Back Comments (1) Share:
<br>
A lot of people have DVD-ROM drives in their home computers these days, whether it’s from upgrading to a DVD drive, or just one that was part of a bigger package when it was time to buy a new computer. With the increasing demands on the family TV and therefore DVD player, a lot of people will be taking advantage of their multi media computers and watching their chosen film in a different room. While a PC might be able to produce a decent-ish looking picture with one of the many various brands of DVD playing software out there, what people come to forget about is the sound quality.

I used to have a standard Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live Value card and 4.1 speaker system. Now this really is just glorified stereo and why would I need more? It never occurred to me that hardware and speakers could make that much of a difference to my computer-bound DVD viewing. Now I am using a Creative Labs Audigy 2 Platinum and Inspire 6700 6.1 speaker system and I can now get not only proper Dolby Digital surround sound, but the playback of DVD-Audio on my PC. So if you like me, did not consider what an audio upgrade can do for your PC read on and I will try to explain my experiences with them.

The Specification


I might as well start this section by saying that no other card offers what the Audigy 2 does at this point in time, however I am sure in the future there will be attempts to mimic this. Amongst the vast array of features, there are several items which DVD enthusiasts should be excited about:

  • DVD-Audio playback
  • Plays at up to 24 bits/192kHz and records at 24 bits/96kHz
  • Dolby Digital EX support
  • Supports 6.1 surround
  • THX certification
  • IEEE1394/Firewire connector



Of course it has the digital output on its main bracket for connection to an external decoder as well as a digital input on the card for connecting to the DVD-ROM (or CD-ROM) drive. There is also a microphone socket and several analogue outputs to connect to the speakers. These are not dedicated outputs as you might find on the rear of a DVD player, rather hybrid outputs that allow two channels to be output per socket allowing for the 6 speaker connections required.  The Platinum version comes with an extra piece of hardware: an internal drive which slots neatly into the front of your computer in a spare drive bay. This amongst other things has connectors for headphones, a microphone, MIDI input and output, optical AND coaxial inputs and outputs, stereo auxiliary input, another Firewire connector and best of all, an infra red sensor for the remote control.

Installation


Installing a new soundcard is generally nice and easy. This one comes with a large fold out which describes the process well enough. As long as you take it a step at a time then you cannot go wrong. I won’t go into the details here as the provided guide will do a much better job however I will say this: before installing the new card, remove and uninstall your previous card including the drivers if possible and the software package it came with. I tried to run the Audigy 2 in conjunction with my SoundBlaster Live Value and experienced several problems which were down to the cards sharing similar hardware resources, and trying to use the same parts of the Live Value drivers. Therefore this is the process I recommend you follow (however any damage you do to yourself or your PC is your responsibility):
  • Uninstall any software you got with your old card (it is about to be obsolete anyway)
  • If possible, uninstall the drivers (via the Control panel) – this is not 100% necessary.
  • Power down the computer and physically remove the hardware.
  • Boot the computer back into Windows and verify that it is all still working, less the sound.
  • Power down again and install the Audigy 2 following the provided instructions to work out what to plug into where.
Now we get to the speakers. If you have not had surround speakers before then you will probably be scared as they come with a lot of cabling. This is a good thing as it lets you space the speakers out more, and the three rear speakers come with bags of cable. I was impressed by this and it shows that someone actually thought about making the entire product rather than concentrating just on the speakers themselves. However the cable is basically just slightly thicker than bell wire. Just take these a step at a time too and everything will be OK. All the speakers connect to the sub woofer so firstly it is best to connect this to the sound card. After that, just plug each speaker in one at a time and soon you will be sitting in the middle of potentially audio heaven.

Aesthetics


Since I am dealing with two separate products, this has two sections. Firstly the soundcard itself- it is a PCI card which slots into your PC and for all intensive purposes is hidden from view; however I am reviewing the Platinum version of the card. As I mentioned, this comes with a drive featuring extra connections. This is useful, especially for someone who might do a lot of minidisc recording or other types of audio manipulation and it also provides the IR sensor for the remote control however it is a little ugly. It is not the fault of the device really; it’s hard to make 11 connectors, two volume controls and an IR sensor look pretty. Since there is space there I would have liked it to have been recessed into the PC with some form of fold down cover as it now has put two large volume controls on the front of the PC. Obviously this would be fantastic for someone requiring these but for a DVD enthusiast I think I would recommend the less expensive Audigy 2 rather than the Platinum version without this device.

The speakers are great looking, especially when compared to my previous set. They are a matte black colour and the grills have a small silver Creative logo tastefully positioned at the bottom of the speaker. Provided are small desk stands for each speaker which enable the speakers to become a little more isolated from the desk for a better quality of audio reproduction. The front centre speaker is different to the rest in shape and size and the stand allows it to comfortably sit on a monitor. Available separately are different colour grills which are a nice idea if you find the black a little too bland. However I think the black ones supplied look great without the need for different colour grills. The sub woofer is huge. While not as big as my lounge set up, it truly is a gargantuan PC speaker. Sitting nicely under my desk out of the way, it is again black with a small Creative logo on the front. All in all I think this can only improve the trendiness of the new, more stylised PCs which are currently all the rage. These speakers are the top of the current range without an inbuilt decoder however at a PR conference I was allowed a sneaky listen to some new THX surround speakers which I assume will be out next year. At under £100 these will certainly not break the bank and you get a whole lot of speaker for your money.

