Asus’ budget Xonar DGX and DSX sound cards reviewed

For years, we’ve trumpeted the benefits of discrete sound cards. They simply sound better than the typical integrated audio on motherboards, especially for those with discerning ears and halfway-decent speakers or headphones. Good sound cards tend to last through multiple upgrade cycles, too. They’re amazingly inexpensive considering the expected lifespan. Indeed, the two we’ll be putting under the microscope today—Asus’ Xonar DGX and DSX—sell for less than $50.

If the names look familiar, that’s because the cards are the PCI Express versions of the Xonar DG and DS. Those older models have PCI interfaces, like an awful lot of other sound cards, and PCI slots are quickly disappearing from modern motherboards. The Xonar DGX and DSX drop into any PCIe x1 slot, and those should be with us for a good, long time.

Each card has a unique character. The DGX courts headphone users with a dedicated amplifier and Dolby Headphone surround-sound virtualization. Meanwhile, the DSX offers home-theater users a replaceable op-amp, support for more output channels, and the ability to encode multichannel digital bitstreams in real-time.

How do the two compare, and more importantly, how good do they sound? We’ve conducted a mix of performance, signal quality, and blind listening tests to find out. We’ve also thrown in our favorite mid-range sound card, the Xonar DX, and a motherboard with Realtek’s latest audio codec. This should be interesting.

Moving considerably slower than the speed of sound

Before we dig into the Xonars, it’s worth taking a moment to expand on why sound cards tend to last so long. To be frank, the market for them has largely stagnated.

Games used to drive the demand for hardware-accelerated audio, but that feature has all but disappeared from recent titles. Creative’s EAX positional audio scheme died years ago. OpenAL was supposed to be a replacement of sorts, but Creative’s list of games with OpenAL audio hasn’t been updated since 2008. Blue Ripple Sound’s Rapture3D positional audio software is used by some Codemasters games, and it’s been made to work with a handful of OpenAL titles. However, Blue Ripple Sound is quite explicit about the fact that its algorithms run on the CPU.

The fact is today’s multi-core processors have an abundance of horsepower. Crunching numbers for positional audio shouldn’t be a challenge. These days, developers typically handle positional audio processing in software. Some, like Battlefield 3 maker DICE, even offer their own virtualization voodoo.

Perhaps because the need for hardware acceleration has waned, the flow of new audio processors has slowed to a trickle. We’ve had plenty of output channels and real-time encoding options for quite some time, leaving few reasons for fresh silicon.

The older audio processors that dominate the market are designed for the PCI interface, which is quickly falling out of favor among motherboard makers. Intel dropped PCI support from its consumer desktop platforms years ago, forcing board makers to employ third-party silicon if they want to offer PCI slots. Most still do, but it probably won’t be long before the majority of new boards are PCIe-only.

Since the C-Media audio processors used in the Xonar line lack native PCIe support, Asus has taken to using bridge chips to link up with the newer interface. The DGX and DSX both feature PLX’s PEX8112 bridge chip, just like the other PCIe members of the ever-growing Xonar family. Bridged solutions aren’t quite as slick as native ones, of course, but we’ve yet to see any issues related to Asus’ use of the PLX chips.

In the picture above, you can see the bridge chip next to C-Media’s Oxygen HD CMI8786 audio processor on the Xonar DGX. That’s the same C-Media chip as on the older DG model. Likewise, the DSX features the same Asus AV66 audio processor as the Xonar DS. Though Asus’ name is silkscreened on the surface, the AV66 is actually a C-Media CMI8788. Asus tells us the AV66, AV100, and AV200 processors featured on its Xonar cards are all variants of the CMI8788 with different software packages.

We’re at a loss as to why Asus doesn’t have its own name branded across the CMI8786. That chip is a custom order just for the Xonar DG and DGX. The CMI8786 is really just a cut-down version of the CMI8788. Both chips can handle 24-bit audio, but the CMI8788 does so at sampling rates up to 192kHz, while the CMI8786 tops out at 96kHz.

As the model numbers suggest, the CMI8788 can feed eight output channels, while the CMI8786 is capped at six. Translation: the Xonar DSX can power 7.1-speaker home theaters, while the DGX is limited to 5.1-speaker setups.

Asus uses a different mix of complementary digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversion silicon on each card. The DSX pairs a six-channel Wolfson DAC with a stereo codec from the same company. Cirrus Logic supplies the conversion hardware for the DGX, which uses a similar DAC-and-codec combo. Incidentally, all of the DAC and codec chips offer 24 bits of resolution at 192kHz sampling rates. The Xonar DGX’s 96kHz limitation comes from its audio processor alone.

  Xonar DGX Xonar DSX
Interface PCI Express x1 PCI Express x1
Audio chip C-Media CMI8786 Asus AV66
Digital-to-analog converter Cirrus Logic CS4361 Wolfson WM8766G

Wolfson WM8776

Analog-to-digital converter Cirrus Logic CS4245 WolfsonWM8776
Headphone amp Texas Instruments DRV601 NA
Replaceable op-amps? 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 107 dB
Input signal-to-noise ratio 103 dB 100 dB
Output channels 6 8
Multi-channel digital encoding NA DTS Interactive
Speaker virtualization Dolby Headphone DTS Neo:PC*
Street price $40 $49

The published signal-to-noise ratios of each card give us a general sense of their overall signal quality. Looks like the Xonar DGX might be the more balanced of the two; it has a 105-decibel output SNR and a 103-dB input SNR. The DSX has higher output SNR, at 107 dB, but its 100 dB input SNR is a little low.

The Xonar DGX is the less expensive of the two cards, but by less than the cost of a super-sized McDonald’s combo. Deciding between the two may be more a factor of whether you intend to hook up the card to a fancy home-theater receiver or run it through a headset or headphones. We’ll explore the features tailored to each setup as we take a closer look at each card.

Say hello to the Xonar DGX

First up, the $40 Xonar DGX. Its predecessor, the Xonar DG, has been one of our most recommended sound cards for quite some time. Naturally, we’ve been anticipating its PCI Express successor.

We’re a little miffed by the attached premium, though. The original costs just $25 right now, so you’re paying an extra $15 for the PCIe upgrade. I suppose that’s not so bad if one considers the expenditure an investment in future compatibility.

Although the PLX bridge chip consumes some additional board real estate, the Xonar DGX is still built on a half-height expansion card. The circuit board is 2.5″ tall and 6.7″ long, and Asus includes a half-height backplate in the box.

Along the top edge of the card, you can see a number of internal connectors for extra input and output ports. In addition to auxiliary input and S/PDIF output headers, a front-panel headset connector is provided. So long as your case has the necessary ports up front, there’s no need to rummage around behind your PC to hook up headphones or a mic.

The front-panel headphone and primary front-channel output are both equipped with Texas Instruments DRV601 headphone amplifiers. In the picture above, one of the chips can be seen sitting between two clusters of capacitors near the card’s top edge. The onboard amps have three operating modes tuned for different headphone impedance ranges. Choose the one that matches your cans, and you’re set.

Like the Xonar DG that came before it, the DGX has been programmed to give certain elements, specifically vocals and percussion, a little more oomph. We liked this extra kick when we first heard it, but the artificial emphasis can sound a little harsh. Cyril’s ears seem especially sensitive to this special programming. He’s experienced fatigue when listening to the Xonar DG for long periods. Throughout our blind listening tests, he also said the DGX reminded him of the DG.

A typical assortment of ports lines the DGX’s backplate. On the far right, there’s a digital S/PDIF output for folks with compatible receivers or speakers. The Xonar DGX can’t encode digital bitstreams on the fly, limiting multi-channel digital output to pre-encoded tracks. Music and movies will work just fine, but gamers who want surround sound will have to use analog outputs. Three of those can be found next to a shared line/mic input.

The Xonar DGX might not be able to encode digital bitstreams in real-time, but it can virtualize multi-channel speaker setups using Dolby Headphone software incorporated in the drivers. With the Dolby scheme activated, users can choose from three room configurations that place the virtual speakers at different distances. Alas, The Dolby option appears only when headphones are the selected output. The DGX can’t fake surround sound with stereo speakers.

Asus’ Xonar driver control panel hasn’t changed for years, which is a bit of a shame considering how much work the firm has put into its recent motherboard software. The control panel covers all the basics in unspectacular fashion. It also has a few tricks up its sleeve.

The first of those is the little GX button in the lower-right corner. The label refers to GX 2.5, an Asus “gaming audio engine” that simulates the EAX positional audio effects of some older games. GX 2.5 works with the last version of EAX, which allowed for up to 128 simultaneous effects. That final version of EAX came out before Windows Vista, a really long time ago.

For its second driver trick, the Xonar DGX offers an echo-cancellation mode designed for folks with stereo speakers and desk-mounted microphones. It’s meant for voice communication applications, and Asus recommends disabling the feature unless you’re actively using Skype or the like. Aside from the mute and volume controls, the rest of the driver control panel is greyed-out when echo cancellation is enabled.

And now, the Xonar DSX

With a $49 asking price, the Xonar DSX costs just $7 more than the standard DS. That’s more like it. But the DSX still costs nine bucks more than the DGX, so it has to outdo its headphone-focused sibling.

