Impressive audio has never been one of the selling points of laptops. Small speakers, needing to conserve energy rather than belt out virtuoso, ear-splitting performances have always resulted in less than impressive overall quality.
Until now. Enter stage left the latest in the Creative Sound Blaster range of Audigy 2 ZS products. The Sound Blaster has been around for over a decade, especially well known to the gaming community, translating gamers' sound-scapes into an impressive virtual reality.
The new notebook card resembles a 3G wireless PCMCIA card in size, shape and docking point on the PC laptop. Once in place, the left and right ports accept either optical or mini jacks while the middle dock is designed for a special speaker cable, connecting direct to a normal speaker amp. The card is multitasking in that it can have audio either played out through it, to an amplifier or recording devices to hear the sound through conventional speakers, or it can have an audio source played through it into the laptop, thus acting as the encoder. Every possible format seems to be covered with Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES decoding, THX, 5.1, 6.1 & 7.1 surround sound, DVD-Audio and Hi-fidelity and 24-bit recording all being handled.
Creative also bless the buyer with enough software to accomplish virtually anything. Included in the box you get Creative Media Source, Sound Blaster Audigy 2 and Creative Wave Studio. Between the creative packages and the EAX Advanced HD effects control panels, you'll find solutions to record, burn, edit, equalize, customize and clean all the audio you'll ever want to.
There are some disadvantages though, once the card is in place, and the software recognized, the computer's speakers will no longer work. This means that if you want to share an impromptu tune with others, oblivious to the falling audio quality, then you have to remove the card, close all the related software and faff around a bit to get audio playback back to how it was. The supporting literature is a little sparse on how to use the functions but excessive on what the features do, concentrating on a impressive, but unnecessary, demo disk of all the latest games supporting DirectSound3D system.
Overall if you intent to have any sort of fun with your laptop then this is £100 you need to spend. Games, DVD's, MP3's CD's will all sound fantastic when played though the card, even if it's only into a pair of headphones for your enjoyment. The creative range of the software supplied will allow for recording studio activities, the only real danger you have is filling up the hard-drive too quickly.