The Sabres are a bit too clinical for me, especially in the Dragonfly, and at least for music I prefer the AKM 4490 for Delta Sigma DACs. But I imagine for sound effects and overall computer audio the Sabres might be right in their element.
Creative's Dolby / DTS pass-through works for me, where for some other cards it's not passing the bitstream for DTS / Dolby-encoded games. I haven't been able to figure out why, but for some reason Creative just works where others don't, for my multichannel setup. That's why I do digital out from their cards.
"Clinical" or not depends a lot on the rest of the circuit too and the headphones or speakers you have to go with it. I have never once heard good sound from an ES DAC that wasnt on a board that had extensive surrounding circuitry. And nothing mobile in design can have that so they never sound great.
The best audio I have ever heard was on an ES9018, and some of the worst "high end" sound I have heard was on an ES9018.
I been using HDMI for audio for a few months now and I have ditched both Optical and Analog. This obviously only works if you have a receiver and decent speakers but I'm very happy with the results. The only thing I use my Xonar for these days is the Microphone and occasional Headphone listening.
Why no SATA power as i would have expected? Creative Labs has since told me that there's not enough 5 volt power carried over SATA with maxes out about 7.5 watts. Molex, however, can supply up to 55 watts.
Since the AE-5 can power up to four LED strips, it can't be run off of SATA. There is power through the PCIe slot, but that's 12 volts only. While Creative didn't say, I'm going to imagine adding additional hardware to convert 12 volts to 5 volts and bringing it onto the plane of the sound card goes against the point. The extra circuitry would add cost and induce more noise. So yeah, Molex it is.
"Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees."