For less than $200, nearly any modern personal computer can become a home entertainment center with immersive, teeth-rattling sound that rivals high-end stereos and even some real-world theaters.
The Sound Blaster Audigy 2 add-in card from Creative Technology Ltd. is a dream for game players and those who see the PC as the hub of digital entertainment.
The Audigy 2 also adds high-speed FireWire capability to older systems, essentially making it two upgrades in one.
Though some surgery on the PC is required, the card offers an impressive list of features, including better audio than even the compact disc.
PCs with DVD drives can play DVD-Audio, a new high-end format. Regular video DVDs also play with greater audio fidelity, particularly on PCs equipped with surround-sound speakers.
Gamers can take advantage of Audigy 2's ability to channel sound into six satellite speakers and a subwoofer for bass. An enemy sneaking from behind actually sounds like he's approaching from the rear.
But is the sound improvement noticeable to non-audiophiles like myself?
I tested the Audigy 2 in my home system, an older Hewlett-Packard Pavilion with a 788 megahertz Pentium III microprocessor and last year's Audigy sound card.
I added the $200 Audigy 2 Platinum, which includes the sound card and an access panel that fits into an empty drive bay. The panel has several ports for headphones and other connections, including FireWire, and can be controlled with a remote control. The sound card without the panel costs $130.
I immediately noticed a difference when playing music - both MP3 files and compact discs. The sound was warmer and seemed to have greater depth.
After replacing my old two-speaker setup with Creative's 6.1 Inspire speakers, the system created a truly immersive experience with three tiny speakers in the front and three in the rear of the room plus a subwoofer.
With classical music, it was like sitting in the middle of a perfectly balanced orchestra. For country, pop and rock, it was akin to being in the front row of a concert.
Though my neighbors probably weren't happy, I pumped up the volume until the walls rattled. The speakers continued to produce clear sound.
I noticed the same sonic warmth with DVD-Audio, even though my system fell well below the minimum suggested configuration of a PC with a 1 gigahertz Pentium III microprocessor.
(DVD-Audio has one major limitation: You can't use it with digital speakers or a recorder because of copyright concerns.)
Installation was fairly simple. Fortunately, Creative improved its setup guide so that it's no longer necessary to wade through a half dozen languages to find the English sections.
The sound card fits into an available PCI slot. Most PCs have a few available, though it's a good idea to check before buying.
The panel easily slid into an empty drive bay on my old HP Pavilion 8595c. It was a challenge snaking the wires from the rear of the panel to the sound card in the tiny confines of the computer. It was similarly challenging hooking up the DVD and CD drives.
Yet I managed to connect everything without disconnecting anything important.
Once the hardware is in place, software drivers must be installed. This process is mostly automatic, at least with recent versions of the Windows operating system. (Macs are not supported.)
The software that comes with the package works well enough. Most useful is the sound mixer, which allows users to fine-tune the audio - treble, bass, speaker balance or position and the various inputs.
It also can smooth over the "pops" and "clicks" of vinyl records ripped from old-style phonographs as well add special effects such as changing the sound environment to a cathedral or speeding up playback without altering the pitch.
As for the Inspire speakers, which retail for $130, setup was painless, except for unwrapping the individual speakers from plastic baggies. Creative could have supplied more cable for the rear units.
Overall, the Audigy 2 is an affordable and meaningful upgrade for both new machines that shipped with subpar audio and older machines that aren't quite ready to be replaced entirely.
On the Net:
Creative Sound Blaster: http://www.soundblaster.com