|ASUS Xonar Essence STX PCI-E Sound Card|
|Reviews - Featured Reviews: Audio|
|Written by Vito Cassisi - Edited by Olin Coles|
|Wednesday, 15 December 2010|
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ASUS Xonar Essence STX PCI-Express Sound Card Review
Humans have five main senses; touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing. Modern computing strives to advance the integration of these senses to produce stimulation during interaction, whether it be for games, movies or writing lengthy documents like this one! Naturally, some senses are more difficult to implement in an appealing manner, such as taste - silicon doesn't taste too good!
Stimulating some senses may cause concern. The only time you're going to get a smell out of your PC is when you fry something, releasing the soul of the device in the form of a cloud of white smoke. Not to mention touch, which is wonderful on phones, and painful when you press your fingers against an overclocked northbridge.
But the sense we're here to discuss isn't either of these. It's hearing. People spend hundreds on their CPUs, GPUs, motherboards, storage and memory, but dedicated sound is oft considered an unnecessary expense. Why pay for a card when your motherboard has a Realtek chipset?
ASUS refuse to believe that onboard sound is enough. In our possession is their flagship audiophile audio card, the Essence STX, prepped for rigorous testing here at Benchmark Reviews. They claim "ultra-high fidelity" sound, and a remarkable 124dB signal-to-noise ratio on the front output. Will the onboard solution take a thrashing by this menacing card, or are enthusiasts correct in sticking with whatever their motherboard supplies?
Audio cards are often used by audiophiles, and those who work with music at a professional level. Factors such as noise, amplification, circuit quality, API extensions (such as EAX) and DSP effects (such as Dolby Headphone) are all valid considerations which deciding between audio solutions.
A short reflection on the state of modern mainstream music
Sound has come a long way since the days of using the internal speaker of a PC for nothing more than beeps and boops. CD quality audio is commonplace, yet convenience is frequently prioritised ahead of quality. MP3 files are popular because of their size, and their suitability for storage limited devices. The downside to MP3 is that it's a lossy compression format, meaning that the audio is stripped of data to save space. In theory the data which is trashed is inaudible to humans, but in practise even the best compression methods cause some level of quality degradation.
An alternative to MP3 is FLAC. FLAC, or Free Lossless Audio Codec, is exactly that - a lossless compression codec. Vaguely similar to how zip files work, FLAC compresses audio without permanently removing data. This requires decompression during playback. Unfortunately, despite a significant growth in storage and Internet speeds, MP3 remains the dominant format for digital music.
Formats aren't the only indicator of quality. Apart from the obvious (being the quality of the recording gear/setup and instruments) there's the matter of dynamic range, or perhaps more importantly, dynamic range compression. To put it simply, the dynamic range of an instrument or piece of music is the ratio of the loudest sound to the softest. For example, the softest sound may be the subtle whisper of a backup singer, and the loudest the beat produced by drums.
Dynamic range compression is when you reduce the difference between these soft and loud notes to make everything louder. This is often used in modern mastering to make music sound louder than it should be, to compete on mediums such as radio or television. The end result is a lifeless track, stripped of its musical integrity. So why is it done? It's part of the so-called Loudness War. You can read more about this phenomenon here (including some audio examples), or at Wikipedia here.
Why does all this matter? When reviewing or leisurely listening to a sound device, subjective judgement is based on listening to music. A perfect audio card (if one should ever exist) would reproduce sound exactly as the audio file dictates. However, just like any system, if you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out. This is important, because a good audio device can make bad music sound worse, since it becomes easier to distinguish imperfections which are part of the audio files 'instructions'. For this reason, music will be carefully chosen during the subjective analysis of this card, in addition to a range of headphones.
Manufacturer: ASUSTeK Computer Inc.
Full Disclosure: The product sample used in this article has been provided by ASUS.