The search for Aural Pleasure. After moving to Vista I found that many sounds in games had kinda “changed”. They no longer had the feel that they used to. So I want to sort out the best solution. I trolled web sites and forums and PM’ed gamers and audiophiles to find the best solution. They were all happy to help, but most had only had first hand experience with 1-2 cards at the most. There is plenty of opinions on the subject, so I decided to find out for myself to end this Vista sound confusion. I have recently had the chance to directly compare some higher end sound cards. • X-Fi Xtreme Music • X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro • ASUS Xonar U1 (USB sound card) • ASUS Xonar DX 7.1 • ASUS Xonar D2X • Auzen X-plosion 7.1 • Auzen Forte 7.1 • ASUS Xonar Essence STX • Auzen Prelude 7.1 • Creative Recon3D I will do a basic Pro/Con on each. I will be HIGHLY critical so that the differences are highlighted, but they are all VERY close. I wont even include the Realtek onboard card as it simply doesn’t compare in any field. Each one easily outperforms onboard sound cards and is a noticeable step up from onboard. The two main areas are games and music, but games are my main focus. Games have two main components that give you an advantage: (1) positional sound (2) distance sound source is from you. All the talk of EAX 2.0 or EAX 5.0, etc makes it sound a little better, but doesn’t really make much of a difference to give you a competitive edge. Note: EAX is all about reverb esp off various materials NOT positional functions like many would like you to believe. Creative drivers and games: The Creative drivers seem to give you an advantage in games only by projecting the sound while the object is further away from you. Eg. you can first hear a tank when it is 100m away but with the Xonars you will first hear it when it is say 50m away. So the game seems "quieter" or less busy with the Xonars. I think the actual "quality" of each sound is slightly better with the Xonars though. This means that the Creatives are more immersive for games plus give you the advantage of hearing enemies sooner. These were all tested under Vista 32bit SP1 using the latest drivers for each and I didn’t include speakers. (7.1 or the highest input was selected for each with Headphones or 2/2.1 output for each) Headphones used in the tests: • Old Sony closed cup (MDR-P180) • BeyerDynamic DTX800 • AudioTechnica AD400 • AKG K99 • AKG K601 • BeyerDynamic DT990 • Sennheiser HD598 • AKG Q701 Games used in the tests: • UT3 • TF2 • Painkiller • BF2 • Prey • Half Life 2: Episode 2 Music/sounds used in the test: • Virtual barbershop • Basshunter – Boten Anna • N.E.R.D – All the girls • The Presets – My People • Beyonce – Single Ladies • Chemical Brothers – Under the Influence (mix2) • Basement Jaxx – Get me Off The volume of the testing is important. Simply turning up the volume gave the illusion that the card sounded better, so the actual volume was as close as possible before each test. X-Fi Xtreme Music Overview: This is a true X-Fi chipset that uses the older PCI bus. It was orig created for Windows XP and now that Vista has come out it a lot of the strengths that the X-Fi had has been lost, due to the way in which Vista allows the applications to talk to the hardware. To make the card work with older games under Vista, Creative have written a program called “Alchemy”. There no standard front panel connector, you need a "Creative" front panel if you want this function. Pro Positional sound is great Small sounds from games are real clear Con Distance from sound source can be a bit flakey. High pitch sounds kinda crack and arnt smooth Alchemy sucks Change driver settings between music and games sucks The card doesn’t make you go “wow” when you install it like the Xonar DX does Overall (5/10): I was disappointed with this card. It just doesn’t sound quite right. It seems like the drivers haven’t been written properly for Vista. I know a lot of people swear by them, but really they are showing their age compared to the sound of the newer generation of card under Vista. X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro Overview: This is the next step in the X-Fi range after the X-Fi Xtereme range with a revised chipset that uses the PCI-E bus. This is the next step up from the base model and has a black cover over the card. It has 64Mb of RAM Creative have called XRAM (it’s debatable if it gives any performance gain). To make the card work with older games under Vista, Creative have written a program called “Alchemy”. Standard type front panel connector is a plus. You can disable the XRAM using a registry hack (this is needed if you wana run UT3 in OpenAL mode). Pro Positional sounds are excellent Distance from sound source excellent No cracks in high pitch sounds (like the Xtreme Music had) Bass, midrange and high end sounds all very balanced and very clear sounds Good frame rate in games, even when the game action is busy Con Alchemy sucks Change driver settings between music and games sucks OpenAL and the 64Mb xram enabled UT3 crashes so you need a reg hack (FFS, it’s a $250 card). The card doesn’t make you go “wow” when you get it going like the Xonar's do. The auto-detect function on the front panel connectors are flakey at best. Overall (8/10): This is a dam fine card. The sounds are very clear, games sound as they are meant