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Prices for Creative's Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro and its related Audigy 2 products have begun to creep into the territory of professional audio hardware. Creative's Sound Blaster Audigy LS is the solution to Audigy 2 sticker shock. Priced under $70, the Audigy LS offers high-quality 24-bit/96KHz playback, 5.1-channel output, EAX Advanced HD positional audio effects, and Dolby Digital support for DVD playback. In other words, it's a great deal.
The Audigy LS has only basic input and output jacks: three analog outputs--one of which doubles as an S/PDIF digital jack--and microphone and line-in ports. There's also an old-style analog joystick/MIDI port and two internal audio inputs for connecting your modem and your CD-ROM drive. Because of the spare design, installation is a breeze. Simply insert the card in an open PCI slot, connect your speakers, and you're set. While the Audigy LS lacks the gold contacts that improve the clarity of the speaker-to-sound-card connection on the Audigy 2-series cards, the LS's color-coded input/output jacks do make it easier to connect correctly a set of 5.1 speakers and a microphone.
Our software installation test went without a hitch, and we had no trouble using Creative's Web-based auto-update feature to upgrade to the latest driver revision. Creative bundles some useful software with the card, including the MediaSource music organizer and player, the WaveStudio sound editor, and a MiniDisc creator. The Audigy LS's settings software could be better organized, as it makes you jump between too many screens to reach the graphic equalizer or the surround-sound mixer. At least the settings tools make sense and let you intuitively refine your listening experience.
One of the features Creative touts most about its EAX Advanced HD standard is its ability to produce special reverb effects. These effects simulate the acoustic warping that occurs in certain environments, such as a stadium or a concert hall. The effects are generally gimmicky, but if you've ever wondered what Abba would sound like singing "Dancing Queen" at half speed in a bathroom, the Audigy LS can deliver. More useful is CMSS (Creative Multi-Speaker Surround), Creative's upmixing/downmixing/headphone-spatialization technology, which takes your stereo audio files and creates a simulated 5.1-channel effect over standard stereo speakers or a set of headphones. The results aren't dramatic, but the surround effect does add a level of immersion that stereo speakers don't normally achieve. We tested CMSS with an eclectic mix of tunes, including Mozart, Torme, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, and Tenacious D, and we were impressed with the clarity of the music both through speakers and headphones.
The Audigy LS's 3D-sound support really shines in DVD playback and gaming. The action and music sequences in The Fifth Element sounded top-notch, thanks to the card's Dolby Digital 5.1 support. The Audigy LS also supports EAX Advanced HD 3.0 and DirectSound 3D, effectively covering almost all games that support 3D audio. Despite supporting 5.1 channels rather than the 7.1 of the newest cards, the Audigy LS nevertheless manages to create a convincing audio environment. While playing Ubisoft's &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=gs&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Egamespot%2Ecom%2Fpc%2Faction%2Ffarcry%2Findex%2Ehtml">Far Cry, we found that the combination of the Audigy LS and our Klipsch ProMedia 5.1 speakers provided excellent positional audio feedback--and plenty of warning when the bad guys approached from the sides and the rear.
Note that the Audigy LS supports only EAX 3.0, not the latest 4.0 release, so you'll miss some of the more elaborate effects available on high-end cards, such as those we heard using the Audigy 2 ZS. The Audigy LS also lacks hardware EAX acceleration, relying instead on your PC's processor to generate advanced 3D effects. Playing games on a reasonably fast system, you shouldn't lose more than a few frames per second compared to the results you'd get from a hardware-accelerated Audigy 2 card, but hard-core gamers looking for PC-performance bragging rights will want one of Creative's higher-end options. The ability to play music discs that use the new DVD-Audio standard is also absent from the Audigy LS, but this format has not yet been widely adopted, so this is not a terribly painful omission.
Documentation for the Audigy LS is on the light side, with a foldout installation poster and an information-light Windows help file that explains how to use the various utilities and settings screens. Creative provides more help via the knowledge base on its Web site and through online or phone-based customer support, which is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT. The Audigy LS comes with a one-year limited warranty.