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Sound Card Selection Help

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December 8, 2010 9:54:18 PM

Hi,

I realize there are lots of threads on this, but I'm a bit overwhelmed when it comes to sound cards. Recently, I splurged and got a pair of Sennheiser HD555 cans. I'm no audiophile, and I realize they are nothing special, but the difference in sound between the HD555 and my bargain Skullcandy phones is night and day. Originally, I was content with just using the onboard sound of my ASRock P55 Extreme mobo, but after the difference in sound by switching headphones, I'm really interested in ponying up for a sound card. Anyone have any suggestions? I was interested in the HT Omega Striker 7.1 (it's on special at Newegg for $74.99), but I'm not sure. I've been reading around about the Auzentech Forte/Prelude, Asus Xonars, etc., but it's all a jumble to me. The PC the card will be used in was built primarily for gaming, so I don't think music listening will be a primary use. Right now, I'm hooked up to a Sony Bravia and alternating between the Sony's speakers and the HD 555s. I have a receiver nearby, but more than likely, most of my sound is going to be coming from phones. I'd like to stay sub $100 on the price, but if something more expensive can be justified, I'd be willing to bite. One other question, I've read that X-fi cards are primarily designed to be useful with XP and their gains are lost on Win 7 (I use Win 7 x64). Should I avoid X-fi cards (the Auzentechs)? Thanks for the help

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December 9, 2010 1:42:07 AM

Well now, for what it is worth, I had/have one of them thar Auzen cards and it died after a few months, they have Creative chip on them, and I did not feel like paying the freight to rma the sucker to California, so I went and replaced it with an Asus Xonar DS, considering that the Auzen card cost $160 cad with taxes etc,and the Asus cost less than $100 cad I am quite satisfied with the Xonar,the Auzen was/is a PCI-E, whilst the Xonar is straight PCI, my speakers are a set of logitech Z-540 a 4 n 1 setup with an 8in bass, can't complain, hope this is of some assistance.....:) 
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December 9, 2010 11:05:55 AM

Well, both ASUS and HT Omega lean more toward music then gaming, although neither brand is a slouch in that category. If you're looking for audio that is a bit more tuned toward gaming, Auzentech wins. Its not really a quality difference, just how the audio is processed by each brand.

For Auzentech, both the Prelude and Forte are worth looking into. For a pair of 555's, I doubt a headphone amp is needed, so the Prelude might suit your price range better.

For HT Omega, the Claro is probably out of your price range, so the HT Omega Striker is the primary card I'd look at. I consider it the best card in the sub $100 market.

For ASUS, you have the budget DS (Which is no slouch itself) and the D1/DX. Quality wise, consider the D1/DX exactly the same as the Striker, with software EAX 5.0 support and a lack of real time DTS encoding (something you probably don't need).

As for EAX, those effects are no longer hardware accelerated post XP. That, alongside with the growth of USB sound devices and alternative sound card makers has lead to the decline and death of the spec. I think Dirt2 was the only game released this year with EAX support at all...If you have a bunch of legacy EAX titles, it may be worth having, otherwise, I wouldn't even bother considering it when buying a soundcard.
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December 9, 2010 2:28:08 PM

gamerk316 said:
Well, both ASUS and HT Omega lean more toward music then gaming, although neither brand is a slouch in that category. If you're looking for audio that is a bit more tuned toward gaming, Auzentech wins. Its not really a quality difference, just how the audio is processed by each brand.

For Auzentech, both the Prelude and Forte are worth looking into. For a pair of 555's, I doubt a headphone amp is needed, so the Prelude might suit your price range better.

For HT Omega, the Claro is probably out of your price range, so the HT Omega Striker is the primary card I'd look at. I consider it the best card in the sub $100 market.

For ASUS, you have the budget DS (Which is no slouch itself) and the D1/DX. Quality wise, consider the D1/DX exactly the same as the Striker, with software EAX 5.0 support and a lack of real time DTS encoding (something you probably don't need).

As for EAX, those effects are no longer hardware accelerated post XP. That, alongside with the growth of USB sound devices and alternative sound card makers has lead to the decline and death of the spec. I think Dirt2 was the only game released this year with EAX support at all...If you have a bunch of legacy EAX titles, it may be worth having, otherwise, I wouldn't even bother considering it when buying a soundcard.


Thanks for the replies, mosox and gamerk316. So EAX really isn't necessary anymore. Some reviews of the cards seem to say that it is a huge deal, but I thought EAX was pretty much dead. Part of my confusion is that the model turnover of sound cards doesn't seem to be nearly as fast as say video cards. Is breaking $100 worth it?

The HT Omega Striker caught my eye because it was on sale and seems popular. Is there a noticeable difference between the Striker and something like the Prelude, Claro, Asus Essence or D2X? I'm willing to break my budget if it's worth it, but the improved quality might be lost on me and my setup.

