|Introduction and Specification|
Xonar D2 Ultra Fidelity 7.1 PCI Surround Card to see if it really is the best of its kind or if ASUS' claims falls short.
|ASUS Xonar D2 Ultra Fidelity 7.1 Sound Card|
|The ASUS Xonar D2 Ultra Fidelity 7.1 PCI Surround Sound Card is complemented by a robust retail bundle covering several software titles and an abundant collection of extra cabling. ASUS includes a total of four 3.5mm-to-RCA adapters for connecting RCA equipment to the Xonar D2 while two pair of SPDIF Optical Adapters are provide along with a single SPDIF Optical Cable. For MIDI inputs, the Xonar D2 utilizes a MIDI card that connects to the sound card with an external four pin cable. Additionally, a MIDI Y Adapter is included to marry up to external MIDI components.
Cakewalk website for a complete breakdown on each program's functionality. We were pleased to see a fully functional and current copy of PowerDVD 7 included in the package and it was not of the scaled down 2-Ch flavor that has been appearing in many OEM bundles lately. This version is the 5.1 edition that can be upgraded to full Dolby Digital EX 7.1 Surround Capability.
Rounding out the bundle is a Dolby Headphone Dolby Virtual Speaker Demo DVD and a Drivers CD which includes Windows XP and Vista drivers, Electronic User's Manual, Portable Music Processor and RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.6.
The ASUS Xonar D2 Ultra Fidelity 7.1 PCI Sound Card itself is built around a 24-bit ASUS AV200 High-Definition Sound Processor that boasts a SNR (Signal-to-Noise Ratio) of 118dB, which is the best SNR we could find, scouring the market for comparable solutions. The card supports 44.1, 48, 96 and 192KHz sampling with floating point filters claiming near lossless conversion. The card is also equipped with four Burr-Brown PCM1796 24-bit D-A Converters for digital sources while a single Cirrus-Logic CS5381 24-bit A-D Converter handles analog signal. The card is encased with an EMI (Electronic Magnetic Interference) shield to ensure surrounding components do not have a negative effect on audio quality. For added aesthetics, ASUS added illumination to the shield while the rear port collection is also illuminated, making finding the right port a bit easier to locate.
The back end comes with all necessary inputs/outputs to fit virtually any usage scenario imaginable. The top starts with a MIC and Line-In port followed by Headphone/Front, Side Surround, Center/Sub and Rear outputs. The last two RCA ports are for SPDIF Input and Output. The top of the card included three connectors as well, one marries up to the external MIDI card while the second supports direct CD-IN, with the third Aux-In port connecting to a TV-Card or other device.
|ASUS Audio Center|
|ASUS AUDIO CENTER
The Asus Xonar D2's performance is facilitated by a comprehensive driver package dubbed Asus Audio Center. This utility unlocks the sound card's wide array of features and settings. The default Main View provides a graphic spectrum of the current audio playback along with DSP Mode, EQ Mode and Output Device status. The right panel consists of a volume dial, SVN (Smart Volume Normalization) for maintaining a constant volume level from all sources and Mute controls. The layout is relatively intuitive and comes with a small learning curve thanks to a comprehensive electronic User's Manual. Impressive layout aside, we did find the animation of the spectrum meter very laggy, which took away from its overall impact somewhat.
The Main menu also has a DSP Mode which consists of four control options at the lower right of the menu. These Digital Sound Processing modes are pre-configured settings to be used in various playback scenarios. With either Music, Movie or Game Mode enabled, custom equalizer settings are overridden and automatic adjustments are made to the Virtual Speaker positioning for proper audio positioning and playback.
To access further options, the main menu can be expanded to reveal additional controls. The most configurable screen of the collection is the main view which offers options for channel setting, sampling rates and the like. The Audio Channel menu is only available within Microsoft Vista and provides 2, 4, 6, and 8 channel settings that are synchronized with Vista's integrated speak configuration settings, while sampling rates range from 44.1, 44, 96 and 192KHz. The Analog Out menu sets the speaker configuration for headphone, 2, 4, 5.1 and 7.1 speaker configurations.
