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Behind every pair of headphones should be a good sound chipset. That's the idea, and hopefully anyone who knows anything about good audio would adhere to that. For those who can't figure out why their big expensive headphones aren't quite performing as well as they'd imagined, read on;
Large and sophisticated headphones require extra power and feed which is not supplied by onboard sound cards (plugging it straight into your computer's built-in motherboard jack), nor by lower-spec hardware sound cards. I myself was using a Creative Audigy 2 beforehand and found it had nowhere near enough guts to power my brand new Sennheiser HD595's. If your headphones lack power or pop and crackle through bassy frequencies, step in the Asus Xonar.
The guys behind the Xonar obviously take these things seriously; the bundle you find in the box can have you wringing your hands and drooling with anticipation. Inside, besides the sound card itself, is a fancy looking test report booklet showing how the boxed hardware performed in the various quality control tests from the factory. A very nice addition, it shows an awareness that the majority of customers are discerning enthusiasts, not just random shelf-browsers stumbling upon their product. If we are being honest, that particular item will be perused through very briefly if at all before moving on - after all, sound cannot be represented on paper as well as it can in our ears. The Xonar features a few different audio output jack options; the standard big-jack 6.3mm as used by most high-end headphones, RCA stereo outputs (used for speaker systems), Line-in (for microphones) and an S/PDIF optical out, normally used for home theaters though this has been unused by myself. The card itself is packaged beautifully, masking most of the many capacitors under an anodised metal cloak with the stylish Xonar emblem adorned atop it. If you are stuck for bits to hook your gear up, there are a few complimentary adaptors included. Amongst them is a very handy 6mm to 3mm adaptor, which I personally use to make my budget desk microphone fit the 6mm line-in jack meant for big-boy mics. Also together in the pack is an RCA stereo Y cable which I use to mate my cheap Hercules desk-speakers to the Xonar. It's nice to have these extras included - they can't cost much to be included but some manufacturers still seem to omit little extras like this.
The STX model uses a mini-PCI connection to your motherboard. This is a common feature on motherboards nowadays but be very aware that some don't. Check your motherboard sockets just to be sure to avoid disappointment. Once physically installed, the supplied driver disc will have you well on your way - there are no unnecessary extras or unwanted applications alongside the required software. The controller software, entitled Xonar Essence STX Audio Centre, sits as a tray icon next to your computer clock and is just double clicked in order to pop up the full range of features. There's plenty to play around with but what you do from here is all down to the hardware you're using and your own personal preferences. The arsenal of audio-bending weapons include Dolby Headphone, Dolby Pro Logic 2, Flexbass, a fully functional equaliser and more. You're certainly not left wanting with customisation if you feel it's needed; I myself am very content with a tweaked equaliser alongside enabling 'Dolby Headphone'. Without them, I find the audio too flat and 'close to the ears', but I must reiterate that different headphones accept different setups, so don't be afraid to experiment with the add-ons and variables.
So, compared to my old Creative Audigy 2 soundcard (which was a good sound card in it's time anyway) was it worth the £140+ price I paid for it? Well in a word, absolutely. 2 years on from the date of purchase, I would adamantly recommend it. When I paired my hardware to the Xonar, I simply HAD to listen to EVERYTHING again - it was worlds apart. Underpowered and underwhelmed was what I felt when hanging my new headphones off my old Creative card. The Xonar gave a defibrillating jolt of life to them and I have enjoyed audio bliss ever since. Anyone who listen to familiar songs with this pairing of products always comments on how alive everything sounds, and when playing games or watching films it cannot be beat. So far I have had no incompatibilities between my Xonar and any software or games I have used, and that cannot be faithfully said for some less-known brands.
If you make the leap for a high-end sound card and it happens to be the Asus Xonar Essence STX, hand on heart it will be be the best audio experience you've ever heard from a computer, if not in general. I had expectations for it from the start but even so I was still taken aback. Highly recommendable.