Headphone-oriented sound cards from Asus and Auzentech

Compared to other segments of the industry, the pace of PC audio innovation has been sluggish in recent years. And that’s being charitable. Glacial might be a more appropriate term.

Consolidation within the industry is at least partially to blame here. Creative softened up Aureal, one of its few competitors, before eventually acquiring its assets in 2000. Three years later, Creative picked up 3D audio engine developer Sensaura, further thinning the field. Perhaps scared into submission, other players dropped out of the market on their own accord. Nvidia declined to build on the popularity of its SoundStorm integrated chipset audio, and more recently, codec maker Analog Devices bailed on PC codecs altogether.

As the number of players in the PC audio market has dwindled, so has the number of audio processors. We haven’t seen a truly new APU since C-Media introduced the Oxygen HD some two-and-a-half years ago. Creative’s X-Fi, still the most powerful audio chip on the market, is even older; it was released way back in 2005.

The seemingly slow pace of audio processor development has likely also been fueled by the fact that modern PCs simply don’t do a lot of complex audio processing. Indeed, one could argue that we’ve gone backward in recent years. Vista’s new audio subsystem broke Creative’s hardware-accelerated EAX positional effects, stripping 3D sounds from many games. The popularity of console ports, at least among developers looking to target the widest audience possible, has also lowered expectations. Even the latest generation of consoles does seemingly little to push positional 3D audio beyond where it’s been on the PC for years. And so we’re left with a market that simply isn’t clamoring for more powerful audio processors.

To drive demand, sound card makers have been forced to look elsewhere, turning their attention to improving fidelity. Good sound cards have traditionally offered superior playback quality to “free” integrated motherboard audio, and Asus and Auzentech currently make some of the best of the breed. Asus’ relatively new Xonar sound cards offer phenomenally good playback quality, as have Auzentech’s unique spins on Creative’s X-Fi audio processor. Both camps already equip their cards with high-end electrical components, user-replaceable OPAMPs, and the ability to encode multi-channel digital bitstreams on the fly. So what’s left to cover?

Headphones, it seems.

Asus and Auzentech have turned out new sound cards with built-in headphone amplification designed specifically for the earmuff crowd—or any of those “real gamers” still running Dustbuster-equipped GeForce FX 5800 Ultras. Naturally, we had to put the Xonar Essence STX and X-Fi Forte 7.1 to the test, not only to see which is best, but to find out whether swanky headphones can hack positional audio in today’s games.

First, though, an introduction to the audio processor duopoly that supplies the two cards we’re looking at today and indeed dominates the sound card market as a whole. Despite their age, the X-Fi and Oxygen HD are really the only two major players in the discrete sound card world. The latter is often referred to as the CMI8788, or when it’s used on a Xonar sound card, as an Asus-branded AV100 or AV200.

An X-Fi with 64MB of X-RAM riding shotgun

The key difference between the X-Fi and Oxygen is horsepower. A revelation when it was released, the X-Fi has an impressive 10,000 MIPs of processing power that it can dynamically allocate to everything from fancy post-processing effects to positional 3D audio acceleration. The X-Fi is also the only audio processor capable of accelerating advanced EAX 5 effects, which, thanks to Creative’s ALchemy software, now work with some games in Windows Vista.

The Oxygen HD in AV100 garb

Asus’ DS3D GX software pulls a similar trick with the Oxygen HD, and in the process, takes the liberty of emulating EAX 5 effects that had previously only been available on X-Fi cards. The Oxygen chip doesn’t have nearly the horsepower of the X-Fi. In fact, it can only accelerate EAX 2 effects in hardware. However, it also has the necessary transistors for real-time DTS and Dolby Digital Live encoding. This capability lets users pass multi-channel game audio over a single digital cable to compatible speakers and receivers, neatly delivering pristine sound unfettered by analog conversions.

The X-Fi can now do Dolby encoding, too, so there’s parity with the Oxygen on that front. Both chips also ripple with 7.1 output channels and support for resolutions up to 24 bits and sampling rates as high as 192kHz—high-definition audio, at least in the entertainment biz.

That covers the most important attributes of the Oxygen HD and X-Fi, but what about the cards themselves? Here’s a quick look at how the key specifications of each compare.

Asus Xonar Essence STX
Auzentech X-Fi Forte 7.1

Audio chip
Asus AV100 Creative CA20K2

Digital-to-analog converter
TI Burr
Brown PCM179
2A
AKM
AK4396VF (front)
Cirrus Logic CS4362A (center, rear, side)


Analog-to-digital converter
Cirrus
Logic CS5381
Wolfson
WM8775SEDS (rear)

Wolfson
WM8782S (front mic)

Headphone amp
TI
TPA612A2

Auzentech

Maximum recording quality
24-bit/192kHz
24-bit/192kHz

Maximum playback quality
24-bit/192kHz
24-bit/192kHz

Analog output channels
2 7.1

Digital output channels
7.1 7.1

Multi-channel digital output
Dolby Digital Live, DTS Dolby Digital Live

Street price



$140

We’ll delve into greater detail with each card in a moment, but while they’re lined up side-by-side, it’s worth pointing out a few key differences between the two. Despite using different combinations of DACs and ADCs, both cards offer support for 24-bit, 192kHz playback and recording. Interestingly, though, the Essence’s analog output is limited to two channels—stereo output, in other words. No such limitation exists for the Forte, which can pipe 7.1-channel audio through either its analog or digital outputs.

The Forte’s more robust analog output capabilities won’t cost you any extra, either. While few online retailers carry the Auzentech card, it’s selling for only $140 at Newegg. According to our price search engine, you can expect to pay at least $37 more for an Essence online.

Asus’ Xonar Essence STX
Another arrow in the quiver

Manufacturer Asus
Model Xonar Essence STX
Price (Street)
Availability Now

As a company that makes just about everything you can plug into a PC, Asus was bound to tackle the sound card market eventually. I’m not sure anyone expected the Xonar series to be so good so fast, though. The first Xonar D2X was a revelation, offering superb sound quality, reasonable 3D audio acceleration, and most importantly, the fresh perspective one would expect from a new entrant in the market. We loved the card, and were happy to see Asus follow up with an even cheaper model in the Xonar DX, a sound card that has been a staple of our system guide recommendations ever since.

Asus has since expanded its Xonar lineup to include a prodigious eight different add-in cards based on the Oxygen HD audio processor. Among the new family members are several HDMI-specific cards targeted at home theater PCs, and most recently, the headphone-oriented Essence STX.

The first thing you should know about the Essence is that it’s a PCI Express card. Although the Oxygen HD, er, AV100 is a native PCI chip, Asus uses a PEX8112 PCI-to-PCIe bridge to squeeze the Essence into an x1 slot. Asus also makes an Essence ST with a PCI interface, but it’s not listed on the company’s North American website, and it doesn’t appear to be available for sale online.

Astute readers will no doubt notice the thin metal skin covering roughly half of the Essence. In addition to providing Asus room to display its logo and what appears to be a cryptic drawing of some sort of elephant/lion hybrid, this bit of metal sheeting also serves to shield the card’s sensitive components from electromagnetic and radio-frequency interference.

Removing the shroud gives us a look at the Essence’s DAC and ADC, among other goodies. Asus handles digital-to-analog conversions with a Texas Instruments “Burr Brown” PCM1792A DAC that has a claimed signal-to-noise ratio of 127 decibels. A Cirrus Logic CS5381 ADC takes care of conversions going in the other direction, albeit with a less impressive 120-dB SNR rating.

Burr Brown DACs and Cirrus Logic ADCs have appeared on all the Xonar models we’ve seen thus far. However, the Essence’s Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 “high fidelity headphone amplifier” is a new addition. The Texas Instruments chip has a 120-dB SNR and supports headphones with up to 600 ohms of impedance.

A trio of OPAMPs provides the Essence with additional amplification. All three are socketed and user replaceable should you wish to swap out the National Semiconductor LME4972 or either of the JRC 2114Ds. Interestingly, the Auzentech card uses the same National Semi OPAMP for its front-channel output.

Another interesting element of the Essence is the presence of a four-pin Molex power connector on the card’s rear edge. This plug isn’t used to provide the card with additional power beyond what’s available through the PCI Express slot; rather, it’s used to feed the card with cleaner power than can be pulled from the motherboard.

Beside the power plug are internal pins for an alternate S/PDIF output. You’ll also find a front-panel output and auxiliary input headers located along the top edge of the card.

Asus combines these internal inputs and outputs with an unconventional mix of external ports. The coaxial S/PDIF port is the only multi-channel output option on the board, and you’ll need a compatible receiver or a set of digital speakers to make it work. Otherwise, you have your choice of two-channel stereo outputs: a set of front-channel RCA plugs or a meaty 6.5-mm headphone jack. The larger 6.5-mm jack size is standard for high-end headphones, and a similar port feeds the Essence’s analog mic input.

Since many folks are no doubt running headphones with smaller 3.5-mm plugs, Asus throws an adapter in with the Essence. The card also comes with a dongle that transforms the RCA outputs into a standard 3.5-mm jack and an adapter that allows you to use a TOS-Link cable with the coaxial S/PDIF output.

Auzentech’s X-Fi Forte 7.1
An X-Fi from the other guys

Manufacturer Auzentech
Model X-Fi Forte 7.1
Price (Street) $140
Availability Now

Despite Creative’s sordid history, the X-Fi remains the most capable PC audio processor around. Fortunately, you don’t have to buy a Sound Blaster to get your hands on an X-Fi. Auzentech has been building custom X-Fi designs for years, focusing on improving the sound quality of solutions based on what has been the industry’s best APU silicon.

