ASUS Xonar Essence STX v Auzentech X-Fi Forte 7.1 review I have been able to get my grubby little mitts on one of the few Aussie shipped Xonar Essence STX’s. There is an Auzentech X-Fi Forte 7.1 in my PC now, so I thought “what better time to do a review of these fine pieces of copper and PCB?”. There is a lot of hype around the newer cards on the market as they are including components from high end sound equipment into the cards design. Does this make any difference to music listening pleasure? Does this affect the sound in games? Would the average Joe notice any difference at all? Let’s find out. Overview: Excluding the on-board options, there are basically two chipset makers that have stood the test of audio time: Creative and C-Media. Both these manufacturers have been around for quite a while and are constantly evolving their products. C-Media did sell their chips to various PCB manufacturers until ASUS did them a deal where they are (almost) the exclusive buyer of C-Media chips. (I say “almost” as many USB cards and headphones with built in sound cards use C-Media chipsets). ASUS have refined these chipsets to the latest incarnation the legendary Xonar Essence STX - more on that later. As for Creative, they have been the industry standard for gaming chipsets for years. Their latest chipset the 20K2 powers their “newish” Titanium range. Auzentech have taken this 20K2 chipset and made their own little soundcard from it – the Auzen X-Fi Forte 7.1. Both of these cards have only been out a short while and their drivers a still very immature. I expect the next release of both to fix the little niggles that I found. Note: The latest drivers were downloaded and used for both cards at the time of writing. With sound card terms like EAX5, DS3D, Direct Sound, Open AL, CMSS, Dolby, ASIO, etc it’s hard to work out what features are on what card, and then, what features you need to enable. Since testing sound cards I have found its better to only use what is needed to make the basic functions run (e.g., the STX needs DS3D for games to run good, so it was enabled; CMSS was selected when using headphones with the Forte). I don’t want to go into a driver feature discussion as to what options to select, however sometimes I did need to change one-two of these from default to “fix” any minor problems experienced or to get the best from the card. Overall, they were kept as close to default driver settings as I could keep them. I also swapped the cards back a forth a few times to check a sound feature or to confirm what I had previously written/thought. The EAX debate: EAX has been discussed in many forums as the “show stopper” reason as to why you would only buy a Creative card for gaming. Creative have patient rights for any version of EAX above EAX2, so no other manufacture can use it (Note: the Forte uses EAX5 as its core chipset is made by Creative). EAX2 is open to everyone as there was no patient taken out on this version. Well, all the Xonar range uses a cleaver little process that tricks the game into thinking that EAX5 is running then converts these EAX5 codes into EAX2 versions. Many may also try to make you believe that EAX is all about positional effects, well they are not really. Do some research and you’ll find that EAX is about material reverb, (e.g. like when you fire a gun in rock cavern the sound will be different to if it was fired in a wooden house). Does this make a difference? - Well to realism it does, but it’s up to you if you think it will help you frag your mates in CSS. Note: In this comparison I have been highly critical of the faults in these cards, to highlight the differences; they are both a massive step up from onboard sounds options and trump them in every function. So if you read that there is a fault (like a crackle) it is very minor, however I have to point it out as the other card may not have the same fault. Forte: Link: http://auzentech.com/site/products/x-fi_forte.php The Forte is a PCI-E low profile card that on paper looks to be almost a Creative X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro (both have: 20K2 chipsets, 64Mb RAM, etc). BUT Auzen have taken these vital bits and chucked away the rest, starting from scratch they have done a ground up redesign of the entire card. They haven’t even used the Titanium’s PCB layout as a reference design. They also did the same thing with the last X-Fi chipset when they created the infamous Prelude. A separate 3.5mm output for headphones is around the back of the card with its own on-card amplifier. There is a strange connector on the back like a VGA connector that is used for a spider cable that all the devices plug into (except for headphones and SPDIF). The card comes with two backplates for low and normal height cases. It has a replaceable OPAMP and is much smaller than the STX; but don’t be fooled by its small size – diamonds don’t come the size of bricks. STX: Link: http://www.asus.com.au/products.aspx?l1=25&l2=150&l3=0&l4=0&model=2711&modelmenu=2 The STX is a full height PCI-E card that requires additional power from the PSU by way of a Molex connector. It has a black EMF shield covering about half the card and looks like it would fit into a high end stereo system, not a PC. The connectors around the back are not like any other sound card on the market, they have big 6.3mm connectors (like a high end stereo amplifier) and separate left/right output connectors. There’s also a SPDIF plug around there too. This card doesn’t have the usual parts specification list like most conventional sound cards, instead it has a parts list from a high-end stereo system (things like: Burr-Brown PCM1792A, 6.3mm gold connectors, etc). There is much more card and weight for your money compared to the Forte. Card Comparison: Test bench system: Vista 32bit has been used - many would (and have) argued that XP is a much better platform for sound cards due to the API, however as Vista is the most used at the moment, and it looks like Windows7 will be using a similar API model, so this was the platform used. • CPU: E8500 • Mobo: GA-G33M-DS2R • Video: Ati 4870 (512Mb) • RAM: 4x 1Gb (4Gb total) • HDD: 2x 160Gb RAID0 • Display: Chimei 22” • Speakers: Altec Lansing 2.1’s • Headphones: Audio Technica ATH - AD400[/li] Games tested: I tried to get a mixed bag of games as far as engines go, and also how sounds are implemented. Each game had the Windows options as 7.1 input selected and output to either