If you haven’t been paying close attention, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the DSX for the DGX. The two look very similar, right down to the size of their half-height circuit boards. Like the DGX, the DSX comes with a midget backplate. The card also has the same internal input and output headers. However, there’s no headphone amp onboard.

Instead of boosting headphone output, the Xonar DSX lets users choose how to amplify stereo sound. The front channel is fed through a socketed operational amplifier that users can replace easily on their own. A chip-puller is ideal for the task, but the op-amp can be separated from the socket with no more than a small screwdriver.

The DSX’s op-amp socket is filled by a Texas Instruments NE55329. Asus told us at the Computex trade show earlier this year that socketed Xonars are outfitted with neutral-sounding op-amps by default. If users crave a particular acoustic profile, they can swap in a different chip.

Because it applies to just the front channel, the op-amp can only shape the sound coming out of two speakers. Headphones plugged into the green port at the rear will be affected, but the op-amp doesn’t touch signals going to the front-panel headphone connector or to the card’s rear, side, or center/sub outputs.

With one more output channel than the Xonar DGX, the DSX has to resort to sharing to fit all of its ports on a half-height card. The rear-channel output uses the same jack as the digital S/PDIF out. Asus includes a TOS-Link adapter for the 3.5-mm port, but you’ll need to supply your own optical cable to use the digital connection.

There’s some temptation to go digital, because the Xonar DSX supports DTS Interactive, a real-time encoder capable of mixing surround-sound bitstreams on the fly. Everything from games to movies can be pumped to a compatible receiver or speakers over a single digital cable instead of the mass of analog cords usually required. The Xonar’s DTS implementation also features Neo:PC, which can expand stereo sources to pseudo-surround sound. Neo:PC comes with strings, though. It has to be used with DTS Interactive, restricting surround-sound simulation to digital output.

The Xonar DX’s drivers look all but identical to those of the DGX. A few of the options are different, but the two drivers share a common interface. They have the same mixer and equalizer, plus access to the same suite of effects.

Of course, the DSX drivers have a few special knobs to twirl related to DTS. The DTS Interactive mode features a speaker shifter that allows users to map how their speakers are laid out in the room. The software should adjust the audio fed to each speaker accordingly. Folks can also tweak a couple of sliders related to how Neo:PC expands stereo sound. There’s no echo-cancellation mode, though.

Our testing methods

If you’re already familiar with our testing methods, feel free to skip ahead to the performance results on the next page. The information below is mostly nerdy details about system and test configurations. We present this information for reference, and we won’t be offended if you skip it.

As we said in the intro, the Xonar DGX and DSX will face off against our favorite mid-range sound card, the $88 Xonar DX. The DX has been featured in countless iterations of our System Guide, and it will be interesting to see how the cheaper cards fare against their older brother. (The Xonar DX is a PCI Express card, just like the DGX and DSX.) We’ve also included our motherboard’s “free” integrated audio, which is powered by a Realtek ALC898 codec.

Admittedly, the Sandy Bridge-E platform we used for testing is a little high-end for the budget Xonars. We wanted to make sure we were using a solid implementation of Realtek’s latest codec, though. Also, the testing associated with Cyril’s recent look at hardware-accelerated video transcoding monopolized a couple of the less expensive CPUs we have at TR’s northern outpost.

As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least five times, and we’ve reported the median result.

Our test system was configured like so:

Processor Core i7-3890X
Motherboard Asus P9X79 PRO
Chipset Intel X79 Express
Memory size 16GB (4 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz
Memory timings 9-9-9-24 1T
Chipset drivers INF update 9.2.3.1022

Rapid Storage Technology Enterprise 3.1.0.1068

Graphics Asus Radeon HD 7970 DirectCU II TOP with Catalyst 12.6 drivers
Audio Asus Xonar DGX with 7.12.8.1800 drivers

Asus Xonar DSX with 7.12.8.1800 drivers

Asus Xonar DX with 7.12.8.1794 drivers

Integrated Realtek ALC898 with 2.70 drivers

Hard drive Intel 520 Series 240GB SATA
Power supply Corsair AX850
OS Windows 7 Ultimate x64 Edition

Service Pack 1

DirectX 11 June 2010 Update

Thanks to Intel, Corsair, and Asus for helping to outfit our test rigs with some of the finest hardware available. Asus supplied the sound cards for testing, as well.

Unless otherwise specified, image quality settings for the graphics cards were left at the control panel defaults. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

We used the following test applications:

Some further notes on our methods:

  • We used the Fraps utility to record frame rates while playing a 90-second sequence from each game. Although capturing frame rates while playing isn’t precisely repeatable, we tried to make each run as similar as possible to all of the others. We tested each Fraps sequence five times per configuration in order to counteract any variability.

  • We measured total system power consumption at the wall socket using a Watts Up Pro digital power meter. The monitor was plugged into a separate outlet, so its power draw was not part of our measurement. The cards were plugged into a motherboard on an open test bench.

    The idle measurements were taken at the Windows desktop with the Aero theme enabled. The cards were tested under load running Battlefield 3 with the Ultra detail setting at 1920×1200.

  • For our blind listening tests, the output levels of each audio solution were equalized using RightMark Audio Analyzer and then tweaked by hand. With a couple different test signals, the levels RMAA told us were normalized sounded slightly off, so we had to resort to manual tuning.

    Each track in our listening tests was ripped from the original audio CD and saved as an uncompressed WAV file. Tracks were played using Windows Media Player 12 and a pair of Sennheiser HD 555 headphones.

    Our test subjects listened to 30-second clips of various songs back-to-back on different audio solutions. The listeners had no idea which solution was being played for them at any given time. To mix things up, the matchups were randomized for each song and test subject. There were six matchups per song, allowing each solution to be tested head-to-head with the others.

The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Gaming

The last time we looked at the impact of different audio solutions on gaming performance, the results were a wash. We weren’t expecting much of a difference this time around, so to make things interesting, we busted out the test methods we introduced in Scott’s article, Inside the second: A new look at game benchmarking. In addition to measuring frame rates, we’ve measured individual frame times, which provide a much better picture of overall smoothness.

Rather than burying you under a deluge of frame-time graphs, we’ll stick to a couple of results for each game: average frames per second and 99th percentile frame times. The FPS figures should be familiar to anyone who’s read a PC hardware review in the last decade. The 99th percentile numbers refer to the time below which 99% of all frames are rendered. Lower frame times translate to higher frame rates and smoother gameplay.

Finding PC games with audio options that extend beyond simple volume controls proved rather difficult, so our gaming tests are limited to Battlefield 3 and DiRT Showdown. Let’s start with BF3, which features an “Enhanced” audio mode that provides surround-sound virtualization for stereo output. Our testing was conducted with headphones, so we tested each card with standard stereo output and with BF3‘s Enhanced mode enabled. Since the Xonar DGX and DX both support virtualization via Dolby Headphone, we tested those configurations, as well.

To make the graphs easier to read, we’ve colored-coded the results. The Xonar DGX and DSX both appear in dark blue, while the results for the older DX are painted a lighter shade. We’ve grayed out the bars for the Realtek integrated audio.

Not much to see here, folks. Less than a single frame per second separates the various solutions in Battlefield 3. Our 99th percentile frame time results are just as conclusive, with only a 0.6-millisecond gap between the fastest and slowest configurations.

Next, we’ll tackle the latest chapter in the DiRT franchise. This game offers standard software audio in addition to a Rapture3D mode with its own virtualization magic. We tested both modes on each config, and we ran another set of Dolby Headphone tests on the cards that support it.

With a very different game, we see largely the same results. The various configurations are tightly packed within a span of 2.7 FPS and 1.3 milliseconds, depending on the metric.

Gaming performance has long been gated by one’s graphics card and, to a lesser extent, the CPU. It’s been a long time since sound cards had any major impact on the equation.

Input latency

We measure input latency with Audacity, the free audio editor used by our own podcast producer to piece together the various audio streams we generate during recording sessions. The latency test follows these instructions in the official Audacity manual.

All of the Xonars have longer input latencies than the Realtek codec. The DGX is a little slower than the DSX, but the difference there is just 18 milliseconds. The gap between the quickest Xonars and the Realtek implementation is much larger, at 50 milliseconds. Hearing a difference between the delays might be difficult for end users, though.

Power consumption

System power draw was measured first at idle and then in Battlefield 3 using the same configurations as in our gaming performance tests.

As one might expect, adding a sound card will increase system power consumption. However, the difference doesn’t amount to much. The Realtek config saves only a few watts at idle and less than 10W under load. Among the Xonars, the DSX is the most power-efficient, particularly when playing Battlefield 3.

Blind listening tests

We believe the best way to evaluate sound cards is to listen to them in blind tests. Subjective impressions provide a sense of how each solution sounds, and blind tests largely remove bias from the equation. Our victims subjects listened to 30-second clips of various songs back-to-back on different audio solutions, and they had no idea what solution was being played when.

Since they’re the limiting factor, let’s introduce our listeners. They’ve all rated themselves on an impromptu audiophile scale between 0, which considers Apple’s stock iPhone 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 recording.

Brent, a friend of mine from university, was first to endure our barrage of 30-second song clips. He doesn’t have any fancy audio gear and rates himself a 6 on our scale. Next, I convinced my girlfriend Mo to sit through a session. She thinks even basic Logitech speakers sound great, so we’ll give her a 4 on the audiophile scale. TR staffer Cyril is definitely pickier when it comes to sound quality; he rates himself an 8. After one round of listening tests, Cyril took the controls and ran a second round with me in the hot seat. I’m not sure my ears are quite as sensitive as Cyril’s, but I do appreciate good sound, and I’d give myself the same audiophile rating.

