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ASUS Xonar Xense 7.1 Premium Gaming Audio Set Review

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AkG

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When it comes to the demanding high end PC audio niche, manufacturer’s have to bring their A game if they want to impress let alone succeed. This niche is made up of extremely finicky, highly demanding consumers who know exactly what they want in terms of quality and customizability and are willing to pay boatloads of money to get just that.

A few years ago ASUS wasn’t known as one of the go-to sources for high end PC audio equipment but as they expanded into new fields, this is one area where they focused some serious efforts. The highly regarded Xonar cards we some of the first to be acknowledged as truly competitive audio products and the rave reviews started flowing in. What followed could only be considered a renaissance for ASUS’ audio division as they released s full lineup of sound cards.

ASUS has now released an all-in-one solution called the Xonar Xense. Geared towards the demands of gamers, the Xense not only includes all the usual suspects like a built in headphone amp and replaceable op-amps but also includes a pair of headphones. Asus has teamed up with Sennheiser to provide their PC350 gaming-grade headset for which the Xense has supposedly been specifically tuned for. This should deliver a perfect sound stage when compared to other headphone-oriented sound cards available on the market. Pricing for the Xonar Xense “Audio Set” is around the $260 mark which isn’t all that bad when you consider the headphones alone will easily set one back $100.

Unlike past attempts which were either aimed at the audiophile market (eXonar Essence ST or STX cards) or more towards the high end gaming market (e.g. Xonar D line) this card is aimed at BOTH markets. As such, while it has the performance specifications to compete against both the Xonar ST/STX line and the D2/D2X, so it is not a replacement for either. Rather, it is a third option which is more focused upon providing a one-stop-shop for consumers who want guaranteed performance without having to mix and match components that may not work all that well together. This of course raises the question: is this $260 combination a great way for the beginner to go?


 
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AkG

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Specifications

Specifications






 
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Packaging & Accessories / The Xense Headphones

Packaging & Accessories



The box which the headset and soundcard come in is rather large and brash but that’s to be expected for a product that is geared towards primarily gamers. It is a two piece affair that consists of a cardboard exterior which is partially slipped over a see-through plastic container which provides an excellent view of the headphones. The protection afforded each of these items is good but this package is geared towards the brick and mortar retail market rather than etailers.


On the positive side the accessories which accompany this soundcard are at the high level of quality and abundance which one would expect from such a pricey investment. Of course you get the aforementioned Xense-branded Sennheiser PC350 headset and software CD along with a 7.1 break out adaptor, an S/PDIF adapter, installation booklet and a 3.5 to 6.3mm headphone adapter.


The Xense Headphones


The PC350 headset which makes up half of this dynamic duo is of course made by Sennheiser and is considered their mid grade gaming headset. However, this is not your typical PC350 since it has been rebranded by ASUS. Naturally, they make a big deal out of the fact the sound card has been optimized so that these “special” PC350s will work at their optimum level. As such, ASUS recommends this combination stay together which will naturally eliminate any upgrade options.


On paper at least the PC350 uses same speaker setup as the HD595 set so they should be nothing less than a good pair of headphones with a built in microphone. ASUS has modified them somewhat in order to maintain the look of the Xense sound card but otherwise these are your typical PC350 headphones.


On the positive side, the construction and design of these headphones is excellent. They have a good fit and feel which makes them extremely comfortable for long term use no matter what shape head you may have. The ear pads are not only thick with a covering of soft material, but the actual ear cups are also more than large enough to fit snugly around the ears.

Improving the ear-pads is one area Sennheiser could have easily implemented to make the ASUS-branded PC350s special since many people who mod the PC350s - to make them sound relatively decent - also swap out the slightly above average ear cups for the awesome ones found on the HD595. This is a missed opportunity as even audiophiles who loath Sennheiser’s sound signature grudgingly respect the comfort afforded by these higher end cans. Luckily, the typical PC350s is still a very comfortable headset.

It also appears that Sennheiser does not seem to have messed with the PC350’s microphone either. This is a good thing since it is more than respected by the gaming masses that have used it and is actually quite good looking to boot. Once again, with the exception of some silk screening there is nothing obviously different about the Xense headphones over the “stock” PC350s you can purchase almost anywhere.
 
