The good news for those whose budgets preclude them from owning the Platinum eX is that Creative Labs is offering the same Audigy card in three less expensive packages. The Platinum edition ($199.99 list) requires internal installation of the Audigy Drive in a PC drive bay and comes with a slightly less robust software bundle. Neither the X-Gamer nor the MP3+ version (each sell for $99.99) include the Audigy Drive or the remote control. The X-Gamer software bundle leaves out the Platinum's music-production software, adding Deus Ex instead, while MP3+ offers Beatnik Mixman Studio Remixer and MixMeister Technologies MixMeister 3.0 in lieu of gaming software.
The Audigy Platinum eX package consists of three discrete components joined by a variety of cables and connectors. Its main PCI board provides line in, mic in, and 5.1-channel analog and digital outputs; an Audigy Extension daughterboard adds a joystick/MIDI connector; and the external Audigy Drive I/O module offers aux in, MIDI, and coaxial and optical S/PDIF connectors, as well as headphone and Mic 2 jacks equipped with dedicated volume controls. All three components also include high-speed IEEE 1394 interfaces designed for devices such as camcorders, external CD recorders, MP3 jukeboxes, and other IEEE 1394-networked PCs.
Not surprisingly, installing the Audigy takes some work. The two boards must be connected by multiple ribbon and 1394 cables, plugged into an open power connector, attached to modem and CD- and DVD-audio outputs, then routed to the Audigy Drive with a massive, multiheaded cable. The software installation is fairly straightforward, but it can take quite some time if you choose to load all of the card's many bundled applications, including music-making software such as Sonic Foundry Acid DJ 2.0, Steinberg Cubasis VST, and Image-Line Fruity Loops.
In our hands-on evaluation, the Audigy's DSP generated outstanding MIDI output, boasting 48 channels, 64-voice hardware polyphony, and the ability to load high-resolution samples into an unlimited amount of host memory. Its 32-bit effects engine and true 24-bit, 6-channel digital-to-analog converters (DACs) produced breathtaking sound and low noise levels, and the card was even able to record multiple analog inputs simultaneously. Like earlier Sound Blasters, the Audigy provides a great selection of surround-sound capabilities, including the ability to mix 5.1 channels down to 2, synthesize a huge number of preset acoustic environments, and expand stereo into bona fide multichannel sound. It also offers one-of-a-kind 3D-gaming features such as the ability to render four acoustic environments at once, move and position environments in real time, and create realistic, morphlike transitions between environments.
As terrific as it is, the Sound Blaster Audigy Platinum eX isn't perfect. Despite its complexity and relatively high price, it lacks luxuries such as gamer-friendly front-mounted USB and joystick connectors. Its 24-bit/96KHz audio capabilities work only with devices that are connected to its digital I/O jacks, and the card can record and play files on a PC hard drive at no greater than 48KHz and 16 bits.
But these concerns seem minor in light of the Audigy's formidable strengths. It can't match the flexibility and sonic excellence of dedicated studio equipment, but for a PC sound card, it comes awfully close. If you won't settle for anything less than the state of the art, this is the sound card for you.