Friday, April 22, 2011

Asus Xonar Essence STX Sound Card and Headphone Amp Review

When it comes to audio, it is easy to forget just how good audio can be with your computer. After all, computers can have a lot of processing power. A majority of consumers use the built-in audio connections that are on the motherboard. But if you want really good sound, you need a separate sound card. Sound cards also have many different ranges in price and quality. But if you want one of the best, you may need to look at Asus.

Up for review today is the Asus Xonar Essence STX Sound Card and Headphone Amp. It is a dedicated sound card and headphone amp. From the attention to detail in the packaging, I could tell it was a special card. I liked the matte black finish of the packaging. Opening the cover reveals a clear plastic cover that shows off the card. On the back of the cover is a picture of the card and descriptions of its components and features. Opening the box revealed the card, and it's accessories that included two small posters, a user manual, gold plated 1/4" headphone adapter, RCA to 3.5 mm adapter, and a drivers CD.

It's features and specs include:
Audio Performance Output Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A-Weighted):
124dB for Front-out,117dB for Headphone-out (600ohms) dB
Input Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A-Weighted): 118 dB
Output THD+N at 1kHz: 0.0003% (-110dB) for Front-out, 0.001% (-100dB) for Headphone-out
Input THD+N at 1kHz: 0.0002% (-113dB) for Line-in
Frequency Response (-3dB, 24-bit/192kHz input): <10Hz to 90KHz
Output/Input Full-Scale Voltage : 2 Vrms (5.65 Vp-p)
Bus Compatibility PCI Express:
-PCI Express Rev. specification compatible
-Compatible with X1, X4, X8, X16 PCI Express slots
Main Chipset Audio Processor:
ASUS AV100 High-Definition Sound Processor (Max. 192KHz/24bit)
24-bit D-A Converter of Digital Sources:
Texas Instruments PCM1792A*1 for Front-Out (127dB SNR, Max. 192kHz/24bit)
24-bit A-D Converter for Analog Inputs:
Cirrus-Logic CS5381* 1 (120dB SNR, Max. 192kHz/24bit)
High Fidelity Headphone Amplifier:
Texas Instruments 6120A2*1 (120dB SNR, 100dB THD+N @ Vcc±12V, RL=600Ω, f=1kHz)
Sample Rate and Resolution Analog Playback Sample Rate and Resolution:
44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @ 16/24bit
Analog Recording Sample Rate and Resolution:
44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @ 16/24bit
S/PDIF Digital Output:
44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @ 16/24bit, Dolby Digital
ASIO 2.0 Driver Support:
Supports 44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @16/24bit with very low latency
I/O Ports Analog Output Jack:
RCA jack *2 (Front R / Front L), 6.30mm jack*1 (Headphone out)
Analog Input Jack:
6.30mm jack *1 (Shared by Line-In/Mic-In)
Other line-level analog input (for CD-IN/TV Tuner):
Aux-In (4-pin header on the card)
Digital S/PDIF Output:
High-bandwidth Coaxial/TOS-Link combo port supports 192KHz/24bit
Front-Panel Header:
Shared by Headphone out / 2 channels out /
Microphone in
S/PDIF Header:
Connects to compatible graphic cards for HDMI output
Driver Features Operation System:
Windows 7/Vista/XP/MCE2005
Dolby® Technologies:
Dolby® Digital Live
Dolby Digital Live encodes any audio signal on PC in real-time to Dolby Digital (AC3) 5.1 surround sounds to your home theater environment through one single S/PDIF connection
Dolby® Headphone
Dolby Headphone technology allows users to listen to music, watch movies, or play games with the dramatic 5.1-channel surround or realistic 3D spacious effects through any set of stereo headphones.
Dolby® Virtual Speaker
Dolby Virtual Speaker technology simulates a highly realistic 5.1-speaker surround sound listening environment from as few as two speakers.
Dolby® Pro-Logic II
Dolby Pro-Logic II is the well-known technology to process any native stereo or 5.1-channel audio into up to 6.1 channel output, creating a seamless, natural surround soundfield.
Smart Volume Normalizer™:
Smart Volume Normalizer™
Normalizes the volume of all audio sources into a constant level and also enhances your 3D sound listening range and advantages in gaming
Xear 3D™ Virtual Speaker Shifter:
Virtual 7.1 speaker positioning
Magic Voice™:
Xonar Essence STX provides VocalFX, the latest vocal effect technologies for gaming and VoIP, including: -VoiceEX: produces vivid environmental reverberation for your voice in EAX games -ChatEX: emulates different background environment effects when you chat online -Magic Voice: changes your voice pitch to different types (Monster/Cartoon…) for disguising your real voice or just for fun in online chatting
Karaoke Functions:
Music Key-Shifting and Microphone Echo effects like professional Karaoke machine
Professional Bass Management/Enhancement system
3D Sound Engines/APIs:
Vista: DirectSound3D® GX 2.5, DirectSound® HW, DirectSound SW, A3D®1.0, OpenAL generic modes, 128 3D sounds processing capability
XP: DirectSound2.5 SW, A3D®1.0, OpenAL generic modes, 128 3D sounds processing capability Bundled Software Utility
Accessories 1 x 3.5mm-to-RCA adaptor cable (8ch)
1 x S/PDIF optical adaptors
1 x 6.3mm to 3.5mm stereo adapter
Size (Width x Height) 111.15 x 168.26mm

Quality all around was top notch. All of the connections are gold plated. Asus even used Nichicon "Fine Gold" professional audio caps. The use of Burr-Brown PCM 1992 A DAC's was great, as they yield a phenomenal 127 db signal-to-noise ratio. I also liked the brushed black aluminum shroud that covered half of the PCB. And the use of swappable OPA sockets in a sound card to custom tailor your sound is unheard of. This is a sound card that would satisfy the most demanding audiophile.

When it came to the listening test, the Asus Xonar Essence STX sound card really came through. It really was distortion free. No Doubt-Hella Good: bass beats were not only nice and tight, but also had good extension and authority. The percussion was very dynamic in the cymbals. The vocals were smooth and not edgy. Don't Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down - had a big soundstage with clean vocals that had great timbre. The piano was very natural sounding. The resolution was excellent, and the sound was quite transparent. Imaging was also excellent. Why are People Like That - vocals were smooth with great details. The harmonica solo was really dynamic, crisp and clean, and gave goosebumps! The drums were light with no noticeable pitch decay. Imaging again was excellent, as was the soundstage.

And when compared to the audio built into the motherboard, there really was not much to compare. The Asus Xonar Essence STX threw a much bigger and deeper soundstage. Imaging was much better, as was the detail and resolution. The sound was also much cleaner with no discernible distortion. The Asus was just in a whole other league, which is what you would expect for a stereo soundcard with an MSRP of $200. And it delivered in spades.

The software that was included - Xonar Audio Center, was very simple to figure out. I liked the spectrum analyzer and EQ presets, such as Rock, Dance, Jazz, Classic, Rap, Metal, etc. There are also DSP's for Movie, Music, Game, and HiFi. You can also change the sampling rate from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. The 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter was fun to play with, as well as the Dolby Virtual Speaker. There really is a lot of tweaking that can be done.

When it comes to sound cards, there are a lot of options. If you went the best sound for your computer, that long list is practically non existent with a signal to make ratio of 124 dB, and 0.0003% distortion, this card packs a huge punch with it's delicious annual treat. Their inspiration came from the 4000 year old Chime of Tiger, and they did a great job. Based on it's performance, quality, and features, it has earned our Editor's Choice Award. For more info and complete specs, check out their website at