The Mixer screen offers level controls for all available inputs and outputs. The Effects screen is where the majority of the driver's extra effects reside. There is a 10-band equalizer with 11 presets and user-defined options. The drivers also offer environment settings which apply special effects such as Concert Hall, Arena, Underwater and a dozen other choices. The field size can also be managed from Small, Medium and Large to adjust the over all intensity of each effect.
The next screen focuses on karaoke functionality, which does a surprisingly good job at removing vocals while maintaining the music's integrity. The song's pitch can be tweaked and the vocals can we reduced or nearly removed, only audible when the volume is at excessive levels. The FlexBass option gives greater control over bass signal, offering crossover adjustments from 50HZ to 250HZ, while the speaker size can be adjusted between small and large.
|HH Test Setup & RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.0.6|
AMD Athlon X2 5200+ ASUS Xonar D2 Ultra Fidelity 7.1 Sound Card WD1500 "Raptor" HD
AMD Athlon X2 5200+
ASUS Xonar D2 Ultra Fidelity 7.1 Sound Card
WD1500 "Raptor" HD
ASUS Xonar D2
Realtek HD Int. Audio
AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1
The Frequency response was tighter with the Xonar D2 when compared to the Realtek integrated sound controller, staying within +.05/-.03 at 44.1 and 48KHz while widening somewhat to +.06/-.04 where as the Realtek HD Audio had wider deviations, most notably at 44.1KHz. The elder Prodigy 7.1 demonstrated the widest swings in frequency response, while Noise Level and Dyamic Range fell between the Realtek HD Audio and the Xonar 2. Looking at Noise Levels closer, the Xonar D2 ran at a difference of -18dB compared to the Realtek HD Audio and -13dB compared to the Prodigy 7.1. Dynamic Range was the mirror image of Noise level, with the Xonar D2 averaging +18dB over the Realtek HD Audio controller and +13dB over the AudioTrak Prodigy. Total Harmonic Distortion, IMD + Noise and Stereo Crosstalk all favored the Xonar D2 as well.
Another reference point that you may want to consider are statistics we collected when we reviewed a Soundblaster X-Fi ExtremeMusic sound card. In that piece we found the X-Fi ExtremeMusic to offer better results with Dynamic Range and Noise levels, however the Xonar D2 had a much tighter Frequency response overall.
|CPU Utilization with Rightmark 3DSound 2.3 and F.E.A.R.|
Rightmark's 3DSound test measures CPU load depending on the DirectSound device mode. The program synthetically emulates the main cycle of a typical ingame sound engine while also performing standard DirectSound diagnostics checks for supported EAX versions.
Asus Xonar D2 Realtek Int. HD Audio AudioTrak Prodigy
The Realtek HD Audio control barely fluctuated with EAX enabled or disabled, with a mere 1 FPS difference. With EAX disabled, the Xonar D2 added 9FPS, while enabling EAX resulted in the performance dropping a few frames short of the Realtek controller. In reality, these are minor fluctuations that should have minimal effect on gameplay regardless of the video settings applied. The older AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1 had a negative impact on overall frame rates due to it's higher CPU utilization and EAX 2.0 was not supported with this model. This demonstrates perhaps how those running older sound cards can benefit greatly from the advances in integrated audio or by adding a newer quality sound card to the mix such as the Xonar D2.
|Subjective Experience - Audio, DVD, Gaming Quality|
For our subjective listening tests, we utilized a set of Logitech X-530 5.1 speakers connected to each sound solution via an analog connection. We ran the system through a variety of different playback scenarios and collected our subjective opinions for each. This is the hardest part of an audio product evaluation It's very much like food, where each person can eat the same dish yet have their own unique feedback on the experience. Regardless, we tried in several usage environments below to best illustrate the overall performance of each audio solution and offer up our objective yet subjective opinion.
