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High quality of music playback is good but gaming is also a popular kind of entertainment. Can the ASUS Xonar Essence STX deliver good sound in games, too? I compared it with an Auzen X-Fi Prelude while passing the same levels in a few games supporting 3D sound. Some of them were the same as I had used in my previous reports and I could hear right away that the gaming sound of the Xonar Essence STX was far different from what I remembered from my Xonar D2 tests. This must be due to the changes in the driver after the expiration of the license for the Sensaura algorithms. I won’t make guesses how they were employed in the Xear3D engine that is responsible for all the 3D sound capabilities of the Xonar series, but as soon as C-Media’s website published the announcement about the expired license, the exclusive DirectSound3D Game Extensions technology was updated in ASUS’s driver.

The first version of GX was meant only for Windows Vista and allowed to enable hardware mixing and EAX effects in games that did not support OpenAL. As opposed to Creative Alchemy, ASUS GX works for all games and does not do anything with the files: all the sound processing is done on the CPU. Other makers of sound chips have also introduced such features (Realtek 3D SoundBack and C-Media Xear3D EX) but ASUS went further. Creative Alchemy originally offered support for EAX 4 while the other manufacturers could only get the license for EAX 2. As a result, some modern games that are meant for EAX higher than version 2 refused to enable the maximum sound quality on Xonar cards. GX 2.0 technology became useful for Windows XP, ensuring basic compatibility with some EAX 3, 4, 5 features demanded by such games although it did not offer full support for the latest versions of EAX. For example, in my Xonar D2 report I wrote about a bug in Quake 4 that would occur on your passing from one room into another. I could not find a change list for GX 2.5, so I first wanted to see if the previously noticed problems had been solved.

And I could not find any difference. RightMark 3DSound and F.E.A.R. still do not allow to enable EAX Advanced HD and you cannot pass the Sound Test from 3DMark03 if the GX checkbox is set in the ASUS Audio Center. Quake 4 does not brake with a memory read error, though.

As I have noted already, the behavior of the Xonar Essence STX in games proved to be a complete surprise to me. The drivers with GX 2.0 have not been released for this audio card, so I will do an additional test of the Xonar D2 soon. Here, I will describe all the peculiarities I have noticed. Every game was set up for maximum sound quality which was the same for both cards.

In the previous test session the Xonar D2 was better in Crysis as it provided more vivid impressions on my turning Dolby Headphone on together with Pro Logic IIx. This time the old trick doesn’t work. When I turned Dolby Headphone on, the sounds of shooting were weakened and the spatial positioning of the sound sources was worsened. As a result, a massive exchange of fire was reduced to a mess of vague claps and cries. DPLIIx did not improve the situation and I despairingly tried to turn on the last of the options I had at my disposal: 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter. To my greatest surprise, this changed the sound dramatically. The feeling of distance and the sharpness of the shots was all there in an instant. Disabling DPLIIx, I enjoyed a sound environment that was adequate to what was going on on the screen, with good separation of sounds in space and with a low-frequency accompaniment of machinegun shooting.

According to the user manual, 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter is an extender of sound to 8 channels similar to Dolby Pro Logic IIx as well as a transformer of 7.1 sound to any number of speakers with the option of setting up the position of the virtual 7.1 speaker set. This option used to change the sound volume according to your changing the distance of the virtual speakers from the hot spot but did not affect the spatial effects. The sound volume can still be changed, but it grows up about twofold when you turn 7.1VSS on, making you use the Minus button in the settings. The most interesting thing is that turning 7.1VSS on and off without changing the position of the virtual speakers has no effect on the sound positioning in the RightMark 3DSound Positioning Accuracy Test that uses the DirectSound3D API.