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AkG

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A Closer Look at the Xense Sound Card

A Closer Look at the Xense Sound Card



The star of this bundle is Xonar Xense, a PCI-E x1 interface sound card that requires a standard Molex connector to properly power it. The Xense also has an integrated EMI shield that has been molded to look just like the PC350 headset ear piece. Luckily, the shield is made from highly polished metal is actually quite stylish even though not many will actually see this on a regular basis. The integrated LED glow ring found on some other Xonar’s is not present.



The connector layout is actually quite straightforward and can be expanded through the use of the included adaptors. From left to right you have the Mic/Line In port, a headphone out port, DVI adapter for the 7.1 breakout connector and the digital out connector. As you may notice the mic and headphone ports are the 6.3mm style and not the 3.5mm which drives home the point that ASUS’ Xense is a card built for demanding users.


While looks are important, the overall audio quality of a sound card is what matters and in order to achieve this, high grade components must be used. With the Xense, Asus has truly gone all out with what can be easily considered a classic example of over engineering.

The board has separate circuitry for its analog outs and is literally crammed full Sanyo OS-CON capacitors. These Sanyo capacitors are low ESR organic electrolytic capacitors which cost a pretty penny even when buying them in job lots like ASUS is doing. There is also a bevy of high end electrolytic capacitors on the board along with high end NEC low signal relays.

Moving on to the actual chips Asus has opted for, we see some old friends like the AV-100 controller along with new additions which should make the Xense quite unique. This controller is a rebranded (and supposedly tweaked) C-Media Oxygen HD audio processor which has proven itself to be an excellent controller and basically only one of a few out there suitable for high end soundcards. More importantly it is the chip that Asus always chooses for their gaming-grade Xonar cards. The only difference between the AV-100 and slightly newer AV-200 is the 100 used on the Xense lacks DTS decoding; something that is not really needed in an audio or gaming soundcard.


As with most higher-end sound cards, the Xense uses fully replaceable op-amps which is good news to those who aren’t satisfied with ASUS’ component choices. For those of you wondering, there is a pair New Japan Radio Corporation 2114D op-amps which are also found in the Xonar Essence line. These aren’t the highest end products available but are decent enough to cope with the rigors of gaming audio.

With that being said, the sound these JRC 2114D’s “create” is not going to be quiet as rich or satisfying to veteran audiophiles it is doubtful that most people would ever notice the difference between these and higher end options.


For the dedicated Digital to Analogue Converter (aka “DAC”), Asus has stepped down a notch from the ultra high end Texas Instrument PCM1792A found on the Xonar Essence ST and has used the same controller used in the Xonar D2X: the Texas Instruments PCM1796. Nonetheless, the 1796 is still widely considered a highly capable unit which sports killer specifications.


Also worth noting is the fact that ASUS has opted for the stereo “headphone” out which comes with a Texas Instruments 6120a2 amp sporting an SNR of 120dbA. This is the same one which is used on the Xonar Essence ST and when combined with DAC on the Xense card means that its official headphone ports SNR is a decent 118dbA (though Asus lists it as 120dbA).


On the 7.1 analog out front Asus has opted for the Cirrus-Logic CS4362A. This is too step down from some other high end Xonar lines (in point of fact it is the same as the one on the older Xonar DX) but once again is still good but not what we would consider great.

While Cirrus Logic is a reasonable choice, we really would have preferred to have seen TI /Burr-Brown chips here too. We can understand this cost cutting to a certain extent since the Xense is a stereo headphone soundcard that boasts stock 7.1 outputs so ASUS tried to go towards a “one size fits all” solution.

To be fair, the inclusion of not only a good 7.1 controller but stock 7.1 outputs is actually nice to see. This alone makes the Xense a more reasonable all-round solution than the Xonar Essence ST which requires a daughter card which isn’t included to get 7.1 output. With the inclusion of the stereo out amplifier, this card is also a better choice than the Xonar D line. In the end only you can decide if the Xense’s admittedly impressive flexibility is the best option for you, but taken as a whole these components and features do make a pretty persuasive argument for going with the Xonar Xense over some of the other Xonars. Just be aware that some compromises were made to cram all these features into this bundle’s price point.
 
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Drivers and Software

Drivers and Software




For anyone familiar with Asus Xonar software, the Xense software will not come with any major surprises other than a new colour selection which is much improved and lends a nice brashness to the software suite. One of the main selling points for this software is how slick and extremely user-friendly it is while still giving you full and complete access to all the tweaking features you most likely will want, need or desire.

To access the Advanced settings you simply need to hit the down arrow button in the lower right edge of the main screen. Much like in Winamp (for example) this then expands the advanced features section. With that done you will be greeted with the “Main” tab section and its features. If you want to access the other advanced features you just need to hit one of the four buttons running along the bottom. These are labeled from right to left: Main, Mixer, Effect and Flexbass.

