review asus xonar dg and xense sound cards

Asus’ Xonar DG and Xense sound cards

When building a new PC, today’s enthusiast faces numerous important questions. How many CPU cores do I need? Will a GeForce or a Radeon deliver the smoothest frame rates in the games I play the most? Can I afford a solid-state disk large enough to be useful as a system and applications drive? How quiet can I make the rig without sacrificing performance? Oh, and do I really need a sound card?

I bet you can tell where this is going.

Not too long ago, the answer to that last question would have been a unequivocal yes. There was a time when the “free” audio integrated on motherboards was almost universally horrendous. Early onboard sound implementations were plagued by poor-quality codecs and board-level interference that translated to lousy audio quality. They also lacked hardware acceleration for positional 3D audio, which was a big deal at the time.

Fast-forward to today, and the PC audio landscape has changed dramatically. Creative’s EAX positional audio standard is all but dead, and the rise of console ports seems to have squelched the need hardware-accelerated 3D audio entirely. Onboard solutions have gotten better, too, causing many to claim that modern implementations are more than adequate for most users. Some defend this position with the sort of passionate ferocity normally reserved for GPU flame wars. I’m not so sure, though.

You see, as integrated audio has improved, so have discrete sound cards. The iconic Sound Blaster may be stagnating, but other players are picking up the slack, notably Asus, whose family of Xonar sound cards has been growing faster than the Duggars. Asus first waded into the sound card market with the Xonar D2X, an ambitious high-end model that garnered a TR Editor’s Choice award on its maiden voyage. Now, some three years later, Asus is celebrating the Xonar’s anniversary with a new model dubbed the Xense. Bundled with a gaming headset from Sennheiser, the Xense has all the trappings of a fancy sound card: high-quality DACs, replaceable OPAMPs, 1/4″ jacks, a headphone amp, and support for multichannel analog and digital output. At $280 online, it’s definitely a luxury item, perhaps too big a step up for someone unsure whether they even need a sound card.

Fortunately, the Xense isn’t the only fresh addition to the Xonar lineup. Asus has also rolled out the Xonar DG with a much more affordable $30 street price. The DG isn’t nearly as indulgent as the Xense, but its low cost gives us the perfect opportunity to explore what even a modest audio upgrade can do for a PC otherwise relying on an integrated Realtek codec. So we have, and we’ve thrown the Xense into the mix to see whether it’s worth the additional expense. Keeping reading to find out.

Much more than an audio codec
When integrated on a motherboard, audio is usually handled by a single codec chip. Apart from the processing done in software by an associated driver, this lone piece of silicon is responsible for translating binary bitstreams into something that can be output to your speakers or headset. That’s quite an important role, but as is too often the case, motherboard makers tend to opt for the simplest and cheapest implementation that will get the job done. I understand their dilemma, at least to some extent. Audio must compete with other peripheral chips in a world where board real estate is at a premium, and it’s not really as sexy as USB 3.0 or 6Gbps SATA.

Obviously, discrete solutions have a natural advantage. Not only do they get to focus solely on delivering quality sound, they can also spread out on an expansion card. With plenty of room to breathe, sound cards are free to tackle tasks that would otherwise be performed by a single audio codec with a small army of chips and auxiliary components.

An audio processor is at the center of this web of additional hardware, and the market is currently dominated by two camps: Creative’s X-Fi derivatives and the various flavors of C-Media’s Oxygen HD. The latter is favored by Asus, which sometimes hides an Oxygen under silk-screening bearing its own name. Such is the case with the Xense, whose “Asus AV100” audio processor is, in fact, a C-Media CMI8788. We first encountered this Oxygen HD chip in early 2007, and it’s been around the block a few times since. The fact that the CMI8788 is still relevant is a testament to just how little the PC audio market has moved in the last few years.

Audio standards haven’t really budged since the chip’s introduction, for example. The Oxygen HD is capable of handling 24-bit resolutions at sampling rates up to 192kHz, which is as high-definition as consumer audio gets. With eight output channels, the C-Media chip is also equipped to feed elaborate 7.1-speaker home-theater setups. To this formula, Asus adds surround-sound speaker virtualization via Dolby Headphone and the ability to encode multichannel digital bitstreams on the fly with Dolby Digital Live.

For folks who play older games that make use of EAX effects, Asus has also implemented GX2.5, the latest version of its EAX emulation scheme. GX2.5 can juggle up to 128 simultaneous positional audio effects, which is as many as are available with Creative’s latest version of EAX. To give you a sense of how old that standard is, the last revision, EAX 5.0, debuted with the original X-Fi more than a half-decade ago.

Asus declined to add its own name to the audio processor that graces the Xonar DG, although the company informs us that this CMI8786 is a custom order. The chip has Oxygen HD heritage and can be best thought of as a cut-down version of the CMI8788. 24-bit audio is still supported, but only at sampling rates up to 96kHz. The number of output channels has been reduced to six, and there’s no provision for real-time multichannel encoding for digital output. However, Dolby Headphone is still included, and so is GX2.5. Folks using analog speakers or headphones aren’t likely to need much more.

Of course, the audio processor is only responsible for sound when it’s expressed in ones and zeroes. The DACs tasked with translating digital audio into an analog signal can make or break a card’s output quality, at least with the sort of speakers and headphones most plug into their systems. On the Xense, a “Burr Brown” stereo DAC from Texas Instruments handles the front-channel out, while a Cirrus Logic chip takes care of the rest of the outgoing channels. Cirrus logic is also responsible for the Xense’s ADC, which takes care of digital conversions for the card’s analog input.

Xonar DG Xonar Xense
Interface 32-bit PCI PCI Express x1
Audio chip C-Media CMI8786 Asus AV100
Digital-to-analog converter Cirrus Logic CS4361 Texas Instruments PCM1796
Cirrus Logic CS4362A
Analog-to-digital converter Cirrus Logic CS4245 Cirrus Logic CS5381
Headphone amp Texas Instruments DRV601RTJR Texas Instruments 6120A2
Replaceable OPAMPs? No Yes
Maximum recording quality 24-bit/96kHz 24-bit/192kHz
Maximum playback quality 24-bit/96kHz 24-bit/192kHz
Output signal-to-noise ratio 105 dB 118 dB
Input signal-to-noise ratio 103 dB 118 dB
Output channels 6 8
Multi-channel digital encoding NA Dolby Digital Live!
Speaker virtualization Dolby Headphone Dolby Headphone
Street price $30 $280

Things are a little simpler on the Xonar DG, whose analog outs are fed solely by a Cirrus Logic DAC—one with a 104-dB signal-to-noise ratio that’s is notably lower than that of the Texas Instruments and Cirrus chips on the Xense, which are rated at 123 and 114 dB, respectively. I suspect the DG’s Cirrus Logic ADC isn’t quite as good as the one sitting on the Xense, either, although we’ll be able to get a sense of things with some “loopback” audio tests a little later in the review. For what it’s worth, Asus pegs the Xense’s overall output and input SNR at 118 dB, while the DG’s outputs are listed at 105 dB and its input at 103 dB.

Built-in headphone amplification is something you won’t find on a motherboard, but it’s featured in both Xonars. On the DG, Asus has gone with Texas Instruments’ DRV601RTJR, which is optimized for headphone impedances of 32-150 Ω according to the card’s spec sheet. The Xense gets something considerably fancier: a TI amp capable of pushing headphones with impedances up to 600 Ω. Of course, the headphones bundled with the card are rated for an impedance of only 150 Ω. Mid-range stereo cans like Sennheiser’s excellent HD 555s, which we use for listening tests, have a rated impedance of just 50 Ω. You don’t need big numbers for high-quality sound.

Say hello to the Xense
Asus hides much of the Xense’s hardware under an EMI shield polished to a mirror-like finish. This thin metal piece is contoured to match the cup shape of the included headset, which is a nice aesthetic touch. So is the faux-chrome, although you’re not going to see much of it with the card buried inside a case.

The shield is held in place by five screws secured by a smidgen of blue Loctite. You’ll need to remove these screws and lift the shield to gain access to the Xense’s replaceable operational amplifiers, or OPAMPs. The stock JRC units tied to the front-channel output can be swapped for units of your choice. Asus even sells its own OPAMP upgrade kit for the card: a $10 package that includes a pair of LME49720 chips from National Semiconductor. Newegg is actually throwing the upgrade kit in for free if you buy a Xense before the end of the year.

The card itself is a full-height affair measuring 6.6 inches (168 mm) long. It’s actually the same length as the Xonar DG, although unlike the budget model, the Xense has a PCI Express x1 interface. Since the AV100 Oxygen HD audio chip was built to ride a PCI bus, Asus has to use a PLX bridge chip to tap into modern PCIe slots. Bridging isn’t as slick as a native PCIe implementation, but those are scarce in the audio world. Sound cards aren’t exactly hurting for bandwidth, anyway, and we’ve had no problems with other bridged Xonars.

A standard PCI Express x1 slot is only equipped to supply up to 10W of power. That’s not ideal for the Xonar Xense, which has a four-pin Molex connector for auxiliary juice. We’ll test power consumption a little later in the review to see whether the Xense is particularly thirsty.

Over to the right of the power plug and just out of the frame in the picture above, the Xense offers headers for a front-panel connector, an auxiliary digital input, and an S/PDIF output. These internal ports are complemented by an array of additional jacks that poke out of the rear expansion plate.

Alongside quarter-inch headphone and microphone ports, the Xense has a digital S/PDIF output with an RCA plug. In between those ports sits what looks like a gold-plated DVI connector. That isn’t a video output, though.

Instead, the port feeds an eight-channel array of 1/8″ analog audio jacks. That means no more crawling around under your desk to switch between headphones and a surround-sound speaker setup, and no jack sharing for the microphone input. Asus also throws in 1/4″ adapter for 1/8″ devices and a TOS-Link converter for the S/PDIF output.

You’ll also find an entire headset in the box—and not just a token throw-in, but a special version of Sennheiser’s PC 350 gaming headset, which normally sells for $180 on its own. These closed cans have 38-mm dynamic speakers backed by neodymium magnets. Sennheiser claims a frequency response of 10-26,000Hz and distortion of less than 0.1%. The adjustable boom mic has noise canceling built in and a 50-16,000Hz rated frequency response.

While testing the Xonars, I found the PC 350 to be comfortable to wear for hours at a time, and I quite like how the headset folds flat for transport. I expected the closed design to make my ears sweat, but much to my surprise, these Sennheisers feel a little cooler than our HD 555 headphones, which are an open design, albeit one with fuzzy earmuffs that seem to retain heat. The PC 350’s closed cups definitely do a better job of insulating the user from his surrounding environment, which you may prefer depending on whether you use headphones to avoid disturbing others or vice versa.

Sennheiser’s standard PC 350s have 1/8″ headphone and microphone jacks connected to nearly 10 feet of cabling. The Xense edition keeps the cable length but swaps in quarter-inch jacks to match the card’s oversized ports. You also get an in-line volume dial and mute switch, both of which should be useful for gamers and Skype users alike.

