After trolling many, many years on forums for info on sound cards, you will eventually get the impression that two sound card makers reign supreme in gaming circles. Yes, that's right, I'm talking about Creative and Asus. (Sorry other makers, I'll get back to you. Particularly HT Omega...) So today, what I'd thought I'd do is write a shoot-out/review of Creative's and Asus' flagship soundcards, the X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty and the Xonar Essence STX (Oops, I almost wrote GTX there).
(You can skip this if you want. Its not important.)
So lets start with some backstory. After building my most recent rig, I was playing games and going about my business as usual. And then it dawned on me...I have no surround sound! Thinking that, I ran to the nearest Fry's and starting hunting down a sound card. Note that I have Dolby DTS onboard, but I felt it was somewhat lacking. Anyway, I walked out two hours later with the two cards I am comparing today.
The reason I picked these cards was quite simple. First off, they met my price point. I had exactly $200 to spend and I took advantage of Fry's price matching to get them at Newegg price; $155 for the Creative and $168 for the Asus. Secondly, both were PCIe cards, which I happened to have free on my board. (Its the only one free, in fact). Finally both incorporated some form of Hi-Fi surround sound.
Features (Input and Outputs)
First, lets take a look at the features. The first thing I noticed was that the Creative comes with both an optical out and an optical in. The Xonar only comes with an optical in and that is via an included adapter. This was important to me, since I use optical for most of my audio. But I should point out that this is virtually pointless. The optical in on the X-Fi only supports 2.1 audio, so you can't chain audio through the card and maintain source surround. Additionally, who does that anyway? Secondly, since the optical port is ON the card, it has no space for Coaxial, which is a minor problem if your devices have no optical. The Asus on the other hand does have coaxial. (The optical adapter goes to the coaxial). Additionally, the X-fi has 3.5 ports built in, whereas the Asus uses adapters (which I prefer for maximum compatibility). My favorite feature about the Asus, however, is the Headphone amp. Headphone amps increase overall quality of headphones and audio equipment, boosting the amount of detail played by the audio drivers in your headset. This is FANTASTIC if you are an avid headphone audiophile. These can be accessed using 6.3 audio jacks, which for many people, will not see much use.
Features (Audio Performance)
Now here is where everything changes. The Asus has wildly unexpected figures. Its got a 124 dB SNR, which indicates how much noise you get for quality sound, and higher is better. This figure is much higher than its competitor's. The Creative only has 115 dB so the quality difference is unmistakable. Additionally, the frequency response range is wide on the Asus: 10 Hz to 90kHz. The Creative has only 10Hz to 46 kHz. However, for 99.9% of the people out there, this figure will mean nothing. (If you want to know more about what this means though, I have provided a link at the bottom of the article). Additionally, both cards are spec'd at 24 bits with a sampling rate of 192 kHz. However, with the Creative, I noticed a noticeable drop in sampling for most of the channels. It did not perform as expected.
What I wrote above is very technical, and I am not completely qualified to put any opinion into it. However, what I got is what I got, and it is important to understand I got the results the way MOST PEOPLE would achieve them. Since this is a review mostly for people like me who are not professionals, it makes sense to provide this feedback.
EAX vs Whatever Asus has
From my experience, those who use the Creative are one of three people: Loyalist -who buy anything Creative makes, Gamers - who swear by EAX tech, and those, who like me, heard that Creative is the audio standard on PC. Asus, on the other hand, has a very weird fan base. Many of them are those who found Creative products lacking (and are therefore very mean and critical of creative), or those who saw the high ratings on Newegg (I am of the later).
But what it comes down to is the API standards. Since both cards support 7.1 Virtual Surround, both have Dolby and Xear, both Dolby Digital Live (the Creative has the outdated DTS as well), the defining difference is that Creative has THX Certification and EAX. THX is not that important, but EAX is a sticking point for many gamers. For those that don't know, EAX is a processing preset developed by Creative to enhance 3D sound, giving the listener more accurate location sounds. I, however, don't really buy into the EAX thing. You can hear the difference, but unless you are a pro gamer and rely on sound to pinpoint targets off-screen, it doesn't mean much, since the overall quality of the sound will seem about the same between the two cards. But if EAX is important to you, then this is the card for you.
