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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.