Asus Xonar Xense Premium Gaming Audio Set ReviewSound Cards, Speakers/Headphones
Reviewed by: hardnrg
Reviewed on: November 3, 2010
It's actually quite astonishing when you consider all the product lines that Asus offers: laptops, netbooks, slim media PCs, desktops, servers, monitors, graphics cards, sound cards, routers, computer cases... the list literally goes on. What gives me a slight expression of disbelief is the range of target markets, from hard core overclockers, to young school children, average 'noobs' and families, business elite, and science 'boffins' pushing the boundaries of research. The proliferation of Asus' products throughout households and businesses around the world proves this is no "jack of all trades, master of none" company. It's among the top five computer manufacturers in the world.
The same world that has gone Hi-Def crazy, with consumers tripping over each other for the latest TV technology; I still find it strange that most people either have a very poor or mediocre sound system or simply use the TV's built-in speakers. People can hear the difference between a cheap sound setup and high-end system, but it's as though people have forgotten about sound quality.
Well, I'll tell you who hasn't forgotten: Asus, with its solid line of high-end sound cards which perform spectacularly for listening to music and as part of a computer-based home cinema. The Xonar Xense One builds on the success of the Xonar Essence STX, featuring the same headphone amplifier, but this time a modified Sennheiser PC 350 headset is included as part of the package. As I have previously reviewed the Xonar Essence STX, I have high hopes and expectations for the Xonar Xense One, but wonder what changes Asus have made to tailor this sound card for gaming. I am also intrigued to find out how Sennheiser PC 350 performs alongside it, and how it compares to other headphones and headsets.
You might have wondered what a "Premium Gaming Audio Set" consists of. Well, you can immediately see on the front of the box a picture of the Asus Xonar Xense One sound card, and the Sennheiser PC 350 headset through the transparent plastic side section of the box. Some of the key features are stated or shown as a logo here as well as on the back of the box. For example: precision acoustics for FPS games, 118 dB SNR, ergonomic headset, Dolby Headphone, and Dolby Digital Live, amongst others.
The left side of the box list some of the technical specifications of the sound card and headset. It's quite nice to see that Asus have even included information on DACs used on the sound card and the distortion of the headset. I like audio gear, and usually, I'd have to look this information up myself. If you don't know or care about these specs, it's basically very reassuring that they are worth printing on the box. The whole right side of the box is the clear plastic inner packaging.
The top and bottom of the box don't reveal any more product information, aside from the serial and part numbers.
The front of the box has a flap that opens upwards to reveal detailed explanations of the key features and sound card connectivity. The lower part has a windowed section, where you can see the sound card EMI shield, along with lists of the contents and system requirements. Sliding off the outer cardboard box presents you with the sound card and headset inside the transparent plastic packaging.
So here's what you get: the Xonar Xense One sound card, Sennheiser PC 350 headset, Quick Start Guide, a driver/manual CD, 7.1 audio breakout cable, 1/4" to 3.5mm stereo jack adapter, and a TOSLINK digital audio adapter.
The breakout cable uses a DVI type connector to separate the analogue audio outputs (front left/right, rear left/right, center/sub, side left/right), as there isn't really room on the sound card to fit all the 3.5mm stereo sockets. I actually cringed when I saw the DVI connector, as non-standardly using a DVI connector for audio will inevitably cause consumer confusion at some point, but having a breakout cable like this allows you to use high-end audio interconnect cables with chunky-bodied 3.5mm jacks. The 1/4" to 3.5mm jack adaptor lets you use audio cables, microphones, and headphones/headsets with 3.5mm jacks. Finally, the TOSLINK adaptor allows you to connect a standard optical S/PDIF cable to the optical digital audio output of the sound card.
The Xonar Xense sound card seems very similar to the Xonar Essence STX, so naturally I'll be making some comparisons of the two. The Xense has a highly polished EMI shield that has a fine grid pattern overlay on the upper and lower sections. There's not much to see around the back, aside from the handy labelling of each of the audio connectors.
So, you get the same 1/4" jack sockets for the headphone output and microphone/line input as the Essence STX. The S/PDIF output can be used as-is with digital coaxial cables, or with optical cables by using the included TOSLINK adaptor. The major difference is the 7.1 channel analogue audio output instead of the stereo output of the Essence STX. I really do cringe when I look at the connector though, because I know that at some point, someone is going to walk into a shop and ask for a DVI cable for a sound card, be adamant that they are right, and then get really angry... Someone will probably think that the Xonar Xense is a graphics and sound card, and it would be a pretty forgiveable mistaken guess. I'm still shaking my head at Asus for choosing a DVI connector for audio. Why, Asus, why? In any case, this time you have the option of having multi-channel sound via analogue as well as digital.
