Something feels very, very wrong about acclaiming a sound card for its looks. Isn't that like praising a mouse for its sonic properties, or a power supply for its framerates?
No doubt about it though, the Xonar is one fine-looking piece of audio kit. Place it on a table next to its great rival, the Creative Soundblaster X-Fi, and almost any passing punter would reach for it first.
Its giant, glowing fan-like cover (billed as an EMI shield, but blatantly really there to look spiffy) and multi-hued LEDs in the sockets make it perhaps the only soundcard that seasoned case modders would desire.
But enough jaffing off about the Xonar's appearance - what does it sound like? Really good, actually. Our initial suspicions that it was just a glorified embiggening of the boggo integrated soundchips on Asus motherboards quickly proved ill-founded. Music - even MP3s - sounds absolutely lovely and rich on this, with a great sense of stereo separation.
Surprisingly, our sample tunes sounded slightly better on the Xonar than they did on the Creative X-Fi Fatal1ty used for comparison. It's a difference you need to look for to notice, and won't honestly trouble you unless you have golden ears - this certainly isn't a card you'd be upgrading to from an X-Fi.
Still, that the supposed master of PC audio is gently beaten at its own game by a relative upstart is a shocker. Creative pulls it back somewhat with the Crystalizer function of the X-Fi, able to restore some of music's polish lost in its painful transition to compressed formats like MP3.
There's no such function here, but still, compressed music sounds lustrous enough that you'd be fooled into thinking you're listening to CD rather than MP3.
As a gaming board it's less covetable than an X-Fi. With EAX (the audio technology that applies environmental effects, such as tinny muffling when in an air vent, to in-game sound) limited to version 2 rather than the X-Fi's version 5, those few games that support it sound rather more lacklustre.
Version 2 can only process 32 simultaneous voices as opposed to version 5's 128, and the latter can also apply more different effects at once, as well as having more types to choose from in the first place. Again, it's the sort of difference you're unlikely to notice in practice unless you're actively listening for it, but the X-Fi's definitely the one to go for if you want the best-available gaming sound.
The Xonar's ability to upmix stereo content to 5.1 or 7.1 speakers is undiminished though - our sample oldie Baldur's Gate II filled the room just as impressively as it did on the X-Fi.
Hasta la Vista?
It's also worth noting that the Xonar was able to do this in Vista, despite BG2 being a Directsound game supposedly immune to such upmixing in the new OS.
Creative have the Alchemy app to fix this for X-Fi cards, but no such is available for the Xonar and, clearly, neither is one needed. That's not to say the card doesn't suffer in Vista, though. In fact, the latest Windows positively castrates it.
In Vista, the vast amount of its upmix party tricks (such as Dolby Pro-Logic II and DTS Neo) simply don't work. You're supposed to manually select the number of audio channels the content you're about to play contains and the card can then apply its effects.
Awkward enough in theory, but in practice even worse. Select stereo and nothing you click upmixes at all. Select 6 or 8 channel even for stereo content and then turn on the '7.1 virtual speaker shifter' and bafflingly, suddenly the upmix works, but all the advanced options offered in XP are inaccessible this way.
It's either mislabelling on Asus' part or, more likely, it's still struggling with drivers and is in an essentially unfinished state in Vista for now. Either way, though XP is gogogo, we'd recommend very strongly against buying this card just yet if you have made the Vista leap.
The Xonar's also billed as a strong audio creation card. Its high signal-to-noise ratio and 24-bit, 192 kHz sample rate means it's certainly got the right CV for the job, while a raft of software from Ableton and Cakewalk makes the card's high price less insulting if music creation is your bag.
There's a limited number of inputs though - for the price - and to be treated seriously for music production, this really needs a break-out box brimming with jacks of all shapes and sizes. There's a lone MIDI connector on an optional extra bracket, which seems a terrible waste of space.
Its SPDIF inny and outies double up as either coaxial or optical, thanks to a bundled adaptor. The sub-£150 X-Fis, by contrast, require you buy an extra adaptor to make their digital output do anything even remotely digital.
A final note on a very handy bonus. The Asus PMP app is there specifically to 'back up' DRM-infected music. You can choose a track or tracks, which will then be recorded almost losslessly into a format of your choice, complete with metadata.
Horses, courses, etc
So, a truly impressive soundcard, particularly given that this board doesn't bear the name Soundblaster. It's expensive, it's not quite as good in gaming as the X-Fi and it's severely hamstrung in Vista, but if XP and music creation are your pursuits of choice, we strongly recommend this fine fellow.
This ain't no fan, despite appearances - it's a 'stylish EMI shield'. Its shielding abilities we cock a wry eyebrow [A wry-brow? -Ed] at, but we'll call it 'stylish.'
Neatly, the SPDIF input and output sockets function as either coaxial or optical digital connectors. There are four adaptors in the box, so you won't need to buy any new cabling.
Light and Sound
Each socket has a different-coloured light inside. In theory, it makes it easier to plug cables in correctly, though they don't actually match common cable colours. In practice, it just makes the card look all purdy-like.