Asus Xonar Essence STX + AD900 mini review · Jun 16, 06:49 PM
I’ve had my Asus Xonar Essence STX and AD900 combination for a little while now; long enough to have a good listen and let the ‘phones burn in. It’s been a massive improvement over my old A900 + onboard sound combo so here’s my review detailing my thoughts on this setup! I’ve mostly just been listening to music but I do also game fairly often with my PC.
This was relatively painless as far as computers go. I’m always worried that something will go terribly wrong for absolutely no logical reason, as computer seem to like doing this to me. Putting the card in was a snap and driver installation pretty breezy too. The first thing I noticed was a new sound from my computer while booting: I can hear a click in the computer case and my headphones when the amp turns on! That gave me a warm fuzzy feeling the first few times.
The only hiccup was I couldn’t jump straight into playing games as it would crash my computer! Updating the drivers fixed that :)
Features and Functions
This is the main screen for the Xonar Audio Center.
(Clicking will open an image in a new window).
The most important features are the tick boxes that allow the Dolby surround options such as the 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter. Selecting Dolby Headphone allows you to choose between 3 different settings of surround sound room sizes, shown below. The 5 buttons in the bottom right seem to just switch between which Dolby room settings Xonar believes most suit games, music, Hi-Fi or movies. I don’t know what the button labeled GX does but apparently the ‘livelier room’ option best suits games and movies while the ‘larger room’ suits music the best. I’d have to agree, at least on the music option. (Click here to see the “room” options.)
I only realised recently I’d had the Dolby Headphone box ticked since I installed the card and hadn’t been listening to true stereo from my headphones. What I had on was the ‘Larger Room’ option and I do actually prefer the sound with this option on. It broadens the soundstage and seems to add more dynamic range to your music, mostly because it gives greater separation between the bass, mid, and high ranges. Mid range sound is more central in the sound stage as it mimics the purpose of a center-channel speaker for vocals etc. The main benefit to listening without this option is being able to more clearly hear the fainter little elements of music that don’t really add much in the way of melody.
I also played around with the Dolby Digital 7.1 surround sound option and at first enjoyed the extra oomph it seemed to give my music. For some reason it automatically boosts the volume when I turn it on, and I found myself turning it down constantly and becoming fatigued quite quickly. It’s definitely interesting in the way it positions sounds as though coming from a 7.1 home theatre, though all the bass notes come from the far right of the soundstage, which is the default virtual “position” of the subwoofer. In this case I definitely prefer stereo sound as the bass notes are completely butchered in music when they are so heavily directional. You do have the option to adjust and manually position the various virtual speakers by dragging them around the in the ‘speaker shifter’ box but the subwoofer is limited to only moving in closer or further away from the center of the soundstage (and always slightly to the right). One of the fun parts of this option is hitting either of the top 2 arrows in the red box I’ve highlighted. This sets the positioning to rotate around slowly and so your sound seems to rotate around in your head. Trippy!
I haven’t tried this function with movies or tv shows yet but I can easily see myself still preferring the basic Dolby Headphone sound over such a heavily augmented presentation. Mostly I just don’t like to hear such closed in bass. You shouldn’t be able to pinpoint the bass from a real subwoofer if properly positioned in a room, but the virtual subwoofer always sounds skewed to the right.
Versus onboard sound
The best way for me to go back and listen to the difference the STX makes was to plug the AD900s into my onboard and listen to some tunes! Here’s some of my favourite tracks right now that exemplify what I love in music
Younger Brother – Happy Pills:
Onboard sound loses out so much of the separation between the different noises in the music, particularly in the lower end sound. There’s a wonderful little bubbly melody that I love in this song that just gets destroyed by the bass notes and dominant highs. The AD900s still sound great here but definitely lose a huge amount of the vibrant dynamic range that the STX gives, which really brings this kind of music to life.
Tool – Ticks and Leeches:
Ugh, this sounds so muddy and sloppy without my STX behind it. The intro really loses most of its build up and impact and really doesn’t sound clean at all. Much of the guitar blurs together and it’s hard to distinguish between the bass guitar and drum kicks. In particular, there’s a specific bass note which I had thought was just a bass strum with some extra impact to it, but with my STX I can actually hear the drum beating in time with the bass guitar. It’s this kind of clarity and separation which remind me why I bought my ADs. Being able to hear all the instruments playing in such carefully orchestrated music is bliss.
