Back when your father was into computers, ISA was all the rage. Slots in your motherboard as long as a country mile. They were the days.
But now it’s 2008. We’ve grown up. ASUS decided to take the leap of faith and put its enthusiast soundcard range into the PCI-E form factor. Utilising the Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC, we expected a metric of around 120dB SnR and 117dB total harmonic distortion. ASUS claim the card will best such metrics. With purported EAX 5.0 compatibility, the card is very squarely marketed at gamers as well as ‘simple’ home entertainment needs. This isn’t an audiophile card. This is a card for the mass market to adopt as a ‘disruptive’ product in the face of the Creative X-Fi behemoth.
As always, we employed RightMark’s Audio Analyzer for metrics. We used a 3m x 3m carpeted room and 16bit, 24bit and 32bit audio content:
16bit, 44.1kHz: Cog’s ‘Sharing Space’ [CD Audio]
24bit, 96kHz: Warner Brothers ‘300’ Blu-Ray DVD [BD PCM Audio]
32bit, 192kHz: Biped Productions ‘Gust of Gravity, In Superposition’ [ProTools Audio]
We used two sets of enclosures:
Altec Lansing 621’s
Tanoy Reveal 6D monitors
Two sets of enclosures have been used here in order to highlight any obvious performance differences in a contrasting set of environments. This way, we can gain an appreciation for the Xonar in a ‘colourful’ home entertainment environment and a ‘reference flat’ studio environment.
Looking closely at the noise, THD and frequency responses, something seemed a little upsetting to us. This card is outperforming the reference X-Fi chipset in certain cases. Even the mighty Auzentech X-Fi prelude was not capable of a 105.4dB (A) dynamic range in 32bit, 192KHz mode.
Note the use of INT based 32bit resolution for testing here. One problematic point we’ve found with the Xonar is that it wouldn’t allow us to test 32bit IEEE. We couldn’t isolate whether this was driver related or hardware related.
EAX 5.0 – WTF?
Something isn’t making sense. How can the ASUS product use Creative’s proprietary environmental acoustic modelling? The truth is, it doesn’t. Creative’s using some sweet driver trickery in the form of DS3D GX2. Call it environmental modelling ‘cheating’ if you want. Either way, it has proven convincing. We found EAX 5+ working correctly in STALKER, Battlefield 2, HL2: Episode 2, TF2, Prey et al.
Finally, it was time to sit on the big couch and have a listen to the Xonar with our eyes closed. It was evident that the card had ‘everything’ that an X-Fi chip had. All the particular nuances we’ve come to expect from an enthusiast’s card such as the crisp bass responses, detailed instrument inflections and obscured slightly positional discrete sounds in studio recordings came up with vibrancy. Shamefully, we had no DTS output however. The card simply doesn’t support it.
An interesting mix of things, the Xonar DX is (sound like Yoda, you do –ed). Where Creative’s X-Fi experiences driver problems and ‘PCI-pop’s’, the Xonar sits stable in the PCI-E slot. Sure, it might not have the stunning audiophile-esque ratings that an Auzentech OPAMP boasts, nor does it exhibit the loom of outputs/supported DTS decoders, but it surely hits the mark for a mid-market card. Do yourself a favour. Stop breathing the Creative air. Get on the PCI-E bus.