You can connect the Xense to other add-in cards: S/PDIF out to graphics cards, TV tuners and video capture cards to the Aux-In, and Front Panel to the computer case's audio connectors. The 4-pin "Molex" power connector is required for the headphone amplification. As with the Essence STX, the J14 header is undocumented, and there is only some speculation that it could be a S/PDIF input.
At this point I took off the EMI shield to take a look at the various chips on the sound card. You can see the difference between the polished and grid/checkerboard overlay sections a bit better in this close-up.
Asus chose to use the same AV100 APU (C-Media OxygenHD CMI8788) as the rest of the Xonar line. So, this card will process the 3D and multi-channel sound in the same way as the other Xonar sound cards. When I reviewed the Essence STX, I pointed out that it was only available in PCIe form. Since then, Asus released the Essence ST, which is a PCI version of the Essence STX. This addition to the Xonar line was facilitated by the PLX Technologies PEX 8112 PCIe-to-PCI bridge chip. So, while there isn't currently a PCI counterpart to the Xonar Xense, you could well see one in the future. I think it would be a smart move for Asus to release a PCI version, since many motherboards have more spare and accessible PCI slots than PCIe slots.
The Asus DJ100 is a C-Media CMI9780 AC'97 chip, which is used as a preamp for the microphone input, while the Cirrus Logic CS5381 is the Analogue-to-Digital Converter (ADC) used for the analogue inputs. So, the input side of things is the same as the Essence STX.
On the output side, the Xense uses the Burr-Brown PCM1796 DAC for the headphone and front left/right analogue outputs. This is around 4-5 dB lesser in performance to the PCM1792 DAC used on the Essence STX, which is still very much at the top end of audio quality. For the remaining 6 channels, the Cirrus Logic CS4362A handles the DAC duties. This is rather more pedestrian compared to the Burr-Brown, but the only person I've seen with really high-end surround speakers is my cousin who works for an audiophile manufacturer, so it's really not going to be audibly different to all-out high-end DACs since most of the sound is going to be coming from the front left and right speakers anyway.
The Xense makes use of Texas Instruments R4850 and New Japan Radio NJM5532 op-amps for the analogue inputs and the surround outputs.
The headphone output is treated to the New Japan Radio NJM2114 op-amps. A separate op-amp is used for the left and right channels of the headphone signal, for maximum audio performance. You can easily swap out these op-amps to different ones to cater the sound to your personal listening preference and/or the headphones being used.
The headphone output gets amplified by the Texas Instruments 6120A2 headphone amp chip. This is a very capable solid-state amplifier that can be found in standalone headphone amps, as well as the Essence STX.
Rather than use a socketed, interchangeable MDIP package op-amp for the main line-out, Asus have decided to use a soldered SOIC package of the National Semiconductor LM4562 op-amp. Having spent countless hours listening to my modded X-Fi XtremeMusic that has LM4562 op-amps, I find this change perfectly acceptable, as the LM4562 is an incredible op-amp for a line-level signal.
The Xense uses the same capacitors as the Essence STX. Sanyo OS-CON capacitors smooth the power delivered to the card from the "Molex" connector, and help supply the voltage levels of the electrical S/PDIF signal. Nichicon FG "Fine Gold" electrolytic capacitors, and metal film capacitors are used in high-end audio equipment and contribute to a refined sound.
So, after having scrutinised the components of the Xense, it's pretty clear that it really is very similar to the Essence STX. But, while the changes made are very close in terms of technical specifications, you can probably guess that this does not always mean they will sound the same. At this point, I still don't know how it will sound, but I'm feeling reassured and hopeful.
The headset is a circumaural design with ear cups that can be swivelled 90° to allow them to be stored or stowed flat. This makes it easy to pack them in a bag if you were on your way to a LAN gaming tournament, or just placing them in a drawer at home when you are not using them. The ear cups are closed-back enclosures that have custom text printed on them to let you know this is not the regular edition of the PC 350.
The headband adjusts smoothly on each side, with soft clicks at each of the sizes available. I have quite a large head, and this headset fits without issue, with the ear cups sitting comfortably around my ears.
Sennheiser chose to use a non-removeable microphone boom that can be rotated from about 45° down from horizontal to almost straight up. I really like non-removeable mics on headsets for two major reasons: it means there is one less thing to misplace or forget to bring with you, and you avoid the possibility of a mechanical failure of the mating connectors of a removeable design.
