ASUS Xonar U3 USB Sound Card ReviewnVidia_Freak - July 10, 2011
Category: Sound Cards
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With the push and mass acceptance of HD video came the push and mass acceptance of widescreen HD monitors, and so too, has come the push for HD audio. 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound speakers. Disregarding quality, these can be had for comparatively little from earlier in the decade, thus, they are much more attainable for the mass market than they once were. With this mass adoption of surround-sound has come the demand for the hardware to utilize it, and manufacturers have responded. Gone are the days of the outdated AC'97 chipset, and here are the days of built-in surround sound capable chipsets on even the lowest of low-end motherboards. This mass acceptance of HD audio has raised the bar for audio quality standards, and has made it significantly more affordable for those standards to be experienced. Additionally, more manufacturers have stepped into the HD audio realm and have begun to create their own audio expansion cards for users that crave more quality, by means of higher quality DACs and op-amps, and more functionality, such as that provided by hardware EAX and various Dolby technologies.
This movement has not been limited only to desktop users, but it has also grown in popularity with laptop/netbook users as well. Although today's laptops, tablets, and even netbooks feature these newer audio chipsets, size constraints have generally limited users to ordinary stereo sound. The push for surround-sound, however, is strong enough that manufacturers have taken notice and have started catering to mobile users with external, ultra-portable USB sound cards. These ultra-portable solutions lack true surround-sound support, however, some offer simulated surround-sound by way of Dolby Headphone technology, and this does a very good job for movies and games. One such manufacturer of one of these ultra-portable USB sound cards is ASUS. ASUS only recently ventured into making sound cards with its high-end Xonar line of products aimed at gamers and audiophiles. Most recently, it has created the XonarU3, an external, ultra-portable USB sound card aimed primarily at headphone users and gamers. Today I'll be testing it, but first, let's have a peek.
The ethereal and wispy colouring certainly invokes a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, and, the box's black satin colouring and compact size almost manage to make a box seem cute and cuddly. All over the box, in various (fifteen!) languages, are plastered the main attractions, which are:
- Headphone Amplifier: The XonarU3 isn't just a sound card, it is also capable of functioning as a headphone amplifier for anyone that not only uses headphones, but wants to maintain an ultra-portable profile.
- GX2.5: As this is my introduction to any of ASUS' audio offerings, I'm not terribly familiar with its many iterations of the GX Audio Engine, however, ASUS claims that GX2.5 is capable of simultaneous playback of up to 128 effects. A very good thing to know for gamers and serious audio editing on the go.
- Dolby Home Theatre: The Xonar U3, aiming to provide 'surround' sound in a small package, utilizes various Dolby technologies to alter and/or enhance audio. Dolby Headphone, Dolby Digital Live, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, and Dolby Virtual Speaker are all aimed at turning a set of headphones into a virtual surround sound system.
- Hi-Fi Class Audio: ASUS seems to push something called 'Hyper-Grounding' that supposedly keeps outside interference from mingling with the waves coursing through it, however, it is a very lightweight and small piece of kit that I suspect has no extra shielding beyond the standard ground.
Along with the compact Xonar U3 are the driver CD, user manual, a laughably short USB extension cable, and an S/PDIF adapter. The Xonar U3 itself is a small device, though not too small to be lost in the largest of hands. It has a protective cap for the USB plug that is attached with a bit of nylon string to the body, and it also contains a key ring loop to bring the Xonar U3 everywhere without thought. The plastic, black gloss housing doesn't feel particularly durable, nor does it feel particularly brittle, and my only complaint about its physical characteristics is the gloss paint that presents oils, finger prints, and the most miniscule of nicks as though they were the stars of a hit television show.