Asus Xonar STX vs. Auzentech Forte vs. Portable DAC/AMP
Sep 16, 2009 at 3:56 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 49

RagingForces

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Can someone please give me some advice regarding a recommended next step for better quality audio for my computer? I have been researching but do not have a firm grasp on what the real life quality of of the various products is.

So far I can say the following descriptive bits fairly definitively. I am a headphone user who cares about stereo music quality above all else. I am currently sporting the Shure SRH-840 headphones, but am auditioning all models I come across. I likely will never go above 250ohm anytime soon.

Also, I am a gamer, and am quite fluent in computer hardware. I play OpenAL, DirectX, and EAX 5.0 titles. I primarily play FPS (CoD4/Crysis/TF2) and racing titles (GRID/DIRT2). I've been playing games since Sound Blaster Pro and Gravis Ultrasound cards, and have kept up with the technologies as they have come onto the scene.

Lastly, I watch Blu-Ray titles on my PC, but am not interested in bitstreaming anything to a receiver. I will keep all my sounds on my computer in either headphone or 2.0 loudspeaker configuration (running out to a receive via sp/dif)

I currently have my headphones going to either the onboard (meh), or my receiver via the toslink. I am looking to make a substantial upgrade in dac/amp performance over either of these solutions. The onboard is an ASUS P6T Deluxe V.2. The ADI AD2000B audio chipset is sufficient for basic needs, but I feel that it may be ready for an upgrade to something of higher quality. I am currently running Windows 7 64bit. I typically listen to all my music out of Foobar WASAPI or MediaMonkey.

Naturally, as listed in the topic, I am considering either a high end soundcard upgrade or a portable dac/amp such as an iBasso D2+ or a D10. When it comes to the soundcards, I understand what gaming capabilities I will have, but what I don't understand is how well these cards can compare to dedicated audio dac/amps such as the iBasso models. Also, I'd like to understand how well these cards can stack up against the dac/amps when you perform opamp rolling. Naturally I understand that a portable dac/amp will give me a dac/amp away from a computer, but this is not really a primary concern for me.

Basically I am after the best reasonably priced solution that will work for a critical music listener and then secondly as a gamer. In a very distant third place priority would be movies on blu-ray.

Any help would be greatly appreciated, and i'll follow up any questions that get brought up.
 
Sep 16, 2009 at 6:16 AM Post #3 of 49

e6600

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its a toss between the xonar essence st/x and auzentech forte..
i havent researched this extensively, but i doubt an external dac like the ibasso has any capabilities of open al/eax acceleration

the asus essence will be superior to the forte in music, videos, etc.. but the forte will be better in pure gaming. since you would rather have better a better music/video experience, i think the xonar will be the better choice.. not that the xonar is a push over in games, as it will be much better than you're onboard. its just that with the x-fi chip on the auzentech, and the full eax 5.0 support, etc.. capabilities, there will be that extra detail in games that you otherwise will not recognize with the xonar
 
Sep 16, 2009 at 7:18 AM Post #4 of 49

MadMan007

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X-Fi and EAX 5.0 is irrelevant unless you're using Win XP still and will continue to do so and you play titles that are programmed for EAX OR if you run Vista or Win7 and your 'must play' game that is programmed for EAX has an ALchemy (OpenAL wrapper from Creative) profile. EAX is deprecated and no new games have used it for a while so I wouldn't worry too much about it.
 
Sep 16, 2009 at 12:29 PM Post #5 of 49

RagingForces

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Quote:

Originally Posted by MadMan007 /img/forum/go_quote.gif
X-Fi and EAX 5.0 is irrelevant unless you're using Win XP still and will continue to do so and you play titles that are programmed for EAX OR if you run Vista or Win7 and your 'must play' game that is programmed for EAX has an ALchemy (OpenAL wrapper from Creative) profile. EAX is deprecated and no new games have used it for a while so I wouldn't worry too much about it.


Yes, I also found this to be true when doing some wiki searches.

"According to Creative's OpenAL 1.1 specification, EAX should be considered deprecated. New development should use OpenAL's EFX interface, which is more tightly coupled with the overall OpenAL framework."

I would like to think the functionality components of EAX and what it does will just be brought forward under a new API, and it appears that OpenAL will lead that charge.

Gaming is a second place priority, and I'm aware that the external dac/amp will not be providing any gaming related services (save for an external X-Fi, but I don't believe I want to go down that road).

I'd like to refocus on which solution will provide the best quality audio in terms of stereo output to the headphones between the two sound cards vs. an external dac/amp. I know somebody has experimented with this
smily_headphones1.gif
 
Sep 16, 2009 at 1:50 PM Post #6 of 49

RicHSAD

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I think the Essence STX would be your best bet. You would probably have to spend more than the STX is worth to get the same kind SQ out of a DAC+AMP combo and you still wouldn't have any of the features that a sound card can provide.
 
