Asus Xonar Essence STX Reviewhardnrg - May 14, 2009
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The Quick Start Guide is, as you would expect, fairly basic and only really of much use to someone who hasn't installed computer hardware before. The guide tells you what the connectors are, how to install the card, and instructs you to install the driver package on the included CD. When you insert the disc and launch the setup program, you will see this window:
Clicking on "Read me" brings up some release notes about the driver version.
Clicking "Browse CD" reveals the Quick Start Guide on the CD, kind of handy if you tend to lose manuals.
The User Manual is on the CD as well and explains the connectivity options in greater detail, with examples of external speaker systems, headphones, headsets, microphones, and other external devices. It also gives a good explanation of the Xonar Audio Center, which is the software user interface of the soundcard.
To install the driver, you click on the "Audio Driver" text, and a dialog box pops up to remind you to make sure that the "Molex" power connector has been connected to the PSU.
After accepting the license agreement, it zips through the installation and then prompts you to restart the computer.
When you restart the computer, you can find the Xonar Audio Center in the Start Menu (Programs\ASUS Xonar Essence STX Audio\Xonar Essence STX Audio Center), and as a small blue and black icon in the task tray. When you open it first, you can see a 10-band spectrum analyser and indicators for modes and volume level in a graphical display. To the right of this display, there is a large volume knob, a Smart Volume Normalization (SVN) button, a Mute button, and buttons for different mode configurations (Music, Movie, Hi-Fi, Games, and GX). GX is the support for EAX games.
Clicking the small triangle/arrow button underneath the graphical display reveals more controls. The first page, Main, determines the output device, and any DSP or encoding applied to the output. The Audio Channel setting only applies to Vista, and is intended to match the sound source. So, two channels for music, six channels for DVD, and eight channels for 3D games. It's a bit tedious to have to switch this, but really, I only switch this a few times a day, if at all.
Similarly, the Sample Rate is meant to match the sound source for the best quality (avoids resampling). So 44.1 KHz for music, 48 KHz for DVD, 96 or 192 KHz for DVD-Audio, BluRay, etc.
Here is where it starts to get interesting. The Analog Out switches between the Headphone output, line-output (two speakers), or front panel (FP headphone, FP speakers). When you choose an output, the other outputs are muted, so you can't simultaneously drive all the outputs, except for the S/PDIF Out in PCM mode.
If you switch the S/PDIF Out mode to Dolby Digital Live, the analog outputs are all muted. In 2-channel source mode, there is a blue icon to the right of where it says Dolby Digital Live, clicking this reveals an option which defaults to automatic upmixing to 5.1 surround. Somewhat strangely, with four channel sources, there is no upmixing to 5.1 option. I really don't know of many quadrophonic sound sources, especially in digital format, so it's a bit of a non-issue.
Here is an example of the intended configuration of the soundcard for listening to DVD or other 5.1 media. You set the source to six channels and then either have the output set to two Speakers with Dolby Virtual Speaker, or set to Headphone with Dolby Headphone. Both configurations work very well, and I prefered using this to plain stereo without Dolby virtual surround for multi-channel sources.
The same configurations can be applied for stereo speakers or headphones when listening to 8-channel sources such as games and some of the more advanced variants of movie surround sound.
In Headphone mode, there is a hammer icon to the right, and when clicked, reveals a setting to select the gain of the amplifier! This amazed me, as it lets you match the amplification to drive any headphones. During my tests, I thought the soundcard was somewhat lacking for driving my AKG K 701 headphones until I increased the gain level to High Gain instead of the default Normal Gain. This gain setting also applies when the output is set to Front Panel Headphone!
When you change the gain setting, you are warned about the possibility of over-driving the headphones. Overclock your headphones! Seriously though, if you increase the gain and have the volume on max when some low impedance headphones are connected, you could destroy them quite easily. I have some Westone UM2 in-ear monitors that cost $300, this is just one example of low impedance headphones that could easily be damaged if you select the gain level incorrectly.
In XP, you would have separate level controls for Wave, MIDI, etc. In Vista, you only get Left and Right level sliders. These default to 75%, which is equivalent to a zero gain/cut (±0 dB), so you should leave these as they are and adjust the volume with the master volume control. The recording levels default to 100%, which is also ±0 dB. As well as being selected for recording, the microphone, line-in, and auxiliary inputs can be monitored through the output device (speakers/headphones) by pressing the hexagonal/eye button below the respective source. The microphone has advanced settings by clicking on the spanner button. You get the usual microphone boost option, and also an option for whether or not the microphone is the front panel. This is an either/or deal with relay switching.
The Effect section has EAX-like reverb presets for Environment effects. These basically make music sound crap like you're in a cave or something. The EQ section on most soundcards is somewhat lacking, but not here! The presets range from OK to comical, but give you an idea of how much the EQ works, and the great thing here is the EQ works very well! I ended up with about seven or eight presets for each set of headphones, gradually tweaking toward a very impressive sound. Normally raising the bass frequencies doesn't reach a satisfying level or distorts. I'm not a bass-head, but I like a little fuller bottom-end, and the Essence STX is capable of supplying massive amounts of clean, precise bass. The ±20 dB gain/cut range lets you sculpt the sound to suit any set of headphones. The Karaoke section is basically stupid. It's only there because the driver/mixer is common across all Xonar soundcards. If you are a budding Pop Idol, then yeah, it might be good. The Vocal Cancellation is essentially not going to ever happen properly, you should look for instrumental tracks if you are serious about karaoke or recording vocal tracks.
The FlexBass is a bass redirection feature. It works well for multiple speaker setups where you have a subwoofer and satellite or bookshelf speakers, but for the Essence STX you could only use it as a bass cut filter for headphones or stereo speakers by setting the speaker type to "Small" and then enabling FlexBass. The VocalFX section is another gimmicky set of features. You can apply the Environmental reverb or pitch-shifting Karaoke effects to your voice for Skype, MSN, games, etc. It could be funny for a prank call or having a comedy voice in online games, but that's about all the fun I would have.
The Essence STX has ASIO 2.0 support, which means it can bypass the Windows mixer. Foobar2000 is a free audio media player that supports various plugins, so I loaded it up with ASIO and WASAPI support. WASAPI is another method of bypassing the Windows mixer. By default, foobar2000 would output to the default sound device via DirectSound.
With the ASIO plugin loaded, you can go to the Output->ASIO Virtual Devices and click on Add New. On the ASIO Virtual Device Editor you can click on Configure and then set the latency lower. This doesn't make any difference in audio quality, but it makes the response slightly faster, so you may as well.
Then, the Xonar Essence STX is available as an ASIO device.
You could also choose WASAPI or DirectSound output modes.