Just when I got comfy with my PC at home that I have to be away from it for a few days when visiting over the long holidays. Using my family's PC was okay but the thought of the inferior audio quality coming out from it when using my headphones is just too much. I was thinking of some solutions when Asus hit me up with the Xonar U5; a 5.1 channel portable soundcard and headphone amplifier... Perfect!
Thanks to the people at Asus Malaysia for providing the sample of the Xonar U5 over the holiday season. The Xonar U5 is priced at RM339 SRP so let's get to the article now that I'm back in my comfy workstation.
Since the Xonar U5 is an Asus gaming series product, the box theme is overall red & black. Up on the top/front is the branding, product name, description, an image of the Xonar u5 and some features at the bottom.
The back of the box describes in detail the key features and/or benefits of the Xonar U5 along with the specifications and some illustrations on the connections available.
The sides of the package has the usual branding, system requirements, serial numbers and a short multilingual description of the features.
Opening the top flap, Asus details the Sonic Studio software of the Xonar U5, an interface much different than the AudioFX on my ROG motherboard and the Asus's own Xonar DGX soundcard. We'll get to that later on in the article.
Sliding off the content, everything is packed neatly and securely in a rectangular-clam-shell of a box. I'm a fan of nice packaging if you haven't already know that and this one is a job well done.
All-in-all, there is a driver installation CD, a quick start guide, a USB Type-A to USB Type-B cable and of course, the Xonar U5 itself.
The Xonar U5
The Xonar U5 is lightweight and is no bigger than an average 5" smartphone. The build is overall plastic but it is robust and I do like the matte black finish. Asus also opted to make branding minimalistic which is very pleasant indeed. Up on the top is a volume-dial-slash-audio-source selector and three led indicators to let you know which source is currently active.
Flipping the Xonar U5 over, you get the product sticker flanked by four mini rubber feet.
There is a small switch in one corner that indicates "USB AUDIO" which one can select between USB 1.0 or USB 2.0.
Now the quick start guide didn't mention what this was for and only when you go into the digital manual in the included CD then it said to use USB 2.0 on a mac while the USB 1.0 has certain limitations. Totally unexpected really.
At the front of the unit is a small volume rocker for your microphone and a subtle ASUS logo.
And behind the unit are where you would connect your audio devices. From left to right, you are looking at the Microphone/audio in, Headphone/audio out, Front out, Center/subwoofer out, Rear out, S/Pdif out and a USB port. While the array of ports are satisfactory, I do wish that Asus had colour coded them instead of having stealth-like lables under them and I also wish that the headphone jack is at the front for easy access.
With the unit plugged in, you don't get much indication other than the single LED that lights up on one of the three source indicators.
Here is a closer look at how the LED looks like during operation.
Please ensure that you have the Xonar U5 connected before attempting to install the driver. you will get that warning otherwise. Other than that, the software installs flawlessly.
The Sonic Studio has only one window. No separate "pages" of tweaks and gizmos that we normally see in a software audio controller. One can do everything from tweaking the EQ, adjusting the audio format, switching the reverbs, etc and save them settings as profiles. Straightforward, neat and simple; I really liked it.
Usage and testing
I plugged in my BitFenix Flo headset for the testing and comparison between Asus's own solutions, namely the Supreme FX built into the Maximus VII Ranger ROG motherboard and the Xonar DGX PCI-E sound card.
The Xonar U5 works wonderfully well with music sounding clear on the mids and a rich overall feel with good separation. The clarity works well with the conversations as well in movies with a good kick from the bass, though this could be adjusted via the Sonic Studio software. Gaming is great, especially when you enable the virtual surround to get a good placement of enemy movements in FPS, with the BGM still pleasant in RPG games albeit with the effects on top of things most of the time.
Compared to the (aforementioned) solutions, the Xonar U5 gave a different sound signature to my headset. I find that voices, speech and singing alike, sounds closer and slightly warmer but the difference is subtle at best. Sound this good in a small package like that makes it a blessing for those who are negotiating with normal laptop audio solutions, it is a little cumbersome to have extra wires hanging off from your laptop so that's the trade-off.
The Asus Xonar U5 is definitely a great product but who is it for really? Well for starters, people looking for better audio solutions to their laptop speakers or that they needed a headphone amp for their new headphone. It is also a quick solution for those who do not want to open up their chassis to plug in an internal soundcard; whatever the reason, users of the Asus Xonar U5 will be very pleased indeed.
The downside however is that the audio ports are not colour coded and the stealthy lables doesn't help and why is the headphone port is at the back? it is a little senseless but I assume that Asus never expect that you would want to unplug them from the Xonar U5 ever again.
- Portable and easy to setup
- Sounds great with headphone amp
- Simple and straightforward software that works
- Placement of ports can be better
- Ports should be colour coded
After all that, the Asus Xonar U5 USB Sound Card and Headphone Amplifier takes home the Tech Critter Gold and Recommended badge.