Asus Xonar Xense £190
26th Aug 2010 | 11:20
A high-end sound card and headphones package that's worth an invest
Asus Xonar Xense: Overview
With its highbrow hi-fi spec, Xonar Xense from Asus is part of a relatively new trend of sound cards that are looking to win back audio buffs who have been avoiding the pitfalls of PC sound processing by offloading everything to an external amp, or sticking to vinyl.
Armed with processors and other components more commonly found in stacking amps and CD players, it began with cards like Auzentech's Prelude and Asus's own Xonar DX2, and includes Creative's new X-Fi Titanium HD.
By their very nature, these sound cards are niche, and in danger of falling over into the dreaded audiophile category, where power conditioners and dowsing rods supposedly make a difference to the perceived sound.
Gamers, and anyone who never owned a pair of speakers larger than their car will, wisely, look to spend their money elsewhere.
Audiophilia isn't just about profligacy, though. The Xonar Xense does throw in a Sennheiser PC-350 headset and all the features you'd expect in a quality headphone amp, which makes the overall price just about bearable.
The Xense card itself has a basic spec similar to Asus' own high-end Xonar Essence STX (£150) or Creative's X-Fi Titanium HD (£160), and includes a pair of £100 headphones. That's an overall saving of roughly £70, and delivers something close to a studio experience.
What's not to like about that?
Asus Xonar Xense: Features
The Xonar Xense is so similar in terms of component make up to last year's Xonar Essence XT that it's hard to spot why some of the key ratings – like signal to noise ratio (SNR) – are different.
Both cards are based around a C-Media CMI-8788 OxygenHD processor, which is rebadged as an Asus AV100. Likewise, there's a Texas Instruments 6120A2 headphone amp with 192KHz/24bit DACs and a pair of JRC 2114D op-amps.
These latter chips can be removed and swapped for a different set. It's the current vogue for audio enthusiast gear, in the event that a particular piece of silicon has a signature sound that you prefer.
The Xense supports all the Dolby standards necessary, comes with ASIO drivers for low latency recording and, cheekily, a proprietary version of Creative's EAX 5.0 gaming API, DS3D GX 2.0.
Essentially, this does the work of Creative's ALchemy software, and adds in environmental effects lost when Vista dumped DirectSound, without the need for the dedicated DSP of an X-Fi card. DTS Connect is missing, but its absence unlikely to be mourned.
Physically, the bulk of the card is hidden beneath a shiny EMI shield to protect the sound processing hardware from the ambient noise of a PC chassis. It's around the back of the card that its true nature is revealed, though.
There's a coaxial S/PDIF port for hooking up to digital decoder, and an unusual DVI-like connector.
In the box, there's an adaptor that turns this into four 3.5mm jacks for 7.1 surround. The rear is dominated, however, by two quarter-inch jacks that serve as the headphone output and mic in.
To match them, the Sennheiser PC-350 headset is a slightly customised version of the retail kit, with matching quarter-inch plugs to fit.
The headphone amp, which requires a separate four-pin molex connector, is rated with an impressive SNR of 118dB, slightly less than the 122dB of the Creative X-Fi Titanium HD or 124dB of the Xonar Essence STX.
The key thing about the socket here, however, is that it can drive high impedance studio headphones up to 600ohms. Curiously, it doesn't have an unamplified line out socket.
Asus Xonar Xense: Benchmarks
The most important benchmarks are those that we can't print – playing games, listening to music and watching movies in a room set up to be as acoustically neutral as possible.
Here, though, we can show that there's no benefit to offloading sound processing in terms of frame rates any more, and using Rightmark's excellent Audio Analyzer tool shows us how close to the claimed specs the electronics are.
Far Cry 2 - Frames per second (higher is better)
RMAA total harmonic distortion (lower is better)
RMAA Dynamic range (Higher is better)
Asus Xonar Xense: Verdict
We haven't talked much about the Sennheiser PC-350s yet, and with or without the Xonar card in tow, they're an astoundingly good set of cans.
Everyone has their own particular preferences when it comes to reviewing audio gear, but to our ears the balanced tone of the Sennheisers – which don't overplay the bass, and leave high frequencies crystal clear – can make any old on-board sound chip sound like you're sitting in the Royal Albert Hall.
If you prefer something with more of a big bass punch, however, then you're clearly better off choosing your own scalp-clamping sound boxes.
The bigger issue is that the breakout cable for speakers feels slightly inelegant, and may need another adaptor if your speakers don't have 3.5mm inputs. It doesn't quite feel in keeping with the quality of the headphone channel, and makes the whole package slightly inflexible.
Anyone who wants to hook up an external amp will prefer the RCA connectors of the Creative X-Fi Titanium HD or Asus' similar Xonar Essence STX, which also has an excellent on-board headphone amp.
Both high-end Xonars can match the impedance output of the amp with the input requirement of the headphones too. You can dial down the power from 600ohms to 150ohms in the driver settings to match the PC-350's requirements.
Just make sure you do that before plugging them in or you could blow out the speakers.
The overall soundscape produced by the card and cans, though, is warm, rich and with an excellent dynamic range that's a fair rival for a much more expensive stack of audio separates.
It benchmarks better in Rightmark's Audio Analyzer than Creative's ostensibly superior X-Fi Titanium HD, and is great for gaming, with easily located positional effects, and the clarity to hear voice chatter above background explosions.
The Xonar driver suite is also easy to set-up and configure, with equalisation presets for different games, films or spatial settings.
As with any sound card review it's very easy to point out that similar quality which is almost indistinguishable to the casual gamer is available for less elsewhere, and there's a small stack of perfectly serviceable options ranging from the £40-odd Xonar D1 or Creative X-Fi Xtreme Gamer.
It's hard to fault the Xense on the value-for-money front, though, since bought separately, the total price of the headset and sound card would be around £260.
So if you want an excellent quality set-up and don't mind the diminishing returns over a much cheaper sound card and headset combo, the Xonar Xense is actually the most sensible way to get into high quality headphone hi-fi for gamers and music buffs alike.
By adding in one of TechRadar's favourite gaming headsets that almost comes close to studio quality sound, the Xonar Xense dodges the value-for-money bullet which makes it so hard to recommend high end PC audio gear to anyone but the most fanatical phonic fan.
The sound card itself is truly excellent, matching Asus and Creative's best.
By emphasising on the headphone use, the card is slightly crippled elsewhere. It just seems unlikely that anyone spending £200 on audio kit is going to accept the dodgy dongle and 3.5mm jacks for everything else.
Essentially a £160 sound card for £100. If you haven't got a high end set of headphones, it's a good way to buy into hi-fi audio.
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