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ASUS RoG Xonar Phoebus 7.1 PCI-E Soundcard Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Ever since the release of the Xonar DX in 2008, ASUS has continually brought their A game to the demanding – and extremely finicky - high end PC audio market. Their Xonar line proved that you don’t need a soundcard with “Creative Labs” or “Auzentech” in its name to be taken seriously by your fellow PC audio and gaming enthusiasts. The latest edition to the Xonar line is the Republic of Gamers Xonar Phoebus and today we will see if it lives up to both of its namesakes.

By calling this new soundcard after the Greek god of music, ASUS is sending a clear message to consumers and the competition alike: this is one serious audio device that’s meant for serious business. However, calling this card after the god of music is a bit of a red hearing since it isn’t a direct replacement for the mighty Essence STX. That card is still tops for audio enthusiasts while the Phoebus and its associated features are firmly targeted towards the high end gaming market.

The Phoebus is the first ever standalone Republic of Gamers soundcard and in this industry, the RoG name means a lot. From the Matrix-series graphics cards to the Maximus, Rampage and Crosshair motherboards, ASUS has consistently placed some of their best products within this range. We’ve consistently given these products high praise so our expectations for the Phoebus are naturally quite high. But even with ASUS’ longstanding experience in this market, it is quite hard to strike a delicate balance between the in-game features which gamers demand while still retaining the necessary quality to output clear, unhindered music and in-movie sound.

While it remains to be seen if Asus have been able to balance both sonic and gaming ability priorities properly –and create a veritable ‘god’ of soundcards - this is first and foremost a gaming orientated soundcard and will succeed or fail based upon its gaming abilities. Although, the Phoebus will have a justify a steep $185 price with crystal clear sound and enhanced gaming abilities if it hopes to succeed in this highly competitive market.

 
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SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the Xonar Phoebus

A Closer Look at the Xonar Phoebus



Unlike previous Xonar models – and keeping with the Republic of Gamers moniker – the Xonar Phoebus comes in a loud and brash red box which strongly reminds us of the ASUS Maximus Gene V’s package. Much like that ROG branded motherboard’s box, this bright red attention getter is geared towards the brick and mortar retail market rather than etailers. The Phoebus’ box has a top cover flap which can be flipped open and contains even more details of the soundcard as well as two small plastic film windows which show the Xonar Phoebus and its main accessory: the controller hub.


In comparison to the rest of ASUS’ soundcard lineup, the Phoebus’ accessory list has received quite a bit of an upgrade in order for it to appeal to gamers. There’s a software CD, power adapter, S/PDIF adapter and an installation booklet as usual but the similarities stop there. Since this model natively supports 7.1 output it doesn’t require a break-out adaptor and a great looking Controller Hub has also been included.



The controller hub is meant to be plugged in between your stereo headset and the Phoebus, allowing for control of microphone and headphone volume without resorting to software solutions. This should make it perfect for fine tuning volume levels while in-game. However, the basic concept behind the Phoebus’ controller certainly isn’t unique since plenty of higher end PC speaker sets also come with this type of manual functionality. If you decide to forgo buying a pair of headphones with an integrated mic, it has you covered with a pair of built-in microphones.

While the controller may be a boon to some gamers, it does however fall a little short of what it could have been. It is a very good first effort but the fact still remains that it will only allow you to modify the sound levels of 2.1 stereo sources and is all but useless anyone using a 5.1 and 7.1 surround setup. Considering many PC gaming enthusiasts use either analog or virtual 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound configurations this oversight on a Republic of Gamers device is puzzling. ASUS should have taken a page from other manufactures – such as Cooler Master and their Storm Sirius 5.1 headset by included a complete solution for multiple uses. To be fair, the stereo microphone abilities of this hub do somewhat make up for this oversight, but it is a limitation which you should be fully aware of. We also didn’t appreciate that the controller feels a bit on the cheap side which is highly disappointing for a premium level solution.


Moving on to the card itself, the Xonar Phoebus uses a PCI-E x1 interface and requires a standard 6-pin PCI-E for external power. For consumers whose power supplies simply have no additional PCI-E 6 pin plugs available, ASUS includes a dual Molex to single 6-pin PCI-E power adapter though we do wish Asus had taken the effort to sleeve this adaptor as it may detract from neat and tidy appearance of some custom builds.


