Meet the ThunderBolt
Alongside the motherboard you will also receive ThunderBolt, an add-on card that integrates Xonar sound as well as a BigFoot's Killer NPU.
According to Asus, the audio provided by Xonar gives sound quality that is four times better than a regular sound card. Admittedly it is a pretty sexy add-on alright. Let's rip 'er open.
Asus ThunderBolt is the first motherboard bundled audio solution to utilize the power of Nichicon Fine Gold (FG) designed to be used on high grade audio equipment of three different capacitances, allowing really premium audio output. These are the gold colored capacitors.
Audio wise, without a good DAC (Digital/Analogue Converter) you'll be nowhere for a clean conversion of audio signal for analogue audio devices.The ThunderBolt utilizes a pair of CIRRUS LOGIC CS4398 DAC that are capable of outputting up to 120dB at 192KHz with a THD+N as low as only -107dB, allowing ThunderBolt to provide an actual output capability of up to 116dB at 192KHz with a THD+N as low as -108dB. And that's pretty darn impressive alright.
Next to the DAC, you'll need a good ADC (Analogue/Digital Converter) to convert the external analogue inputs into digital. ThunderBolt utilizes a CIRRUS LOGIC CS5361 ADC here that is capable of accepting up to 114dB at 192KHz with a THD+N as low as only -105dB. Also, headphone amplification has been optimized with the help of a Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 high fidelity headphone amplifier that can easily drive headsets up to 600 Ù load with 0.00014% THD+N, together with a SNR Dynamic Range of above 120dB.
We can confirm that the audio quality is simply ridiculously good. However be aware it is 2-channel audio, mostly well suited for 2.1 and heaphone systems and if you see a lot of flexibility in the drivers, Equalizer options are missing, though you can select a couple of profiles like Hi-Fi, gaming etc. so the card will be used by audio purists only we think.
You probably already spotted the lower half and that IC with Killer E2100 on it, we peel off the sticker, but that is in fact the The Killer E2100 embedded game networking NIC which uses dedicated core logic and BigFoot Networks Game Networking DNA software to classify and accelerate online game traffic on embedded solutions. It even uses cache memory, hence the Samsung chips next to it.
This expensive NIC will allow you to game online with less lag. Now the Killer E2100 gets traffic from the network, to the game, and back out to the network faster than any other PC network card. But we are extremely skeptical about the NIC as we say that lag is created outside your home network, e.g. in-between the router and the destination. The NIC can do very little about that, especially with the excellent Intel and Realtek NICs available these days.
The sheer hardware design and next to it, the software, is just really good, offering you a wide variety of settings and monitoring options.
Now we did perform some manual tests.
Upload performance on our 120/10 MBit/s internet connection for example:
- Upload 9.4 Mbit/s over Intel NIC
- Upload 9.4 Mbit/s over Killer NIC
- Download 122.2 Mbit/s over Intel NIC
- Download 122.1 Mbit/s over Killer NIC
Ping times then, from the Netherlands to the USA (we are pinging Comcast):
- 98ms on the Intel NIC
- 98ms on the Killer NIC
Admittedly, it is a lovely solution and the software suite is just grand.
You can click on these thumbnails by the way to get an indication of the lovely control software.