I'm assuming driver issues are hammered out pretty well with Win7, but are there any driver issues with any cards?

I've noticed that refurbs for some of the brands are available and they seem to just be open box items. Has anyone had any luck with refurbs?
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December 9, 2010 5:55:20 PM

The HT Omega Striker and ASUS Xonar D1/DX are popular because once you get much above them, you pay a lot more for a lot less improvement. For instance, the sound output quality between the Xonar D1 and Xonar D2 is minimal (2 dB). You get a few extra features and better connectivity, but thats really all.

Basically, this is my ranking system:
Budget: ASUS Xonar DS
Mid-range: ASUS Xonar D1/DX, HT Omega Striker
High End: Auzentech Prelude, ASUS Xonar D2/D2X
W/ Headphone amp: ASUS Essence ST/STX, Auzentech Forte, Auzentech Buravia, HT Omega Claro

Above mid-range, you're really paying for features rather then quality. The Striker is an EXCELLENT price/performance.

As for EAX, it mattered a few years ago, but with so few titles using it, its more or less a legacy spec.
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December 9, 2010 6:40:03 PM

gamerk316 said:
The HT Omega Striker and ASUS Xonar D1/DX are popular because once you get much above them, you pay a lot more for a lot less improvement. For instance, the sound output quality between the Xonar D1 and Xonar D2 is minimal (2 dB). You get a few extra features and better connectivity, but thats really all.

Basically, this is my ranking system:
Budget: ASUS Xonar DS
Mid-range: ASUS Xonar D1/DX, HT Omega Striker
High End: Auzentech Prelude, ASUS Xonar D2/D2X
W/ Headphone amp: ASUS Essence ST/STX, Auzentech Forte, Auzentech Buravia, HT Omega Claro

Above mid-range, you're really paying for features rather then quality. The Striker is an EXCELLENT price/performance.

As for EAX, it mattered a few years ago, but with so few titles using it, its more or less a legacy spec.


Thanks again for the reply gamerk316, you're definitely helping me narrow it down.

Why is/isn't a headphone amp useful?

I realize there seems to be a lot of dislike towards Creative, but is the Fatal1ty Titanium Pro a decent card ($109.55 at Amazon)?

Is the Bravura the Buravia you mentioned? I can't seem to easily find Auzentechs except through their online store, and it seems only refurbs are available for the Forte, Prelude and Bravura. But the refurbs are close to my price before shipping. Is it worth the risk? Doesn't Auzentech use Creative hardware?

I guess it comes down to what would you buy, the HT Omega Striker, or a higher end refurb card? Thanks again.
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December 11, 2010 3:19:07 PM

Hate to reply to my own response, but quick and dirty, which card should I choose based on price:

HT Omega Striker $74.99
HT Omega Claro/Claro+ $159.99/174.99
Asus Essence STX $157.99
Asus Xonar D2 $158.99
Auzentech X-Meridian/Forte/Bravura ~$150.00-160.00

I'm mainly going to be using HD 555s, but I do want something that I can connect to a receiver if I choose to do so in the future or switch the card to an HTPC. Of course, I also want a card that I can use for at least three years. Thanks.
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December 13, 2010 8:45:28 PM

Well i read your entire post scuzzy, and i know the position you are in where you want to make the upgrade but you want it to be the right choice. i am in the current situation of wanting to upgrade away from my integrated sound card (XPS 8100) to a better one and I am down to the HT Omega Striker and the Asus Xonar D1 7.1. I will be getting a pair of Senn 360's this week so i want the right sound card to compliment them. I have read so many posts/forums/articles/reviews on these things and am down to the point of eenie meenie miney moing it. i hear great things about both, but then read something that makes me say ouch. my advice to you is to remember that there will always be jackasses who say that there is static/buzzing but are using fail equipment so bla bla, just don't forget that you have done your research and trust it. my 2 cents
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December 14, 2010 2:37:07 PM

scuzzy1 said:
Hate to reply to my own response, but quick and dirty, which card should I choose based on price:

HT Omega Striker $74.99
HT Omega Claro/Claro+ $159.99/174.99
Asus Essence STX $157.99
Asus Xonar D2 $158.99
Auzentech X-Meridian/Forte/Bravura ~$150.00-160.00

I'm mainly going to be using HD 555s, but I do want something that I can connect to a receiver if I choose to do so in the future or switch the card to an HTPC. Of course, I also want a card that I can use for at least three years. Thanks.


Dang, prices have dropped a bit...especially the Claro/STX. But the Striker at $74 is a bloody steal.

