ASUS Xonar Essence ST/STX soundcards Page 2

ASUS recommends that, using the Windows Control Panel, you first disable any existing audio hardware before you install the Essence's supplied drivers. Installing the drivers also installs the Xonar Audio Center program, which allows you to adjust the card's settings. Here I ran into a problem: playing a 96 or 192kHz file with either Foobar 2000 (v. or Adobe Audition 3.0 and setting the appropriate sample rate with Audio Center didn't give a sound from the STX card that was noticeably better than standard CD-sourced files. I played some test tones, and it appeared that even when the sample rate was set correctly—confirmed both by selecting the digital output and by checking the sample-rate display on the dCS Puccini D/A processor to which it was attached, and by looking at the STX's properties in the Vista Control Panel's Audio Devices window—96 and 192kHz files were being downsampled to 48kHz, with spectral components higher than 48kHz aliased into the audioband (eg, a 40kHz tone was reproduced as 8kHz). I reinstalled the driver and the software, but to no avail. (This didn't happen with the ST version of the Essence installed in the older PC running Windows XP.)

The fix was to download and install ASIO4.DLL (see this guide to setting up Windows for audio playback), then select that as the default sound device in Foobar's Playback Preferences dialog. I let ASUS's technical support know about the problem, but by press time they still had not gotten back to me. But it concerned me that if there was an incompatibility between my PC, Vista, the Xonar software, and the jukebox software, there was no immediate way of knowing something was wrong, as music still played. Windows 7 was released as this issue went to press, so I will install the new operating system on the Shuttle PC, along with the appropriate ASUS driver, and report in a Follow-Up if this resolves any potential sample-rate problem.

The other issue that raised its head during setup was not a problem as such, but the fact that the STX and ST can't play files with 88.2 or 176.4kHz sample rates in a bit-transparent manner, which they will do with 96 and 192kHz data. The cards will indeed play 88.2 and 176.4 files, but will convert their sample rate on the fly to whatever rate has been set with the Xonar Audio Center. ASUS claims that the Essence cards' built-in sample-rate converter is of very high quality, but there will still be a loss of ultimate sound quality with 88.2 and 176.4kHz files.

I copied my iTunes library, which I usually use with my Apple G4 Mac mini, to an external USB drive, which I could use with both the ST and STX computers. Almost all of my auditioning was performed with the STX card, however. Files were played back with Foobar and ASIO4. One boon of this setup was that a helper app enables Foobar to play Apple Lossless files, allowing me to use my iTunes library without having to first transcode the files to FLAC or the uncompressed AIF or WAV formats. Another was that another helper app allows Foobar to play DVD-Audio discs in the PC's drive. (The tracks are helpfully identified as being multichannel or two-channel.) I didn't try any of the Essence's DSP effects—I used the card only as a straight, high-quality digital source.

Setting Foobar to Shuffle with CD-sourced files while I sat at the desk in my listening room to edit magazine copy, it was apparent that the Xonar Essence's analog outputs offered serious sound quality. The DVD-A of Neil Young's Harvest (Reprise 48100-9) drew me into the music, and the blend of James Taylor's and Linda's Ronstadt's voices behind Young on "Heart of Gold" was well delineated without obscuring the individuality of their sounds.

Returning to the listening chair, low frequencies had suitable impact and weight, the midrange was uncolored, with excellent clarity, and the high frequencies sounded very clean, with good air around sound sources. In Joni Mitchell's "On France They Kiss on Main Street" (from Shadows and Light, Asylum 704-2), the cymbals had an excellent combination of sheen and sizzle without the latter being unnaturally emphasized—although, of course, the HDCD decoding was not being applied. And on "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines," Jaco Pastorius's display of walking-bass virtuosity on fretless Fender was reproduced with authority, as was Don Alias's kick drum: The balance between the "pat" of the initial drum-head transient and the "purr" of the subsequent body tone was well managed.

The same was true for a 24/96 piano recording I made at the beginning of November for a live vs recorded demonstration organized by Philip O'Hanlon of Luxman and Vivid distributor On a Higher Note. I had to record a little closer/drier than was optimal, so that the double hit of the same acoustic was not too disturbing on playback. But the Xonar Essence did a great job of conveying the full weight of the Steinway D as pianist Genadi Zagor pounded its left-hand keys at the climax of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. (If you're going to be at the Consumer Electronics Show this month, O'Hanlon will be playing this recording in his suite.)

ASUSTeK Computer Inc.
US distributor: ASUS Computer International
44370 Nobel Drive
Fremont, CA 94538
(812) 282-2787