What’s particularly interesting about Auzentech is that it’s not even an all-Creative shop. Indeed, the company has a number of models based on C-Media audio chips, including the Oxygen HD found in the Xonar. But we’re not here to talk about the rest of Auzentech’s lineup. Today, we’re focusing on the X-Fi Forte.

Those looking for a sound card to populate a cramped enclosure will no doubt appreciate the Forte’s svelte proportions. The card is a low-profile design, and a matching PCI back plate is included in the box for those running slim enclosures.

The original X-Fi chip had a PCI interface, but Creative’s latest revision is a native PCI Express design, allowing the Forte to slide into an x1 slot without the aid of an auxiliary bridge chip. Auzentech pairs this fresh X-Fi silicon with 64MB of dedicated X-RAM memory that, given how EAX has seemingly fallen out of favor with game developers, will likely go largely unused by future titles.

Without any shielding to block our view, a closer look at the Forte reveals a smattering of interesting components. Auzentech uses a combination of DACs to perform digital-to-analog conversions. An AKM AK4396VF with a 120-dB SNR handles the front output channels, while a Cirrus Logic CS4382A takes care of the rest, albeit with a less impressive 113-dB SNR. You’ll also find two ADCs on the board: a Wolfson WM8775SEDS tied to the rear mic, line, and auxiliary inputs, and a WM8782S connected to the front-panel mic input. The two chips have 102- and 100-dB SNRs, respectively. While the latter supports 24-bit audio up to 192kHz, the former only goes up to 96kHz.

These dual ADCs allow users to record two streams simultaneously or mix while they record. I suspect using a separate ADC for the front-panel mic input also made it easier for Auzentech to implement a microphone pre-amp for that port. Using an onboard jumper, it’s possible to switch the mic pre-amp between modes designed for professional “balanced” microphones and standard stereo units.

Like the Xonar, the Forte also offers headphone amplification. However, rather than relying on aftermarket silicon to perform that function, Auzentech crafted its own amplification circuitry using eight “high-end discrete transistors.” The company says this amplification circuitry offers 100mW of output per channel—much more than the 7mW per channel that Auzentech claims is standard for a sound card.

The Forte has traditional OPAMPs, too. A socketed National Semiconductor LME4972 handles the front output, and a collection of JRC 4580s amplifies the rest of the output channels. Only the National Semi chip can be replaced, though; the others are soldered onto the board.

Along the top edge of the card is a two-pin auxiliary digital input that nicely complements a 20-pin connector designed to plug into Auzentech’s Titanium I/O Drive breakout box. The I/O drive moves a smattering of additional analog ports to a 5.25″ drive bay insert, but at $80 on its own, it’s an expensive proposition. The Forte can be purchased directly from Auzentech with the Titanium breakout box included for $200, though.

It might not look that way, but the Forte actually has plenty of connectivity options right out of the box. The card’s back plate hosts a coaxial S/PDIF output, a 3.5-mm headphone jack, and what will look to most like a VGA monitor output.

That 15-pin connector plugs into an output dongle offering a full range of analog audio jacks, including front, rear, center/sub, side outputs and line and microphone inputs. This gives the Forte the ability to output multi-channel audio in both analog and digital formats, a trick the Essence can’t match. For digital connections, Auzentech also supplies a rather flexible TOS-Link cable that stretches a full 10 feet in length. The cable is designed for round TOS-Link ports, but there’s an adapter for rectangular connectors in the box, as well.

Decidedly different drivers

Asus wraps up the Xonar’s software interface into a single control panel that covers, well, everything—not that there’s really all that much to do with a sound card, mind you. I’ve never been one to fiddle excessively with equalizer or effects settings, so I usually just set a speaker config and go.

That’s easy enough to accomplish with the Xonar Audio Center, and if you’d like to pretend you’ve got more speakers than you actually do, the drivers can virtualize extras for both stereo and headphone output. Dolby provides the speaker virtualization tech, and at least to my ears, it’s about as effective as the X-Fi’s speaker virtualization scheme.

Speaking of virtualization, the Xonar’s EAX emulation can be toggled through the Audio Center with just the click of a button. You have to have the card running in its gaming mode, though.

In what turns out to be quite a contrast, the Forte comes with much of the bloat that one might expect from a sound card based on a Creative audio chip. Most of the fluff is optional, though, and it’s not even selected as a part of the default driver install. Well done, Auzentech.

The Forte uses the same basic control panel as other X-Fis, which means you get three different interfaces depending on whether you’re in game, entertainment, or audio creation modes. Each interface offers access to the same basic functions as the Xonar control panel, just with a slightly different look and feel. The X-Fi’s speaker virtualization system is referred to as CMSS-3D, for example.

One thing that the Forte has that the Xonar lacks is Creative’s X-Fi Crystalizer. This post-processing algorithm attempts to restore some of the dynamic range lost when audio is squeezed down to lower bitrates and resolutions. However, we haven’t found it to be particularly effective at doing anything more than turning up the volume on foreground vocals and instruments at the expense of background tracks. I’d recommend leaving the Crystalizer disabled.

If you prefer more streamlined interfaces, you’ll be happy to know that Auzentech also ships the Forte with a slimmed-down control panel. This interface still gives you access to nearly all of the functions available in the full-fat version, but it’s much quicker to use, and you don’t have to wait for the UI to morph with every mode switch.

Running Vista and want to take advantage of the Forte’s support for all those fancy EAX effects built into predominantly older games? You’ll need to install Creative’s ALchemy software, which is also bundled with the card. ALchemy scans your hard drive for supported games and adds the appropriate configuration profiles for any it finds. You can also add your own custom configuration profiles, as I had to do for Far Cry 2, which is on ALchemy’s supported games list but went undetected.

The games list details the settings you need to adjust for custom profiles, but it should do a better job of detecting installed titles in the first place. Additionally, the list of ALchemy-supported games is still relatively small, and you won’t find many new titles listed. What’s worse, among those that are listed, many are tagged as unverified. Ugh.

EAX may be the X-Fi’s thing, but ALchemy is cumbersome at best, especially when compared with the simplicity of the Xonar’s DS3D GX on/off toggle. I expected better from ALchemy, but it appears that EAX’s dwindling popularity has made the software less of a priority for Creative.

Speaking of dwindling popularity, I should take a moment to address each card’s support for the DVD-Audio standard that seems destined to languish in obscurity forever. Both cards have the capacity to play back DVD-Audio, and with support for 24-bit/192kHz recordings, they can handle the highest-quality recordings available on the market. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get either playing back DVD-Audio tracks due to a lack of compatible software. Creative used to bundle its own DVD-Audio playback software with early X-Fi cards, but that app isn’t included with the Forte. Asus doesn’t ship the Xonar with DVD-Audio playback software, either, and it’s unaware of any playback apps that support the card. The DVD-Audio standard hardly took the world by storm, of course, but it’s still disappointing that neither of these ostensibly high-end solutions are equipped to play back the market’s only real source of high-definition music.

A set of Sennheisers for testing

I’ve never been comfortable calling myself an audiophile. That term always conjures up images of folks draped in vinyl—and not the sexy kind—lovingly fondling turntables and vacuum tubes. No, I’m more of an audio enthusiast. I appreciate clean and balanced sound, but I’m not keen on spending obscene amounts of money for only minor or perhaps even imagined improvements in fidelity.

So, when looking for headphones to use while listening to these sounds cards, I naturally sought out the best bang for my buck. After several recommendations, including one from our own news editor, I settled on Sennheiser’s HD 555s. You can find these headphones selling for as little as $114 online, which is really quite reasonable for something that, like monitors and speakers, shouldn’t need to be upgraded with any sort of regularity.

The HD 555s are rated for 50 ohms of impedance, so they don’t require much amplification. However, the HD 555s appear to sit in a sort of sweet spot between cheaper earmuffs and high-end audiophile gear, which makes them perfect for this review.

Of course, I’m sure legions of audiophiles will find fault with our selection. But we’re a PC hardware site, so we’re used to fanboys chiming in with their favorites. The HD 555s seem like exactly the sort of thing a PC enthusiast might have hooked up to his system.

For what it’s worth, I think the HD 555s sound quite good. I don’t have much experience with comparable headphones, but these ones do sound better than the Abit iDome stereo speakers I use to listen to music on a daily basis. The Sennheisers are quite comfortable, too. Their open design provides some ventilation around the ears, but I found them a little toasty in the middle of a summer heat wave.

Our testing methods

The Xonar Essence STX and X-Fi Forte are natural rivals, so we’ve pitted them against each other. To add another wrinkle to the equation, we’ve also thrown an integrated motherboard solution powered by Realtek’s ALC889A audio codec into the mix. The ALC889A is currently the most capable such codec on the market, and I’m curious to see how it fares against an entirely different class of competition.