Hallucinogen (remixed) – L.S.D
This is the kind of song where bass impact is something that can make or break how well it sounds. With onboard sound the song is completely lacklustre. Bass notes (which form my favourite melodies in this track) are completely swamped by the mids and high range. Even when there’s little going on other than bass it sounds completely recessed. Switching to the STX reveals so much of what I was missing it’s just insane. Impact is really brought out too and it’s actually quite punchy for AD900s. That’d be the built-in amp at work, however little it adds compared to a full desktop setup ;)
Everything improves with the STX. Greater separation and clarity, broader soundstage, more impact on bass notes, greater dynamic range, and ofcourse the various Dolby Headphone options to bring out even more from the music. There is no way I could describe the AD900 as “bass lean” from the STX because it’s pretty much perfect for what I listen to. There’s impact yet it’s still so quick and clean that it doesn’t drown out any other part of the song.
Games and sound effects
I have to point out that I don’t play hardcore twitch FPS games where hearing footsteps or item pickups is the be-all-end-all of soundstage. And most of the time if I’m gaming I’ll also be listening to music. I do still hear footsteps reasonably well in what I do play, but I’m generally the one sneaking up on my opponents and not the other way around!
Most of what I notice from the STX with gaming and general computer use is an improvement in clarity and dynamics in sound effects. My messenger program start-up noise is really vibrant and clear now; clear to the point that I can hear a very slight distorted buzz at the end of it which was never there before. There’s better separation between all the sounds in games too, ambient explosions or lightning stream weaponry for example could overpower most of my sound previously but it’s all nicely balanced now. Positional sound is definitely quite well defined but as I mentioned it really isn’t important to be amazingly accurate for my gaming. I’d expect it would serve incredibly well for games such as Counter Strike or Quake but that’s just not my usual cup of tea so I can’t comment on that in depth for all you fps junkies out there
I couldn’t be happier with the sound card at least (maybe I’d be happier with MS Pros) and the AD900s are absolutely wonderful when paired with it. There’s not much more I could ask for with musical presentation because the 900s suit all my music tastes brilliantly, from metal to all the bizarre stuff like Out Hud. As far as being an upgrade over my old A900 + onboard sound, any decent soundcard would do but I can hear how the onboard amp brings my AD900s to life, and I find myself preferring the sound from the Dolby Headphone option over what I get from the setup at work! I’ve only got two issues with my setup now and both are quite minor: when swapping between my onboard card and the STX I have to reset my computer, and the AD900s initially made the cartilage in my ears ache (I’m used to the deeper cups on the A900s, my ears stick out, and I had/have a fresh helix cartilage piercing) but I’m used to that now. I’m lucky in that I can actually use my hair as extra padding ;)
All in all, colour me a very happy customer!
The Sennheiser PC350 · Apr 8, 02:14 PM
Sennheiser PC350 Headset.
Well I finally got around to testing one of these out, and I was kind of vaguely looking forward to it.
Every now and then a product comes along that makes me stop and go “wow!”
Well, the PC350 did that for several reasons.
First, the packaging made me go “wow! they sure don’t want you getting to your headphones, do they?” Seriously, this has to be the most retardedly difficult packaging to get into ever. It’s even worse than plastic blister packs. There are even instructions on the box that tell you how to get into the box, but they’re not very helpful as I still had to struggle to get them out. Maybe I got a faulty box.
But I think Sennheiser have the right idea, because the packaging looks great. It’s as if they wanted you to stop and just admire the packaging, leave your headphones in there and put them on the shelf. Kind of like buying action figures to leave in the box and admire, not to take out and play with.
Which is fair enough too, because the second thing that made me go “wow!” was the sound quality.
Wow, it’s really bad for the price!
These basically have the sound characteristics of the HD515, with less soundstage than the HD215.
Bass is probably something gamers might like, it’s not very powerful, or prominent, or well defined, but it’s boomy. So basically in games explosions will give you plenty of one-note action.
Midrange is actually ok, so for a headset they’ve done a good thing here because voice comms should be fairly clear, if you can hear them over boomy explosions. But you know what, if you’re just using your headset for voice comms, and you don’t care a bout other aspects, you can get away with spending a lot less than these things cost.