Die Antwoord — Hey Sexy

There isn’t a whole lot of hip-hop in my music library, but I do have a weakness for South African rap group Die Antwoord. Hey Sexy layers vocals over looping guitars and a thumping bass line.

To my ears, Hey Sexy was “more gangsta” on the DSX than on the DGX. The former’s bass line was almost over-emphasized, and the card was difficult to distinguish from the more expensive Xonar DX. The DGX sounded less boomy in comparison, with more prominent mid-range content and in-your-face vocals.

Cyril found the DGX more balanced than the other Xonars, perhaps because its bass was less prominent. He thought the DSX sounded a little metallic at the high end, as well. Cyril actually liked the sound of the Realtek codec versus the DGX and DSX.

Our other listeners agreed with the general sentiment that the Xonar DSX and DX offered the most bass of the bunch. Mo had a hard time telling the difference between those two, but Brent thought the DSX thumped a little harder. He also heard more pronounced vocals on the Xonar DGX, something that Mo didn’t notice. Neither was particularly keen on the Realtek codec, which was singled out for lacking richness, being too tinny and rattly, and having too much treble.

LCD Soundsystem — Home

In the realm of increasingly difficult-to-classify modern music, LCD Soundsystem is perhaps best described as low-fi indie electronica. Home is from the band’s final album. The track is an upbeat number filled with different instruments, some of which sound more familiar than others.

The Realtek codec failed to impress my ears with this song, and Cyril thought it sounded a little neutered. For me, the Xonar DSX offered better separation between the various instruments than the integrated motherboard audio. It also sounded more balanced than the DGX, which emphasized the mid- and high-range notes. That emphasis wasn’t as apparent versus the Xonar DX.

Cyril and I both found the Xonar DSX and DX to be comparable. He seemed to prefer the Xonar DGX over the DX due to the DGX’s greater separation between the song’s percussive elements. When the DGX was played back-to-back with the DSX, though, that separation sounded a little over-sharpened to his ears.

With this track, our other listeners struggled to tell the different configs apart. Mo preferred the DSX to the DGX in their head-to-head matchup, but she couldn’t explain why. Brent favored the DGX, which he said had more distinct vocals and treble.

Adele — Rolling in the Deep

It’s rare to hear music I like playing in malls and department stores, but Adele’s 21 is one of those albums. The first track, Rolling in the Deep, combines Adele’s soulful voice with background vocals, bass, and a building piano track.

Once again, the Xonar DSX was a close match for the DX. All of the listeners agreed on that point, although there were differing opinions about the subtle differences between the two. To me, the DSX felt farther from the stage. Brent said it had deeper lows, but Cyril thought the opposite, adding that the DSX’s vocals sounded a little metallic and less fleshed out than on the Xonar DX.

There was less consensus regarding the DGX, which some said offered clearer backing vocals and percussion. However, Cyril thought the DGX’s vocals sounded like a “robot singing through a tin can.” He also found the card’s mid-range frequencies to be a little compressed, at least versus the other Xonars. Cyril didn’t think the Realtek codec sounded as good as the DGX, but it sounded better to me due to a more even distribution of frequencies. To my ears, the DGX’s vocals were over-emphasized, with a hint of distortion. Mo heard some distortion in the DGX’s percussion, too.

Mo was reasonably happy with the Realtek codec overall, although she said it sounded a little tinny. Brent was less impressed, saying the Xonars were “just better” in all their matchups. With few exceptions, Cyril and I agreed. To my ears, the onboard audio didn’t have as much body as the Xonar DSX. Cyril repeatedly called the Realtek solution neutral, but he did feel that its lows were a little muted compared to the discrete cards.

The Tea Party — Sister Awake

Apparently, few people outside of Canada and Australia have heard of The Tea Party, which sounds a little like Jim Morrison singing for Led Zeppelin somewhere in eastern Asia. The snippet of Sister Awake we used is purely instrumental and filled with multiple string and percussion instruments.

In our marquee matchup, the Xonar DSX versus the DGX, the results were mixed. Mo couldn’t tell the difference between the two, but the rest of us could. Cyril thought the DGX was a little bit louder, and that the DSX’s drums blended in with the mid-range a little. Brent said the DGX offered too much treble at the high end of the spectrum, to the point that it sounded tinny. I agreed with those sentiments and thought the percussion hit harder on the DSX.

To my ears, the Realtek codec sounded squished together compared to the DSX. I did think the onboard audio was pretty close to the DGX, though. Cyril thought the Realtek solution’s drums were a bit subdued, with more of a focus on the mid-to-upper range of the spectrum.

Personal preferences inevitably taint subjective impressions, especially when subjects are simply asked what they hear. That’s probably why Brent preferred the motherboard audio’s more prominent mid-range tones to the stronger bass on the Xonar DX and DSX. Mo was firmly in the Xonar camp across the board and liked the DSX more than the others.

Tom Waits — Tell Me

Tom Waits’ unmistakable voice sounds like what might happen if one gargled gravel every day for 20 years. In Tell Me, Waits’ rough vocals are complemented by subtle percussion, sparing guitars, and what I believe is a xylophone. With Waits, one never knows.

Half of our listeners couldn’t distinguish between the Xonar DGX and DSX this time around. Cyril and I had little trouble, however. He found the DGX’s mids too sharp and the DSX more natural, while I thought the DSX had more low-end grunt and sounded a little subtler than the DGX.

I preferred the DSX to everything else it went up against. Cyril liked the DSX over the Realtek solution, which he said had no warmth, but he said the vocals were crisper on the DX.

Neither of us really liked the motherboard’s built-in sound, calling it compressed and “slightly wrong.” Brent was similarly critical of the Realtek audio, saying its rivals sounded fuller in comparison. He called the Xonar DX and DSX similar, and said Waits’ deep voice was accentuated by the DGX. Cyril made a similar comment, noting that Waits’ voice sounded more natural on the DGX. That may be the only time such a raspy bellow has ever been described as natural.

Mo didn’t mind the Realtek audio as much as the rest of us, perhaps because listener fatigue had set in. She thought the Xonar DGX was a little crisper than the other Xonars, though.

The inevitable summary

Our listeners all thought the different audio solutions were more closely matched than in any of the listening tests we’ve conducted before. Their assessments of each config were largely consistent, but some of the songs and matchups teased out contradictory opinions. More often than not, the Xonar DSX was identified as having deeper bass and a fuller sound than the DGX. The DGX’s mid-range bias was definitely apparent, and its output was often deemed sharper and crisper than the DSX and its other rivals.

Although it fared better than any other integrated audio implementation we’ve tested, the Realtek codec was clearly inferior to the DGX and DSX overall. The onboard audio was definitely short on bass, and it lacked the sharper mid-range tones of the DGX.

We weren’t surprised to see the motherboard audio fall to the bottom, but we didn’t expect the Xonar DSX to so closely match the pricier DX. Those two sounded more alike than any other pair, and our listeners usually preferred the DSX.

A few words about gaming audio quality

During our music listening tests, subjects had the luxury of closing their eyes and concentrating on sound alone. Getting a sense of gaming audio quality is more difficult because the soundtrack tends to fade into the background when you’re actually playing. We didn’t run a full set of blind listening tests in games, but I did take a few notes while testing Battlefield 3 and DiRT Showdown.

The biggest takeaway was that I didn’t hear obvious differences in audio quality between the various solutions. Perhaps I was too distracted by the visuals and trying to play through the games in a repeatable fashion, so that I’d hear the same mix of sounds. Maybe the differences faded when it took minutes rather than seconds to swap sound cards.

There were, however, very big differences between the audio configurations offered by each game. Battlefield 3‘s Enhanced-mode surround virtualization added a real sense of immersion in the environment, especially with gunfire coming from all directions. The Dolby Headphone mode on the Xonar DGX and DX had similar surround content, but it sounded a little more distant and muffled. Remember that Dolby Headphone attempts to simulate sound coming from speakers at a distance. Personally, I prefer the in-game Enhanced mode.

In DiRT Showdown, there was a pronounced difference between the built-in software and Rapture3D audio modes. The latter felt natural, with in-game sounds at more appropriate distances than the default audio, which kind of crammed everything right into my ear. Again, Dolby Headphone output sounded a little muffled and far away—and not as good as the Rapture3D surround mode.

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

This is where we get really geeky. If you’re not interested in things like frequency response, dynamic range, or intermodulation distortion, you’ll be forgiven for jumping straight to the conclusion. Seriously, congratulations for making it this far.

We’re moving onto some objective evaluations of analog signal quality using RightMark Audio Analyzer. Our first test probes the front-channel output of each card using a test signal recorded by a high-end Xonar Xense on a separate system. We ran this test with 16 bits of resolution at 44.1kHz, a perfect match for CD 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.