It is interesting to note that unlike some previous Xonar software versions this particular edition is lacking some of the less than optimal “features” like the Karaoke section. Asus has obviously spent some major time removing the bloat and pairing things down to the essentials.



The default “Main” button is where you will spend most of your time as it controls the output but and more advanced features like how Dolby Digital is handled. If you have 4, 5.1 or even 7.1 setup you can even tweak the sound output of each of your speakers via this tab which makes things simple, easy and fairly intuitive.

Unfortunately, this layout does have a couple minor quirks like some of the advanced tweaking features being hidden behind small and poorly labeled icons. The ability to tune the headphone amp output to more closely match the resistance of your speakers along with a special setting for the included headphones is one of these hidden options.

Much like the overall abilities of the software, the Mixer section has also been pared down. While it still allows you full control over the volume of your speakers and microphone some, of the more advanced options are now missing.



The Effects button (which is next to the Main tab) allows for tweaking the “size” of the soundstage and the effects placed upon it. The most useful feature of this section for most people will likely be the EQ abilities it has to offer. Not only is there a 10 channel equalizer but also numerous music presets which can be selected based on individual preferences. Based on past experience the music presets do a fairly decent job of things and tend to offer a pretty good starting point before fine tuning the sound signature to fit your tastes. Once a perfect balance is achieved, it can be saved as a profile for future use.


The last advanced button called FlexBass, gives you full and complete control over how bass is handled and what the Low Frequency Effect crossover point will be. Basically, you can with some tweaking reduce the bass that goes to your satellite speakers and have it go to where it really belongs: the subwoofer. You can also modify the bass output to more closely compliment your headphones, speakers, IEMs and headset’s overall abilities.
 
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AkG

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Right Mark Audio Analyzer Results

Right Mark Audio Analyzer Results



Test System Used
CPU: Intel Q9450
RAM: Corsair 2x2GB DDR2-800
MOBO: Gigabyte EP45 Extreme
Video: MSI 460 768GB Cyclone

While RightMark Audio Analyzer is an extremely good audio test suite, the shear amount of data and numbers it can produce can be a little on the overwhelming side. To help simplify and make it more easily digestible we have taken what we consider to be the key tests and their results and condensed them into a more easy to understand format.


Harmonic Distortion


This chart is actually made up of two equally important parts “Total Harmonic Distortion” (THD) and “Inter-modulation distortion + Noise Distortion” (IMD + Noise). Too much THD and IMD means your music will be “warm” or “fun” sounding but highly, highly inaccurate. Low THD and a lot of IMD will mean your music is cold sounding AND inaccurate. Low THD and low IMD is what we are looking for as we want as accurate a reproduction as possible and simply choose to either add some “flavor” to the music via the equalizer or simply use different headphones from different companies that colour the music differently.

THD is distortion being added to a given piece of sound. It can take the form of unwanted harmonics, multiples of the original sound, additional unwanted overtones of the original sound or numerous other things being added to the original. While an argument can be made over THD not always being a bad thing (as it can give your music a warmer sound), for serious gaming and audio boards the closer to zero the better.




As you can see the Xonar Xense may not be quite as good as the Xonar STX but it is still posting some very, very good results. Compared to even an older Xonar DX it really is in a different class and compared to onboard (which did surprisingly well) the Xonar Xense is in a different LEAGUE all together. Considering only hardcore veterans would be able to tell a STX from Xense (or claim to anyways) and the fact this is marketed more towards beginners the Xense certainly does seem to have the audio chops to impress.


Noise Level


“Noise Level” is basically the Signal to Noise Ratio a given audio card can produce. The higher or further away from zero a given cards Noise Level is the better. The closer you get to zero the worse the reproduction becomes and the lower the audio fidelity becomes.



As with the Harmonic Distortion test the Xonar Xense does very well here as well. It may once again be lower than that of the Xonar STX but all in all its performance is among the best we have tested. More importantly, once again the Xense simply blows away what onboard sound is capable of.


Dynamic Range


Dynamic range is the difference between the quietest and loudest sound a card can produce without distorting them. The greater the Dynamic Range the better.



With this last test done, it is obvious the Xonar Xense is a darn good card with excellent performance abilities. This really doesn’t surprise us all that much as this card DOES use high end components.
 