Unlike the Xonar Xense, the Phoebus takes a more understated approach to its styling and reminds us of the Essence STX. Much like the Essence STX, the Phoebus disdains the use of a highly polished EMI shield and rather uses a large matte black affair with a few RoG red accents.


Also unlike the audiophile-oriented products, the connector layout is very straightforward and makes use of only 3.5mm ports instead of the more professional-oriented 6.3mm ports. While this does mean higher end headphones will require the use of a (not included, yet inexpensive) 6.3 to 3.5mm adapter, ASUS was able to eliminate the need for custom surround sound port adapters found on the Xonar Xense. Instead of having a mess of cabled coming out of your sound card, all of the input connectors are laid out in a neat and tidy single line.

From left to right there is Microphone In, Headphone Out, Control Box Link connector required for the controller hub, Front, Line In, Rear, Center/subwoofer and an SPDIF/ side speaker combination port with SPDIF capabilities via the included adapter.
 

SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the Xonar Phoebus cont'd

A Closer look at the Xonar Phoebus cont'd



By removing the EMI shield we can see that the Phoebus’ layout shares much in common with that of the Xonar Xense. In fact, most of the components are either the same or are updated versions of those found on the previous Xonar model. This amalgamation of components makes for one intriguing looking soundcard with a blend of capabilities but it would be quite surprising to us if the Phoebus performed all that much differently than its sibling.


At the heart of the Phoebus is the new C-Media CMI8888 Oxygen controller. This is C-Media’s newest unit and is essentially an upgraded version of the venerable CMI8788 which graces –among others- the Essence STX.

For the dedicated headphone Digital to Analog Converter (aka “DAC”), ASUS has once again stepped down a notch from the ultra high end Texas Instrument PCM1792A found on the Essence STX and instead equips this card with the TI PCM1796. We’ve also seen this controller on the aforementioned Xense and while it may not be up to the standards of highly picky audiophiles, the 1796 is still widely considered a highly capable unit which sports some killer specifications.


Unfortunately – and unlike both the Xense and Essence STX – the op-amps on this card are soldered into place instead of being nestled into individual sockets. This lack of easily replaceable op-amps would not be of great concern if they had been upgraded from previous Xense model, but that isn’t the case. Sadly, not giving consumers a way to easily replace them makes the Phoebus a more “take it or leave it” affair than previous models and many audiophiles will opt for the former and not the latter.

As with the Xense, ASUS has once again opted for New Japan Radio Corporation 2114 op-amps. These are not the highest end products available but are decent enough to cope with the rigors of PC gaming audio. Even though the sound these JRC 2114’s “create” is not going to be quiet as rich or satisfying as higher end options, most people will never notice the difference between the two as it would require high quality recordings and ultra expensive headphones.


The Phoebus’ separate 7.1 circuitry is made up of fairly high quality components such as a Cirrus Logic CS4362A Digital to Analog Converter (aka “DAC”) with 6 channels and a Texas Instruments PCM1796 for Front Out. All of this is backed up by rather generic New Japan Radio Corporation 5332 op-amps. Both the op-amps and use of a Cirrus Logic solution are reasonable choices, but we really would have preferred to have seen TI / Burr-Brown chips as well as better – and replaceable - op-amps. To be fair, the inclusion of not only a good 7.1 controller but stock 7.1 outputs is nice to see and should be far more than enough for most enthusiasts.


One very noteworthy inclusion is a Realtek ALC889 chip which is usually used as a discrete sound solution on many motherboards but here it’s only purpose is to act as the microphone controller.
 
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SKYMTL

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Drivers and Software

Drivers and Software



The software which accompanies the Phoebus retains some similarity to the programs accompanying previous Xonar models but there have been some upgrades which focus upon enhancing ease of use and expanding upon the appeal for gamers. Gone is the rather convoluted and confusing interface and in its stead is a very streamlined, easy to navigate software suite. ASUS has essentially broken up various settings into two wildly different applications: the main Phoebus program and a Dolby Digital program. At first this may seem a bit like a step backwards but we guarantee you that going this route has improved things dramatically.