  RightMark Audio Analyzer playback quality – 16-bit/44.1kHz
  Frequency response Noise level Dynamic range THD THD + Noise IMD + Noise Stereo Crosstalk IMD at 10kHz Overall score
Realtek ALC898 6 4 4 5 3 4 5 5 5
Xonar DX 6 4 4 6 3 4 5 5 5
Xonar DGX 5 4 4 6 3 4 5 5 4
Xonar DSX 5 4 4 5 3 4 5 5 4

Surprisingly, the Xonar DGX and DSX score lower than the Realtek integrated audio. The numbers are pretty close across the board, though. No more than one point separates any of the cards from the others.

We have some more detailed RMAA graphs below. They’re a little indulgent, we’ll admit, but that’s sort of our style. We’ve put frequency response first because it’s one of the most important elements. Notice how the Xonar DGX falls off at higher frequencies, while the others hold the line for longer. Apart from the Xonar DX having a little more intermodulation distortion, the rest of the results are pretty close.

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

Total harmonic distortion + noise

Intermodulation distortion

Stereo crosstalk

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

Next, we have a series of “loopback” tests that run the front-channel output through the line input, giving us a sense of overall signal quality. We’ll use CD-quality audio again for this round.

  RightMark Audio Analyzer loopback quality – 16-bit/44.1kHz
  Frequency response Noise level Dynamic range THD THD + Noise IMD + Noise Stereo Crosstalk IMD at 10kHz Overall score
Realtek ALC898 6 4 5 5 3 5 6 5 5
Xonar DX 6 6 6 6 4 6 6 6 6
Xonar DGX 6 5 5 6 4 6 6 6 5
Xonar DSX 6 5 5 6 5 6 6 6 5

In our first loopback tests, the Xonar DX takes the top honors. The Xonar DGX and DSX look evenly matched and better than the Realtek audio overall.

Before you flick that scroll wheel, check out the Xonar DGX in the frequency response plot. Again, it starts dropping at lower frequencies than the competition. Also worth noting: the higher noise and distortion exhibited by the integrated audio in several of the graphs.

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

Total harmonic distortion + noise

Intermodulation distortion

Stereo crosstalk

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

Our loopback tests continue with a higher sampling rate and resolution.

  RightMark Audio Analyzer loopback quality – 24-bit/96kHz
  Frequency response Noise level Dynamic range THD THD + Noise IMD + Noise Stereo Crosstalk IMD at 10kHz Overall score
Realtek ALC898 5 5 5 5 3 4 6 4 5
Xonar DX 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6
Xonar DGX 5 6 6 6 4 6 6 6 5
Xonar DSX 5 6 6 6 4 6 6 6 5

The standings don’t change according to our numerical scale. The Xonar DX scores sixes across the board, while the DGX and DSX both outscore the Realtek audio. I’m not sure I trust the math RMAA is using to generate the “overall” ratings. The ALC898 seems to be ranked too highly considering the lower scores it has in several of the individual tests.

Scroll slowly, because the plots are more interesting this time around. The Realtek audio falls off a cliff much earlier than the Xonars in the frequency response graph. It has higher noise and distortion levels, too, with huge spikes at higher frequencies. Noise and distortion are the biggest differences between the Xonar DGX and DSX and their more expensive sibling, although without the erratic behavior of the ALC898.

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

Total harmonic distortion + noise

Intermodulation distortion

Stereo crosstalk

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

Our second-to-last RMAA test cranks the sampling rate up to 192kHz. The Xonar DGX tops out at 96kHz, so it has to sit on the sidelines.

  RightMark Audio Analyzer loopback quality – 24-bit/192kHz
  Frequency response Noise level Dynamic range THD THD + Noise IMD + Noise Stereo Crosstalk IMD at 10kHz Overall score
Realtek ALC898 5 5 5 5 3 5 6 5 5
Xonar DX 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 5
Xonar DSX 5 6 6 6 4 6 6 6 5

Ignore the overall score and focus on the rest of the numbers. The Xonar DX has a slight advantage over the DSX in a few tests, and both outscore the Realtek audio in the majority.

The graphs below bear out those results. The ALC898 repeats its early exit in the frequency response plot, and its high noise and distortion levels persist. Overall, the Xonar DSX has more distortion and noise than the DX, but neither jumps around like the Realtek codec.

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

Total harmonic distortion + noise

Intermodulation distortion

Stereo crosstalk

Signal quality under load

Not content to go overboard with four sets of RMAA results, we added a fifth. For this final round, we tested each solution’s loopback signal quality under a heavy system load consisting of AIDA64’s CPU stress test, the Unigine Heaven graphics benchmark, and a file transfer from a SATA SSD to another solid-state drive attached to one of the motherboard’s USB 3.0 ports. We’ve seen much lesser loads taint the output quality of older integrated audio solutions, and we were curious about what would happen to our contenders with the system pushed to its limits.

We ran our load test on each solution at its highest quality setting. The Xonar DGX used 24-bit/96kHz audio, while the others were set to 192kHz at the same resolution.

  RightMark Audio Analyzer loopback quality – Load
  Frequency response Noise level Dynamic range THD THD + Noise IMD + Noise Stereo Crosstalk IMD at 10kHz Overall score
Realtek ALC898 5 6 6 5 4 5 6 5 5
Xonar DX 6 6 6 6 5 6 6 6 5
Xonar DGX 5 6 6 6 4 6 6 6 5
Xonar DSX 5 6 6 6 4 6 6 6 5

I had high hopes for this test, but it didn’t end up illustrating much. For the most part, the individual scores were no different than the results of tests we conducted with nothing else going on in the background. In some cases, the load results generated slightly higher scores. We may have to try this test with some cheaper motherboards. Clearly, the audio implementation on our high-end Asus motherboard is well-insulated from system loads.

RMAA won’t plot results with different sampling rates together, so we’re going to skip the extra graphs.

Conclusions

Despite their many similarities, the Xonar DGX and DSX are different sound cards designed for different markets. The DGX has headphone users in its sights, offering them universal surround sound with slightly hollow-sounding Dolby Headphone support. The headphone amps are a nice touch, and at $40 online, the DGX is the cheaper of the two.

Whether the Xonar DGX’s emphasis on mid-range tones is a perk or a detriment may depend on your personal preference. There’s something to be said for the extra kick the card gives to certain frequencies, but our blind listening tests didn’t reveal a clear preference among our panel members for the tweaked acoustic profile. Some folks will no doubt prefer a sound card whose playback is free from embellishment.

The Xonar DSX doesn’t pull any pre-programmed tricks, and it sounds more neutral as a result. Our listeners found the card’s bass kick particularly compelling, but in some cases the thump overshadowed other elements. Overall, the DSX’s output was the closest match for the pricier DX.

Of course, the DSX has unique attributes that extend beyond its acoustic characteristics. The card provides more output channels for home-theater setups and real-time encoding capabilities for folks who want to pass everything over a digital output. Picky users can customize the card’s sound by swapping the front-channel op-amp, too, but there’s no virtualization support for headphone users. The virtualization schemes built into Battlefield 3 and DiRT Showdown sound better to me than Dolby Headphone, so that’s not necessarily a big loss.

The DSX’s extras do come at a price; the card costs nine bucks more than the DGX. However, that’s pocket change considering the expected lifespan of a PCI Express sound card.

Asus Xonar DSX

August 2012

The cost of upgrading to a discrete sound card is really quite minimal, especially considering the fact that both Xonars sounded better than our motherboard audio overall. Still, it’s worth noting that integrated options continue to improve. The Realtek solution we tested is the best one we’ve heard in recent memory, and the gap between integrated audio and budget sound cards is definitely shrinking. We’d still recommend a discrete card for folks with decent speakers or headphones, though.

So, which budget Xonar gets our seal of approval? While those with a preference for vocals might want to opt for the cheaper DGX, we’re inclined to push folks to spend a little more on the DSX. Our blind listening tests suggest the DSX has better overall sound quality, and that’s what really matters for a sound card.

Comments closed
    • darkavenger123
    • 7 years ago

    Bought the DSX 2 days ago. Use it to replace my busted X-FI Titanium on Windows 8.
    Sound quality and separation is definitely very good, in fact, i say better than Titanium…BUT the gui control panel farking sarks. You need to keep switching channels everytime to determine if you wants to play games, dvds, movies, music (determine channel 2/4/6/8)…which idiot designed this???? At lesst, Creative only make you choose between games and entertainment! (Audio creation is no consequence to people like me).

    I still can live with that…the deal breaker….there is a problem with ‘looping’/’scrambling/ sound especially when playing music. It can be less than half a second to nearly a second….it’s crazy!!! This randomly occurs 2 to 3 times within a 4-5 minute song. I can’t take it!!!

    In the end, returned it and get back another X-FI Titanium….everything just works.
    The DSX has lots of potential, but if this problem is not fixed it’s broken. To be fair, it might be the unit i bought have problem…but i am not sticking around to find out….Creative has always worked fine for me..this is my 5th or 6th Creative card over the years (the last X-FI was the only one busted, all the others were sold for upgrades…).

    • les-c
    • 7 years ago

    the DSX is AMAZING !!! i did not get as much detail in my a/v experience as i am getting with the dsx. it is a good card. (i have been through a lot – titanium, xonar stx, bravura, meridian 2-g, alc889, xtreme audio)

    too bad the first was a dud. got it replaced within the day and the second is working fine. more than fine :).

    • zachchuang
    • 7 years ago
    • Delphis
    • 7 years ago

    Built-in sound for me has always been good enough (do I really need higher fidelity gunshots? :D). I always thought the market for ‘better sound’ was limited in that regard.