Processor

Intel Core i7-920
ES
System bus QPI 4.8GT/s (2.4GHz)
Motherboard

Gigabyte EX58-UD5
Bios revision F3
North bridge Intel X58 Express
South bridge Intel ICH10R
Chipset drivers Chipset: 9.0.0.1008

AHCI: 8.8.0.1009

Memory size 6GB (3 DIMMs)
Memory type

OCZ Gold PC3-12800

DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz
CAS latency
(CL)
6

RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)
6
RAS precharge
(tRP)
6
Cycle time
(tRAS)
19
Command rate 1T
Audio Realtek ALC889A with 2.28
drivers



Asus Xonar Essence STX
with 6.12.8.1762 drivers




Auzentech X-Fi Forte 7.1
with Beta 1 drivers
Graphics

Asus Radeon HD 4870 1GB
with Catalyst 9.6 drivers

Hard drive


Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB
SATA

OS


Windows Vista Ultimate x64
with Service Pack 2

We’d like to thank Western Digital for sending Raptor WD1500ADFD hard drives for our test rigs.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Gaming

In an attempt to closely simulate gaming in the real world, we’ve used FRAPS to record in-game frame rates with four recent titles. We played the same 60-second section of each game five times to ensure repeatable results, recording average and median low frame rates along the way.

Performance in today’s games is largely defined by one’s graphics card—an inescapable reality we’ve made no attempt to circumvent today. All games were run at 1600×1200 with 4X antialiasing and 16X anisotropic filtering where available and all in-game detail levels otherwise cranked.

Each configuration was first tested using standard two-channel stereo output. We didn’t enable ALchemy or DS3D GX for this round, so we’re not emulating any EAX effects in games; we’re just playing back the 3D audio available natively in Windows Vista.

Next, we ventured into three dimensions, enabling ALchemy and DS3D GX, and configuring the X-Fi and Xonar with their respective Dolby and CMSS-3D speaker virtualization schemes for headphone playback. These setups should let us probe not only the impact of 3D audio acceleration, but also any hit associated with speaker virtualization. Incidentally, Realtek has a “3D SoundBack” download that’s supposed to restore EAX effects in Vista, just like ALchemy and DS3D GX. However, SoundBack was a beta 0.1 release more than a year ago, and it hasn’t been updated since. I think we’ll pass.

Well that’s interesting. Or not, depending on how you look at things. Considering the greater variability inherent to FRAPS testing, we’re looking at roughly equivalent performance across the board here. Sure, the ALC889A has slightly higher frame rates throughout, but only by a whisker—and keep in mind that it’s only doing two-channel stereo audio. In their Dolby Headphone and CMSS-3D configurations, the Xonar and Forte are simulating 5.1-channel surround sound.

So a fancy sound card isn’t going to improve frame rates in the latest games. There isn’t much of a performance penalty associated with enabling speaker virtualization or EAX emulation, either. But should you even bother?

In a word, yes. To my ears, the difference between our stereo and virtualized surround sound configs was night and day. In games, I didn’t so much hear distinct sounds coming from different points in the environment as I felt generally more immersed in an atmosphere rich with sound. The virtualization schemes may not have created the impression of distinct virtual speakers, but they certainly made me feel more surrounded by sound than I thought possible with stereo headphones.

I was less impressed with the actual positional audio content of the games we tested. None really dazzled, and although I could hear a few additional sounds playing on the Forte and Essence in Far Cry 2, it’s easy to get too distracted by the gameplay and graphics to notice the subtle differences.

Listening tests

So a fancy sound card won’t give you a notable performance advantage in games. But what about audio quality? To see how each card, well, sounds, I rigged up some listening tests for a couple of friends. These were blind tests, so our subjects didn’t know which card they were listening to at any given time.

In an attempt to illuminate differences in playback quality between the cards, I played 30-second song clips back-to-back on different configurations using our Sennheiser HD 555s connected to each card’s headphone output. The Essence, Forte, and ALC889A all faced each other in head-to-head matchups for each song, with the playback order randomized for each track.

Each track was ripped directly from the original audio CD and saved as an uncompressed WAV file. Songs were played back using Windows Media Player 11. Below you’ll find a summary of our listeners’ impressions of how each card sounded, along with some of my own observations from a listening test I ran on myself. Since I conducted my own test, I knew which cards were playing when.

Arctic Monkeys – Fluorescent Adolescent

A reasonably straightforward rock track, Fluorescent Adolescent combines just enough British attitude with the usual mix of radio-friendly guitars and drumming.

Our listeners found the Forte and Xonar particularly difficult to tell apart with this track. One thought the Essence’s vocals were a little clearer, though. I also thought that the instrumental notes, and particularly the drums, hit a little bit harder on the Xonar.

The Realtek codec didn’t fare all that poorly against either card. However, our first listener found the ALC889A’s background instrumentals a little muddled, and I agree. The second listener preferred the Essence to the ALC889A, but thought the Forte’s cymbal note sounded a little too “staticky.” That’s particularly interesting because the other listener specifically noted that the Forte’s cymbals sounded more distinctive, in a good way, assuming that the distortion present in the track was intentional. Listening tests are as much about what one hears as they are about what one considers pleasing to the ear, it seems.

Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip – Thou Shalt Always Kill

Think a taller version of Eminem, add a beard, more intelligent lyrics, better beats, and, well, forget Eminem altogether. Dan Le Sac is about as urban as this middle-class white boy gets.

Our listeners were split between the Essence and Forte on this track. The first test subject said the Forte had a more distinct “bounce” in the background while the second thought it blended the vocals in with the background a little too much. That second subject preferred the Essence, which she said offered clearer vocals. I found the Essence a little crisper overall, with the Forte distorting the bass track a little more than the Asus card.

Both of our listeners found the ALC889A too heavy on the bass with this track. They were in agreement on the low-range focus drowning out some of the track’s other elements as the bass blended in with the vocals. My ears concured; the Realtek codec’s output definitely felt overwhelmed by the bass here.

Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts 14

My favorite track from Nine Inch Nails’ free Ghosts instrumental collection, number 14 is heavy on strings, with a healthy dose of industrial flair.

Little difference between the Forte and Essence was detected by my ears and by those of one of our listeners. The other listener thought the Forte’s strings sounded a little more distinct than on the Essence.

Here we found another example of the Realtek codec’s heavy-handed bass drowning out other elements. Both listeners felt the ALC889A’s playback was inferior to that of the discrete sound cards, with dominant bass muffling background instrumentals named as the culprit. When faced off against the ALC889A, the Forte and Essence sounded more balanced to my ears, as well.

Radiohead – Weird Fishes_Arpeggi

Another online release, Radiohead’s critically acclaimed In Rainbows spawned this oddly named vehicle for Thom Yorke’s beautifully delicate voice.

Our listeners both thought this track’s vocals were more pronounced on the Forte than on the Essence. One even suggested the vocals were turned up a little too loud on the Forte, causing slight distortion. I thought the Forte’s vocals sounded better, especially layered, but that this came along with some dullness in the background instrumentals.

As one might expect, the ALC889A’s apparent enthusiasm for bass messes with the vocal tracks in this song. Yorke’s voice wasn’t nearly as clear playing through our motherboard’s integrated audio, according to our listeners, and I agreed. Interestingly, our listeners singled out the Forte for having better vocals than the Realtek chip and the Essence for more distinct guitar notes.

Tori Amos – Cornflake Girl

A little something for the ladies, Cornflake Girl layers strings, piano, and Amos’ intoxicatingly breathy voice.

The Essence and Forte were very closely matched with this track. One of our listeners couldn’t tell them apart, and the other detected only slightly more background instrumentals on the Essence. I found their playback virtually indistinguishable, with the Essence having just a little more punch.

Once more, our listeners found that the ALC889A’s low-range bias blurred some of the track’s other elements. Against the Essence, the listeners found the Realtek codec’s instrumentals lacking, and in one case, a little fuzzy. When pitted against the Forte, the ALC889A was judged to be a little closer, but somewhat lacking in body.

RightMark Audio Analyzer – 16-bit 44.1kHz

Moving from subjective listening tests to something more objective, we used RightMark Audio Analyzer to evaluate output quality. We gathered these results with “loopback” tests that route a sound card’s output through its line input. We’ll kick things off with 16-bit/44.1kHz CD-quality audio.

To keep things simple, I’ve translated RightMark’s word-based quality scale to numbers. Higher scores reflect better audio quality, and the scale tops out at 6, which corresponds to an “Excellent” rating.

RightMark Audio
Analyzer audio quality – 16-bit/44.1kHz

Overall score

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

THD

THD + Noise

IMD + Noise

Stereo Crosstalk

IMD at 10kHz

ALC889A
4 5 5 5 3 1 3 4 3

Xonar Essence STX
5 6 5 5 6 4 6 6 6

X-Fi Forte
4 5 5 5 3 1 3 6 3

The Essence’s signal quality appears to be superior the Forte’s with 16-bit/44.1kHz audio. In fact, the Auzentech card doesn’t really do anything to differentiate itself from the ALC889A here.

If you want to geek out over a bunch of detailed RMAA graphs, we’ve provided the raw results for all of our RMAA tests below.

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

Total harmonic distortion + noise

Intermodulation distortion

Stereo crosstalk

RightMark Audio Analyzer – 24-bit 96Hz

RightMark Audio
Analyzer audio quality – 24-bit/96kHz

Overall score

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

THD

THD + Noise

IMD + Noise

Stereo Crosstalk

IMD at 10kHz

ALC889A
4 5 5 5 5 3 4 4 4

Xonar Essence STX
6 6 6 6 6 5 6 6 6

X-Fi Forte
5 5 6 6 6 5 6 6 6

When cranked up to 24 bits at 96kHz, the discrete cards separate themselves from the Realtek codec some. The Xonar still fares better than the Forte in a couple of tests, though.

