Asus Xonar Essence STX - PCI-E Audiophile Soundcard

Music and DVD - Subjective Sound Quality

What the Asus Xonar Essence STX is all about - Sound Quality

To ensure I really tested the Asus Xonar Essence STX properly, I played a large variety of music from my eclectic collection, including playing CD's and extracting high quality FLAC recording  from several CD's. I have tried to cover a large range of music genre's to ensure I tested all aspects of the sound coming from the card. Note I also listened to normal MP3's and AAC compressed tracks to ensure I portrayed a 'real world' situation.

All tracks were listened to in analogue and digital, both through the AMP and through headphones.

Example tracks used:

• Sultans of Swing - Dire Straits
• Adele - Chasing Pavements
• Bloc Party - Luno
• Bob Marley - Three Little Birds
• Chemical brothers - Block Rockin' Beats
• Damien Rice - Cannonball
• Foo Fighters - Skin and Bones
• Fugees - Killing Me Softly
• Goldfrapp - A&E
• Jamariqui - Virtual Insanity
• Feff Buckley - Hallelujah
• Led Zepellin - Black Dog
• N.E.R.D. - Lapdance
• Pendulum - Slam
• Prodigy - Omen
• Robert Miles - Children
• Roni Size - Brown Paper Bag
• Snoop dog - Beautiful
• Paul Gilbert - Radiator
• Paulo Nutini - New Shoes

To test the surround sound capabilities of the Asus Xonar Essence STX, I listened to the following UK DVD's using Cyberlink PowerDVD. I listened in both headphone and surround mode. DVD's used:

• The Matrix (DTS)
• Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Dolby Digital)
• The Bourne Identity (DTS and Dolby Digital)

Sound Quality - Music (Digital Sound)

Digital sound produced a balanced sound-stage for music with clear highs and a detailed mid-range with a reasonably punchy low. At times I felt as though there was something lacking in the sound and that there was something missing somewhere though. Tracks like 'Slam' and 'Block Rockin' Beats' sounded great but not quite what Asus promised.

On direct comparison though, the Auzentech prelude's digital sound was very similar. Perhaps missing some of the detail of the Essence STX, but a nice sounding fairly well-rounded sound.

Utilising the Dolby Digital Live and Pro Logic Modes on the Xonar Essence STX produce decent enough sound and certainly filled my speakers well enough. It is hard to believe that any audiophile would use these sound 'enhancements' as they only serve to muddy the music and not benefit it.

Sound Quality - Music (Analogue Sound)

three little birds  lune  Slam  Sultans of Swing  Lapdance

Speakers


Connecting the Ixos RCA to my AMP and hooking up the Sennheiser HD555's, I was not expecting what came next.

Initial listening to the analogue connections on the Xonar Essence STX was, frankly, incredible. Even on first listen, the card produced a fantastic sound stage. It's fair to say that the difference in the Essence STX is in the analogue connections it provides.

Replaying 'Slam' and the bass started pounding my ears like it should. There was a real detail and depth to the tracks coming out now.

The highs were detailed and clear and the mids concise. The tracks were coming alive on analogue with a very warm relaxing sound that I would not expect from a PC sound card.

Headphones

Promising an unparallelled sound experience from a PC soundcard using headphones, the Essence STX had a lot to live up to in this area.

Headphone listening definitely matched analogue RCA out for sound. Again the detailing shone through and the card really has the power to run a set of decent headphones properly, you even hear the 'click' of the headphone AMP when it is set to headphone.

Setting the headphone gain to Extra High Gain (+18db for 300-600 Ohms) almost killed both my ears and my fantastic HD555's. Feeling somewhat annoyed that I didn't have a set to compete with the onboard AMP, I grabbed some ancient Technic DJ headphone's I found in my parents attic. These have to be driven by a proper AMP to make any noise at all, so I was hopeful.

What can I say? The Xonar not only managed to power them, but the sound was deep, hard and clear on the Extra High gain setting. The only bad thing is that I had to give the Technics back...

Sound Quality - DVD's

MATRIX  LORD OF THE RINGS  BOURNE IDENTITY

Digital Optical - Dolby Digital Live


Firing up some of my favourite sounding DVD's I set out to see what the Essence STX could do with DVD's in surround mode.

I was surprised to hear that the sound card really produced some of the best surround sound I have ever heard from a sound card. Using SPDIF passthough in Cyberlink PowerDVD and Dolby Digital Live on the soundcard produced a sound-stage that was accurate in it's reproduction and sound truly did fall in the right places throughout.

The Matrix's DTS sound-track was converted by the card into Dolby Digital without too much of a loss in precision. Straight after I listened to it on the Essence STX, I fired up my Panasonic DMP-BD35 Blu Ray player and played The Matrix through that as well and I didn't hear as big a difference as I thought I would, although there was a difference.

The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers and The Bourne Ultimatum were also dealt with incredibly well and I have to say I was actually fairly impressed with the Dolby Technology on the card, despite initial reservations.