The central third of the microphone boom is a rubber-coated bendable section that allows you to position the mic pick-up closer to, or further away from, your face.
As well as having a grille for the microphone pick-up, there is a grille on the other side of the mouthpiece to monitor the sounds in the room. This allows the headset to negate the ambient noise from the microphone signal, i.e. noise canceling.
The headset cord has an inline volume control and microphone mute switch. The rotary control for the volume has a visual level indicator that increases/decreases as you turn the thumb-wheel, rather than being numbered from 0 to 10. The inline control can be attached to your clothing with the lapel clip and, with the distance from the ear cup being ~65cm, you can actually clip it to your belt or waistband! I found this much more preferable to attaching it to the collar or neckline of my shirt. During hot days in the summer, I would often only be wearing shorts, so with this headset, I could still make use of the clip.
In the first picture, the volume control is at its minimum setting. Rather oddly, this does not mute the headset, and results in a volume level ~25%. I found this to be a bit annoying when playing games, as some of the louder games could not have the volume turned down enough by using the inline volume control. Unless you have volume+ and volume- media keys on your keyboard, you would need to alt-tab or quit out of the game to reach the Asus or Windows mixer volume control if you found the minimum rotary volume position to still be too loud.
So, you might be wondering how the Xonar edition of the PC 350 headset is different to the regular one. Well, it's terminated with 1/4" TRS jack plugs instead of the usual 3.5mm size connectors. This means you have the advantage of the more solid and secure fitment of 1/4" jacks, but the disadvantage would be that you would have to use jack adaptors in order to use the headset with a laptop or onboard audio. High-end headphones and microphones use 1/4" connectors, so it's much more a case of the accepted status quo than a disadvantage. Headphone fanatics out there will be pleased to see that the headset cord uses a very tasty Y-split "cable-pants" part with strain-relief on all three cable exits. This will protect the cord against internal cable breakage at what is usually a vulnerable section of a headphone/headset cord.
When you run the driver CD-ROM, you are greeted with a window where you can launch the installation of the audio driver, which includes the sound card mixer software. Also from this screen, you can launch Explorer to browse the contents of the disc, contact Asus (launches Asus in your default web browser), view the PDF User Guide (manual), and the Read me (release notes).
So, apart from the audio driver installation, the only option of real interest is the User Guide, as there is no hardcopy of the manual. Here in chapter 1, you can see an explanation of the sound card connectors, and the controls and connectors of the headset.
Chapters 2 and 3 cover connections to internal and external hardware, including the use of the 7.1 breakout cable, and how to connect the PC 350 headset and line-in audio sources.
The last chapter goes over the controls and settings available in the Xonar Xense Audio Center, which is an advanced sound card mixer application.
So, going back to the driver CD's launcher window, when you click on the text "Audio Driver", a dialog box pops up to remind you that the 4-pin "Molex" power needs to be connected in order for the headphone amplifier to function. After that, you get the usual license agreement that I'm sure everyone reads thoroughly.
The installation process continues without further prompts, and finishes by telling you that you need to reboot your computer.
You don't get a software suite as such, but the Xonar Xense Audio Center is an advanced application that provides many controls that provide audio customisations to suit your connected headphones/speakers, what you are listening to, and your personal listening preferences. At the bottom right of the main window is a down arrow button which, when clicked upon, reveals further configurable settings.
In Windows Vista and 7, you need to select the number of channels that is being produced by whichever application you are listening to. So, for music you would choose 2 channels (stereo), 6 channels for Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 movies, and 8 channels for games and the advanced versions of Dolby Digital and DTS. This is somewhat annoying, and I wish there was some sort of customisable application list in the Audio Center that would switch the channel mode for you, in the same way that the Nvidia control panel selects an SLI mode for each game.
Below this, you have a control for the Sample Rate. All sounds played will be converted to the sample rate here, so you would choose either the exact value (e.g. 44.1kHz for MP3/CD) or set it higher for DVD, Bluray, etc. Sample rate conversion does reduce the sound quality, but it's very hard to actually hear the difference, so you can leave it set to any value if you want. The Audio Out selector chooses the analogue output you want to use: Headphone is the amplified 1/4" port; 2, 4, 5.1 and 7.1 Speakers would be connected using the breakout cable; and, FP Headphone and FP 2 Speakers would connect to your computer's front panel audio.
The digital (optical/co-axial) S/PDIF Out can be enabled/disabled, and you can choose whether to send a PCM (stereo) signal, or a multi-channel surround signal by enabling Dolby Digital Live.
