Some may think this is off topic, but I think it fully relates to podcasting. We've written and read lots of messages on here about different recording solutions, the irivers, the plextalk, etc. I've wanted a digital recorder in my laptop for years, but the extigy cards just didn't cut it for me, I think we have a solution. It's the audigy2 zs notebook.It's a pcmcia sound card and when inserted on laptops looks very similar to the Linksys wireless card, i.e. sticks out about an inch from the edge of the laptop. Much more acceptable to me from the extigy cards which were external units that needed to be plugged in to an a c outlet; totally not portable in my book. In short, it provides everything the desktop cousin has except for midi and coax connectors, it does have optical in and out though. I got it because it offered line-in, which on a laptop is hard to find, and impossible on the ultra-portables I prefer. If you're happy with recordings made on desktop audigy2 cards, you'll like the zs notebook. Figured this was on topic enough to post. That was the summary, for you tech-heads out there, here's a very nice review of the card. This may be a good time to grab it, it's going for about $100 at stores like best buy etc. with a $25 rebate from Creative Labs. http://www.acbradio.org/news/xml/podcast.php?pgm=replayOctober 27, 2004 Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook By Dave Salvator The LAN party. It's our generation's bowling/poker/movie night all rolled up in one. Hauling gear to a LAN party can be a real drag (literally), and some gamers have taken to bringing high-end laptops instead. And why not? With GPUs like ATI's Mobility Radeon 9800 available now and nVidia's competitive equivalent coming soon, why wouldn't you want to put all your LAN party gear into a single small backpack? Well, for all the CPU and 3D goodness that has made its way into the mobile set, most mobile audio solutions have hardly evolved at all. wrolka: Nice review, but it's missing one thing. view full post > It isn't that decent solutions aren't available-it's more a function of laptop makers almost always doing minimal audio implementations. To wit, there hasn't been a single laptop audio solution on the market with hardware buffers and hardware-accelerated support for DirectSound3D processing effects. But Creative recently changed all that with its new Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook. This Cardbus-based mobile audio solution sports the very same E-Mu 10K2 audio processor that powers its desktop cousin. It also carries more logos than the back of a well-traveled Winnebago (EAX 4.0, DVD-Audio, Dolby Digital, DTS, THX, ASIO 2.0). Most of Creative's recent sound cards have been decidedly evolutionary steps, with good incremental features added to round out Sound Blaster's already bountiful (some would say bloated) feature set. The new Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook doesn't add any new features to the Sound Blaster family, but what makes it such a breakout product is that, unlike its USB cousins, it puts all those features in the hands of the mobile gaming set with virtually no compromises. If you're a mobile gamer, this is the audio solution for you. Why? Click next to find out. Speeds and Feeds Here are some of the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook's vital statistics: table with 2 columns and 15 rows Rated signal-to-noise ratio (SNR): 104dB Supported output resolutions: Up to 96KHz/24-bit 7.1 and 192KHz/24-bit stereo. Playback: 24-bit digital-to-analog conversion of digital sources at 96KHz to analog 7.1 speaker output, 192KHz for Stereo DVD-A. Recording: Via stereo analog inputs at 96KHz/24-bit. S/PDIF Support: Resolutions up to 96KHz/24-bit quality at selectable sampling rate of 44.1, 48, or 96 kHz (SPDIF output is not available during playback of protected digital audio contents authored with Microsoft DRM (Digital Rights Management) technology.) Outputs: Wiring harness with three 1/8-inch connectors for 7.1 output, and combo headphone/S/PDIF output jack. Input: Combo line/microphone input. Supported audio APIs/drivers DirectSound, DirectSound3D, WDM (Wave), ASIO 2.0, and SoundFont. table end For something as small as a PC Card, the ZS Notebook (ZSN) packs quite a bit of I/O onboard. Outputs for driving a speaker rig of up to 7.1 channels take the form of an optional wiring harness that you can leave home when you travel with your laptop. Sans harness, you've got a combo S/PDIF/headphone output, and a mic/line input. The output is the more interesting of the two, since it combines the optical output with a headphone