If you do not know who ASUS is then you probably stumbled on this page by accident and, although you are welcome to stay and enjoy, you might find the following pages boring and not to your liking.
ASUS has been moving toward a broader market presence in the computing world. They have been expanding their product line over the last few years into the audio, notebook, server, networking, and just about every other market out.
Their audio entries have been particularly impressive with Xonar family even giving Auzentech and Creative a run for their money. But while the Xonar is impressive all on its own it is the versatility of the line up and how quickly and effectively Asus has brought these products to market. As part of our Home Entertainment Section we are taking a look at the Asus Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim. This card boasts HDMI video and audio pass-through for a full 24 FPS sync as well as a low profile for slim HTPC cases. We dropped this card into our HD HTPC system complete with Blu-ray drive to see if it can really give us the HD Audio and Video we want.
Asus has been doing some good work with their product packaging. They have moved from the traditional Far Eastern cluttered mess featuring mass of images and graphs – to a more classic and simple design. This type of move will entice a broader range of customers; as audiophiles do not like a lot of garish images. The classic black case with a clean image of the product on the front will do more than a box full of graphs any day.
Even looking under the front flap we find a cleaner presentation than most. It simply gives you the facts and a few pictures to provide visual reference.
The back is not as clean but does provide details about the card in 12 languages.
Inside the box we find the HDAV 1.3 Slim and its associated gear inside a plain black box. Asus has always done well with the accessories they provide. With the original Xonar they provided more connectivity cables than any other sound card I have worked with. With the HDAV they actually include a loop-back HDMI cable. This length of HDMI cable would normally cost you about $30-40 but it is provided for you by Asus. They also provide a DVI to HDMI converter cable; this is another $20-30 value you get with the HADV 1.3 Slim. Asus rounds out the gear with a good quick start guide Driver CD, a Software component [TotalMedia Theatre 3.0], a Toslink adapter for their combination Coax and Toslink S/PDIF [Sony/Phillips Digital Interconnect Format] connection and a secondary tang for half-height cases.
Design and Features
The Asus HDAV 1.3 Slim is intended as an High Definition Audio and Video device for reproducing Blu-ray and HD video and audio (imagine that). It centers on Asus? AV200 HD audio chip and while this uses up CPU time to process the sound it takes only a miniscule portion of your CPU to do so. The AV200 is the core of the Asus Xonar line and has been able to outperform Creative in most of our listening tests conducted with the original Xonar D2. This part is a custom developed C-Media from the 8788 audio Chip with updated Signal Processing. This allows for positional audio support directly in hardware with EAX 1.0 and 2.0. Dolby Processing commands are controlled by the AV200 but are all done by the CPU.
The HADV 1.3 is fully HDCP [High Definition Content Protection] 1.2 compliant so there is no worry about content resizing. It also uses HDMI 1.3a, a lossless standard for audio and video connections. This makes it a little difficult to fully test as there are a limited number of HDMI 1.3a amplifiers and monitors out. Still, the standard is an improvement in the reproduction of digital audio and video. One thing that Asus did right when it dived into the audio world is they did not skimp in the op-amps used on their cards.
They went with Texas Instrument R4850 for this job. For DAC/ADC Asus went with a Wolfson WM8776S instead of the Bur Brown PCM1796 that is found on the HDAV 1.3 Deluxe, this is a step down from the higher end Bur Brown part but as it is meant primarily for front audio out it is still a good choice.
Asus has a pair of HDMI connectors for you to play with, one is the input from your Video source the other is the output to your audio/video equipment. As we mentioned above Asus included a DVI to HDMI cable, this allows you to bridge your non-HDMI video into the HDAV 1.3 Slim, the Coaxial/Optical S/PDIF connector allows for digital in of an audio signal from a secondary source. It also allows for digital audio out if you have separate audio and video systems.
The software that Asus provides for the Xonar line is very well rounded. It allows for you to chose the input and output of the HDAV 1.3. This is a handy little feature to have if you do not want everything to push out over HDMI.
As you can see the Xonar Center is very versatile, on a side note the any effects that are enabled in the Xonar Center are not used when running HDMI Digital audio pass through. These effects only work on analog audio out.
As you will quickly find I have an issue with only giving my opinion on something subjective like aesthetics, audio or visual quality. What I like you might not, so I could tell you how great I thought the Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim was and when you get it home you might think it was not so hot. To get around this I like to use a sampling of people and a range of audio types. As the HDAV 1.3 Slim is meant for home theatre I thought that I would build an HD HTPC and playback a range of HD audio sources as well as a couple of stock ones. These would be played for five different people who would then be asked to rate the audio quality on a scale of one to five (one being worst five being best) after that I asked for a one word description of the audio quality.
