Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe: Asus HTPC sound card does Everything

Audio|Video|Misc
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Subjective Test Results

As with the objective results, we are tempted to simply state that the Xonar is excellent and leave it at that. If you are not interested in audiophile musings about the finer points of sound reproduction, we suggest you skip this section and jump to the conclusion. Unless your existing sound card is absolutely dreadful, any improvement that the HDAV1.3 can offer is likely to be incremental, not revolutionary. And, unless you have a substantial HiFi system already, you are unlikely to hear a difference at all.

One more disclaimer: The differences noted in this section are all small. While some differences were audible (assuming no placebo effects), we were unable to judge whether the HDAV1.3 made things better (or worse) in terms of either enjoyment or accuracy.

All listening was done with the volume set to 100. Despite the hot levels, no distortion was recognizable during the tests, though it is possible that some of the differences we heard might be attributable to distortion.

Generally speaking, the Xonar's analogue output sounded slightly bassier, while the DACs in the Yamaha receiver tended to emphasize treble a bit. Kodo's taiko drums sounded boomy and muddy on the HDAV1.3, and the impacts seemed less clear, especially with the smaller drums. Neither output captured the rolling thunder that the drums produce live, but this can likely be attributed to not having a subwoofer to support such ultra-low frequencies. A similar effect was noted in Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, although here the emphasized low end gave the drums a presence that was lacking in the Yamaha version.

Drums aside, few differences were noticed in frequency balance. At times, the Xonar did seem more detailed, offering greater separation between the instruments. In the case of Fats Domino's live recording, this was a great advantage, as the recording has a murkiness typical of old recordings. This song sounded more alive and better balanced than with the Yamaha. His kisses into the microphone blended in better with the rest of the music and sounded less like they need a pop filter.

Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac (not Fleetwood Mac by Rhiannon) also benefited from more detail, as their tracks have a characteristic softness that tends to blend the instruments together in a way that can sound flat, especially on poor quality sound systems. And Denzal Sinclaire's swinging Tofu & Greens swung extra hard with the Xonar, sounding more dynamic and varied than with the Yamaha.

On the other hand, studio recordings that already have lots of separation between the instruments suffered with the Xonar. This was especially evident in the Pink Floyd tracks, which sounded less like a piece of music and more like a bunch of instruments being played together. For some reason, the added detail gave the illusion that the band wasn't quite playing in time, and it was very easy to get lost in individual instruments without listening to the song as a whole. To a lesser extent, the same was true of Brasstronaut's Old World Lies, which sounded sharper and less musical. While the piano may have sounded more detailed (and its harmonics were more obvious), the Xonar made me want to analyze the music, while the Yamaha made me dance.

Two of the tracks we listened to did not reveal much difference. Although the car squealing out at the beginning of Red Rover had more ambiance and impact with the HDAV1.3, the actual music did not change much. It's possible the bass was a bit tighter and more controlled on the Yamaha, but not by much.

Surprisingly, the other track that did not change was our classical piece. Despite the huge dynamics and various orchestral instruments in Vivaldi's Autumn, we could hear very little difference. If pressed, we might say that the HDAV sounded more detailed (with squeakier violin) and slightly harsher, but we weren't able to confirm this during the A/B portion of our testing.

CONCLUSION

Overall we had few complaints about the Xonar HDAV1.3. After a few tough months of teething problems, it now does what it is supposed to (for the most part), and it is feature loaded and sounds excellent. While it is poor value if your audio needs are limited to a few specific scenarios (especially if those scenarios involve HDMI — you don't need a sound card to send data through a cable), as a general purpose card it can do almost anything you can throw at it.

Our criticisms are limited to a few nit-picks and a scathing glare at the movie industry for creating a situation in which early adopters who shell out a substantial amount of money for Blu-Ray discs are forced to jump through hoops to get them to play correctly while pirates simply ignore the restrictions by ripping and decrypting the discs to their hard drives. AACS and BD+ have been cracked for over a year — why are the studios still inconveniencing their best customers to support a protection scheme that doesn't work? Among the movie industry's hoops that apply to HDAV1.3 users:

  • Vendor lock-in to Asus' specific version of Total Media Theatre.
  • Requiring an RMA (rather than a firmware download) to fix 24P passthrough for cards manufactured before 2009.
  • Creating a situation where Asus can sell a $250 card to send DD TrueHD and DTS-HD MA out via HDMI without decoding it.
  • Forcing software that can decode these high resolution formats to downgrade the quality to 48 kHz / 16 bits before it is output (I know, I know, you can't hear the difference. It's the principle of the thing).
  • Disallowing the possibility of outputting audio via HDMI and S/PDIF (or analogue) at the same time.

Most of our nit-picks apply specifically the version of Total Media Theatre that ships with the card, and are not directed at the actual hardware. These include poor HD-DVD support (which, to be fair, is all we can expect of a dead format), and a lack of integration with Vista Media Center (which apparently has to do with Asus' license negotiations with Arcsoft).

On the hardware side, our biggest criticisms are that the card is incapable of generating a black video signal to output HDMI sound without external video connected, and the excessively high line levels on the analogue side of things.

Nit-picks aside, the analogue audio quality is excellent, and the RCA connectors are much appreciated. This truly is a card worthy of integrating into a HiFi home theater system. The analogue outputs are at least on par with the capabilities of our midrange Yamaha receiver, and those who like detail may even find it superior. Now, if only it came with an input card and an external amplifier it could replace the receiver entirely!

And, if you want to game in surround sound while you're at it, or talk on Skype without hearing echo through your speakers, the card can do that. Hey, maybe you'll even find a use for the extra color correction or the 27 different environmental effects while you're at it... Well, maybe not, but the card is fully-featured. It's up to you to decide how to use it.

Asus Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe
PROS

* Excellent audio quality
* Does everything
* Only current way to stream lossless Blu-Ray codecs
* Replaceable op-amps
* High quality electronics
* RCA outputs
CONS

* Expensive
* Crippled by movie industry
* Vendor lock-in with Total Movie Theatre
* Excessively high output level
* Teething problems

Our thanks to ASUSTeK for the Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe sample.

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