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ASUS Xonar Essence STX Audiophile Sound Card and Headphone Amp Review

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This comes directly from the file labeled “You can’t make this stuff up” – I’m at work and get a call from a friend saying that he was on his way to look at, and audition, a pair of, supposedly, very gently used Martin Logan Sequel II speakers. The conversation broke into a discussion of electrostatic vs. more traditional drivers, particularly at that type of price point…warmth, transparency, accuracy, all of the typical pros and cons…maybe looking for a pair of B&W 800 Series Diamonds to put them against? Either way, one of my eavesdropping co-workers decided to get involved in the conversation. He said something that brought the conversation to a dead halt. He said (and, no, I am not making this up…) “you should look at something good like Bose”. If you understand where he was coming from with this, you need to click here, here or here. One of those is going to be much more interesting to you than what is about to follow.

 

 

Somewhere in the early 1990s the entire audio industry took an abrupt turn in direction. Until that point, the goal of higher end manufacturers was sonic purity. By that, I mean components with the ability to reproduce the original piece of music adding as little of its own coloration as possible. The goal was to make it so that, with eyes closed, there would be little or no difference between the live performance and the recorded playback. That mentality began to fade and consumers became more focused on volume and disproportionate amounts of bass. There are a number of reasons this happened, and digital audio was probably the largest culprit. The problem (or advantage, depending on your point of view) with digital audio in general, is that the moment it is used in any aspect, from source (synthesizers, samplers, etc.), to recording, to playback, the music is already colored. Even today’s highest quality digital equipment can not reproduce a smooth waveform like analog, all digital audio has a sawtooth wave pattern to some degree – in other words, it is not sonically accurate and it is not as pleasing to the ear as analog. But, digital audio is able to make better use of the entire audio spectrum. This allows for higher highs, and can achieve deeper bass even to subsonic levels. Finding speakers that can reproduce these is another matter. So, with digital instruments being recorded on a digital recorder, then played back on a CD….well, your source pretty much was sonic garbage, so most companies seemed to give up even trying to make it sound good. Thankfully, some persisted, and there is still a small segment of audiophiles who can point out the faults in an audio system simply by the way the cellist’s fingers sound as they move on the strings. Or, in a more modern vein, go listen to Radiohead demonstrated on a seriously high end system, then get back to me on the instruments in the songs you were never able to make out previously. Just don’t blame me when your computer addiction funds start getting split with a need for mono-block amps for your front channel because you need better separation.

 

Keeping the audiophile spirit and philosophy alive, ASUS presents us with the Xonar Essence STX Sound Card and Headphone Amp. The ASUS Xonar Essence STX is a stereo sound card boasting an industry leading 124db S/N ratio, a figure worthy of the highest end discrete audio equipment. In addition, the Xonar Essence STX includes a dedicated headphone amp comprised of the highest quality components, including swappable OPAMPs to please even the most hardcore DIY audio enthusiast. The Xonar STX also features 24-bit Burr-Brown D/A converters for smooth, natural sound reproduction. To take your music a step further, sample rates of up to 192kHz/24 bit are available with a staggering 10Hz-90KHz (-3dB) at that sample rate. To use your ASUS Xonar Essence STX, inputs and outputs are presented in standard RCA and ¼” phono to mate with standard audio equipment. On board, the Essence STX offers front panel audio connections, as well as AUX in for added flexibility. The Xonar Essence STX is physically a stereo output card, but included drivers allow for use of Dolby Pro Logic enhancement.

 

 

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