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AkG

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Listening Tests: Music

Listening Tests: Music


Sound cards used:
Asus Xonar Xense

Headphone’s used:
Sennheiser HD595
Sennheiser PC350 (Xense branded)


Music


For the first round of testing we used a combination of stereo ( lossless flac, 320kb/s mp3 and even some lower quality recordings) and 5.1 SACD music in a variety of genres with a total of over 24 hours of listening enjoyment.


The Genre and artists used were as follows:

Folk
March of Cambreadth by Heather Alexander
Various songs by Mud Men and The Celtic Connection

Techno/Industrial/Goth
Various songs by CruxShadows

Dutch Rock/Metal/Goth (aka Symphonic Rock/Goth)
Various songs by Within Temptation

Classical
Wagner and Beethoven

Jazz & Blues
Various songs by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Joe Henderson, Louis Armstrong, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Dave Brubeck, Eric Clapton (unpugged) & Ray Charles

Rap
Various songs by Ice Cube, Ice-T & Insane Clown Posse

Metal
Various songs by Metallica & Motorhead

Rock n Roll
Various songs by CCR, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimmy Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Aerosmith & The Who

Alternative Music (K-Pop/J-Pop/A-Pop/Indian/classic pop)
So Nyuh Shi Dae (SNSD),Wonder Girls (K-Pop)
Dreams Come True, Southern All Stars (J-Pop)
Kesha, Black Eyed Peas, The Carpenters (A-Pop)
Om Shanti Om Soundtrack (Indian)

Please note:

All headphones used underwent a burn in with alternating white, pink, grey and brown noise for 90 hours at moderately high noise levels before testing commenced.

While not fair to the PC350s which ship with this soundcard we have also included our impressions while using a higher pair of headphones, namely the Sennheiser HD595. To be blunt, we do not feel the included PC350s are strong enough to give a true sense of this soundcard’s abilities and not including results from a proven design would be doing a disservice to this product




Xense Headphone Results

Let’s start with the headset which comes with this soundcard and go from there. The Xense PC350s actually did surprise us as they are noticeably better with more precise bass and not anemic like the original PC350s we used in the past. However, while the Xense headphones seem to be more precise and have noticeably better response to the lower tonal ranges, they are still a tad muddy with overall less than optimal bass.

The mids which are the PC350s main claim to fame are still extremely forward focused (as they ARE tweaked for gaming and communication), they now have a bit more precision in this range. To put that another way, the mids are still not great but not terrible either.

The highs are meanwhile are extremely bright, but we wouldn’t call them brittle or glassy like the original PC350s were. Also on the positive, the soundstage also seems slightly wider than before though still not anywhere as good as HD555 or HD595.

While the response and range of these headphones does seem to be tweaked when compared to the originals, they still pale in comparison against the HD555 or HD595 products from Sennheiser. In our opinion, it is the sound card that makes the Xense headphones sound so good rather than the other way around. This doesn’t mean the included PC350s aren’t up to the job because they perform quite well when fed with high definition music; we just feel like there are much better options out there for this genre of listening.


HD595 Results

When we slipped our HD595s on and plugged them into the Xonar Xense, a whole new level of subtly and nuance to our favorite music blossomed before our ears. Subtle things like a finger gently rubbing over guitar strings that were partially obscured before became noticeable. Basically, the little things which were being lost in the “background noise” on the stock Xense headphones finally stepped onto the soundstage.

The difference really was impressive between what the 595s could do on our older Xonar DX and what they could do on this new card. Gone was the high frequency distortion that while not overly pronounced was occasionally annoying with our DX soundcard.

Overall when it comes to music, we really do wish ASUS offered a NON-bundle version of this soundcard as the PC350’s are still a less than optimal solution for music. If you want to listen to music with your new acquisition we strongly recommend either replacing the PC350’s or modifying them (aka drilling them out) to further improve their sonic signature.
 
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AkG

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Listening Tests: Movies & Gaming

Listening Tests: Movies


Movies Tested:

Saving Private Ryan
Blade
Gamer
Predators
The Losers
Pitch Black
Hellboy
Robin Hood (2010)
The Joneses
Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler


When it came to movies the PC350s faired even better than they did in the music tests. In fact they made for an enjoyable movie experience. Much like in the music tests, the bass needed to be pushed quite high in order for the Xense headphones to deliver the punch we were looking for. Unfortunately, the precision and depth of the soundstage was still less than stellar as well.

