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Auzentech's X-Meridian
Price (Street)$169.99
A sound card you can upgrade

Santa Clara-based Auzentech is a relative newcomer to the sound card world, and with the exception of a USB webcam, all it does is audio. There are actually three cards in the company's lineup: the affordable X-Mystique, which provides Dolby Digital Live output; the X-Plosion, which adds digital DTS output to the equation; and the X-Meridian, which we'll be looking at today. The X-Meridian is Auzentech's latest creation, and it sits atop the company's lineup with perks and extras not available on the other X-cards.

Funny, though, how the X-lineup's names are so similar to X-Fi. I'm sure it's just a coincidence, or something.

In any case, Auzentech has lofty ambitions for the X-Meridian. The company says it wants the card to sound not great, but perfect, and that's setting the bar pretty high. Auzentech also claims a signal-to-noise ratio of "better than" 115dB for the card, which is 6dB greater than that of an X-Fi XtremeMusic, so they're off to a good start.

Even a cursory glance at the X-Meridian suggests this is no ordinary sound card. In fact, Auzentech says the card is the first original design based on the Oxygen HD audio chip, suggesting others have merely been using C-Media's reference design. The X-Meridian, however, is boldly silkscreened with the proclamation that it's developed and designed in the US. Amusingly, flipping the card reveals that it's actually made in Korea.

We're not too concerned with where the X-Meridian is made, but the card's PCI interface is a little irksome. As PC enthusiasts, we'd far rather see the card riding a PCI Express interface, if only to give us something to put in our motherboard's PCIe x1 slots. However, we understand that Auzentech is trying to appeal to the largest possible market, and PCIe doesn't have anywhere near the installed base of PCI.

Even with its dated PCI interface, the X-Meridian still looks slick. The card is dotted with flashy, money-green capacitors that provide a little visual flair. Despite their appearance, these aren't solid-state capacitors, but more common electrolytic caps.

Amidst the sea of capacitors, we catch a glimpse of the card's array of AKM DACs. There are four identical DACs, one for each of the card's analog front, center/sub, rear surround, and side surround outputs. Incidentally, the DACs have a rated signal-to-noise ratio of 120dB, so Auzentech's claim that the card's SNR is better than 115dB doesn't look overly optimistic. However, the card's AKM AK5385AVF analog-to-digital converter only boasts a SNR of 114dB. The chip does support 24-bit/192kHz recording, though.

For most sound cards, the DAC is the last stop before audio streams hit an output port. However, the X-Meridian adds an extra step to the equation, passing output signals through operational amplifiers, or OPAMPs for short. AUK Semiconductor S4580P OPAMPs are tied to each of the card's analog output channels, and thanks to standard DIP-type packaging, you can swap these chips out for alternatives of your own choosing. Only particularly finicky audiophiles may actually end up taking advantage of this capability, but it's still nice to know the flexibility is there if you get the urge to tinker.

Moving to the card's outputs, we're greeted by plenty of bling and a relatively standard array of ports. S/PDIF comes in two flavors; the card itself is equipped with coaxial input and output ports, but Auzentech also slides in a pair of TOS-Link adapters, so you get the best of both worlds right in the box.

If you desire a more extensive array of input and output options, Auzentech also sells an X-Tension add-on card that sports additional S/PDIF connections, a MIDI interface, and other goodies. The X-Tension will probably appeal to those who want to play around with recording, but there's little need for the extras for typical desktop or home theater applications.

While the X-Tension add-on comes at an additional cost, Auzentech does throw a freebie into the box with the X-Meridian. The card comes with a surprisingly nice TOS-Link optical cable that's much sturdier than the optical cables we're used to seeing bundled with sound cards. At 10 feet in length, there's more cable than we're used to getting, too.