jack, and you can connect a Toslink cable that terminates with an 1/8-inch connector. The Wiring Harness click on image for full view About the only thing missing from the mix are coaxial (RCA) S/PDIF and MIDI I/O, but given how little side-panel real estate designers are afforded with PC Cards, some things have to wind up on the cutting room floor. How We Tested To wring out sound cards, we hit them with a rigorous battery of audio tests: list of 4 items RightMark 3DSound: We've decided to retire Audio WinBench 99 1.01 because the code base is no longer maintained, and DirectSound and CPU architectures have undergone substantial changes since that benchmark was being actively developed. We've switched over to RightMark's 3DSound, which measures 2D DirectSound, DirectSound3D, and even DirectSound3D plus some EAX effects on any number of audio streams. We use 32 streams--an extreme test case to stress the sound card's DirectSound/DirectSound3D driver stack. RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.4: Measures audio signal quality, and measurements include frequency response, noise, dynamic range, intermodulation distortion, THD+N, and stereo crosstalk Sound Forge noise-floor tests: We removed all connections from the sound device, both inbound (signal generator, other audio devices) and outbound (speakers) to get a reading of the card's noise floor. We then recorded 10 seconds of silence, and then brought up Sound Forge's Statistics window to read the RMS Power Value, which is the average signal energy value present throughout the 10-second recording. This test measures "what's there when nothing's there," or the noise the device itself generates when sitting still. We take measurements both at 44KHz/16-bit and 96KHz/24-bit resolutions. Close Listening Tests: We use a set of Shure e5c in-ear earphones for very close inspection tests. We're listening for audible noise that can take several forms: list of 4 items nesting level 1 Hash: sounds like tape-hiss. Blitter noise: audible noise that occurs when windows are moved around using the mouse. Sometimes noise from the 3D card's 2D blitter can leak into audio circuitry. Circuit noise: general persistent buzzing that sometimes occurs in poorly laid-out sound cards. Zipper noise: occurs when mixer faders are moved up and down. list end nesting level 1 list end For our testing, we used an ASUS notebook equipped as follows: list of 6 items 1.6GHz Pentium-M CPU 512MB of system memory Intel 855 chipset ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 SigmaTel AC97 codec Windows XP SP2 with DirectX 9.0c list end RightMark Test Results table with 3 columns and 13 rows Resolution: 96KHz/24-bit 44.1KHz/16-bit Noise level, dB (A): -96.7 -92.5 Dynamic range, dB (A): 96.4 92.3 THD, %: 0.0020 0.0029 IMD, %: 0.0062 0.0078 Stereo crosstalk, dB: -88.2 -88.3 IMD at 10 kHz, %: 0.0074 3.446 table end We had hoped to compare the ZSN with the ASUS laptop's baseline audio solution, but the laptop's only input is a mic-level input, so we were unable to gather a set of data using RightMark Audio Analyzer (RMAA). All told, the ZSN turns in very solid numbers here, with the exception of the IMD number at 44KHz/16-bit. When we saw that number, and then measured the IMD at 96KHZ/24-bit, we went back and re-ran the 44KHz/16-bit test several more times using different gain structures on the mixer, but the results never varied more than a tenth of a percentage point or so. The 96KHz/24-bit IMD number is very good, although the IMD at 44KHz/16-bit is definitely in need of improvement. Granted the 96KHz/24-bit numbers aren't up around the 104dB stated signal-to-noise (SNR) ratio; that figure likely comes from testing only the output using an Audio Precision measurement system. Our methodology uses a loop-back approach, where we're testing the input and output simultaneously. The upside of this strategy is that you get an idea how the whole system performs in a single set of numbers; the downside is that when a problem arises, it's impossible to know whether the input or output is at fault. RightMark 3DSound This test gauges CPU usage by running first with no load on the CPU to establish a baseline, and then you can designate how many streams you want to have the driver play simultaneously. It first plays the sounds using DirectSound, then DirectSound3D, and then finally using a combination of DirectSound3D and EAX effects. table with 5 columns and 5 rows Baseline DirectSound DirectSound3D DirectSound3D + EAX Baseline SigmaTel 1.4 3.4 DNR* DNR* Creative Audigy 2 Laptop 2.6 5.9 10.3 10 table end 32 voices at 44KHz/16-bit *DNR = Did Not Run - no