Clean and pure sound output and control over headphone impedance.
Pricey and lacks full EAX support.
There are a few dirty secrets in the tech industry, and one of the best-guarded among them regards multichannel audio—everybody wants multichannel audio but almost no one actually runs the speakers to use it.
Sure, we all cheered when PC audio went from 4.1 to 5.1, and then from 6.1 to 7.1, but who actually runs that many satellites around his or her PC? That’s why Asus’s Xonar Essence STX is a soundcard that’s long overdue. Instead of pushing pointless multi-satellite specs, the Essence STX is aimed at folks who spend more money on a set of headphones than some people put out for an entire surround sound set.
The card shares the same audio processor and PCI-E bridge chip as the budget Xonar DX card, but the similarities stop there. Asus polished the PCB and components for the stereo and headphone crowd. Headphoneophiles will be especially pleased with the isolated power sources for the headphone and line out. Also catering to the audiophile crowd are replaceable opamps to let you tune the “color” of the audio. It’s not the first time this has been done, but it’s a nice touch. The card features Burr-Brown digital-to-analog converters and is rated at 124dB signal-to-noise ratio out the headphone jack. In addition to the 1/4-inch headphone jack, a pair of RCA outputs, a 1/4-inch line out, and a combo optical/coax SPDIF round out the card’s options (Dolby Digital Live is supported in digital).
We performed close listening tests using Dolby lossless TrueHD and a set of Etymotic ER4 earphones and found the audio to be clean and crisp. We also did an A/B Pepsi Challenge between the Essence STX, an X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty, and a laptop, using 24-bit/96KHz PCM audio, and the Essence STX was preferred by three of the five test subjects.
Though the Essence STX is not pushed as a gaming card, we did play a handful of games with the card and found the sound to be quite good. Although EAX5 is not supported, Microsoft Vista and sparse title support has mostly nullified the X-Fi API advantage today.
The upshot is that the Essence STX is a hell of a good card. Hardcore gamers will still want a real X-Fi, but for folks who are interested in getting the most from their earphones, the Essence STX is your choice.