The Audigy Platinum eX Review - Two Thumbs Up !

Truth be known, I've been pretty busy with other endeavors lately, so the release of the Audigy series caught me a little by surprise, but I started to study up on them a few weeks ago, and also to shop around. Perusal of the newsgroups turned up some posts suggesting that the Audigy was more stable under Win2k than the Live; some also suggested that it can be the same uphill struggle I've experienced before getting the Live working right under Windows NT (see other pages still on this site about all those issues). Users' opinions were conclusively inconclusive.

I initially decided that I would purchase an OEM version (eBay) of only the most basic card version. Back up the system, install the card - if it worked for me, fine - if not, I wouldn't be out big bucks and I'd put the Live back in, restore and go on. With the holidays here, and some time off, I figured now was the time. At the end of the day, however, I never got bidding in time to get the card here. So, I took the plunge and ordered at retail. I also took the plunge and ordered the Platinum eX version, although I doubted I'd use all of its features - I like toys . . .

The card came; I uninstalled the Liveware 3.0 drivers and the gameport, shut down and removed the card (funny thing is after I uninstalled the driver software, the Live hardware also disappeared - I suppose it would have been redetected had I restarted because Win2k does have native drivers for the Live, but I never gave it the chance).

Hardware installation was quite the chore: the eX uses a double ribbon cable between the main card and the daughter card. It also requires a power connection to the daughter card, as well as the Firewire connector - this is in addition to the analog (or digital) connection to the CD-ROM drive. By the time all this was installed I felt like I needed a hammer to get all the wires tucked back in and the case closed up again! This wasn't all - the Audigy Drive itself uses a large interconnect cable to the daughter card, with a Firewire extension, and a gameport pigtail as well. Several pounds of stuff when all is said and done. Don't underestimate this part of the task - it's certainly the most involved soundcard installation I've ever run across, but the instructions are clear and visual and lead you through every step of the way. One thing done right - the internal ribbon cable is a bit longer than the Live to its digital daughter card, so you don't have to have two adjacent slots open (good thing too, 'cause I don't on my PC).

Powered up and booted into Win2k - joy - the card was autodetected by the OS - no conflicts. Following Creative's instructions, I cancelled this attempt to install drivers, and let the autorun from the driver CD take over. I only installed the Audigy drivers - not all the other software that comes with the eX. All went well, all be it slowly, until the very end of the install process (curious - you register at the beginning of the process instead of the end). I got a Windows dialog that asked me to place the SB_INSTALL CD in the drive - but of course the CD had been in the drive all along. I couldn't get the install program to recognize this fact, and the only choice I had was to cancel the install. I wasn't very happy at this point - bad CD? Bad install code? No way of knowing, but it never asked me for the restart I knew would be required, so I tried to run the driver update I had downloaded while waiting for the card to arrive, and it told me that new drivers had been installed but no restart done, and exited. Hopeful at this point, I did a restart.

On the restart, everything looked pretty good - no errors in the event log - no BSOD - the OS recognized the presence of a soundcard, and looked like it was playing system sounds, but nothing came out of the speakers. I few tense moments until I realized with all the cable wrestling I had done, I never plugged in the Mic or speaker output cables!

Eureka - sound! I went ahead and ran the driver update, and it installed fine, asked for the expected restart, and everything worked. Even the gameport started right up the first time I went into Control Panel and ran the applet to configure it. Overall, while somewhat involved, the driver side of things is as good as anything I've ever seen from any CL product.

How about the listening part?

After all this, I loaded my MIDI player and started listening. My initial reaction was that the sound seemed more complex, and definitely stronger in the upper mid-range and high-end than I was used to hearing. I listened for about 30 minutes, overall being pleased, but feeling that I was now hearing problems with my soundfont (PC5), I started to anticipate a lot of rework to optimize it for the Audigy. Checking into the various applications for the Audigy to see what might be different, I opened the Soundfont applet from AudioHQ - to my surprise, I was using the 4MB GM that ships with the Audigy; even though I had loaded PC5 in the beginning, when I ran the driver update, it had reverted to the factory default. I quickly increased the soundfont cache and loaded PC5 again.

I still find the sound quality to be more complex. The upper mid-range is still slightly stronger (but better balanced with PC5 - a large part of the earlier difference was not so much attributable to the Audigy as it was due to the difference in soundfont), and the high-end a definite improvement over the Live. I have spent several hours listening to MIDI, and have yet to encounter the "dropped instrument" problem that plagues the Live cards when you use soundfonts larger than 32MB. I also have yet to encounter the load "buzz" when playing WAV files AFTER playing MIDI files. Both of these are definitely improved over the Live, and make the investment worthwhile.

On the other hand, there may still be some driver-related issues; after several hours of MIDI play, I have noticed some strange "jerkiness" to the machine - almost as though some application is tying up quite a bit of CPU time. One time when I did a restart, I got an access violation from explorer.exe, but this problem hasn't cropped up since then. Also, this seems to be more prevalent when I also have the on-screen display for the Audigy Drive also loaded.

As for the Audigy Drive - it's really pretty cool - most particularly the on screen display and the remote control. Many sound parameters can be set by the remote control, and the ability to have inputs right in front of you instead of having to crawl around behind your PC is a real nice feature. When / if I get a digital camcorder, I think the front-mounted Firewire port will be useful - and the drivers for it show up nicely in Device Manager.

But, I think the overall best feature is the improvement in sound quality.

This is definitely a worthwhile investment.