DirectSound3D hardware buffers available from driver. Testing with 32 voices puts a serious load on any piece of audio hardware, and represents an extreme gaming situation where a lot would be going on. But the goal is to present a worst-case scenario. Running on DirectSound, the ZSN actually exhibits higher CPU usage than the SigmaTel integrated audio solution. However, because the SigmaTel solution doesn't have hardware buffers, it can't complete the DirectSound3D test. For its part, the ZSN exhibits somewhat high CPU usage here, up around 10%. This likely results from two factors--the PC Card I/O overhead, and the 1.6MHz Pentium M (a 3+GHz Pentium 4 CPU would be better). Remember that this is a pretty extreme test case, and you're still getting the whole enchilada in terms of supported APIs. Sound Forge Noise Floor and Close Listening Test Results table with 2 columns and 5 rows Resolution Noise floor 44KHz/16-bit -87.2dBFS 96KHz/24-bit -96dBFS table end These are terrific numbers, very much on par with good desktop sound card numbers, meaning you can run a line-level input into the ZSN, and make clean recordings Next we hooked up a pair of Shure e5c earphones to scrutinize the ZSN's line-level and headphone outputs and see if its outputs are as clean as its inputs. What we found is the line output was basically pristine. We turned up mixer faders to full open, which is where some audio cards exhibit their worst behavior, and even here, the ZSN's line output was clean and clear of hash, or the three types of noise we listen for (blitter, circuit and "zipper"). Next we turned our ears toward the more important headphone output, and there the news was just about as good. There was no audible noise, but a small amount of hash was discernible. When we dialed up the master fader beyond -8dB, we heard an audible click, and the amount of audible hash increased noticeably. To be fair, playing music with the master fader only turned up to -8dB was still plenty loud, and once music was playing, the output's hash faded well into the background. Hands-on Time: Overall Usage Experience The overall feel of the ZSN is almost identical to what you'd have with a desktop Audigy 2 ZS. Depending on your point of view, that's either all the convenience or all of the unneeded clutter that Creative is known for with its sound cards and the multitudinous applets included with them. Fortunately, during the installation, you have the option of installing only the ZSN's drivers, and using the default Windows mixer. We opted to install pretty much the whole shebang, which consisted of: list of 15 items Creative Audio Console Creative Diagnostics Creative Speaker Calibrator Creative MediaSource DVD-Audio Player Creative Speaker Settings Creative Smart Recorder Creative SoundFont Bank Manager Creative THX Setup Console Creative Surround Mixer Creative Graphic Equalizer Creative WaveStudio EAX Console Sound Blaster Performance Utilities DTS Neo:6 Settings Windows Drivers list end These apps are identical to those found on the desktop Audigy 2 ZS. Among them, the star is the THX Setup Console: If you have a 5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 speaker rig in your home base, you can use this applet to get your individual channel settings dialed in just right. The only annoyance with this app is that it doesn't have a snapshot-saving feature, and because there are up to 22 different settings, a state-save feature is something Creative really needs to add here. The mixer has dB-accurate faders, a feature added because the Creative crew got tired of hearing me complain about it in review after review. That feature has been present in Creative's mixer since the Audigy 2, and I'm glad to have it. Now I have another request to make a good thing better--the ability punch in a specific number for a fader setting (i.e. -3dB) and the ability to nudge a fader using cursor arrow keys. This second feature is found in Windows' default mixer, and comes in very handy when trying to get gain structure settings dialed in just so. One "feature" that absolutely needs to be yanked with impunity from Creative's installer is the AOL litter that shows up in the Start menu, the links bar of IE, and IE's Favorites menu. It would be aggravating enough if Creative did this with its own web sites or something evenly remotely audio-related. But this has been an ongoing deal between Creative and AOL for several generations now, but it's time to put this bull out to pasture. The ZSN also has the ability to help conserve laptop battery power by disabling some features, but you have to manually switch between its two modes. The main