Minor Improvements in Creative's Audigy 4 Pro

By Dave Salvator  |  Print this article Print

Review: Creative's latest Audigy offers new D/A converters that deliver a bit more dynamic range. Creative also added a few new bundled software applications. Is that enough to justify a whole new product? We have our doubts.

Four is the new three. Or at least that's what Creative's model numbering system would have us believe. The company went from the Audigy 2 to the Audigy 2 ZS, and then went straight to its new Audigy 4. We've generally been impressed with the Audigy 2 series of sound cards, and Creative still has the most feature-complete line of consumer sound cards in the business.

When the Audigy 4 first darkened our doorstep we looked forward to seeing what new audio goodness Creative had in store for us. There are some new things here, like some new bundled software, and there are even new D/A converters that deliver a bit more dynamic range. Those items aside, is there enough newness here to warrant bringing a whole new product to market? We'll let you be the judge. We take a brief look at Creative's latest offering, and offer some holiday buying advice if you're in the sound card market.

The Audigy 4 Pro has the identical feature set to its slightly older sibling, the Audigy 2 ZS, and you can get the full run-down of those features here in our Audigy 2 ZS review. The main notable difference is the rated dynamic range of the D/A converters (DACs) at 192 KHz/24-bit stereo. The Audigy 2 ZS is rated at 107dB, whereas the Audigy 4 Pro is rated at 113dB. Unlike any of the Audigy 2 offerings, Creative is planning one, and only one, Audigy 4 product.It's a 6dB pickup in dynamic range, though truth to tell, unless you've got some very high-end speakers, highly trained ears, and listen to content at this resolution specifically, you'll be hard-pressed to hear a difference. Even then, it's a case of going from "very good" to "even better." The performance increase when we measured it with a signal analyzer, but these improvements will be hardly noticeable to human ears.

Creative's Audigy 2 line of cards already includes a generous helping of bundled software apps, some useful, others less so. A new addition to that family is called Smart Audio Recorder, which allows you to schedule recordings when you're not home. This can be useful for catching webcasts from Internet radio stations, or you could connect an FM tuner and catch a favorite radio program and listen to it when you want to. Also new to the Audigy 4 are two bundled Eidos games: Hitman Contracts and Thief: Deadly Shadows.Those differences aside, the Audigy 4 Pro has the identical software bundle found in the Audigy 2 ZS.

To wring out sound cards, we hit them with a rigorous battery of audio tests:

  • 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 44 KHz/16-bit and 96 KHz/24-bit resolutions.
  • Close Listening Tests: We use a set of Shure e5c in-ear earphones for very close inspection tests.

For the close listening tests, we're listening for audible noise that can take several forms:

  • 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.

For our testing, we used an Intel-based desktop system equipped as follows:

  • 3.06GHz Pentium 4 CPU
  • 1GB of system memoryIntel 865PERL motherboard (Intel 865 chipset)
  • ATI Radeon 9600 XT
  • Windows XP SP2 (DirectX 9.0c)
96KHZ/24-bit 192KHz/24-bit
Audigy 4
Audigy 2 ZS
Audigy 4
Audigy 2 ZS
Audigy 4
Audigy 2 ZS
Noise level, dB (A):
Dynamic range, dB (A):
THD, %:
IMD, %:
Stereo crosstalk, dB:
IMD at 10 kHz, %:

Since Creative's stated dynamic range improvement happens at only 192KHz/24-bit, we added that test resolution to the mix to see if there was any delta. The Intermodulation Distortion (IMD) is higher than we'd like to see at 44KHz/16-bit, and is happening because Creative runs the 10K2 audio processor at 48KHz internally. The sample-rate then converts to 44KHz/16-bit when that resolution is requested by an application. Because the 96KHz and 192KHz sample rates are exact multiples of 48KHz (2X and 4X, respectively), the IMD issue doesn't occur here.Beginning with version 5.1, RightMark added a new IMD test that uses a swept sine test signal, consisting of two harmonics with a frequency difference of 1KHz (CCIF standard). The test tone then sweeps the audible frequency range, and tests the dependence of intermodulation by frequency, detecting high-frequency intermodulations specific to internal sample rate conversion (SRC) algorithms of a sound card.

As you can see, both cards are delivering solid results at all three test resolutions. However, there's no appreciable difference in overall performance. We spoke briefly with a Creative company officially, and they acknowledged that the improvement in dynamic range is on the output side only, and that a loopback test configuration like the one we use wouldn't show the gain in dynamic range. For that, we'd need a high-end piece of measurement gear like an Audio Precision signal analyzer.

Still, either card is going to keep things very quiet, both are at feature parity, so the added "benefit" of the Audigy 4 is essentially for bragging rights.

At $249, the Audigy 4 Pro represents a sizeable audio investment, and unless you really need your I/O topside, you should probably just stick with one of the Audigy 2 ZS models that lack the breakout box but can be found for around $85. The Audigy 4 does offer up slightly better dynamic range, but the difference is by and large an academic one. The new bundled apps are welcome, but aren't exactly earth-shattering either.

All told, the Audigy 4 Pro is another worthwhile, albeit pricey offering from Creative. If you're a serious audio junky who craves EAX, ASIO, THX, DVD-Audio, DTS, and Dolby Digital, then the Audigy 4 Pro will give you the fix you need. Then again, so will the Audigy 2 ZS, and it can be found for about $50 less with the identical external breakout box.

If our recommendation seems tepid, that's because it is. There's nothing wrong with the Audigy 4 Pro, except that we can't find enough vital new things to recommend it over some of Creative's less expensive offerings. But if you want the most feature-packed, clean-performing sound card going, the Audigy 4 will send you home happy.

Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro
One of the best sound cards going gets a little better and offers some new bundled software. But it's expensive, and it's not that much better than its predecessor.
Very clean signal quality; plenty of bundled software; very versatile driver/API support.
Expensive; only one model; not a huge improvement over the Audigy 2 ZS
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.


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