Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook
Although its 24-bit sound resolution and 7.1-channel audio output helped Creative's earn a CNET Editors' Choice award, the last-generation device's external form factor and mandatory power cord left something to be desired. This time around, Creative's Audigy 2 ZS Notebook packs most of the features offered by its bulkier sibling, but it addresses portability concerns with a PC card (PCMCIA) design that practically disappears into your laptop and doesn't require a power cord. With a street price of around $129--roughly the same as what you might pay for the USB Sound Blaster Audigy 2 NX or a comparable PCI-based Sound Blaster card--the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook makes a compelling case for upgrading from your laptop's built-in audio jacks and onboard sound chip, which generally sound mediocre at best.
The Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook is downright unobtrusive. Inserted into our laptop's PC Card slot, the card stuck out approximately 1 inch from the computer's side. To preserve its small stature, the card has only three jacks, although two of them serve dual purposes: a minijack headphone output/optical out, a minijack microphone input/optical in, and a proprietary port to which you can connect an included adapter that adds three analog outputs for multimedia speaker sets with up to 7.1-channels. Creative will offer an optional adapter if you want to use the 1/8-inch minijack optical jacks with a digital receiver or other hardware that requires the more familiar, square Toslink optical connection.
The Audigy 2 ZS Notebook has neither the hardware controls nor the vast selection of configuration interfaces of the USB Sound Blaster Audigy 2 NX, so you don't get as many options for fine-tuning. Given the convenience of simply slapping this small card into your notebook's PC Card slot, however, you won't mind the slimmer feature set. You can use the Creative software mixer, your laptop's hardware volume control, or your multimedia speaker system's controls to make any necessary adjustments. The only real downer is the absence of a remote control.
Setting up the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook is a snap in Windows XP. You simply insert the sound card into the laptop, cancel out of the "Windows new hardware found" wizard, load the included CD-ROM into your PC's drive, follow a few prompts, then reboot to complete installation. Although Creative supplies a well-conceived quick-setup poster, the full user guide is included only as a file on the CD-ROM.
The Audigy 2 ZS Notebook supports the same sound-processing technologies that vaulted the company's flagship Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro desktop PC sound card into prominence. In addition to decoding Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1-channel DVD signals, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook also supports the 6.1-channel Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES standards for an enveloping experience with multichannel multimedia speaker sets. Like other members of the Audigy 2 family, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook supports Creative's EAX Advanced HD and Microsoft's DirectSound 3D standards, which the vast majority of games use to deliver 3D audio. Creative's CMSS 3D Audio Technology does a decent job simulating surround sound through headphones, should you forgo the multichannel multimedia speaker set in favor of a totally mobile setup. In addition to configuration utilities, the software suite includes a Creative audio player and a basic Creative recording miniapp.