While ASUS has taken great pains to make the software’s learning curve as shallow as possible for first time buyers, anyone familiar with Xonar cards will feel out of place here. Luckily, hidden menus have –for the most part at least- become a thing of the past and virtually every setting is never more than a click or two away.


The main Phoebus program consists of one main screen which is broken up into basically two large columns. The left column is where you can customize the input/output of attached devices with the majority of the screen changing based upon the device category that’s been selected. The categories themselves are labeled in clear, easy to understand language and have large icons which are also surprisingly descriptive. Interestingly enough, you can’t adjust or customize anything unless the item in question is plugged into the Phoebus since the icons will be grayed out. If for example you wish to adjust your 7.1 speaker output, you will need to first plug in the speakers before being able to access this module and even the number of volume controls – for example – will vary depending on how many jacks are plugged it.

The upside to this is you quickly know what is attached to Phoebus and won’t waste time configuring settings which will have no impact on any attached devices. Unfortunately by making this software self-aware and highly adaptable, advance tweaking is impossible.


The second program –aptly labelled Dolby Digital – is used for customizing the Dolby Home Theatre v4 software. Much like the main Phoebus control panel, this piece of software is deceptive “simple” but it includes every advanced features that most consumers could possibly want. You can easily opt for up-converting stereo output into virtual 5.1 or 7.1, access the integrated ten band equalizer, modify the surround sound effects and even tweak things such as dialog quality. If the three pre-configured profiles are not to your liking you can easily create, save and edit custom profiles.


Taken as a whole, this software suite is obviously not meant for advanced users, but it is extremely easy to use and will be more than sufficient for the vast majority of gamers. More importantly, you don’t have to be an experienced user to create a sound profile which is tailor made for your particular needs as the advanced features are right there at your finger tips in a fairly intuitive layout.
 

SKYMTL

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Right Mark Audio (RMAA) Testing

Right Mark Audio


Test System Used

Processor: Core i5 2500
Motherboard: Asus P8P67 Deluxe
Memory: 8GB Corsair Vengeance "Blue" DDR3 1600
Graphics card: Asus 5550 passive


While RightMark Audio Analyzer is an extremely good audio test suite, the shear amount of data and numbers it produces can be a little on the overwhelming side. To help simplify and make it digestible we have taken what we consider to be the key results and condensed them into an easy to understand format.


Harmonic Distortion


This chart is actually made up of two equally important parts “Total Harmonic Distortion” (THD) and “Inter-modulation distortion + Noise Distortion” (IMD + Noise). Too much THD and IMD means your music will be “warm” or “fun” sounding but highly, highly inaccurate. Low THD and a lot of IMD will mean your music is cold sounding AND inaccurate. Low THD and low IMD is what we are looking for as we want as accurate a reproduction as possible and simply choose to either add some “flavor” to the music via the equalizer or simply use different headphones from different companies that colour the music differently.

THD is distortion being added to a given piece of sound. It can take the form of unwanted harmonics, multiples of the original sound, additional unwanted overtones of the original sound or numerous other things being added to the original. While an argument can be made over THD not always being a bad thing (as it can give your music a warmer sound), for serious gaming and audio boards the closer to zero the better.



With a difference this small between the Xense and Phoebus the results are for all intents and purposes a tie. Both are equally good and both lag behind the capabilities of ASUS' own Essence STX. Nonetheless, gamers will still be well served by this new card.


Noise Level


“Noise Level” is basically the Signal to Noise Ratio a given audio card can produce. The higher or further away from zero a given cards Noise Level is the better. The closer you get to zero the worse the reproduction becomes and the lower the audio fidelity becomes.


Once again the Phoebus is posting very respectable performance numbers, but they are in no way better than previous models. Considering the components used on the Phoebus are so similar to those from past generations, this really doesn't come as a surprise.


Dynamic Range


Dynamic range is the difference between the quietest and loudest sound a card can produce without distorting them. The greater the Dynamic Range the better.


