank indexes.
For professional musicians, who preferred Audigy2 (and they are not few), there is an option to load up several sample banks that would work as a single MIDI bank.
On the whole, the software bundle that comes with the Audigy2 sound card from Creative deserves all our admiration. It's colorful, functional and easy-to-use: we all bear witness.
Creative just couldn't release a seven-channel audio card without supporting it with an appropriate speaker system. So, alongside the Audigy2, the company launched the first (for PC) 6.1-system, called Inspire 6700. A more expensive variant, MegaWorks 610D, will hit the market in 2003.
We began the "aural" part of our tests with Megaworks 510D. Then we received Inspire 6700, courtesy of the East European division of Creative Labs, and could objectively estimate all the niceties of the seven-channel sound surroundings. Fortunately, we already had a sample DVD with six movie demos in the DTS-ES format and the soundtrack Queen: The Prophet's Song (A Night at the Opera) recorded in the new-fashioned DVD-Audio format (24bit / 96kHz).
The Inspire 6700 system consists of 8W (RMS) speakers, a central 20W (RMS) channel and a powerful 22W (RMS) subwoofer. The transition band here is from 40 to 20000Hz with an over 75dB signal/noise ratio.
All the necessary connectors are situated at the back panel of the subwoofer. There are three analogous inputs: one for the central channel, one for the subwoofer and one for the central rear channel. For connection to the Audigy2, Creative includes provides Inspire 6700 with a special cable. A quite expected detail, as this acoustic system has been specially developed for the 6.1 sound card.
The Inspire 6700 has a switch to change between real and emulated 6.1 modes. So, this system can be used with a 5.1 card (for example, with the first Audigy), too. The sound of the rear 5.1 channels will be mixed onto the central channel in this case. The result is quite acceptable for listening to music and some movies, but the 3D sound sources positioning would be lost.
The system comes with a cord remote control panel to adjust the overall sound volume and configure low frequencies. For easy headset connection, the panel has a corresponding socket.
The aural tests that are a subjective part of any test session like that showed that Creative hasn't just added one more channel, but also improved the amplifier. The speakers now don't remind of themselves by a click when you turn them on. The trebles are more transparent, while the medium frequencies acquired precision in drawing the main elements of the sound picture. The subwoofer uses SLAM technology (Symmetrically Loaded Acoustic Module) and reproduces basses well. Thanks to the high quality satellites, the stereo panorama is good and sound sources are tracked easily. By the way, alongside with its acoustic accomplishments, the Inspire 6700 has a good price-to-quality ratio.
We tested the Audigy2 in comparison with the previous Audigy with the SpectralLAB (v.4.32.17) test set. This program consists of two parts: a signal generator and analytical-measuring part. On the whole, it allows measuring the main parameters of a sound card. Before the tests, we turned off all the audio surround effects, which bring distortion into the output signal (this methodology, i.e. preparing Creative cards for such tests, has been described in detail by the company engineers).
Our testbed was configured as follows:
The point of the test looks as follows. The program's sound generator emitted a 1kHz tone signal. By means of the mixer the signal peak was adjusted close to 0dB basing upon the visual analyzer report, but so that there were no overshoots or non-linear distortions in the frequency spectrum. The analytical part of the test set measured such parameters as signal-to-noise ratio, overall dynamical signal distortions and the like.
The main parameter of any sound card is the SNR value measured in decibels (dB). The SNR is calculated from the frequency peak of the efficient signal (here it's 1kHz) and then the overall noise level in all the frequencies spectrum is calculated. Note, that the higher is the SNR, the better. Of course, no ear can hear any noise at 80dB (for a better comparison: the noise level in an ordinary, non-isolated room is about 55-60dB), but the lower SNR value is important for a quality sound card, when the user works with recording and sound-digitizing programs. SNR=106dB doesn't actually matter when you are just listening to music.
One more important parameter is THD (Total Harmonic Distortion), which is the ratio of the harmonic capacity to the base one. THD is calculated by seeking the peak frequency in the spectrum (base). The overall capacity in separate frequency harmonics is determined relatively to it. The overall noise level is not taken into consideration for these calculations (it's used in the THD+N parameter). Lower value of this parameter (in percents) indicates higher purity of the sound. THD is always calculated with the 1kHz reference signal.
The intermodulation distortions (IMD) parameter shows the percent of distortions when mixing two tones. The typical IMD calculation is done with 250Hz and 8020Hz tone signals with the high frequency tone fading to the low frequency one by 12dB (4:1 ratio). In order for the random noises not to interfere with the results, the IMD is calculated after a series of tests.
The results table is in front of you. We should mention that the difference is not very important to pay too much attention to it. The tests rather showed that Creative eliminated successfully all bugs and the slump in the trebles area.
Looking at the spectrogram we see that the Audigy2 does produce a purer sound than its predecessor. This difference is hardly perceivable by the ear, though. The point is that the stereo panorama, fundamental low frequencies, naturalness, or authentic reproduction of the emotion - they all depend on the class of the acoustic system. The sound of a given sound card should be estimated by the reproduction and beauty of the timbres, dynamical contrasts, clear and pure tones. We did enjoy the Audigy2 more. Why? Because of this additional rear channel. To be more exact, because of the stereophonic resolution. That is, the perception of the listener is attuned to the spatial unity of the sound sources and their stability, whatever the sound volume. But this is largely the loudspeaker's honor and we would be more objective comparing two 6.1 sound cards rather than 6.1 vs. 5.1.
The Audigy2 sound card is definitely the "best of the year 2002" in the consumer market sector. It features excellent sound quality, immersing effects in games and rich functions. There are few companies who can make "number one" products for so long. After our Audigy2 vs. Audigy test, we learned the following: Creative has made another big step in the evolution of its sound cards family and added one more successful product to it. But we shouldn't forget that the company has much to do in future to implement some features that are still unavailable in the Audigy2.
So, what do you buy with the Audigy2? It's the true 24bit audio, a lot of analog outputs and excellent software from Creative. The fact that Audigy2 became the first sound card to be certified for THX is impressive, too. It's the sign of the highest quality of the card. We should note, though, that Dolby Digital 6.1 compatibility is good, but you still need an external hardware decoder.
Anyway, we can't find a cause for not naming the Audigy2 a hit, just like Live! and the first Audigy were.
Let's recall, though, that Creative started winning the market from the low-end sector. Today nearly every new mainboard is equipped with an integrated AC'97 sound. This is why many users do not buy an add-on sound card for higher performance or better SNR. Many integrated codecs provide acceptable sound quality and even six-channel audio output. We shouldn't also forget NVIDIA that has released its new SoundStorm audio processor that can compete with the Audigy2 in terms of its features. And the SoundStorm is a chip to be integrated onto mainboards. On the whole, Creative's managers have a lot to think about.
We also wish Creative released new drivers and software updates for the first Audigy. After uninstallation of the Audigy2 we used its predecessor with the remaining drivers and could use a lot of functions in the Creative MediaSource suite. Of course, we could copy the installation CD, but it requires the Audigy2 to work.
By the way, if you own the first Audigy, we wouldn't advise to upgrade. But if you have the oldie Live!, or simply don't like the integrated audio, the Audigy2 is for you.
In conclusion, we would like to appeal to Creative competitors. Do make a competitive product! This would make Creative engineers work harder to open PC sound horizons wider and… reduce the price of such excellent cards as Audigy2.