Testbed and Methods
The sound card was tested on a PC configured like follows:
- ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard (Radeon Xpress 200 chipset)
- AMD Dual-Core Opteron 165 @ 2.7GHz
- 2GB Corsair CMXP-3200XL
- Gainward Bliss 9800GTX graphics card
- Samsung SpinPoint S250 and Hitachi Deskstar T7K250 (SATA)
- Plextor Premium and BENQ DW1640 optical drives
- Creative X-Fi Elite Pro and ASUS Xonar D2 sound cards
- Rosewill Turbo Series RT550-135-BK power supply
- Microsoft Windows XP SP3 and Vista SP1
The version 1762 driver was installed without a hitch and I saw the familiar ASUS Audio Center icon in the system tray. Its functionality is 99% identical to what was described in my ASUS Xonar D2 review, so I will only dwell upon the features unique to the Xonar Essence STX.
It is a shame that in the year and a half the Xonar series has been available on the market the developer has not corrected any of the unified control panel’s drawbacks. The volume control still does not react to the mouse wheel. There are still no peak meters in the mixer, and the sound recording level is still limited to 100%, which is highly inconvenient for people who tinker with sound recording amateurishly.
You can see that there is no option to choose a speaker configuration other than two channels. Does it mean that the user will not be able to reproduce 5.1 sound even via the digital output? The user manual says the opposite but it is full of obvious mistakes. For example, the description of settings mentions the opportunity to record from an SPDIF input and to output audio via HDMI but the Essence STX lacks such connectors! The recommendation to connect your headphones to the line output because the latter allegedly contains a top-quality headphones amplifier is a mistake, too. I checked it out and found no headphone amplifier on the line output.
If you choose headphones as the playback device (the main or front-panel ones), you can select one of three gain settings: 0dB (< 64 Ohms), +12dB (64-300 Ohms) and +18dB (>300 Ohm).
I can only make guesses as to what the decibels are counted from here because when you select the first variant, the maximum output level of the headphones amplifier proves to be lower than the line output signal, which is 2V. And when the second variant is selected, the max output resistance is higher than that. I guess it is the absolute amplification coefficient that equals 1, 4 or 8, respectively. By the way, the headphones resistance ranges specified in ASUS Audio Center should not be viewed as mandatory. You should choose a higher amplification coefficient only if you really feel you don’t have enough sound volume.
It is very sad that the volume control does not differentiate between the output modes. In other words, it does not remember the volume level for headphones and speakers individually. You can hurt your ears and damage your headphones if you forget to lower the volume when needed. After I had a light contusion once, I learned to check out the position of the volume control beforehand.
Odd as it may seem, the Xonar Essence STX does not support DTS Connect and DTS NEO:PC that have been available in every previous model of the Xonar series. Of course, their functionality duplicated the capabilities of Dolby Digital Live and Dolby Pro Logic IIx but the opponents from Auzentech and Creative, on the contrary, have been learning how to encode sound into DTS format. Also odd is the fact that when you choose the Headphones mode and enable Dolby Headphone, the option of turning Dolby Pro Logic IIx on is available, but the latter disappears in the 2 Speakers mode.
The settings of the Dolby Pro Logic IIx department have undergone yet another staff cut. In the Xonar D2 review I wrote that only the first two operation modes were available out of the three (Music, Movie, Game). And now the Movie mode has been abandoned as well. To make the list of the control panel oddities complete, I can note that the Dolby Headphone technology processes sounds transferred via ASIO whereas the other technologies affect only Wave, DirectSound and Kernel Streaming.
Audio Center has lost the EAC mode that had been introduced into the Xonar D2 driver especially for video conferencing. Audiophiles don’t like to communicate via microphone? I don’t think so. By the way, the Xonar Essence has some problems with microphones: the monitoring of the microphone input is only enabled when microphone is selected as the recording source. When recording from the Mix source, the microphone signal is recorded quieter. I did not notice the high-quality microphone preamplifier promised in the user manual – the signal was quiet and, if the Microphone Boost option was turned on, noisy. You will have to use an external amplifier for a dynamic microphone.
While I had no problems making the Xonar Essence STX work in my system, I did not succeed in trying to install two Xonar series cards into it. ASUS Audio Center always preferred the Xonar D2, giving me no control over the Xonar STX, but both cards were dead silent when I tried to reproduce audio through either of them. When I turned the Xonar D2 off in the Device Manager and restarted ASUS Audio Center, the Xonar Essence STX became available and reproduced sound correctly. Thus, it is impossible to directly compare the two cards of the Xonar series and I will compare the ASUS Xonar Essence STX with the well-known and widespread Creative X-Fi Elite Pro.