- Review Price: £77.00
It’s staggering to think that it’s now 15 years since Creative launched the original Sound Blaster card. Computer hardware has come a long way since then, but the Sound Blaster series is still going strong, though of course it has had to evolve radically to maintain its appeal. Among the features boasted by the Audigy 2 NX are 24bit audio playback and recording, plus Dolby Digital EX and DVD Audio support – a far cry from the 11-voice FM synthesiser and 8bit mono recording capabilities of the first Sound Blaster.
The challenge for sound card manufacturers nowadays is that many people are perfectly happy with their motherboard’s integrated audio capabilities. Audiophiles appreciate the improved quality offered by well-designed sound cards, but many people can’t tell the difference. So Creative’s approach has been to pack its cards with impressive-looking features, and focus on external audio devices rather than internal ones.
External audio devices have a couple of obvious benefits over internal ones. For a start, they’re much easier to install. There’s no need to open up the case – you can simply plug an external sound card into a spare USB socket, install the drivers and you’re in business. And of course, you can use an external device with a laptop just as easily as you can with a desktop machine.
USB should be around for long time, unlike PCI, which is going to gradually fade away over the next couple of years. If you were to buy a PCI internal sound card right now, you’ll probably have to ditch it and buy a new PCI-Express one when you next upgrade your machine, whereas a USB device may give you a few extra years of service.
Probably the biggest advantage that external devices offer, however, is an abundance of space for input and output sockets. The Audigy 2 NX has far more sockets than a typical internal sound card. Arranged around the right-hand side and rear of the unit are three analogue speaker outputs, an S/PDIF socket, optical digital input and output connectors, a headphone jack, plus line and microphone inputs, along with the obligatory USB and power sockets.
On the top of the device are dials for controlling the master and microphone volumes. They look similar, but in fact they behave quite differently. The master volume dial is notched and can be spun endlessly in either direction, and so functions as a relative volume control rather than an absolute one. The microphone volume control is much more conventional, as it isn’t notched, and it only spins through 270 degrees between minimum and maximum levels.
Also adorning the top of the unit are a couple of indicator LEDs, and buttons for power, muting the output, and toggling the CMSS mode on and off (more on that in a moment).
Aside from the unit itself, the box contains a power adapter and leads, a 4-in-1 speaker audio cable, two software CDs, and a neat little remote control which is powered by a watch battery (also provided).
Setting everything up doesn’t take long, but Creative doesn’t make life particular easy for newcomers to the world of PC audio. For a start, the input and output sockets aren’t colour coded, so you’ll need to consult the fold-out Quick Start sheet in order to work out which colour-coded connector belongs in each of the NX’s output sockets.
Speaking of the Quick Start sheet, it’s astonishingly brief. It provides a couple of helpful diagrams and instructions in a glut of languages, but only covers the absolute basics. A detailed user guide is provided on one of the software discs, but this is only mentioned in passing on the Quick Start sheet.
With everything up and running, it quickly becomes apparent that the Audigy 2 NX has plenty of clever tricks up its sleeve, though quite a few of them are only available through the software provided with the device. Fortunately, you get a lot of this, and it’s generally excellent.
The centrepiece is Creative MediaSource 2, a well-designed program which offers media playback and management capabilities, along with sound recording and editing features. The playback and management features can even be accessed through a superb Windows Media Center-style, menu-driven interface that is controlled using the remote.
MediaSource 2 is packed with nice touches, such as the Smart Volume Management feature, which evens out volume levels across multiple music tracks – so you’ll never again have to reach for the remote when a particularly loud or quiet MP3 track pops up in your playlist. Audio cleanup options will also be appreciated by those who want to use the Audigy 2 NX to transfer tunes from their vinyl collection onto their hard drives.
Oddly though, whilst many of the NX’s less-publicised features impress, some of the headline features disappoint. DVD Audio support, for instance, sounds useful but is unlikely to prove so in the long run. The DVD Audio format is a 24bit/192KHz standard, but the Audigy 2 NX only supports 24bit/96KHz playback so the audio is down-sampled accordingly. And as the supplied DVD Audio demo clearly illustrates, it’s hard to spot any difference between a good CD audio recording and a DVD Audio recording anyway – even when listening through a top-class speaker system.
What’s more, when you’re listening to DVD Audio, the digital outputs of the NX are disabled (for licensing reasons). This means you have to use the analog speaker outputs, which may not impact on audio quality but is certainly an annoyance from a cabling point of view. Of course, none of this will surprise those who have already realised that DVD Audio is a format invented purely to fleece even more money out of gullible souls who already own their favourite albums on vinyl, tape and CD formats.
The CMSS system is underwhelming too. This is activated by pressing the relevant button on the top of the unit or on the remote, and its purpose is to playback stereo content such as CDs and MP3s using multiple audio channels. It works well enough, but whether it will actually increase your listening pleasure is debatable.
Finally, there’s the NX’s support for EAX. This is a system designed to add environmental audio effects to games, and there’s no doubt that EAX can add another dimension to games such as Doom3 and Half-Life 2 (when it finally arrives). However, the Audigy 2 NX handles EAX through software, not hardware. In other words, there’s just as big a load on your CPU when playing an EAX-enabled game with the NX as there would be if you were using a typical on-board sound system. If you’re a keen gamer who wants tip-top frame rates, you’ll be better off with an internal sound card capable of taking the load off your CPU.
Despite these failings though, it’s hard not to be impressed by the Audigy 2 NX. The 24bit audio playback and recording is great for musicians and audio enthusiasts, and sound output quality across the board is superb. Moreover, considering its broad range of features and its fantastic supporting software, at just £76.98 the Audigy 2 NX represents great value for money.
The Audigy 2 NX may not be perfect, but its plus points definitely outweigh the minus ones. The sound quality is superb, and once you factor in the price and the fact that you can connect it to any number of machines, its appeal grows. If you want high-quality audio on all your PCs, including your notebook, the Audigy 2 NX will do the job nicely.