DVD-Audio


This card manages to do something none of the other current cards on the market can do – playback DVD-Audio. Since there are no current software packages out there that can play these discs in their correct format, Creative supplier a player of their own which is a good idea. This software only plays back the audio part of the DVD-Audio disc. Unfortunately the video portion is not available for viewing. I hope this will be addressed in future updates as the video part of a DVD-Audio disc can differ between the DVD-Audio playback and the Dolby Digital playback hence a normal DVD player or DVD playback software can only view the Dolby Digital video. If that doesn't quite make sense then here's a pretty visual version of what I just said:


As expected, the DVD-Audio playback is impressive when compared to the Dolby Digital version on each disc. Improved clarity and a more punchy sound can be heard on Linkin Park’s track PTS.OF.ATHRTY. However this is a feature that is hard to describe without talking about the speakers.

The lower the volume is set for the speakers, the bassier the sound appears. Turning the volume up slightly resolves this and lets you enjoy these speakers as they should be used. The volume set at a normal level rather than a quiet setting contributes heavily to the audible qualities these incredibly inexpensive speakers can provide. It’s almost as if these speakers want to be turned up loud, and that is just what I like to do. Whacking the volume up to ludicrous level is quite fantastic. When using a PC is it quite normal to be sitting very close to the speakers and this really changes things. These speakers are capable of going loud. Neighbour-annoyingly loud. The sub pumps more and more bass and it is actually quite entertaining to think all this from my PC. Even when turned up nice and loud I did think the speakers were still a little heavy on bass for my liking however a quick play with the settings fixed this. It is important that when installing this sort of kit (or any sort of kit) you spend some time adjusting the setting to suit your needs. I prefer a brighter sound with more treble, personally. That’s not to say I don’t like bass, I just prefer bass to be a certain range of frequencies and not all over the sound field. The speakers come with an analogue volume and bass level wired remote control which can either sit on your desk, or be attached to your monitor for instance. The volume control also acts as the speakers power switch with the lowest setting turning them off. A headphone socket is also provided in case the neighbours start getting rowdy.  

DVD films


This soundcard decodes up to and including Dolby Digital EX. When it detects a Dolby Digital sound stream it briefly flashes a small Dolby digital logo in the bottom right of the screen just to let you know that it knows what it is doing. I quite liked that. However it does not decode DTS which is going to be a major problem for some people. It is possible to get DTS out by letting a software decoder do the work instead of the soundcard itself. Originally I had the DVD playback software set up so that the software decoded the sound and just passed the decoded material to the soundcard which promptly plays it through all the relevant speakers and all was good. However by telling the software to use the SPDIF instead of the speakers then the Audigy 2 decodes the sound and the difference was quite startling. The sound was altogether richer. It left me wondering why the DVD playback software I used was doing in retrospect, such a poor job with the audio. The Audigy 2 made the Dolby Digital EX sound even better than the equivalent (software decoded) DTS soundtrack which was interesting. The decision to not include DTS decoding at this point in time seems a little short sighted but the people that call the shots at Creative decided that due to user requirements there is not a current business case for this to have been included. They also state however, that if the business case arises then it is something that might be an area of support in the future. Whether it is possible to implement on an Audigy 2 via software updates is another thing though.


THX Certification


The sound card reviewed here is THX certified, but what does that mean? The following has been unquestionably ripped from the THX web site:

<table border=0 width=85%><tr><td> The THX Multimedia system certification program provides practical specifications for the display, sound system, audio/video processing and user controls to ensure the best quality picture and sound from a computer-based multimedia system. This list of THX-Certified product has been tested and approved for use based upon THX's rigorous technical specifications.</td></tr></table>

In order to get THX certification, the engineers in Singapore sent a sample to the Lucasfilm THX laboratories that tested it and found that it met and exceeded the level required for certification. The exact requirements to achieve certification are not known outside of Lucasfilm THX to protect the standard and stop cheap Taiwanese products labelling themselves "Meets THX Requirements"; basically though, the audio quality and build quality is tested. The Creative Labs Audigy 2 is currently the only THX certified sound card on the market which gives you an idea of how hard it is to achieve these levels of excellence. THX do not just certify hardware such as PC equipment, DVD players and Home Cinema Amplifiers but also DVDs. Therefore I hope it is clear that THX equipment is not a special way of reproducing sound or video such as Dolby Digital or DTS. THX certified DVDs will play on any DVD equipment, however it does show that that particular item has passed many rigorous tests to and is noted to be able to provide a certain level of service. Basically it is the logo equivalent of being able to more tastefully stick your fingers up to the opposition and say “ Look what we did, we are the best!