Many people will only have a stereo set of speakers connected, but you have the option of enabling Dolby Virtual Speaker to create a pseudo-surround effect from just two speakers. There are Reference and Wide modes, and both work best if you are sitting fairly central in respect to the speakers. I really like using Dolby Virtual Speaker for games and movies, as it works very well, sounding better than down-mixing to plain stereo.
If you have surround sound speakers connected, you can enable Dolby Pro Logic IIx to upmix stereo sources (e.g. music) to all of the speakers. The slider control varies the stereo image from narrow to wide.
It's not very often that you can actually position all of your speakers in the ideal locations around the room, due to doors, furniture, etc. The 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter allows you to compensate for this, sort of like a balance control, but you can click and drag each speaker in this top-down visual map.
With Headphone selected as the analogue audio out, you can click the hammer button to reach the HP Advance Setting. This allows you to set the gain of the amplifier to suit the headphones or headset that you are using. It defaults to Normal Gain (0dB), but you also have choices for +12dB and 18dB for higher impedance headphones. Asus have collaborated with Sennheiser to create a custom gain value for the PC 350 headset, which you should choose for the optimum sound performance with the bundled headset. As you are probably aware, it is possible to damage headphones by excessive amplification (this is possible if you select the wrong gain value), and a warning dialog pops up when changing the amplification level.
Along the bottom of the Audio Center, there are buttons to move to different sections. In the Mixer section, you can set levels for the audio being played out or played/recorded into the soundcard.
You can hear each audio input by clicking the corresponding eye symbol button, which enables the Monitoring mode for that channel. To select a channel for recording (in other applications), you click the corresponding red record button directly below the slider. You can monitor multiple audio inputs simultaneously, but you can only make a single recording selection. To record multiple sources at the same time, you can use the Mix channel, which will record all the sounds currently playing.
There is an Advance Setting for the Front Mic that allows you to enable/disable the Microphone Boost feature, which increases the mic pre-amp gain. You don't get this option for the 1/4" mic input, as the PC 350 headset does not require it.
In the Effect section, you can select an Environment reverb effect and tweak the sound with a 10-band graphic EQ.
If you've ever owned a Creative card, you'll probably be familiar with EAX reverb effects. The Environment effects here are pretty much the same, and can create the auditory illusion of being in a certain type of room, building, etc. I found it pretty funny how Asus chose Bath Room and Under Water for two of the four quick presets, but I suppose they do showcase the more extreme effects of this, er... effect.
There is a list of further presets available, and you can vary the amount of effect applied to the sound by changing the Environment Size.
The EQ section is pretty straightforward and has a number of preset EQ settings, to which you can add your own User Defined EQ setting. The presets range from fairly traditional, e.g. the loudness curve of Rock, to pure craziness of Jazz. I actually ended up at a jazz club recently, and it sucked, so we left after one drink even though we'd paid door entry. The Jazz EQ preset also sucks, haha. Anyway, I like how you can keep saving EQ settings, and I ended tuning in the PC 350 headset as you can see in the UserDef preset, Test 7.
Okay, so the last tab section is FlexBass. This feature can re-route the low frequencies from speakers to the subwoofer channel. This is beneficial for systems with small satellite speakers, both to protect the speakers, and to be able to hear the sounds reproduced more faithfully. You can choose the point at which to re-route the bass (LFE Crossover Frequency) to suit your speakers. However, if you designate speakers as Large, then the crossover is ignored, and the full frequency range is sent to those speakers.
The last two controls I will point out here are Smart Volume Normalisation (SVN), and Mute. SVN aims to keep the apparent loudness roughly the same: loud sounds get tamed while quiet sounds get boosted. This can be handy if you switch from a TV Tuner, to a movie, to a game, to VoIP, or have a mixture of sounds playing at the same time. The Mute control silences all output from the sound card, and syncs with the Windows mute, so it works with all applications and input devices that use the Windows mute.
