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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.
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
* Excellent audio quality
* Does everything
* Only current way to stream lossless Blu-Ray codecs
* Replaceable op-amps
* High quality electronics
* RCA outputs
* 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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* * *
this article in the SPCR forums.
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