Comparing the Xonar Essence STX with the above-described settings and the X-Fi Prelude in Game Mode, the X-Fi had a drier and more synthetic sound and did not yield the feeling of space the Xonar delivered. That was especially conspicuous at the moments a jet would fly overhead but the chirping of birds and other sounds of nature around the gamer produced the same feeling. The X-Fi seemed better to me at reproducing the sounds of human characters, though. The various whispers and clangs, voices and echoes were not so sharp on the Xonar even though the difference was not too big. I had almost the same frame rate with either sound card although I occasionally had a feeling that the gameplay was smoother in action-heavy scenes on the X-Fi Prelude. Thus, the Xonar wins this round by 3 to 2.

Next I tried the cards in Battlefield 2 which had not been used in my tests before. This game is interesting for offering a Creative X-Fi optimized mode that ensures maximum sound quality. Having passed two different levels with the X-Fi Prelude, I was very impressed as I could find not a single flaw to complain about. The Xonar is obviously inferior here, as you can see right from the intro video in which the female voice is distorted more. The Xonar lacks the fast attack that transforms each shot into a whipping blow to your eardrums but its overall quality (without Dolby Headphone) is comparable to the X-Fi’s. You can hear the echo from shots and the performance is almost at the same level. The only problem is that everything seems to be closer than it really is. Turning Dolby Headphone on corrects the distances but distorts the sound, muffling the special effects such as the whizzing of bullets. It is like having a plastic pail on your head. And again, the 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter option miraculously improves the sound! With this option enabled, the Xonar has only two noticeable drawbacks: the sounds subdue too quickly with the distance and there is a heavy performance hit. While the X-Fi allowed playing comfortably at a 1.8GHz processor frequency, the Xonar with enabled Dolby Headphone and 7.1VSS provoked jerkiness and hiccups in the headphones. The Xonar put such a serious load on the CPU in this game that the previously stable overclocked platform began to show a BSOD, calling for an increase of voltage on the memory modules. Thus, the Xonar lost that round with a score of 1 to 4.

Despite its venerable age, Quake 4 can still please you with good sound in OpenAL mode. The X-Fi is a treat to the ear with its splendid reflections of sound from the walls and the lush and perfectly positioned sound sources. However, even the latest version of the driver for the Auzen X-Fi Prelude does not correct the problem of nonuniform change of the direction to the sound source after “head” movements – I wrote about that problem back in my Xonar D2 review. If Dolby Headphone is not enabled, the Xonar Essence STX gives you no sense of direction towards the sound at all. The Gaming mode does not improve the situation much: the sounds are crowding in your head and disappoint you with their indistinctness. Fortunately, 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter comes to rescue again. When you enable it, you get the interesting sound of weapons I had noted with the Xonar D2. The environments grow up in size and it is impossible to find fault with the quality of spatial positioning. And the most important thing, there are no slowdowns or hang-ups. The only disappointing things are the lack of reverberations and the sometimes incorrect positioning of flare's sizzle when the next level is being loaded up. Therefore the X-Fi wins this test with a score of 3 to 2.

The last game I tried the sound cards in was a relation of both Quake 4 and Battlefield 2. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars differs from them with its ability to reproduce sound via both DirectSound and OpenAL. When I entered the s_driver console command of the dsound interface, I could not perceive a serious difference between the two sound cards. Moving in the Spectate mode on the battlefield, I could spot the direction from whence steps, shots or explosions were coming, but I did not get the feeling of total immersion. The cannonade was roaring in my head and the distance to the place of action was reproduced unclearly. When I switched to OpenAL mode, the X-Fi’s sound was nearly unaffected whereas the Xonar with Dolby Headphone and 7.1VSS could reproduced everything with incredible realism. The good thing about the X-Fi is that it could reproduce the Doppler effect of missiles flying over you. I could not hear the Xonar reproduce it. Anyway, the overall score is 2 to 1 in favor of the Xonar.

Summing it up, the 3D sound implementation on the Xonar Essence STX is not without drawbacks, but the X-Fi Prelude is not ideal, either. The Xonar was only defeated in a game that had been specifically optimized for the X-Fi. In the other games, the cards were roughly equal.

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