Although we’re going to concentrate on the sound cards today, I should take a moment to give my impressions on the PC 350s. I don’t have a lot of experience with gaming headsets outside of Psyko’s funky 5.1-channel model, but I do use a pair of HD 555 headphones with regularity, and I have a bit of a picky ear. When compared to the HD 555s, which can be found online for under $100, the PC 350s sound to me like they’re a little short on body and richness. I can’t put my finger on anything more specific that’s lacking, and to be honest, the difference is quite subtle. Matching volume levels exactly is nearly impossible due to the Xense’s headphone gain needing to be adjusted to account for differing impedances, making a proper back-to-back comparison rather difficult to conduct.

I suspect some of my siding with the HD 555s may be a preference for how open cups sound versus the headset’s closed-cup design. One should also keep in mind that the PC 350 folds flat and incorporates a microphone, while the HD 555s are strictly headphones and more cumbersome to transport.

Lowering the DG’s profile
You won’t find much in the way of extras included with the Xonar DG. In fact, apart from the driver CD and manual, the only other item in the box is a shorter back plate for use with low-profile enclosures. The DG’s circuit board is just 2.5″ tall, allowing the card to squeeze into the sort of slim cases one might want to wrap around a low-power home-theater PC.

With fewer chips and associated electrical components, the DG doesn’t need as much board area as the larger Xense. One of the chips that’s missing is a PCI Express bridge, which isn’t necessary because the DG has an old-school PCI interface. I’d prefer PCIe connectivity, but that would surely add to the cost of the card, and it’s not like there’s a shortage of empty PCI slots out there. Even the latest and greatest motherboards tend to feature at least one PCI slot, and so do the microATX models you might be mulling for that low-profile build.

Given the DG’s smaller footprint and component payload, we’re not surprised to see that the card lacks an auxiliary power connector. The card does, however, have plenty of room for the same set of internal headers available on the Xense. The front-panel connector on both cards is HD-compliant, by the way.

Of course, the DG does give up some ground when it comes to external ports. 1/8″ audio jacks are provided for the six-channel outputs and the card’s microphone input. There’s also a TOS-Link digital S/PDIF output, but that’s it. Adding more ports would’ve compromised the card’s low-profile design, and this is a pretty good mix for a budget offering.

Incidentally, Asus covers its Xonar line with a three-year limited warranty for both parts and labor. Three-year warranties are pretty standard for PC components, and you won’t have to jump through any limited-time registration hoops to get full coverage.

Little difference in drivers
Perhaps in response to the massive excess of extraneous applications and other bloat that Creative bundles with its sound cards, the drivers that accompany Asus’ Xonars are pretty compact. A single control panel gives the user access to just about everything.

The latest drivers available for the Xonar DG, version, are a little newer than the 1788 release users can download for the Xense. That may explain some slight differences in options between the two drivers, which are otherwise quite similar in terms of the functionality offered.

Users have access to more DSP modes with the Xense, although I tend to keep such things disabled. Do we really need separate modes for first-person shooters and driving games? Probably not.

If you’re playing older games, you should hit the GX button, which enables Asus’ EAX emulation mode. Over to the left, the main interface allows the user to configure Dolby Headphone and Digital Live output. When headphones are selected, it’s also possible to switch the headphone amp between a number of preset impedance ranges. True to form, the Xense’s drivers have an additional headphone setting that’s specifically optimized for the PC 350s. The DG’s drivers have no such setting, but you can still select from a few impedance ranges.

Asus adds one more bit of goodness to the Xense’s drivers: the ability to adjust the ASIO latency between 1 and 80 milliseconds. ASIO is a protocol designed to offer applications unfettered access to audio hardware, and it’s most commonly used by musicians and those involved with audio production. Desktop users won’t need to fiddle with ASIO settings, so the DG’s lack of such an option doesn’t really put it at a disadvantage for most folks. However, we will probe each card’s general input latency in a moment.

Our testing methods
Before diving into our test results, I should take the time to introduce the Realtek ALC892 codec chip that will be representing integrated motherboard audio. An apparent successor to the wildly popular ALC889, the ALC892 has yet to appear on Realtek’s website. However, it’s already started popping up on motherboards, including the Asus Sabertooth X58 model that will serve as the basis for our test system.

The Sabertooth is a high-end board, and it fared pretty well in the basic tests we use to probe analog audio signal quality in motherboard reviews. Today, it faces a much more demanding suite of tests against a pair of Xonars. I considered adding a few more sound cards to the mix but held back for a couple of reasons. First, there aren’t a lot of sound cards on the market, and most of the ones available are other Xonar models that have much in common with these two. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we typically see the biggest differences in our listening tests, which become increasingly difficult (and time-consuming) to conduct the more sound cards are added to the mix.

Our gaming and latency tests were run five times, and we reported the median of the scores produced. We used the following system configuration for testing:

Processor Core i7-920 2.66GHz ES
Motherboard Asus Sabertooth X58
Bios revision 0402
Platform hub Intel X58 Express
South bridge Intel ICH10R
Chipset drivers Chipset:
Memory size 6GB (3 DIMMs)
Memory type OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz
Memory timings 7-7-7-20-1T
Audio Realtek ALC889 with 2.53 drivers
Asus Xonar DG with drivers
Asus Xonar Xense with drivers
Graphics Asus EAH5870 1GB with Catalyst 10.10 drivers
Hard drive Western Raptor X 150GB
Power Supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W
OS Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at a 75Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

Most of 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.

To see whether the Xonars offer improved gaming performance, I fired up a collection of recent releases. These titles don’t take advantage of the cards’ support for EAX emulation, but few will outside of the years-old fodder found in the bargain bin at your local Walmart.

The games were run at a 1920×1080 resolution with all their eye candy turned up. I ran through the same 60-second portion of each game at least five times while Fraps logged frame rates in the background. Those frame rates stayed silky smooth throughout, despite my pushing the antialiasing to 4X and turning anisotropic filtering way up. Graphics horsepower is easily the biggest bottleneck for gaming performance, and our test rig’s Radeon HD 5870 is well equipped to handle the load.

To give the Xonars a little bit of an extra challenge, I had them fake a surround-sound speaker environment using Dolby Headphone. The Realtek codec doesn’t have an equivalent option, but it can virtualize stereo speakers for headphone output, which is the setting I used to test our integrated motherboard audio.

Think a discrete sound card is going to improve in-game frame rates? Think again. We could have come up with a contrived scenario using an older game engine to illustrate the potential benefit of hardware-accelerated positional 3D audio, but the fact remains that modern games seem content to perform audio processing on the CPU.

At best, our tests show only a few FPS separating the various solutions. Given the inherent variability associated with manual Fraps runs through a given portion of each game, I’m inclined to call things equal on the gaming front.

Well, almost equal. The ALC892’s lack of surround-sound speaker virtualization is a definite weakness. Dolby Headphone isn’t a perfect substitute for a proper 5.1-channel speaker setup, but for gaming, I much prefer it to vanilla stereo output. The two-channel speaker setup faked by the Realtek codec is an improvement over standard headphone output, too. However, it’s definitely lacking next to the Dolby implementation, which feels more immersive.

Input latency
At the suggestion of TR regular morphine, we’ve added a simple latency test to our audio suite. This test follows the instructions laid out by the folks responsible for the Audacity audio editor, which is a free and open-source application used by our own Jordan Drake to weave the various audio streams we generate into a coherent podcast. What we’re measuring here is the latency between the front-channel output and the microphone input.

Interesting. The Xonars have slightly higher input latencies compared to the Realtek codec. Of course, we’re only talking about a difference of around 45 milliseconds, which is probably too short of a gap for most ears to detect.

Power consumption
Before moving onto our subjective listening tests, let’s take a moment to check on system power consumption. Power draw was measured, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up Pro power meter. We noted the power draw with the system at idle and while immersed in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 using the same speaker virtualization schemes as our gaming tests.

Although the Xense consumes several watts more than DG at idle, the two are very close under load. The DG’s power consumption looks particularly modest considering that the system is only pulling one more watt than when it’s running off the integrated Realtek codec. That codec was disabled via the BIOS for all our discrete audio tests.

Blind listening tests
In my view, the best way to evaluate a sound card is to listen to, well, how it sounds. Plenty of folks insist they can hear a difference between integrated and discrete solutions, so we lined up the Xonars against our motherboard’s Realtek codec for a series of listening tests. These were blind tests, so our subjects had no knowledge of which audio config they were hearing at any given time.

After several years of sound-card testing, I’ve found that doing back-to-back listening tests with relatively short 30-second song clips is the best way to get listeners to pick out specific differences in playback quality. The listeners wore our Sennheiser HD 555 headphones for these tests, and each card’s output level was normalized to within 0.1 decibels using RightMark Audio Analyzer to measure the volume of a test tone. The ALC892, DG, and Xense all faced each other in a series of head-to-head matchups with each song clip, and the order of those matchups was randomized for each track and test subject.

Our music snippets were all ripped directly from the original audio CDs and saved as uncompressed WAV files. We played these tracks back using Windows Media Player 11, the default media player for Windows 7. Below, you’ll find our listeners’ impressions of how each card sounded versus the competition. However, before we get into the results, it’s worth taking a moment to introduce our listeners. I asked each to rate themselves on an impromptu audiophile scale between 0, which considers Apple’s stock iPod earbuds to be awesome, and 10, which classifies as garbage anything that isn’t piped through multi-thousand-dollar speakers via gold-plated Monster cables from an original vinyl source.

The first listener to run the gauntlet was Matt Trinca, a new writer of ours who lives conveniently close to the Benchmarking Sweatshop. Until recently, Matt relied on a mini-stereo system for audio playback. He only rates himself a 6 on our scale. Cyril also lives within range of my lab, and he was kind enough to not only sit through the listening tests but also run them so that I could become a blind subject. A bit of a connoisseur, Cyril uses Sennheiser HD595 headphones and puts himself at an 8 on our audiophile scale. I’d give myself an 8, as well, and I spend most of my time listening to music piped through a pair of Abit iDome speakers. Finally, I bribed my girlfriend, Mo, to sit through a round of tests with the promise of a backrub and an empty dishwasher. She had truly atrocious speakers before I migrated her to a pair of cheap Logitech units that she thinks sound phenomenal, so I’m going to give her a 4 on our audiophile scale.

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.

Matt had a hard time discerning the difference between configs with this track. He found the Realtek solution’s drumming to be more forceful than that of the Xonars, and thought the DG sounded a little muddier than the Xense. Mo said they all sounded roughly the same, but she preferred the DG for reasons she couldn’t put her finger on.

Cyril and I both detected a low hiss in the background with the Realtek codec, which I suppose made the rest of our testing somewhat less than perfectly blind, at least for us. He thought the integrated solution sounded a little artificial and preferred the DG for its crisper bass and superior separation, even versus the Xense. I singled out the Xense for better separation, but I still favored the sharpness of the DG’s percussion and vocals. To my ears, the background instrumentation sounded a little lost on the Realtek codec.

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.

Scroobius Pip’s sarcastic vocals came across clearer for Matt on the Realtek codec, and he found the drumming on the Xonars a little dull in comparison. Mo didn’t agree, and thought the ALC892 had an air of static. She liked the DG overall, and preferred its vocals to those of the Xense—an opinion shared by me and Cyril. Cyril found the Xense a little timid overall, but we both agreed it and the DG sounded much better than the integrated audio, which sort of mashed things together under a heavy bass line. I quite liked the sound of the Xense overall, but the DG tickled my weakness for a bit of vocal bias.

