Like in all previous reviews, I checked out the audio card’s sound quality with a pair of Grado SR 325i headphones, a C.E.C. HD53R-80 amplifier, and various musical material in WAV and APE formats reproduced through foobar2000 0.9.6 with foo_out_asio 1.2.7 plugin. To minimize any digital processing of sound in the driver, the card was switched to Audio Creation mode with Bit-Matched Playback enabled.
The test computer was configured as follows:
- ASUS A8R-MVP mainboard (Radeon Xpress 200 chipset)
- AMD dual-core Opteron 165 clocked at 2.7GHz
- System memory: Corsair CMXP-3200XL 2GB
- Graphics card: Gainward Bliss 9800GTX
- Hard disk drives: Samsung SpinPoint S250 and Hitachi Deskstar T7K250 (SATA)
- Optical drives: Plextor Premium and BENQ DW1640
- Sound cards: PCI Creative X-Fi Elite Pro and ASUS Xonar D2
- Power supply: Rosewill Turbo Series RT550-135-BK
- Microsoft Windows XP SP3
Frankly speaking, when I recognized in early photos of the Auzen X-Fi Forte 7.1 the same digital-to-analog converter and operation amplifier as had been used in the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1, I began to expect these two cards to have identical sound quality. However, there are far more differences between them than similarities. But I’m anticipating.
First off, it proved to be impossible to pit these two cards directly against one another because the driver version 1.1 for the Prelude and version 1.0 for the Forte, published on the same day on the Auzentech website, were incompatible. Depending on what driver was installed last, one or the other card did not work. I tried to force driver installation, with or without replacing older files with newer ones. I even tried to modify the Forte driver, being newer in terms of file versions, by adding Prelude-related strings into the INF file, but all in vain. So, what to do then? I had noticed the ASUS Xonar Essence STX to sound almost like the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 if its default NJM2114 opamps were replaced with NE5532P opamps. The Auzen Forte is not exactly an opponent to the ASUS Essence because these products are developed with different goals in mind, but they do have a lot in common including a PCI Express bus, a dedicated headphone output with integrated amplifier, and music-oriented capacitors. So if these two cards prove to be similar in sound quality, the Auzen X-Fi Forte 7.1 might be called the winner as offering more capabilities at a lower price!
However, these hopes were shattered as soon as I tried to listen to music, without even comparing the sound to that of other sound cards. The Auzen X-Fi Forte 7.1 was unpleasantly aggressive and I had a headache within half an hour of listening to it in headphones. Its stiff highs jarred on my eardrum and its sharp bass lacked the bottommost frequencies, transforming each drum into a “tum-tum” drone. There was almost no sound stage altogether, which was absolutely unlike the Auzen Prelude! That was even not comparable to anything I had heard before, including the integrated audio of mainboards. The closest example I can think of is the sound of a too-tight guitar string. This initial experience calmed me down somewhat and I took to testing an ASUS Xonar Essence STX in games for the appropriate review. The Auzen Forte was left in the system case to warm up.
I had been rather skeptical about the need for audio equipment to warm up to work properly as I had not been able to see this effect in practice. All sound cards I had tested earlier did their best right out of the box and my initial impressions were no different from later ones, such factors as driver issues and software settings put aside. However, the warming up indeed applies to the Auzen Forte due to two reasons. Its electrolytic capacitors have a very high operating temperature and its sound quality improves over time! The two largest capacitors in the voltage converter (470µF, 16V) are scorching hot at work and the rest of the components, including the blocking capacitors Nichicon MUSE (33µF, 25V) on the analog outputs, are hot, too. I don’t know for sure if this is the reason for the changes in sound, but it is a fact: the stiffness of high frequencies vanished in a few weeks, bass sounds became more detailed, and the aggressiveness turned into good macro dynamics.
In my three previous reviews I referred to the sound of the Auzen Prelude as comfortable, gentle and airy. The card’s exceptional tonal neutrality together with high definition and spatial resolution provoke the presence effect with high-quality binaural recordings but prove to be impotent with full-bodied music. The Prelude is not good with heavy metal and with the fortissimo of brass wind instruments, violins and choruses, as if choking. While a recording is calm, the card reproduces it with superb detail however complex the polyphony might be. But as soon as the power of sound exceeds a certain limit, the recording becomes flaccid and lacking in resolution.
The Auzen Forte proves to be almost completely the opposite. It is good with intensive guitar solos, concert trumpets and other calm-shattering instruments, but is clearly inferior to the sound cards reviewed earlier in micro dynamics. Where the Prelude constructs around the listener the concert hall, studio or scene the composition was performed in, the Forte only defines the most conspicuous landmarks. Where the Essence surprised the listener with its details across the entire frequency range, with the force and liveliness of overtones, the Forte leaves just the basic framework of the musical composition with a poor stereo image and without distinctive tiering. Although not exactly flat, the sound scene is almost devoid of perspective. Reverberations are weak and vocals are not as magic as with the Prelude. Bass sounds are worse, too. High frequencies are not very detailed and are rather unnatural. The attack seems to be somewhat protracted, worsening the naturalism of timbres and clarity, but the Forte can easily compete with any other sound card in terms of dynamics.
If compared directly to the Forte, the Xonar D2 delivers a somewhat clearer sound and much more distinct reproduction of environmental acoustics. It produces a soft and nice sound with distinct smaller details and excellent dynamics. The Xonar D2 is somewhat better than the Forte at building the sound scene in terms of spaciousness and sharpness of images, but may be inferior to the Prelude in the acoustic correctness of those images. For example, the clicking of an oboe’s valves in one recording was perceived as a separate sound source due to the difference in the reflections of sound from the studio walls. The Prelude is also better at reproducing realistic applause, the Xonar D2 and Forte taking second and third places, respectively.