Treble is dull and lacks definition or detail, so again I suppose for games and voice comms it means you could listen to them forever and not get listening fatigue, but that’s if you can manage to stay awake.
Soundstage is poor, which makes me wonder why gamers would want them in the first place. Positional audio in games relies on soundstage and definition of sound, the PC350 lacks both of these things.
I grabbed a pair of Alessandro MS-1 just to quickly compare and it was like a breath of fresh air. The MS-1 had much better soundstage (and that’s saying something), much better separation, clearer and more punchy bass, better midrange, better treble, in fact there’s not one thing that the PC350 did that the MS-1 didn’t do better, oh except isolate. The MS-1 is also a lot lighter and, to me, about 10x more comfortable than the PC350.
I thought that the PC350 would at least have decent soundstage seeing as it IS designed for gaming use, but alas.
The microphone on these isn’t very adjustable either, it sticks out quite a long way and the bendy bit in the middle isn’t very bendy. I know a lot of people want a headset that has a nice flexible mic, well you won’t get it here.
So what do I like?
Well… they offer good isolation from outside noise, and they seem pretty rugged overall, although being able to fold up introduces some more weak points.
The volume control and mic mute is always handy to have, but in my experience it’s the very first thing to fail on headsets that have such a feature.
The packaging looks cool, I guess they might make a good collectable, but they won’t be worth much in 10 years time, unlike your New In Box Star Wars figurines that I know you have shelves full of.
I realise that a lot of people are going to ask how this compares to the Beyer DT234pro, because they’re what I normally recommend, but instead of giving a straight answer, here are some pros and cons:
Pro DT234pro – lighter than the PC350
Con DT234pro – supra-aural instead of circumaural.
Overall – some might find the DT234pro to be more comfortable, others will prefer the PC350.
Pro DT234pro – more accurate bass response, better treble detail.
Con DT234pro – PC350 has heavier bass, which some people might like.
Overall – If you absolutely must have a bit more bass, the PC350 will probably be slightly more suitable.
Pro PC350 – better isolation than the DT234pro.
At a LAN, this will matter, otherwise it probably won’t.
Pro DT234pro – soundstage is slightly better than the PC350.
This is a no brainer really, there’s no counter point for the PC350.
Con DT234pro – not as durable as the PC350.
If you have a habit of mistreating your headphones, the PC350 will likely take a bit more of a beating.
Bottom line: the PC350 is not better than the DT234pro in enough ways to justify the price. If you want better sound than the DT234pro, you can get it easily by using a separate headphone and mic combo.
Pick your favourite pair of fullsize headphones and attach a mic to them and you’ll get better results. Remember: the DT234pro is just a DT231pro with a mic, so something like the AD700 with a $10 clipon mic is going to blow them away. Even if you’ve got something like the Sennheiser HD555 or 595, you’re going to have better sound than the PC350.
Open vs Closed headphones · Mar 26, 08:43 AM
One of the most common questions we get asked is: “What is the difference between open and closed headphones?”.
It’s pretty easy to answer really, but there are some catches.
Simply put; open headphones sound better, but closed headphones offer isolation.
By isolation I mean in terms of both sound leaking out from the headphones, and sound leaking in.
Unless you need isolation you should consider open models. You can get closed headphones that sound as good as open models, but generally the closed model will cost more.
That’s not to say that all open headphones are better than all closed models either, there are duds in both teams, as well as some models that break the mould.
Open headphones sound more ‘natural’ than closed models. Generally an open model will have much better soundstage (the ‘width and depth’ of sound), more natural bass (tighter and faster) and better separation (how well individual sounds/instruments/details are defined).
Closed headphones on the other hand tend to have a more ‘boxed in’ sound to them (where it sounds like the music is coming from inside your head) and boomier, more resonant (slower) sounding bass. Often this leads to closed headphones sounding bassier, but if you listen closely it’s normally just because the bass is stopping and starting slower, and less accurately, than it would on an open model. This is why using the term “better” can be very subjective. You might consider slow, boomy overpowering bass to be “better” than well defined and clear bass ;)
On the topic of isolation and leakage; this will depend on volume levels. Generally if you’re listening to open headphones at moderate volume levels people in the same room as you will be able to hear at least some of what you’re listening to. If you have your music loud, they’ll clearly be able to hear what you’re listening to. If people are going to be disturbed by this, you might want to consider closed.