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

Total harmonic distortion + noise

Intermodulation distortion

Stereo crosstalk

RightMark Audio Analyzer – 24-bit 192kHz

RightMark Audio
Analyzer audio quality – 24-bit/192kHz

Overall score

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

THD

THD + Noise

IMD + Noise

Stereo Crosstalk

IMD at 10kHz

ALC889A
5 5 5 5 5 4 5 4 5

Xonar Essence STX
5 6 6 6 6 5 6 6 6

X-Fi Forte
5 5 6 6 6 5 6 6 6

24-bit/192kHz audio pushes the limits of what these cards can do, and the Forte actually scores better here than at lower bitrates and resolutions. It’s evenly matched with the Xonar, for the most part, with only the frequency response test separating the two cards. Heck, even the ALC889A looks more competitive with 24-bit/192kHz audio.

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

Total harmonic distortion + noise

Intermodulation distortion

Stereo crosstalk

Power consumption

We measured system power consumption, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Readings were taken at idle and while playing back an MP3 file using Windows Media Player 11.

Not much to see here, folks. The ALC889A config consumes less power, but running a discrete card only costs a few more watts. Despite the Essence’s auxiliary power connector, it’s the Forte that’s drawing a little more juice here. Only a couple of watts separates those two cards, though.

Conclusions

When you get down to their core feature sets, the Xonar Essence STX and X-Fi Forte really are quite similar. Both fake EAX effects in Vista, both support 24-bit audio up to 192kHz, both offer a measure of headphone amplification, both sound fantastic, and both can encode multi-channel digital bitstreams on the fly. Heck, they even cost about the same, with the Forte running $140 at Newegg and the Xonar available for $177 online. So the real question, I suppose, is whether the Asus card is worth the extra scratch.

Asus certainly has plenty to brag about. The Xonar’s RightMark Audio Analyzer signal quality test results were better than the Forte’s, perhaps due to the Essence’s shielding or its use of DACs and ADCs with higher SNRs. And while our listening tests were very close, I think the Xonar offers more balanced playback that puts background instruments on equal footing with foreground vocals.

I’ve always found X-Fis to have a little too much of a vocal bias for my liking, so I prefer how the Xonar sounds overall. In fact, were I going to put either of these cards into my own desktop system, I’d go with the Essence. But that’s if the two cards were sitting right in front of me. If I had to pick which one to buy, the Forte would be mighty tempting.

You see, the Essence is very well equipped if you’re specifically looking for a sound card to drive headphones, but the lack of multi-channel analog outputs is quite limiting for other applications. Sure, it can output multi-channel digital bitstreams via Dolby Digital Live or DTS, but that requires a compatible receiver or digital speakers. The Forte’s standard analog outputs will make any 7.1-channel PC speakers sing.

For nearly $40 less than the Essence, the Forte is simply a much more versatile card. Its low-profile design is perfect for slim home theater PC enclosures, and if you want to kick it old-school with Windows XP and classic games, there’s plenty of EAX acceleration on tap. Plus, Auzentech throws in quite a nice TOS-Link cable to round out the package.

Really, I’m happy recommending either card. However, the Forte is the better value of the two, and that’s why it’s our Editor’s Choice.

Auzentech X-Fi Forte
August 2009

Of course, the next question that pops up is whether you should bother with either of these cards over standard motherboard audio. If you have good analog speakers or headphones and appreciate clean, balanced sound, then the answer is yes. At least in the implementation we tested, even Realtek’s flagship audio codec couldn’t match the sound quality of the Essence or the Forte. Once you hear the ALC889A’s bass overwhelming the more delicate elements of some songs, it’s hard to ignore, like a dead pixel defiantly searing your retinas just out of the corner of your eye.

And what about whether headphones can hack 3D audio in today’s games? I think they can, but perhaps more because the latest titles don’t seem to have a whole lot of positional audio content. The Dolby Headphone and CMSS-3D virtualization schemes available with the Essence and Forte were certainly more immersive than two-channel stereo output. I wouldn’t necessarily trade in a set of multi-channel speakers for a pair of earmuffs, but I do think speaker virtualization has merit for folks who prefer headphones or simply don’t have the room for five or more speakers. Speaker virtualization is another feature integrated motherboard audio solutions tend to lack, too, so keep that in mind when considering a sound card purchase.

Comments closed
    • Rompbot
    • 10 years ago

    Do these do anything special for headphones that their vanilla varieties don’t?

    I ask because I already have a Samson headphone amp powering my Senny HD590s. Got the amp on clearance, $60 instead of $100. This combo sounds better, and is more immersive imo, than many 5.1 setups. It has led to me being far more aware of my surroundings in multiplayer FPS games, and actually improved my score. A friend of mine actually refuses to use them while gaming on my PC, because he says it feels “like the bullets are actually whizzing by my head.” I believe him because he does these little duck movements when he’s being fired upon.

    So I think I should care more about isolating noise from the mobo (so that connector for “cleaner” power looks handy) than amping the signal, as the Samson does a great job amping already.

    I’m wondering if I’d like the amp on these cards better, or if I should just opt to get a different product. I haven’t owned a sound card since 2003, but now since I have the high end muffs and a good amp, I’m wondering about what I should be looking for in a card.

    • reignofchaos
    • 10 years ago

    I use an Essence STX with a vintage Musical Fidelity A1 amp(Class A, 20 watt) and a pair of small Jamo E700 bookshelves with Audio Art IC3 and SC5 cables as my computer audio setup. Before this, I had an EMU 0404 PCI plugged in the same setup.

    The difference between the two wasn’t subtle at all. In contrast to the Essence, the EMU sounded cold and sterile. The Essence had way more life and energy. The soundstage was wider and the bass was significantly deeper. The detail retrieval with the new card was stunning to say the least. The EMU card now sits in my attic.

    I also managed to compare the Essence STX to a Benchmark DAC1 HDR and an Audiozone DAC-1. These two do duty in my primary setup. The essence comes pretty close to both but ultimately loses in refinement.

    To my ears, this card is a screaming deal at its price point.

    Let me not talk about the Auzentech card. The Sam Young caps on it say enough about how it would sound 🙂

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 10 years ago

    Come to think of it, I think it’s time for Geoff to do a “headset roundup.” Decent headsets are something us gamers/enthusiasts really like but we haven’t had a TR-quality review of any.

    Good review, btw.

    • mechafreq
    • 10 years ago

    What I don’t like here is that the Forte seemingly won because it has the added value of 7.1 and the Essence does not?

    And yet the article has been pinned as a headphone card shootout?

    That seriously makes little sense.

    Especially at the 24-bit 96kHz setting where the card is likely to be set at (given 192kHz is buggy with playback) where the Essence provides measurably smoother output.

    If you want high value for simple playback, get a Xonar DX; I defy anyone to hear a significant difference with it against the Essence. I use a pair of AKG K240s as headphones, or a 2.1 setup with Audioengine A5s with an HSU STF-1 sub, and when I got an Essence to pass my old Xonar DX to another system in the house I didn’t notice any improvement. Maybe if I output the sound to a higher quality amp and speakers to match I can, but I’m not moving hundreds of pounds of HiFi from the living room into my computer den just to test it.

    I must state that these cards are not here for value, but for that pursuit of sonic quality beyond the optimal value curve. Maybe someone out there has a crazy enough audio setup to hear it, but that’s not me.

    These cards should not be compared to integrated sound, but the entry level add-in cards to see if there is a significant improvement. The Xonar DX and the Essence are separated by nearly double the cost. While the difference between integrated and a Xonar DX is noticeable with the proper playback equipment, what happens when you step up from the DX to the Essence? No reasonable person is going to go straight to a $200 card without seeing what lies at a lower price point.

    I know for one, the recording ability on the Xonar DX is spotty, slow and impossible to monitor as it is active–what other differences are there?

      • tc93
      • 10 years ago

      Mechafreq, how many ohm’s do your AKG k240 headphones have? From what I read there are two versions, one with 55 and another with 600.

      I was just curious if yours are the lower ohm version, and if thats why you didn’t notice a difference between the Xonar DX vs. the Essence STX?

        • NeronetFi
        • 10 years ago

        Unless he was using an amp with the 600 ohm then he wouldnt notice a difference either way.

        • mechafreq
        • 10 years ago

        Yes, I have the 55 ohm ‘Studio’ version. I don’t have the MK. II version of the K240’s but the older, out of production one in the gold color trim. Both are supposedly identical, but I will note that mine are older. As such, I am also very familiar with how they sound.

        Despite the the low impedance, the K240 S sounds more open with better transients, dynamics, and more clarity when driven by a separate amp. That’s telling of the analog out, while clean, does not have the powering capabilities of a more powerful dedicated amp. However, I’m not willing to further the cost and space consumption to set one up in front of the computer, as the output is still very acceptable.

        To be frank, the clarity and resolution of my 2.1 setup easily exceeds my headphones with a much flatter frequency response over a much larger curve. When using my speakers, I did not find a noticeable quality increase in terms of musical playback. However, there was a slightly lower noise floor which was somewhat apparent by turning up the volume (at perfect silence) to levels that I could not realistically listen to. Only then I could hear a slight hiss in the background which was difficult to quantify between the two.

        That slight advantage for twice the price of a DX and the loss of the dedicated sub output is a bad deal to me.