All in all, when it comes to movies the included headphones are a decent option which is paired with a GREAT sound card. This combination allows the Xense duo to overcome the movie listening shortcomings introduced by headphones that are geared towards gaming.

This lack of depth and clarity the PC350s are (in)famous for once again became readily apparent when we swapped out them out for our HD595s. When using better headphones it is quite obvious that ASUS’ Xense sound card really is something special.

Gone were the muddy, muted and yet brash flavors the included PC350 spits out and in their stead was pure auditory gold. We truly wished we had a “real” high end set of cans to push this sound card and see how good it REALLY is.


Gaming


Games Used:

Left 4 Dead 2
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
Borderlands



One of the most important selling features of the Xonar lineup is its ability to support later versions of EAX without resorting to Creative Labs controllers and more importantly their less than optimal driver stack. To be fair, these ASUS cards only feature software emulation so processing these signals does tend to eat up some CPU cycles but to be considered a bona fide gaming card, EAX must be supported in our opinion. Basically the typical EAX (even most of EAX 5) features are emulated and only some of the more esoteric ones are not. As time goes by Asus’ emulation is getting better and the latest version is awfully darn good. We ran into no issues worth mentioning and as long as the game supported EAX, the Xense provided these advanced effects with seemingly no down side or at the very least no noticeable negative or detrimental side effects.

After over 20 hours of gaming with the Xonar Xense duo, we can honestly say the included headphones provide an overall excellent gaming experience and a fairly decent introduction into serious gaming audio glory. The soundstage is wide enough and provides you with nearly perfect situational awareness which is one of the highest peices of praise we can give to any supposed “gaming” solution. Gun shots and bullets whining past your head in Battlefield Bad Company 2 were fairly easy to pinpoint in order to return fire. The soundstage of creeping dread games like L4D2 can provide was dead on and really helped provide an overall visceral feeling to the gameplay.

Also on the positive side the microphone included with the Xense did a very good job of transmitting voices over TeamSpeak and Ventrilo. It does unfortunately work too well every now and then since it tends to pick up a fair amount of background sounds like typing or mouse clicks.

When we plugged in our HD595s and set the Xonar Xense to the proper output settings, things once again improved by leaps and bounds. The soundstage opened up much further than it did with our older DX soundcard and the experience was not only noticeably better it was a lot more precise too. This really is a world class soundcard.
 
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AkG

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Conclusion

Conclusion


The sound card market is amazingly competitive and yet the Xonar Xense is more than capable of standing out from the rest of the pack. Like many other upper echelon offerings, it has removable op-amps, great SNR and a bevy of gaming features that will not only make audiophiles and gamers alike extremely happy with their purchase. To us, it is like a greatest hit collection of both the Xonar Essence and Xonar D lines combined in to one card but ASUS did have to make a few compromises in an effort to make everyone moderately content.

While we are sure there is a massive market for an all-in-one solution like the Xense, not everyone may want to pay the premium demanded by the inclusion of gaming headphones. By itself, the Xense Sound card is simply one of the best around and so it’s a shame that it can’t be purchased separately.

We also have to remember that while the op-amps and controllers ASUS chose for this card play near the upper echelons of the market, they are not a step up from the Essence. Yet we see the Xense retailing for around $260; a full $60 more than a fully equipped Essence STX. This coupled with a relatively limited Sennheiser PC350 headphones does make the Xonar Xense a hard sell to veteran audiophiles.

With all of this being said, we still feel like the Xense headphone / sound card bundle is one of the better solutions currently available. It may not be a complete master in every domain that it plays in but its broad scope of abilities in gaming, music and to a lesser extent movies allows it to excel at being a perfect happy medium for many. The headphones in particular may not be the absolute best around but their combination of respectable audio quality which is helped along by the killer sound card and a decent microphone still allow for an impressive result.

There is a whole lot to like about the Xense bundle even though it is on the expensive side. One of this card’s most endearing qualities is that it isn’t focused upon any one niche. Rather, the Xense acts like a perfect Swiss Army knife for people who want perfectly adaptable performance across a large cross section of listening genres. As such, it wins our Dam Innovative Award.


Pros:

- Replaceable op-amps
- Xense soundcard is chock-full of quality components
- EAX emulation works extremely well
- Respected name brand headset included
- Great example of OVER-engineering at the board level
- Good sound for a variety of scenarios
- Combination will appeal to first time buyers


Cons:

- Price
- Less than optimal choice of headset to include for nongaming environments
- No non-bundled version available
- Choice of op-amps



 
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