It’s been over a year since I installed Vista64 on this machine, and while its usability increased steadily, I was still unable to enjoy it due to the state of Creative’s driver support for my Audigy 2ZS. Well, the recent outcry over Creative’s willful crippling of Vista drivers was the last straw, and I got myself an Asus Xonar DX PCI-E sound card.
The sound issues I had with my Creative Audigy 2ZS are gone. No more crackle hiss and pop. I’ll be able to, finally, find out how Vista behaves in daily use, now that I’ll get good sound.
Overall, the Xonar DX is a good deal at the price. The sound quality is excellent, better than my Audigy at the very least. The DX is not a “native” PCI-E card, it uses a PCI bridge. I don’t really care, as long as it works. It takes up a PCI-E 1x slot, and despite some initial trepidation on my part about putting it into an old NForce-4 board (GA K8N-Pro SLI) , it worked without any trouble. It does need a floppy power connector, and does not come with a Molex adapter. The card is half-height and comes with an optional half-height plate, for those that want to install it into a small case.
Line-In, Mic-In and optical S/PDIF share one plug. While that’s a limitation, it’s not one that’s likely to be a huge issue in the intended target market. Audio pros are not going to use this card, gamers typically don’t need S/PDIF, and HTPC setups don’t need Line-In or Mic-In.
The drivers can use some work. The equalizer will, when first used, reduce the volume on all frequencies, with the exception of the one you just used the slider on. This can be fixed by clicking “Default” and then trying again, after which it behaves like it should. In Vista, if there’s music playing when the computer is shut down, the card will “loop” the last snippet, which makes a very annoying racket.
The included “PMP Lite” application is a waste of disk space. Don’t bother with it, rip your music with something else – it does not support VBR at all, and only does WMA or MP3. It does prod you to install an “MP3 encoder”, which turns out to be a packaged version of LAME. I can see Asus getting into trouble with Fraunhofer Institute over this one.
The sound, as I said, is excellent. The card has different presets for “Music”, “Movie”, “Game” or “HiFi” (the latter just means “no effects”), and all sorts of controls I haven’t really done that much with yet. The “Dolby Headphone” and “Dolby Pro Logic IIx” options are welcome. Yes, they muddy the sound compared to HiFi – but I like the resulting warmer sound now and then. That may also be a function of my headphones, a pair of Sennheisers, which are very “polite” and don’t add much – if any – warmth to music at all.
The “EAX 5″ emulation that Asus offers and got into a spat with Creative over works fine in the games I have tried. Max Payne 2 sounds like it should. Creative wanted to charge me for the same functionality with its “ALchemy” program. Asus’ emulation may not be perfect, but they are the only company that’s even trying to offer EAX emulation in Vista for its customers. Two thumps up from me for effort and good results.
Conclusion: If you’ve been frustrated by Creative’s crippled Vista drivers, and you’re a gamer, you could do far worse than this card. In fact, I don’t think you could do better at all – for gaming and recreative music listening, there’s Creative, and then there’s this card. Judging by other reports online, the DX sounds better than an X-Fi – eBay that Creative card and replace it with a DX. You’ll be glad you did.
[Update 2008-04-18] Unrelated to sound, I still had some usability issues in Vista64 with occasional graphics slowdowns on my NVidia 7800GT- notable in the “Portal Storm” scene in Half Life 2 Episode 2, for example. The NVidia 174.74 beta drivers resolved that issue.