    The only application for better audio for me is my home theatre PC which runs Linux and outputs via HDMI .. so the sound is handled by the Radeon card isn’t it? No form of extra sound card would help in that matter, as far as I understand.

    • RMSe17
    • 7 years ago

    I am interested in the difference in sound over the S/PDIF – since I use an Onkyo system to drive my speakers. Is there any difference in sound quality over digital?

      • Airmantharp
      • 7 years ago

      It depends :).

      The differences will be limited to whatever preprocessing the sound card does digitally before it gets sent to the digital out, as well as how the card handles surround encoding.

      Best bet if you’re using a receiver is to use HDMI- apparently this works well with Nvidia 500+ series, and I believe it works the same on AMD cards and Intel GPUs. This assumes the DACs in your receiver provide higher quality audio to the receiver’s amplifier than the sound card can through it’s analog outputs and the receiver’s analog inputs.

      • darkavenger123
      • 7 years ago

      No. Don’t waste money and just stick to onboard. However, if you want Dolby Digital Live/ DTS Connect etc, you will have to buy a card which has this function. X-Fi Titanium has DDL/DTS-C, Xonar DX has only DDL, Xonar DSX has only DTS-C. etc.

    • GatoRat
    • 7 years ago

    I’m sure the Xonars have better sound, but suspect that your testing isn’t as double blind as you think. A big problem is that your regular testers may have learned what the artifacts are of Realtek and respond accordingly. A bigger problem is that humans tend to respond positively to heavy bass–simply turning up the bass would bias the results. It does seem that the Xonar has superior bass, but how about the response at higher frequencies? Finally, for me the biggest problem with Realtek is the setups tend to have what sounds like a low impedance hum, which can sometimes be quite noticeable in quiet sections. Thus, simply getting rid of this hum without any other changes would improve the scores for many listeners.

    • Chrisp
    • 7 years ago

    The opamp on the Xonar DSX is an NE5532P (not NE55329 as stated), you can just call it a NE5532 as the P is just the chip form factor designation with P designating DIP. You can buy Chinese versions of the chip for between 15c-30c. You can drop in an Analog Devices OP275 as a pin compatible replacement with better quality performance, and I believe there are some Burr Brown parts that are compatible as well.

    • moose17145
    • 7 years ago

    Well the article certainly did state one thing that is true beyond words… discrete sound cards do have a long life span… I am still using my X-Fi XtremeMusic I bought way back when they first came out… and I have to admit that I am still quite happy with it.

    Something I personally would suggest maybe for a future review, include a few older PCI cards like the X-Fi, assuming you guys still have them from your review of them from way way back in the day…. I know several people like myself who are still running these old PCI cards because they still sound far better than integrated audio but are not entirely sure if they are worth trashing for a newer solution, if there are any tangible benefits to getting a new card, or if the sound quality is going to be basically the same.

    For a few years now I have been wondering how my X-Fi compares to these newer cards and if it would be worth it to replace it… but as of yet it seems that no reviews will ever compare newer cards to older solutions. You guys said it yourselves… sound cards have an abnormally long life span.. so it seems to me like it would make sense to review some cards that are older against their newer counterparts.

    Just my thoughts on the matter.

      • Bensam123
      • 7 years ago

      Yeah, I agree about cards aging relatively gracefully. I was still using my first gen PCI X-Fi Fatality I bought when they first came out in 2005 up till about a month ago when it started doing the crackling and popping thing, sadly.

      Food for thought, this would be called a longitudinal study.

        • Airmantharp
        • 7 years ago

        I picked up a used PCIe X-Fi Fatal1ty, came with the card only, and it’s been a blast. Beat the hell out of the Crab audio my ASRock came with, and that itself is pretty darn good for integrated.

        Using with Sennheiser HD555’s with the Grado adapter cable and my only concern is that the X-Fi might not be fully driving them. My Fiio amp is around here somewhere…

      • Kaleid
      • 7 years ago

      As someone who has tried Xonar XD and compared it to the extrememusic I would say keep the old card. The drivers are actually far better and game audio and positioning is much better.

      Read this:
      [url<]https://techreport.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=28&t=82983&p=1131230&hilit=kaleid+extrememusic#p1131302[/url<]

    • LoneWolf15
    • 7 years ago

    I appreciate the review.

    But while panned by some, I think it would have been better balanced by adding the base model (not the Xtreme-Audio, the one with the real hardware codec) Creative X-Fi Titanium to the mix. I agree with some that think the article could use more than ASUS cards to balance it out.

    • TDIdriver
    • 7 years ago

    Another excellent review Geoff. Kudos on the blind tests as usual.
    But….[url=http://nwavguy.blogspot.com/2011/02/rightmark-audio-analyzer-rmaa.html<]RMAA[/url<]?

      • Kaleid
      • 7 years ago

      Yes, audio should have objective graphs too. But it’s also important not to just loopback but have the recording done by a high-end card.

    • Dysthymia
    • 7 years ago

    The link at the top of page 4, “skip ahead to the performance results”, links to page 4 instead of page 5. Or… is that on purpose? o.O

    Edit: Funny enough, as a result of that I did end up reading all pages.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 7 years ago

    I have to say that I am still sold on discreet sounds cards. When I built my new system last month I decided to use the onboard audio Realtek and it sounded worse than my 7 year old PCI soundblaster X-fi. The sound was very muddy and audio volume was up and down. All in all horrible.

      • Prion
      • 7 years ago

      I like my sound cards discreet too, I’m glad most of them don’t have any flashy LEDs or gaudy silver front-bay breakout boxes anymore.

    • squeeb
    • 7 years ago

    Nice review. Was wondering about these cards.

    • swaaye
    • 7 years ago

    I would be fine with motherboard audio but usually I get a board that has noisy output and that’s no good for headphones.

    • fredsnotdead
    • 7 years ago

    The frequency graphs don’t seem to support the assertion that the DGX emphasizes the mid or high end.

    Back in the day, Audio magazine used to have double-blind tests. “Double” because both the listerner and the person conducting the test didn’t know which component they were listening to, thus avoiding unintentional bias. They would have the listener compare components 1, 2, and “X,” where X was randomly chosen from 1 and 2 by a computer. The listener had to decide if each X was either 1 or 2; out of 20 tries, a certain number had to be correct to be statistically significant, i.e. an audible difference existed between 1 and 2. This requires very precise level matching.

    I picked up a DG for $19 after rebate (which I did receive eventually) for the headphone amp. My 600 ohm AKG K240DF ‘phones are a little hard for the motherboard audio to drive. I’m pretty satisfied with it.

    • GTVic
    • 7 years ago

    Can you have headphones and speakers active at the same time. On my current audio it takes about 15 clicks to switch which is a major pain.

      • webkido13
      • 7 years ago

      I doesn’t seem like it. I bought the card (DSX) assuming it would and I could not make it work. Disappointing.

      I’m also not all all impressed with the sound quality and put my trused PCI Auzentech X-Meridian back in my system. Now obviously this is subjective, but to me decreased sound quality the DSX provided was very noticable (with decent headphone amp and Sennheiser 280 Pro Headphones).

      • KilgoreTrout
      • 7 years ago

      On my DGX I run the speakers through the digital output and the headphones on analog. It works just fine. I use the 3rd party UNi drivers, haven’t tried the official ones.

    • swaaye
    • 7 years ago

    If you have an old Audigy card around, be sure to try out the Audigy Support Pack 4.0. They seem to work flawlessly for me with XP and 7×64, and the CMSS headphone virtualization is as great as ever for gaming.
    [url<]http://forums.creative.com/showthread.php?t=697079[/url<] He has a X-Fi pack too. [url<]http://forums.creative.com/showthread.php?t=587995[/url<]

      • Deanjo
      • 7 years ago

      That’s really sad that it takes someone to do a remix driver pack to get proper support. Par for the course on creative product.

        • swaaye
        • 7 years ago

        I feel that it’s a real win to have my 10 year old Audigy 2 working great even though Creative obviously intended to kill those cards about 7 years ago. 😀

        Another company that gets homebrew driver packs out of necessity is NVIDIA. They don’t support their older chipsets worth anything.

        I also spent a few hours yesterday trying to get AMD’s AHCI driver working on a SB700 board. I had to manually tweak one of their registry settings to fix a boot up BSOD.

          • Deanjo
          • 7 years ago

          [quote<]Another company that gets homebrew driver packs out of necessity is NVIDIA. They don't support their older chipsets worth anything.[/quote<] I believe, at least on the Nvidia amd chipsets that if you just select the 980a chipset in the driver selection you do get the last revisions of all the drivers.

            • swaaye
            • 7 years ago

            It looks like that’s a good way to go for recent chipsets, but I’m not sure about nForce1-4. There are some rather well-tested driver packs on nForcersHQ though.
            [url<]http://www.nforcershq.com/forum/nforce-drivers-f28.html[/url<]

            • Deanjo
            • 7 years ago

            On the older chipsets (which Win 7 certified drivers were not brought out), you were usually best served with the ones in Windows Update.

      • Bensam123
      • 7 years ago

      I’ve found this only fixes driver installation issues and wont fix things like the crackling and popping if you get it. Sometimes really weird things fix it though. The last X-Fi driver pack was a complete mess so you really need the support pack to install it for older models (first gen).

