PC based sound card. Thing that I have left long time ago. Just got a time to visit my friend’s with his new toy, a PC based audio source equipped with the latest PCI-E sound card, ASUS Xonar Essence STX II 7.1. It might worth to have a look (and listen) for a while.
The card itself has a common “Lion Tiger” logo found in many of other ASUS product. The logo actually engraved in the top plate which also acts as a shield for the components underneath this plate. Some says this can help to shield against outside interference – which is true.
We can also easily see Nichicon Fine Gold capacitor here. And some solid capacitor in some position.
Under the plate, we can see some more interesting stuff – MUSES Op-Amp from New Japan Radio Co., Ltd. This time, we are seeing MUSES 8820 (Bipolar) and MUSES 8920 (JFet). Why ASUS is using different type? It’s simply because not everyone is best when it comes to specific task – or commonly said as the right man at the right position. And ASUS simply believes that. Therefore, with all consideration, they are using different Op-Amp on different position.
The DAC itself is PCM1792 which is considered as one of the premium DAC available on the market. Definitely the idea is so clear that ASUS is targeting a serious listener for this sound card – not just a typical PC user or gamer.
But off course, using too many expensive parts will also easily brings the product cost into a high price band. Therefore, we can see some cost saving here. The extra 6 channels which is located in add-on card and connected with ribbon wire to main board will be using only lower grade DAC (PCM1796) and LM4562NA + JRC 2114D Op-Amp combo. Frankly speaking, this combination also not a cheap combo, but still more affordable than the one used at main stereo channel (MUSES 8820 + MUSES 8920 and PCM1792).
By the way, it has also a dedicated plug for headphone and equipped with dedicated headphone amplifier. So it might be interesting for you who enjoy your headphone quite a lot.
We connect this setup with a multimedia speaker Logitech Z960 to feel the multichannel atmosphere and also to a pair of speaker in home audio setup (2A3/solid state amplifier and a pair of bookshelf speaker).
I’m quite familiar with most of ASUS’ sound signature, which is most of the time has bold high, crisp, and detailed, while the low segment is quite heavy and punchy. It could be that most of the ASUS’ design is mainly for PC based listener, who might enjoy that kind of sound signature – especially in gaming.
But this ASUS Xonar Essence STX II 7.1 is different. It has liquid sound, good staging, fluid mid, proper low, and just enough high. I would say that the tone is richer and more pleasant to listen – which is quite suprising. Not really typical common PCI-E based sound card. A little bit laid-back and relaxed. Female vocal like Cai Qin, Diana Krall, to Stacey Kent and Siti Nurhaliza, has enough body to be enjoyed – which is something that not an easy task to do by PC based audio system.
Off course better design on this ASUS Xonar Essence STX II 7.1 helps ASUS to bring this card into a higher level that its previous generation. And from my perspective, the MUSES also helps a lot to give “analogue” feel. If you want to get back the typical ASUS’ sonic signature, I think you can easily swap the opamp to LM/LME 4562 family. The sonic will drastically change to other side which might be preferable for some people. Well, that’s the idea of making the Op-Amp swappable, right?
Be mindful that I’m talking in PC based environment – so please set the expectation on PC based level. Don’t expect this will outperform your dedicated audio source or external USB DAC. If we are comparing with external/dedicated audio source, this ASUS Xonar Essence STX II 7.1 still a bit “boxed” in terms of space and not that “relaxed”.
Moving to a bit complex music like Classic or Baroque, I think we are hitting the limit of most internal sound card, not only ASUS Xonar Essence STX II 7.1. Noise and other interference inside the PC might require extra tuning to get the better result. Haydn, Vivaldi, Eiji Oue might sound better on ASUS Xonar Essence STX II 7.1 vs most internal sound card that I’ve tested (with some exception like premium studio Lynx TWO old PCI-based or EMU1820), but still we are on the edge when it comes to this kind of music.
What is my conclusion on this short testing? I would say that ASUS has done great job on Xonar Essence STX II 7.1. It sets a new standard in PCI-E internal sound card competition for music listener. Not only for gaming purpose, but a serious music listener should be able to enjoy this new card from ASUS and all of its improvement. Definitely better in music compared to its predecessor. It might not sound as analogue as Onkyo’s sound card, but on certain circumstances, I would say too analogue also could be troublesome as we are not using our PC 100% for music. This sound card is just nice to balance the world. We can always swap the Op-Amp with more aggressive LM4562 or LME49720 / LME49710 – if you need a bolder pronunciation high/low and sacrifice the musicality a bit.