Also, if the ambient volume levels around you are low, you shouldn’t be that disturbed by them with open headphones, however if you’re in a noisy environment (public transport, aircraft etc) then closed headphones may be a better choice as you might have to turn open headphones up to drown out background noise, and that’s potentially damaging to your ears.
For travel we recommend canalphones, as they offer the most isolation (and excellent portability) but that’s a subject for another day!
Good and Cheap · Mar 13, 05:55 AM
We thought that every couple of months we’d have a look at one particular section of our stock and write up a short guide to products that we really like. Today we’re going through the cheaper end of things, with everything listed coming in at under $100. This list is just a guide, often products suit one purpose or another quite well but we can’t just list every single model. The models listed here are stand-out models in their respective price range.
Sub $100 Recommendations
Sennheiser MX450 – The only difference between the MX450 and 550 (or 400 and 500) is the inline volume control. The specs say otherwise, but listening tests confirm that there’s no audible difference between the two models. The inline volume control on the x50 series is pretty crappy and will just cause them to break earlier.
Audio Technica ATH-C705 – Definitely an upgrade from those horrible iPod buds you think sound good. Great sounding buds for the price.
Sennheiser CX300 – if you need some isolation and want to spend less than $100 these are a great choice. If you don’t need the isolation the KSC75 might be a better choice, but the CX300 has the advantage of being very portable. Comfy too!
Koss KSC-75 – Hands down these are the best portables for the price, in fact for under $100 they’re one of the best sounding headphones around – everyone should have a pair of these at least as a benchmark. We don’t recommend the KSC-55 generally as you can’t adjust them at all and they can get uncomfortable, but if you need something more secure the 55 may be a good option (skating/snowboarding etc).
The Koss KSC-50 has been discontinued and is no longer available, however we found the KSC75 to be a better product in terms of comfort.
If you don’t like the idea of clip-ons:
AKG K24P – Cheap, good sound for the price. Not as good as the Koss, but they’re an over-the-head design which some people prefer. The downside with these (along with any others that share a similar design) is that they aren’t that comfortable.
If you need isolation and portability:
AKG K26P – Doesn’t sound as good as the K24, but won’t leak that much.
For the price both AKG models are better than the equivalent Sennheisers (PX100/200) in our opinion.
Sennheiser HD201 – Cheap, closed, well built, comfy. Not amazing, just a decent headphone for a low price.
Burnin - Should you bother? · Oct 31, 12:51 PM
There’s a lot of divided opinions on this one, I’ll give mine.
First – there are no long-term benefits of burning in your headphones. It’s purely a short term thing. Whether burnin effects the sound of the headphones, your your perception of how the headphones sound hasn’t really been established. There was a time where I swore that a good long burnin made a difference, now I have unlimited access to multiple pairs of the same model I can do proper tests – comparing “burnt in” models to ones that aren’t. The differences aren’t as big as some might think or claim.
Despite that, my belief is to form a proper opinion of any audio equipment you should stick with it for a while, get used to it and the hole it left in your wallet. Whether it’s a case of the equipment’s sound characteristics changing over time or it’s just you getting used to the sound is a moot point.
In a lot of cases people will judge something on first impression, but to form a valid opinion of audio you kind of have to grok it first. Examine it from multiple directions, give it time.
If you think running your headphones overnight with some kind of white/pink noise CD is going to chance the sound, go for it.
The only thing I do not recommend is running frequency sweeps at high volumes because this could damage the drivers. There are cases of people hating the way headphones sound after “burning them in”.
Bottom line, simplest way to burn them in (in my opinion) is to put a CD that you like that has a good range of frequencies or styles of music on repeat, just above your normal listening volume, overnight.However the only time I ever bother doing this is when I’m testing new headphones for either eval or review. The rest of the time I don’t even bother, if burnin is real the headphones will go through the process in their own time. You shouldn’t be forming an opinion in the first day or so anyway, give them at least a week or two of solid listening (without switching back and forth to others).
Anyway, that’s my thoughts – I hope I make sense
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Recent PostsAsus Xonar Essence STX + AD900 mini review
Why use a portable headphone amp?
The Sennheiser PC350
A rant on headphone construction and comfort.