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.

You learn interesting things while conducting this sort of testing, one of which is that different people listen for different things. Matt, for example, consistently commented that drumming hit harder on the ALC892 than on the rest. Percussion with a little more punch is also the reason he preferred the DG to the Xense with this track. He liked the DG best overall, noting that its background instrumentals were a lot clearer than with the hard-hitting crab.

Indeed, we all preferred the DG with this Ghosts song, and for much of the same reasons, even if we used different words to describe a general sentiment. Mo thought the DG had more range than the Xense, which Cyril said sounded a little muted. I reached the same conclusion from the opposite direction, praising the DG’s brightness versus the Xense, which had more of an even keel.

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

Score three for the Xense. Matt found it more vibrant than the DG, which was clearer than the ALC892. Cyril praised the Xense’s natural sound versus the other solutions, whose vocals he found a tad sharp. I detected the same vocal bias, and noted that the DG at least preserved the rest of the spectrum, while the onboard codec made the background instrumentals sound a little compressed. But the Xense was my favorite, as well, thanks to a more even separation between the various elements of the track.

Although she didn’t agree with the rest of us, Mo was at least consistent in picking the DG as her favorite. She did think that all the configs sounded very similar, but also that the Xense was a little tinny when compared to the budget Xonar. The DG, she said, sounded just a bit better than the ALC892.

Tori Amos — Cornflake girl
A little something for the ladies… or I suppose from the lady, Cornflake Girl layers strings, piano, and Amos’ intoxicatingly breathy delivery.

With our final track, the results were nearly split down the middle. Matt and Mo thought the DG sounded better than the others. He detected more separation with the DG than with the Xense and thought the former was clearer than the ALC892, whose drums were too high in the mix. Mo called the differences more subtle, but noted that the Xense’s vocals sounded weak versus the DG. I had similar sentiments, characterizing the DG’s vocals as punchier than those of the pricier Xonar. The DG’s piano stood out a little more for me, too, although the Xense had a more even balance with better separation. Only because I like a little extra kick did I prefer the sound of the DG to the Xense.

Cyril isn’t as easily swayed by a little extra oomph, and he sided with the Xense’s superior separation, even if it sounded just a little bit quieter. The ALC892 didn’t fare as well to his ears, which heard something more metallic and artificial than what was produced by the Xonars. I complained about a blurring in the background with the Realtek codec, and Matt thought it lacked a crispness present in the discrete cards.

Some time has passed since these listening tests were conducted, and I’ve since been able to gather a some additional context that I think will help to explain the results. More often than not, the Xense had the best separation and most even sonic profile of the bunch. It tended to give each element of the track equal attention, and in back-to-back comparisons with implementations that have specific biases, I can see why we often thought the Xense sounded less exciting than its competition. As it turns out, Asus programmed a little extra excitement into the DG. The card isn’t tuned to sound exactly correct, as is the case with the Xense, but to give things like percussion and vocals a little extra pop. And our listeners liked pop. I’m a total sucker for pop, too, especially since it often amplifies my favorite elements of a given song.

The ALC892 has some extra kick of its own, but not like the DG. Here, the question isn’t whether there’s bias, but what, if anything, that bias costs you. On the DG, I’m left with the impression that that Asus has nudged up the volume on a couple of instruments without messing with the rest of the band. With the Realtek codec, it sounds like the drums and vocals have been turned way up, robbing focus and bandwidth from the rest of the spectrum. Both solutions are guilty of massaging the sound a little before passing it to your ears, but the DG’s touch doesn’t disturb the surroundings, while the onboard audio can trample on background instrumentals and other subtleties.

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, we’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.

Since the Xense has two effective front-channel outputs, one for speakers and another dedicated jack just for headphones, we tested both. The DG and our test system’s motherboard lack dedicated headphone ports, so we limited our loopback tests to their front-channel outs.

RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality – 16-bit/44.1kHz
Frequency response Noise level Dynamic range THD THD + Noise IMD + Noise Stereo Crosstalk IMD at 10kHz Overall score
Realtek ALC892 5 4 4 3 1 3 5 3 4
Xonar DG 5 6 6 5 4 6 6 6 5
Xonar Xense (Front) 6 6 6 6 5 6 6 6 6
Xonar Xense (Headphone) 6 5 5 6 4 6 6 6 6

The Xense edges out the DG in the battle of the Xonars, scoring higher in only a couple of the tests. Both stay ahead of the Realtek codec, which to be fair, is only one point behind in the overall score. However, the ALC892 also has lower scores across the board.

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. You don’t have to look over them all, but here are a few things to look for. First, check out the plot of frequency response, which we’ve put first on this and the following pages. The Xense flat-lines acroess the entire spectrum, while the DG and ALC892 each drop off early—the Realtek considerably more dramatically than the Xonar. Also telling is the noise-level graph, which tracks the noise you don’t want in the signal.

Surprisingly, at least based on the results of our listening tests, the Xense’s headphone output tracks closely with the ALC892 in a number of RMAA plots. However, the latter spikes much more frequently than any of the discrete sound cards in the total harmonic distortion and intermodulation distortion graphs.

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

Total harmonic distortion + noise

Intermodulation distortion

Stereo crosstalk

RightMark Audio Analyzer – 24-bit/96kHz

RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality – 24-bit/96kHz
Frequency response Noise level Dynamic range THD THD + Noise IMD + Noise Stereo Crosstalk IMD at 10kHz Overall score
Realtek ALC892 5 4 4 5 3 4 5 4 4
Xonar DG 6 6 6 5 4 6 6 6 5
Xonar Xense (Front) 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6
Xonar Xense (Headphone) 6 6 6 6 5 6 6 6 6

The scores are nearly identical with 24-bit/96kHz audio. Once again, the Xense comes out on top. The DG remains competitive with its costlier cousin, and it’s well ahead of the Realtek codec.

Before scrolling down to the next page, let your eyes linger a little on that plot of frequency response. As we kick up the audio quality, the Realtek codec struggles even more to keep up with the Xonars.

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
Frequency response Noise level Dynamic range THD THD + Noise IMD + Noise Stereo Crosstalk IMD at 10kHz Overall score
Realtek ALC892 5 4 4 5 3 5 5 5 5
Xonar Xense (Front) 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6
Xonar Xense (Headphone) 6 6 6 6 5 6 6 6 6

The DG’s lack of support for 192kHz sampling rates relegates it to the bench for this test—not that the Xense needs much help defending the honor of discrete sound cards. Both of its output paths score higher than the ALC892, which bounces back after turning in lower scores at 96kHz.

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

Total harmonic distortion + noise

Intermodulation distortion

Stereo crosstalk

Extra credit – RMAA after an OPAMP swap
Curious to see whether my ears or RightMark Audio Analyzer could tell the difference between the Xense’s stock OPAMPs and the ones sold in Asus’ upgrade kit, I did a swap and ran some tests. Mostly, this was an excuse to take a picture of something really small with my new Canon EOS Rebel T2i camera. So, here you go:

Yeah, I’m still working out the kinks. But my, what a nice pair of National Semiconductor 49720NAs. How do they fare against the card’s default JRC 2114D amplifiers?

RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality – 24-bit/192kHz
Frequency response Noise level Dynamic range THD THD + Noise IMD + Noise Stereo Crosstalk IMD at 10kHz Overall score
Xonar Xense (JRC 2114D) 6 6 6 6 5 6 6 6 6
Xonar Xense (LME 49720NA) 6 6 6 6 5 6 6 6 6

Nearly identically, at least according to RMAA. Even our fancy plots show the two OPAMPs right on top of each other. My ears couldn’t tell the difference with headphones, either. To be fair, though, I wasn’t able to do much of a back-to-back listening test to tease out subtle differences. Swapping OPAMPs is a pretty quick task, but it does take a few minutes, especially since I wanted to have the shielding in place during playback in case it affected the results.

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

Total harmonic distortion + noise

Intermodulation distortion

Stereo crosstalk

Happy anniversary, Xonar. The Xense nicely commemorates three years of taking Creative’s lunch money. It feels like a sort of greatest hits for the Xonar line, celebrating the use of high-quality components, real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding, headphone amplification, and socketed OPAMPs. I wasn’t as big of a fan of the Xonar Essence STX because it sacrificed multichannel speaker output in the name of chunky headphone and microphone jacks, but the Xense doesn’t make that mistake. As a result, it’s equipped to handle multiple audio setups, including the one that comes in the box.

Asus is pushing its Xense headset bundle as a kind of ultimate gaming solution, which is why there’s a microphone boom sticking out of the included Sennheisers. Headphone purists will scoff at that addition, and I don’t think the PC 350 sounds as good as our HD 555s, which cost considerably less. Then again, the Xense is sold as a bundle, which if you value the headset at its full $180 asking price, means you’re getting the sound card for only $100. That’s an exceptional deal considering that high-end Xonars typically cost in the neighborhood of $200 all on their own.

As the sum of its parts, the Xense is an intriguing option with an even sound stage that I suspect hardcore gamers and true audiophiles will actually prefer to something with an intentional bias. I certainly wouldn’t want gunfire and explosions masking the subtle footsteps of someone sneaking up behind me. Then again, if I were going to splurge on a fancy sound card, I’d probably already have a preferred set of speakers or headphones. The headset adds to the cost, even if you’re getting a substantial effective discount, and it’s a shame the Xense isn’t yet available as a standalone card. Asus tells me there are plans to offer the Xense on its own, although there’s no word yet on when such a product might become available.

I suppose my enthusiasm for the Xense is somewhat tempered by just how impressed I am with the DG. This budget Xonar may have had features clipped here and there, but it retains a few key ingredients that should have widespread appeal: Dolby Headphone support, excellent output quality, and just enough channels for most surround-sound configs. Most folks can do without support for 192kHz sampling rates, and while the lack of Dolby Digital Live encoding is a blow to gamers with compatible speakers or receivers, this card is best paired with analog output devices, anyway.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Xonar DG is how well it did in our listening tests. Most of the time, the majority of our blind listeners thought it sounded better than the more expensive Xense. I don’t mean better in terms of a bit-perfect reproduction of the original source, but better as in more pleasing to the ears—or our ears, anyway. The extra pop Asus programmed into the DG is sure to aggravate purists. However, I don’t see those folks shopping for budget sound cards.

Asus Xonar DG
November 2010

That brings me to the question we posed at the beginning of this review, which is whether you really need a sound card at all. The simple answer is no. You can get by with integrated audio and live blissfully unaware of what you’re missing or stubbornly claim that no difference exists. I bet you could get by playing games at lower resolutions and without antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, too. You probably don’t really need a solid-state drive to load games a few seconds faster, and you’d likely survive with two CPU cores rather than four or six. The question is not whether you need those upgrades, but if they’re worth the additional expense. In the case of the $30 Xonar DG, the answer is a definitive yes. If you have halfway decent headphones or speakers, the DG offers a very real step up in sound quality for what amounts to a pittance. That’s Editor’s Choice material—easy.

