Biostar Hi-Fi Z87X 3D
The name of Biostar’s latest $150 motherboard is much more than a bunch of SEO (search-engine optimized) terms smashed together. The firm promises technology to back its Hi-Fi Z87X 3D’s title. For instance, a group of transistors for its high-current "3D" headphone amplifier (we know, we know...) are plainly visible between the audio codec’s EMI shield and analog audio jacks. The company promises over 100 dB through a pair of high-impedance 600 Ω headphones and a signal-to-noise ratio exceeding 110 dB.
Biostar continues pushing this "Hi-Fi" theme into power circuitry and even the board’s ground layers, claiming less signal interference. I might not have the audio gear to test the company's claims on that subsystem, but I can at least test the value of its low-noise power claims through overclocking.
The "3D" part of the title also refers to simulated 3D through headphones, a technology that’s been around for at least 15 years. Noticing that most of today’s users entered the scene after Aureal disappeared, Biostar states that “It's fantastically, especially if you've never experienced this kind of acoustic phenomenon before," typos and all.
Typically, Biostar leans heavily on a chipset’s integrated features to save cost, so we were a little surprised to only find two of the chipset’s six USB 3.0 ports on the I/O panel. We’d prefer four USB 3.0 ports and a pair of USB 2.0, rather than what the company ended up implementing.
A pair of USB 3.0 ports also connect to a forward-facing front-panel header, leaving two ports wasted in a market where many competitors add hubs just to push beyond Intel's Z87 Express specs.
A single PCIe lane feeds Realtek’s 8111F network controller, and the Hi-Fi Z87X 3D doesn’t even have a PCIe to PCI bridge. That leaves Biostar with seven PCH-based lanes to feed slots, including a x16 interface at the bottom electrically wired to four second-gen lanes. Although three-way CrossFire might be more appealing if Biostar had borrowed PCI Express 3.0 connectivity from the CPU, anyone not running a three-way array will be glad that the bottom slot doesn't tap into the middle-slot's lanes. Besides, consider the market we're addressing with these boards. Is it probable that anyone shopping for a $150 motherboard is going to have three quick Radeon cards or a CPU fast enough to feed them? Not likely. Instead, links originating from the CPU switch from x16-x0 to x8-x8 when that middle slot is populated. The bottom slot can still serve less bandwidth-hungry RAID controllers or video capture cards.
Sticking with Biostar’s previous high-value overclocking theme, we find a substantial 12-phase CPU voltage regulator at the top of the board and an integrated Port 80 display at the bottom. Catering to showmanship, power and reset switches simplify those functions when the board is on an open test bench.
The easiest way to reduce front-panel audio noise is to place its header near the controller. Biostar places its corresponding header directly in front of the I/O panel header so that both connectors can be easily fed by the same amplifier circuit. Cases with short front-panel cables are also easier to wire, but builders who insist upon hiding this cable behind the motherboard tray will probably be disappointed.
Like most of today’s competitors, Biostar includes four SATA cables in its Hi-Fi Z87X 3D installation kit. Unlike those competitors, Biostar also adds a nice microphone.