        Perhaps if you have near top grade headphones in the US$400+ range you might be able to sense something, but I would add an external amp or amp/DAC combo at that point to extract the most performance out of them as it seem to be power as the limitation, not the output signal. Power is often a limiting factor, even for low/mid cost hifi gear that is rarely considered.

        Even if you do nothing but use the digital output on the sound card, I’m sure the drivers are more robust than most integrated solutions. It was in my case anyhow.

    • swaaye
    • 10 years ago

    One thing I like about Vista/7 is that the new audio subsystem basically just uses the sound card as a DAC. You don’t need much from the sound hardware because Windows does almost all of the work. I’ve also noticed how all of the cheesy onboard “HD” solutions have built control panel applets that make it look like they have all of this fancy effects processing when they’re just interfacing with Windows’ new software-based audio features.

    As to fancy onboard hardware processing, I just don’t really think that EAX or hardware channels are of any real benefit anymore. The majority of gamers live off their onboard audio and most game devs have been using software-driven audio effects due to that. I don’t think I’ve ever been impressed with OpenAL over the years, but I have noticed problems with it on many occasions.

    So, IMO, as long as you can get sound to come out of an old card with some sort of basic driver, you can use an older high-end sound card and get great signal quality for super cheap. Hell, with the endlessly maligned Audigy series you even bypass the old EMU10Kx SRC-caused noise because Vista/7 resample to 48KHz by default. Just go grab any ‘ol card from over the years that had good signal quality and be happy. No need to blow $150. Doesn’t every enthusiast have a few of these old cards lying around??? 🙂

    I think that what matters most is getting the analog audio signal off of the mobo to help isolate it from the noise there. That’s the biggest issue with integrated mobo audio. It may be capable of 24-bit 96 kHz output, but on the mobo they pick up so much noise that you might as well be using a SB16.

    • Trymor
    • 10 years ago

    Geoff,

    You should have shown the driver controls in a little more detail.

    To me, the main reason to buy a dedicated SC, is the bass controls. I need variable (or at least selectable) bass cutoff frequencies and level controls. If a person runs a halfway decent sub/speaker setup (even a lot of expensive studio type monitors are only flat to 50hz) the blending of the two becomes very important.

    You just are not getting the whole audio experience without getting flat down to ‘at least’ 30hz. A good sub going down to 18hz will change your standard of good audio…heh.

    p.s. If you cant fit a sub in your computer area, google ‘cult of the infinately baffled’. Under my computer desk, I have 2 cheap (boxed subs, not infinate baffle) $100, 10″ 100 watt subs with the ports stuffed, giving me flat responce down to 28-30 hz, and the sound is pretty decent.

      • potatochobit
      • 10 years ago

      if you have a high end setup you would have a receiver to do that though.

        • Trymor
        • 10 years ago

        Not neccesarily. It isn’t a high end setup, rather a fairly decent setup as I said. Small decent quality stereo amps are availible for under $50. ‘Studio’ quality monitors (speakers) are available from $75 (home made) to $300 (internet sourced).

        My 2 – 10″ subs were I believe $90 each (plus tax).

        I wouldn’t want a audio receiver at my desk, and there are a bunch of people that use computers for bi-amping, frquency and phase correction, yada yada. All I need is the bass and speaker size controls offered in these soundcards control panels.

        A person buying a $175 soundcard for sound quality, I would think can afford $250 – $500 in speakers, and small amps to step past the ‘consumer grade’ audio.

        Besides, most of the other sites I see reviewing audio cards DO at least screenshot the different control panel screens, and mention the bass controls, ESPECIALY if the review is geared towards audio quality.

        That being said, I now remember Geoff saying the review was geared towards headphones, so I guess the bass controls are not that important in that respect.

        (edited for spelling)

    • Klopsik206
    • 10 years ago

    Sound cards are not relevant for me anymore.
    I use digital out to connect to my stereo amp.

    In my opinion digital in amp and decent hifi speakers is much better investement than buying expensive sound card every few years. It last much longer and allows you to enjoy better regular CD/DVD (or whatever you are listening to) experience, as well.

    I don’t care 3d sound anymore too.

    • moritzgedig
    • 10 years ago

    I want a soundcard that is a sampling oscilloscope too.
    it should come with a some cables, software, AM-demodulator for <1MHz have 256kS/s at 6bit, 128kS at 16bit.
    I agree with #2 and #26.
    I don’t hear anything no matter how loud >12kHz and anything >9kHz sounds the same. 44kS are plenty good for any human.

    • RagingDragon
    • 10 years ago

    I’m not certain it makes much sense to compare the Forte 7.1 and the Xonar Essense.

    It’s sort of like comparing a GTX275 to a GTX295, and using Sennheiser HD555’s is like running the GPU comparision at 1680×1050. The high end solution is measurably better, but for a human to hear the difference between the Forte and Xonar requires higher end headphones and a high quality source recording, while seeing the difference between the GPU’s will require a higher resolution display (at least 1920×1200, but more likely 2560×1600) and a game which supports SLI.

    In both cases, both cases only a tiny number of people will buy the high end solution, while many more will buy the mid range one – and most of them will think the people buying the high end solution are insane. Of course, the vast majority of buyers will be satisified by a much cheaper low end solution, and will think the people buying the mid range option are almost as crazy as the people buying the high end one.

    Might be interesting to look at the HT Omega Claro cards too – the base model is similar to the Forte, while the top of the line Halo looks alot like the Xonar Essense. HT Omega offer a 7.1 expansion card for the Halo, while ASUS promise a similar expansion card for the (soon to be available?) Essence ST though not the STX – I assume there’ll eventually be a revised STX with support for 7.1 expansion card.

    • glenster
    • 10 years ago

    I read that the ASUS card is the best at eliminating crackles from the sound, which Creative has yet to remedy. Is that true?

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 10 years ago

    They have heat waves in the great white North? 😉

    Thanks for the review. DDLive is where it’s at. Glad to see some companies getting the message.

    • cqcumber
    • 10 years ago

    i recently got the Asus xonar essence stx to replace my aged xfi extrememusic, and paired it up with my Sennheiser HD650. all i can tell is this soundcard is extraordinary.

    for the money u pay, it’s perhaps the best deal for audiophiles.

    • Reputator
    • 10 years ago

    It should be noted that the Essence, because it uses the AV100 chip as opposed to the AV200, does not support DTS output, as claimed multiple times in this article. Dolby Digital Live is your only option there. You might want to fix that.

    • branko
    • 10 years ago

    I’d like to see blind tests of these cards when connected through Dolby Digital Live or DTS Connect to an AV receiver / digital amplifier. And I’d like to see blind tests of positional sound in games as well, not just plain stereo music.

    My on-board ALC889A is hooked via DTS Connect to a Denon AVR-1602 receiver which is connected to Sennheiser HD595 headphones. ALC889A is configured for 5.1 output and I let my receiver do the stereo downmixing needed for headphones. There is also a 5.1 set of Mission speakers hooked-up to the receiver, but I confess like Sennheisers far better and virtually no longer use the Missions.

    The results are quite impressive. I often hear enemies in games like Crysis before I actually see them – and know exactly where they are purely by sound! Due dynamic nature of games, it seems that “stereo-ness” of headphones does not present much of a problem – constant movement of both me and other game characters seems to provide enough clues for my brain to accurately assess the position through sound.

    I had nForce2 SoundStorm / Dolby Digital Live-based solution few years back (same AVR and headphones), but the ALC889A / DTS Connect is far superior to my ears.

    Are there any other folks out there with similar setups? Are discrete cards any better (than integrated ones) when their D/A converters are taken out of the picture by using DD Live or DTS Connect?

    • Bion1c
    • 10 years ago

    I have a major issue with your listening test – you used a crappy set of Sennheiser 555’s!!!!

    why would anyone go out and buy the ultimate sound card for audio and pair it with such lame ass low end headphones?

    This is not the target market for the Essence STX. It is a high end card designed to be used in a high end audio system.

    The Rightmark tests you did completely validate what i’m saying. Is there even 1 test where the Forte beats the Essence?!

    At home I have an Essence STX card hooked up to a pair of studio monitors (Adam A7) and it sounds amazing. The better headphones/speakers you connect to it the more difference you’ll hear between the two..

    Connecting $100 headphones up and trying to tell the difference? give me a break…

    • Krogoth
    • 10 years ago

    Sheesh, more overpriced gimmicks.

    It is funny that most people who would buy these cards will likely them pair them up with cheapo headphones. They would end-up defeating the entire point of trying to obtain a “hi-fi” environment over their headphones. Headphones that do yield “hi-fi” environment often cost several times more than either card ($250+).

    I find it very difficult to recommend a sound card these days. A good integrated sound implementation is good enough for the vast majority of listeners. Let the picky, elitist audiophiles waste their time and $$$$$ on overprice junk (LOLWHAT, $500 on simple power cabling?) that they “perceive” to be far superior and worth the difference.

      • KikassAssassin
      • 10 years ago

      There’s a big difference between the crazy audiophiles who will believe any bullshit someone pushes on them (like the $500 power cable scam), and someone who wants high-quality sound and is willing to spend money where it will give them a real benefit (like a high quality audio source, amp, and headphones/speakers).

      Not everyone cares about audio quality enough to spend a lot of money on high-end equipment, and they’ll be perfectly happy buying a decent cheap speaker or headphone and plugging it into the integrated audio on their computer, and that’s fine.

