Performance - Listening
As always, testing a sound card comes with the penalty of reviewing subjectively. That is, it's time to saddle up in a comfy chair and listen. Everybody's got different ears, but in 18+ years of being a musician, I think I've got pretty good ears. I used a pair of Grado SR-125 headphones for all critical listening. WinAMP 5 was used for playback. MP3's were LAME encoded with the -alt insane setting, outputting a 320kbps joint-stereo file.
The very first impression is that the Audigy 2 ZS is bright sounding. Cymbals and snare drums in particular, are on the bright side of reality and can sound 'steely'. Beyond that, the Audigy2 ZS is a very good sounding card indeed!
The advantages of having a high-frequency bias are that cymbals tend to pop out as well as the low-level detail, like reverb decay. For example, with the good old Black Sabbath jam, A Bit of Finger-Sleeping Village-Warning, the cymbals are bright and clear, but almost too much.
The Audigy2 ZS has also has a warm-ish sound. Not to say muddy, but it has a big bottom. Compared to the DMX 6-fire with Beastie Boys' Brass Monkey, the sound of the 808 drum machine is deep and thumping. With other material, like the White Stripes Ball 'n Biscuit (24-bit/96kHz digitization of the vinyl, total overkill) the kick drum and guitar are a booming and a rocking. If you like bass, the Audigy2 ZS won't let you down.
Dynamics and stereo imaging are excellent. It was easy to place instruments in the stereo field, and with headphones, the Audigy2 ZS could produce eye-blinking impacts, say on Nirvana's Come as You Are. Whoah. A word of warning: the Audigy2 ZS can play very loud.
For a product aimed at gamers, the Audigy2 ZS is extremely capable at sound reproduction. Sound is crisp, detailed, especially in the upper ranges, and the bass is strong, overloading the midrange at times. Ultimately, it doesn't present as balanced and detailed sound as the DMX 6-fire. I rather enjoyed it, however, and it would be easy to live with the Audigy2 ZS.
DVD-Audio discs include video, still images, and interactive menus.
I love the idea of DVD-Audio: high resolution sound and built-in DRM. CD's, at the time they were introduced, counted on the fact that nobody could afford a 650MB hard disk to fit raw sound files. The cost was something like $10 a megabyte. No DRM necessary. Today's hard disks are less than a dollar per gigabyte. So DRM, as much as I don't like being considered 'guilty' first, must be a consideration for any new audio standard.
There are several problems with Creative's DVD-Audio player. First of all, it doesn't support the additional features that are often bundled with DVD-A discs, like video and interactive menus. The other problem is the usefulness. It defaults to 5.1 channel sound. Any software DVD player, like PowerDVD or WinDVD, will also play the 5.1 channel sound, Dolby included, with the video and interactive features. It pretty much makes the DVD-A player pointless in this case.
There is also a subjective judgement that when compared with PowerDVD (or WinDVD 4 for that fact) in 5.1 mode, PowerDVD delivered better fidelity all around. Everything from reverb decay, instrumental timbres, and in one song, Metallica's My Friend of Misery, a cowbell suddenly appeared in the left channel that was obscured even when the DVD-A player was in 2-channel mode. Truly bizarre. Gotta love the cowbell. I won't opine what the cause is, but I don't believe that the DVD-A player is delivering full 24-bit sound.
Lastly, while not Creative's fault at all, there's very few titles in the DVD-Audio catalog. It's getting much, much, better as more titles get released. I would jump whole hog onto the DVD-Audio bandwagon if there were more titles available.
The Audigy2 ZS comes loaded with features for DVD video. The obvious are the 7.1 channel analog out, DTS-ES and Dolby-ES. The not-so-obvious are the EAX modes, CMSS1 and 2.
CMSS (Creative MultiSpeaker Surround) has two levels, 1 & 2. CMSS1 is flexible enough to upmix stereo sources from 2/2.1 to 7.1 surround. CMSS2, the 'best for DVD movies', downmixes multi-channel sound to stereo. It also adds a little 'movie theatre' reverb, which is different from the previous Audigy2 mode, and you can't change it.
Ripping through several DVDs, from the Two Towers to Fight Club, the Audigy2 ZS was superb. Surround effects were certainly excellent, as was the dialogue. No problems here.