Sep 16, 2009 at 1:52 PM Post #7 of 49

ROBSCIX

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EAX as a effect set can be run through OpenAL.

OpenAL is at the head of gaming audio as was mentioned. It is being developed and further advanced to use newer effect sets. OpenAL is FULLY hardware accelerated under Vista when using the Forte 7.1 or other cards with a hardware DSP.

You can also use two cards in the same system and link them together internally through software for gaming purposes. Awhile back I helped develop the "velbac" program.
Essentially, you install a hardware gaming card, such as Audigy 2-4 or X-fi based. You also install another card with a better output section then the first card.

The first card is just your DSP card and the secondary card is your output card. They are linked togther internally using a low latency software method. Long story short you have all the features of both cards.
When being developed I was using a Audigy 2 and the new X-Meridian 7.1 at the time.
So using this application, I have all the hardware gaming features of the A2 and all the sound quality and features of the X-Meridian 7.1.
In case your wondering, it is a small sys tray application that start automatically and there is no noticable latency as if there was, it would be useless for gaming. Works in XP and Vista, I would think it would work for Win7 also.
There are many ways to use two cards to get all the features you want. If your only using headphones you can also just link them up using S/pdif..etc.

Hope this helps.
 
Sep 16, 2009 at 2:12 PM Post #8 of 49

RagingForces

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Robscix,

That is actually a pretty interesting route to take. It feels similar to what i'm doing now with the ADI chipset outputting its signal to my receiver's sp/dif.

Between the Auzentech Forte and the Asus Xonar STX is there a clear difference between the two in terms of sound quality? They appear to be targeting the same type of audience.

I'm curious if they are not very similar in sound quality. I'm also curious of what others have experienced in the soundcard vs. dac/amp scenario?
 
Nov 11, 2009 at 6:18 PM Post #9 of 49

purrin

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Quote:

Originally Posted by RagingForces /img/forum/go_quote.gif

Between the Auzentech Forte and the Asus Xonar STX is there a clear difference between the two in terms of sound quality? They appear to be targeting the same type of audience.



Just picked up the Xonar STX and I find it very slightly warm, on the bright side with some treble glare, and limited in bass extension and impact using headphone outs (my intended usage.)

Played a bit with a few op-amps NJM4556, OPA2134 in the I/V stage, but the limiting factor here is the HP out amp. I'm simply find the sound unacceptable at this point (worse than iRiver H120 + 30V desktop CMOY), although the sound has smoothed out a bit in the last 24 hours. Perhaps some break in is needed.

I'm going to grab the Auzentech Forte today and try it out. The loser of the contest goes back to the store.
 
Nov 11, 2009 at 6:26 PM Post #10 of 49

ROBSCIX

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Quote:

Originally Posted by RagingForces /img/forum/go_quote.gif
Robscix,

That is actually a pretty interesting route to take. It feels similar to what i'm doing now with the ADI chipset outputting its signal to my receiver's sp/dif.

Between the Auzentech Forte and the Asus Xonar STX is there a clear difference between the two in terms of sound quality? They appear to be targeting the same type of audience.

I'm curious if they are not very similar in sound quality. I'm also curious of what others have experienced in the soundcard vs. dac/amp scenario?



Yes, we basically developed this application so we could get all the hardware support of the gaming card but get the higher sound quality and features that were avilable in other cards at the time. This was before the Prelude first came out and I still think for gaming the dual card system give you many advantages over a single card solution.

I haven't used the STX in quite some time and the Forte for longer. I cannot give you impression or this is better then that right off the top of my head. These are also very different cards meant for different tasks.

Purrin above, said he is doing the comparison today so he can give you his impressions based on his testing.

@Purrin, post your impressions as I am sure many will be interested in your comparison.
 
Nov 11, 2009 at 6:47 PM Post #11 of 49

purrin

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Quote:

Originally Posted by ROBSCIX /img/forum/go_quote.gif
@Purrin, post your impressions as I am sure many will be interested in your comparison.


Most definitely.
 
Nov 11, 2009 at 7:15 PM Post #12 of 49

leeperry

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the HP amp on the new auzen card looks really neat, I wonder if it's the same on the Forte 7.1

plus, the Forte 7.1 is known to have shielding problems: Buzzing noise in Forte headphone only during 3D audio - [H]ard|Forum

yes, the STX is very agressive w/ glaring trebles...and the HP amp is based on a $2 IC that sounds pretty bad(too distorted and trebles are VERY colored)...Auzen going discrete + X-Fi chip(bit-matched ASIO by design) sounds like a much better option indeed
smily_headphones1.gif
 
Nov 11, 2009 at 7:30 PM Post #13 of 49

ROBSCIX

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Quote:

Originally Posted by leeperry /img/forum/go_quote.gif
the HP amp on the new auzen card looks really neat, I wonder if it's the same on the Forte 7.1

plus, the Forte 7.1 is known to have shielding problems: Buzzing noise in Forte headphone only during 3D audio - [H]ard|Forum

yes, the STX is very agressive w/ glaring trebles...and the HP amp is based on a $2 IC that sounds pretty bad(too distorted and trebles are VERY colored)...Auzen going discrete + X-Fi chip(bit-matched ASIO by design) sounds like a much better option indeed
smily_headphones1.gif



..maybe you should wait and let him post his impressions based on his testing.
 