The main advantage of a powered amp (like the Claro and Essnce STX has) is because the extra power output really drives high end headphones to their limit. However, your HD555's don't fit into that category, and really wouldn't benifit much. Nice to have, but it doesn't sound like you really need one.

On the Home Theatre side, all the cards have SPDIF output, so they can connect easily to any receiver on the market. And connecting via analog is simple enough; RCA and AC97 (the PC audio spec) outputs more or less the same signal, the only differnece being that AC97 carries TWO channels of audio per wire, instead of ONE in the RCA spec, so you'd need a converter cable which costs about a $1 each.

Based on what you want, I think the Striker is the best choice you have listed.
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December 14, 2010 3:32:36 PM

Ok, so here's what I've come to conclude from looking for a sound card. Maybe someone else who is as confused as I was will find it helpful. I'm just going to list the brands/cards from "worst" to "best". I've stayed away from technical explanations, mostly because I don't fully understand all the tech speak of sound cards. A big thanks to gamerk316 for all the input/help from his posts here and throughout the forum.

I should start by saying if you're coming from looking at info about video cards, sound cards are an entirely different beast. There are quantifications of quality/ability (RMAA?), but they're not easy to find and it seems like once you near the $100 price point, in general all cards have above average quality. Four important things I've found:

1. If you don't have a mid to high end speaker/headphone setup, you probably won't be able to hear much of a difference between onboard and a sound card. Ask around about your phones or speakers first to determine if a sound card upgrade would be beneficial.
2. While X-Fi is recognized as the end all be all of chips for gaming sound, there seems to be a general consensus that if you're using Vista or 7, the chips "edge" is diminished.
3. A lot of people and review sites make a big deal about EAX support. EAX is considered legacy/deprecated. Unless you are playing games that are two to three years old, it's really not necessary. In other words, EAX and X-Fi should not be determining factors in what you buy.
4. There is no "best" in sound cards like there is in video cards. Every card has strengths and flaws. It's up to you to decide what you need/want and go from there. You'll find it very strange that the top of the line models sometimes lack features that lower end models have, but that's the way it is.

If you are looking for an HTPC card, they make cards specifically for HTPCs; you're probably better off researching an HTPC card than one of the cards I was looking at. If you fancy yourself an audiophile (you are well versed in the capacitors, OP-AMPS, etc. that you like) I'm guessing that a card >$200 will be more to your liking. The cards that approach $200 seem to border on audiophile level, but I've gotten the feeling that an audiophile won't be completely happy with any sub-$200 card. Finally, I'm not trying to troll any cards here, just reporting what I read on Head-Fi, Tom's Hardware, AVSForums and the manufacturer's sites, with some review sites mixed in.

Creative: I looked into Creative the least, but it is by far the brand that everyone likes least. A lot of the animosity seems to come from their initial poor driver support of Vista and 7. It seems like they've fixed up their drivers, but audiophiles seem to agree that they use the "poorest" components to make their cards. I think that if you're just looking for a sound card for gaming, it's not a terrible choice, just not the best. If you want something closer to audiophile quality, you should look elsewhere.

Auzentech: Auzentech appears to be recommended whenever someone is looking for a gaming card rather than Creative since it is excellent for gaming and also decent for music. The X-Fi chip that both Auzentech and Creative use are supposed to be far superior for gaming than anything else. At the same time, as mentioned above, there seems to be consensus that X-Fi just isn't that useful in Vista and 7. Everything I've read about the Auzentech Forte/Bravura/Prelude/Meridian seems to be good, except on the flip side, there seems to be lots of users that have faulty cards after about a year. It's all anecdotal, but even people that love the card readily admit that their cards haven't lasted long. The high end cards are difficult to find anywhere other than Auzentech's own web site, and even then they are mostly sold out (they actually have posts saying when they are expecting a new shipment). Furthermore, some message boards claim that their customer service is awful (the BBB gives them a rating of F), they have supposedly closed their CA offices and their forums are close to dead. The cards are raved about, but given low supply and spotty service, I selected to pass. If you're willing to take a chance, they're good cards.

Asus Xonar D2/DX2: I really didn't look into the D2 very much. From what I can tell, it's a good card but the quality of the card is so close to the D1/DX, that you might as well save yourself about $100 (the DX seems to always have a MIR) and buy the D1/DX instead.

HT Omega Striker: It seems like this is the best sub-$100 card since everyone seems to like it. If all you want is a good sound card without thinking much, this is probably the one you should get. It lacks a headphone amp and uses a chip that's a step down from the Claro's and Essence, but it's still a solid card overall. It seems to be more of a music card than a gaming card, but no one seems to really mind.