Xonar Xense One Premium Gaming Audio Card
|Output Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A-Weighted)||118dB for Front channel of Line-out|
|112dB for other channels of Line-out|
|110dB for Headphone-out with 600ohm load|
|Input Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A-Weighted)||118dB|
|Output Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise at 1kHz (-3dB)||0.00039% (-108dB) for Front channel of Line-Out|
|0.00063% (-102dB) for other channels of Line-out|
|0.0019% (-94dB) for Headphone-out with 600ohm load|
|Input Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise at 1kHz (-3dB)||0.0003% (-110dB) for Line-in|
|Frequency Response (-3dB, 24-bit/96kHz format)||<10Hz to 46kHz|
|Output/Input Full-Scale Voltage||2 Vrms (5.65 Vp-p)|
|Headphone Output Full-Scale Voltage||Up to 6.8Vrms (supports headphones with up to 600ohms impedance)|
|PCI Express||PCI Express Rev. 1.0a specification compatible|
|Maximum full 2.5Gbps bandwidth per direction and optimized latency for high-definition audio processing|
|Compatible with X1, X4, X8, X16 PCI Express slots|
|Sample Rate and Resolution|
|Analog Playback Sample Rate and Resolution||44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @ 16/24bit|
|Analog Recording Sample Rate and Resolution||44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @ 16/24bit|
|S/PDIF Digital Output||44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @ 16/24bit, Dolby Digital|
|Audio Processor||ASUS AV100 High-Definition Sound Processor (Max. 192kHz/24bit)|
|24-bit D-A Converter of Digital Sources||Texas Instruments PCM1796*1 for Front-Out (123dB SNR, Max. 192kHz/24bit)|
|Cirrus-Logic CS4362A*1 for other 6 channels (114dB SNR, Max. 192kHz/24bit)|
|High Fidelity Headphone Amplifier||Texas Instruments 6120A2*1 (120dB SNR, -117dB THD+N @ Vcc±12V, RL=600Ω, f=1kHz)|
|24-bit A-D Converter for Analog Inputs||Cirrus Logic CS5381 x 1 (120dB SNR, Max. 192kHz/24bit)|
|Analog Output Jack||6.30mm jack x 1 (Headphone out)|
|7.1ch analog output (via bundled audio splitter cable)|
|Analog Input Jack||6.30mm jack x 1 (Shared by Line-In/Mic-In)|
|Digital S/PDIF Output||High-bandwidth Coaxial/TOSLINK combo port supports 192kHz/24bit|
|Other line-level analog input (for TV Tuner or CD-ROM)||Aux-In (4-pin header on the card)|
|Front Panel||Shared by Headphone out / 2 channels out / Microphone in|
Sennheiser PC 350 Xense Edition headset
|Cable length||3m (9.8 feet)|
|Connector plugs||2 x 6.3mm|
|Speaker type||Dynamic, 38mm, Nd magnet|
|Frequency response||10 - 26,000Hz|
|Distortion||less than 0.1%|
|PCI Express||PCI Express Rev. 1.0a specification compatible|
|Frequency response||50 - 16,000Hz|
|Pick-up pattern||Noise cancelling|
|Sensitivity||-38dBV at 94dB SPL|
- Operating System
Windows Vista/Win 7 (32/64bit) / XP (32/64bit) / MCE2005
- Dolby® Digital Live
Dolby Digital Live encodes any audio signal on PC in real-time to Dolby Digital (AC3) 5.1 surround sounds to your home theater environment through one single S/PDIF connection.
- Dolby® Headphone
Dolby Headphone technology allows you to listen to music, watch movies, or play games with the dramatic 5.1-channel surround or realistic 3D spacious effects through any set of stereo headphones.
- Dolby® Virtual Speaker
Dolby Virtual Speaker technology simulates a highly realistic 5.1-speaker surround sound listening environment from as few as two speakers.
- Dolby® Pro-Logic IIx
Dolby Pro-Logic IIx is the well-known technology to process any native stereo or 5.1-channel audio into a 6.1- or 7.1-channel output, creating a seamless, natural surround soundfield.
- DirectSound3D Game Extensions 2.0 & 1.0 (GX 2.5)
GX 2.5 supports EAX gaming sound effects and DirectSound 3D hardware enhanced functions for more games on Windows XP/Vista/7. (DirectX/DirectSound 3D compatible)
- Smart Volume Normalizer™
Normalizes the volume of all audio sources into a constant level and also enhances your 3D sound listening range and advantages in gaming.
Professional Bass Management/Enhancement system
- Xear 3D™ Virtual Speaker Shifter
Virtual 7.1 speaker positioning
- Dolby® Headphone
Dolby Headphone technology allows you to listen to music, watch movies, or play games with the dramatic 5.1-channel surround or realistic 3D spacious effects through any set of stereo headphones.
- Other Effects
10-band Equalizer/27 Environment Effects
- 3D Gaming Sound Engines/APIs
DirectSound3D® GX 2.0 & 1.0, EAX® 2.0 & 1.0, DirectSound® HW, DirectSound SW, OpenAL generic modes, 128 3D sounds processing capability
- ASIO 2.0 Driver Support
Supports 44.1k/48k/96k/192kHz @ 16/24bit with very low latency
I have chosen to compare the sound card and headset against others that I have reviewed by using Rightmark as an objective sound card test, and the usual subjective listening tests to assess the headset's performance.
