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UPDATED 1/12/12: X-Fi Bites the Dust - Titanium HD vs. Essence STX Comparo

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A Little History
As many of you know, Creative has been in the sound card market for decades. They had their humble SoundBlasters, started the Audigy line and eventually started the X-Fi line of cards. Now, even though the X-Fi was technically the most advanced sound DSP (digital signal processor) to ever grace the computer world, it had its issues. The earlier DSPs had overheating issues and many of died a premature death. Then came the Vista debacle when the drivers were clearly horrible.

Sometime around when Creative was having issues with Vista drivers was when Asus decided, "Hey, let's enter the sound card market!" And enter they did. By utilizing the C-Media OxygenHD DSP, Asus took one of the most potent multimedia DSPs and threw it on a PCB packed with features. Not only have they eaten away at the market share by offering very good quality sound cards, but they also appealed to the Hi-Fi/audiophile market with the Xonar D2X and later, the Essence STX and ST. The Asus front garnered support on the back of Creative's Vista driver issues even though they had issues with drivers themselves when Windows 7 came out.

As some of you already know, I recently bought a Xonar Essence STX. Even though I already own the Titanium HD and a Xonar D1, there have been a lot of discussion on which of the two (Essence STX or Titanium HD) was actually better. Considering that the two are close to or are each respective company's flagship card, a comparison was unavoidable. There has been much back and forth discussion from Asus owners and Creative owners on which is actually the better card. No one had enough evidence to draw a conclusion until now.

Setup
256kbps or above MP3/FLAC => X-Fi Titanium HD/Xonar Essence STX => Ultrasone PRO 550 Headphone
Little Dot MKII with gain set to 5 may also be used.
All testing will be conducted in stereo. The Titanium HD will be using Audio Creation Mode. The Xonar Essence STX will be using Hi-Fi mode. No equalizers or DSP effects of any kind will be applied.

Pics

X-Fi Titanium HD

aniumhd.jpg

Xonar Essence STX

essencestx.jpg

Xonar D1 (not included for direct comparison but may be used for reference from time to time)

xonard1.jpg

Drivers
The cards have very different drivers. Both are stable on my computer and neither has had a BSOD or a lock-up yet.

driversq.jpg

On the left is the Asus control panel and on the right is the Creative Console Launcher in Audio Creation Mode. Both of these are similar to the sound card setup programs that their lesser counterparts have. The STX's control panel is identical to the D1's except the ability to change the gain on the headphone amplifier. The Creative Console Launcher looks and works exactly the same as my previous X-Fi XtremeMusic.

The X-Fi's Audio Creation Mode is obviously more complicated and has more bells and whistles that perhaps a sound engineer could make use of but for this type of comparison, they will not be tampered with.

Connectivity
The biggest physical difference between the two cards is connectivity.

The X-Fi Titanium HD is able to auto-mute the RCA outputs when the front headphone is plugged in. Once you unplug the front or the rear headphone output, then the RCA of the card starts working. The RCA is silenced when the headphone output is used. This is all done automatically via software and can result in a pause in audio output.

The Essence STX (as well as the Xonar D1) takes a completely different approach to output switching by using miniature mechanical relays. The relays on the STX sound beefier than the Xonar D1 and produce a louder click. The Xonar cards allow you to keep both the front and rear plugged in. You can switch from the front to the back without interrupting the audio output and without any pause in the audio after the relay is activated. On the STX, if you have the front panel hooked up, you can essentially keep the RCA outputs plugged in, a headphone plugged into the back of the card (6.3 mm or 1/4 inch), and a headphone/speakers plugged into the front of the card. This allows you to switch between THREE devices easily. The front audio output can also be amplified.

Connectivity-wise, the Xonar Essence STX is without question the most versatile card that I have ever used.


Music Impressions
The Essence STX is often touted as the "best music sound card." The Titanium HD was essentially Creative's answer to Asus' current stranglehold on that title. Several key factors contribute to overall sound quality: the DAC chip responsible for converting a digital signal to an analog waveform, the operational amplifiers (opamps), the DSP which handles and sometimes modifies the digital signal, as well as the power and filtering circuitry (capacitors, resistors, etc.). For this comparison, several tracks from different genres are included. Clarity, instrument separation, bass/mid/treble emphasis and sound stage will be considered.

Deadmau5 - Right This Second from the album 4x4=12 (FLAC)
Deadmau5's Right This Second is a great song that works very well with the Ultrasone PRO 550. It builds up from the start, dips into silence and then it hits you with visceral bass energy. It has a great tempo with several different notes playing at the same time.

I listened to both sound cards twice on this song. I came from the TiHD to the STX and was immediately impressed by an echo of the primary note of the track on the left channel. The channel shifting of the "beeping" details at about 4:15 was more noticeable on the STX. Wow. That same echo blended in more with the rest of the song on the TiHD. Same applied to the beeping. It was less of its own entity, but part of a whole. Although you could separate out each note easily on both cards, I'll have to hand the Essence STX the win on this one.

STX.

Eminem - B____ Please II from the album The Marshall Mathers LP (320 kbps MP3)
This song has several audio cues that hit you when you aren't looking for them, such as car horns at 39 seconds on the left channel. The bass in this song isn't particularly deep. Voices (particularly Snoop Dogg's) have a tendency to shift around on the sound stage. Gunshots also make an appearance every now and then and typically are found in the left channel about 45º from the horizontal (x-axis).

