|by Robscix | December 23, 2008|
ASUS Xonar Essence STX Sneak Peak Part II
Exclusive: ASUS XONAR Essence STX Sneak Peak Part II
TechWiki Info: ASUS Xonar Essence STX
Previews are dangerous things. As such we have been walking a very fine line with this preview as we want to show those interested what they have to look forward to without letting to much out before the official review of the production model.
Remeber that in the original Essence STX Sneak Peak , we mentioned that there wasn't a fully functioning driver for the card? Well, ASUS sent a set of Beta drivers giving all the functions this card has to offer for us to test out and our Audio Lab has been quite impressed with what we have heard up to this point. As was stated in the first part of this preview, the final production model may vary so keep this in mind.
Xonar Essence STX Drivers
An aspect of the Xonar drivers which we have always appreciated is that all Xonar models use the same drivers. This means they are all laid out the same and basic features, signal mixers and routines are located in the same areas and panes within the drivers. The only real variations are for features unique to the particular card. For instance, this card has a headphone amplifier with output gain values available through driver settings so this is the only section that will vary from the drivers from say a D2 or DX.
We enabled all the features on the card to show you the layout and position of each routine. Dolby Headphone is also included with this card which is a great addition considering the market the Essence is targeted towards. During testing we noticed the DH routine sounds quite good for Movies and gaming and allows three settings for virtual room sizes: (DH-1) Reference Room, (DH-2) Livlier Room and (DH-3)Larger Room.
The above picture shows the control panel for the gain setting available and the three settings available for various headphone impedances. Given this wide gain range there should be no issue driving any commonly available headphones that require an external amplifier. The selectable gain ranges consist of:
Preliminary Listening Tests
We have been using a set of Sennheiser HD-595’s and a newly acquired set of Beats by Dr. Dre from Monster. Both of these sets have given me a great impression of the overall sound quality available from the Xonar Essence STX soundcard. This card has a very open, clear sound quality with balanced bass region and smooth midrange without any harshness. It is quite hard to describe sound quality using words but let’s just say even in its early form, the Essence sounds phenomenal and surpasses any other card in the Xonar line up.
We would also go as far to say that this card may take the crown for the stereo analog throne among PC soundcards. It truly has spectacular sound quality tested through our on hand headphones. We tested this card using:Blues: Robert Johnson- The Complete Recordings
Rock: AC/DC - Black Ice
Metal: Metallica- Master of Puppets
Rap/Hip hop: Obie Trice Cheers
The Essence has a great “analog tube” flavor, offering warmth and wide sound staging missing from many other soundcards. There wasn’t a hint of distortion or noise and the Essence offers excellent separation in the playback without muddiness or smearing in any frequency range. The bass range was well defined without tubbiness; the mid ranges were full without being scratchy or harsh. The higher ranges were bright and “sparkly” without being piercing or fatiguing to the ears. We also noticed how "silent" the card is when the music level goes down there is also very noticable "space" between insturments and vocals. We look forward to more testing with some newer playback gear which we are having brought in yet. We are also considering listening tests using a few higher quality opamp modules such as the OPA627, OPA 637, AD8620 and a few other special units.
RMAA Measurment Tests
RMAA has become a bit of a standard for reviews and this is both good and bad.
Many don’t know how to understand the measurements and have trouble making heads or tails of the graphs when included in reviews. We will show you our personal measurements of this card with the summary of measurements below.
The Xonar Essence card boasts 124dB SNR and 0.0003 THD% in the 24/96 range so what is going on here?
Well, with this card in loopback mode; you are seeing results of both the playback and recording sections summed for any distortion measurements. Furthermore, in loopback RMAA can illustrate the results of the playback section only insofar as they fall within the specifications of the (Recording) ADC chip. Nonetheless these results are still excellent across the board but you need to understand you are only seeing a part of what this card can offer and there is an influence from the recording circuitry.
There are Audio Precision tests for this card which show what the card is capable of when measured using a high end audio analyzer. We have wanted one of those audio analyzers that the ASUS labs have for testing their cards but the $27,000 price tag keeps it just out of our reach.
This card is one of the best we have tested in our labs and when you play back well known songs you hear new details and extensions that were unavailable especially with a set of quality headphones.
The Audio Lab is hoping to get a full production version prior to the holidays so you audio fans know what to ask Santa for in your stockings! Please note there is also a version being released for normal PCI slots known as the Xonar Essence ST. If you are a fan of headphone or stereo playback this card should definitely be on your list of audio hardware to keep a close eye on. Stay tuned for the full review.
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