Sound Cards to Buy - High-end
Product Model: ASUS Xonar Xense
Our Review: ASUS and Sennheiser Unite with Xonar Xense HD Audio Solution
While not offering quite the sound quality of the Essence STX (in our opinion anyway) and lacking full size analog outs, the Xense is still a very good sound card in its own right. With lovely dynamic range and good transients as well, this board is true Xonar at heart, even though the box has Sennheiser written on it. The reason for this is because of what's inside; a pair of custom designed headphones are included which complement the board.
Together they offer a very strong package that some will argue is probably the best going around. And they may in fact be correct in thinking so. But at nearly $300 this is a tough call, and if it came down to the X-Fi Titanium below for almost half the price minus the headset Vs the Xense package, we would probably say that unless you really needed a set of headphones, save the money and think about the X-Fi. Without doubt, though, many will disagree, but we admit it's a really tough call with these boards as they are oh so close in terms of overall spec and performance that it really almost comes down to amp and speakers when all is said and done. With the high end cards mostly all using Burr-Brown DAC's and having good clean signal paths, there is simply a less and less performance margin to be appreciated in real world listening.
Further to all of this, the original Xonar Essence STX is very much worth considering in its own right as a uber board for those who have the spare change. However, driver support has always been lackluster with the Xonar series, and while this is not a factor like it may be with a graphics card, it's still worth considering. And in our opinion the driver and interface of the Titanium HD is streets ahead of the equivalent Xonar package. So we ask only to consider these things when making your choices, but we know without a doubt that all the aforementioned cards offer great sound.
Product Model: Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD
Our Review: Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD Sound Card
This year has been quite a busy one for soundcards with a couple of key product launches. Earlier this year we saw the ASUS Xonar Xense impress us quite a bit with strong overall performance continuing for the Xonar(s). Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for Creative Labs, we have just finished our testing of the new Titanium HD, just in the nick of time for the buyers guide.
Bottom line, though, we thought this new Sound Blaster was not only the best to date, but good enough to make our selection for best board of the year! With a lovely Burr-Brown DAC and a strong driver, things start off well for the Titanium, but once listening begins we are sure you will agree this is one of the best. It actually trumped our long standing favorite (Xonar STX) for our most recommended audiophile sound card. Be sure to enjoy this one if you take the plunge. And at this price point it's really not all that much of one, so value is on offer as well.
Sound Card to buy - Low-end
Another board that we thought was impressive this year, goes by the name of DG and takes file in the now extensive range of Xonar sound cards. However, at the lower end of the pricing scale coming in at a price of less than fifty dollars, this is a really cheap option that still gives great sound in games, music and movies. If you are a gamer on a budget or just want more than on board (sound) without detracting from your budget for other components, pick up one of these and have a listen.
Audio Accessory - Standalone product
Capitalizing on the success of the iPhone and iPod Touch in recent times, Creative labs has a Bluetooth speaker that looks and sounds great. Using a specially sourced and professional grade Bluetooth codec called Apt-X, the D5 has a good amount of technology inside which all comes together quite well along with a monocoque chassis to allow for extreme rigidity under high sound pressure loads. We enjoyed this more than any other 'all in one' box speaker solution that has come our way in recent times.
The price is going to seriously put some people off without any doubt, but this is really a luxury item; let's be totally honest about it. And if you are in the market for such a thing, three hundred is not going to break the bank. We like this one, though; really we do. It comes highly recommended, and anyone that gets this for a Christmas gift is going to be seriously appreciative, we know that for sure!
Usually known for memory solutions, Corsair has really stepped into the great un-known here with the HS1 headset. And for an initial product we thought this was a great start, offering really high quality sound and components that take full advantage of the supplied Dolby Headphone software package. At just a mere hundred we recommend this one highly, plus it's USB so it can be taken anywhere, anytime. In this bracket it doesn't really get much better than this without spending several hundred more, and trust us, that's not always a guarantee of better sound quality. Looking forward to next year and we cannot wait too see what's next for Corsair and the new sound department they have now.