- Specifications and Product Pictures
- Connectivity and Initial Impressions
- Sound Quality
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Disclosure: The Xonar U7 USB DAC is provided by Asus
About the Xonar lineups!
Asus had launched a few USB sound cards some time back like the U1 and U3. However, those were basic solutions for laptop owners to upgrade from crappy onboard solutions.
What’s with the Xonar U7?
However, the U7 is a very different breed of USB sound cards. First, it’s much larger than the aforementioned U1 and U3 but has a more premium build quality. Secondly, it has tons of connectivity options that is very rare for a USB powered sound card which will appeal to a desktop user who doesn’t want to use up a free PCI-E port or likes to keep shifting between speakers and headphones and so would want the sound card within his reach.
Another feature that sets apart the Asus U7 from other USB powered sound cards is that it has a very capable headphone amplifier. Now every USB sound card that comes with a 3.5mm jack has a built in amplifier and most headphones work perfectly with these sound cards so some people will wonder what the fuss is about.
However, some headphones require a lot of power to drive and using them with the cheaper USB sound cards results in a not so satisfying situation. Either the volume never gets high enough or the sound starts getting distorted when playing at high volumes or the headphone simply doesn’t sound its best as it doesn’t receive enough juice from the amplifier.
So ASUS ticks a lot of plus points – tons of connectivity options – 2 channel speakers, headphones, 5.1/7.1 speakers, SPDIF and coaxial (Basically all the connectivity options anyone would ever need) and it comes with a built in headphone amp. In all this ASUS also managed to make the U7 powered solely by the USB port which is frankly quite a feat!
In the world of audio, however, specifications don’t always tell the whole story and so I was most eager to put the U7 through its paces and see if it was any good.
- Output Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A-Weighted) (Front-out): 114 dB
- Input Signal-to-Noise Ratio (A-Weighted): 110 dB
- Output THD+N at 1kHz (Front-out): >0.0006 %(104 dB)
- Frequency Response (-3dB, 24bit/96KHz input): 10 Hz to 46 KHz
- Unbalanced Output: 1 Vrms (2.828 Vp-p)
- Headphone: 1.3 Vrms (3.677 Vp-p)
Audio Processor: C-Media 6632A High-Performance Sound Processor (Max. 192KHz/24bit)
Sample Rate and Resolution
- Analog Playback Sample Rate and Resolution44.1K/48K/88.2K/96K/176.4K/192KHz @ 16bit/24bit
- Analog Recording Sample Rate and Resolution44.1K/48K/88.2K/96K/176.4K/192KHz @ 16bit/24bit
- S/PDIF Digital Output44.1K/48K/88.2K/96K/176.4K/192KHz @ 16bit/24bit
- ASIO Driver Support44.1K/48K/88.2K/96K/176.4K/192KHz @ 16bit/24bit
- Analog Output: 4 x 3.5 mm jack (1/8″) (Headphone out /Side out/Center-Subwoofer out/Rear out) 2 x RCA (Un-Balanced) (Front out)
- Analog Input: 1 x 3.5 mm jack (1/8″) (Line-in/ Mic-in combo)
- Digital: 1 x S/PDIF out (1 x Coaxial)
- Dolby® Technologies : Dolby® Home Theater v4
- Windows 8, 32bit/64bit
- Windows 7, 32bit/64bit
- Windows XP, 32bit/64bit
- S/PDIF adaptor x 1
- USB cable x 1
- Driver CD x 1
- User manual x 1
Connecting the U7 was the simplest thing in the world. Find a free USB port and plug in the bundled USB cable to the U7 and voila it is powered up.
The U7 is, however, not plug-and-play like most USB sound cards, and you need to install the drivers in order to use the sound card.
There is very little in the way of bundled software with the U7. Creative is known to bundle a ton of sound tweaking software that works only with their sound cards.
