Well, that was such an auspicious beginning: a sound card with high-quality components, an excellent headphone amplifier and an X-Fi audio processor for an affordable $130! But as it turns out, there are too many negative factors to all this.
The technological innovations have no practical value whereas many of the manufacturer's claims are misleading, to put it mildly. The Bravura does not have an X-Fi audio processor that we have come to expect from Auzentech sound cards. The chip employed instead it does not ensure a better signal separation as the manufacturer claims but worsens the signal-to-noise ratio when playing ordinary CDDA music so much that you can use the integrated amplifier with low-Ohm headphones only. If you do not switch the card's outputs to 44.1 kHz, it will produce too much distortion (even though rather agreeable to the ear) whereas the noise at this frequency prevented me from evaluating the headphone amplifier, which is improved over the one in the Auzen X-Fi HomeTheater, and the unique capability of switching the operation mode of the DAC’s digital filter. Hopefully, this will be corrected by driver updates because, for a short while, I did make the card reproduce 44.1kHz signal with no noise or distortion.
Software used to be a scourge of the Auzen Bravura, but it is being steadily improved. It is still awfully slow in Windows 7 x64 but its driver does not get confused between the two individual playback devices as the OS identifies the sound card. This separation into two devices in Windows 7 and Vista allows changing the line output and headphone volume independently from each other and I don’t know why the developers didn’t implement the same in Windows XP. After all, semiprofessional sound cards have long been able to do this trick. On a second thought, it would be better if this particular sound card lacked this feature even in Windows 7. With the headphones and speakers being separate, you cannot switch between them without stopping playback or even re-launching the application altogether. You cannot force the number of sound channels for the Headphone device, which has a negative effect on most of modern games. Interestingly, the Creative PCI Express X-Fi Xtreme Audio with the same audio controller does not split up into headphones and speakers after you install its driver.
Another feature that I would gladly disable is Jack Sensing. There is an additional contact in each of the sound card’s connectors that identifies whether there is a cable plugged into that connector, so that Windows could turn off devices when cables are disconnected. Some applications that were playing something via the disconnected device would halt with an error whereas the card’s own software falls into a long stupor during that operation.
In the Windows XP environment the Auzen Bravura is hardly more functional than an integrated sound core because it lacks support for 44.1 kHz sampling rate, ASIO and OpenAL. It’s better in Windows 7 and Vista where the card only lacks ASIO. However, the sampling rate of 44.1 kHz can only be used when you set the volume level above 40% whereas 3D sound is processed on the software level, even in OpenAL-based games. This doesn’t provoke a performance hit on modern and fast computers but the resulting quality of sound effects is hardly better than what you get with sound cards based on C-Media Oxygen chips with Dolby algorithms. It is a shame that the Bravura software does not offer such capabilities that we have come to expect even from mainboard-integrated audio.
The quality of manufacture is another issue to discuss. Out of the four tested sound cards from Auzentech the X-Fi Home Theater was the only one to work blamelessly in accordance with the manufacturer’s specs except that its headphone amplifier was not perfect with a load of 32 Ohm. As for the other products, the X-Fi Prelude had problems with the recording quality of the line input while the X-Fi Forte had some playback quality issues of an unclear nature and was also very hot at work, which may lead to a quick drying out of the electrolytic capacitors.
The Bravura has learned from its predecessors and its hottest capacitors have been replaced with solid-state ones of higher capacitance. Its improved headphone amplifier is now as good as external ones but its line output has some distortion that I did not notice with the previous products. For all the technological advances of Auzentech, the Bravura’s line output is occasionally inferior to the much cheaper Creative PCI Express X-Fi Xtreme Audio. The long “warm-up” period the Bravura takes to reveal its potential isn’t a good thing, either. If this is due to the characteristics of the electrolytic capacitors, they should have been “trained” back at the factory.
So, who might need such a sound card? First of all, it is going to be okay for people who use low-impedance headphones which do not sound good with other sound cards. The Bravura can outperform the ASUS Xonar Essence when it comes to headphones, let alone any sound card with no headphone amplifier. I have no doubt it will cope with any pair of headphones but audiophiles will have to use software resampling in WinAMP or foobar2000 players until the problem with noise in 44.1 kHz mode is solved. Besides, the multichannel output of the Auzen Bravura is high enough quality to avoid being a bottleneck in a home theater system. Finally, someone may want its advanced microphone-related capabilities although the lack of ASIO support makes this sound card unattractive for musicians.
- Exceptional quality of the integrated headphone amplifier, a 6.3mm connector
- Replaceable opamps, three different models included into the kit
- Option of choosing a fast or slow decay for the digital filter of the headphone channel
- Flexible microphone input configuration options, simultaneous recording from two microphones
- Internal S/PDIF output for the graphics card
- Works in Windows 7/Vista without installing drivers
- Supports DTS Connect
- Buggy and slow software for Windows 7 x64
- Does not support ASIO
- Jack Sensing in Windows 7/Vista
- Limited functionality in Windows XP, does not support OpenAL
- Loud hissing in 44.1kHz mode under Windows 7/Vista
- There are clicks in the right channel when you start and stop playback
I hope these lists of highs and lows will allow you make an informed buying decision.