- Processor: Intel Core i7 920 @ 150x20 3GHz
- Motherboard: Asus P6T Deluxe V2
- Memory: 3x2GB Corsair XMS3 PC3-10666 9-9-9-24 1333 MHz
- Video Card: BFG GTX260
- Video Card: XFX GTX260
- Power Supply: PC Power & Cooling 750 Silencer
- Hard Drive: 4x Hitachi T7K500 250GB SATA2 (Highpoint RAID-10)
- Sound Card: Asus Xonar Xense
- OS: Windows Server 2008 R2
- Sound Card: Asus Xonar D1
- Sound Card: Asus Xonar Essence STX
- Sound Card: X-Fi XtremeMusic (modded: LM4562, Blackgate, bypassed decoupled output)
- Headset: Psyko 5.1
- Headset: Zowie Hammer
- Headset: Turtle Beach Ear Force X-52
- Headset: Speedlink Medusa 5.1 Home Edition
- Rightmark RMAA 6.2.0
Rightmark Audio Analyser (RMAA) works by sending test signals out of the soundcard and then recording the signals back into the soundcard, and making comparisons and measurements to assess the soundcard performance.
I chose to use a loop-back cable for RMAA because if you use internal hardware loop-backs, some soundcards bypass some of the output and input stages, to pipe the playback audio directly into recording. This is essentially cheating, and doesn't represent an actual loop-back, so an external cable ensures each soundcard is doing a complete loop-back during the tests.
The test results page shows you the average values across the frequency range. The frequency response you want to be as near to flat as possible, so small numbers are better. The noise level is the amount of background hiss, etc, so this needs to be as low (large negative values) as possible. The dynamic range is almost always nearly the same as the noise level, except positive. The remaining measurements of distortion, noise, and crosstalk, need to be as small (or large negative values) as possible.
There are two sets of results here. The first set was conducted on all soundcards, at 24-bit and 48 kHz. The second set was run at 24-bit and 96 kHz, but only on the modded X-Fi XtremeMusic and the Xonar Essence STX. The X-Fi can only record at a maximum sample rate of 96 kHz, so this was the highest test I conducted.
24 bit, 48 kHz
Each of the graphs are included here to show the measurements vs. frequency.
24 bit, 96 kHz
Each of the graphs are included here to show the measurements vs. frequency.
Rather unsurprisingly, the Xonar Xense is very similar to the D1 and Essence STX. One thing that did catch my eye, was the frequency response of the sound card at high frequencies. The Xense actually outdoes the Essence STX, albeit only by ~0.25 dB at 20 kHz, in the 96 kHz test.
I always like to start out with music for the subjective listening tests, as I listen to music every day, and can refer to familiar tracks and albums to make judgements and comparisons on the audio hardware. When I initially began listening to the PC 350 headset, I honestly found it to be fairly bass lean and too bright in the mids, but I think all my headphones have started out this way. I put the volume at maximum, dropped the EQ above the bottom three bands, and left the Xense to take the PC 350 on an endless, gruelling, relentless journey that is my bass test track collection.
The point of this exercise is to break the headphone drivers in like a new pair of shoes, effectively freeing up the movement of the diaphragms, and releasing the full potential of the headset. During this break-in period, my girlfriend heard distant lyrics and sounds from my computer room, and actually thought the computer was asking "can I have 5 megs please?" That was with the headset on a desk; if the headset is on your head, very little sound can be heard by other people, even at maximum volume. So, the closed-back design would work well at keeping the peace with room-mates and family members, as your mouse and keyboard clicks would be louder!
Okay, so earlier in the review I showed you the Audio Center, and purposely skipped over five buttons. One of these buttons is "Hi-Fi" (HF), and is a preset that disables the DSP and EQ settings in order to deliver a pure output. Generally, I would recommend this setting if you are using the Line Out, but as I preferred my own custom EQ for the PC 350 headset, I chose to disable the Hi-Fi mode. For the subjective listening, I used my EQ setting, Test 7.
Well, what can I say? This is the first headset that I have auditioned that sounds like a pair of high-end headphones. The entire performance across the whole frequency range is excellent, but what strikes me the most is the bass performance. It is so controlled, yet wholesome. Detailed, deep and full. It actually has a very similar bass characteristic to my subwoofer, but is slightly more laid-back. I'd say if my subwoofer was like being right near the bass bins at a club/gig, the PC 350 is more like being a little way back from the stage... laid back, but thoroughly enjoying it, dancing merrily.
