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If you believe that your new laptop can rival high-end desktop PCs in audio output, you're sadly mistaken. Even the most advanced desktop-replacement laptops are deficient in the sound department. Here to add more boom to your laptop is the $129.99 Creative USB Sound Blaster Audigy 2 NX. The low-profile, easy-to-use package upgrades the 16-bit audio found in most laptops to 24-bit sound resolution while delivering full 7.1-channel support. With a bevy of audio inputs and outputs, the highly flexible Audigy 2 NX is primed for turning laptops into powerful home entertainment devices.
Housed in an external box that's a smidge larger than a PDA, the Audigy 2 NX requires a separate power cable and connects via USB 2.0. It is also studded with useful connections. Four minijack audio outputs, one of which doubles as a headphone jack, provide both 5.1- and 7.1-channel PC speaker support. Line-in and microphone-in jacks are included, as well. Interestingly, the device also features separate ports for optical input and output plus a digital S/PDIF-out connector, which lets you add your home audio/video components to the equation.
Buttons for power, mute, and Creative's proprietary multichannel mixing technology, called CMSS 3D (Creative Multi Speaker Surround), sit on top of the Audigy 2 NX, accompanied by dials for microphone input and audio output volume. And when you're not sitting in front of your laptop, you can control the action with the included IR remote.
Setting up the Audigy 2 NX was relatively simple on our test bed laptop. Windows XP Pro located the device quickly, and installing the driver and the bundled Creative Media Source software was a breeze. We did have to go online for a software update because the shipping drivers supported only 16-bit/48KHz audio over the USB 2.0 connection. Once the update provided full 24-bit/96KHz support, we connected our set of 7.1 PC speakers and were up and running in short order.
Because Creative designed the Audigy 2 NX to decode DVDs mastered in standard Dolby Digital 5.1 and the new Dolby Digital EX 6.1 audio formats, our first task was to pop in a few movies and crank up the volume. Audio in the reference DVDs that we used sounded suitably clean and powerful, especially the Yes Magnification DVD-audio disc that Creative lent us, which was encoded in Dolby Digital EX 6.1.
In addition to the ability to play 6.1- and 7.1-channel audio on your laptop, the Audigy 2 NX's aforementioned CMSS 3D function is handy for both up- and down-mixing multichannel audio. If you have fewer speakers than you have audio channels, CMSS 3D can up-mix the output to imitate a 7.1-speaker setup. Headphone users also benefit, as CMSS 3D can passably imitate multispeaker surround-sound output with a spatialization effect. In both cases, the CMSS 3D effect is neither as deep nor as nuanced as the real thing, but the results are a definite improvement from a plain old two-speaker setup or stereo headphones.
For gaming audio, the Audigy 2 NX provides hardware acceleration for titles with built-in support for Creative's EAX and Microsoft's DirectSound 3D effects-processing standards. We heard very convincing 7.1-channel positional sound effects while playing popular games such as Battlefield 1942 and America's Army on a laptop. Desktop users with modest gaming demands and those wary of opening up their systems for a full card upgrade will benefit from the Audigy 2 NX, but performance-minded gamers will still want to go the route of an internal card upgrade on their desktops because the USB 2.0 interface is not as efficient as PCI.
Support on Creative's Web site is helpful but a little sparse, with easy-to-find driver downloads, a few informative articles, and a submission system to get in touch with tech support. A full online system manual for the product and its software would be a beneficial addition. For further assistance, you can call tech support directly from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT, Monday through Friday.
While highly mobile users may not see any advantage in upgrading their laptop's audio, power users with fast desktop replacements will find Creative's Audigy 2 NX a compelling avenue toward a greatly improved audio experience.