A long while ago when PCs were still very much something that was relegated to offices, they were able to produce a beep and that was the limit of the aural experience.
Eventually companies such as Turtle Beach and SoundBlaster gave us cards that could produce MIDI notes and therefore allowed Commander Keen to seem like the most exciting game around.
It was about this point that CDs were developed and the futurists were proclaiming that personal computers would quickly be an integral part of everyones home. Of course anyone still waiting for their 'silver space-suit' and 'meal in a pill' to arrive know how futurists don't always get things exactly spot on.
However in the last few years the multi-media capabilities of PCs, coupled to some truly amazing quality soundcards has meant that many of us have a computer in the main family room now.
However having the PC in the main room means that a larger and larger proportion of us are taking to wearing headphones rather than having the speaker setups of old. Enter the Asus Xonar DG soundcard, a 5.1 card with a headphone amplifier, designed specifically for this purpose.
Buying a soundcard is almost counter-intuative nowadays. Whereas once it was an absolute must purchase, the quality of on-board sound solutions has relegated it to an expensive extra for all but the most dedicated audiophile. Not so here though as the DG, by far the bargain basement Xonar model, retails for under £30. Assuming it's not woeful it could be exceptional value for money.
So how is it possible that Asus have taken the a range of cards that has won more awards than Ben Hur, Titanic and Avatar combined, and brought it in for less than a Chinese Take-Away?
A quick glance at the specifications table shows that rather than the standard Xonar Audio Processor, we have a C-Media CMI8786 chip and Cirrus Logic converter beating away at the heart of the DG. Although the 150 Ohm headphone support most definitely shows where the main budget for the card has gone. This is absolutely something for the ear muff brigade.
|Audio Performance||Output Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A-Weighted):|
Input Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A-Weighted):
Output THD+N at 1kHz:
Input THD+N at 1kHz:
Frequency Response (-3dB, 24-bit/96kHz input):
<10Hz to 48kHz
Output/Input Full-Scale Voltage
PCI v2.2 or above bus compatible
|Main Chipset||Audio Processor:|
C-Media CMI8786 High-Definition Sound Processor (Max. 96KHz/24bit)
24-bit D-A Converter of Digital Sources:
Cirrus Logic CS4245*1 (104dB DNR, Max. 192KHz/24bit) / Cirrus Logic CS4361*1 (103dB DNR, Max. 192KHz/24bit)
24-bit A-D Converter for Analog Inputs:
Cirrus Logic CS4245*1 (104dB DNR, Max. 192KHz/24bit)
High Fidelity Headphone Amplifier:
Optimized for 32~150Ω
|Sample Rate and Resolution||Analog Playback Sample Rate and Resolution:|
44.1K/48K/96KHz @ 16/24bit for all channels
Analog Recording Sample Rate and Resolution:
44.1K/48K/96KHz @ 16/24bit
S/PDIF Digital Output:
44.1K/48K/96KHz @ 16/24bit, Dolby Digital, DTS, WMA-Pro
ASIO 2.0 Driver Support:
44.1K/48K/96KHz @ 16/24bit
|I/O Ports||Analog Output Jack:|
3.50mm mini jack *3 (Front/Side/Center-Subwoofer)
Analog Input Jack:
3.50mm mini jack *1 (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 Optical Connector supports 96KHz/24bit
-additional SPDIF-out header for HDMI audio output
Supports headphone jack-detection, automatically switch audio output from back-panel to front
Let's see what we're getting for our money.
A Closer Look
The box of the DG definitely demonstrates its main feature, the headphone amplifier and Dolby headphone compatibility.
On the rear we have the multi-language feature set.
Speaking of features, this has everything you'd expect from a soundcard at this price point. Of course it hasn't got the extreme audiophile-based features, but how many of us truly use those anyway?
In the box we have the card, a small but comprehensive manual (plug in, install drivers, done), the driver disk itself and a low-profile bracket should you wish to install the card in a HTPC chassis.
Onto the DG itself, this is very much a card designed to do everything it has to and no more. Often the expensive cards have their price justified with LEDs and EMI shields. This is a bare board that just has the 5.1 outputs, the chip, the front panel/CD audio headers and that's it. Functional is a positive attribute though.
Here we have the heart of the DG, the C-Media chip. Although it's definitely a step-down from the full-on Xonar chip, it's plenty capable enough.
Finally on the top right we have the standard headers for front-panel audio, CD in, and SPDIF out.
As this is designed primarily as a headphone soundcard, this will be how we are testing it today. We'll be using the Roccat Kave 5.1 headset for surround work, and some Dolby hi-fi headphones for the spacial tests.
Installation is very simple, just plug the DG into a spare PCI slot, of which most of us have a few these days, and install the drivers. Certainly a far cry from the days of setting up soundcards prior to DirectSound.
Speaking of DirectSound the Xonar DG comes with Xonar GX2.5, which is similar to Creative Alchemy in that it allows the use of EAX extensions in Vista and Windows 7.
Testing was carried out on our X58 Windows 7 machine using a variety of general entertainment tasks from gaming, movies and, of course, music.
Starting with music the DG is very similar to the ALC889 on-board sound we're all used to. Of course a large part of the audio quality comes from the headphones that you use, and here the ability of the Xonar DG to support up to 150 Ohm headphones is a boon because you can really use some very high-quality headphones indeed. In the same way that a Pathos amplifier would sound rubbish through cheap headphones, here the Xonar has plenty of punch through a good pair of headphones.
In both gaming and movies with the 5.1 headphones plugged in the surround effect was everything we could hope for. As a native 5.1 card the channels are clearly defined and there is a nice clarity through the cans, especially for a product of such value.
With Dolby headphones plugged in the psuedo-surround effect is surprisingly robust and the combination between the Dolby support and the GX2.5 really makes stereo headphones a viable choice.
All in all the Xonar DG is surprising. Whilst our initial impressions were that at sub-£30, and minus the outstanding Xonar processor, this would be on a par with the great on-board sound we have these days, actually it's a lot better than that.
Sure it can't compete with the Xonar Essence or Creative Titanium, but it's not priced to do so. It's a stripped-down dedicated headphone soundcard and for that it does its job far better than it has any right to.
If you are the type with a huge set of speakers, then the Xonar DG isn't for you. You really need the extra quality that the higher models like a D2X provide.
But if you're a headphone user, and want something that is better than your onboard sound, will save you a few CPU cycles and definitely wont break the bank, you can do a lot worse than the Xonar DG.
If you've ever wondered if a soundcard really can be better than your onboard sound, give the Xonar DG a shot. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
Thank you to ASUS for providing the DG for todays review. Discuss in our forums.