Categories: More Electronics
Remember, back in the day, where it was practically mandatory to have a separate sound card for your homebuilt PC? Our weapon of choice was the Creative Labs Sound Blaster, a product line that still lives on today--but there were so many other options, such as AdLib, the Roland MT-32, the Gravis UltraSound, and the list continues. (Some cool info here.)
High end audio cards still exist, of course, with a wide variety of third parties producing them--everything from generic brands to more common names such as the iconic Creative Labs, Asus, SIIG, and more. The range of cards is dizzying, and it can be pretty confusing which one to pick, especially since some of the crazier models (e.g., the Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD) run upwards of $200.
Having been disappointed recently by the quality of audio through my PC, namely with music listening and especially for gaming, I set out on a quest to improve my setup beyond the onboard audio on my motherboard. My needs for PC audio are simple: I appreciate high quality stereo sound, almost always use headphones for gaming, don't care about surround sound, and am on a budget. This led me to the Asus XONAR DG, a card I had never heard of, but sounded like it had the features I was looking for, namely:
- Built-in headphone amp with 3 gain modes
- Configurable equalizer
- Bass boost feature (I like a rich, bassy sound due to my penchant for videogame music and heavy metal)
- Low profile design (my case is cramped due to a large video card)
- Cheap (it's under $25 right now!)
The XONAR DG also includes support for EAX, Dolby surround sound, and "faux" surround sound through headphones, none of which I really cared about.
How to Install the Asus XONAR DG Sound Card
Installation was very simple. It's important to make sure that you disable your onboard audio and uninstall any appropriate drivers before you install this card. Once plugged in to your PCI slot and you reboot Windows, you should cancel any automatic driver installs and use the provided disk to install the software.
For me, the software install was a bit wonky, requiring a second try and a reboot before everything went smoothly and installed the Control Panel widget, but it eventually worked perfectly. I imagine you won't have very much trouble getting this up and running.
Sound Improvements... Don't Trust Your First Impression
You should check things out to make sure everything is set up correctly, but right out of the box you may not notice much of a difference, depending on your speakers or headphones. The real beauty of this little card doesn't shine through until it's thorougly tweaked to your liking.
How to Configure the Asus XONAR DG Sound Card
Assuming the included software installed correctly, access to the custom control panel should be enabled, allowing you to dial in the card to your personal preferences as well as match it up to your headphones and/or speakers for the best sound quality.
First, I'd highly recommend adjusting the gain level if headphones are being used: I found this to be one of the three best features of this card. It made a MASSIVE difference in the loudness and quality coming from my headphones, and really shows how the integrated headphone amp works. The second level provided more than enough gain for mine.
Second, adjust the equalizer. There are a number of presets to make your choice easy, but I customized mine to match the headphones I'm using--a pair of entry level Sennheisers that have excellent, crisp treble but a lacking low end.
Third, check out the bass boost feature. This is helpful especially for lower end headphones that may be capable of producing better lows than it may seem.
With these three powers combined, it felt as if my $25 pair of Senn's was awakened by some spectral force of the underworld--rich, deep bass and a much more dynamic, atmospheric sound rumbling forth from the cheap cans was my reward for this tinkering. I'm not exaggerating, either, the difference was astounding. I can only imagine how this card might operate with a "high end" headphone.
Along with the headphone amplifier and excellent equalizer features, the XONAR also provides options for Dolby surround sound, EAX environmental audio for games, virtual surround sound for headphones, and various Dolby DSPs. I didn't like the Dolby options, as I felt it made the audio sound like I was inside a tin can or a phone booth, and I don't have a surround setup, so I can't attest to the value of these additional features. (I consider them more gimmicky than anything.)
That being said, I feel this is an exceptional upgrade from onboard audio, and is ideal for any gamer or PC enthusiast on a budget--especially those, like me, who are on headphones nearly 100% of the time. This card is practically Asus's love letter to headphone users.