HT Omega Claro/Claro+/Claro Halo: Any of the Claro cards are considered very nice. As you move up the product line (and price) you get a few more features with the Halo having the best features and a headphone amp. There is agreement that HT Omega's customer service is unbelievably good, and all the components they use are considered high quality. Unfortunately HT Omega only sells through Newegg (in the US at least) and their products don't go on sale often. Also, finding reviews for the Halo was difficult at best. I know it is one of the better sound cards, I just can't say how good it really is without more review info. Once again, the Claro's seem more geared to music listening than gaming. As such, if you listen to music more than you game, this is probably the card for you. As for which Claro to get, if you only use headphones, you should get the Halo; if you only use speakers, you're probably safe with the Claro or Claro+ and the $25-50 you save. One thing to note about HT Omega products in general, they don't go on sale often; if you see one on sale at Newegg, and you are the least bit interested, buy it.

Asus Essence ST/STX: Of the upper end cards, the Essence seems to be considered the "best". They have a headphone amp and have the ability to simulate EAX. They are considered to have some of the best components and offer the best headphone listening of the cards I've mentioned. However, they do have some flaws and I've heard varying complaints about a drop off in sound quality. If you game more than you listen to music, I'd recommend these over the Claro's. However, if you run your PC through a receiver or use speakers exclusively, it seems that the Claro's are considered to be a better choice. While there isn't supposed to be any difference between PCI and PCIe sound cards, there seems to be an acknowledgement that the ST (PCI version) has better sound quality than the STX (PCIe version). If you have the choice, and the price is the same, it's probably better to go with the ST.

Conclusion: Wow, wrote way more than anticipated, hope you made it this far. Really, none of the cards are truly awful or even bad. The only brand you might want to not even think about is Creative and only because you will be forever ridiculed when you ask for help on a message board. If you are looking for a sub-$100 card, you can't go wrong with the HT Omega Striker. Moving up in price gives minimal gains, but if you really fancy yourself as a (budding) audiophile, it's probably worthwhile to put in the extra $50-100 and get one of the higher end cards.

I ended up going for the Asus Essence STX. I don't have great headphones (HD 555) but I wanted to push them as far as I could. The Essence seems to be considered the "best" but do have some flaws. Ultimately it came down to knowing that I'm really only going to use headphones for gaming and price. It seems the Essence is considered to be really good for headphone use (as well as a more capable gaming card) and I found the card at superbiiz.com for $157.99 (after coupon code HOLIDAYCHEER). If it wasn't for the price drop, I probably would have stuck with the Striker. I also probably wouldn't have been able to make a decision between the Essence and Halo if the Halo was closer to $160. I don't have the card yet, but I'm anxious to see how it stacks up to the onboard I've been using. Hopefully the above helps someone out in the future.
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December 14, 2010 3:37:15 PM

gamerk316 said:
Dang, prices have dropped a bit...especially the Claro/STX. But the Striker at $74 is a bloody steal.

The main advantage of a powered amp (like the Claro and Essnce STX has) is because the extra power output really drives high end headphones to their limit. However, your HD555's don't fit into that category, and really wouldn't benifit much. Nice to have, but it doesn't sound like you really need one.

On the Home Theatre side, all the cards have SPDIF output, so they can connect easily to any receiver on the market. And connecting via analog is simple enough; RCA and AC97 (the PC audio spec) outputs more or less the same signal, the only differnece being that AC97 carries TWO channels of audio per wire, instead of ONE in the RCA spec, so you'd need a converter cable which costs about a $1 each.

Based on what you want, I think the Striker is the best choice you have listed.


LOL. After I posted my giant conclusion statement, I saw your post. Needless to say, I went with the Essence STX Especially since the deal on the Striker ended. The Essence deal just seemed too good to pass up. Thanks again for all the info and help gamerk316, you know your stuff. I'd be interested to know your thoughts on what I typed in my "conclusion"
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December 14, 2010 4:38:29 PM

Can't argue with the Essence for around $160 or so.

As for your determinations, yeah, you are more or less right. These days, how the audio gets processed by each different card/brand, what connections are avaliable, and a few extra features, are generally more important then pure output signal quality. Its totally subjective; I prefer ASUS, but can't argue agaisnt Auzentech or HT Omega, they are all that close together.
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December 14, 2010 4:56:00 PM

Hey gamerk316, I was interested if you had any experience with the Halo. Like I said, there isn't much info on it, but I heard that it's frequency response wasn't great. Just interested if you had an opinion on it. Also, just for my own curiosity, why do you prefer Asus?
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December 14, 2010 6:09:08 PM

u shouldn't worry too much on sound cards frequency response, the difference in each cards freq. response, it absolutely minimal, plus it varies subtly to each brand.
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December 20, 2010 2:56:24 PM

Best answer selected by scuzzy1.
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December 21, 2010 7:00:01 AM

This topic has been closed by Maziar
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