The Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro includes an external I/O hub that's chock-full of ports. Its coaxial and optical digital-audio inputs and outputs enable you to connect a variety of home-audio devices to your PC for recording and playing back, while the two FireWire ports let you connect to digital camcorders, audio players, and other devices. One quarter-inch line/guitar input, one quarter-inch line/mike input and a MIDI input/output set make the ZS Platinum Pro a suitable choice for home-recording hobbyists. Up front, a quarter-inch headphone port enables private listening, while around back, there's a digital miniplug output for digital speaker sets. Via two AD Link ports, the I/O hub connects to the PCI sound card itself. The PCI card has three analog miniplug outputs to which you can attach up to 7.1-channel speakers. An optional joystick/MIDI-port bracket lets you plug in older game controllers, as well, though we'd rather have a USB 2.0 port.
In addition to the ports, a playback volume/mute control, a microphone gain control, and a button for Creative Multi Speaker Surround, or CMSS (which is Creative's up-mixing/down-mixing/headphone spatialization technology), round out the I/O hub's front panel. Thanks to the IR remote, you can operate many ZS Platinum Pro features from across the room.
Setting up the ZS Platinum Pro was simple, although not quick in our tests; it took more than 20 minutes to install the large number of included components. Here's the process in a nutshell: We opened up the PC, installed the PCI card and the joystick/MIDI bracket, then connected the I/O hub to the PCI card. After installing the software, we connected our Creative GigaWorks S750 7.1-channel speakers, calibrated the setup with the THX certification utility for maximum movie audio quality, and we were good to go. The driver software lets you optimize settings, although its multiwindow approach is too compartmentalized, making it hard to quickly jump to the exact setting screen you're looking for.
The ZS Platinum Pro adds Digital Theater Systems' DTS-ES standard to the mix. While the Dolby Digital EX 6.1 decoding of last-generation Sound Blasters uses up-mixing to synthesize the sixth channel (rear-center speakers), DTS-ES sources have a discrete sixth channel for better sound localization. When we fired up Gladiator's "Hell Unleashed" scene in DTS-ES mode, the rear speakers created a slightly more convincing soundfield than we heard with Dolby Digital EX 6.1.
To test the ZS Platinum Pro's musical wherewithal, we popped in our DVD-Audio disc of Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi. No complaints here: the disc had a suitably clean and dynamic sound. Testing out CMSS, we fired up some MP3 tracks. With speakers and headphones, CMSS made the Flaming Lips' "Halloween on the Barbary Coast" sound somewhat more full than it is with regular 5.1 or 6.1 output, but the simulated 7.1-channel effect was not as impressive as when we tested PC game audio that can break up the sound to each specific channel. The Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro supports Creative's EAX Advanced HD and Microsoft's DirectSound 3D standards, which the vast majority of games use to deliver 3D audio. The Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro can render 7.1 discrete channels from games that incorporate DirectSound 3D, while it reaps additional ambient benefits from EAX 4.0 Advanced HD-enabled games. When we played Soldier of Fortune II, the ZS Platinum Pro and our 7.1-channel speaker system created a truly enveloping environment and aided gameplay by making it easy for us to track the positions of our enemies. Later we fired up Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, an EAX 4.0-enabled title. Although we can't say that EAX 4.0 is a revolutionary advancement compared to earlier versions of the standard, we did observe that the ambient environment was among the most complex, immersive, and three-dimensional that we've heard in any game.
The ZS Platinum Pro ships with an easy-to-follow quick-installation poster, supplemented by a Web link to electronic documentation as a part of the software installation.