So I just built a new gaming rig and am interested in upgrading the sound card from the onboard audio. I will be using this sound card primarily for games (80%), but also for movies and music (20%) when the mood hits me (I use all hi-fi sources). When gaming, I almost exclusively use my Audio-technica ath-ad700 headset, although I do occasionally use a set of razer mako 2.1 speakers when guests are over. I am looking for the best sound card (under $200) for my varied uses. Preferably, the sound card should have a built in headphone amp, as I do not currently own one. These are a few cards I've been looking at.
I was originally considering a creative x-fi sound card but after seeing some horrible reviews on the forums decided against them. I am slightly curious about this card as well. It doesn't have a headphone amp but I've heard good things about it and it is much less expensive. Would this be adequate for my needs?
I own an X-Fi XtremeMusic and the reason i got it is for headphones as well. It does a pretty good 3D surround emulation and also its Crystalizer feature makes most MP3s sound much better!
If i had to get a new card today though i would probably go with one of the Xonars. Creative's products are not bad, but the drivers are usually AWEFUL!
Another feature i love on my X-Fi is the EAX5 hardware support (nice for games and i play a lot so it is a good feature to have). Now the Xonars emulate EAX5 and as far as i have read they support most games, emulating almost properly, so it does not seem something that you will miss much from Creative.
The headphone amp is missed only in rare occasions where (only in movies so far) the dialogue is so low that the actors are whispering (or bad recording). That is the only case i really wanted to have one. But in 3 years now, it has only been in 3-4 movies, so even if you don't have one i guess you will be alright. In anything else i have to turn the volume down quite a bit because it is still loud, even without an amp.
With your usage in mind, the choice is really between the ASUS Xonar Essence STX (or it's sister card, the Essence ST) and the HT|Omega Claro Halo.
Both have the same C-Media CMI8788 Oxygen HD chip, the same TI headphone amp and both offer very high quality sound.
The Xonar Dx is also an excellent card but, lacking a dedicated amp, it is not as suited to your needs.
Even with both cards being so similar, I would still prefer the Essence over the Claro Halo.
The Essence series have higher grade DAC's, ADC's, a generally better analogue signal path and can produce a somewhat cleaner sound.
They can also switch the level of amplification through software (the Halo uses a jumper) and offers emulation of EAX 5 (both support EAX 2 in hardware).
With both being the same price, I would defiantly lean towards the slightly better sound on the Essence.
The HP amp on either of these cards is quite good, much better than a dedicated amp in the $200 range even.
Gaming with either of these cards will be a real treat also.
The Dolby Headphone implementation is top notch.
I am currently using an Essence STX with my K701's and the 3d audio produced rivals what is produced with my 5.1 speakers.
I would recommend keeping it set to 6 channels with Dolby Headphone set to the medium sized room.
To me, the sound gets somewhat muddy and less accurate when you try to vitalise 8 channel sound using the Xear 3D Virtual Speaker Shifter.
No, not really overkill.
Everything I have read about the Sennheiser 350's puts their sound quality a step behind most of Sennheiser's offerings, though.
If you already have the 350's, an Essence will let you tap every last ounce of their potential.
If you are considering buying them, please post your budget and I will try to point you towards a better setup.