    • Thresher
    • 7 years ago

    I have a stupid question. I should know this, but I don’t.

    One of the things that irritates me about my SoundBlaster Recon3d is that it doesn’t actually send 5.1 to my receiver over optical unless I switch on the DTS decoder and watch a movie. So basically I paid for a 5.1 card that doesn’t do 5.1 95% of the time.

    Do these cards code 5.1 on the fly?

    If I want true 5.1 while playing a game, I’d have to find a receiver that still has analog 5.1 inputs, which are as rare as hen’s teeth these days.

      • Deanjo
      • 7 years ago

      The Xonar DSX does exactly what you want it to do. I takes the independent channels and converts it into a DTS stream with it’s DTS Interactive encoder on the fly.

      Your Recon3D should also do this except it encodes it to a Dolby Digital Live instead of DTS. You may have to enable the encoder in your Recon3D’s control panel.

      • Bensam123
      • 7 years ago

      You have to enable DTS or DDL in the control panel. Creative cards only output PCM (2.0) unless you have DDL or DTS enabled in the settings via the toggle.

      But Creative cards as well as Xonar cards do DDL and DTS for 5.1 over digital, you just have to enable it.

    • ronch
    • 7 years ago

    Geoff, what say a review of today’s popular audio codecs pitted against sound cards from Asus, Creative, Auzentech, etc., as well as cards using VIA codecs/audio controllers (i.e. Tremor), etc.? Most folks don’t give a hoot about sound quality these days, but there are still some of us here who are very interested in a comparo.

    • ludi
    • 7 years ago

    What is going on in the THD+Noise graphs, that produces that massive 1kHz spike?

      • pedro
      • 7 years ago

      That’s the tone that generates the harmonies that are being tested for – i.e. the test software produces the spike.

        • ludi
        • 7 years ago

        Ah, okay, thanks.

        Note to TR: I know TR wasn’t intending to review RMAA but for those of us who don’t use those sorts of tools daily, it would be nice to have better descriptions of what the graphs mean.

    • syndicatedragon
    • 7 years ago

    I wonder if they ever fixed their EAX emulation so it doesn’t crash all the time.

    • shakyone
    • 7 years ago

    Thanks for this review gents, I have been hoping for a review of either one of these cards since they were announced in the spring, imagine how exciting it is to see you do them both, and compare them to Onboard Audio and the DX! It made my day! Those were exactly the comparisons I hoped for.

    Keep up the great work!

    Shakyone

    • grantmeaname
    • 7 years ago

    Shocking realization of the moment: these sound cards use as much power as ultrabooks.

    What is this I don’t even.

    • grantmeaname
    • 7 years ago

    Oh cool, you guys are posting over at Ars Technica again. Are you pretty happy with that arrangement? It seems like a serious boost to the reader numbers if much of the crowd doesn’t overlap.

      • tanker27
      • 7 years ago

      I actually read Ars daily just like TR. But I would assume I am in the minority.

        • GodsMadClown
        • 7 years ago

        They are the only two tech sites I read.

    • Bensam123
    • 7 years ago

    I’m going to be a hard ass here and question to overall generalizeability and scope of this article.

    The only sound solutions you guys are reviewing are Asus cards (once again). How can you make a objective review of these cards without taking into account other solutions? The pickings are spare, but there ARE other solutions out there that utilize different chips.

    Not only are all these cards made by Asus, but they all use the same type and version of the C-Media chip. The only real thing you guys are testing are the DACs, besides that it’s a complete wash. There is no technological difference between the chips besides some small superficial qualities that still don’t matter because you have nothing else to compare those too.

    For instance HT-Omega makes cards based off a different version of the C-Media chip. They seem quite popular too, so it’s a good idea to add one or two of those in.

    Creative also makes two different cards. I’ve been talking about them for a bit because they do STILL exist. The X-Fi Titanium HD which is the only gen 3 X-Fi card Creative has made and the last of the line for the X-Fi lineup and the Recon3D other people are mentioning. BOTH would represent a bigger change in the sound card scene then comparing yet another revision of the Xonar lineup STILL based off the same chip you guys did a review on over countless years.

    This aside, you guys should consider testing the DDL or DTS realtime encoding for latency between the digital outputs and the analog outputs. Simply by having a 5.1 digital system plugged in and wearing a pair of headphones on one ear. I noticed there is encoding lag while using the Titanium HD and it seems to be fairly common (even among Xonar cards).

      • Deanjo
      • 7 years ago

      [quote<]For instance HT-Omega makes cards based off a different version of the C-Media chip. They seem quite popular too, so it's a good idea to add one or two of those in.[/quote<] HT-Omega's current line use the same CMI-8788. They use however different DAC's and opamps. Same goes with the Auzentech X-Meridian.

        • Bensam123
        • 7 years ago

        Well I stand corrected, but definitely more of a differentiation then the same card lineup made by the same manufacturer using the same chip.

          • cynan
          • 7 years ago

          Exactly. There is a lot more to how a sound card actually sounds than which audio processor it uses. The audio processor limits the feature set and if it does what it’s supposed to do, the sound quality is dictated more by the DACs, Op Amps, and perhaps most important of all, quality and design of the power delivery circuitry.

          When you get into high end external DACs, for example, you can find implementations that utilize the exact same DAC chips that are $1,000s apart. Arguments of snake oil aside, the major differences between these are the components and design of the DC delivery stages, and to a lesser degree the analog output stages.

          While I would like to see more brands of sound cards reviewed at TR, I do agree with Dissonance that there’s not a lot out there at the $50 price point, which was the focus of the article. Here’s hoping for a higher end ($100-$200) sound card comparison in the future that features more brands.

            • Bensam123
            • 7 years ago

            Sure, but chipsets determine what’s being sent to those components. It all matters, but I’d most definitely say a chipset changes more unless you start talking about ultra crappy components.

            How things are implemented is all part of the equation and something that isn’t being taken into account here. I’m using a Xonar DX right now and I would say Creative drivers and usability is quite a bit higher. That’s not even discussed because these are cards from the same manufacturer with only different DACs.

            Too many people obsess over the absolute audio quality, but don’t compare the rest.

      • Bensam123
      • 7 years ago

      This really could qualify as a very large bias as well. Although it’s probably not intentional.

      • Dissonance
      • 7 years ago

      We’ve tried to get in touch with someone at HT Omega several times now but haven’t gotten a response. None of their offerings really fit the scope of this article, though. Most of the cards they have selling at Newegg are in the $200 range. There’s an $80 model, but it’s PCI only. I’m not sure testing PCI peripherals is a good use of our time.

      Creative has been similarly silent, and the Recon3D costs twice what you’ll pay for either of the Xonars we reviewed. Again, not that comparable. But we may buy the new Sound Blaster just to see what it’s like. I’m curious, but as usual, there are many things we’d like to cover and only so much time.

        • Bensam123
        • 7 years ago

        Aye… I can understand categorizing different cards at different price points, but the market is so sparse there isn’t a whole lot to compare at any of the price points if you start excluding stuff. You could add them to the review and then weight them according to their price, you guys have done it before. Stating why or why not you guys would believe the card to be worth paying the extra for.

        I just got my Xonar DX in today and I’m really up in the air about it. The clarity of sound is there, but the actual sound itself almost seems lethargic and lifeless compared to the Titanium HD for instance. I can echo Cyrils claim about the sound causing fatigue. I don’t know what it is, but it feels like it’s missing something.

        I know it’s not my money, but you guys really should spend a bit for the sake of completeness on this. You could even do the ghetto thing and use them then return them after writing the review. >>

        • Deanjo
        • 7 years ago

        Have you tried Azuentech?

          • Airmantharp
          • 7 years ago

          Auzentech barely exists- they’re more of a boutique shop than a card maker. IE, find a retailer that carries their entire current product line, besides their own site.

            • Bensam123
            • 7 years ago

            Yet, they still exist. I think this has something to do with X-Fis going out of flavor more then the company failing. Perhaps more to do with Creative axing the supply of X-Fi related chips. You can’t find X-Fi products besides the Titanium HD in stock anywhere. They used to be available at all the major retailers in the US, check their availability site.

            They were also on Amazon and Newegg.

            • Airmantharp
            • 7 years ago

            Sure, but Auzentech’s have been difficult to find outside of their website for quite some time. It’s just an observation, but the company doesn’t seem to be in the same class as even HT-Omega, even if their hardware is good.

            • Bensam123
            • 7 years ago

            You sure? Have you tried out a Auzentech card?

            Part of the reason I made my whole spiel about the lack of diversity is because when cards aren’t tested and quantified people start generating subjective biases asserting how much better one is then the other.

            I’m personally going through this right now, where I bought Xonar DX hearing how awesome they are only to find out it’s inferior to the Titanium HD I had bought on a multitude of levels including drivers. I would say Asus drivers are WORSE then Creatives. As Creative only has issues with the install and uninstall (when it goes smoothly they don’t), but Asus has huge usability issues. In addition to being a pita to find everything you’re looking for.

            • l33t-g4m3r
            • 7 years ago

            I don’t see what the problem is there, as that may simply mean Auzentech wants to skip the middleman fees. I bought my Prelude through their site before it was available anywhere else. I haven’t had any issues ordering through them, and you might even get better support by doing so.

            • Airmantharp
            • 7 years ago

            Man I’d love to believe that is the case.