Gaming


The Platinum version of the Audigy 2 comes with two full games which I thought was a little odd but fantastic. They are good games too; however the prudes out there might be a little worried that they are not really for family use. Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix from Raven Software and the sneaky, hired gun game, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. Both these games take advantage of the 6.1 speaker set up and the EAX Advanced HD soundsystem to produce an incredible directional sense of gaming. It adds a previously unused dimension to gaming. To hear people sneaking around and knowing exactly where they are can add a tense atmosphere to games, particularly such “realistic” games like the Rainbow 6 series of games where it pays to be silent and listen to the sounds the enemy is making. Graphics have come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years to make games look more realistic and this now brings the audio experience up to the same level of realism.

This version of the Audigy 2 also comes with a whole host of other software including a DVD-Audio demo disc, Ulead’s Video Studio 5.0 SE, various sound manipulation software and the obligatory applications written for the card. I have often found the supplied own brand software presented with Creative products to be lacking somewhat in terms of usability due to bloated GUIs and poor execution however this software really does start to leave that old persona behind. Several applications are provided to set up your speakers correctly, as well as diagnostic tools, a streaming audio recording tool, a tool to transfer music to mini disc via one of the various digital outputs and of course the DVD-Audio playback software amongst others.

NB the card tested was the US model which means it is possible that the UK version comes with different software. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


6.1


Discrete 6.1 sound is an interesting thing. While the card supports this, it really is only for gaming. Dolby Digital EX is supported and while this uses a rear centre channel, it is a matrixed channel. This means that the extra information for this rear centre channel is carried in the rear left and rear right channels – it is not a dedicated channel. Therefore Dolby Digital EX is compatible with normal 5.1 systems as well as systems supporting EX. Dolby’s web site has a brief description of this which you can read here (it will open in a new window). So to summarise this, it does not support discrete 6.1 for DVDs, but it does support Dolby Digital EX  which uses a 6.1 speaker set up.

Benefits


Just a few rundown of the good and not so good points about this package:

  • DVD-Audio – excellent sound reproduction which no other card can match
  • THX certified – if it’s good enough for Lucas, then its good enough for you
  • Surround gaming experience – if you play games you need this, especially if it’s First Person Shooter type games
  • Quality software – plus decent games too which really blew me away
  • Lots of inputs/outputs – anyone after making or recording sound is going to love this, plus the mini disc feature is a nice touch
  • Remote control – if I am sitting back from my PC, I can still adjust the volume
  • Firewire - gotta love that speed
  • Up mixing of music – up mixes stereo well, into surround music
  • Huge lengths of speaker wire – put them where you want
  • Bigger sub than most of your friends set ups in their lounges – bet they get jealous



  • No DTS – why oh why oh why oh why???
  • Dolby Digital EX is not 6.1 – and while Creative haven't all out said this is the cards 6.1 decoding, its a bit of a grey marketing area.
  • Remote control – needs to be more programmable so I can use it with other software

Overall


Firstly the Audigy 2 – this is a fantastic card with a few minor problems. The lack of DTS does annoy me and means that perhaps DVD enthusiast might be put off by this. However since this can be achieved in software it is still possible to get DTS to the speakers. The extra connections on the front panel are probably not useful enough for the average DVD addict (unless the remote really is key in your system) which is good as it means I can recommend the cheaper package. The Audigy 2 retails for £85 plus VAT (available from Creative Labs online store – click here) which really is a bargain for a piece of hardware of this quality. If you are interested in the remote control and the extra connections then the Audigy 2 Platinum is £153 plus VAT from Creative Labs (click here). I am sure the net savvy among you can find it for less if you hunt around the web a little. For those of you that often get removed from the lounge by the other half and end up watching a DVD on your computer in poxy old stereo then you need this card.

NB. I haven't mentioned the ability to record audio at  24 bits/96kHz as this isn't particularly useful to the DVD market however I will just say that it's a real set up from the SoundBlaster Live! and if you do make your own music or record a lot of sound onto your PC then again, it is another invaluable feature.



Inspire 6700 speakers – seven high quality speakers for under £100 (from Creative labs – click here) is quite a shock these days and instantly will bring up ideas of cheaply put together rubbish however these are sturdy speakers, well designed with a very decent sound. Individually they might not impress you that much, but together these seven speakers really rock! The sub can really punch out a level of bass that reverberates throughout the house and could cause many problems with them next door. The smaller speakers once set up correctly thoroughly envelope you in a blanket of audio rapture.

It has been said to me that these speakers are the perfect partner for the Audigy 2 and on this price/performance level I can see why. Soon to be released are some new THX certified 5.1 speakers from Creative Labs and I am wondering if these will be the new perfect match as I can only assume they are fantastic (albeit only 5.1). I am wondering if Creative has shot itself in the foot this time. If DTS hardware decoding makes it into the next evolution of this card then I really fail to see what else Creative can do sound card wise since this really is an amazing bit of kit that outperforms its expectations in many ways. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, but in the mean time I think the DVD watching public are going to be happy with this product.


Links: