ASUS Xonar U1
- It works on USB 1.1 and USB 2.0 computers, the physical volume knob and mute button is very convenient, it supports EAX and DirectSound APIs for gaming
- Its USB and microphone cables are too short, no visual volume indicator, microphone produced a lot of echo, some distortion was evident during low frequencies
If you're after a new sound card, the Xonar U1 is a decent choice -- it'll even work on computers that have ancient USB 1.1 ports. However, its sound quality wasn't always perfect during our tests, and longer cables would've been beneficial.
Price$ 79.00 (AUD)
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One rarely needs to buy a dedicated sound card these days. The integrated sound chips in most notebooks and PCs are more than adequate for listening to music and watching movies. However, if the sound from an older computer is below average, or you want a little more than stereo sound, then the ASUS Xonar U1 is an enticing choice. It's USB-based, so it can be used either with a PC or a notebook, and is very easy to install.
It can supply analogue stereo, as well as digital surround sound. It worked without any problems on a brand new Lenovo 3000 V200 notebook, which has USB 2.0 ports, yet it also ran perfectly on an old IBM Thinkpad T30, which has USB 1.1 ports. Likewise, we didn't have any issues using it under Windows XP or Windows Vista; the supplied drivers and utility software worked a treat under both environments. This makes the Xonar an ideal upgrade for old notebooks and PCs, especially since it doesn't require users to venture under the hood of their PCs.
Physically, the sound card unit itself is housed in a flashy round base, which has a volume knob on top. Rotating the knob will affect the master volume control in Windows, while pressing it will mute the sound. The base has two ports: one is for the headphone output, which also doubles as an optical audio output; while the other is for the supplied array microphone, and doubles as the line-in port. Our only criticisms of the main unit are that it has a short USB cable and it doesn't have a visual volume level indicator. Apart from that, it looks quite funky and - feels solid to the touch.
The sound quality from the card was clear and crisp during our tests, for the most part, using Sennheiser MX90 ear buds, and a little louder than the sound from the standard audio chips in our test notebooks. But, we did notice some distortion at lower frequencies when running the card on the old Thinkpad notebook. Likewise, we had to make sure that we used the right playback mode.
The Xonar's software utility has up to four different playback modes, which use settings such as Dolby Virtual Speaker and Pro Logic to enhance the sound. For music, these aren't suitable as they make songs sound hollow and distant, but for watching movies, they are great. The sound can be customised further through the 'Effect' section of the utility, which has a 10-band equaliser, as well as 12 presets to choose from.
It's important to note that when this card is plugged into a notebook, the notebook's built-in speakers can't be used. Only headphones or a set of powered speakers can be used, which grab the output from the Xonar's headphone port. For multi-speaker home-theatre sound, the optical output can be connected to an amplifier, as long as you have a suitable cable.
An array microphone is supplied in the package, and this can be used to record voice comfortably from about half a metre away. Like the sound card's USB cable, the cable attached to the microphone is very short. As for quality, it's decent for Internet applications, such as Skype, but not for applications where voice needs to be heard back instantaneously. Indeed, the Karaoke function in the software utility didn't work too well while we sang along to Bohemian Rhapsody -- there was a delay before the voice was heard through the speakers. Echoing was also evident, and we couldn't remedy this. It was fun trying though.
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