Last sighted a couple of months ago at Computex, the Xonar D2 is Asus' brazen attempt to take Creative head-on. Asus isn’t pussy-footing around with the Xonar either, this is intended to be a serious contender and as such it’s a card brimming with features and promising a high quality audio experience. Can it deliver?
First impressions are excellent, it's an impressively heavy card with a large metal shield covering most of the card, to help protect from electronic interference. There's a range of audio cables including three stereo mini-jack to twin phono for connecting the analogue outs from the card to an amp as well as an optical cable with adapters (as the card combines S/PDIF with optical audio outs). I was pleasantly surprised to find a separate MIDI bracket and MIDI cables. Despite USB now taking over from MIDI interfaces, it's always gratifying to have it, although you will need to use up a whole rear bracket just for this one connection.
Where some of the higher-end Creative cards come with the functional (and perfectly acceptable) Cubase SE, Asus has provided a generous package that includes 'lite' editions of Ableton 6, Sonar and Project 5 together with Cyberlink Power DVD 7. There's no sample editing program in there, but there are plenty of free ones on the web, such as Audacity. Unfortunately, this review model didn't include the software so I can't say how these cut-down versions compare to the full commercial releases.
As is common with even the budget cards now, there's a wide range of surround options available including up to 7.1 analogue out, Dolby Digital Live, Dolby Pro Logic IIx (for upmixing stereo or even 5.1 to up to seven surround channels), Dolby Headphone, Dolby Virtual Speaker (pseudo-surround from stereo speakers), DTS Connect, DTS Neo:PC and DTS Interactive. The range of surround options and the inclusion of Dolby Digital Live is one area where this card differentiates itself from the X-Fi.
The card also offers ASIO support. Whilst once restricted to cards designed for the audio production market, ASIO is now much more widespread. It’s a low-latency driver intended to provide a high degree of responsiveness for music making applications, where timing is crucial (it's no good playing a note on a keyboard only to hear it two seconds later).