You might have noticed that my custom EQ does not have any bass boost, but does have some mid cuts. This was mainly to take the volume of the vocals down a touch, to sit better in the mix. With a few gentle boosts to the high EQ bands, the airiness of ethereal vocals is lifted from great to divine. I almost can't get over how well this headset performs. If you've ever had the pleasure of going to a club or live music event where the sound quality was spot-on amazing, you'll have some idea of what I'm experiencing. If you like electronic music of any flavour, you will love the Xense + PC 350 combination.
"How about some real music?", I hear you ask. I tried a few albums that are considered to be masterpieces in sound production: Michael Jackson - Thriller, Steely Dan - Can't Buy A Thrill, and Metallica - Metallica. It's really nice to hear a set of headphones reproduce sound so faithfully, and the PC 350 headset delivers an impressive performance. You can clearly hear each part of a piece of music, the guitar basslines, synths, drums, vocals, as opposed to inferior headphones/headsets where the individual parts seem to be muddled together. I think the reason for the PC 350's clarity, is its ability to produce subtle detail. Often, I could hear secondary sounds in tracks that I couldn't with other headsets, such as vocalist breaths, and background voices being picked up by instrument mics. Like the Essence STX, the Xense's headphone amplifier allows this attention to detail to continue, even with lively sections of music.
It was a tough decision whether to give the PC 350 a score of 9 or 10 here. The headset definitely performs like a set of high-end headphones, and this was proved during the music tests. With the other headsets, I would soon find myself missing the music performance from one of my headphones: Westone UM2, Sennheiser HD25-1 II, and AKG K 701. With the PC 350, I could quite happily listen to music all day and night. So, even though there are headphones that sound better, I don't think it's very likely that a gaming headset will ever sound better than this, and that's what swung me towards scoring it as a 10.
After listening to music in stereo, I like to move on to multi-channel sources, and start with movies and surround-sound demo/test discs. This is to observe how the audio equipment handles each speaker channel, and to assess the realism of the surround-sound experience.
Selecting Movie mode in Audio Center disables the EQ and enables Dolby Headphone surround virtualisation (defaults to DH-2, Livelier Room). I agree that the Dolby Headphone setting is ideal, but I preferred my own EQ setting when listening to my test material.
I started by putting the Xense and PC 350 through their paces with the Dolby Blu-ray disc, The Sound Of High Definition. This disc has a number of tests, demos, and movie clips, in 5.1 and 7.1. By enabling the Movie mode, the Dolby Headphone mode moves the sound away from your ears and makes it appears to be coming from around you in the room. I think the main difference to the other headsets is that the sound quality of the PC 350 means it places you in the room, rather than bringing the room to you. Remember earlier in the review when I commented on the crazy "Jazz" EQ setting? Well, this was a point where the Xense Audio Set redeemed itself. Listening to Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis was pure pleasure. As with stereo music, each of the musicians and vocalists were clearly defined, but this time there was the added element of the third dimension, which gave a stronger sense of depth and presence.
After the Dolby tests, I moved onto a selection of movies with Dolby or DTS audio tracks, including The Matrix, Ip Man, and the Harry Potter films. Notably, when Alice crashes through the cathedral windows on a motorbike in Resident Evil: Apocalypse, the PC 350 delivers a highly realistic smashing of glass, accompanied by the gutteral growl of the engine. The ability of the Xense and PC 350 to deliver power and detail at the same time gave a much better sound experience compared to the other headsets. While very good, the Zowie Hammer can't match the high-end sound of the PC 350; the Turtle Beach X-52 sounds okay overall, but the surround effect is weakened by the mismatched headphone speakers; the Psyko 5.1 sounds wildly unnatural and the surround effect is poor; and, the Medusa 5.1 Home Edition sounds muffled, overly bassy, and has poor surround sound. The Dolby Headphone mode often had me looking over my shoulder to check if there was someone behind me, so it definitely works very well with the PC 350.
Again, it was a toss-up between a 9 or a 10. I think, while the Dolby Headphone mode is very good, and easily better than Creative surround virtualisation or 5.1 headphones, it's not 100% the same as a high-end surround sound speaker system, so I feel there is some room for improvement that could be possible in the future.
Okay, so moving on from pre-recorded multi-channel sound, the final part of testing is for games, and how the headset handles interactive surround sound.
