While most computer users are happy to get the sound off their onboard sound cards (which I personally wouldn’t consider a soundcard but a bunch of extra “bits” on the motherboard that produces sound), there is an increasing group of users who have started to explore a piece of hardware called the soundcard. This usually happens when users want more sound out of their music, their movies and their games and unfortunately onboard sound cards (even with hacked drivers) cannot provide.
Thankfully for such people (including myself), there are quite a selection now in the market thanks to big brands such as ASUS. First introducing their Xonar soundcards in 2008, the company has continued to push the bracket when it comes to PC sound with their Essence series of audio cards and recently the flagship Essence One MUSE edition DAC, you know that this company means business.
Enter the Phoebus
Named the ROG Xonar Phoebus (quite a mouthful), this is the new gaming flagship soundcard from ASUS that is named after the Greek god of music. If that is not enough, it is also under their Republic of Gamers line which also gives you a hint of its target market segment. ASUS definitely does have high expectations for this card but does it perform well when it comes to the crunch? Well let’s find out.
As there is no standard benchmarking software for soundcards like how there is 3D Mark for graphic cards, this review will be based on what I hear through my headphones, the Audio Technica ATH AD-700, and using the latest drivers dated 2013.03.25 on Windows 7 64bit. Do take note that sound can be a preference to different people so I will not talk about how “nice” the sound is.
Listening To Music
The first test for the Xonar Phoebus is to see how it handles everyday music playing. For this, I powered up my spotify and played a varity of tracks from Coldplay’s Fix You to Soundgarden’s Live To Rise. While nowhere close to its cousin the Xonar One DAC, the Xonar Phoebus is still grades higher than onboard solutions. In fact it doesn’t take much to tell (especially if you have good quality speakers or headphones) that the highs are clearer, the mids are sharper and the lows are not just generic thuds like cheap devices trying to give you the “bass heavy” feel and failing at it.
If there is a close comparison, I would say this card performs almost like the twin of the Xonar Xense. And that is a good thing of course as the Xonar Xense is quite highly rated in the audiophile community for a soundcard.
Watching The Movies
With more people getting full HD monitors and high quality movies on their PC, testing out the Xonar Phoebus for movies is a must include as I am sure many like me now watch movies on their PC instead of their TV. For this, I popped in the Blu-ray of the reboot of Star Trek since the sequel, Into Darkness, opens here in Singapore next week.
Again the Xonar Phoebus is the clear winner over onboard solutions. Even with hacked drivers to give the onboard soundcard a better 5.1 soundstage on the Headphones, the Xonar Phoebus still produces a superior surround feel. Explosions are cleaner, dialogs are clearer and overall it was an enjoyable experience watching the movie.
Just to make sure, I then popped in the DVD of Marvel’s The Avengers to see how the Xonar Phoebus performs on a “lower” grade of movie quality. Sure enough the Xonar Phoebus performs just as well and the final battle in New York was just entertaining as I remembered when watching it at a special premiere for media by Walt Disney Singapore.
Playing The Games
Being under the Republic of Gamers line, one has the right to expect great things from this soundcard when it comes to gaming performance. For this, I started off with Guild Wars 2 and camped for one of it’s Dragon fights where you get lots of spells, dramatic music and one huge Dragon throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you.
Onboard solutions would just produce a whole mess of sounds even when the max channel is turned on in the games option. Sure you can make out what is what but that takes a bit of effort and I prefer to spend that effort on killing the dragon to get my sweet loot. Yet the Xonar Phoebus performed well enough to know that the amidst all the spell effects going off, I can see hear my character going “For Great Justice” as I use a buff skill while enjoying the battle music.
The next test would be to fire up a FPS game where surround emulation to headphones from your traditional 5.1 is very important. The last thing you want to get is getting shot by opponents and not knowing from which direction the shots came from. For this, I started up Hawken which can be described as Counter-Strike meets Mechwarrior.
Using a close quaters orientated mech, I have to go in close for the kill and this means knowing where the enemy is shooting from is important. The Xonar Phoebus does a good job here as I could make out shots coming from both the rear sides as well as the front sides. Even amidst the gun fight, I can still hear in-game voice commands like request for re-enforcements and enemy spotted over the blazing bullets and explosions.
The final test for this soundcard is the one game that has been described by many as of “epic” level. From epic graphics to epic sounds and not forgetting epic gameplay, in fact to fully enjoy the game, you gotta be able to enjoy all three aspects mentioned. Yup the game I am talking about is Skyrim and this would be best test for any soundcard out in the market.
From the lush ambient sounds while moving through the open world of Skyrim to that epic dragon battle theme and even the iconic “Fu Ro Da” shout, the Xonar Phoebus performs up to expectations. I had so much fun re-visiting the world of Skyrim that I nearly forgot I have already killed the final boss like a hundred and one times.
Living Up to the ROG Name
With the Xonar Phoebus, ASUS has created a soundcard worthy to not only be a flagship but also have the ROG in its name. The card performs well not only in games but also music and movies. The ASUS ROG Xonar Phoebus will definitely be a good upgrade (if you can stomach the price) for anyone still using onboard solutions or those still using entry level soundcards.
While I did not dive into the options and tweaks this card has (due to everyone having a different sound preference), I must say that for those who like to tweak their sound, you will have enough tools to do it in the software. Even on its default settings for those who just want to plug and play, the soundcard does a very respectable job. Not forgetting the control box which gives you the ability to control the volume to your headphones on the fly, this is one piece of hardware that I will have no problems recommending to anyone who wants to take their computer gaming and multimedia experience to the next level.
Ratings: 4 out of 5 stars
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