While the results are indeed much better than what onboard is capable of, this isn't saying all that much. To be perfectly candid, this new card is no better than the Xonar Xense and once again worse than the Essence STX.
 

SKYMTL

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Listening Tests: Music & Movies

Listening Tests: Music


Headphone’s used:
Sennheiser HD595
Sennheiser PC350 (Xense branded)
Psyko Audio Labs 5.1 PC Gaming Headphone


For anyone used to onboard sound solutions the Xonar Phoebus will indeed live up to its namesake, but only if your output solution –be it headphones or speakers- is up to the job of keeping up with it. As usual, the quality of the source material is extremely important since low quality recordings just can’t highlight the difference between a dedicated sound card and rudimentary onboard solutions. If you headphones or speakers of choice are of good quality, highs will be clearer, mids sharper and lows will no longer consist of ‘thuds’ but will rather be properly nuanced.

Sadly, the Phoebus won’t be a step up in this category if you currently use a good quality sound card like the Xonar series or any of the mid to high end Auzentech products. In fact, if you own a Xonar Xense you will be hard pressed to tell the difference between it and ASUS’ newest gamer-oriented sound solution. There were some occasions when using FLAC music files that the Phoebus was slightly better in our opinion, and other times it was slightly worse. Overall though, from a stereo 2.1 headphone point of view the Phoebus is not decisively better than previous Xonar models.

This is not to say the card doesn’t create a very rich and vibrant sound because it does, and rather impressively as well. But if you have one of the aforementioned cards, upgrading to the Phoebus won’t necessarily be worth your money.


The analog 5.1/7.1 abilities of this card are also a mixed bag. Music with a true 5.1 channel dispersion sounded about as good as it did on the Xonar Xense, though once again at times there were glimmers of true increases in performance with slightly cleaner sound fidelity. When we opted for our 595s and virtual surround sound instead of analog, the sound stage was noticeably better than what the Xonar Xense could create. The new Dolby Theatre v4 software does make a difference, although you would be hard pressed to justify the upgrade expense based solely on this improvement.


Listening Tests: Movies


While should be obvious that this soundcard’s forte isn’t necessarily music, the movie testing phase was showed some of the Phoebus’ qualities. Once again it goes without saying that when compared against onboard sound solutions, you will be in for a treat. The differences are quite extreme.

Unlike with music testing, movies allowed the Phoebus to really able stretch its legs over the aforementioned Xense. Its soundstage was not only clearer but the fidelity had a noticeable improvement and channel separation was nearly spot on. We were also surprised to find the included software’s dialog enhancement feature works surprisingly well. This is especially true in certain movies where the sound engineer didn’t properly mix the background and foreground channel. In these cases, the Phoebus did handle things much better than the Xense and simply blew onboard solutions out of the water.

Even in properly mixed movies, the Phoebus provided slightly more immersive soundstage than its siblings. Explosions were cleaner, bullets whizzing by seemed more realistic, all of which results in a highly enjoyable experience. You will be hard pressed to justify the upgrade cost based on these improvements, but it will be a lot easier than it was with music. In addition, please remember that we’re comparing the Phoebus to ASUS’ other high quality audio devices but when compared against older, mid-level cards, it could provide an excellent upgrade, provided you’re willing to stomach the high cost.
 

SKYMTL

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Listening Tests: Games

Listening Test: Games


Games Used:
Aliens vs Predator
BattleField: Bad Company 2
BattleField 3
Borderlands
BioShock 1 & 2
Far Cry 1 & 2
Just Cause 2
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 1, 2 & 3
Left 4 Dead 1 & 2



With rather mixed results in the music and movie categories, it became very clear that the Phoebus is first and foremost a PC gaming soundcard which has some enhanced capabilities added in to help widen its appeal. This was not all that surprising as the Xonar lineup’s main selling feature has always been their ability to emulate most EAX features rather than extreme sound fidelity. With every generation, ASUS’ EAX emulation has become better and better and the Phoebus is no exception.