ASUS decided to bundle only one software besides the drivers which are Dolby Home Theatre v4. Dolby Home Theatre features a 10 band equalizer with different profiles for games, music, movies etc with the option of creating up to 6 different profiles for different games. The software comes with 2 enhancements called ‘Dialog enhancer’ and ‘Surround Virtualization’ which does a decent task.
The bundled drivers also offer their own surround tweaks, but that, of course, will only work with the U7 plugged in. The driver software UI seems almost like an afterthought and seems too basic though frankly, it has a good amount of tweaks. Creative driver UI is generally more polished.
One advantage of the Dolby software is that it works with any sound card. So if you use the Dolby software regularly you can continue to use it when you upgrade your sound card in the future.
ASUS U7 comes with a hardware switch so you can rotate between headphone, speakers and digital speakers.
If you plug in a headphone it will automatically switch to a headphone. However connecting headphones create a new instance of ASUS U7 in the Windows Device manager, and while Windows should automatically select the new sound card, some music software (like the popular Foobar) will not and you will have to manually select the new sound card. There is also a built in volume control which is very useful.
The build quality of the card is very good and while I did not open it to see the internals there are photos on the internet which show it to be a well made PCB.
How I tested it?
As always I test the SQ with my two headphones – Sennheiser HD650, Yamaha YH-100 and with my speaker system – B+W bookshelf speakers driven by a Taurus T200 stereo MOSFET amp.
I was rather skeptical of the ability of this small USB powered sound card to drive my Yamaha YH-100. The Creative Recon 3D USB which retails for around the same price as ASUS failed to provide any reasonable volume for my YH-100 headphones. Frankly, they are very hard to drive, and I use a huge hybrid (tube + solid state) headphone amp to drive these headphones.
Surprisingly, ASUS Xonar U7 was up to the task, and the SQ was very good for a USB powered device.
Compared to Creative ZX!
I had a Creative ZX card, and so I tried to compare the two sources to see whether they were evenly matched. The Creative’s counterparts have lots of advantages over the U7. First, the PCI-E port provides much more power than a 5V USB port. So, Creative didn’t have many issues when designing the card and could use high power components while ASUS had to carefully choose components that could work with less power.
But, to my great surprise, Xonar U7 was slightly but noticeably better than the Creative’s PCIe counterpart. The bass, in particular, was more detailed and more controlled than the Creative. Mids was also slightly clearer, detailed and treble again was ever so slightly better on the U7. Adding insult to Creative’s injury, Asus Xonar U7 has practically all the connectivity options that the Creative has and costs almost half. The Xonar U7 even works perfectly with Windows XP while the Creative doesn’t support XP.
That said Creative does have a huge software bundle to offset the advantages that ASUS offers. It is is an internal PCIe card. Therefore, there’s less clutter on your desk and has a a bundled external control unit for easy access if required. The software bundle of Creative is far more elaborate than the Dolby software ASUS bundles with the U7.
RCA Output Quality
Testing the RCA outputs to my stereo speaker setup yielded similar performance which was very good. I also compared the u7 with my default Music Streamer II DAC and frankly, it was hard to tell the difference between the two. The Music streamer did have a bit more detail in the treble but other than that I struggled to find any meaningful difference between the two. The Music Streamer costs more than the U7, lacks any connectivity option other than RCA output and doesn’t even have a headphone amp so it loses out badly to the ASUS U7.
All in all, the U7 shows stellar audio performance for its price.
ASUS is offering a lot on this sound card. I can’t think of any other budget USB sound card offering 5.1 channel audio, coaxial output and built in headphone amp. They pulled out a big surprise by offering excellent SQ for the price and a very capable headphone amplifier. Its build quality is also very good, and driver support is excellent with support for legacy OS like Windows XP as well as Windows 8 support.
If ASUS was retailing for Rs. 10,000/- I would have given it a VFM rating. This is considering its build & sound quality, connectivity options and ease of use. But since Asus pointed out that the suggested selling price of this unit is Rs. 6,000/-, that makes it as a good buy.