Top-shelf components; swappable op-amp; pristine analog audio quality.
Expensive; Blu-ray player software not included; too tall to fit in many home-theater PC cases.
When we reviewed
Asus’s Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim
in November 2009, we described it as a necessary evil for home-theater enthusiasts because of its unique ability to send Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio bit streams from a PC’s Blu-ray drive to an A/V receiver over HDMI. By the time you read this review, you should be able to do the same thing with any videocard equipped with a Radeon HD 5000-series GPU. How much value will Auzentech’s premium-priced X-Fi Home Theater HD retain under those circumstances?
The answer depends on how fanatical you are about audio quality. Auzentech’s PCI Express card features Creative’s awesome 20K2 audio processor and all the great software features that go with it, including the X-Fi Crystalizer for music playback, ASIO 2.0 support for audio recording, and EAX 5.0 and OpenAL support for gaming. The onboard Cirrus Logic CS4382 DAC boasts dynamic range of 114dB, and the stereo operational amplifier plugs into a socket, so you can swap out the stock National Semiconductor model for something stronger. There’s an onboard headphone amplifier, and a combo TOSLINK and S/PDIF connector on the mounting bracket, so you can use either optical or coaxial cables for digital audio connections.
Analog audio connections are handled by a D-Sub connector on the mounting bracket. This connector mates to a proprietary analog audio I/O cable with four 1/8-inch stereo line-level outputs, one 1/8-inch MIC input, and one 1/8-inch line input. There’s a 1/8-inch headphone jack on the mounting bracket, too. Internally, the board has an Intel HD Audio–compatible front-panel audio header, plus the proprietary connections to accommodate Creative’s X-Fi Titanium I/O Drive.
We predict most people will eschew the multichannel analog outputs in favor of HDMI. But bits are bits, and if an HDMI connection is all you’re looking for, Auzentech’s solution won’t sound any more fabulous than two far cheaper solutions: a Radeon HD 5750 videocard or an Asus HDAV 1.3 Slim.
Unlike Asus, Auzentech doesn’t include the Blu-ray player software you’ll need to stream Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio over HDMI. At press time, CyberLink’s PowerDVD 9 Ultra ($90) was the only compatible software (Asus bundles ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Theatre 3 with its HDAV series cards). Cyberlink added this functionality to the OEM version recently, so if you received a copy with your Blu-ray drive, you’re all set.
We criticized the HDAV 1.3 Slim because it relied on the increasingly archaic PCI architecture. Auzentech’s card will plug into any PCI Express slot, but its 3.75-inch height prevented us from putting the lid back on our home-theater PC (AMD’s Maui reference design, which is housed in an nMedia HTPC 2000 case). We also had to remove the mounting-bracket screw because it blocked the card’s HDMI input.
The X-Fi Home Theater HD will be overkill for most, but gaming audiophile home-theater enthusiasts with deep pockets will dig its pristine sonic qualities and extensive feature set. And this being Maximum PC , we’re willing to overlook its high price tag and the fact that it doesn’t come with all the software it needs. But we’re withholding a Kick Ass award because the card is too tall to fit in a tall home-theater enclosure, and there’s just no excuse for not being able to put a screw in the mounting bracket without blocking the HDMI socket.