Before we discuss the actual gaming results, there is one feature which easily exceeded our expectations: the controller hub’s built in microphone and its ability to transmit our voice. The hub’s combination of dual microphones and background noise suppression is impressive to say the least. While some background noise is inevitable, considering the microphones aren’t next to your mouth, the Phoebus’ abilities are better than many gaming headsets we’ve reviewed. As long as the environment isn’t overly, your teammates will hear your yelled “commands” loud and clear. This hub really does allow the use of much higher quality headphones rather than relying upon lower performing headset designs which seem to be the de-facto standard for many gaming enthusiasts.


As for the Phoebus itself, it certainly sounds better than the Xense did under the same circumstances. The difference was mostly subtle in nature, but there was indeed a noticeable improvement in nearly every game we tried. While a minor to moderate across the board improvement does not sound like a ringing endorsement, it actually is just that. The Xonar Xense quickly became our benchmark for what software based EAX emulation can and should be able to do and any card that can outperform it is indeed a mightily impressive PC gaming soundcard.

While the original version of drivers which shipped with the Phoebus did have major issues with Battlefield 3 - and PunkBuster in general - the latest drivers solve this problem. Previously, the software stack interacted in an odd way with several games, causing the player to be constantly kicked off from online gameplay sessions. With this quick fix, there is now no reason for PC gaming enthusiast to opt for a Xense - or competitor’s soundcard - over the Phoebus. It also proves that ASUS is paying close attention to their community and are willing to implement fixes and updates in a timely manner.
 
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SKYMTL

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Conclusion

Conclusion


This may be a gross over-simplification, but consumers who are interested in a dedicated soundcard typically fall into two broad categories: gamers and music enthusiasts. Usually soundcards try to cater to only one of these niches as both groups have wildly divergent needs but some manage to bridge the gap between the two. Gamers want a feature rich audio product which enhances their immersion into big-name titles while retaining high quality sound fidelity. Music lovers on the other hand want precision reproduction so every acoustical nuance comes through loud and clear. ASUS’s Xonar Phoebus successfully finds its spot nestled between the needs of these two market segments.

In most ways the Phoebus is what we’ve come to expect from a gaming-grade audio device. It boasts good SNR, amazing background noise reduction abilities, an excellent headphone circuit, and a bevy of software improvements that have the potential to impress hardcore PC gaming enthusiasts. The end result is actually quite impressive when compared against many other audio devices that were supposedly geared towards gamers.

From a sound perspective, the Xonar Phoebus is not decisively better than previous models but it is close enough that any but true audiophiles will never notice the difference. Of course, the lack of replaceable op-amps takes this out of the running for ‘serious’ audio enthusiasts but for a gaming orientated sound card, it does have the performance chops to impress.

For most consumers the weakest link in the audio equation will be their headset / headphone and not this soundcard. In these situations the enhanced software abilities of the Phoebus can indeed net tangible benefits via improved sound quality over previous models. These software improvements coupled with the included, microphone-equipped controller hub will allow consumers to purchase a good pair of headphones rather than a mediocre headset and get overall better sound quality without going over their budget. Granted, we feel like the hub was a bit of a missed opportunity but it still attains the goals it sets out to achieve.

Regardless of performance, we doubt many gamers that currently own Xense cards will be rushing to replace their existing solution with the Phoebus. While the Phoebus can indeed provide a richer, more immersive experience, the difference is not great enough to justify the rather steep upgrade price. This may change as the drivers further mature, but the current performance gap between the two products certainly isn’t worth the Phoebus’ premium of about $185 large. However, if you are looking for an upgrade over onboard graphics, this new card is well worth consideration.

The Phoebus may not entice many consumers who already own a Xonar Xense, Essence STX or any other mid to high end soundcard into upgrading. However, it is an excellent solution for anyone delving into higher end audio for the first time or owners of previous generation Xonar cards. With it, they will receive very good music abilities, excellent gaming options and a nice little bonus in the form of the controller hub. It may have a few rough edges but the Phoebus is nevertheless one of the better gaming soundcards currently available.

Pros:
- Good music reproduction abilities
- Excellent gaming abilities
- Controller Hub
- Elegant good looks
- 3 year warranty

Cons:
- Price
- Not easily replaceable op-amps
- Controller hub can only control stereo and not 5.1/7.1 outputs
- Drivers are still a work in progress
- Music abilities are not decisively better than previous models

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