      Just like not everyone cares about playing games at 2560×1600 resolution with 8xAA and every graphics setting set to max at a solid 60+ frames per second, and they’ll be perfectly happy buying a $100 video card to make games play and look “good enough” on their 19″ monitor, and that’s fine. Are you seriously going to tell people on The Tech Report of all websites that people spending a lot of money on expensive high-end hardware are wasting their money?

      In fact, money spent on audio equipment tends to be a better investment than money spent on PC hardware, because audio equipment doesn’t depreciate in value anywhere near as quickly. A high-end headphone or amp is still going to be relatively high-end many years from now. A high-end CPU or video card is going to be worthless junk in the same timeframe.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 10 years ago

        Nice reply but maybe you aren’t familiar with Krogoth. It’s just typical Krogoth being Krogery – ‘Why should anyone else want or need anything more than what suits me.’

          • KikassAssassin
          • 10 years ago

          Point taken.

        • Krogoth
        • 10 years ago

        Funny, the crowd that does spend the big $$$$ on high-end computer hardware is still a tiny minority here on TR.

        Most posters here are gamers and users that are looking for the best bang for their buck. They most likely will find it difficult to justify spending $100+ on a sound card these days when on-board solutions sound just about as good for all intend and purposes.

          • MadManOriginal
          • 10 years ago

          Likewise ‘computer speakers’ are usually not a good bang for buck if you value something other than just getting surround sound, specifically if you value 2 channel audio playback.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 10 years ago

      I think you misunderstand who this is aimed at. Not a surprise, you being a bot and all.

        • Krogoth
        • 10 years ago

        Not really, it is for people who have more $$$$ then sense.

          • MadManOriginal
          • 10 years ago

          “Not really, it is for people who have more $$$$ -[

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            lol

            • swaaye
            • 10 years ago

            Well, how about using some of those older sound cards with super high quality that were raved about years ago and are now available for really cheap second hand (or even new in some cases)? Lets leverage that timelessness!

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            You mean all the ones with dedicated headphone amp sections? Oh wait…

            • swaaye
            • 10 years ago

            Hey I suppose if that’s important to ya…….

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            Those older cards likely still have better analog output than onboard although they may lack newer fancy schmancy sound processing features. The cards in this review are aimed at a specific group of users not the ‘onboard sound is all I need or just as good although I’ve never actually done a comparison myself’ crowd.

            • Krogoth
            • 10 years ago

            Nice attempt at a strawman.

            BTW, those cards are “already” out of date. Their competition (no noes da crab!) can do most of their effects via software for far less $$$$. That $129-149 could be spent towards on getting a better set of speakers and headphones.

            • KikassAssassin
            • 10 years ago

            You mean a better set of speakers or headphones that are going to sound like garbage on your on-board sound chip, because the on-board sound doesn’t have the amplification to drive them properly, and they’ll have the detail and sensitivity to pick up every spec of electronic noise coming from your motherboard?

            I bet you’ve never even listened to a high-quality audio system in your life. You just read some article somewhere about “lol a $500 power cable” and you assume every piece of high-end audio equipment is the same kind of smoke and mirrors BS. All you’re doing is making an ass of yourself in front of people who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to audio equipment.

            • Krogoth
            • 10 years ago

            I had the opportunity a few times. I could notice the subtle differences, but in the end I found that it was not worth it. I am still baffled why audiophiles would go the extra mile. It is their money and time though.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 10 years ago

            How is that any different than how he normally acts?

            • zima
            • 10 years ago

            Well, the best place for an amp is outside the PC-case anyway…

            For example: cheap <$10 card + drivers giving bit-perfect digital output ( §[<http://www.hydrogenaudio.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=49350<]§ §[<http://code.google.com/p/cmediadrivers/<]§ ) + some good external amp might even end up cheaper than cards in this review; and probably better (for music) Of course there's also all that 3D and virtual speakers stuff...but with current CPUs there's no technical reason why cheap motherboard codec can't have it (together with the above, perfect connectivity to external amp)

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            I wouldn’t call it an attempt at a strawman but rather a successful execution of an ad hominem 😀 I’ll give you credit though because in #84 you said ‘It’s their time and money.’

            And just for the sake of argument, although there hasn’t been an article recently, a while back TR did a comparison where RealTek’s 3D positional output was either mediocre or terrible.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 10 years ago

          so what makes you think they’ll hook it up to crappy speakers? If you’ve got “more $$ than sense” (or, more accurately as MMO wrote, “than me”) then you’re going to spend entirely too much money on speakers as well.

      • Kurotetsu
      • 10 years ago

      Believing that you have to spend $250 mininum to get audiophile-quality headphones tells me that you dont know what the hell you’re talking about (no surprise, I know). Other posters in this very thread have already mentioned the ATH-AD700, which I have, that sells for less than $100 (theres also the closed version, the A700, that sells for a bit over $100).

      §[<http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f4/headphone-buyers-guide-271258/<]§ Head-Fi, pretty much the go-to place for audiophilia, has a buyer's guide for headphones at different price points (note that that list is over a year and a half out of date and many of the prices have changed). More than half that list is under $250.

        • NeronetFi
        • 10 years ago

        head-fi is where i read about the ATH-AD700’s 🙂

    • SnowboardingTobi
    • 10 years ago

    I wish sound card manufactures would add a header for front audio connections found on virtually all cases. I think I remember seeing one card having it, but they all should.

    Would have been nice to see how well these sound cards can drive a headphone with higher impedance ratings.

      • insulin_junkie72
      • 10 years ago

      Some of the X-Fis of the last few years have had them.

      My ExtremeGamer (circa 2006ish or so) has the front panel header.

    • Rza79
    • 10 years ago

    On the first page, you are totally ignoring the VIA Envy soundchip.

    §[<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VIA_Envy<]§

    • ChangWang
    • 10 years ago

    Great review! As an owner of a PCI X-fi XtremeMusic and Xonar DX, I find myself testing the waters each time I rebuild my machine with a new motherboard, etc. Each time, I wind up going back to the Xonar DX.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 10 years ago

    Excellent review as always. After my last 5.1 system died I decided to look for a soundcard & headphone replacement. I am done with the multi-speaker setup, huge cost for quality and the space they take up.

    I went with the X-Fi Forte 7.1 for the built in headphone amp, upgradable OPAMP and the ability to output both digital and analog. Right now I have a Sony MDR-7506 plugged into the amp output.

    For the digital output I pre-ordered a Psyko 5.1 headphones. These headphones are amazing. I tested them at CES 2009 and they rival many true 5.1 speaker setups. Plus now I never have to worry about the volume of my setup bothering anyone anymore.

    • blubje
    • 10 years ago

    good article; next time please cover

    (a) linux drivers

    (b) cheaper cards. if they’re both so good, why the need for a $100 card? Maybe there’s something that will still offer the step up from integrated for less?

      • insulin_junkie72
      • 10 years ago

      /[< if they're both so good, why the need for a $100 card? <]/ Headphone capability has traditionally been an afterthought in most sound cards.

    • XaiaX
    • 10 years ago

    Ugh. The subjective listening tests weren’t even single blind? — edit -Yes they were, I’m a dumbass —

    WTF is this, Oprah? You going to throw some brilliant pebbles in your PSU next?

    Do a double blind test for subjective listening first, anything less is just handwavy nonsense. Even single blind is useless.

    This is the real reason soundcard “innovation” has stagnated. It’s done. We have massively exceeded the perceptive capabilities of the human hearing system. All the occlusion and HRTF stuff can be done in software pretty trivially on modern processors, as can any decent sound cleanup. There’s nothing for soundcards to do except be DACs. The ability to live-encode DTS or DD is handy, but we can do that in software, too.

    Now that video cards are showing up with HDMI, soundcards are extra pointless for playback. Multi-channel recording is one thing, but playback was solved years ago. 48khz is beyond “good enough”, 96khz is overkill, 192khz is just masturbatory.

    Young women with good hearing /[

      • Damage
      • 10 years ago

      The listening tests were single blind. Apparently, so are the article comments. 🙂

        • XaiaX
        • 10 years ago

        Owned.

        Here, may Cthulhu have mercy on your soul: ^(;,;)^

        I would still prefer double-blind. You can still manipulate (even accidentally) single-blind tests. That’s the entire basis of the “pepsi challenge”, and why it’s crap.

    • Forge
    • 10 years ago

    On page 3, the opamps are 4580s, not 4850s. 4850s are graphics cards, so an explainable mistake for a PC enthusiast. 🙂

    What I take away from all this? Discrete sound cards are DEAD. Dee eee dee, DED. For ~140-175$, you get ‘slightly better’ on some listening tests, and RMAA scores you just a little higher? I’m pretty picky about my audio, and I like DDLive via my ALC889a just fine, and my Z-680s agree.

    Look at it this way: For the cost of either of these cards, you could have those Sennheiser cans instead. Which is the better investment?

      • MadManOriginal
      • 10 years ago

      All depends upon one’s priorities, some people pay a lot for other computer components :shrug: It also does depends upon what you use for playback, no offense if you like them but Logitech speakers are very much consumer boom-and-tizz speakers with a typical for inexpensive ported subs midbass hump. I had Logitechs too and whlie good for games and movies they were less acceptable for music.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 10 years ago

        and if you get a good set of powered digital monitors, your onboard audio is still sufficient. I’m reading up on some Behringers in the $120 range and I keep reflexively reaching for the credit card. I’ve been able to stave it off so far, though. 😆

        §[<http://www.zzounds.com/item–BEHMS40<]§

          • Ruiner
          • 10 years ago

          §[<http://www.rolandcorp.com.au/default.aspx?prd=674<]§ Spend a few extra bucks and get these. I'm very happy with them.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 10 years ago

            Can they play multiple streams at once? Say digital + analog?

            Ooh, only $20 more…

            §[<http://www.abesofmaine.com/item.do?item=EDMA15DBK&id=EDMA15DBK&l=FROOGLE<]§ I'll read up on them. My problem is that I have a hard time finding good powered monitor review.

            • Ruiner
            • 10 years ago

            Can they play multiple streams at once? Say digital + analog?

            Just tested…..affirmative.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 10 years ago

            SWEET. Thanks.

          • funko
          • 10 years ago

          behringer and ‘good’ are mutually exclusive. $120 will not buy you decent speakers… even if you looked at ‘good’ brands.

        • KikassAssassin
        • 10 years ago

        Yeah, I have the Logitech Z-680’s, and my Sennheiser 595 headphones are on a completely different level of sound quality. There’s really no comparison. As far as cheap PC speakers go, Logitech makes pretty good ones, but they’re nowhere near “audiophile” quality.

        Going from integrated audio to a Creative X-Fi discreet sound card gives me a rather large improvement in sound quality on my 595’s, and going from the X-Fi to a HeadRoom Total Bithead headphone DAC/Amp makes a noticeable difference, as well.

        • Krogoth
        • 10 years ago

        You realize that “true” audiophile quality speakers are not cheap and often cost way more than Z-680s. That is unless you get lucky and a snatch a used speaker set for the cheap (even with S+H)on fleabay.

          • MadManOriginal
          • 10 years ago

          Since you use “audiophile” in quotes, sure, but you don’t have to spend a lot to get good sound quality. Logitechs are fine computer speakers but for not much more you can do a lot better for music playback. Part of that is because of the compromise required to hit a certain price point with a 6 channel setup.

      • l33t-g4m3r
      • 10 years ago

      dead? you mean like the PC is dead? and pc gaming is dead?
      no, soundcards are not dead, and I’m sick and tired of hearing that they are.
      bandwagon naysayers are full of crap, and have their head in the sand.
      Just because you don’t care, doesn’t mean other people feel the same.
      Don’t drag us down just because you are.
      (not picking on you particularly forge, but all naysayers in general.)

      discrete soundcards took a nosedive the last couple years with poor competition, products, and drivers.
      People voiced their discontent, and voila.
      There is no such problem now.

      @review:
      If you’re going to compare games with discrete cards, you need to pick games that support the card’s latest features. UT3 comes to mind.

      cmss3d should not be comparatively used in a game that supports OpenAL/EAX.
      It’s great for up-sampling cds/mp3’s, but why limit yourself to that when a game supports full 3d-hrtf.
      Don’t compromise here, when you don’t have to.
      3d-Hrtf is what makes headphone gaming beyond just acceptable, or average.

      I’d like to see a soundcard review actually review that for a change.
      Without it, you’re selling the card short.

      alchemy:
      copy-paste the dll for games that don’t have an automatic profile.
      little less hassle.

      I agree with the editor’s choice award, the Forte is absolutely the better bang for the buck.

      off topic:
      Just attended a get motivated seminar today, with some great speakers.
      enjoyed it immensely.
      would recommend attending to all you pessimists.

      • nonegatives
      • 10 years ago

      I have used Sennheiser’s for recording and stuck with them on my PC. When I lost my Soundstorm to a motherboard upgrade I had to get something to replace the crap sound from the new motherboard’s built-in. I bought a $30 Creative at walmart – no more computer noise. I wish someone would make a good high end 2 channel card for those of us who still listen to stereo. Leave off the 3D and multi-channel octopus and give me two clean analog lines.

        • l33t-g4m3r
        • 10 years ago

        kinda agree.
        why anyone would use cmss3d to “upmix” stereo on headphones is beyond me.
        games maybe, but not for cds.
        Perhaps it can downmix, or virtualize real 5.1 audio to headphones, that would be a far better use. (dvds)
        I know cmss3d has an auto mode, which shuts itself off under certain conditions for surround speakers, maybe headphone mode is similar.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 10 years ago

        The Essence STX is the high-end 2 channel card you’re looking for. Or possibly some professional cards.

        • FireGryphon
        • 10 years ago

        There are already cards that have the front speakers channel on a higher-quality DAC than the others, so there’s been some level of catering to the headphone/2(.1) crowd for quite some time. I also want to say that after moving to a 2.1 setup from my Klipsch v2-400 4.1 setup, I miss the ambiance that the rear channels gave to music. 2.1 is *enough*, but it’s harder to get lost in the sound without the extra channels.

        • d0g_p00p
        • 10 years ago

        M-Audio Audiophile 2496 is calling for you. I personally use a Delta 44 and a pair of NHT M-00’s on my non-gaming computer. The sound quality is fantastic and it’s a 2 channel stereo signal.

        • zima
        • 10 years ago

        cheap <$10 card + drivers giving bit-perfect digital output ( §[<http://www.hydrogenaudio.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=49350<]§ §[<http://code.google.com/p/cmediadrivers/<]§ ) + some good external amp (where its place is)

          • mechafreq
          • 10 years ago

          You don’t just need an amp, you need a DAC if you output digital, which drives the cost up a lot. It’s kind of hard to find a good, cheap external DAC that doesn’t need to be attached to a computer to function, so you might as well get a sound card.

          Fact of the matter is that discrete sound cards (particularly the ones in this review) are very capable in DAC–roughly as good as the higher tier receivers on the market. You also often get more precise EQ settings, detailed crossover adjustments, and for multi-channel setups, individual channel tweaking. So if you have self powered speakers, or use low impedance headphones it makes sense to use a add-in sound card as it is cheaper and you get more functions. You can get a basic Azuentech or ASUS card for less than $100 that plays fine.

          Not to mention by moving everything off board the computer, you use up a lot more room, run more wires, and generally make a bigger mess. Often not something that is reasonable near a computer.

          Only advisable to add an external DAC/amp/receiver if you need significant amplification for high impedance headphones, a set of passive speakers, and/or an intense desire for a physical volume knob. But you will pay for it in both space and money.

            • zima
            • 10 years ago

            Yeah, of course I’ve meant “amp” in popular sense (and with digital input)

            As for the rest what you write…I’m not sure. Perhaps, perhaps not. People in this thread mentioned some supposedly fabulous monitors with digital input, that are not that much expensive than reviewed cards. I guess they might also have very good headphone amp.

            Aren’t all/most such settings done in digital stage nowadays? Meaning that any codec can have them in software? (heck, I’m pretty certain most good audio and video players do have them…)

            And I don’t really buy the space/clutter argument…with external dac you have ONE cable between it and the PC, and distancing a bit audio gear from computer gear might actually help overall clutter a bit (plus might be good for interfence reasons; not that it would make percieveable difference in proper setups)

            And generally: I’m not saying this solution is already more optimal. But there’s no sensible reason why it can’t be…

            • mechafreq
            • 10 years ago

            HiFi amps don’t come with DACs. Even stereo receivers do not often come with them.

            You seem extraordinarily uncertain about a lot of this… have you ever tried to do it yourself, or even research it in detail?

            There are not many amps with integrated DACs on the cheap–I can’t even name one off the top of my head for less than couple hundred. Even then you’re looking at a used low end HT receiver which is large and bulky. More wires? another electrical plug, and connections to each speaker which can get messy depending on where you have to put that DAC/amp. It’s not just the number of wires, it’s the length as well. I have tried this solution already, and it’s more space than I can afford.

            EQ and other settings are done digitally, however most external DACs do not offer the kind of control with a few knobs that a set of software sliders can emulate. There are many advantages to an on screen interface and a complete software solution on a PC can accomplish that your usual HiFi approach to equipment can not do.

            I’d only go the traditional HiFi approach on the low end if you had spare stuff laying around, and can take the space requirement. Or if you have tons of free cash and want the best you can get.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            I’m pretty sure he meant HT receivers based on this q[

            • zima
            • 10 years ago

            As MadManOriginal sort of pointed out, I have problem with customary terminology (EN is my 3rd language…)

            Still, people mentioned supposedly very good monitors with digital in that are not much more expensive. Gets rid of one or two cables too, if you really don’t like them that much (it’s not like you don’t use connections to each speaker when on a soundcard)

            And yeah, I sorta tried it…at least on the software/driver side of things. And I definatelly want to use that soundcard/drivers, after seeing how non-bloated & to the point they are in comparison to…pretty much everything else. Perfect sound reproduction when I’ll settle in one place/get needed gear will be quite nice bonus.

            • mechafreq
            • 10 years ago

            The USB based speakers can stutter when your system lags, saturate the USB bandwith, and are limited to 16-bit 48kHz if they are 1.0 spec, and 24-bit 96kHz on 2.0 spec (often buggy). I just haven’t found them an attractive option yet. Maybe when 3.0 is going.

