Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro
For the past 15 years, Creative Sound Blaster sound cards have been the gold standard in consumer-level PC audio. Creative's latest flagship sound card for desktop PCs, the $299 Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro, is the company's most advanced and refined to date. Highlights include 7.1-channel output, support for advanced Dolby and DTS home audio standards, excellent overall sound quality, an external I/O hub, and a remote control. Overkill for casual users, the Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro is a good fit for hard-core gamers, PC-based home-theater enthusiasts, and audio buffs.
Compared to the older Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro ($250), the Audigy 4 Pro brings a handful of noteworthy, if not earthshaking, upgrades. We wouldn't recommend upgrading if you already have the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro; the two cards are just too similar. If you're building a PC from scratch, however, or moving up from a scrappy, 2-channel sound card, the Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro is the best game in town.
For starters, the Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro is rated as having 113dB signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). That's a nominal improvement over the Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro's rated 108dB SNR, but it's near impossible to pick out the difference, especially if you don't have golden ears. It's worth noting that the Sound Blaster we evaluated came with two games, Hitman: Contracts and Thief: Deadly Shadows.
What else you'll find inside the box
Creative's new Entertainment Center software, which you can launch via the bundled remote, provides a few of the same capabilities as Microsoft Windows . Using the remote's keypad, you can easily select the music, video, or photo menu options to navigate and play such files housed on your PC. You can fire up a DVD (requires separate DVD-player software--not included) or a CD and even launch and control a PowerPoint presentation. Unfortunately, the software doesn't look up and display CD track titles.
The external control modules for the Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro and the Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro are strikingly similar. Standard coaxial and optical digital-audio inputs and outputs, as well as a miniplug digital-audio output, facilitate connecting digital multimedia speakers and a variety of audio devices to your PC for playback and recording. Dual FireWire ports let you attach digital camcorders, audio players, and other devices. A quarter-inch line/guitar input, a quarter-inch line/mic input, and a MIDI input/output set make the Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro a suitable foundation for a basic home recording studio. The front panel's quarter-inch headphone jack makes it easy to plug in for private listening, while the neighboring volume knob lets you keep the action under control. A microphone gain control and a Creative Multi Speaker Surround (CMSS is Creative's upmixing/downmixing/headphone spatialization technology) on/off button also reside on the control module's front panel.
Two Creative proprietary AD Link ports connect the external control module to the internal PCI sound card, which itself has three analog miniplug outputs to accommodate multimedia speaker sets with up to 7.1 channels. The package doesn't lack much, but we do wish the Audigy 4 Pro included a few USB 2.0 ports and perhaps a stereo RCA analog audio output to facilitate a direct, adapter-free connection with our-powered studio monitors or our Pioneer Elite A-35R stereo amplifier, which doesn't have digital inputs.