            Give me an X-Fi with a customized version of Creative’s now very nice drivers with real DACs and a headphone amp, and I’m in heaven!

            By the way, I do have a USB Xonar U3, and I can comment that Asus’ drivers are quite painful. Just try and get DDL working without digging through forums, I dare you!

            • Bensam123
            • 7 years ago

            That would be the Titanium HD I’ve been talking about, but which TR hasn’t tried out yet. It has nice DACs, a headphone amp, and good drivers (although I’m sure Creative will fuddle them up in the future). The HD isn’t the same thing as the Titanium that people have had before.

            It doesn’t have 5.1 output though unless you use the optical out.

            • Ifalna
            • 7 years ago

            Titanium HD. I have one. It uses Burr Browns, and drives my DT880 (250 Ohms) with no problems. If you use 600 Ohms Headphones or an analog surround set, the card is not for you, b/c it only outputs stereo and supports max. 300Ohms. (You can have surround but only via optical out)

            @bensam: Titanium HD has NO Headphone amp. At least not a second stage amp like the Asus card. It is rated up to 300 Ohms though and my Beyers do get way too loud to be healthy for long time exposure. Typically I run them @ 50%. 😉

            • Bensam123
            • 7 years ago

            Yeah, more reading states it only can power up to 300 ohms and doesn’t have a dedicated amp…

            I’m sure you realize you don’t do @ with threaded posts, you click my post and click reply.

            • Ifalna
            • 7 years ago

            I do, my dear, but I wanted to address two groups in one post. 😉

            • Airmantharp
            • 7 years ago

            That’s what I’m thinking-

            and I think that the term ‘headphone amp’ isn’t really appropriate anymore. The question isn’t what’s on the card, but how well it drives cans with various impedance ratings.

            • Bensam123
            • 7 years ago

            That was my initial impression after I heard that there wasn’t one. Basically how much power does it need to provide before it’s considered a amp?

            • Airmantharp
            • 7 years ago

            No idea. The HD looks like it provides plenty of power for most cans without one.

            • Deanjo
            • 7 years ago

            I can find Auzentech cards find here locally but not one HT-Omega.

        • JohnC
        • 7 years ago

        Recon3D doesn’t really cost “twice what you’ll pay for either of the Xonars”, unless you’re willing to needlessly waste your $$$ on Newegg 😉 Right now it’s $80 for a new card at Amazon, with free shipping. I understand that you’re sponsored by Newegg and not by Amazon, but that doesn’t mean the other readers are all shopping only at Newegg 😉

          • Meadows
          • 7 years ago

          $80 is a fortune compared to the Xonars.

            • Airmantharp
            • 7 years ago

            Yup, and I wonder if it’d do any better at all with a set of nice cans and BF3 as a game sound benchmark.

            • JohnC
            • 7 years ago

            I know that, you silly goose, but it’s still NOT “twice what you’ll pay for either of the Xonars” 😉

      • Bensam123
      • 7 years ago

      Upon further testing with my Xonar DX it’s impossible to test DDL encoder latency in the way I mentioned as you can’t have the DDL encoder enabled at the same time as headphones.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 7 years ago

    Hearing a 150ms or 200ms input delay is not difficult at all. The difference between them is also fairly noticeable. On the other hand, you should be using a device with ASIO drivers with compatible software (or as a last result, ASIO4All) or direct monitoring if you need low-latency input.

      • deadphilosophy
      • 7 years ago

      There are actually low latency drivers available–just not officially from asus. They are called Asus Unified Drivers (http://brainbit.wordpress.com/2010/07/19/asus-xonar-unified-drivers/). I would be interested in seeing how these drivers benchmarked compared to Asus’s official drivers.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 7 years ago

        Different kind of latency. DPC latency is bad, for sure, though.

        • tanker27
        • 7 years ago

        OMG! Thank you Thank you Thank you.

        I never knew these existed and I just resigned myself to using the wonky release drivers for my Xonar DX.

        Now that I have the low latency ones installed its like a brand new sound card! No more weird anomalies while using the headset!

        • tanker27
        • 7 years ago

        Why do soundcard manufacturers always seem to have the crappiest drivers. What is so hard about just rebranding the chip manufacterers stuff? Creative suffers/d from this for a long time and its the reason I swore off them. they never played nicely back in the WIN 95-2000 days.

          • BobbinThreadbare
          • 7 years ago

          *puts on conspiracy hat*

          Creative intentionally made bad drivers so they could slowly fix problems as they released new products, getting people to buy the new card which promised fixes for things that could have been fixed in software.

            • UberGerbil
            • 7 years ago

            Hanlon’s Razor argues against that, and Creative’s history suggests it fits them very well.

    • anotherengineer
    • 7 years ago

    The 60 Hz spike in the intermodulation distortion graph, is that due to the 60 Hz power line frequency or is that unrelated?

      • sluggo
      • 7 years ago

      There are a couple of methods for testing IM distortion in the audio band. This one looks for modulation components about 7k when 60hz and 7khz are reproduced simultaneously. The spikes at 60hz and 7khz are part of the test.

    • ronch
    • 7 years ago

    I think the Sound Blaster Recon3D PCIe should have been included in this test. Creative may not be as relevant today as it once was, but I think many still consider them to be the benchmark. I’m the kind of guy who appreciates nice sound cards such as my current X-Fi Titanium PCIe as well as my motherboards integrated Realtek ALC889 audio, which boasts a 108dB DAC SNR, or my previous motherboard’s IDT 92HD206. The IDT was admittedly not very good, but it had acceptable audio quality for the money. I’m sure it’s good enough for 99% of users.

    I usually stick with my Realtek ALC889 or the IDT92HD206 (I pull out my X-Fi once in a while) ever since I got the X-Fi 3.5 years ago, partly because I appreciate integrated audio more (for what I paid for it) and partly because I want to preserve my X-Fi. But as much as I want integrated audio to continue improving, I also want good sound cards such as these two reviewed here to keep coming out. I also hope that the other codec manufacturers step up their game because Realtek seems to dominate the DIY motherboard scene. More options is always a great thing.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 7 years ago

      A card that costs more than 2x as much would be embarrassed to show up. :p

        • ronch
        • 7 years ago

        Well, that would be the case only if it doesn’t deliver the performance people expect for the price.

          • Kurotetsu
          • 7 years ago

          Based on the reviews of it, like this one for example:

          [url<]http://hardforum.com/showthread.php?t=1690153[/url<] It doesn't. Sound quality-wise it appears to be inferior to the X-Fi Titaniums (HD and non-HD). Though, due to its focus as a gaming audio solution, that probably isn't a weakness.

            • Kaleid
            • 7 years ago

            Gaming isn’t a weakness with the (real) X-fi cards so I don’t get what Creative really are doing.

            Edit: Saw the RMAA graphs, the frequency response is really bad, makes the whole thing nothing worth to buy.

            Sigh, what are they doing?

            Of course it still beats the onboard soundcard… but still.

        • can-a-tuna
        • 7 years ago

        My Recon3d cost me 70€. Those Xonars on the shelf would have cost around 50-60€. Choice between those was pretty clear to me.

          • ronch
          • 7 years ago

          [quote<]Choice between those was pretty clear to me.[/quote<] Just curious, can-a-tuna.. Why did you get the Recon3D? Many reviews out there are saying Creative took a step back with the Recon3D and Sound Core3D. Did you buy the Recon3D to replace another sound card? If so, how does the Recon3D compare to it? Regardless of the reviews I'm still interested in how the Recon3D does.

            • Airmantharp
            • 7 years ago

            Most reviews show it to be a step back across the board. Right now it just looks like Creative is cheapening out by putting out a lower quality product that costs less to produce.

            I’m really interested in the difference in game sound quality between Creative’s gaming cards and pretty much anything else with games like BF3 that do their own positional audio and ‘headphone’ modes.

            • Bensam123
            • 7 years ago

            Which sorta makes you question what baseline people are using if it’s ‘cheaper’ then what they did with the X-Fi, but still on par with C-Media and/or Realtek. Most people including TR seem to think Xonars are superior across the board (which I now know simply isn’t the case).

            • Airmantharp
            • 7 years ago

            I guess it’s a ‘right tool for the job’ sort of thing.

            I wouldn’t go near the Xonar with baked-in stuff that messes with your sound. If I need to change the sound, I’ll EQ it. The other one though looks fine, but with more limited (but undefined either way) headphone support.

            The X-Fi’s and the HD look pretty good usually, as they’re decent sound cards (as anything else), have decent headphone amplification, great drivers, great compatibility, and lists of features that are useful and easy to use. Try getting DD/DTS encoding working on a Xonar and see what I mean :).

            Still, I want to know how these cards sound- and how well they drive real headphones. Like I’ve said before, there’s very little reason to get analog 7.1 out on the desktop, and if you’re not getting some real cans, you’d might as well be getting a USB headset. No reason to review sound cards for anything else.

            • Bensam123
            • 7 years ago

            I thought I outlined a few… All of the sound cards I’ve tried don’t have DDL 7.1 support over digital (Asus or Creative). They seem to suffer from encoder latency as well which throws off the sound in games. And digital bypasses all the reasons you’d want to buy a good sound card in the first place except for the chip. You’d be pretty much in the same boat using digital off your on board.