For my media sources I chose the following:
Blu-ray DVD – I am Legend
HD TV – NASCAR Racing
CD Audio – Stevie Ray Vaughn "Little Wing"
MP3 – Blue October "Jump Rope"
HD Video [Via iTunes] – Quantum of Solace
With these formats in hand I assembled my victims, I mean friends, I started my testing.
Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 2.53GHz
4GB Kingston DDR2 1066 RAM [4x1GB]
Asus P5N7A-VM [GF9400]
Seagate 500GB SATAII HDD
Asus SBC-04D1S-U [USB Blu-Ray Drive]
Asus Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim
It is interesting to note at this point that many said they could not tell the difference between this and other HD Audio Systems. They said the sound was great but there was nothing to differentiate it.
This is good news for Asus as it means it stands up to other high-end audio gear without the normal high-end price. We are finally seeing HD truly being brought to the HTPC in earnest.
The numbers look good for Asus and the Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim. On a personal note although I prefer analog amplification, I like the way the HDAV 1.3 Slim sounds when used for movies [Blu-Ray] and for HD TV programs. The sound of 10-20 cars moving at almost 200 Miles Per Hour is impressive.
The most common words were:
On the technical side I did run into a few issues, unless I used an HDMI 1.3 Lossless receiver I found the sound to be a little off. It is hard to describe what it was but it just was not up to scratch. I also ran into an issue where running full digital out to Toslink would result in the audio turning into extremely loud static. There was nothing that would stop this other than turning the receiver down to zero. This seemed to be a receiver issue as it happened with two other cards; however it does illustrate that you will need to chose your components carefully if you are going to build a system with this in it.
The Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim runs for $149.99. This may seem like a lot (and realistically it is) but again we see two schools of thought.
One the one hand $150 for a PCI sound card is a lot of money. But $150 for claimed 145db SNR, HDMI 1.3 Lossless audio device with pass-through for audio and video, true Blu-ray streaming with 24 FPS audio/video sync, Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD Master Audio Bitstreaming is not so much.
Asus also seems to be better at maintaining the Xonar line by keeping the drivers up to date. They tend to push out patches and improvements more often for Xonar than for other products. Asus RMA can be setup through their support site.
Given the subjective matter of products which cannot be precisely measured, we decided to split the conclusion in the three parts.
What They did wrong;
The HDAV 1.3 Slim would probably work better in a PCIe x1 format. I also feel that this version of the HDAV 1.3 skimped a little on the DAC converters and other components. Granted they are better than the rest of the competition but they are not as good as the HDAV 1.3 Deluxe.
What they could have done better;
As I listed above the HDAV 1.3 Slim seemed like a less expensive version of the HDAV 1.3 Deluxe instead of a smaller version. As the market moves towards smaller, thinner and more aesthetically pleasing HTPC cases the market for half height audio and video cards will grow. The audiophile will want the same level of hardware in these low profile parts as they get from the larger. But in this case it was not the case. Again the components used in the HDAV Slim 1.3 were good; but they could have been better.
What they did right;
By including an HDMI and DVI to HDMI cable Asus was brilliant. As with the first Xonar Asus has packed in as many accessories as they could. This makes the device extremely attractive to potential buyers and makes the product at $149.99 much more of a value.
The inclusion of the ability to sync audio and video from two separate sources through the card was also a great idea. it gives people with DVI the option to run their HD video into the card and still get the HD audio through either Coaxial or Toslink S/PDIF then run these out to your HD receiver. Conversely you can run HDMI video+ audio in and split the tow out in the card. so you can run HDMI video signal to your HD TV and S/PDIF audio to your non-HDMI receiver.
In the end the Asus Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim might have some compatibility issues with older audio receivers, but with the right equipment the sound is amazing and does do justice to Blu-Ray, HD-TV and other High End audio. Home Theatre enthusiasts will love the sound and simplicity of setup. Audiophiles will also be happy with the sound coming from the HDAV 1.3 Slim, although some will still long for analog tube amplifiers [like I do] the cost of this is often far beyond the return unless you just have the money to spend. Still for now and for the digital crowd the HDAV 1.3 Slim falls into our SFF HTPC must have gear list; and right at the top.