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Asus Xonar Essence STX

What Does It Take To Turn The PC Into A Hi-Fi Audio Platform?
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In May of 2009, Asus launched its Xonar Essence ST. The STX, which is almost identical except for its PCI Express interface (and a few other minor differences, notably the lack of daughterboard support for eight-channel audio), followed shortly thereafter.

The Xonar Essence ST(X) was one of the first cards designed specifically to support high-end headphones and bridge the gap between PCs and the high-end audiophile world. Most notably, it included 1/4" TRS connectors, which are rare on add-in cards. The Xonar ST(X) totally came out of left field; nobody imagined a motherboard manufacturer taking that route.

The STX is still sold today at close to its full launch price. How many other sound cards from 2009 can boast such a claim? Asus' design was presumably so effective that when the company introduced its Xonar Essence STU in October of 2013 (almost five years later), it pretty much mirrored the implementation, adding an external enclosure, two volume controls, and some other minor stuff (including 49720 op amps, which aren't popular on the STX, but might have been implemented differently). The Essence One uses somewhat higher-quality components and includes a few more features. But the STX must have been something special, since the Essence One is no longer for sale and the Essence STU doesn't appear to have much momentum.

So, what makes the Xonar Essence STX so successful?

Red: LME48960 op amps (used and spare), Green: stock JRC2114D + LM 4562 (unused), Blue: LME49720 (unused), Pink: TI PCM1792A DAC, Orange: PLX PCIe-to-PCI bridge, Purple: AV100/C-Media AV8788 DSP, Yellow: TI TPA6120A2 headphone amp, Gray: ADC section

One of its perceived strengths is the flexibility to manually swap out the operational amplifiers. Although many would argue that the real-world benefit of doing this is close to non-existent (in fact, you're more likely to make the card operate at a lower fidelity if you swap out the stock JRC2114D op amps which the card was designed for), tinkerers love the option. Tweaking a sound card, since overclocking it doesn't make much sense, resonated with the enthusiast community.

More important is the Essence STX's reportedly well-reviewed sound quality paired to high-end headphones. Asus' implementation of the once-top-of-the-line Texas Instruments PC1792A DAC and TPA6120A2 amplifier was well-received.

And then there's pricing. The Essence One ($600-$1000) and Essence STU ($400), while likely sounding similar, lacked the STX's value proposition at $190.

Because it used PCI Express, Asus' Xonar Essence STX didn't need a dedicated (and expensive) power supply. Except for a three-way gain setting, it also didn't need volume controls. It didn't need an external enclosure or the cables to connect it. The company did choose to add analog inputs and an ADC, though I doubt many of the enthusiasts who bought an STX valued that feature.

If Asus decided to create cheaper and higher-quality sound cards, rather than pricey external DACs, I think it'd win over more converts. A second version, made more affordable by cutting the ADC stages and equipped with a newer-generation DAC, would be great. It's also conceivable that enthusiasts would pay for an optional front-panel display with a quality 32-bit volume control and LCD.