to. The bass seems to be a little lacking compared to the Xonar’s, but this is not a major problem. The initial sound is similar to the X-Fi Xtreme Music, but once you start using it, its clear that all the bugs are gone (except the UT3 issue). For the money, I would rather buy the non-Fatal1ty version and keep the change to spend on a better set of phones. Its almost $100 cheaper!! The non-Fatal1ty version has all the benefits of the Fatal1ty without the UT3 issue, and still has 16Mb or XRAM for the games that support it. ASUS Xonar U1 (USB sound card) Overview: This is the introduction model of Xonar. All the Xonar’s kinda sound the same and have very similar drivers/software interface. This is a USB version device and looks cool. You can get them in many colours and are marketed towards notebook users. They have a limited numbers of outputs and are designed very simple. For music users that are looking for a cheap card with basic output, I would suggest one of these over many internal cards. There looks to have been a recent driver update that made this card MUCH better. Pro Looks tops and the big volume dial is great More bass than the X-Fi’s and good overall sound You can adjust the volume (and mute) without exiting the game or application Great sound for the price 8 channel input so you can enable 7.1 in games Simple drivers and driver settings (set and forget) Con High notes are slightly distorted CPU usage during gameplay causing frame drop when action is busy Some sounds are much to loud relative to other sounds in SOME games Overall (7.5/10): This card is a bargain and would prob be overlooked by most gamers. The big volume knob is really good, I used it much more than I thought I would. It lacks a bit for games though, but no more than the X-Fi Xtreme Music. It has a limited number of connectors, but its good if your only using headphones (like this test did). The sounds in the Source engine (TF2, CSS, HL2, etc) arnt very balanced, some sounds drown out others. ***UPDATE: Ive been using this over the past week (again) for games and im really liking this. It really rocks. If your using headphones I really recommend this card. Cheap, simple and good sound - sound comparable to the rest of the Xonar range if your only using headphones *** ASUS Xonar DX 7.1 Overview: This is a PCI-E card that is marketed towards the gamer. It is low profile card with two back-plates included for low and full height cases. It does require extra power from your PSU via a floppy power connector. It has a standard front panel connector too. This card is getting a lot of hype at the moment, esp from audiophiles and people that dislike Creative. For games, I think the X-Fi Titanium (non-Fatal1ty) is a much better card, but for music: this is a better option. Pro Great music sound quality More bass than the X-Fi’s Distance from sound source excellent Simple drivers and driver settings (set and forget) Con Frame rate drops when game action is busy The bass can drown out some of the midrange sounds Positional sounds aren’t 100% accurate – objects don’t stop some sounds (eg. like walls, you can hear players walking in the next room). When Dolby is enabled sounds “leak” into the other earphone (So, leave it off for gaming) There is a faint background hum almost all the time (I found this really annoying) Overall (7.5/10): When you first install this card you just go “wow”. The sounds are great, esp for music. But after using it a while the little niggles start to show their head. In some games it feels like some sounds are missing all together (I only noticed this after playing the same game on the X-Fi Titanium). Also some sounds "travel" through objects (eg you can hear the enemy in the room next to you - duh walls should stop those sounds). ASUS Xonar D2X Overview: This is a PCI-E card that is sounds real sweet. Its a full height card and has a black cover over the card. There’s plenty of light show bling as the connectors at the rear of the card have lights in them so you can find the right plugs in the dark. This is probably needed cause it has no front panel connector (for the price, id expect a front panel connector). It does require extra power from your PSU via a floppy power connector. Many Audiophiles have recommended this card to me and so have Creative dis-liker's just like its little brother, the DX. Pro Really good music sound quality Very clear sounds. More bass than the X-Fi’s Distance from sound source excellent Simple drivers and driver settings (set and forget) Con Frame rate drops when game action is busy (not as much as the DX though) Positional sounds aren’t 100% accurate – objects don’t stop some sounds (eg. like walls, you can hear players walking in the next room). When Dolby is enabled sounds “leak” into the other earphone (So, leave it off for gaming) Overall (8/10): This is an exceptional card, esp for music. From when you first install it you get the “wow” factor and even a week later I have still found sounds in music I didnt know was there before. For games thought, it has a warmer and more impact sound than the X-Fi Titanium, but doesn’t quite have the sharpness. Positional sound is good, but isn’t quite as good as the Titanium either. In some games it feels like some sounds are missing all together like the DX. It does sound better (or cleaner) than the DX. Auzen Xplosion 7.1 Overview: The Auzen