Selecting Racing mode in the Audio Center applies quite a heavy EQ curve that accentuates the bass and mids, with peaks at 60 Hz and 4 kHz. I found this EQ preset to be tolerable, but slightly uncomfortable, and soon found myself switching to my custom EQ preset after playing each game for a few minutes. I actually laughed out loud when I saw the Environment reverb effect selected. Racing down a carpeted hallway?! It seems to suit racing games well, as it is quite an open reverb. Dolby Headphone mode also gets activated, this time it defaults to DH-3 (Larger Room) which sounds a bit echoey compared to DH-1 and DH-2.
I tested the PC 350 with Blur, an arcade-type racer with power-ups and weapons, and the advantage of precise sound became quickly apparent here. Your opponents can fire weapons at you, so knowing where they are around you is essential. Even with rear and side mirrors in Need For Speed: Shift, being able to hear the position of cars in my blind-spots helped me block and overtake better than when using other headsets.
FPS mode applies a somewhat traditional EQ curve that works quite well, even though I still prefer my custom EQ preset. This time, the Plain preset is selected for the Environment effect, and again, it works well for FPS games, giving a subtle reverb. Rather strangely, Dolby Headphone is not activated when switching to FPS mode. Instead, Dolby Headphone remains in the same state as it was before you pressed the FPS button. I much preferred playing FPS games with Dolby Headphone enabled, and DH-2 sounded the most natural to me.
With some of the 5.1 headsets, the sound of vehicle engines was either muted or almost completely missing. This wasn't the case at all with the PC 350, and I actually got carried away with playing Crysis: Warhead and Unreal Tournament 3, to the point where my girlfriend Claire had to throw something at my head to get my attention! This was also mainly due to the closed-back, sealed design of the ear cups, which isolate you and the gaming world from the real world. Claire was literally yelling at me from about 2 metres away, and I didn't hear her at all. Having this level of sound isolation is a major advantage in FPS games, as everything you hear is in the game, and you can react quickly with confidence, without hesistation (and death, lol). Similarly, the noise-cancellation of the microphone keeps the sounds in your room from entering the game world, so online team-mates can hear you clearly, without the drone of your computer drowning you out.
The GX mode enables support for EAX in games. While not a 100% accurate simulation of Creative's hardware EAX, it is close enough to sound the same in most game scenarios.
The surround effect of Dolby Headphone works much better than the 5.1 headsets, and you can hear enemies behind you and their position when they are otherwise off-camera. While the Zowie Hammer performs well in games, the PC 350 has better sound quality and sound isolation, giving a stronger sense of immersion.
I'm not really sure where to start for this conclusion, as I'm still sort of in shock in just how well the Xense and PC 350 performed. I had an idea that the sound card would do well, given the similarity in design to the Essence STX, but I really wasn't expecting the headset to sound this good. I've heard the regular PC 350 headset at the Sennheiser booth at CES (Consumer Electronics Show), and I wasn't overly impressed. No doubt the headphone amplification and well-implemented graphic EQ of the Xonar Xense contribute to transforming the PC 350 from a decent headset into the best sounding headset I've ever heard. For the audiophiles out there, you can even change the headphone amplifier's op-amps, to tailor the sonic signature to your particular taste.
The sound isolation works as well as, if not better than, that of the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones, which I have used as ear defenders when cutting sheet metal. Usually, with closed-back headphones, the soundstage seems smaller and enclosed. Yet the Dolby Headphone and Environment effects create a convincing aural atmosphere that will have you checking over your shoulder when watching movies or playing games.
Connectivity has been improved over the Essence STX, as you can connect the soundcard to 5.1 and 7.1 analogue speakers. You can have full surround sound from games when using a S/PDIF connection to your speakers/receiver, as you can have the sound card encode the signal as Dolby Digital on-the-fly.
I can't see much room for improvement here, so it truly doesn't get much better than this. I'm not currently aware of any headset solution that sounds better, so I'd say it's fairly safe to say that this is the best headset money can buy, powered by one of the best sound cards designed for headphones in particular.
- High-end headphone sound quality
- Replaceable op-amps for the headphone amplifier
- Strong sound isolation and noise-cancellation keep you and the real world separate
- Dolby Headphone provides excellent surround virtualisation
- Comfortable ergonomic design
- Connectivity to analogue and digital surround sound speakers
- Dolby Digital Live encoding on-the-fly for surround sound gaming using S/PDIF digital audio
- Rotating ear cups allow easy storage/transportation
- Cannot lower the volume <25% using the inline volume control