All-purpose sound card: Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro

This new sound card from Creative Labs replaces the company's Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS as the flagship of the company's line-up. Released back in September 2003, the Audigy 2 ZS range now pretty much replaces the ageing Live! series as the entry level standard.

For its part, the new Audigy 4 Pro is essentially a revamped Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro and includes an internal PCI sound card, external connector hub, infrared remote control and software bundle. The connections are also similar - see "specifications".

What is new though, is the improved Audigy 4 Pro processor and the new DACs (digital/analog converters) that combine to lift the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) to 113dB (up from 108dB) for clean, hiss-free audio.

Like the Audigy 2 range, the card supports true 24-bit/192KHz stereo, DVD audio playback, up to 7.1 speakers, EAX 4.0 Advanced HD for surround sound gaming effects and ASIO 2.0 for low latency multi-track recording (Creative claims up to 2ms can be achieved, depending on the system).

Creative also bundles a range of solid driver/utilities, plus Creative Editions of FL Studio 4, Steinberg Cubase LE and WaveLab Lite 2.5 (music production software) plus the games Thief - Deadly Shadows, and Hitman: Contracts.

Verdict If you love your audio, then you could do a lot worse than the Audigy 4 Pro, as its widespread features make it arguably the best all-purpose sound card around. However, the Audigy 4 will soon to be knocked off its perch by new models based on Creative's forthcoming Xtreme Fidelity (X-Fi) processor - likely due before Christmas. Accordingly, if you need a great sound card today, then consider the Audigy 4, but if you're a Creative fan and can wait a few months, you'll probably end up the better for it.

Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro

Price: $569 Vendor: Creative Labs Phone: (02) 9666 6100 URL: www.au.creative.com; www.soundblaster.com Specifications: Audigy 4 processor, 113dB SNR, 24-bit/192KHz, EAX 4.0 Advanced HD, ASIO 2.0, DVD Audio playback; Hub connections (front): FireWire, optical in/out, line-in plus 6.35mm line/microphone-in and headphone; (hub rear): stereo RCA inputs, MIDI-in/out, S/PDIF-in and out, digital-out plus a second FireWire port; PCI card connections: three 3.5mm surround sound speaker connections plus FireWire port.

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