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!
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