headphones or 2.1 depending on the output used. I stayed away from RPG games because they don’t have the same positional or distance measurements that FPS have. The in game settings selected were the highest options available (7.1, 5.1 or headphones - if it was available in the game). • Team Fortress 2 (TF2) • Battlefield 2 (BF2) • Serious Sam 2 (SS2) • Bioshock • Crysis • Call of Duty 4 (COD4) • Unreal Tournament 3 (UT3) – Black edition Game comparison chart Rating scale: • Excellent • Vgood • Good • Ok • Poor As you can see from the above, the Forte is almost un-faultable in the area of gaming. Every game played well and sounded fantastic, except COD4. As the STX had almost the same sound, I suspect that the engine (or a game setting) is the problem here. The STX was disappointing for games, the individual sounds were generally good, but they didn’t quite fit together properly. If it wasn’t one thing it was another, bringing the overall experience down. The height of a plane or chopper was something the Forte does so well, regardless of whether the software or hardware making the processing work, it simply worked well. The STX did have this function and it worked, but not like the Forte. Music and sounds tested: Music comparison chart: Rating scale: • Excellent • Vgood • Good • Ok • Poor As you can see from above the STX is work of musical art. The Forte just doesn’t have the smooth sounds that the STX can produce. However, don’t think that the Forte isn’t up to the task of fine music, it is; and would beat most other cards one the market (including most of the Xonar range), but it simply can’t compete with the STX’s quality audio parts on the card. The Forte wrap up: Fantastic for gaming. The Forte played every game with fantastic sounds. Compared to the STX some games sounded like they were using different sounds. This is clearly designed to be a gaming card with the X-Fi chipset, and music sounds very, very good too (compared to almost every other card on the market) – except for the STX. Ambience or background sounds in games are in excellence balance to the dominant or forefront sounds. It’s only fault is that the card is slightly hissy, by that I mean “S” sounds and cymbals are very slightly distorted. Probably due to immature drivers? A distinct advantage of this card is that there is no noticeable drop in game frame rates using this card, even when things got busy. I did notice that when playing TF2 and there was a lot of action I could frag the players around me while they were firing at the ground behind me. This card owns the STX in the area of gaming. I would argue that this is the best gaming card on the market at the moment; it has the sharp sounds and features of the X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro, but with a fatter bass. Forte Drivers (Version 1.0): The drivers for the Forte are basically re-jigged creative drivers. Auzen have done a good job of optimising them for the Forte and are less bloatware than the default X-Fi Titanium drivers. They include all the usual Creative driver bits and bobs (CMSS, EAX, 3 modes, etc) The Forte’s drivers are still a fat 206Mb download!!! With such fat drivers and Vista’s API, it makes me wonder how much processing is done by the card, and how much is software driven? Both rear outputs (green 2 channel and dedicated headphone) can only be running the same sound simultaneously (i.e. you can’t have one or the other). The STX wrap up: This card is in a league of its own for music; one word “amazing”. It really is that good. I don’t think I can flaw the STX for any music type. My only gripe is that you will want to delete any 128kbs or lower MP3’s because they no longer sound any good. As for gaming, it is just “good”. Gaming is the Achilles heel of this card. In saying that, I don’t think its drivers are fully sorted yet for games. Maybe the next driver version will fix these bugs? Some sounds were quieter than others no real reason making the object sound like it’s further away than what is really was; this was annoying in some games. When playing most games the frame rate was basically the same as the Forte, however when the action got very busy, I noticed the frames drop (i.e. TF2). There is a crackle on boot up of Vista and the same crackle when swapping between outputs. STX Drivers (Version 126.96.36.1992): An 11Mb driver download, I love it. It is simple and effective - what more could you want from a driver package? Note: With a fresh driver install the 3D option is NOT selected by default (DS3D-GX), so if you intent to game with it make sure select this button after installing the drivers. You can only have one output working at a time (i.e. you can’t have both 2 channel and headphone outputs working simultaneously (i.e. you can’t have headphones and 2 channel working at the same time). Other points to note: When switching between the two cards it took a few hours for me to properly adjust to each card (esp. positional sounds). I suspect t this is like my brain re-calibrating to each card as they both execute their processing differently. Conclusion: Sounds are like fine wines; once you have had a taste of the good quality stuff, the poor quality stuff all of sudden just doesn’t taste as good any more. In saying that the STX is possibly the finest wine for music and the Forte is possibly the finest wine for gaming. If I could, I would run both these cards and swap between them depending on what I intend to do at the time. The Forte is definitely no slouch when it comes to music, and puts many of the other cards to shame, but it simply can’t compete with the STX’s high quality components. After using the STX the Forte annoyed me for music; just as once I had gamed on the Forte, the STX annoyed me for gaming. Both cards are exceptional in their intended fields and unfortunately, I don’t think they can be honestly compared against each other. It’s like comparing apples with oranges. The Forte makes you want to play all your GAMES again to hear what you have been missing. The STX makes you want to listen to all your MUSIC again to hear what you have been missing. One downside to the STX is that you’ll want to rip all your music again at a higher bit rate (it’s that good, you CAN notice the difference). At the end of the day, you need to work out what you want to use your PC for, and select either of these cards; because these are both probably the best cards in their respective fields.