Headphone - Dolby Headphone

Dolby Headphone is fantastic technology that picks up on the audio cues sent through by a multi-channel sound source and converting it for use with a set of headphones.

Again I found myself being very impressed with the sound coming through my headphones. The sound cues were present and the card fools you into thinking the sound really is coming from a centre that you cannot see, as well as rear speakers that aren't present. Pretty impressive stuff really with a depth you won't often hear from headphones, unless you're familiar with the Virtual barbershop Demo.

Dolby Virtual Headphone isn't a direct replacement for proper multi-channel sound, but it comes very close and certainly will enhance your movie experience.
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Most Recent Comments

09-03-2009, 06:28:46

FarFarAway
Asus give us a musically orientated soundcard to play with.

We play music LOUD and see how it does.

http://www.overclock3d.net/gfx/artic...154159941s.png

Read more inside....

09-03-2009, 08:28:07

Diablo
Nice review, but linky is to quad sli forum not this 'un.

Given the price, it looks like it would go great with my shure se530s, but if I'm sitting at my desk I prefer speakers.

Definitely a niche audiophile product (like high end headphones) but still a nice review guys.

09-03-2009, 08:59:04

FarFarAway
I prefer speakers too, which is why I hooked it up to my AV receiver

Great card and personally I don't see it as a niche product per se, it's got all the connections you'd need to use with a decent speaker system (inc digital out)

09-03-2009, 09:26:47

Diablo
I suppose I prefer a normal 7.1 wired on 3.5mm jacks rather than needing a separate amp etc.

I guess if you have higher end audio its great, but for 120 I would go for the D2X. I suppose its aimed at music listeners rather than gamers so its better in that respect. Considering my only really high quality headphones are the shures (~250) its not worth it just for those.

Its all a matter of what you want from the card and if you want really nice sounding music and have a good av kit, this is definitely the card to go for.

09-03-2009, 10:18:00

JN
Nice review mate and yes that card does indeed rock. Had one in my system for a month or so now and I just could never go back to an X-Fi or whatever now.

09-03-2009, 12:17:36

Luigi
How does it compare to the normal asus cards, does anyone know?

And kempez, the forum link at the end links to quad sli review...

09-03-2009, 12:26:49

FarFarAway
I have changed that now, should work

09-03-2009, 15:50:52

Rastalovich
I can see people buying this card thinking, the money & ASUS, I play games, watch high def movies - so hey it's gotta be good - and being disappointed.

U can almost see the threads now.

Tbh, to be inclined to buy something like this, at this expense, has to be for those who would like to dedicate a pc to music only, and handling movies.

I'd not promote it for the price. I'd almost certainly point some1 at an X-fi with more variation in what it can do.

There is certainly a market for the card. Personally I'd put it at just under the level of Fatal1ty badged stuff. (market share I mean, not the quality).

Having experienced studio performance outputs from various sources, justifying 160 or so for this is going to be very hard.

The emi shielding I was interested in looking at. It would be nice to test it. Just from the look, I can't see it doing an effective job that might be necessary if required. High end graphics cards can influence ur soundcards alot with emi. I would have expected a whole shrouding of the card if deemed necessary. Thinking about it, I tend to imagine they've used it similarly to how Creative and others have (so u can't see underneath it).

From the indepth review, I'd leave it to the purchase of some1 who want's to buy excessive kit for their 96khz sampled music to play through their various output systems with increasing degradation.

Hey, just like with graphics, if u buy it, it sounds great to u - the manufacturer has done their job and u will be happy.

Great stuff.

09-03-2009, 16:28:29

Sihastru
Very good review.

I know they aren't in the same class but a comparison between this one and the DX2/DX series would have been nice. They don't have the same quality OPAMPs and AMP circuitry but they do share the same platform. So I wonder how much of the quality is provided by the basic hardware and how much more is the STX compared to them.

I say this because most of the pro-sumer headphones out there today can be powered even by the DX2/DX. High impedance phones are getting rarer and rarer. These days you hear more and more about "high-efficiency" cans.

And I like being able to unplug my cans from the PC and plug them into my Cowon D2 and go for a little walk around.

09-03-2009, 17:20:57

FarFarAway
@ Rast

Several points I want to address here.

Firstly I see the market niche as actually a pretty large one. For those who want an HTPC to play music and movies well: this is the sound card to get in the price bracket. The price point is frankly not a lot more than the other high end cards, all of which are aimed at gamers not muso's.

I also do not see where you got the high def movies from. People who watch high def movies and want high def sound will have to buy something that handles TrueHD and DTS MA HD, neither of which this card claims to have. I also do not think people will be disappointed with it's gaming performance necessarily: it performs very well in almost every game tested.

The sound card makes music sound better. That's what I was getting at in the review and that's the point of it. Even if you don't have FLAC then your ripped music will still sound better than it does at the moment due to the quality of the sound the card produces. Perhaps you're not into music and in which case fine, but anyone who wants convenience of PC music with some of the excellent quality sound of a decent stereo, this again is the card to get.