The Xense isn’t as compelling simply because the value it offers is rather narrowly confined. Are you in the market for a good sound card and a fancy headset for gaming or VOIP sessions? If so, the Xense combines very attractive components in a package that’s most definitely worth more than the asking price. However, $280 is a lot to spend on an audio upgrade, even for the Xonar’s anniversary.

0 responses to “Asus’ Xonar DG and Xense sound cards

  1. The 24/96 sampling rate limit of the DG isn’t really that big of deal with Blu-ray playback. I own a good handful of discs with high res Dolby and DTS soundtracks on them and none of them use any resolution beyond 24/48 at this point. 24/192 is the upper limit of the specification of these tracks, but it seems like the folks that are mastering the discs have made the wise choice of keeping their audio tracks limited to lower sampling rates so they can devote the bits saved to extras or to the video.

  2. Those little Realtek chips do just the minimum and it is enough most of the time. It is cool to finally have motherboards with good analog circuitry. But not all motherboards have it.

    The X-Fi chip doesn’t really add much unless you play games that use OpenAL or use MIDI.

  3. But we had creative license EAX 2.0 to audio card manufacturers, but their implementation was not useful.I remember having very poor positional audio with way too much reverb in EAX games with nforce “soundstorm” and hercules game theater XP and some abit card I forgot. Part of the problem was reviewers never properly tested and whined about this. That wont be a problem with software implementation.

  4. You can get all of those effects if the fools at Creative open up EAX API. We finally can get proper emulation on non-creative solutions.

  5. You remind me of this one online picture that I forgot to save.

    It show two people listening to “music”.

    The one person was listening to the music for its “artistic” value and enjoying it.

    The other person listening was paying attention to technician aspects and nitpicking it rather than enjoying for what it is.

    You fit the latter person like a glove. The vast majority of music listeners are the former example.

    This is precisely why the majority think you are a bit silly and laugh at your ridiculous justifications on overpriced, snakes oil equipment.

  6. Yes, but when the interface first arrived, did it support a fall-back mode to AGP? No, don’t answer, it’s a rhetorical question.

    Vista’s new audio technology is the “PCI-express” of sound. It will be backwards compatible in the future, but the shift just had to be made at some point first.

  7. But zomg Meadows, the recordings were made with tube mics!

    Everybody knows that the additional tube circuitry distorting the signal and reproducing it even less accurately causes cross-dimensional harmonic resonance with phantom ultrasonic frequencies in the Phantom Zone, allowing them to be recorded through the Zone-o-phone by Superman for his super audiophile recordings.

    He then dumps the phantom recording to the DAW on his Kryptonian super computer, which is so far advanced beyond Earth technology that it uses tubes in place of transistors! Then, utilizing a VST 4.0 plug-in which eschews processing the audio in favor of rewriting history, the originally recorded sound’s harmonics are rearranged at the source to compensate for the tube circuitry’s distortion.

    The end result is the most life-like recording yet to be mutilated by the high frequency limitations of every single last tweeter design on the face of the planet!

    And if you didn’t know that, well, clearly, you know very little about vinyl.

  8. I found Crysis audio very bad. When I shoot one bullet at a time with the default assault weapon, it sounds like it is about to play the “ratatatatat” sound when you fire automatic but cuts it in half. It makes the weapon sound very sloppy. Battlefield 2 and Modern Warfare 1 and 2 have much, much tighter bullet FX.

  9. Hardware accelerated audio may be discontinued, but it will live for a long while with people who like to revisit old games. After all the bad things Creative have done (suing and killing Aureal, suing iD software and making them use EAX) and their bloated drivers I’m glad Microsoft discontinued DirectSound. Other brands EAX support have been worthless, at least the cards I’ve tried.

    Is it only me or have games had a very noticeable audio lag after Windows Vista was released?

  10. Placebo has a big role in how humans perceive audio (and everything else). If you can prove a difference with a bunch (the more the more accurate) of professional listeners in a blind test, then I’ll be interested. There may also a preference there, so some may like the 110v lamp cord better than the silver-plated twisted-pair. That seldom happens though, and most audiophiles never know what hit them.

  11. lol, I honestly don’t think there is a solution available for that. EAX 5.0 involved 128 voices over four unique outputs, but that’s been nailed to the cross so who knows.

    The whole gaming and soundcard scene right now is pretty sad and that was part of what I was pointing out in my initial post.

  12. Just being better I don’t think is grounds for instant depreciation of hardware and everything that is built on it.

    Just as the PCI-E specs have all been built on backwards compatibility.

  13. Meh. I wasn’t going to spend time looking up each of those components to see if they’re even remotely close to flat up to 100 KHz. I honestly don’t care in the slightest as long as you’re happy with it – I just take offense to you preaching to everyone else that it matters. 😛

  14. I don’t owe you anything, least of all my attention. Read my previous comment and stop spreading your crap.

  15. What amazes me about my Realtek ALC889 HD audio is despite that it’s practically free, occupies very little motherboard space and uses very little power (it uses the CPU but it’s so minimal in terms of CPU utilization), it still manages to deliver very good sound quality. I bought a $100 X-Fi Titanium early last year and I think the ALC889 isn’t far behind in terms of audio quality. I was using a motherboard with an IDT 92HD206 HD audio codec back then, which frankly didn’t sound as good as the X-Fi. But when I got an MSI 785GM-E65 this year which used the ALC889, the X-Fi got shelved. The ALC889 is simply good enough.

  16. Let’s teach you a couple lessons.

    1.] No, you can’t tell overtones above 20 kHz, and it would be impossible to tell above 25 kHz even if you were still a toddler. That, good sir, is either placebo, or faulty equipment response made to assist a user’s placebo.

    2.] Dithering doesn’t cut off anything. It’s dithering. Read up on it. Also, harmonics don’t resonate. They happen in harmony, not resonance. Read up on resonance as well, please.

    3.] Musical drive is a matter of mastering and dynamic range only, and thus, that’s the difference you hear. Theoretically, digital media is actually vastly superior (zero noise, clean, huge dynamic range, precise design and no deterioration with age) – it’s just a pity that in this day and age, people usually use the range for volume purposes rather than exploit what would be truly possible with digital music. So I agree with you here, but it’s not because the other recording was on an analogue medium. By default, that actually makes it worse.

    Remember, mastering counts more than you’re willing to admit. Just because you’re listening to faulty media with expensive speakers using a broken frequency response curve doesn’t mean that you’re right in anything you said.

  17. From #111

    “This is a very old argument. Here is one point. A record played on my equipment will happily do 100,000 Hz +. Now I can’t hear anywhere near that but the overtones that make the sound are there and you can tell if they are not.”

    Digital sound is really just a sample. The harmonics that are cut off by whatever dithering solution you use are not there to resonate against the lower frequency’s. Humans are very sensitive to harmonics and phase and the difference is audible.

    To see if this is true you would have to go somewhere the harmonics are not truncated by the 20 Khz limit.

    Another aspect that is a bit of a shame is that analog records really do seem to have more rhythmic drive, foot tap than the same music digitally rendered. I have Zappa’s ‘Man From Utopia’ both as a digitally mastered and analog mastered records. The difference is easily discernible.

  18. I may have lacking knowledge as far as speaker electronics are concerned, but I know more about the theory of sound than you ever will, and thus repeat the question: why do you think >20 kHz matters?

  19. Why I thought you were the person who claimed frequencies above 20 kHz matter in art. I must be mistaken then.

  20. Thanks for providing additional insight on what was being missed. There isn’t a source that does audio testing for games right (even though one would expect a place like [H] to carry that ball)

    If you don’t mind me picking your brain a bit what should one look out for in a sound card when considering playing back multiple unique sources of output.

    What I’m hoping to do to maximize the benefits of an eyefinity set up is to break up the multiple monitors when friends come over for a virtual LAN set up. I guess I could just output the audio over DP but if that fails a sound card might offer output capabilities integrated solutions are lacking in.

    So what should I research about audio cards to get the desired results in this case?

  21. How much does it cost compared to the $30 DG? If the DG gets anywhere close, shouldn’t that be pretty impressive?

  22. I’m using examples from real life… you’re using… made up sources that don’t exist and BS that doesn’t even have real life examples?

    Thanks for the hint though, it was quite helpful.

  23. “Try this. Go on down to your local hi end stereo store, if there is one near by. Listen to the outrageously expensive equipment and see if you can tell why people who can afford it will pay for the nice stuff.”

    OK, done. I can’t tell. They also told me to stop peeing in the corner. Now whatg{

  24. Try this. Go on down to your local hi end stereo store, if there is one near by. Listen to the outrageously expensive equipment and see if you can tell why people who can afford it will pay for the nice stuff.

    The people with money did not get it by being fools.

    Listen, it’s the only way. Your calculations are no substitute.

  25. Geez, the brainless audiophiles are raging hard. It is kinda sad how much energy they waste on jusifying their “setup”.

    Anyway, good article Geoff. It pretty much confirms what I had known for years. Hardware accelerated audio is DEAD. Modern CPUs are so bloody powerful that there isn’t any reason to use it. Discrete audio solutions only make sense if you got yourself a quality, hi-fi set of headphones and speakers to drive it. Otherwise, the crab is “good enough” for the vast majority of us.

    Creative should be filing for Chapter 11 in the foreseeble future as their niche is evaporating. Hopefully, their IP will fall into more open hands and they will open up EAX spec so we can finally get some proper emulation on non-creative solutions.

  26. Let’s just say you know nothing about how eyes work. You’re just like PenGun, except for vision. Try and prove me wrong instead (hint: you can’t).

  27. Yet any new systems are still in their infancy, they still don’t produce sound anywhere near the levels and depths heard with DS. It was mature and got axed long before it was replaced with something better.

    Sound in BC2 is about the best I’ve heard of recently, but it still blows compared to past games. Ravenshield and BF2 had about the best sound I ever heard and was a joy to listen to. One of the reasons I avoided Vista all together and then was extremely leary about switching to W7 was the lack of DS. I do still miss it quite a bit and Alchemy only restores part of what games once had (when it works).

  28. Yet games sounded better then they do now… A lot of games and companies built up work arounds and systems to take advantage of that flawed OS. That would be like some magic company pulling out the rug from Intel and saying their x86 and 64 chips are instantly obsolete because a newer better system is being implemented that wont run on their chips.

  29. If that were true you’d be able to see the refresh rate on monitors once you adjust them to 75hz or so and you’d be able to see each frame changing at the movie theaters.

  30. You edited out your post to correct yourself and make what I said in response seem wrong… bravo sir.

  31. Ah I see. It was joke the no top end. I have lots. I would have though the ‘wink’ smiley would have been enough but clues have to be real simple these days it seems.

  32. SFL I: 2 Hz to 100 kHz ±0.5 dB, > 200 kHz -0.3 dB. Just the preamp.

    Response to #149 … hi ho.

  33. Ah, very good, thanks for the screenie. What you’re doing with this pull-down is setting the gain of the amplifier.

    I mentioned that the amplifier’s job was to provide at it’s outputs a scaled-up version of the input signal. This pull-down sets that scaling factor (aka the gain, which is expressed in dB). For higher impedance headphones, a higher gain amplifier is often a better match, for reasons described below.

