Pros: absolutely neutral, decent headphone amp, built quality, design
Cons: crappy driver, line-in lags & applies compression
I needed a lot of time to make the decision to purchase this card. During January 2010 I pondered if it actually would be an update simply because I already owned two interfaces: Creative X-FI ExtremeMusic and an E-MU 0202 USB. Furthermore, for my Sennheiser HD-600 I already had a headphone amp, a Corda Arietta, connected to the E-MU with the very good Audioquest King Cobra.
But then I heard the X-Fi with my headphones for the first time and was so appalled that I ordered the ASUS Xonar Essence. When it arrived I marveled at the design and the built quality. It looks nice, it feels nice. I subsequently ran into some installation problems (having chosen the wrong slot on my motherboard) but after sorting them out I could enjoy this little beauty.
What can I say? One word only: invisible. I don´t know how people come up with description like "it´s warm" or "it´s on the cold side" because in my opinion both are untrue. This card simply is invisible which is exactly what it´s supposed to be. Before I heard the Essence I was perfectly allright with using the combination of my E-MU and the Corda Arietta. I thought that they were neutral and dynamic. Well, I was wrong because the E-MU sounds a bit muddy with a slightly instable soundstage and the Corda Arietta steals away the lowest (below 50 Hz) and the highest frequencies (above 15 kHz - yes I can still hear them) and does some funny tiny erros in between.
The ASUS Xonar Essence sounds different because it has no own sound. It just seems to pass the music along to the integrated headphone amp and on its way the music is neither coloured nor changed. Result: some recordings I formerly perceived as good sounding now sounded like crap while for example some muffled TELARC recordings now had sparkle and detail. The Xonar Essence will point out every error in the music, it for sure is not on the forgiving side. BUT: if a recording sounds warm & cozy the ASUS will sound the same, warm & cozy. Room, soundstage, dynamic - everything is flawless. It´s as if the card is stepping into the background only to reveal the true face of the music it plays.
In comparison the combination of E-MU 0202 USB & Corda Arietta sounds awfully unbalanced and coloured. It smears away the differences between recordings, replacing them with its own sound signature - something the ASUS never does.
But oh... here comes the problem with its driver. In short, it´s crap. ASIO doesn´t work properly and ASUS doesn´t seem to be capable to produce a functioning driver. It had to come up to an ASUS forum user to provide a functioning driver. Thank God, now it can even play 88.200 and 176.000 material without resampling.
Another problem: the input applies some soft dynamic compression in order to prevent the A/D converter from clipping. Strange, isn´t the ASUS aimed at audiophiles? Because they would use a compressor after the recording process (only if they know how to operate something like that of course) and only if they choose so. But no, the ASUS has a built-in permanent compressor for the line-in which kicks in at -3dB (don´t try to lower the recording volume, the compressor sits on the hardware side).
A third problem: the card is sometimes presented by ASUS as a music production tool when in fact it isn´t capable of that. Reason: the input (besides applying compression) lags for roughly one second. Connect a keyboard to the input and press a key, the sound will arrive one second later on the headphone or line-out of the card. It doesn´t matter if you use ASIO, DirectSound, Dolby Headphone etc., the lag is always there. However, the audio quality of the input mirrors the quality of the output - it´s perfect.
Back to the sound... before I forget, I connected my Corda Arietta to the ASUS. Now the invisible sound was gone, the Corda amplifies with its own sound signature - and I don´t mean something like "more bass" or so. No, the Corda simply presents music differently with less resolution, less dynamic, less soundstage, less everything. I therefore conclude that the headphone amp inside the card is fairly good.
So what do you get? You´ll get a soundcard that´ll sound perfect at its line-out and with headphones but you´ll also get an awfully bad driver and a lagging & compressing input. You have to choose if you can live with the obstacles. If you can, you will have a tool that beats everything at its price range, something that reaches sonically towards unexpected territory: Studio Quality High End.