To assess audio playback we sampled a broad range of music covering the audio spectrum. We spent several days listening to the likes of John Coltrane and several Latin Jazz collections with lots of distinct highs for sampling. We then shifted focus on Pearl Jam, Radiohead and Audioslave for rock/alternative while ATB and Tiesto allowed us to sample performance with Trance/Dance tracks. In each area we covered, the music with the Xonar D2 was full and crisp with no detectable noise or hiss whatsoever. Whether grooving to Coltrane's Resolution or tripping with Radiohead's Backdrifts, the audio quality didn't disappoint. ATB's Killer pumped out ample, clean bass while highs remained sharp and clean. We have to give credit to the Realtek HD Audio which also sounded quite good as well. Surely those audiophiles with an acute sense for audio quality may pick up on certain nuances better than others, but overall, both the Xonar D2 and Realtek HD Audio playback devices performed well with the Xonar D2 having a mildly noticeable advantage. The older Prodigy 7.1 was decent as well, but simply did not have the same punch in bass or crisp highs as the newer solutions. However, we did like its Four Way Clone option that forces the music through all four satellite speakers.
For DVD playback, we opted to load several intense battle scenes from Steven Speilberg's Band of Brothers. The goal was to play scenes with complete chaos to challenge the positioning of the surround sound system. Whether it was bombs exploding, machine guns firing, gun casings clinking on the ground or armored tanks rolling by, the sound was full, accurate and completely immersive with the Xonar D2. Once again, the Realtek HD Audio did a decent job as well, but the Xonar D2 certainly offered a more full experience. The Prodigy 7.1 solution performed OK for a card of its age, however, we did pick up some minor distortion at higher volume levels and the overall experienced seemed a bit flat in comparison to the other two sound solutions.
With gaming performance, we opted to focus our time on BioShock, an incredible game with rich storyline, awesome effects and soundtrack. After spending a few hours playing with the Realtek HD Audio solution, we switched over to the Xonar D2 and immediately felt that the experience was more full and complete. Positioning of audio was accurate with both solutions, but the experience simply felt more real with the Xonar D2. We then shifted from 5.1 speakers to headphone gaming using common earbud style headphones and the good vibrations continued. With the drivers configured for headphones, the Xonar did a superb job of simulating a 3D environment, ensuring the positioning of the audio was accurate for headphone playback. The Realtek HD Audio seemed more stereo than 5.1 surround, but did a decent job overall. The Prodigy 7.1 was outclassed altogether here, failing to impress in spatial orientation with both speakers and headphones.
Overall performance of the Asus Xonar D2 7.1 Ultra Fidelity Sound Card was quite good. Both synthetic testing with RightMark Audio Analyzer and RightMark 3D Sound, the vital statistics were good, with the Xonar having a marked advantage, most notably in RMAA. With gaming performance, CPU utilization was relatively even, with the Xonar D2 dropping below the Realtek HD Audio controller slightly with EAX testing, while the Xonar D2 had a 9 FPS lead with EAX disabled. In all of our subjective tests, we were quite pleased with the Xonar D2's performance, finding little shortcomings, although the Realtek's integrated HD Audio solution performed rather well too.
The ASUS Xonar D2 Ultra Fidelity 7.1 sound card came with promise of being the best sound card in its class, but best is broad sweaping statment that we'll steer clear of in general. It’s certainly priced at the upper end of cards in its class but does boast excellent SNR performance. However, saying it’s the best depends on its intended use from an end user's perspective.For a prosumer class card, the ASUS Xonar D2 Ultra Fidelity 7.1 Sound Card has a lot to offer, and serious audiophiles may find its feature set robust, with little drawback.
However, from a average user looking for a solid sound card for music, movies and gaming perspective, the ASUS Xonar D2 Ultra Fidelity 7.1 Sound Card may a bit overkill. Synthetic performance testing demonstrated the performance and accuracy differences between integrated audio and the Xonar D2 without question. We just don't see a glaring reason to suggest the average user take the leap from a good integrated sound processing solution to a high quality PCI sound card like the Xonar. We did note in our subjective segment that the Xonar D2 offered superior performance especially in gaming scenarios, but integrated Realtek HD Audio wasn't too far off the mark versus the Xonar card. Not to mention that the Realtek solution comes built into a motherboard with minimal CPU utilization or increase in cost. Where the ASUS Xonar D2 Ultra Fidelity 7.1 Sound Card fits in, is with users looking for a bit more out of their total sound solution. For any user looking for advanced features and the ability to connect to a broad range of external components, the Asus Xonar D2 and its retail bundle should bring a lot to the table for the audiophile or surround sound aficionado that can justify the added expense.
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