    The force applied to the loudspeaker’s diaphragm is a function of (among other things) the current through the voice coil. If the impedance of voice coil is x and the applied voltage is y, then the current through the coil is y/x. If the “x” goes up by a factor of 10 (you switch from a low-impedance to a high-impedance set of headphones), the current through the coil drops by a factor of 10 and the headphones will not play as loudly for the same volume setting. This pull-down allows you to increase the “y” in y/x, matching the amplifier gain to the load, optimizing noise performance for low-impedance cans and providing sufficient volume out of high-impedance cans.

    EDIT: All of the above assumes the efficiency doesn’t change. If you have very efficient high-impedance cans then no gain change may be needed.

    Not many amplifiers allow you to do this, as most audio gear is designed to operate over a fairly narrow range of loads, usually between 4-16 Ohms. Headphone amplifiers, on the other hand, have to drive loads ranging from 20-ish to over 600 Ohms, making the gain adjustment a useful feature.

  34. I have no idea what you are talking about. I answered your question in good faith. What have you got?

  35. So after all this bs back and forth…you knew the whole time it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference at all.

    Thanks for trolling I guess…

  36. Oh sure. Pretty well all tube.

    A Sonic Frontiers SFL1 Signiture Preamp. Extra factory goodness from my friend there. Really just a swap for slightly nicer high frequency and slightly less voltage regulation.

    Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 phono section. Hybrid amp. Gold pin Mullards.

    A pair of Sonic Frontiers SFM 75s. Not very stock running Svetlana 6550s at the moment.

    The amazingly cheap Kimber Cable braided interconnects and Tara Space and Time speaker cables.

    The original B&W Matrix One speakers.

    No top end at all ;).

    I have some direct to disc records using very expensive tube microphones but as I said earlier the content usually sucks on this high end stuff.

    I used to deal tubes and high end gear. I did not pay full price for quite a lot of my gear. It took a few years to assemble.

    Speaker are strapped to 100 lb stumps, well I finished them a bit, with steel cable. I don’t like em moving around.
    The turntable sits on a 150 lb stump, it’s the Vancouver Island special stand. The underfloor of that stump is braced and solid right into the ground I don’t like turntable movement.

    The stereo has it’s own breakers, two 20 amp circuits.

    There ya go food for …

  37. Well thanks for teaching me and backing up your completely baseless point. The world would surely be a better place with more gracious and logical people like you.

  38. 24 fps is simply a compromise between “good enough” and “low cost”. Actually, for some people it’s far from “good enough” because some scenes, especially camera panning, can be painfully obvious with such a low framerate. Motion blur is the dulling effect here that allows lower framerates – that is, one movie frame is a /[

  39. It’s easier and cheaper to produce a low voltage, high current headphone amplifier than it is to design one that can produce high voltage *and* high enough current to drive high impedance drivers at high output levels.

    The same trend holds true with power amplifiers – a subwoofer amplifier that can produce 1000 watts RMS at 1 ohm is generally vastly more affordable than one that can do 1000 watts at 8 ohms. The output FETs have to be able to handle much much more voltage to drive an 8 ohm load than a 1 ohm load – despite the 1 ohm load being “harder to drive”. The amp that can do 1000 watts @ 8 ohms is also likely to produce something near 2000 watts at 4 ohms, 4000 watts @ 2 ohms, and 8000 watts at 1 ohm, provided it can handle the additional current demands on the outputs and the power supply.

    High current FETs can be approximated by a lot of low current FETs. High voltage FETs cannot be approximated by a lot of low voltage FETs.

  40. Do you? Throwing money at things tends to make you feel good though…

    I’d be interested to know the following in your supposed 100 KHz+ system path:

    Amplifier type including the frequency response
    Preamp type ” ”
    Speaker type ” ”
    Phonograph details ” ”
    Original recording microphone used ” ”

    By frequency response I mean usable, reasonably flat, frequency response. I’m almost willing to put good money on the fact that you don’t have the ability to reproduce that *noise* faithfully.

    The reason people don’t obsess with getting frequency response specs like that (because it’s certainly *easily* doable in the digital realm) is because it /[

  41. It comes from movies. They could pretty well fool the eyes wit 30 FPS. Actually 24 FPS was chosen with all that entails. The war between the video guys continues to this day.

  42. Frankly I prefer today’s method of games using software audio processing. It’s not limited to some specific line of sound cards. It doesn’t have problems with bus latency and resulting pops/clicks like hardware accelerated audio has always had. It can most definitely produce multichannel audio with effects. It can run great on our excess of CPU cores. We aren’t running 1GHz P3s and Athlons anymore here.

    There are a number of middleware software-processing audio engines out there that have been maturing for a decade now. Crysis uses FMOD Ex. There’s the Miles Sound System as well. Even DirectSound 7 had software-based 3D audio processing (HRTF modes included).

    I’m not particularly convinced that hardware audio is tangibly superior to what software processing produces today. I have experience with everything that’s come along, including A3D 1-2, EAX 1-5 and the Sensaura/QSound stuff.

    What is nice about some sound cards however is the HRTF/binaural processing that they do for multichannel -> headphone conversion. That’s definitely a perk of X-Fi and I haven’t run into a software-based equivalent for games yet.

  43. I assume Asus have made assumptions that higher impedance headphones require more power.

    TBH I wouldn’t use a horribly designed control panel to form the basis of your knowledge.

  44. MS decided that it’s better to have quality sound then saving 1% cpu.

    XP has/had a HORRIBLE sound system. Each app can change the sound card to output whatever it wants. Your app uses only 8bit audio at 22khz, no prob. Now every other app that loads at the same time will get forced to 8bit with 22khz.

    Also, there was no good way of mixing sound in XP. Vista/7 use floats.

    Professional audio engines don’t use HW-accel’d sound because it’s too limited. If you want cheap audio that saves 1% cpu, then I guess paying $200 for a sound card is a good idea. If you want quality sound and don’t care about that 1% cpu, then Vista/7 is the way to go.

  45. Remember, electricity is drawn from the source so to speak. Imagine your amplifier is an air plane and a low impedance load is a huge hole in the side of it at 35000ft. You rip the plane apart.

    Short circuits blow things for this reason. A short circuit has very little resistance, therefore the R V=IR becomes very low while the I becomes very high. The power supply for an amplifier, just like a PC can only supply a certain amount of current, so low resistance means increased current.

    Now what you also need to remember when dealing with audio, and probably what is confusing you, is that resistance is not equal to sensitivity.

    Audio products have a sensitivity rating which is an equally important in determining how hard an amplifier needs to work to achieve a given sound pressure level SPL.

  46. Begs the question, if you have to do all that to notice a difference in sound quality, why the F botherg{

  47. Your choice of audio streams are a joke. Please, next time use something that isn’t compressed to hell and back. I suggest you find some CD’s that are from the early 1990’s, or get a few tracks from a site like HDtracks. You also should consider picking a few jazz/classical/choral tracks. For example conspirare’s requiem has about a 50db variance and that is enough to make a lot of audio gear sound like crap. A good carmina burana will magnify even small problems.

  48. r[<"You know very little about vinyl."<]r You know very little about airplanes. That's about as relevant to music as such high frequency content in recordings. So a vinyl record may be capable of retaining that if it were in the original recording. Great. Problem: Microphones do not pick up anything close to that. Speakers do not reproduce anything close to that. It's not going in at the original source and it's not coming out at the final output where is it coming from? Radio interference?!? In all seriousness, there are people who design analog/digital converters who will argue with you tooth and nail that that is all you're going to get and it should be avoided for that reason.

  49. Nyquist’s theorem describes what’s possible with a given frequency, whether people connect it to the issue of human hearing has nothing to do with it. It’s not about your hearing, and never will be.

    It’s simply a maths theorem. It says that if you got a wave sampling rate of X, that means you mathematically can’t reproduce a wave faster than X/2 Hz, because you need no less than 2 differing points on the wave for it to be a wave at all.

    Aliasing gets worse as you approach limits like these, and equipment (especially cheap or faulty ones) may amplify or further alias these issues, and that can manifest at 8,000 Hz, 18,000 Hz or 100,000 Hz alike. It depends on the output gear as well as the source information.

    Whether you feel it is another issue. If the aliasing or the high frequencies are powerful enough to resonate in your bones, then you can “hear” well above 20 kHz for sure, but – aside of dubious “/[

  50. Idiot. Your eyes work up to ~200 Hz.

    This is proven in military tests. As for 30 versus 60 Hz, even a granny would see the difference. Furthermore, most average people without an eye disorder can easily tell the difference between 60 and 100 Hz in fast-paced media.

    Don’t say poopoo things if you can’t back them up, because this “30 Hz” limit nonsense is a seemingly widespread false myth and I’d like to punch the guy who first came up with this crap.

  51. 1) I’m not PenGun either.

    2) I never assumed you were PenGun. You were however talking about experiencing sound below the limit of hearing, and seeing things above the (fictional) limit of seeing.

    3) “Theory” has different meaning in science and colloquial speech.

  52. lol audiophool. How much did you spend on your oxygen-free directional Denon cabling with the strands individually insulated?

  53. I’m not Pengun, also the post above me stated Theorem and Theory were nothing alike. I posted the definition I did to prove that wrong.

  54. You know very little about vinyl. On audiophile recordings 150,000 Hz can be achieved. I find audiophile records are almost invariably lacking in anything that interests me though. I have some nice stuff including mint Blow by Blow and some very nice Jazz.

    Now we get to clean. I have an old radio station turntable with perhaps a 1/4 horse motor. I take a dirty record and flood it with some moderately expensive record juice. Then I take a record cleaning device I have shop vac attached to and suck all the juice and dissolved solids off the record. It is clean at that point. I keep it clean with little effort. It is perhaps interesting that a very clean record has a sweet mid range, why I’m not sure.

  55. ah! I almost forgot:


    sorry, couldn’t resist =)

  56. Please Bensam123, do us all a favor and post this very same comment again on the general forum, to allow a more meaningful discussion to take place there, instead of getting lost here, with half the comments being about the post’s lenght or “dude how long did it take you to write this?!..” and stuff or “sorry, too long…” etc

    I read it actually and it’s interesting enough for it to have its own investigation/review, or a blog post by Geoff addressing some of these issues.


  57. Yeah. You have a point. I bought a Soundblaster X-Fi Titanium early last year and it was sad to see Vista throw all the tech out the window. Sure, there’s Alchemy, but I wonder what Micro$oft was thinking when they overhauled the audio system. They were the ones who caused Soundblaster compatibility to be irrelevant, and now X-Fi was their next victim. Somehow it seems M$ is out to send Creative bankrupt.

  58. Never mind the fact that the source material (the vinyl itself) probably doesn’t have signal content that gets anywhere near 100 kHz. Unless you count surface noise from microscopic dust flecks.

  59. And the second definition from your source says:
    “a rule or law, esp. one expressed by an equation or formula”

    If you want to accurately reproduce a signal of frequency x (edit: to be perfectly clear, I should have probably said “with frequency components no higher than x”), a sampling rate of 2*x is sufficient (assuming you are able to filter out any frequencies above x). However, that is different from what you appear to be arguing now, that frequencies above the limit of our hearing can still affect how we perceive a sound. Any such frequencies (above 24kHz) would not be preserved with a sampling rate of 48kHz.


