Testing the Xonar Essence STX
Now that we have a good idea of what this board is all about and we have had a look at the many different features and components involved, it's time to discuss how it sounds. This particular model of the Xonar is aimed fair and square at the music listener and I will reflect this in my testing discussion.
There are two main areas within which to conduct the musical testing of the Essence and they are the analog signal path and the digital signal path. It's also important to remember that analog signal integrity is the key here and that many of the design elements were put in place to maintain purity of the analog signal.
First we'll cover the performance of the headphone-out using a pair of Sennheiser HD433 headphones running at the intermediate gain level of around 8db.I used a wide variety of music as I usually do to test the various aspects of performance.
I found the sound quality being delivered to my Sennheiser's (of which might I add are far from pricey) to be of a very high quality, capturing fantastic percussion harmonics and possessing an overall warmness not unlike my very old Yamaha natural sound amp.
I also immediately noticed how musical the Essence sounded, meaning that lots of transient sounds were present making for a very smooth dynamic feel to the sound without any harsh digital roughness. The high end is very crisp and present, but not too harsh or over done. Vocals come through the mix very well and feel warm with lots of character.
With Dolby headphone turned on, a 3D environment is created from a stereo signal and depending on what is being listened to it can work well or sound very heavy on the low end, leading to a very garbled sound. I guess if you're the sort that likes to 'add' to their music, DHP will be great; for everyone else, though, I don't think it will be hard to avoid.
There are three different gain settings for the headphone pre-amp with 0db gain, 8db gain and 16db gain, which should be sufficient in covering all headphones, great and small. I found 8db to be perfect for my Sennheisers.
For testing of the digital out, I used an optical cable along with the provided adapter to connect to my JVC receiver and with a pair of bookshelf speakers. The sample rate was set to 48 KHz because that is the receivers limit.
I immediately noticed a marked improvement over the original Xonar's digital out which I had being using in days leading up to this testing. Many of the aforementioned benefits felt when testing with the headphone output are also present here, but not to the full extent as this card is built to do analog first and foremost and also because the on-board pre-amp is not being used for the digital output stage.