I've been lurking for a few months and finally decided to create an account and post.
So here's my current setup:
My headphones are AudioTechnica ATH-AD700.
I have 2.0 (as in no subwoofer) PC speakers that I use when I don't use my headphones. I use my headphones when I want detail and immersion, I use my speakers when I'm lazy.
My motherboard only has PCI-express slots; no PCI slots at all.
I am using Windows 8, soon 8.1.
Almost all of my music is FLAC.
I have an Auzentech X-fi Bravura 7.1, and I liked the soundstage it has, but I went back to the on-board sound (Realtek ALC898) because the Auzentech drivers SUCK for Windows 8. The biggest problem is that it would not switch between the speakers and the headphones just by plugging the headphones in to the front port; this was the biggest annoyance, since I switch between speakers and headphones pretty much every single day at least once.
Also, whenever a sound played and then stopped (a song, a Windows ding, etc.), there was a very loud POP as some anti-hiss circuitry or something kicked in a split second later and cut the output. I was worried this might damage my speakers or headphones, and after a few months I removed the card. It would also get confused when I plugged a webcam into the computer and forget all my audio settings sometimes.
(the Auzentech paired with the ATH-AD700 was my first experience of a "soundstage" and I was floored. I immediately listened to most of my music collection that night. So basically, I'm hooked on spending more dosh on audio gear from now on )
I do all my music listening at home on my computer.
I listen to a wide range of music; rock, metal, electronic/trance/etc., blues/jazz, a little hip hop/rap.
I like the ATH-AD700, but I know in the future I will upgrade from them since I do miss the bass with them, but I don't want/need head-rattling bass.
I play video games, but I don't enable any of the audio effects settings unless they're on by default (e.g. EAX) so I don't know if I care about those or not.
So given all the above, here's what I'm looking for:
* A PCI-express sound card (see notes below)
* Good driver support on Windows 8
* Can drive my current headphones and has the versatility to drive better ones in the future. (so, built-in headphone amp?)
* Does very good with music, and can do games and movies (willing to sacrifice games effects processing and multichannel for better music prowess)
Research I've done and thoughts:
I've looked at the ASUS Essence STX but reviews here say the drivers are not good and that it doesn't do well with low impedance headphones like mine. But it is the best, so it seems.
I'm considering the HT Omega eClaro, but I don't know what I think of that breakout cable and I don't know about drivers. Comments welcome.
I've also looked at the Xonar DX and might go with that because it's the lowest risk if it's a dud. But I prefer spending my money on the right thing once, instead of on the wrong thing multiple times.
I'm willing to take suggestions for external devices (e.g. USB or optical DACs or what have you) if they'll satisfy the other three points that I'm looking for.
Cost isn't a big deal, but I'm not quite yet willing to drop $1k on a Woo WA7 (but that day will come eventually )
Thanks for your input!