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  • 12 Hide
    SuckRaven , February 25, 2014 12:29 AM
    Bravo ! Awesome, and a very thorough review. Even though as you mention, audio gear is not usually the forté/emphasis of the reviews here, it's refreshing to have someone at least try to cut through the (more often-than-not) overpriced arena of bullshit that is the field of "high-end" audio. I applaud the review, and the effort. Keep up the good work. More please.
  • 11 Hide
    shahrooz , February 25, 2014 1:05 AM
    this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
  • 11 Hide
    kitsunestarwind , February 25, 2014 12:52 AM
    The biggest thing I have found for the PC is no matter how good your DAC is , if your speakers and AMP are crap, then it will never sound better.People spend big money on DAC's and forget that you need a high Quality amp with very very low THD (total harmonic distortions) and a very good set of Full Range speakers with high sensitivity if you want good sound, instead of crappy (albeit expensive) computer speakers especially sets with a sub.
Other Comments
  • 12 Hide
    SuckRaven , February 25, 2014 12:29 AM
    Bravo ! Awesome, and a very thorough review. Even though as you mention, audio gear is not usually the forté/emphasis of the reviews here, it's refreshing to have someone at least try to cut through the (more often-than-not) overpriced arena of bullshit that is the field of "high-end" audio. I applaud the review, and the effort. Keep up the good work. More please.
  • 8 Hide
    PudgyChicken , February 25, 2014 12:44 AM
    Just wondering, why not test a Creative X-Fi Titanium HD or something like that alongside the ASUS Xonar? It would be interesting to see some of the differences between different PCIe sound cards in this matchup. However I understand that what you were really going for was showing the difference between price point and form factor at the same time, so perhaps not testing two PCIe cards makes sense.
  • 11 Hide
    kitsunestarwind , February 25, 2014 12:52 AM
    The biggest thing I have found for the PC is no matter how good your DAC is , if your speakers and AMP are crap, then it will never sound better.People spend big money on DAC's and forget that you need a high Quality amp with very very low THD (total harmonic distortions) and a very good set of Full Range speakers with high sensitivity if you want good sound, instead of crappy (albeit expensive) computer speakers especially sets with a sub.
  • 11 Hide
    shahrooz , February 25, 2014 1:05 AM
    this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
  • 1 Hide
    maestro0428 , February 25, 2014 1:27 AM
    Wonderful article! I love listening to music and do so mostly at my PCs. I try to set up systems where audio is important in component selection. Although we all love drooling over expensive equipment, many times it is not all that necessary for an amazing experience. I'd love to see more! Including smaller, studio speakers as I believe that speakers/headphones are the most important part of the equation. Keep up the great work!
  • 5 Hide
    blackmagnum , February 25, 2014 1:28 AM
    Don't forget that for PCs: the hardware is as good as its software (drivers).
  • 0 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , February 25, 2014 1:43 AM
    Agree totally with this. It always annoys me when people say they're spending over $100 on a sound card, especially when it turns out that they're using Optical out, and the whole thing is basically moot.I now have a nice source to link to.
  • -1 Hide
    1zacster , February 25, 2014 2:01 AM
    The thing is you can't just pick up two sets of good headphones, try them on different DACs/AMPs and expect to hear major differences, it takes longer than 5 minutes for your ears to adjust to newer headphones and for the differences to actually show. This is like taking food from Left Bank and then bringing in a bunch of hobos and asking them tel tell the differences between the foods.
  • 1 Hide
    dogman-x , February 25, 2014 2:34 AM
    I use an optical cable from my PC to a home theatre receiver. With this setup, stereo CD audio content is sent as raw PCM to the receiver, not compressed into DD or DTS. These days you can buy a very good quality home theatre receiver for less than $200. Audio quality is outstanding.
  • 1 Hide
    Memnarchon , February 25, 2014 2:50 AM
    I would love to see ALC1150 in these tests too, since its widely used at most Z87 mobos.
  • 0 Hide
    outlw6669 , February 25, 2014 2:56 AM
    Excellent in depth review Filippo! It is good to see a bit of Tom's roots shining through after all this time :) 
  • 3 Hide
    loosescrews , February 25, 2014 3:01 AM
    I would have liked to see some hard to drive planar magnetic headphones in the mix (maybe some of the Audeze LCD-X or LCD-XC headphones or HiFiMAN something) and also a cheaper DAC/Amp solution like Maybe the Schiit Audio Modi + Magni or Vali. Another nice addition would be the Creative Sound Blaster Z Series ZXR with its TI Burr-Brown DAC.
  • 4 Hide
    BrightCandle , February 25, 2014 3:17 AM
    Can we get game surround sound audio tested as well? A lot of the reviews recently are focussing on sound quality differences in music but as you have determined there really isn't any difference there. But there is a clear difference I can hear in the comparative videos of battlefield with cmss, sbx pro, razor and realtek on youtube videos and the different surround sound effects really do seem to change positioning quality. This remains the only reason I think a sound card is worth it over realtek but it would be good to get to the bottom of whether its just EQ or its genuine quality differences related to the HRTF or something else.
  • 0 Hide
    bstaletic , February 25, 2014 3:27 AM
    Great article. I also came to similar conclusions. I had bought High Resolution Technolies Musicstreamer II 2013 edition for ~$140and an Asus (I don't remember which one) for ~70$. I have technics SU-V8 amplifier and Wharfedale E50 speakers (cool stuff, look it up). Muscistreamer made bass a bit better (though not everyone could hear the difference) and now I say it was a waste of money. Asus on the other hand could make a difference if you set it up correctly, but you have to do it for every album so forget about shuffle. Only DAC I'm willing to hear is DACmagic for ~$400 and I doubt I'm going to be impressed.Conclusion: Buy any PC (the cheaper the better), and spend the rest of money you have on speakers and amplifier. Also make yourown cables.
  • 4 Hide
    ilovetea , February 25, 2014 3:34 AM
    What's the purpose to invest into some special pc hardware, if major reciever brands have digital inputs and also usually unify inflows of audio through digital filters? This makes the reciever to serve as DAC both supporting and limiting the final quality.
  • 3 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , February 25, 2014 3:53 AM
    Quote:
    What's the purpose to invest into some special pc hardware, if major reciever brands have digital inputs and also usually unify inflows of audio through digital filters? This makes the reciever to serve as DAC both supporting and limiting the final quality.


    What I have been saying for quite a while.
  • 5 Hide
    vmnej , February 25, 2014 3:57 AM
    Electronics are negilable. The hard part ist turn ing the electrical signal into a mechanical signal (sound waves). That' why most of the money should go into the speakers and then maybe room acoustics. I highly recommend a pair of Nubert nuPro speakers.
  • 2 Hide
    gaymer1984 , February 25, 2014 4:01 AM
    I have a challenge to lay down for the writers of this article as an audiophile.Nothing you have particularly referred to can be contested; you do get more features with more expensive hardware, but price isn't necessarily an indicator of quality and it is high quality audio you are looking for, not necessarily the price point. That assumption doesn't work with sound cards as the first point in the signal path to the speakers.My challenge is this: compare your ALC 889 to an E-MU 1616m PCI-E. The quality of the DACs is higher on this £250 board than other PC sources I've heard myself, and you aren't spending £2,000 to get there. I challenge you to NOT find a difference. Don't change anything else in the signal path - keep the cable that feeds to your amp, and the speaker cables the same. Then listen to audio you know very well, and you know has been recorded well. This is harder to find with current music.You aren't looking for things to sound "better" or "louder", you are looking for greater detail. A better stereo "image" as it is called, where you can place instruments being reproduced by the speakers in a notional 3-D space. That is the mark of "good" audio.I ask you to accept this challenge because without following up this statement of $2 is as good as $2,000 you will potentially mislead budding enthusiasts down a misguided path.
  • 0 Hide
    martel80 , February 25, 2014 4:10 AM
    Why not include readings from the RightMark Audio Analyzer? They don't tell you anything about how it sounds but still...
  • 6 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , February 25, 2014 4:11 AM
    Oh, great.

    Do you believe that the E-MU 1616m is significantly better than their $2k amp? If not, then they're still not going to find a difference.
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