We’re not only interested in the sound quality, but also the surround features of both Xonar sound cards we have on hand. All of the gaming was done by me, but I’ve done as much as I can to remain honest and fair.
The Xonar DGX’s Dolby Headphone
A feature not found on the DSX, but on the DGX is Dolby Headphone, software-driven virtually simulated home theater. Audio is modified to sound farther away at “distances” that can be set in the control panel software. Some of the testers liked the virtual distance Dolby Headphone gave to music and movies. It was described by them as sitting in front of a real home theater. Others including myself didn’t warm up as well to Dolby Headphone and the virtual surround environment sounded hollow and artificial. At least for me, audio quality also sounded worse for everything though I still found it fun to use for some movies because of the simulated audio distance Dolby Headphone gave.
Both sound cards’ feature ASUS’s EAX compatible virtual surround sound feature called the GX2.5 gaming audio engine. This can be toggled on and off in the Control Panel Software by pressing the GX button. However, almost all new games run their own software processed audio, which undercuts the necessity for hardware processed audio.
Battlefield 3’s audio isn’t noticeably different across the sound cards on hand, though explosions and gunshots were more forceful and punchy on the DSX. Activating and deactivating the driver controlled hardware 3D audio processing did nothing to change the experience. Furthermore, Battlefield 3’s software processed positional audio is terrible. DICE and EA have talked about the game’s spectacular graphics and immersive audio, but for those of you who never experienced or haven’t really noticed, Battlefield 3 audio is a mess. When you are receiving fire and taking damage, you hear yourself being hit with bullets, but you can’t hear from where you are being attacked. Another shooter, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has audible footsteps and is a strategic consideration when playing.
The game audio that really did for me while testing the Xonar cards was BioShock Infinite; there’s much to hear and it’s been implemented effectively. Results were great while we used either of the two Xonar cards we have, but it’s the DSX, with its wider soundstage, that does it better. Stinger tracks add to the action, weapons and abilities have distinct sounds, and the voice acting is terrific. BioShock Infinite depends on software processed audio thus rendering hardware processed surround sound unnecessary. Despite this, the game’s positional audio is incredible even on 2-channel virtual surround. Game enemies make their own combat cries making it easy to pin-point their locations and ambush them around obstacles and corners. Lately, I’ve been mostly playing real-time strategy games which bank more on stereo audio and given Battlefield 3’s poor implementation of surround audio, I wasn’t used to hearing such clean positional audio. I took special notice of BioShock Infinite’s well-designed virtual surround sound environments; dialogue, combat noise, and ambient sounds could not only be distinguished from left and right, but also in-front or behind. Despite the Xonar cards playing no role in Bioshock Infinite’s audio processing, the Xonar cards’ audio fidelity lended themselves to crisper sounds and adds wholly to the immersion.
Movies and TV shows
This is where I talk about home theaters and if a sound card should matter to you. If you’re running a digital output to your home receiver, whether that is optical or S/PDIF, then a dedicated sound card may not be of benefit to you. Passing a digital signal through a sound card bypasses any analogue processing and it is the receiver that receives the binary data for processing. If all you wanted to know how the Xonar’s digital outputs sounded, I’ll tell you that motherboard audio solutions with digital outputs sound just as good. The most compelling reason I feel to buy the Xonar DSX for a home theater would be to use DTS Connect for a compatible receiver or DAC.
Users sticking to headphones and PC speakers should read on since the Xonar cards’ analogue processing returns to importance. Both cards sound good, though like our findings with music, listeners wanting a bit more bass kick should opt for the DSX. Otherwise, the DGX and its Dolby Headphone home theater simulation should lend quite the experience.