            I do have a 7.1 surround sound setup for my desktop and I know I’m not the only one that does. I use a receiver simply as a amp for the signal coming from the analog ports from my sound card.

            I don’t believe you need to spend $200+ on a headset to make use of a good sound card. Even if you’re unable to tell the difference between the audio hardware in terms of sound quality (such as SNR), how the chip interprets the audio signal is very important for things like surround sound (for instance virtualized surround sound on a Xonar sucks compared to it on X-Fis). Ease of use also factors into this if you have to fiddle with any of the features.

            • Airmantharp
            • 7 years ago

            Use HDMI? Somehow this works well, and I’m not sure why I didn’t try it sooner. I let the receiver spread any stereo signal across the eight channels, but games (at least BF3) can output a native 7.1, which goes directly to the receiver’s DACs. Only issue is the lag the receiver may add, and that you’re limited to 1080p.

            You’re also not going to get 7.1 over a digital audio connection, because such an encoding standard doesn’t exist :).

            I’m kind of interested now in the ability to use HDMI only as an audio out…

            • JohnC
            • 7 years ago

            Well, Recon3D is a step back, but I’m not sure how significant it is for the majority of customers, especially the ones who only use headphones or stereo speakers… The only real drawback I see is the lesser quality DACs with only 102dB SNR and the lack of better version of Recon3D APU with better DACs. Other than this – yea, they removed hardware acceleration for EAX/DS3D from new APU, but it doesn’t really matter with modern games and modern Windows OSes. Yes, they also removed CMSS-3D, but they have replaced it with THX TruStudio Pro modes, which work in similar way and are still hardware-accelerated (according to Creative) and are preferred by some users (like the one here: [url<]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiVbq0P00As).[/url<]

      • Kaleid
      • 7 years ago

      Forget Recon3d

      [url<]http://www.creative.com/corporate/pressroom/releases/welcome.asp?pid=13285[/url<]

        • JohnC
        • 7 years ago

        Those are the same cards as Recon3D, only with external microphones, extra software features for those mics and with better DACs (I’m sure early Recon3D adopters who now have inferior DACs will be really “grateful” that Creative screwed them).

          • Kaleid
          • 7 years ago

          Recon3d is most likely just for games. Not so with Z, which will replace Titanium etc..

        • Airmantharp
        • 7 years ago

        I love the mic idea- that’s worth quite a bit in my book, most mics suck one way or another. Best one I’ve used has been on a notebook surprisingly.

        Just give me the one with a 1/4″/6.3mm headphone jack and the external mic, and I’m golden. I’ve gone on to use HDMI -> receiver for anything more.

    • Chrispy_
    • 7 years ago

    How much control do these things offer over their sound enhancements.

    I will leak profanity about creative drivers, but their x-fi had two nice [b<][u<]sliders[/u<][/b<] that I really miss on integrated codecs: X-fi crystallizer - tweaking bass/treble to artificially add punch and clarity. X-fi CMSS 3D - fake surround, was reasonably convincing and great for headphones.

      • Kaleid
      • 7 years ago

      Crystalizer is the only thing I never use, it adds distorsion to the signal.

      This test should have included at least one Creative card too.

      As it is now I’ll still stick with my extrememusic. Served me very well and for old games EAX is top-notch.

      • Ifalna
      • 7 years ago

      Well with low quality Headphones Crystallizer is great. But if you get some good expensive ones.. it’ll fry your ears. I experienced physical pain for two days b/c I forgot to disable that sucker when I got my new (not yet burned in, treble is VERY harsh then) DT 880… :X

    • LauRoman
    • 7 years ago

    How do any of the two cards fair with autoswitching the output when something is plugged in the frontpanel headphone slot. I had a regular PCI DG but couldn’t make it autoswitch back to speakers. It always defaulted to headphones.

    • can-a-tuna
    • 7 years ago

    No Recon3d in tests? That would have been interesting.

      • stupido
      • 7 years ago

      +1

        • Kaleid
        • 7 years ago

        Use the thumbs up stupido.

          • Mourmain
          • 7 years ago

          +1

      • Bensam123
      • 7 years ago

      Aye…

      • My Johnson
      • 7 years ago

      Yes, it would have. I purchased it because it’s native PCIe and had drivers that would not have originated during the XP era.

      Were my concerns unfounded? I would have happily purchased a cheaper card, but reviews on Newegg and Amazon kept complaining about driver issues with the Asus cards.

        • Bauxite
        • 7 years ago

        To avoid supposed driver problems you went with a [i<]creative[/i<] card? What has the world come to...

    • Ashbringer
    • 7 years ago

    Just recently got my hands on the Asus Xonar DS and I love it. Though very expensive for what seems to be ancient technology to me, but it’s this or a Creative card.

    The problem with these Xonar cards has always been the drivers. You will always want to install the Uni Xonar drivers, as someone took the time to correct the drivers and update them. These are really just Cmedia sound cards anyway.

    You won’t complain about the sound quality, as it is one of the best sounding sound cards. I had to get this because the motherboard I bought came with a crap Realtek chip, which was noticeably worse then my previous motherboard, which came with a Via Vinyl sound chip. Which was really nice and had Q Sound.

    I’m just surprised that digital 5.1 sound isn’t standard on all sound cards. The DDL or DTS feature comes with a hefty price tag, for something that is really just compressed audio. Unless you have to hook it up digital, the analog will always sound better on these sound cards.

    It’s really a shame that 10 years ago we had much better DDL sound from Sound Storm, which was a motherboard for gods sake. Even if you liked the compressed audio from these new sound cards, you’d have to deal with the latency which they also produce, and is totally unavoidable.

    • donkeycrock
    • 7 years ago

    It’s finally time for me to upgrade my home theater sound card. I have been using on-board from an old Abit motherboard(surreal audio).
    I currently have a 2.1 LG sound bar(which are popular for apartment dwellers). I use the S/PDIF connector on it.
    What sound card would you recommend overall? And is S/PDIF really that great? Would it be better to use analog, don’t you get more control with it from the sound card?

      • gigafinger
      • 7 years ago

      The amplifier decodes the S/PDIF (or TOSLINK) signal, not the motherboard/soundcard. I doubt a sound card upgrade will sound any better using S/PDIF. If you have a decent receiver, the digital input is the way to go.

      • ludi
      • 7 years ago

      As gigafinger says, you are taking a digital PCM signal from the system and are entirely at the mercy of the DAC in your soundbar. If you feel the soundbar is failing to deliver, invest in a better soundbar.

        • Zoomer
        • 7 years ago

        Better yet, buy real speakers.

    • pedro
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]To my ears, [i<]Hey Sexy[/i<] was "more gangsta" on the DSX than on the DGX.[/quote<] I lol'd.

    • Duck
    • 7 years ago

    Meh. All I really look for is a 5.1 soundcard with a dolby headphone option, a stereo output port and a spdif output port. Keep it simples.

    I guess the xonar u3 is best. I was expecting it to be in this TR review for comparison. I’m not quite sure how latency and CPU load is affected compared to the PCIe cards. I’m not even sure if there are any USB alternatives to the u3…

      • MadManOriginal
      • 7 years ago

      There are lots and lots of USB soundcards/headamps, they are just mostly not made by computer accessory name brands.

        • Duck
        • 7 years ago

        But they probably are not the ‘fake’ 5.1 variety with dolby headphone.

      • Airmantharp
      • 7 years ago

      Hell, I just yanked a U3 out of my laptop- but I also just realized (don’t laugh) that I can get 7.1 PCM straight through HDMI. You want?

        • DeadOfKnight
        • 7 years ago

        I knew nothing about HDMI carrying the audio signal until I experimented with my PS3 and my monitor’s audio output jack. Dell really does cover all the bases for connectivity with their Ultrasharp line of monitors.

        • Duck
        • 7 years ago

        Yes 😛

    • DancinJack
    • 7 years ago

    The first thing everyone should do after installing a Xonar sound card is go to this site, download and install the driver, and never ever ever use the Asus driver.

    [url<]http://brainbit.wordpress.com/category/uni-xonar/[/url<]

      • I.S.T.
      • 7 years ago

      The last ones screwed up my freaking line in and mic input, I might have to go to the official asus ones just for that reason alone.

      In short: I cannot mute either. The only way to shut off my mic/line in is by setting it to front panel mic(I do not have a front panel microphone or even have the header hooked up).

      • anotherengineer
      • 7 years ago

      Or goto cmedia’s site and get them from there.

    • Airmantharp
    • 7 years ago

    Quick question- what speakers and cans did you use for the review?

      • Dissonance
      • 7 years ago

      We used Sennheiser HD 555 headphones for all our testing, plus a little time with an old pair of Abit iDome speakers.

        • Airmantharp
        • 7 years ago

        Thanks! I’m loving my HD555’s myself, but I’ve been wondering if my X-Fi really makes full use of them; still, it beat the hell out of the HD-whatever crab audio.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 7 years ago

        So the headphone amp on the DGX didn’t seem to make much of a difference ? They aren’t super-high impedance at 120 ohm but aren’t low 30-40 ohm either so I would have thought the headphone amp might help a bit.

          • Dissonance
          • 7 years ago

          Changing the headphone amp setting did alter the DGX’s sound. It probably helped, but keep in mind that the amp was working with a massaged signal passed through a different chain of chips than on the DSX.

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