Computex — On day three of the Computex trade show in Taipei, Taiwan, I took a break from the bustle of the show floor to sit down with a few folks from Asus' Xonar division. Asus is one of the very few companies still building sound cards for the PC, and it claims to have sold over half a million of the things in the past five years or so. That may not sound like a huge number, but keep in mind that Asus started with a single, relatively expensive model. The Xonar lineup has slowly expanded to include more affordable offerings, cards targeted at gamers, and USB derivatives.
Of course, there are some who insist that discrete audio solutions are no longer required. Integrated audio is good enough, they say. That may be true, depending on your speakers and your standards, but Asus contends that discrete solutions will always have an advantage over motherboard implementations. To reduce noise, Asus strives to make the traces between various components, and especially the controller and DACs, as short as possible. That's difficult to do on a motherboard loaded with slots, ports, and other integrated peripherals. Discrete solutions also offer a greater voltage range than what's readily available on a motherboard.
There was a time when users benefitted from the additional audio processing horsepower available in stand-alone sound cards. That processing power has become less important as hardware-accelerated positional audio standards like EAX have faded away. Asus points out that increasing CPU resources have largely negated the need for hardware processing. No wonder we haven't seen much action on the audio controller front.
That said, Asus continues to work with C-Media on new chips. The audio processor can still affect sound quality through clock jitter, which Asus and C-Media are striving to reduce. Asus also wants to put more DSP functions in hardware to make them easier to access. For example, enabling noise cancellation via a driver control panel is more complicated than simply hitting a button on a USB-attached headset.
Speaking of high-end audio, Asus made an interesting observation about one difference between its products and typical audiophile gear. Instead of offering a hard-wired listening experience, Asus believes users should be able to modify the sound by swapping OP-amps and tweaking other settings. That sounds like a very PC approach, which is only fitting.
A small collection of fresh Xonars has accumulated on my shelf and is waiting to be reviewed. Stay tuned for an in-depth look at several of Asus' new sound cards.