Asus Xonar Essence STX - PCI-E Audiophile Soundcard
To ensure I really tested the Asus Xonar Essence STX properly, I played a large variety of music from my eclectic collection, including playing CD's and extracting high quality FLAC recording from several CD's. I have tried to cover a large range of music genre's to ensure I tested all aspects of the sound coming from the card. Note I also listened to normal MP3's and AAC compressed tracks to ensure I portrayed a 'real world' situation.
All tracks were listened to in analogue and digital, both through the AMP and through headphones.
Example tracks used:
• Sultans of Swing - Dire Straits
• Adele - Chasing Pavements
• Bloc Party - Luno
• Bob Marley - Three Little Birds
• Chemical brothers - Block Rockin' Beats
• Damien Rice - Cannonball
• Foo Fighters - Skin and Bones
• Fugees - Killing Me Softly
• Goldfrapp - A&E
• Jamariqui - Virtual Insanity
• Feff Buckley - Hallelujah
• Led Zepellin - Black Dog
• N.E.R.D. - Lapdance
• Pendulum - Slam
• Prodigy - Omen
• Robert Miles - Children
• Roni Size - Brown Paper Bag
• Snoop dog - Beautiful
• Paul Gilbert - Radiator
• Paulo Nutini - New Shoes
To test the surround sound capabilities of the Asus Xonar Essence STX, I listened to the following UK DVD's using Cyberlink PowerDVD. I listened in both headphone and surround mode. DVD's used:
• The Matrix (DTS)
• Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Dolby Digital)
• The Bourne Identity (DTS and Dolby Digital)
Sound Quality - Music (Digital Sound)
Digital sound produced a balanced sound-stage for music with clear highs and a detailed mid-range with a reasonably punchy low. At times I felt as though there was something lacking in the sound and that there was something missing somewhere though. Tracks like 'Slam' and 'Block Rockin' Beats' sounded great but not quite what Asus promised.
On direct comparison though, the Auzentech prelude's digital sound was very similar. Perhaps missing some of the detail of the Essence STX, but a nice sounding fairly well-rounded sound.
Utilising the Dolby Digital Live and Pro Logic Modes on the Xonar Essence STX produce decent enough sound and certainly filled my speakers well enough. It is hard to believe that any audiophile would use these sound 'enhancements' as they only serve to muddy the music and not benefit it.
Sound Quality - Music (Analogue Sound)
Connecting the Ixos RCA to my AMP and hooking up the Sennheiser HD555's, I was not expecting what came next.
Initial listening to the analogue connections on the Xonar Essence STX was, frankly, incredible. Even on first listen, the card produced a fantastic sound stage. It's fair to say that the difference in the Essence STX is in the analogue connections it provides.
Replaying 'Slam' and the bass started pounding my ears like it should. There was a real detail and depth to the tracks coming out now.
The highs were detailed and clear and the mids concise. The tracks were coming alive on analogue with a very warm relaxing sound that I would not expect from a PC sound card.
Promising an unparallelled sound experience from a PC soundcard using headphones, the Essence STX had a lot to live up to in this area.
Headphone listening definitely matched analogue RCA out for sound. Again the detailing shone through and the card really has the power to run a set of decent headphones properly, you even hear the 'click' of the headphone AMP when it is set to headphone.
Setting the headphone gain to Extra High Gain (+18db for 300-600 Ohms) almost killed both my ears and my fantastic HD555's. Feeling somewhat annoyed that I didn't have a set to compete with the onboard AMP, I grabbed some ancient Technic DJ headphone's I found in my parents attic. These have to be driven by a proper AMP to make any noise at all, so I was hopeful.
What can I say? The Xonar not only managed to power them, but the sound was deep, hard and clear on the Extra High gain setting. The only bad thing is that I had to give the Technics back...
Sound Quality - DVD's
Digital Optical - Dolby Digital Live
Firing up some of my favourite sounding DVD's I set out to see what the Essence STX could do with DVD's in surround mode.
I was surprised to hear that the sound card really produced some of the best surround sound I have ever heard from a sound card. Using SPDIF passthough in Cyberlink PowerDVD and Dolby Digital Live on the soundcard produced a sound-stage that was accurate in it's reproduction and sound truly did fall in the right places throughout.
The Matrix's DTS sound-track was converted by the card into Dolby Digital without too much of a loss in precision. Straight after I listened to it on the Essence STX, I fired up my Panasonic DMP-BD35 Blu Ray player and played The Matrix through that as well and I didn't hear as big a difference as I thought I would, although there was a difference.
The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers and The Bourne Ultimatum were also dealt with incredibly well and I have to say I was actually fairly impressed with the Dolby Technology on the card, despite initial reservations.
Headphone - Dolby Headphone
Dolby Headphone is fantastic technology that picks up on the audio cues sent through by a multi-channel sound source and converting it for use with a set of headphones.
Again I found myself being very impressed with the sound coming through my headphones. The sound cues were present and the card fools you into thinking the sound really is coming from a centre that you cannot see, as well as rear speakers that aren't present. Pretty impressive stuff really with a depth you won't often hear from headphones, unless you're familiar with the Virtual barbershop Demo.
Dolby Virtual Headphone isn't a direct replacement for proper multi-channel sound, but it comes very close and certainly will enhance your movie experience.