Another sweet bonus of the Fatal1ty Pro is the presence of X-Fi Crystalizer. This is a neat little feature that revitalizes compressed audio to a more lossless sounding quality. Its not completely perfect but it is certainly a nice touch.
What they are like to live with
If you are like me and love convenience, for only about $20 more than the stripped version, the Creative Titanium has a version that comes with a cool little 3.5 bay insert. From here you can access handy little controls as well as plug in your awesome gaming headset. The Asus does not have that. Its a nic, thoughtful thing for creative to include that. However, if you don't have an open bay, or if that inclusion is a little gimmicky to you, you may want to lean to the highly compatible Asus.
As mentioned above, because of the smart use of adapters, the Asus was able to plug into EVERY device I own. This includes my home theater, my PS3, my XBOX, among other things. I also was able to hook them up to all my headphones and headsets, all of them exhibiting virtual surround fantastically. Similarly, the Creative had great 7.1 surround, but I did find that having no Coaxial was a little weird. But for most normal people this won't affect you too much. The Asus also sports 6.3mm headphone jacks, which lets one use high-end studio headsets, but that is not useful for most people.
As for the drivers, I have to speak to this. Both drivers suck. Many of you out there who have used Creative, Realtek or Asus will know that the drivers can be unreliable at any stage during ownership. Luckily, I didn't run into these issues, but I did notice that the Creative needed more driver fiddling than the Asus to get the same degree of sound quality. The ease of use of the Asus makes it better for those who know less about audio.
An interesting note that I didn't mention earlier is that both cards have good mic support, but I found that the Asus was more mic dependent than the Creative. The X-fi was clear regardless of the mic I used, the Asus picked up noise on my Logitech. It shouldn't make much of a difference.
NOTE: If you run SLI or Crossfire, note that the Creative may BSOD your comp. For some reason, I got an error where the sound drivers of my NVidias or Radeons conflicted with the Creative driver causing a crash. I know this also happens with Asus, but that has not yet happened to me.
Summary and Conclusion
The Asus Xonar Essence STX is a fabulous piece of kit. Compared to other cards in its range, it is far more capable of delivering detailed sound that many enthusiasts crave. It may not be as good as some more expensive cards, but for under $200, its hard to beat. It also has all the necessary I/O ports that you need, although if you wanted to use your computer to process surround, you are better off with another card, since the card lacks S/PDIF Input. Additionally the Asus provides an ample headphone amp that can drive ultra quality headphones of up to 600 ohms, which is a HUGE plus to me.
The Creative X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty is a good choice for gamers. It has EAX and a decent set of hardware. It isn't the most powerful, but for most people it should do just fine. What makes this card a good buy, however, is you can often get it for quite cheap. I saw it once for $120 without the 3.5 bay addition. My biggest problem with the Creative is it is a niche product. It was really only made with gamers in mind. That being said, it does do everything just fine.
So if you can get the Creative for $120, its a HUGE bang for your buck, if however, you prefer that little extra umph, you can't go wrong with the Asus.
Asus Xonar Essence STX 7.1 Surround:
- Sound: 5/5
- Drivers: 3/5
- I/O: 5/5
- API Compliance: 4/5
- Value: 4/5
- Final Score: 4.2/5
Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty:
- Sound: 4/5
- Drivers: 3/5
- I/O:3/5 (4.5 if you have the 3.5" drive)
- API Compliance: 5/5
- Value:5/5 (4 if you have the 3.5" drive)
- Final Score:4/5
WINNER: ASUS Xonar Essence STX
By a small margin the Asus wins! If you have anything to comment about or say about these two cards please feel free to comment? I will add more to this review as I experience more about these two cards. I got a few days until one of them needs to go back to Fry's and I have to make a final choice!
About Frequency Response (http://www.ecoustics.com/electronics...es/131062.html)