The shielding I tend to agree with but it must be doing something there, it's certainly sat over the core DACs and OPAMPs reducing interference but how much it's doing is a matter for debate.

I came at this review (as always), from a totally neutral stand-point, other than being someone who listens to a lot of music I suppose. As has been splashed around in the news: people nowadays are used to the tinny-ness of compressed iPod/MP3 sound. This card just brings something a little different and a little less tinny to the forum....and that is certainly worth praise. Sure an X-Fi will do the job...but does it sound tinny as hell?

Yes.

@Sihastru: yes I agree with you in part, most headphones can be driven by a normal sound card. The Essence STX does go a step further and will drive any headphones you throw at it with ease, along with a sublime sound quality. I've compared it to the sound cards tested for over two weeks of fairly solid listening and without doubt it does a nicer job with your music.

Unfortunately we couldn't get a DX2/DX in time for the review to be completed, so I cannot comment on that aspect of your question, soz.

10-03-2009, 12:05:19

Rastalovich
Quote:
Originally Posted by name='Kempez'
@ Rast

I came at this review (as always), from a totally neutral stand-point, other than being someone who listens to a lot of music I suppose. As has been splashed around in the news: people nowadays are used to the tinny-ness of compressed iPod/MP3 sound. This card just brings something a little different and a little less tinny to the forum....and that is certainly worth praise. Sure an X-Fi will do the job...but does it sound tinny as hell?

Yes.
Some excellent points.

The matter of all soundcard options, be they pc or dedicated boxes, is almost always how it molests the sounds (beit data driven or analogue media) b4 the amps molest them, b4 ur monitors molest them. It's very hard to give a review that isn't too based on personal opinion - i.e. who hears it.

Almost like vetting a picture or a tv screen, and all u can do is show people jpegs of it.

It is a niche market. I do think those not-knowing will buy them for their general pcs tho - and from that point they will be slated out of ignorance perhaps, than anything else.

It would be interesting to send an oscilloscope wave into the digital-in and overlay the same wave on the output - I'm surprized some audiophile site doesn't do that.

Hearing is objective tbh. It's what makes the review so difficult in the first place.

10-03-2009, 16:22:34

FarFarAway
Yes it is definitely subjective, as I stated on the page title

There's no doubting though, that the sound from an X-Fi is tinny and has a metallic quality to it, somewhat artificial. I've had a few friends over comparing the sound with me and all agree that the card helps give that sound that almost let's you forget there are speakers there. That's what we ultimately try to reproduce isn't it? The music being played there in front of you.

It's not perfect, far from it, but I've not heard a better mainstream PC sound card and that deserves praise in my eyes.

10-03-2009, 18:32:01

Rastalovich
I dunno. I became pretty complacent over the whole issue hearing what at first hand is a multi-thousand set of studio equipment, playing studio quality recordings, replaced by what could be described as a glorified iPod. U molest the sound to the way u want it to be heard, then broadcast it. Unmolested, u could solder together some bench equipment to play the original recording and it'll sound tinny and flat.

Effects are good and powerful through some trademarked techniques, but again that's more processing of premade recordings.

16-06-2010, 05:47:05

nylonic48
Few interesting points here.I have one of these in my pc at the moment. I previously had a creative xfi xtreme audio. I wasn't disapointed with the creative, it was basically all I knew and working on that criteria I was impressed with it for most of the time. When I installed the xonar I expected a massive leap in sound quality, which didn't happen, I have to say I was initally somewhat disapointed, but ultimately the disapointment disolved, I found myself listening to the music, and not listening to the soundcard after a while, the matter was forgotten by and large. Some months later I had reason to install the creative into another pc and decided to 'hook' it up to one of the inputs on my amp, the same amp the asus uses, just a different input, the idea being to have a listen and comparison to the asus. This was the biggest of revelations, the sound quality really is awful compared to the asus, and I arent knocking the creative, it was half the price of the asus. The object lesson here being, that sometimes its not when you 'add' something to a system that you get the real benefits, over time the gradual improvements are almost just accepted and subtle as they are, they arent noticed. It's when you take that step 'backwards' that you really notice what the differences are. Creative cards are great value,but thats all they are,they have absolutely nothing to offer to serious music listeners.In the world of quality audio equipment 'Sound' is subjective, we all know that, I have heard systems costing ridiculous amounts of money and I havent been at all impressed, conversely I have heard budget equipment which has really quite surprised me, the price of audio equipment doesnt always reflect just what you get for your money and certainly a 500 amplifier never sounds twice as good as a 250 amp, its that law of diminishing returns that comes into play for some of the time. Soundcards break this rule to an extent, you tend to get what you pay for , by and large, not always, but I think anybody who knows about decent sound will know what I mean.

20-01-2011, 07:44:31

marxviper
How does it compare to xonar xense in games? I am interested to hear about this matter. I am planning to get denon ah-d2000 and checking my options with this to asus xonar xense.
Reply
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