ASUS Xonar Essence STX II 7.1 is a high fidelity audio card with a headphone amp for desktop users. The Xonar is sure coming of age, as the STX II is the follow up to the Essence STX, a sound card that changed the landscape of PC audio. It made desktop computers a high-end audio source. This is the product that bound desktop users to the hardcore audiophiles segment.
Features of the Essence STX II
-The STX II retains the 124dB signal-to-noise ratio audio quality that came in the ST/STX. It also keeps the BurrBrown PCM1792 DAC-chip, a device that is used in industry leading audio equipment.
-Premium TCXO (temperature compensated crystal oscillator) to reduce jitter.
-Use of high-fidelity low-dropout (LDO) regulators of the make TI TPS 7A4700 and 7A3301, to improve power supply along with WIMA capacitors for better voltage regulation during subtle sonic shifts.
-The headphone amplifier is the same as the STX, the TI 6120A2, which supports high impedance headphones, meaning it can be used with IEMS (in-ear monitors) like Shure SE846 or HiFiMan RE400.
-The STX II uses Muses op-amps 8920 and 8820. These are really expensive op-amps from New Japan Radio and they provide true to life musicality. The 8820 is the low pass filter that is surrounded by four WIMA capacitors.
-DSP effects chip is the Asus AV100, which is basically a rebranded C-Media CMI-8788 OxygenHD.
-The main ports offered on the Essence STX II are 2x RCA, 6.3mm headphone jack, 6.3mm microphone/line in and SPDIF/coaxial out. The analog outputs are covered with a metallic shield for extra protection.
-STX II is a product with fine craftsmanship, which is evident throughout the board. The layout is clean and well differentiated. The components are based on a multilayer PCB with two shielding layers.
-The Essence STX II is a unique package, you get a separate daughter board that allows high quality 7.1 surround channels. Each channel is driven by its own RCA connection. This board allows replaceable op-amp sockets. No MUSES op-amps here though. Replaceable op-amps allow you to have more control over the sound signature.
Driver and Software
We downloaded the latest driver from ASUS’ official website. The driver installed with ease and without any errors. The Essence STX II supports ASIO and Kernel Streaming (Wasapi) technologies.
Xonar users will be familiar with the Essence STX II software. You can set audio channels and sample rate (I used 44.1 KHz for best results). You can select whether you are using the front panel output. DSP effects offered haven’t changed. You get Music, Movie, GX, Hi-Fi and Game modes.
The other features are the same in all Xonar bundles. You can a plethora of environment configurations, FlexBass if you want to control what frequencies your crossover sends to your speakers.
I got the Essence STX II from ASUS when it launched around June but I had to send it back as I didn’t have the speakers that would do justice to this soundcard. When I did get my hands on the Swans M50W, an audiophile 2.1 system, I asked ASUS to send the soundcard back to me again as they would pair beautifully.
Would just like to make one thing clear before I proceed, with a soundcard like this, using it SOLELY for gaming would be an overkill. This is a finely crafted piece of metal and should only be bought if listening to noise free and absolutely clean music is your priority.
The first song I threw at the STX II was the live recorded Bibi Sanam by Zeb & Haniya from Season 3 Coke Studio Pakistan.
I was pleasantly thrown back at how well all the instruments are separated, the clarity was quite ecstatic. Sound staging was pulled off with finesse, I could clearly envision where the subtle percussion effects were coming from, and when the bass was handed down, it was independent of the entire sound and sounded pleasurable. The musicality, which is owed to the MUSES op-amps was excellent.
The card I personally use is the Xonar DX, and the STX II differentiated itself from its younger brother in every way imaginable. The vocals of Zeb were natural and lustrous. Its the most balanced and laid back sound you could ever hear, with diamond grade clarity.
Next song I fired up was Jigsaw Falling Into Place by Radiohead from the album In Rainbows. Even the minutest guitar pickings were picked up by my speakers. Apart from that, the soundstaging was very lifelike for a song recorded in the studio. The astounding instrument separation makes the experience pretty enthralling.
Next I tried something more accessible and generic like Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter. The hard hitting bass had every last bit of timbre present, with excellent decay. The ENT specialists would have had a problem in chalking out a diagram of Robert Plant’s vocal chords by just listening to the song on an STX II.
I can give a lot of examples of how a specific genre is handled by the STX II, the general consensus is that they all perform great. A lot of in-between moments during the course of a song constantly had me on my toes with the sheer musicality and precision.
For gaming, there is no major difference from the STX, which is good since the STX is one of the best sound cards for gaming with headphones. The Dolby ProLogic setting is highly recommended when gaming with headphones. Immersion is the key word over here.
While there is not much to differentiate from the STX and STX II, the later still brings in considerable improvements that justify the refreshment of the well loved Essence STX. This is not an evolutionary refresh though, this is more revolutionary. Why break an already successful formula afterall?
Rest assured, the Essence STX II is a well constructed piece of hardware with quality dripping all over its sides. This is definitely the best there is to offer for those looking for a discrete sound card. The daughter card allows for real 7.1 sampling and cinematic surround sound. The drivers work great, I don’t think I’ve EVER had a problem with the Xonar drivers and I’ve been using these soundcards since they appeared in the market.
The daughter card op-amps could have been of premium grade rather than mainstream. Consider this a lavish complaint because I am kind of spoilt by the Essence STX II.
The card is available in two variants, one as a standalone card without the daughter 7.1 card, costing INR 16,500. The full package costs INR 20,000. Worth every penny, absolutely yes! The musicality is unmatched and people looking to turn their desktops into a hi-fi audio source will not be disappointed. The other things stand true, ASUS’ excellent warranty (this one has 3 years warranty) and service network in the country.
-A serene music experience: great separation and sound stage
-Great performance with games and movies
-Dolby surround works great with headphones, offers great immersion
-A product with fine craftsmanship
-No molex power sockets. In this day and age?
-A minor evolution from the Essence STX