Review: Auzentech X-Meridian 7.1 Sound Card
Just under 2 weeks ago I ordered an Auzentech X-Meridian 7.1 Sound Card based on some recommendations I read over on AVSForum.com. The card finally arrived the middle of this past week and I got the time to install it in my HTPC last night (to replace the integrated sound from nVidia's SoundStorm).
For those of you that don't know, the X-Meridian is based on the C-Media Oxygen HD CMI8788 audio processor. Now, if you're not familiar with that particular chip, just know that it can do pretty much anything, including but not limited to Dolby Digital Live, Dolby ProLogic IIx, Dolby Headphone, Dolby Virtual Speaker, DTS Interactive, and DTS Neo:PC. While this card does pack some incredible features for digital output, where it really shines is when you switch over to the analog outputs.
Part of the draw for analog output is that this card features, aside from the high-quality DACs, the ability to replace the output opamps to suit your listening style and preferences. The opamps the card ships with are good, but they really can't hold a candle to some of the more popular aftermarket options. I came into this prepared and ordered 4 different sets of replacement opamps that I could test out: TI/Burr Brown OPA2134, OPA2227, OPA2107, and the National LM4562.
Now, I should mention that I don't actually have the last ones yet. My delivery isn't expected for another couple days. As to the other three though, they each have their own interesting characteristics. It's worth mentioning that any claims below about sound quality are from my own observations. I have done no testing of frequency response, S/N ratio, etc. They are simply my impressions after listening for a while using a set of Sennheiser HD590 headphones and Klipsch ProMedia 5.1 speakers. Pricing is from Digi-Key.
- OPA2134 - The popular choice. These are plentiful at almost all online electronics shops and are reasonably inexpensive at ~$2.50/each. A nice step up from the stock parts. It's got the typical "warm" Burr Brown sound and is a little weak on the top-end.
- OPA2227 - Similar to the 2134 but with cleaner bass. A bit more expensive at ~$4.00/each. Given the minor price difference between this and the 2134, I'd go with this.
- OPA2107 - You'd think that the lowest part number would make this the worst but I actually like it the best overall. Kind of hard to find and expensive at ~$12.50/each but worth the effort and money. Despite being made by TI/Burr Brown, these don't have the typical BB sound. They have a strong frequency response in the mid-to-high range and aren't quite as "boomy" with the bass (but don't get me wrong, it's still strong).
As to the LM4562, the general consensus on AVSForum is that these are just about the best commonly-available chip you can install on your card. The second they show up I'm going to try them out. The only negative comments that people seem to have is that they don't seem to perform quite as well when you enable all 8 channels (possibly due to increased power draw), but that's not going to affect me as I'm only using a 5.1 system. If they work as well as everyone claims, they'll be a real steal because they're only about $5.50/each.
When compared to the integrated sound that I was using before, there's really no comparison at all. nVidia's SoundStorm was considered to be pretty capable back when it was released, but it's still an integrated solution. There was a bit of popping and hiss from my speakers if I turned them all the way up and an annoying hum would be added to the mix if the HTPC was turned off. The sound was good but never great, I'd often find myself wishing I could turn the volume up louder, especially when watching movies with AC3 soundtracks, but then finding I couldn't due to the previously-mentioned artifacts.
That, however, was then. I now find myself with a card that can really make these speakers shine. The output from the card is so strong that if I turn the volume up very high the venetian blinds start to vibrate from the bass hits. Without anything playing I can actually turn the speakers to their max volume without any background noise. All that though is just icing on the cake. The real winner here is sound quality. In listening to some Lossless WMAs on my server I was able to hear things I've never noticed before, even coming out of the Audigy (yes, the original one) in my desktop. I can honestly say that for any computer with speakers that cost more than $20, I will never use integrated sound again.