It's readily apparent in this song that the X-Fi makes the sound stage wider than the STX. Snoop Dogg's voice shifts from left and right are much more noticeable with the X-Fi as well as the car horns I previously mentioned. I did feel like the STX gives a much more "upfront" presentation of the music and brings vocals closer. It does seem like the STX gives an ever-so-slight bass bump over the TiHD in this case.

Tie.

Eagles - Hotel California from the live album Hell Freezes Over (FLAC)
The live version of the song starts out much slower than the studio version and as a result you can pick out many more details and there's a lot of emphasis on the drum prior to the multitude of guitars picking up. A variety of vocals were present with the lead being Don Henley.

The cheering of the crowd is much more noticeable on the STX than on the X-Fi. However, separation between the vocals as well as the instruments isn't as strong. You could tell there were three guitars playing in the background, but it was harder to tell them apart. This was also the same with vocals. Don Henley's voice clearly stood out with the X-Fi but was blended in with the secondary vocals. It was almost as if the X-Fi and the STX did a role reversal compared to the Deadmau5 case. The STX definitely included everything more as a whole picture instead everything as a separate entity.

X-Fi

Natasha Bedingfield - Strip Me from the album Strip Me (256kbps MP3)
Bedingfield's style blends pop and elements of electronica. This song has piano, drums & cymbals, multiple vocal cues, and synthesizer. It has busy and quiet portions that makes this song extremely dynamic.

Carrie Underwood - Don't Forget to Remember Me

30 Seconds to Mars - Night of the Hunter from the album This Is War (V0 MP3)

Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture

Holst's The Seven Planets: Mars (Requested)



Gaming Performance
While these are all considered "audiophile-grade" sound cards, I'm sure plenty of us will be playing games with them. I will play about half an hour of each game on each sound card one after the other. Unless there is absolute need to test the FPS of each game, the effects on FPS are considered negligible. I will make a note if the sound card crashes the game.

Battlefield Bad Company 2
This is one game that not only takes into account how well you can spot and aim, but also get the relative position of where the enemy is. Knowing where the guy is and hearing either his screams or footsteps can help you substantially.

The X-Fi Titanium HD knows how to handle this game and handles it extremely well because of the X-Fi DSP. Footsteps are easy to hear, but the voices of enemy soldiers and gunshots from every direction are as well. Not only can you actually hear the sounds, but you can also gauge where and how far they are. 50 yards away at 10 o'clock sounds like 50 yards away at 10 o'clock. This gives you a tactical advantage that helps you flank his position or destroy his cover depending on your style of play.

The Essence STX, like the Xonar D1, has serious problems with this game. You know you're getting shot but you don't know where the person is shooting from. Really the most accurate sounds you're going to hear are the ones where they're about 10 feet or less away. If they're farther than that, positioning is a crapshoot because you either hear it way too late (as you're about to die) or you don't hear it at all. I did expect this though because the STX, like its lesser sibling, the D1, is very much handicapped in this game by the CMedia Oxygen HD DSP. It's really frustrating coming from the Titanium HD.

I have DSP options turned off on both cards (such as Dolby Headphone and GX2.0).

X-Fi


Mass Effect 1
Both cards performed similarly in this game in terms of positioning (what little of it there is). Since this is an RPG, positioning isn't completely vital but immersion is. On neither card was I able to clearly hear where a Husk was running from or where a Geth Trooper was located. This game is equally enjoyable on both cards.

Tie.

Team Fortress 2
Tie.


Need For Speed Shift 2 Unleashed
Tie.

Value and Conclusion


UPDATE January 12th, 2012:
The Titanium HD has died. It is no longer recognized by the system and I have reseated the card several times and reinstalled the drivers. It is also about two weeks out of warranty so I'm pretty much out of luck. I've dispatched an email to Creative but I get the feeling they're going to tell me that I am no longer eligible for warranty service and thus will need to discard (haha, get it?). Sigh.
Edited by RallyMaster - 1/12/12 at 7:35pm
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looking forward to this!
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post #6 of 173
Since I had owned both the Titanium HD and the STX, I can only look forward as to what you will think about them; nevertheless, I subscribed. sneaky.gif
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post #7 of 173
I own both and the only conclusion I can come to in regards to 2 channel audio is it will boil down to individual preference. Both are high fidelity grade cards with 2 distinct sound signatures.

I think the big problem with Creative is there naming scheme. They should have named the Titanium HD something completely different since it seems that using the old generation name has lead people to believe or associate the HD with the previous cards.
post #8 of 173
Quote:
Originally Posted by Paradigm;13133652 
I think the big problem with Creative is there naming scheme. They should have named the Titanium HD something completely different since it seems that using the old generation name has lead people to believe or associate the HD with the previous cards.

I agree. People keep writing in various forums about their old cards when the OP is speaking of the new.........
post #9 of 173
So is the testing going to be 100% opinion and subjective hearing based or are you actually going to compare harmonic distortion and quantifiable specs?
    
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post #10 of 173
SUB'D

this will possibly determine my next pickup!
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