Xplosion 7.1 is a PCI card that has been around since about 2006. It uses a C-Media chipset with some nice OPAMPS to ensure the sound is top quality. This card surprised me, I wasn’t expecting the sound to be as good as it is. I thought, as it is an older card and designed well before Vista was released, the sound wouldn’t be as good as it is. It has EAX 2.0 support. Pro For music it seems to have a wider range of sounds than the other cards. Acoustic music is superb (prob the best of the cards Ive tested so far). Positional is a good but not as good as the X-Fi Titanium Music is sweet with just the right amount of bass. The drivers are small and light weight (ie. no bloatware). Con Some high range sounds can be a bit “hissy” Some games had minor sound glitches. I noticed more skips of lag in games than the other cards (even more than the USB Xonar U1) Distance from object is good, but again not as good as the X-Fi Titanium Couldnt get the mic to work properly Overall (6/10): Its strength is in its music and acoustic music it is superb (ie. guitars, piano’s, etc), however it doesn’t produce as good a techo/electronic music as good as the Xonar’s do. It has a similar sound as the Xonar’s (maybe due to them both using C-Media chipsets?) so I would put this card down as comparable to the Xonar. After listening to the newer generation cards you can tell that this is an older generation card. The music sound is very similar to the Xonar DX/D2X (prob due to them both using CMI chipsets?) But as a gaming soundcard is isn’t as good. Auzen Forte 7.1 ***Rev 1.0 are supposed to die after about a year. Apparently resolved in the new version 1.2*** (see: http://www.xtremesystems.org/forums/showthread.php?215460-Auzentech-Forte-7.1-thread/page16) This card is technically a X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro (X-Fi PCI-E chipset and 64Mb Ram) but it has been re-designed by Auzen. It doesn’t even use the creative card as a reference design so it’s a total ground up rebuild. Its low profile and is a similar card shape as the Xonar DX. It has all the gaming benefits of the Creative X-Fi range. 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). It has a built in headphone amp and 3.5mm connector just for headphones. Comes with two card backplates for regular and low profile cases. It uses Auzen hacked drivers that are a re-jig of the creative ones, they aren’t as bloated as the Creative kit, but still weigh in at a fat 200Mb (note: every one of the Xonar range drivers are only around 10-20Mb!!!). This card has 2 rear 3.5mm connectors (headphone, speakers) plus two connectors for front panel connectors (IBM front panel layout and Creative’s own front panel). There arnt many good and detailed reviews of this card online (yet). Pro Plenty of methods to connect speakers/headphones, etc The best sounding card in games of any of the cards in this comparo A “cleaned up” version of Creative’s drivers Small card that will fit in low profile cases Replaceable OPAMP for headphones Con Front speaker muting flakey (just like the Titanium) You have to change the backplate out of the box for normal height cases and mobos Still “basically” uses the Creative drivers Overall (9/10): This has been my favourite card ive tested. It sounds just like the X-Fi titanium but with the Xonar’s “wow” factor. Like the X-Fi Titanium, high end sounds (like symbols and high-hats) sound much clearer than the Xonar range – BUT what the Titanium lacks in the bass dept (a strong point for the Xonar’s) the Forte delivers. For music; compared between the Forte and the Xonar D2X it would come down to personal preference (they are VERY close, but in different ways) - But as far as games go, it beats the D2X hands down. It doesn’t look like much of a card compared to many of the newer ones on the market; with their large size and big black EMF shields. When I opened the box the small size was almost disappointing compared to many of the others as they are around the same price. Don’t be fooled by its small size, diamonds don’t come the size of bricks. This is the best gaming card Ive tested so far. ASUS Xonar Essence STX Overview: This is the latest PCI-E card in the Xonar range and has some very impressive stereo components on board. It has 6.3mm connectors around the back (not the usual 3.5mm plugs) and a left/right channel connectors too. It has a built in headphone amplifier and a half card black EMF shield just like the X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro. It looks more like a piece of stereo equipment than a computer audio card. There is a booklet that comes with it that looks like a wedding invitation that tells you how good the card is, sounds real cheesy. A Molex connector is needed to provide power to this card directly from your PSU. It is targeted at audiophiles that can also be used for games. Pro Simply amazing sound quality for music Songs are totally crystal clear with a fat bass (but not over powering) Replaceable OPAMPS – not that you need to Lightweight and simple drivers that have all the features (10Mb set and forget). Plenty of “wow” factor Con Lacks in games You will want to re-rip all your MP3’s to a higher bit rate Game frame-rate drops when the action gets busy Can’t have headphones and speakers going at the same time Overall (9/10): This is the best sounding music card I have ever heard. Music is simply amazing. There are sounds and instruments in songs I didn’t know existed until I listened to them with this card. You will want to re-rip all you low bit rate MP3’s because the sound quality difference is noticeable. The cards only crux is games; sure the actual game sounds are good, but they aren’t mixed (or balanced) quite right. In general, it sounds very similar to the D2X for gaming (but of course, beats it hands down for music). The drivers are still very immature so I think as newer drivers are released the bugs in games will be fixed. If your an audiophile this is the sound card for you. Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 This is a big card that uses the PCI slot. It also uses the older Creative X-Fi chipset with EAX 5.0. Really nice sound and in many sound respects very, very similar to the Forte. There is no on board headphone amp. The software interface is almost identical to that Forte and weighs in at about 180Mb. It uses Auzen hacked drivers that are a re-jig of the creative ones, they aren’t as bloated as the Creative kit, but still seem to have a lot of fat. There is the occasional faint crackle or squeaky sound in the background. Im not sure if its just the card I tested or a common fault? It still cant compete against the STX for music quality though. This card is very, very similar to the Forte or the X-Fi Titanium in many ways, but the Forte just nudges in front in sound quality - plus the Forte has a swag of other neat features like a low profile form factor, extra connectors and the on board headphone amp. Compared to the DX/D2X range the Prelude is noticeably in front when it comes to games, but for music I think it comes down to personal preference (the Xonar's are bit heaver on the bass and therefore warmer). Overall I think that would put them on equal terms musically, depending on your music likes. Pro Really good in games Positional sounds are excellent Distance from sound source excellent Con Fat driver package (180Mb) Still “basically” uses the Creative drivers Overall (8/10): This is an exceptional card but the newer generation cards just beat it to the post. The differences are so minor though and couldn't justify spending the extra money to but an STX or Forte if I owned a Prelude. It sits somewhere between the X-Fi Titanium and the Forte in almost all respects. Creative Sound Blaster Recon3D Overview: The Recon3D has been sold as a "new" Sound Core quad core processor. It has all the goodies as the X-Fi using the PCI-E bus. There is an all new software suite with the drivers, moving away from the previous software interface Creative have used in the past. Appears to targeted at gaming with a "scout mode". Pro Good overall performer in most situations Really good games Positional sounds are great and good soundstage Comparable to the best of the X-Fi range in games New software is a big improvement over the old Creative suite Con Mids and highs are harsh on the ears (in music and games) Cheap design with an almost empty PCB Opening the box and feeling ripped off Overall (8/10) This card is not in the same league as the Forte or STX, but is still very capable. The two main negatives are the harsh mids and highs, plus the "cheapness" of the card. Gaming is a very strong point of this card and I would get it over most of the X-Fi range (mostly due to the drivers and interface). My main gripe with the card is its "cheap" feel - You open the cheap feeling box and you get a card with basically one chip on it, and that’s about it (and that chip has a plastic cover over it to make it look bigger). I just felt ripped off as soon as I opened the box. In a very different way, it's comparable with Xonar DX or D2X. I think its up there with the better X-fi offerings, but only for gaming. Music quality is good too. Summary: I would pick the Auzen Forte for gaming (followed by the Titanium or Recon3D), but the Xonar STX is a stand out winner for music - head and shoulders above any of the others. At the end of the day it really comes down to two manufactures: Creative or C-Media. And the Forte is the clear Creative option, the STX the clear C-Media option. If your a gamer, pick the Forte. If your a music lover, pick the STX. If you want to set up the cards drivers and leave it for both games and music Id suggest any of the Xonar’s. They are "set and forget" and I liked that. But, if you like tinkering with drivers and finding the “best” sound for each situation then the Auzen/Creative drivers are better suited. One thing overlooked in most tests is the sound Card matching the headphones (or speakers). I found when using the bass’y DTX800 headphones with the Xonar DX there was too much bass. But when using some cheap Sony headphones or K99’s that lacked bass the Xonar sounded much better. DTX800 and the X-Fi Titanium OR AD400 and Xonar are good combos. However with the built in amps in the Forte and STX, this isnt as much of an issue for these two cards. Where as the Sony’s and the X-Fi meant the bass was lacking. I suggest taking some time and matching the headphones with the card. Overall order for Music: Xonar STX Xonar D2X = Auzen Forte Xonar DX = Prelude X-Fi Titanium Auzen X-plosion 7.1 = Recon3D Xonar U1 X-Fi Xtreme Music Overall order for Gaming: Auzen Forte = Recon3D X-Fi Titanium = Prelude Xonar D2X Xonar STX = Xonar DX X-Fi Xtreme Music Xonar U1 Auzen X-plosion 7.1 .