|ASUS Xonar Essence STX PCI-E Sound Card|
|Reviews - Featured Reviews: Audio|
|Written by Vito Cassisi - Edited by Olin Coles|
|Thursday, 16 December 2010|
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7.1 Sound Card Final Thoughts
Testing audio components is always a challenge. While there's software such as RMAA which can give you an analytical look at the performance, it isn't as simple as hitting 'start' and then looking at graphs. Ensuring that your system isn't introducing noise into the signal is challenging, and in many cases, near impossible. The original test system was a X58 platform with an overclocked i7 920. However, when noise tests came back erratic, one could only imagine what was causing it. Was it noise on the PCI-e bus? Was the PSU providing 'dirty' power to the amplifier? Thermal noise? Or perhaps the lengthy loopback cable was being a nuisance? In the end, it came down to the either of the first three options, but even at stock, the audio was well below spec in terms of noise. I like to think that the motherboard was shouting profanities as it struggled to keep up with its heavy overclock, causing the meek STX to cower in fear. But in the end, it was probably just the hothead 4870x2 heating up the defenseless EMI shield!
Fortunately, an older but capable system was used instead, and sane results were produced. These results were spectacular, with very low noise levels across the board, and a respectable frequency response. This is very much a card for audiophiles.
ASUS Xonar Essence STX Conclusion
As the performance graphs show, the ASUS Xonar Essence STX is a high achiever. It blitzed all tests, bar one, where the Xonar Xense got a slight upper hand in frequency response. The Essence STX absolutely obliterated the onboard solution in all tests, which is a good sign considering the asking price.
Despite the lack of native EAX support, the Essence STX does surprisingly well in games. Dolby Headphone does wonders when paired with the emulated EAX environmental effects. The inbuilt amplifier gives headphones an added oomph, even if they're already easy to drive. Whether it be music, games or movies, the amplifier adds that little bit extra which makes all the difference.
In terms of aesthetics, the Essence STX ticks all the boxes. Classy color scheme? Check. Brushed aluminium? Check. Chrome branding. Check. Looks great through a case window? Check. What more can we ask for?
The construction quality of the Essence STX is as good as you can expect. The card is rigid and the materials are top-notch.
When it comes down to functionality, we have to keep in mind that this card is aimed squarely at audiophiles. This being said, the Essence STX is excellent for more than just music. It's a capable movie and gaming card too, with Dolby Headphone producing outstanding results. Digital out and the provided TOSLINK connector allow external DACs to be used, and the gold plated TRS/RCA in/out facilitate clean noise-free audio. To top it off, the card has replaceable op-amps - something that's far from common, yet very handy for dedicated enthusiasts.
NewEgg sell the ASUS Xonar Essence STX for $199.99. This may sound pricey, but you're getting a card which will last several upgrades. Audio equipment depreciates at a significantly smaller rate than your typical processing components (think CPU and GPU). When one can spend upwards of $500 on just the graphics portion of a build, a top of the range audio solution for $200 with greater longevity becomes enticing. Is the Essence STX worth $200? If you love your music, it's well worth your hard earned cash.
Overall, the Essence STX is the best audio experience I've experienced on a PC to date. The only gripe I have is that it's limited by my audio gear! The quality of output is excellent, so future speaker upgrades won't be a concern. This, and the decision to use modern connectivity (such as PCI-e) makes this a true future proof audio card. Highly recommended.
+ Crisp audio output
- Need pricey equipment to appreciate the added quality of sound
Final Score: 9.1 out of 10.
Excellence Achievement: Benchmark Reviews Golden Tachometer Award.
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