  60. I don’t have a problem with the math. The problem is the theory that Nyquist’s theorem is all that affects what we hear. That is not so.

  61. Theorem

    “Mathematics . a theoretical proposition, statement, or formula embodying something to be proved from other propositions or formulas.”

    §[<<]§ Sounds like a theoretical to me. Another example is people can't hear anything below 20hz, so it makes any frequencies below that range worthless right? Wrong, you can still feel it even if you can't hear it. Another one, people can't see above 30hz so why would you need a faster refresh rate then that? A lot of people can see lines scrolling on CRTs when they're set to 60hz. It doesn't matter if you can accurately see, feel, hear, touch, smell, or lick something 100% of the time. You can still feel things and that matters a lot. Same reason I don't use wireless mice because I can feel input lag even if you can say 'the response rate is so fast it shouldn't matter'... well it does matter. You can't just tell someone they don't sense something when they do and that it shouldn't bother them when it does. Metrics can only go so far in determining what a person is capable of.

  62. This is a very old argument. Here is one point. A record played on my equipment will happily do 100,000 Hz +. Now I can’t hear anywhere near that but the overtones that make the sound are there and you can tell if they are not. Nyquist does not take anything like that into account.

    I have a rather nice preamp, a pair of tube mono blocks a Rotary Platter turntable rebuilt with a Rega arm. A sweet tube phono section and nice speakers. The original Matrix Ones. Some pretty nice wire and that’s it. I’ll add a standalone DAC pretty soon. I’m fussy and the cheap ones sound … cheap.

    I’ll leave you the last word … as I said this very old.

  63. Could throw in an enterprise class NIC for comparisons sake. In the lineup you suggested there is also room for a Bigfoot Killer NIC

  64. This may also seem like blasphemy, but you guys may want to consider taking on two new people to do audio and storage related articles exclusively. I’m not sure if the past few reviews have reflected interest in what is being tested or if you guys are stretched too thin, either way there is a lot to explore in both areas that isn’t being covered here in terms of products available and depth of the articles in those related areas.

  65. I normally praise TR for articles, but I have always found the audio articles on here a little lacking. I don’t normally hate on TR, but I find serious issues with the latest article. The whole article seems to blissfully ignore accelerated audio in games, no matter the expense, and aim these sound cards completely towards the audiophile crowd. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way a extreme audiophile, but I can very easily tell the difference between a game with good sound and one without.

    Curiously I find it rather odd that only two sound cards are taken into account in this review. There are a lot of sound cards (and chips out there) and I know you guys test a lot of motherboards with a lot of different integrated solutions on them, including watered down variants of the X-Fi chip.

    I understand that Windows 7 is all the rage, but no attempt was even made to test the difference between games with actual audio acceleration in them compared to none. Windows 7 doesn’t support any type of directsound hardware acceleration. That used to be the default route for game publishers. They do support things like OpenAL, but games have been crappy as of late and I doubt they use that let alone other types of hardware audio acceleration.

    Turning that back a notch, even if Windows XP is a antiquated operating system, and I do agree that it is old, it still supported direct sound and the games that were listed in this review run on it. However, they were not even tested on a operating system that supports the preferred method of hardware acceleration. You can’t tell if there is a difference, because there isn’t one if the operating system doesn’t even support it!

    The article doesn’t even take notice of solutions used to support DS calls in Windows 7 through the use of drivers or other solutions. A little digging around on the web and all the major sound chip manufactures have their own version of this. Creative uses Alchemy, Realtek uses 3D Soundback, and C-Media uses Xear3D. There wasn’t a comparison of any kind between these different types of implementations or their ease of use, which is a huge point of anyone who thinks very highly of positional audio.

    So even if Windows XP was thrown out the window as obsolete, time wasn’t even taken to compare alternatives to directly accelerate sound in current titles. And yes, you can tell the difference. Even if the titles don’t support EAX directly, a lot do support some forms of accelerated audio and surround sound, no matter how barren.

    For instance Source games, while they do not support EAX directly, they do support positional sound. Playing something like TF2 without a application that changes DS calls to OpenAL sounds completely different. The game changes immensely.

    There is so much to test in terms of how these different implementations affect the sound experience that I can’t even begin to imagine how someone can simply say it doesn’t even matter if you have a sound card when they test absolutely nothing to do with the sound card besides a few subjective tests and games with stripped out audio on a operating system that doesn’t even support the type of accelerated audio the game uses.

    Of course if you output everything through software and through the magic Windows 7 sound API it’s going to sound the same and perform the same! Nothing is accelerated, nothing changes, it’s no different then it all being done in software.

    I mean it’s not just that they have different implementations, how well they work and how easily they use are all different. Creative Alchemy for instance is a bear, while the C-Media implementation works right in the drivers. If you guys didn’t even look at these solutions, how would you ever even know that you may be getting accelerated audio automatically through a C-Media driver implementation, compared to one where you didn’t use the application?

    While I can see removing Windows XP from a test to actually test native DS audio, it’s inexcusable that the DS to OpenAL programs available by chip makers were completely neglected.

    Putting aside fancy words like EAX, there are plenty of recent games that support some form of accelerated audio. Some more then others. A trademark of the EAX 5.0 standard is the support for 128 simultaneous voices. Most sound cards only support 32, let alone 64 voices at the same time. Yet, I’m sure playing in a small game with a handful of people will adequately test limits like these?

    A few recent games have options to support more then 32 voices, yet most sound cards don’t support this

    StarCraft 2 for instance is very recent and also very popular, which supports a wide range of options in the menu for sounds (128 voices included as well as numerous positional audio options). No testing was done on this or as an attempt to stress any of these solutions beyond a 32 voice limit.

    Basically no made for PC games were looked at in this review, only ports. While made for PC games are rare, they also support the extra ear candy this review looks out to test. It was almost seemingly assumed that gaming audio was dead so this review wasn’t even going to look at it. Of course direct ports from a console that barely support optical out won’t have accelerated or anything that would push hardware on a console! It’s a perfect example of the lowest common denominator. You only look at ports, you’re only going to get sound that reflects them.

    Quality of the positional audio wasn’t even tested, IF they even feature ANY sort of positional audio. Can you even tell if a unit is in front or behind you? How well do these cards replicate 3D sound (on 5.1 or 7.1) compared to a virtualized solution on headphones? Older articles even caught these points and positional sound DOES still exist in modern games like BC2. It doesn’t matter accelerated audio that tries to do more then this (such as the things EAX 1-5 supported) no longer exists, putting aside the DS to OpenAL fix, or testing on Windows XP, positional audio still does exist and wasn’t even looked at.

    I’m not going to go digging through every game mentioned here, but it even states on their blog that BF:BC2 uses Directsound and answers a few extra questions on the audio for the game.

    §[<<]§# There isn't even mention of how many voices these sound cards support or a look at them. Even if there isn't support for hardware acceleration, concurrent voices matter a lot in high action scenes in any game. If you have played games where your audio solution can't keep up you end up with crashes, sounds blatantly missing, distortions, or sound cutting out. In depth look should be taken in audio in general and I ask TR to meticulously inspect the direction sound has gone in games. It almost seems like this article is encouraging the new rage of console to PC ports and the bastardization of what is now in game sound. If you can't hear it, it doesn't exist right? I don't even understand why this wasn't used as a opportunity to criticize the direction games are going in terms of audio and audio acceleration in general. It's like going back to the stone age. I don't know if you consider Crysis 'recent' enough to make the game list, but it's still the best damn looking thing to hit the market in the last few years. I implore Geoff to install it then install a mod called MechWarrior: Living Legends. It's free and it will be the best damn thing to touch your ears since Battlefield 2. It doesn't use EAX or OpenAL, but you won't care.

  66. You don’t understand the inter-relationship between impedance (which is essentially the AC version of resistance), voltage, current, and power.

    The total amount of power transferred is voltage times current. A low impedance device requires more current, but less voltage. A high impedance device requires the inverse of this (more voltage, less current) to transfer the same amount of power.

    And your post #11 is so full of fail that I’m not even sure where to start. Suffice it to say that high impedance headphones/speakers aren’t /[

  67. It depends what you’re doing of course. If gaming and photo manipulation, as opposed to making or listening to music, take up most of your time on the computer, then the money would be better spent on a superior LCD monitor, say.

    However, spending $500 on powered monitors isn’t so crazy an idea when you consider that many folks will opt for a 1920 x 1200 or IPS (or both) display as opposed to a much cheaper, similar display. You grab yourself a few pixels, or better quality viewing, and the difference is analogous to getting better sound gear.

    A quick search turned up some very serviceable Yamaha monitors for $250 a pair. I’ve used their big brothers in the past, but these ones (HS50M) are quite good. Certainly enough to hear a difference in your MP3 collection and when used with a balanced line audio path, it’s a massive difference that can be quite shocking at first.

    But it’s different strokes for different folks. I’m like the guy who gets a 30 inch display, but in audio terms. I can understand why people get these massive excellent displays but I don’t do it myself. A thing to keep in mind is that unlike 30 inch displays, very good quality audio equipment is cheap these days.

    Anyway, thanks for the review. Sound card reviews are always a welcome sight on the front page.

  68. Right, just like 2+2=4 is “just a theory”. Do you understand the meaning of “theorem”? There are no hypotheses it depends on, it’s not something the jury can possibly still be out on, it’s just basic math. If you want to quarrel with it you’ll have to show why you think basic math is inconsistent.

    Does that $10,000 include a platinum dowsing rod, a phrenological head, a magnetic belt, a stack of Tarot cards, and a fairy who chants magical incantations to ward off the evil audio degradation spirits? Do you “shape the digits” on a pottery wheel, or perhaps with a skill saw?

    If you try a blind listening test and can reliably tell which is 192kHz then (unless your equipment has some major problems reproducing sound at one of these sampling rates) instead of posting here about it you should contact James Randi and claim his million-dollar prize for evidence of ESP.


  69. I noticed the discolouration in the first picture and just assumed it was a couple of old discreet cards piled on top of a mother board.

  70. I agree. Digital audio pales in comparison to well-recorded analog on good equipment.

    And per the article, 45 milliseconds is the high range of delay for a chorus effect and is bordering on true delay. To me, it’s a huge amount of time to delay an audio signal and would certainly be noticeable. I am an audio engineer by trade, however. But most, if not all, people would notice that much delay if presented with both an original source and the delayed signal side-by-side.

    My .02

  71. Nyquist’s theorem is a theory. It’s largely correct but the methods used tom achieve whatever word length and sample rate do make the whole thing somewhat moot.

    I have a bunch of sweet machines and I can tell you almost any analog change is easily audible. The degradation imposed by various regimes used to shape the digits so they do not sound bad is very subtle.

    A record in the right environment makes almost any digital effort sound … cheap. I have some $10,000 worth of stereo that allows me these observations.

  72. Or, according to our listening tests, a sub-$100 set of headphones. I’m all for a discrete sound card being recommended in conjunction with decent speakers or headphones, but the idea that you need to spend $500 just to hear a difference is just silly.

