Every operating system upgrade involves the popular guessing game, “I wonder which drivers will break this time?” I’m happy to report that my MSI X58 Pro-E motherboard is generally well-supported by Microsoft’s built-in drivers. My AMD HD 6970 graphics card works nicely with AMD’s Windows 8 drivers, too. Intel’s Chipset Device Software has already been updated for Windows 8 and replaces a few system files, although I couldn’t tell any difference. That leaves the sound card.
The MSI X58 Pro-E comes with an integrated Realtek ALC889 audio codec, and Windows 8 provides full driver support out of the box. Unfortunately, despite its impressive-sounding specifications, this cheap integrated solution just plain doesn’t sound very good. There’s no noise and the output may be strong enough for low-end headphones, but I had to crank up the volume to get any decent loudness from my Sennheiser HD 380 Pro, and even then the sound was flat and indistinct. Nor does the driver support virtual surround sound, which I consider a must-have for headphones.
Lost Settings vs Mouse Noise
So I needed a discrete sound card. On Windows 7, I had been using an ancient Creative Labs X-Fi XtremeMusic (it’s really spelled like that, sorry) which produced great sound and even had working drivers. Of course that couldn’t last, and Creative’s Windows 8 drivers are once again defective: they don’t save settings between reboots. Any settings.
Anecdotally, this doesn’t seem to happen when the computer merely hibernates – and sure enough, the new Windows 8 feature “Fast Boot,” enabled by default, relies on hibernating the kernel session. On my desktop system with its 256 GB SSD drive, I care much more about the hibernation file’s 6 GB than shaving a few seconds off my daily boot time, so I disabled hibernation (
powercfg /h off). But that also disabled “Fast Boot”… and since Creative’s drivers evidently don’t save any settings to disk (or else don’t load them), they were lost on every restart.
Time to look for another sound card maker. Pickings are slim with most people relying on integrated audio these days, but in recent years Asus had released a number of discrete sound cards to good reviews. I decided to try the cheap and tiny Xonar DGX whose powerful amplifier with Dolby Headphone support were just what I needed. Reassuringly, Asus’ Windows 8 drivers work well, keep their settings between reboots, and even have a compact installation footprint. (Creative’s drivers resemble a slime mold in how they spread across the file system, and they are never fully removed by Creative’s uninstaller either. I found this post very helpful in getting rid of the infestation.)
The Xonar DGX does have one unpleasant flaw that neither the X-Fi card nor even the Realtek codec had. Moving the cursor around the Windows desktop causes an annoying high-pitched interference noise. It’s not loud enough to be audible when any sound is playing, but discrete sound cards are not supposed to exhibit any noise at all. Moving the card to a different slot or disconnecting the (unused) front panel connection didn’t help. The problem is too small and the card too cheap to go through a possibly fruitless exchange, so I can’t say if this is a pervasive issue with the model. Caveat emptor.
Configuring the Xonar DGX
Otherwise, the Xonar DGX sounds very good and has no trouble driving the HD 380 Pro. Configuration is a bit convoluted, though, so I’ll briefly describe what I did. The picture below shows my settings in the Main panel of the Xonar DGX Audio Center.
- I’m selecting 8-channel output despite using headphones. The driver virtualizes all channels to my output device while Windows thinks it’s using 7.1 speakers.
- “Headphone” indicates the actual physical output device. Clicking the hammer icon shows three bombastically named choices that simply boost output by +0/+9/+16 dB. I’m using +9 dB for the Sennheiser’s 54 Ω impedance.
- Lastly, I have Dolby Headphone enabled with the reference room size (DH-1) which is most appropriate for music, in my opinion.
Xonar DGX Audio Center
Next, make sure that the Windows sound settings (Control Panel > Sound) match these Audio Center settings. Select “Speakers” on “ASUS Xonar DGX Audio Device.” My setup maps 8 channels to headphones, so I click Configure and select “7.1 Surround,” then Next and check all “Optional Speakers,” and again Next to check both “Full-Range Speakers” options. Click Next and Finish, and you should get the best output from all sources.
Adjusting the Equalizer
You might wish to boost the bass a little, though. The DGX Audio Center provides a 10-band equalizer on the Effect panel, but the default “Bass” pattern is rather weird and the tiny imprecise UI makes fine adjustments impossible. Instead, do the following:
- Create a user-defined pattern, say “BassBoost.” Type “BassBoost” into the text box at the bottom and hit the plus sign next to it.
- Close Audio Center by right-clicking on its tray icon and selecting “Exit.” That’s because Audio Center overwrites the file we’re going to edit whenever it shuts down.
- Open the following file in Notepad or another text editor, where
<UserName>stands for your Windows user name:
"C:\Users\<UserName>\AppData\Roaming\ASUS\Xonar DGX Audio Center\cmicnfp.ini"
EQITEMNAME0_Data0…9lines encode the equalizer’s ten bands for the current and the first user-defined pattern, respectively. Change the values at your pleasure – one dB equals 65536. Matching
Dataline numbers should have identical values. This sample file boosts the three lowest bands by +6/+4/+2 dB.
- Save the file when you’re done editing. Now re-open Audio Center from the Start menu or Start screen, switch back to the Effect panel, and ensure that “UserDef” is selected with your new pattern.
The driver will acquire a changed
cmicnfp.ini simply by switching back and forth between patterns, so you can leave Audio Center open during testing. However, Audio Center will still write out old cached values when it shuts down, so you must save (or copy) your updated
cmicnfp.ini while Audio Center is closed in order to make the changes stick.
One notable X-Fi feature not present in the Xonar DGX was the Crystalizer. Its purpose was to re-expand the dynamic range of music that had been compressed for poor playback environments. Sadly, Asus doesn’t offer anything comparable.
If you want to know more about the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro check out Marco Arment’s enthusiastic review. I must disagree with his claims regarding iOS devices, though. While the headphones work surprisingly well on my iPod touch 4, the output is not very loud and does lack deep bass compared to a proper sound card.
Lastly, two links on a somewhat related subject. While experimenting with the new sound card, I stumbled across the mysterious “Sound Enhancer” in Apple iTunes. Since Apple does not document this feature I had to dig around a bit to find out what it does. The best explanations I found were Topher Kessler’s article and a dealmac forum thread.
2013-02-10: Amended equalizer instructions to account for Audio Center possibly writing out old settings when it shuts down.
2014-03-17: As Wolter Hanke points out below, you might wish to skip the Asus drivers entirely and get the unofficial UNi Xonar Drivers instead. I’m using them now with the C-Media audio panel and without GX functionality (= Creative EAX emulation). They are functionally equivalent, more lightweight and up-to-date, and apparently quite stable. However, please note that using the C-Media panel will change the location of the
cmicnfp.ini file to the following location: