ASUS are certainly no strangers to the TweakTown test labs with many hugely triumphant products over the years. One of the best of the best in terms of those products comes in the shape of the Xonar line of soundcards, which I have of course tested my fair share of with much resulting admiration for the manor in which these quite glamorous soundcards were presented to me.
The last sample I received for review even came with a little golden book of which I have gone on about countless times and of which you are probably now sick of hearing me mention all the time.
But it has been these little details that really set the Xonar line apart from competitors whom struggled in the Xonar wake for some time. Some have even found themselves rendered permanently inadequate to the Xonar level of excellence and never made a full recovery.
With just a little background covered, let's get back to the meat. What ASUS has done here is to take one aforementioned recipe for success in the Xonar and then add a pair of truly and equally well put together headphones.
The result... audio bliss, so they (and we) hope.
Package and Contents
The Package and Contents
Now that we know what we are dealing with, let's take a closer look at the package and contents and see what's included.
Unfortunately this part of the article is going to be a little briefer than I would have liked, which is largely due to the fact that my sample was not adorned yet with its flashy retail uniform. Rather, it came to my door scantily glad in an old factory box, which once housed a now obsolete media player.
Upon first inspection I was thrown into two minds; I wanted to see what the retail package was going to look like, because ASUS always do a good job with that stuff.
And secondly, I got a pang of realization that perhaps the chap whom packaged said item did so in the hurried manor in which the first fruit of the season was quickly sent off for inspection before the harvest.
That's right, I don't have what you would call a whole lot to add here as you may or may not have guessed. But I can discuss what actually came in the little media player box to my door.
What we are dealing with here is the Xense audio card firstly, followed by the headphones, a driver CD and 7.1 adapter cable.
So at this stage I cannot comment on any of what might be included in terms of software, product manual, stickers, redemptions; any of that stuff that starves off buyers remorse for a little longer.
However, I will quickly add that everything really important was in fact there in entirety. The final scheme will just have to be a surprise for everyone once it gets put into action.
Speaking technically, let's start by looking at some specifications.
S/N Ratio: 118dB front channel
Frequency Response: 10Hz-46KHz
Headphone Impedance: Optimized for 32-600ohms
Audio Processor: ASUS AV100 (retained from previous models)
24bit DAC: Texas PCM1796 for fronts, cirrus-logic CS4362A for remaining channels
Headphone amp: Texas 6120A2
Bus: PCI Express x1
SP/DIF Resolution: 192/24bit
Driver support: Fully Dolby, EAX 5.0, propriety ASUS software, ASIO 2.0 from 44.1 through 192KHz @ 16/24bit
Cable length: 3m
Connector plugs: 2x 6.3mm
Speaker Type: Dynamic, 38mm Nd magnet
THD: less than 0.1%
Pattern: noise canceling
Sensitivity: -38dbv @ 94dBSPL
Starting with the card itself, things look pretty good from the outset with technical figures that echo the success of previous Xonar iterations.
I'm not going to re-cover a lot of the information given in my Xonar Essence article concerning selection of particular capacitors and components, simply because it's information overload firstly. And secondly, you can see it all right here.
So, what I do want to cover here is just a quick refresh on the basics of what makes the Xonar so technically competent and then just run through a little bit about what the PC350's from Sennheiser are about.
One of the first benefits to the Xense is the very clean S/N ratio of 118dB, which is an impressive figure without pulling it apart too much.
Frequency response should be high on a card like this and is, managing to stretch all the way up to 46KHz which as a point of reference is a lot higher than the human hearing range of 20KHz. However, it is thought that we still possess an awareness of these frequencies even though they are so far up the spectrum.
ASUS have chosen their AV100 audio processor again which is merely a case of 'don't change what's not broken'.
Texas Instruments and Cirrus Logic are again tasked with providing chips to convert the digital signal to analog.
And the actual headphone amp is again a Texas Instruments component; that being the 6120A2.
Software support is basically all-inclusive apart from the notable exception of DTS Labs, which is one of the only things that jump out a bit for me. Gamers will be happy with complete EAX 5.0 support for all the latest titles and plenty of connection support also.
Now, the PC350's from Sennheiser are an impressive product in their own right, not to mention as a bundle. They feature a good long cable and full sized 6.3mm gold plated connectors which will be great news for the audio crowd.
Frequency response is very good, as you would expect from any Xonar board and THD is also very impressive coming in at 0.1%.
Now to the mic which is the last piece of equipment to cover and also is an impressive one. With a response of 50Hz-16,000Hz and a noise canceling pick-up pattern, things look good for this little mic, too.
Setup and Installation
System requirements for the Xense are as follows:
- One PCI Express 1.0 (or higher) compatible slot for the audio card
- Microsoft Windows Vista (32 or 64bit) / XP (32 or 64bit) / Windows 7
- Intel Pentium 4 1.4GHz or AMD Athlon 1400 CPU or faster
- 256 MB DRAM system memory
- 60 MB available HDD space for driver installation package
- CD-ROM drive (or DVD-ROM drive) for software installation.
Installing the Xense is simply a matter of locating an empty PCI-Express slot on your motherboard, fixing the card into place and running the drivers in Windows. XP, Vista and Seven are supported.
I had no problems installing the Xense whatsoever and everything went smoothly. The software control center allows setting of all the main features of the Xense along with a handy EQ and environment setting.
We also have controls for karaoke, three gain settings for headphones of varying resistance as well as a Sennheiser specific gain setting, low frequency crossover, environment settings for gamers, controls for Dolby Headphone, a simple mixer and a graphic readout of the active frequencies in blue at the top.
It's very simple, but that's what I like about it and within a couple of minutes I feel most will be quite comfortable in manipulating the various settings of the Xense.
Lastly here, we are tasked with the job of connecting those big heavy duty Sennheiser headphones to the 6.3mm output connector located on the rear of the Xense.
Now, you may or may not actually be planning on using the supplied mic, depending on your requirements of course, but assuming you are then its connection is located right next to the main headphone output; easy as you like.
Again, to reiterate, I am evaluating a pre-release sample so I cannot comment on how final release software may or may not work, or how any other final release aspects may or may not function, simply because I do not have them to test at this stage.
Testing - Sound Quality
It's time to find out how things sound in the real world.
The most significant aspect to the Xense audio package from ASUS arguably is the partnership with audio heavy weights, Sennheiser.
What ASUS has done is to take the fantastically well thought out and implemented Xonar Essence backbone which TweakTown previously tested and loved, and has then insured that a headset of only the highest quality is paired to it.
The result is a match made in heaven. If you remember from my article on the Essence, I used a pair of Sennheiser HD433's for testing. But due to the higher quality and larger drivers in the PC350's, things are set to only get better.
The PC350's use a special gain setting in the control panel which is called "Sennheiser PC350 Xense Edition".
It's important at this stage to ensure that this has been selected.
During testing I found that the sound being delivered to the Sennheiser PC350's in the upper range to be of a generally very high quality.
Percussion instruments were smooth and full-bodied and so were cymbals and guitar leads.
The upper range could be tweaked enough in the PC350's to provide what I would imagine to be plenty of scope for most users. Considering the fact that there is not a dedicated tweeter at work here in what is for all intents and purposes a HD audio package, things are still rosy.
That's right; the PC350's use a full range driver which as I have explained before does not split the signal up like an internal crossover network in a loudspeaker.
This may not appear to be a huge factor in performance when I explain it on paper, but I assure you it is.
Taking this into consideration, though, and it does not go far towards slowing this combo down. To recap, during my testing of the upper frequecies I did not find anything to fault here.
To offer some sort of comparison to what a potential buyer might expect, think about true entry-level high-fi in the $1000 bracket, which I don't need to add is impressive.
This was an area the Essence really excelled at and you don't get any prizes for guessing that things only get better when you add a serious custom designed headset to the mix.
Arguably the strongest performing area of the Xense is the rock solid mid-bass that has timbre, decay and a touch of analog warmth. Basically, everything an audiophile wants and everything missing from the sector before the Essence and Xense.
