Asus Xonar Essence STX Reviewhardnrg -
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As with most products, I was slightly apprehensive about the Xonar Essence STX before I heard it. I asked myself, how could a small, simple amplifier on a soundcard perform anywhere near as well as a standalone headphone amplifier? The answer is, it performs spectacularly thanks to the high quality components producing the line-level audio signal, as well as the very capable headphone amplification circuitry.
Probably what surprised me the most was how well the multi-band EQ works to tailor the sound to any headphones. I feel this is because following the EQ section with powerful amplification delivers rich and detailed sound that just isn't possible on an unamplified soundcard. If you have high-end headphones without a standalone headphone amplifier, the onboard headphone amp of the Essence STX will serve you well, and you may find that you don't even need a separate amplifier. Though I still find it hard to believe, it really is that good.
The Dolby Headphone mode is found on the rest of the Xonar line of soundcards, but because the Essence STX has the amplified headphone output, it is even better, and performs well for pre-recorded multi-channel audio in movies as well as live multi-channel audio in games. Coupled with the GX mode's support for EAX environmental effects, this gives you what I would consider the best soundcard for games. I believe that games should be played using headphones, for greater immersion, spacial awareness, and for the optimal set-up for gaming when using voice-chat features either in-game or using applications such as Ventrilo or TeamSpeak.
It's not all about headphones though, and the high quality sound is also available through the analog stereo line level output (RCA/phono) so that you can use the soundcard with speakers or even an external headphone amplifier. If you want to use the Essence STX with a multi-speaker surround sound system, you can enjoy 5.1 surround sound from games and movies as long as your computer speakers or AV receiver has a digital input. This can either be optical or coaxial, and the Dolby Digital Live feature means you can have proper surround from games, and with the upmixing feature, you can even play music through all of the speakers.
I really wasn't sure if there would be a soundcard to beat my modded X-Fi XtremeMusic, but the Xonar Essence STX beats it both in sound quality, features, and compatibility. The Creative drivers, both for the Audigy and X-Fi Soundblaster cards, can cause severe problems in Vista, causing the whole operating system to lock up, clicks and digital noise in the audio signal, and some features such as microphone input to not work at all! The Essence STX doesn't have any of these problems, and functions properly without issues while sounding better than any Creative soundcard.
If you don't really use headphones and prefer speakers, or only have a cheap headset for Skype calls or something, it would make more sense to go for the Xonar D2 or one of the newer Xonar soundcards with more features and connectivity for home cinema equipment. However, if you have high end headphones, enjoy online gaming, or watch movies at night, I cannot recommend the Essence STX highly enough. It is now my favorite soundcard and has taken the crown from my modified X-Fi XtremeMusic, so if you love sound and love headphones, do yourself a favor and get the Xonar Essence STX.
- The DAC, capacitors, and op-amps on the card produce an extremely pure and transparent sound
- Hugely dynamic and accurate sound on any headphones using the onboard headphone amplifier
- Headphone amplification works for the front panel (case) audio sockets
- Flawless driver compatibility in Vista 64-bit
- The multi-band EQ works much better than the implementations by Creative and Realtek
- Large jacks and RCA/phono sockets instead of 3.5mm stereo sockets
- Adaptors included for any devices with 3.5mm jacks
- The GX mode isn't a 100% exact emulation of EAX