  73. This.

    The only reason I bought an X-Fi was because my SBLive! has an ISA slot, and my oh-so-modern P965 board wasn’t impressed.

  74. I have an ancient Creative X-Fi (one with a proper EMU20K1 at least, not the rebadged -[< Audigy<]- SBLive!), I forget the variant - ExtremeMusic maybe.... With good headphones (my much-loved Sennheiser 580's) am I going to get any benefit in changing to a Xonar? I have a few CD's but I'm clearly no audiophile. I'm happy with 256kb/s MP3's and Youtube usually stops offending my ears at around the 480p setting.

  75. I can’t support the premise that every high-impedance headphone needs an amplifier, so I’m not sure where to go with that. As far as the “cheap crappy” headphones are concerned, I’d say that since they’re designed to hit a low price point, they’re probably also designed to be very efficient so they’ll be loud even when driven by the low-power hardware that they’re likely to be used with.

    The impedance of the final product is not a measure of the quality of the product or even it’s final application – the impedance is what it is and is a function of a number of decisions around magnet strength, gap width, motor mass, suspension stiffness, desired efficiency, driving voltage, volume of the enclosed airspace, etc. Earbuds, which often have only a 1.5 Volt battery available as motive force, have a very different set of design requirements than do a set of professional monitoring cans, which are likely to be driven by an amp with +/- 35 Volts and buttloads of current on tap.

    That said, accurately moving a 40mm diameter cone is harder than accurately moving a 1mm diameter cone, so over-the-ear heasphones are more often going to benefit from the assistance of purpose-built amplification of some kind than will in-ear devices. Also, low-noise amplification is easier to provide when you have 5, 9, or 12 Volts available than it is when you only have 1.5 volts avaialable, so external amps are generally going to provide the most help to devices that run off of a single AA or AAA battery.

    I’m not sure which “dB numbers” in the Asus “drivers” you’re referring to so I can’t comment. I read the article again but can’t see any reference to output versus impedance.

  76. I’m still happy with my Auzentech Meridian, even if only one driver was ever released by Auzentech for Win 7. Asus managed to get some sort of exclusive from CMedia for the CM18788, which meant one of Auzentechs best cards became a bastard child. Sounds freakin awesome thru my Logitech Z-5500 5.1 THX speakers though. I don’t imagine any driver update would have enabled Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD, more then likely would have had to been a revision to the CM18788 chip. I’ll just wallow in all this great sound, even in abandonment, thanks Auzentech.

  77. I would have like to seen a few older cards thrown in, just for a comparison. There are still probably millions of 10+ year old Sound Blaster Live’s & Audigy’s running in otherwise newer systems.

  78. For playback, sampling rates higher than 48kHz don’t make any difference at all, and anybody who tells you otherwise can’t be trusted – they either don’t know about Nyquist’s theorem or have some crackpot theory to try to get around it. The people who designed CD audio knew what they were doing and designed the standard around human perceptual limits- 16/44.1 is transparent for almost all people and almost all recordings if it’s well-mastered. However, it doesn’t have a lot of headroom to allow for subpar mastering, especially in the dynamic range department- getting those basically perfect-sounding results with 16 bits requires some care and good dithering. 24/48 is plenty of headroom.

    Blu-Ray and other playback standards where audio is sampled at a much higher rate weren’t designed around human perception. Design goals for Blu-Ray included making the encoded content huge enough to discourage broadband piracy and giving a boondoggle to promote the Trusted Content Path and other DRM measures.

    It’d be nice to see some more recording-oriented sound card reviews. There, testing higher sampling rates would actually be relevant.

    Most of the reasonably affordable recording-oriented gear seems to have gone to USB rather than PCIe- the only exceptions appear to be the Maya44e and EMU cards, which I think are just bridged versions of their old cards. I wonder about the pros and cons of going external- wouldn’t the latency difference and reduced bandwidth be a problem in many setups?

  79. I believe what you’re talking about with some high-impedance headphones needing an amp where slightly lower impedance ones do not is related to efficiency. Not all speakers and headphones produce the same volume when given the same input power. This is usually measured in dB per W, and an increase of 3dB requires doubling the power.

    For example, I have some Grado SR60 (IIRC) headphones that are relatively inefficient, I think in the neighborhood of 88 dB/W. I *CAN* drive these from my laptop, but only fairly softly. My Sennheiser SX-100 (IIRC) headphones are more efficient, say 93 dB/W.

    So, one set of headphones needs around 2.5 times more power to produce the same volume.

    I’m not so familiar with headphones, but I know with speakers it’s quite common to get speakers with the same impedance but with differing efficiencies. My Vandersteen speakers are fairly inefficient at 88 dB/W at 8 ohms, it’s not uncommon for speakers to be above 90 dB/W at 8 ohms.

  80. If you use optical, discrete doesn’t matter. A low end optical will give the exact same bits as a high end optical. It does matter when you use analog out and the DAC makes a huge difference.

  81. Very cool article. Glad to see coverage on this since it is hard to find now. I haven’t even put much thought into a sound card in years.

    I was just so turned off after several crappy Creative Labs products in a row, blowing a few hundred bucks on crap. Bad drivers and bad software were constant problems. The final straw was a $160-or-whatever Audigy Platinum (with the 5.25″ bay piece and all) developing a nasty crackle after about 16 months. I vowed never to buy a CL product again, and in fact just gave up on discrete sound as the onboards have done well enough for me. I’ll echo others comments that it will be satisfying to see Creative Labs disappear.

    Still have to question whether it will matter much when I’m shooting people up in a game or listening to compressed audio streams on a ~$250 5.1 speaker setup. When I really want to listen to music, I use my stereo. While it’s nothing special, it still blows away my PC which doesn’t even have tweeters.

  82. Basically, if you got some high quality speakers and/or headphones. A discrete sound card may be worth it provided that you use proper source material (not games and poorly encoded music). Otherwise, intergrated solutions are “good enough”.

    What killed discrete audio? Decent DACs and powerful CPUs. Audio processing is child’s play for modern CPUs. DACs help eliminate most of the noise problems if you go digtial out with a good receiver.

    Soon Creative will be filing up for Chapter 11. Good riddance, their drivers and hardware implemtations since SB Dead! have been complete shit. Their infamous strong-arming tactics were even worse.

  83. That’s sound logic, but try and answer this: why do high-impedance headphones need an amplifier, and why don’t cheap crappy ones? Shouldn’t it be the other way around as per your analogy?

    Why do the Asses Xonar drivers cite higher and higher dB numbers for higher impedance? Shouldn’t it get lower and lower like in your analogy?

    Try explaining that, I’m genuinely curious.

  84. Awesome review! For the longest time I have been wanting to switch from my realtek to a cheap sound card… the Xonar DG seems like a great buy for me.

  85. I’ve heard this from other cards. I think the problem is that some cards put out a lot of electrical noise. My 8800GTX gives sound cards a faint background “squeal” when it’s doing 3D, for example.

    I heard this on a Audigy 2 and with a X-Fi Elite Pro (the newest sound card I have).

    It could also be affected by motherboard quality perhaps. How one would ever quantify this is beyond me however.

  86. Just played around with ours a bit and I’m not hearing anything… including with heavy web scrolling during a defrag. That’s the rear out through the PC 350s on an open-air test system.

  87. I still dual boot, I find most of the old games I have run better on XP. AND there are a lot of people that have NOT moved onto 7 yet.

  88. I would rather see Windows 7 if it’s all the same. Vista and Win 7 use OpenCL and I don’t see any move back to the XP API.

  89. I’ve got just about the entire Creative line-up collected from over the years (hand me downs, etc). I can still get them running on Windows 7 thanks to those support packs out there. These cards are still great for me because I do DOSBox and the soundfont synth is great for that, and the old school EAX support is great for old Windows games. Anything Audigy or newer has some pretty excellent signal quality too, especially with Vista/7’s sample rate conversion to 48kHz.

    The headphone amp idea is interesting but I really don’t have any complaints about the results of line level going into my MDR-V6 or ATH-AD700 phones. My 5 year old X-Fi does some amazing 5.1 -> headphone audio conversion too….

  90. dudes. I’m big time now. Since coming on board you’ve only given me crappy tasks. Like forum Moderating. I can review stuff. I have the knowledge.

    Get me reviewing. we can make this work.

  91. Are you sure its not the power line causing the interference? Do you have the speakers plugged into the same outlet as the computer? Try different power outlets or separate quality power strips.

  92. I’ve been using DG for a month. It picks up noise from PC’s activity (HDD, USB?, web page scroll with mouse pointer, etc). It very faint but still audible. Appears to be from PCI bus noise? Doesn’t matter whether rear our or front panel. Tried moving it to bottom end PCI slot away from vid card. May have helped a little but still there. It’s no problem when it’s playing sound but still bothersome when not playing sound. My AD1988B onboard did not have this problem. I sort of regret spending money on it, not because of noise but I didn’t feel onboard sound was lacking or anything. At least it was dirt cheap at 30 bucks.

  93. Looking at the pics and included bundle it does not seem to accept a S/PDIF connector. In most of these 2.1 systems the crossover is built into the sub so you can check if it has that included interface by looking at the sub.

  94. An analogy might be helpful. Imagine you’re blowing air through a straw and your goal is to maintain a constant air pressure in your mouth as you do so. If the “straw” is one of those narrow little drink stirrers, it’s fairly easy to maintain the pressure and you can blow for a long time without running out of air. Now replace the narrow stirrer straw with a short length of garden hose. It’s nearly impossible to maintain any air pressure at all in your mouth and you run out of air very quickly.

    In this analogy, your mouth is an amplifier, the air is electrical current, the pressure in your mouth is the output voltage of the amplifier, and the straw is the electrical load. The narrow straw represents a HIGH impedance load – it presents a high impedance to the air that’s trying to flow through it. Similarly, the garden hose is a low impedance load – it presents very little resistance to the air and requires that you blow massive amounts of air in order to maintain any pressure in your mouth.

    The amplifier has one job – to maintain a scaled-up version of the input voltage at it’s outputs. The amplifier’s job is to maintain that output voltage whether it’s blowing into a drink stirrer (600 Ohm headphones) or a garden hose (a pair of 8 Ohm floorstanding loudspeakers). For a high-impedance load, very little current is required. For a low-impedance load, much more current is required. Since power is (voltage x current) and the voltage is given, when the requirement for current increases then so does the power.

  95. Indeed. And positional audio in games. And all tests in XP vs W7 would be nice to see also, the audio might be superior in XP due to hardware acceleration or mature driver support?

    Now that would be a review, keep you guys busy for a whole week easy 😀

  96. Thanks, for the review, guys!

    Geoff and Cryil, have you considered reviewing more surround speakers? I’m considering the Logitech Z-5500, to be connected via TOSLINK, any thoughts? I did a Google search for your Abit speakers but only found reviews, not sellers.


  97. I’ve listed many of the reasons before. Muddy EAX audio in which sound levels are not as good as X-fi cards…it’s after all emulation (question: who would want emulated DX?)

    Don’t remember exactly which games but it was some of these:

    tested on Xonar XD:
    Thief 1, 2, 3, System Shock 2 (several of these crashed with hardware audio on)
    3dMark 03 crashed with hardware on. With hardware on in Mass effect 1 the music vanished.
    Getting many games to work with it was a royal pain in the ass.