What I'm really discussing here is the natural instrumental tones that lie between the tones, which really build upon each other, like tiers of a wedding cake to culminate in the emotion of a live musical performance or for arguments sake, the reproduction of such a thing.
And simply, what high quality audio equipment does is to replicate all of those layers in the manor they came together in the studio in the first place. Without digressing too much, the mid-bass was really impressive during my testing of some heavy complex percussive material.
In the same way the Essence impressed me, for those who have not heard one of these cards, imagine an old turntable system and the fashion in which the gain can be pushed and pushed with only even warmer results.
This should be another strong area once we take into consideration the already outstanding low-end architecture of the Xense board and then combine the large driver used in the PC350 headset.
My listening tests demanded some very low and heavy bass performance from the Xense package. And as I had hoped, the performance was delivered happily with commanding poignant bass that really should be coming out of a 'proper' entry-level hi-fi.
And that's just the thing I must encapsulate here; this system is an alternative to spending a grand on a hi-fi system. That is the level of performance to expect and I think was part of ASUS' plan when producing it.
The low-end must play the same role as a good sturdy foundation when building a house. On it everything depends; ASUS know this, which is why the Xense performs so strongly in the low-end department.
Testing - Gaming and Movies
There are no worries when it comes to gaming support with complete EAX 5.0 included, which is still the yardstick for environmental audio.
There's also one new inclusion since the Essence; that being support for analog 7.1 channel output. So, if you would like to connect your surround system to the Xense, you can. This is a good decision on the part of ASUS because it sure does not hurt to have that extra connectivity.
ASUS push this system as a gaming solution quite strongly, of which it is (quite strong); let me assure you.
However, I do not think it should be limited as a gaming focused product. Rather, I feel this system is a fantastic general HD audio solution which targets and scores on many fronts.
To market it simply as a gaming system in my opinion after working extensively with most of the Xonar range is like selling a Lotus for use as a taxi. I mean, theoretically it would be able to handle the job with relative ease, but it's just able to do so much more when called upon that it seems a bit of a waste.
The Film Results
The Xense does come with a digital output on the rear as well as being able to support 7.1 outputs in analog language. But it's not really all there because like the Essence any surround digital movie soundtrack must be passed out along to a decoder.
This decoder might be a software or hardware decoder like a home theatre receiver. Now, this will work flawlessly; just remember that this particular card does not have decoders built into it.
However, I would recommend using Dolby Headphone to simulate a surround environment using all the good bits of the Xense board. Dolby (Labs) Headphone is the leading algorithm based surround sound software provider in the world.
The Xense is another impressive sibling to the Xonar family, well worthy of being a new member in ASUS' dominant line-up.
Expanding on the high-quality manufacturing process and hand chosen components of the Essence, the Xense package from ASUS forms a timely partnership with audio heavy hitters, Sennheiser. The result is a best of both worlds realization that has been the culmination of many months and over a thousand different combinations of equipment.
I truly believe this latest incarnation of the Xonar series to be the most commanding to date, with real world performance rivaling a thousand dollar hi-fi system. The choice of components and their implementation onto a first class PCB design that utilizes a custom designed EMI shield to further protect and enhance the signal is just part of the reason Xonar is cementing itself as the only choice for the discerning PC based audiophile.
Software support has always been considered in my opinion to be more than adequate with the Xonar products and that will obviously continue with the Xense. Gaming support is catered to fully with EAX 5.0 and for movie buffs there is software support for Dolby Headphone.
So, is the Xense worth the upgrade if you're already an owner of a Xonar? The short answer is yes, it is. And if you are in need of some real hi-fi headphones, then even more so. The bottom line is, if you want the best audio at the moment on your PC and have the resources free to spend on it, then you cannot do any better than the Xense.
So, without further discussion and for all of these many reasons listed today, we once again dig deep into our bag of tricks to produce another Tweaktown Editors Choice Award for ASUS' bulging trophy cabinet.