Testing and ImpressionsI installed this sound card in my primary HTPC machine. It features a Phenom II X4 905e processor, 4 GB of DDR-3 1333 memory, a 500 GB Seagate HD, and the now discontinued LG BD/HD-DVD combo drive. For video playback purposes I have the Asus HD 5750 video card. While this video card does support bitstreaming HD audio by itself, software support for that feature is hard to find. So I have disabled the audio portion of the HD 5750, and I let the Asus HDAV board and TMT3 handle those duties.
The card is a handsome number, and the EMI shield is shiny.
The control panel for the soundcard takes some getting used to. While it is graphically attractive to look at, not all settings are easily seen or defined. The user is first greeted by a graphic equalizer screen, but no other options or settings are available. Not until I clicked around for a while did I get the secondary screen to be uncovered by the first. That screen then held most of the audio options. It took me a while to notice that the audio source tabs on the side featured the SPDIF/analog output on one, and the HDMI output on another. By default it goes to the SPDIF tab. Once a user notices that there are two clickable tabs present, then the HDMI audio characteristics can be accessed. The learning curve is not steep, it is just annoying to have to click around for a few minutes to try to figure out why the HDMI audio is not working as it should.
The analog portions of the soundcard work as advertised. The sound is very clean and seemingly accurate. In a laboratory test the Asus card exhibits a bit more crosstalk than its competition from Auzentech. However, the quality of the audio source (eg. HD audio, MP3, WAV, etc.) as well as the playback hardware (receiver, speakers) will have a much larger effect than a few % difference in output quality and accuracy.
The back plate is filled by the incoming and outgoing HDMI ports, a dual Coax/Optical plug, the L/R RCA plugs, and finally the microphone/SPDIF combo input port at the bottom.
The LPCM functionality works mainly as it should, except for my issue of it dropping one of the rear speakers. My receiver supports 24 bit, 192 KHz LPCM, and the audio again is very clear and uncolored from the source files. The card is able to encode DD 5.1 and DTS without any seeming latency from the action being played. CPU usage for encoding was very low, as most of the work is done on the AV200 chip.
Games played very well on this card. I was able to test a handful of games on this card, and titles like DiRT 2 take on a life of their own when played on a true home theater system. The card was able to seemingly emulate EAX 5.0 content through the GX functionality, but the number of games that actually support EAX 5.0 are slim at best. Again, there seems to be no outstanding latency between the action on the screen and the audio coming out of the speakers. The GX technology also enables Direct3D “hardware” acceleration on Vista and Windows 7.
When first opening up the Asus Xonar control panel… the user is greeted by just a graphical display with no settings to actually adjust… then eventually the user will click on that triangle in the bottom right corner.
The primary purpose of this card is of course bitstreaming HD audio from Blu-ray and HD-DVD media. After downloading the latest drivers and the latest TMT3, the setup worked as advertised. Initial testing did not go so well with an earlier driver revision of the card, as well as an earlier build of TMT3. Seemingly, those issues have gone away with the latest versions of both. It was frustrating for a while to have the HD audio cut off on a regular basis for no particular reason, but with the updates that particular problem has been fixed.
The one area that is slightly lacking is of course the HD-DVD support. The Dolby True-HD encoding that is used on the “300” does not work correctly for this card, as well as a handful of other titles. It also seems the Dolby Digital Plus also is not correctly bitstreamed. Instead the HD audio turns into 2 channel LPCM and the DD+ is converted to DD 5.1. This may or may not affect users, as not everyone has an extensive HD-DVD collection. At least there is HD-DVD support, as compared to Cyberlink who has exorcised all mention of HD-DVD from their latest several releases of PowerDVD.
Once that is pushed, then a whole world of options opens up.
Every once in a while I had to check back with the Asus site and download the latest version of TMT3, so it would support the latest BD movies with new and interesting content protection schemes. Unfortunately, there is no automatic update function. The file needs to be downloaded and manually run, removing the current version of the application and installing a new one. This is a bit more time consuming than I would have liked, but so far there have only been about three updates in the past nine months.
Music playback is essentially flawless. Being able to adjust the LPCM settings to match content file values (like 16 bit, 48 KHz) ensured that no artificial coloration was applied to the sound transmitted to the receiver (unless of course the user wanted to enable effects on the PC side of the process). Analog output also is excellent, and even when using Grado headphones the sound is clean with an expansive soundfield.
Note the two tabs on the left which control the different outputs (analog and digital). It defaults to the Analog/SPDIF tab, so it might take a second to figure out that the HDMI plug should be selected to control that audio output. Also note in the bottom right corner the DSP mode. If the user is experiencing Netflix streaming sound problems, then deselect the “GX” mode.
I am honestly unsure of the actual effect that the Splendid HD processor had on video playback. I am using a 47” LG LCD featuring a 10 bit S-IPS panel, and the differences between the output directly from the video card and the output on the soundcard with the Splendid HD enabled is… minimal at best when dealing with High Definition content. Nothing really stands out and shouts, “This is so much better to me!” While it may slightly affect the brightness, contrast, and color a small amount, it certainly is not a night/day experience. Perhaps the biggest difference is in the playback of standard definition DVD programs. It does improve the output so that at times I can confuse a standard definition DVD with a slightly inferior high definition recording.
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