Asus Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim review
Asus's Xonar HDAV series is the only range of sound cards capable of sending digital HD audio from your PC to an HDMI-capable surround-sound amplifier, making them ideal for Blu-ray-equipped media centre PCs.
We reviewed the original Xonar HDAV 1.3, but now Asus has launched this Slim version.
The HDAV 1.3 Slim is a half-height card, so it's ideal for a media centre. It comes on a full-height backplate, but you can replace this easily with the supplied low-profile version. Unlike the full-size HDAV 1.3, which uses PCI Express, it's a PCI sound card. This should make it compatible with more Mini-ITX and microATX motherboards and will leave any PCI Express x1 slot free for a TV card.
Both Xonar cards support Protected Audio Path (PAP), the copy protection standard for HD audio. This allows output of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, the audio formats most commonly found on Blu-ray movies, at their full bit rate of up to 24.5MBit/s. Without PAP support, audio bit rates are limited to 6.1Mbit/s, as they are through the audio controller and HDMI output of ATI's HD 4000-series graphics cards, for example.
The Xonar Slim has only three ports. The HDMI input allows you to connect the output of your graphics card to the Xonar. This means the card can combine the video from your graphics card with its own audio to make a single AV stream. The HDMI output then connects the card to your AV receiver. Both HDMI-to-DVI and HDMI cables are included. There's also a combined optical/coaxial S/PDIF port, which can act as either an input or an output.
This card has dispensed with analogue audio outputs, reducing both the size and the cost - at just £113 it costs around £60 less than its larger sibling. With only digital outputs, the usually critical issue of audio quality is left entirely to the amplifier to which the card is connected.
If you need Blu-ray playback software, the bundled ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre makes the Slim excellent value, saving you around £55 compared with buying standalone software. For $50, you can even upgrade to the latest version. Both versions integrate well with Vista's Media Center.
The HDAV 1.3 Slim is a great card, and the perfect choice if you're building a Blu-ray-capable PC for your living room. An alternative is to buy a 192KHz-capable sound card to decode the HD audio in your PC. You can then output it via mini-jacks to an amplifier with a multi-channel input. However, the HDAV 1.3 Slim's HDMI output is far more elegant, although it's rather expensive if you already have Blu-ray playback software.