            The ~US$300 digital (coaxial/optical) monitors are nice, but the cheaper ones still sound (at least all the ones I’ve auditioned) like the horrible desktop junk out there. Sometimes on board sound can modify the signal before output, sometimes it can’t. I found that my on board sound drivers were extremely buggy when set to 24bit 96kHz output to digital, so that when I fired up games, things would stop working, or even crash. Not to mention the EQ and other DPS processing was poorly implemented and compressing the sound regardless of the digital signal, likely as a precaution to prevent overloading the terrible on board amp when used as analog. Even when I disabled every setting in the drivers, output quality felt thin and metallic.

            Hooked up to my old massive HT receiver, the sound was not good, ate up a lot of space, and looked ugly. Frustrated by how I assumed on board sound was perfectly fine, I went to look for a new sound card.

            When I switched to a discrete sound card, (Asus Xonar DX/Essence), all those issues went away, and even the analog output was more than sufficient for Audioengine A5’s I hooked them up to. There was also a sudden increase in the quality of the bass and mid-bass compared to analog out from the on board sound that was NOT subtle. Tweaking all the settings quickly in software made things a lot easier when I added a sub later.

            While an add-in card didn’t save me money, it noticeably increased the quality of sound, saved space, and looked better as it was hidden. Looking at a few graphs and summing up discrete sound cards is dead might be a valid opinion, but of all the innumerable variables that can not be measured, I can not make that assumption in any certain terms.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 10 years ago

    Correction: Asus does make a PCI Essence called the ST. Also it has a header for a 7.1 analog output expansion card.

    One thing about the phones without getting in to a big discussion about the particular choice (the HD555s are just considered average afaik and have the dark bassy Sennheisser sound signature) is that these cards will shine even more versus onboard or regular non-headphone amp cards even more with high impedance phones.

      • Dissonance
      • 10 years ago

      Ahh, the ST only seems to be listed on the global site rather than Asus’ North American page. Fixed.

    • swaaye
    • 10 years ago

    How about a SBLive running the kx drivers set for rear output swap to front? Very, very cheap and very, very high quality. 🙂 It’s a shame that the drivers are only functional in XP 32-bit.

    I can see why Creative tries to let their cards die software deaths. I’ve built up a collection of hand me downs and past purchases and I haven’t noticed an improvement for a long time even with X-Fi. Audigy 2 ZS pretty much peaked out the quality for me.

    On the other hand, having some decent headphones and/or speakers makes all the difference. I’d rather listen to a SB16 with good speakers than the most amazing sound card on some bargain Logitech 2.1s. You don’t have to go crazy and fall into the “audiophile” trap, but decent hardware does make a wonderful difference.

    • NeronetFi
    • 10 years ago

    For Headphones. I recommend using Audio-Technica ATH-AD700’s they might look funky but they are very comfortable and have recieved rave reviews from Audiophile sites.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 10 years ago

      I’ve been thinking of geting a set of those for classical because they are said to have a large soundstage, the Grados I use otherwise are not known for their soundstage. Those phones are also always available for ~$90 from reputable authorized resellers so they are quite reasonable for someone wanting to get in to high quality phones. just be careful to buy Audio Technicas from reputable resellers there are lots of fakes floating around although I’m not sure if that particular model is prone to fakes.

        • potatochobit
        • 10 years ago

        I have the closed model of these

        AT has stopped making headphones I believe. they make Microphones now.
        I don’t really know why… but you should be able to find them at say like on amazon.

          • NeronetFi
          • 10 years ago

          Audio-Technica still makes Headphones 🙂

      • swaaye
      • 10 years ago

      I have these too. They are very nice. The openness is refreshing and they sound terrific. The comfort is about as good as I can imagine headphones achieving.

      I also have some older Sony MDR-V6 phones that are highly recommended and have been around forever. Love ’em too. They are a good bit more bassy than the AD700s. Because they are closed they are better if you don’t want everyone hearing what you’re listening to. Hard for me to quantify which set I prefer. These are a little lower priced though.

        • insulin_junkie72
        • 10 years ago

        Sony has tried to discontinue the V6/7506 a couple of times over the years, but always keeps having to bring them back due to customer demand. Heh 😛

        The similarly-named and oft-confused V600 are a bloated, insta-smiley face EQ mess, though. Granted, a lot of people like that.

        Alas, although both are built pretty well for the price, it was my pair of V6s that broke, while my V600s still live (both were bought circa 1994 or so). Where’s the justice?!?!?

    • oldDummy
    • 10 years ago

    I impaired my hearing during the 70’s.
    Can’t think of how……
    Quadrophonic sound QX949 and Advent speakers might be involved.
    I know they didn’t help.
    Just a heads up and word to the wise.

    • potatochobit
    • 10 years ago

    For almost 180$ you are recommmending this ASUS?

    I can’t agree with you on that, but I do love the four-pin Molex and the toslink adapter which would probably be good for use with a PC. I guess the amplifier must be more amazing than I realize.

    • flip-mode
    • 10 years ago

    Soundcards, how quaint.

    • Meadows
    • 10 years ago

    I was going to buy an Essence eventually, and this review strengthened me in my disposition.

    • [+Duracell-]
    • 10 years ago

    I wonder how these would compare to my Audigy SE…haha. Either of these are probably better, but I’m not sure HOW much better.

      • Meadows
      • 10 years ago

      A lot.
      In certain cases, the latest Realtek onboard codecs are probably better already.

        • swaaye
        • 10 years ago

        The problem with the onboard sound solutions is mobo electrical noise. I’d rather listen to almost any soundcard than be stuck with the come-and-go squealing and hissing I usually find in “Realtek HD audio”. It’s most annoying if you are using headphones.

        If you can find a mobo with clean analog output, I’m sure it’s good enough though. But that Audigy SE is probably a much safer bet.

    • albundy
    • 10 years ago

    I was seriously considering an auzentech forte but now i think i will stick to onboard audio on my msi 790fx board. Partly because sound quality is minimally distinguishable between top of the line pro-sumer cards and onboard sound, and partly because EAX is dead and has been replaced by OpenAL’s EFX!

      • derFunkenstein
      • 10 years ago

      You know who runs OpenAL right?

        • Ethyriel
        • 10 years ago

        Loki!
        *sniff*

        • albundy
        • 10 years ago

        I know its creative in the back of my mind, but I still say microsoft, and by the looks of things, i think i might be right, cus well, who do ya think tore down eax in the first place? lol

          • willardjuice
          • 10 years ago

          EAX is a reverb layer that sits on top of an audio API. EAX can be used with both DirectSound and OpenAL (so EAX is not dead).

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            It’s just been mortally wounded by Vista’s driver model and OpenAL.

      • Kaleid
      • 10 years ago

      /[<"sound quality is minimally distinguishable between top of the line pro-sumer cards and onboard sound"<]/ You probably need better speakers.

        • srg86
        • 10 years ago

        Agreed, I’ve had to go back to onboard AC97 since my Audiophile 2496doesn’t work with modern versions of ubuntu and I noticed the drop in sound quality immediately. I’m thinking of getting a Xonar DX soon.

    • FireGryphon
    • 10 years ago

    Sweet, reading through it now. So far an excellent article.

    Correction: On page 3: “digital to audio” should be “digital to analog”

    Okay, done reading.

    Excellent article, in true TR fashion. I wonder what Asus was thinking by crippling the Xonar and charging more for it. It’s also a shame that DVD-Audio isn’t supported anymore. I have a small collection of DVD-Audio discs that I used to listen to when my Audigy 2 card was installed, and they sounded absolutely amazing. I think the problem is that for most people, so many speakers isn’t practical for even a home theater, let alone a music setup.

    Thanks for the great article.

      • RagingDragon
      • 10 years ago

      ASUS still several 7.1 Xonar models – the Essence STX targets a different market (pragmatic audiophiles basically – the dolts buying $500 cables will of course prefere a $2000 external DAC + $2000 external headphone amplifier to a $200 soundcard with superior performance….), and focuses on providing the best possible stereo sound for people with high hi-fi headphones and/or an external hi-fi amplifier and speakers. Dropping 7.1 support reduces the size and cost of the card, though apparently there is an Essence ST (PCI not PCIe) coming soon with an optional add-on card for 7.1 surround support.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 10 years ago

    did you do any sort of low-latency recording with any of these audio solutions? I mean, obviously not in what you wrote about, but something for fun? Cheap (frugal!) audio hobbyists want to know!

    • Rectal Prolapse
    • 10 years ago

    Nice review!

    I have the Forte card – I paid only $100 CDN for it. The deal was so good I didn’t even bother with the additional $10 rebate. 🙂

    It was on sale a few weeks ago at ncix.com – I feel sorry for those that missed the incredible deal.

    Additional comments:

    The XRAM and the Creative chip on the Forte gets hot. EXTREMELY hot. My first card overheated and blew up, so I had to get it replaced by NCIX. Thank goodness for the RMA Express option I bought (3% extra charge). On the replacement card I added 4 videocard memory heatsinks – I used the blue ones made by Zalman. So far so good – the card is still alive!

    When I first received the 2nd card, I didn’t put the heatsinks on right away – but it DID overheat and the PC hardlocked. Luckily the Forte didn’t fry and I slapped the heatsinks on it right away. It was 3 slots away from the videocard.

    It’s a good card – it has much better DTS Connect support in Windows 7 than the Realtek 2.29 drivers for my ALC888 motherboard. For some reason, windows 7 sounds do not render properly on the Realtek unless I have an mp3 player idling in the background. How screwed up is that?

    Maybe it was a Windows 7 RC issue – later I’ll try Windows 7 RTM with the realtek to see if the missing audio is fixed.

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