Nov 12, 2009 at 7:30 PM Post #14 of 49

purrin

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Well it turns out that the Forte is not in stock at my local store so I may either order it online and perhaps wait for the new model from Auzen (the one heavily advertised with a dedicated headphone DAC chip and discrete out).

To put things into perspective, I was hoping to get something relatively cheap that I could just plug headphones straight into without extraneous boxes hanging out of the computer. My wife is already fed up with various pieces of rack mounted equipment with in-progress projects consisting of protoboards, wires, capacitors, wire cutters, ops-amps etc. on top of my bedroom nightstand.

So as far as the ASUS Xonar Essence STX goes, it just doesn't cut it for me as a combined DAC+headphone amp. Note that I didn't bother to test the line-out because this was not my intended usage - I didn't want another box hanging from out of the computer. As I mentioned in a earlier post, the headphone amp circuitry is the limiting factor for this soundcard. I have to admit that I was quite disappointed because card does come with a big stereo phono jack - which would lead one to believe that at least some thought was put into headphone out quality.

These are what I feel are the overall weaknesses of the Xonar Essesnce STX's headphone out: lacks dynamics both macro and micro, weak impact, no blackness - a solid shade of grey - woohoo!, lack of extension at both ends, muddy bass, slight warmth, bright with a nasty glare. The glare is the worst of it - my ears hurt form listening to this soundcard (something that doesn't happen when I listen to any of my Grados from any of my other sources - well OK, maybe a little bit from the iRiver HP120 unamped.) Hmmm, basically sounds like I'm describing a motherboard out? It seems the only advantage that the Xonar STX HP out has over a motherboard out is more control over the drivers and more power. It should be noted that most motherboard outs don't sound bright or necessarily have a nasty glare.

Finally, I tried a few op-amps I had lying around for the I/V section off the DAC: Stock 2114, OPA2132, NJM4556.

OPA2132: I actually tried this first (pulled out stock op-amps before even plugging it in). Ouch, ouch, plenty of detail but rather etched. Less glare than stock, but rather bright. Weak bass. Best midrange and detail of the bunch.

Stock: Most bassy of the bunch. Dark sounding with with a midrange glare - WTH? Horrible! Noticeable lack of extension at both ends. Most impactful of the bunch, yet slow. I can see why ASUS put these opamps in here - to balance the inherent brightness of the HP out stage.

NJM4556: A weird op-amp, but actually sounded the best of the bunch. Tones down the details. Smooth and tolerable but can't make up for the shortcomings of the headphone out stage.

As an aside, the Vista drivers included on the CD killed the ability to run any browser or media player in Windows 7. I had to use MS system restore to get the OS back and running again. I guess it serves me right for being lazy and trying to get away with the vista drivers on the CD, but I do have a good excuse: the ASUS website is horribly laid out and it was it very frustrating to find the newer drivers I needed. I wish ASUS could get their website looking and working more professionally like NVIDIA or EVGA.

Oh and yes, after I installed the drivers, it took me at least ten more minutes to get it working with the HP out. I had to bring up the Xonar Audio Center, click on a small up-arrow icon to expand the interface, click on the Analog Out drop-down list, and select Headphone not FP Headphone. And yes again, I did RTFM and the manual doesn't mention any of this! You would think that ASUS would have at least left a slip / instruction sheet on how to get this thing working with headphones!

For my intended purposes, the Xonar STX at $189 (even with rebate, which may not necessarily come in the mail), doesn't seem worth it. Even though I really don't want to get a external box, I am just tempted to just pay a bit more and get something like a Zhaolu 2.5 DAC/amp or iBasso DAC/amp and feed it from the motherboard SPDIF out.

What was I thinking? I should not have expected so much from a sound card.
 
Nov 12, 2009 at 7:54 PM Post #15 of 49

leeperry

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yes, it also hurt my ears...these are very agressive soundcards, made for hardcore techno fans maybe?

they cost USD250 in Europe, so consider yourself lucky.

waiting for your feedback on the Auzen flavor, but so far I love my HD2 Advance...but the new Auzen looks tempting, too bad it's a pimped X-fi though.
 

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