  98. I think TR should do a sound card review of all the CMI 8788 chips available out there 😀

    §[<<]§ §[<<]§ §[<<]§ (out in december) and the Asus cards. I think it would be interesting to see if there is any differences to due the drivers, I think Asus adds more features?? Edit: Cmedia finally put the 8788 drivers back up §[<<]§ I think they took them down after Asoos bought the 8788 or whatever.

  99. I would not bother with internal cards anymore. I would go for realtek spdif output to an external DAC with headphones.

  100. Great audio review again Geoff. It would be nice to see how these cards fare against a Creative X-Fi card. A real one mind you, not the software based solutions.

    I have always used Creative cards (because i game on my PC) but have been looking into Auzentech for the dd-live stuff as well as the Asus stuff as a future replacement.

    The headphone amp is what really has me interested.

  101. Why do you need to counter LOW resistance with EVEN MORE power? Explain that.

    You usually have to counter /[

  102. Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium is the standard by which the Xonar DG or Xonar DX should be measured.

  103. Which X-fi card do you refer to? There’s about 200 different kinds (might be a slight exaggeration) and some of them are rebranded Audigy2’s

  104. Earbud headphones pretty much universally have enormous high frequency roll off. Good luck hearing the difference between much of anything.

    But even so, the built in sound on your computer could potentially have a very flat output within the range of human hearing, and so long as that is the case, any differences in sound quality between a “higher” or “lower” quality output start to lean much more in the direction of subjectivity.

    Really, most converters should be capable of flat sound, and with headphones, any perceived difference could be much more dependent on the headphone amp. Those could be all over the place. The conversion circuits may be just trying to reconstruct the signal as accurately as possible, but all bets are off once it’s back in the analog domain.

  105. I am worried about the LACK of roll-off in these cards over 30kHz. In fact the spike at 50kHz in many of these tests is very worrisome. Here is why:

    Many pieces of audiophile equipment amplifiers will try and amplify this for no purpose other than making your tweeters overheat and driving the cats and dogs nuts. May not be the best solution for a powerful surround-sound system without filtering this yourself.

    It can alias (mix) with other noise signals near 50kHz causing undesirable artifacts. Some filtering is prudent above 20kHz, but it seems like this is lacking. Noise sources near you system may be enough to cause some real headaches trying to track down the interference (scan signals in the TV, back-lighting, etc).

    I would love to see some charts extending to around the sampling frequency of these cards. It is BEST PRACTICE to filter properly before digitization to prevent aliasing, and it seems like in the interest of making flat charts, this desired roll-off is missing.

  106. Yes, we probably should have used a single, known-good loopback input for all of the RMAA testing. We will adjust our testing methods in our next audio review to isolate this key variable.

  107. We’ve addressed these problems. The Bad Company 2 results were outright wrong in the original version of the graphs, and the labels were obviously wrong for performance–should have all been FPS, not watts. Our apologies for the errors.

  108. What is the difference between USB and the traditional and seperate analog jacks on headphones?

  109. Yeah at first I thought Geoff had just thrown in some random soundcard for the photo-op. I didn’t realize /[

  110. It takes a lot more power to move a sub back and forth effecitvely which is why it is normally 4 ohms. If you have a piece of garbage amp, your subs and speakers will sound really bad (and start to crackle). People often think it is their speakers being overpowered and getting blown.

    Untrue. It is exactly the opposite. They are not getting enough power to move the driver back and forth as requested by the music/sound you are listening to.

  111. Would you like to explain why you thought it was “pretty much rubbish”? If not, your comments are “pretty much useless”.

  112. I’d really like to know how the integrated audio and the add-in cards compare against the HDMI audio out on Nvidia and AMD cards that I already own.

  113. Why do portable headphones have higher impedance than HiFi speakers that are powered by mains, if lower impedance is easier to drive?

    Sub 4 Ohms speakers are very difficult to drive because there is very little resistance in the circuit. To counter this you need increase the current which in turn increases the strain on the amplifier.

  114. Um… why does the DG card look like someone went over the backplate with a welding torch?

  115. I noticed a much bigger difference between my DX and onboard sound when gaming. Particularly with Source-engine games, and /especially/ the half-drowned cave in HL2 Ep2.

    Music sounds better too, but I had to fiddle with the control panel a bit to get better sound.

  116. On page 7, either the title or the table heading is wrong. The title of the page is “RightMark Audio Analyzer – 16-bit/44.1kHz” but the heading on the table is “RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality – 24-bit/96kHz”

    And on the next page (page 8) the roles are reversed – the page title is 24/96 and the table heading is 16/44.1

    edit: Also, what a difference ASIO makes. My FastTrack is extremely entry-level for an external audio interface with a built-in mic pre-amp, and my total round trip latency is right at 13ms, or 94% shorter than the standard delay tested by Audacity.

  117. I really wish the DG was PCIe.

    Thanks for the review! Such high quality hardware would be wasted on my ears, speakers, and headset, I’m afraid. But I can see its value.

  118. Interresting review.

    I use the [ Audiophile 192 ] audio card since …years from now, and i’m realy satisfied.
    Using the [ Diamond Cut ] software…and you can realize all your dreams !
    (At least, if you have the necessary knowledge to use it !).

  119. Here is the information available from Beyerdynamic, one of leading headphone manufacturers:



  120. Edifier S730 2.1

    Halfway offtopic, but since you guys know something about sound, does anyone know if these chunky speakers can accept a optical{PCM bitstream} from my bluray player?
    My bluray is a standalone, it’s not connected to my PC.

  121. I found the Xonar sounds significantly better on the entirety of one song and a little part of another so I guess you gotta find the right stuff to make the comparison. Plugging into either of the jacks on my computer made no hiss, but if I plug my speakers (Logitech Z2300) in, and plug my headphones into the speaker’s headphone jack I get a barely noticeable hiss. Unfortunately this is by far the most convenient setup. But it’s no big deal I guess.

  122. In addition, the Battlefield and Call of Duty graphs have the exact same values, just different labels. Seems a bit strange.

  123. In the RightMark analysis, it’s hard to know how much of the Realtek’s errors come from the output stage, and how much from the input stage.

    Since many people only really care about the output, would it be possible to instead loop the output from the Realtek to the input of some known “good” source (for instance one of the Xonar cards)?

  124. Inquiring minds want to know: How does the Xense sound with ua741s?

    Also, on page 5, I don’t think the Borderlands and Battlefield graphs are supposed to be labeled “Watts”.

  125. I half agree.

    ‘[D]amned good speakers’ are very cheap these days. Look at powered monitors from the likes of Yamaha, KRK, et al. Further, their cost is amortized in that you no longer need to buy an amp. But to be running these types of monitors you need to have TRS or XRS outs on your sound card. These Asus cards only have crappy mini-jack ports so you lose all the value of having ridiculously high SNR as ‘fuzz’ is introduced in the cabling path anyway.

    Therefore it’s a package deal. You need a decent sound card and decent speakers if you want things to sound good. Compared to other PC bits, these things have a really long (20+ years?) life. My sound card and monitors are already seven years old and there’s no indication whatsoever they’re nearing their EOL. I think it’s a good investment.

  126. I bought a Xonar DX when I was assembling my computer. I didn’t know if I would notice the difference, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt and bought it. I’ve never actually tried using the onboard audio until just now. It takes me like fifteen seconds to switch from on to the other, and maybe I’m just not picking the right songs, but every supposed difference I can find is so minute that I second guess myself on if I’m just imagining it. I’m using it with my nice in-ear Monster headphones. Though I have damaged them, and now that I’ve soldered the wires again the sound in one ear is slightly louder than the other. I would think that would be a difference in resistance that can be remedied by adjusting left-right balance though, which is what I do. Maybe I’ll try another time with my speakers instead, but for now I give up on hearing the difference.

  127. What I really like is the four pin molex. My D2X has a floppy one and it’s a pain. A little movement and bye-bye volume. I almost RMA it, but then I find this is a common issue.

  128. I got the Xonar DX, and I’ve been very unhappy with it.

    It has made almost every other audio output I hear on a regular basis sound like crap 🙂

    (On a serious note, the lack of auto-switching to front panel output, and the… questionable control panel are annoyances, but I happily put up with them for the boost in sound quality)

  129. Sluggo is right. Lower impedance means you need more current to achieve high power.

    Why would low impedance be inaccurate? What a load of drivel. See high end amplifiers and speakers.

  130. No, unless you want other functions that these sorts of card offer, like a headphone amp or 5.1 emulation via headphones.

  131. He’s right. Lower impedances require more current, which not all source devices can provide without their output being adversely affected in some way.

    I don’t think the comment about higher-impedance loads taking more time to respond is really relevant. It’s true that a higher input capacitance can take slightly longer to charge up, but that’s not so much the issue in this case.

  132. Do you really need a sound card when you run HDMI from your graphic card to an external receiver?

    This I’m not really too sure about.

  133. I have a Xonar D2X in my ageing gaming rig and a Xonar Essence STX in my HTPC box.

    Nice DACs on both, but the STX, similar to the Xsense (they cards seem similar – perhaps the Xsense is the replacement model) swapped out the opamps on the STX for another pair that I preferred over the LME49720 – geez the model escapes me now – I think the LM6172 – which has much more ‘attack’ vs the former which is more laid back. I think I threw a 49720 in the buffer spot, but I forget and can’t be bothered to check 🙂
    Also be aware the 49720’s seemed to roll off the bass a bit quicker. On the flip-side most people wrote about preferring vocals on the 49720.

    I’m happy with both cards that have served well over the years.

    I did want to caution people around Asus’ driver support for these cards which has been pretty shocking especially if you get one shortly after release. I recommend visiting Asus’ support forum (VIP forum or something) just in case you find an issue with what you intend to do with it BEFORE handing over any cash.

    ps. you can get bit-perfect output in foobar with the ASIO plugin – but can u hear it? 🙂 hehehe

  134. Maybe worth noting – the little white block near the outputs of the DG is a relay for the line out. It’s nice for folks who have an external amp connected, as it eliminates any turn-on and turn-off thumps that might otherwise occur. Codecs often pulse their outputs when power is applied.

    Also, any headphone amp capable of driving a 32 Ohm load is also capable of driving a 150 Ohm or a 600 Ohm or higher load, as lower impedance loads are more difficult to drive (require more current). This was a little fuzzy in the article. Great review otherwise.

  135. Interesting review, although I really wish you had included one X-Fi based card for comparison sake. Is a DG a step up or more of a horizontal upgrade?

  136. My ears are not as good as my eyes so I am perfectly happy with onboard audio quality. I did like the FPS testing, if for no other reason than to confirm that a soundcard will do nothing for me.

  137. I’ve got the Xonar DX and am very, very happy with it after being a Creative fanboy for a lot years.

  138. It’s fairly simple. Nothing Creative ever touched sounded anything other than bad.

    Apart from that the only way to get decent sound from a computer is to run digital out to a decent stand alone DAC.

    You are welcome.

  139. Why do you put Burr Brown in apostrophes? It’s just another company name like Asus or Creative (altohugh it has since been acquired by TI).