difference between them is that in High Performance mode, EAX effects are hardware-accelerated, whereas the Standard Performance mode runs EAX effects using host-based processing. Creative will hopefully add a simple feature in the next iteration of the performance settings that lets you define which mode to use when, or just have the mode key off which power mode the system is in (battery or AC power). We also fired up Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault and went for a tear through its demo level, and the ZSN didn't disappoint. All of the game's audio elements-sound effects, soundtrack music, dialogue-were solidly rendered, and running with medium graphics settings at 800x600, frame rate remained smooth, and never chunked. Finally, we slipped a DVD-Audio disc, REM's Reveal , into our test laptop. And while the execution wasn't quite perfect, Creative's MediaSource app came up and began playing the DVD-Audio. Windows initally prompted us to play the disc as a DVD-Video disc in Windows Media Player, and didn't offer the option of playing the disc using MediaSource. So apparently Creative's app hadn't registered itself to play DVD-Audio discs. But it may be a limitation of Windows not recognizing DVD-Audio as a different media type from DVD-Video. Because on the one hand, Windows didn't really knopw how to "handle" the DVD-Audio disc playback, but MediaSource did nonetheless kick in and begin playing the disc. Once MediaSource took over the operation, the playoff also went off without a hitch. Final Thoughts/What to Buy Creative's Sound Blaster line offers the most feature-complete sound cards in the business, and the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook is a logical progression for the Audigy 2 family. It brings the entire feature set to laptop gamers and audio enthusiasts, and from our testing, it's a solid implementation that will spruce up any laptop audio sub-system. It also brings EAX 4.0, DTS, Dolby Digital, THX, and DVD-Audio to the laptop market--something no other mobile audio solution has done. At $129, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook is pretty easy on the wallet, too. Some have wondered aloud whether solutions based on Intel's HD Audio specification would eat Creative's core business-PCI sound cards-for lunch. Given the spotty offerings we've seen to date, and HD Audio's continued inability to render DVD-Audio at full resolution, it would seem that rumors of Creative's demise may have been exaggerated. But bringing a full-featured audio offering to the still-growing laptop market opens up a new market for Creative, and puts mobile computing on more even footing with its desktop counterpart. If you take your gaming on the run, then the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook should be on your holiday wish list. table with 2 columns and 12 rows Product: Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook Company: www.soundblaster.com Summary: Creative's latest brings a full-featured audio solution to laptop gamers and audio enthusiasts. About the only thing missing is the kitchen sink. Pros: Full feature set; clean signal quality; solid performance; full-resolution DVD-Audio. Cons: No MIDI I/O; the AOL litter has got to go. Price: $129 MSRP Rating: ExtremeTech Approved table end Dave Salvator dave_salvator@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Dave came to have his insatiable tech jones by way of music-and because his parents wouldn't let him run away to join the circus. After a brief and ill-fated career in professional wrestling, Dave now covers audio, HDTV, and 3D graphics technologies at ExtremeTech. Dave came to ExtremeTech as its first hire from Computer Gaming World, where he was Technical Director and Lead (okay, the only) Saxophonist for five years. While there, he and Loyd Case pioneered the area of testing 3D graphics using PC games. This culminated in 3D GameGauge, a suite of OpenGL and Direct3D game demo loops that CGW and other Ziff-Davis publications, such as PC Magazine, still use. Dave has also helped guide Ziff-Davis benchmark development over the years, particularly on 3D WinBench and Audio WinBench. Before coming to CGW, Dave worked at ZD Labs for three years (now eTesting Labs) as a project leader, testing a wide variety of products, ranging from sound cards to servers and everything in between. He also developed both subjective and objective multimedia test methodologies, focusing on audio and digital video. Before all that he toured with a blues band for two years; notable gigs included opening for Mitch Ryder and appearing at the Detroit Blues Festival.