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Asus Xonar U5 Review : "A U7 on a diet"

Asus is stepping-up their game on the audio marketplace with another addition to their Xonar family line of soundcards and DACs. With the availability of portable gaming laptops and notebooks, the need for a portable sound card capable of delivering high-fidelity audio is a definitely a must. Asus had been providing this market with the compact U3 and their top of the line U7. Today, we are going to review the Xonar U5. A USB sound card designed for those gamers and audiophiles who wanted more control and flexibility of the U7 on a budget.
Following the Xonar product line-up of portable USB soundcards, the Xonar U5 plugs the gap between the entry-level U3 and top-tiered U7.  Designed for portable gaming in mind, the U5 is equipped with a professional-grade headphone amplifier  capable of powering headphones up to 150 Ohms. It offers 5.1 surround sound, microphone/line-in input and optical SPDIF out. The individual input and output volume controls provides quick and precise adjustments. A 104db signal-to-noise ratio ensures clear and crisp audio that is better than the integrated audio solutions found on most portable laptops. The included Sonic Studio software enables full control of the audio settings allowing the user to make fine-tune adjustments for those critical gaming and audio listening activities.

On the outside, the box for the U5 definitely appeals toward gamers.  Removing the top flap reveals the unit itself protected by its transparent case as well as information about Sonic Studio it's features . 
The package includes :
-  Asus Xonar U5 USB Sound Card
-  Driver CD
-  SPDIF to TOSLINK optical adapter
-  Quick Start Guide
- Type B (Male) to A (Male) USB Cable

Setting-up the U5 is straightforward. Simply connect your microphone and headphones on the provided inputs and connect to the computer using the included cable. Adjust the levels of the output (headphone/speaker/SPDIF) using the volume control wheel and the input (mic/line) using the + and -  buttons on the bottom side of the unit. You can change the output device on the U5 by clicking the volume knob itself. The U5 is plug-and-play ready for basic playback functions. Installing the Driver CD enables recording functionality and installs Sonic Sense for more precise audio control.
Asus Xonar U5 mic adjustment switch (top) as well as the audio outputs (below)
Asus Xonar U5 bottm view. Notice the USB interface switch at the top left.
By clicking the volume control knob of the Asus Xonar U5, you can change the output device on the fly.
Software (Sonic Studio)
The included Sonic Studio provides a lot of options to adjust the audio settings to match their preference.

Output Settings - Select between the audio output device as well as the impendence settings for the headphones (Low, Medium &, High Impendence).
Tip :  Start at MEDIUM impendence and only select high if the volume is low even when at maximum volume. Knowing the ohm impedance of the headphone being used is also recommended for better sound quality.   
Input Device - Select the either mic or line level input. Note : In some situations you can manually select the input if the device improperly detects the line input.

Enhancements :
Bass Boost  - Designed to boost the lower frequencies (32-250Hz) to improve bass response. Make sure to set it in small intervals to avoid hurting your ears. A must-have adjustment on headphones with a flat frequency response.

Voice Clarity - A filter which isolates and amplifies the vocal range which results in more crisp and defined stage presence. Suited for bass-heavy headphones which tends to muffle out the high frequencies.

Compression - A standard audio filter which softens hard sounds like drum beats, claps, and noises. Use compression to nicely blend the bass and the vocals/treble. This setting should be used sparingly as too much compression can reduce sound quality significantly.

Mic Settings :
Noise Gate - Common tool in audio engineering, a noise gate is basically a "gate" which only allows certain frequencies to pass though. This noise gate filters out any rumbling, wind, and ambient noise to a certain extent allowing the rest of the vocal frequencies to pass though.

Perfect Voice - A specially developed filter which automatically enhances the vocal presence of your voice. Having an integrated hardware solution enables the U5 to do it on the fly with minimal latency.
Tip : Start off by adding  the Noise Gate and then slowly add the Perfect Voice filter. When you hear a gradual loss in sound fidelity, slowly back off the noise gate until you can get the desired effect. Perfect Voice should always be considered as a supplement. The type of microphones being used must also be put into consideration.
The Audiophile Stuff
Asus Xonar U5 connected to a Superlux HD-440 monitoring headphones and a Zoom H4N as a recording device via line input.
Even though the Xonar U5 is designed for gamers, the hardware inside is more than enough to satisfy every audiophile's desire. The 150 Ohm headphone amplifier is efficient to drive your top of line monitoring or DJ headphones. Perfect for those critical mastering and mixing sessions where actual sound fidelity is required.

Being a USB DAC adds another advantage of portability. With the U5 you can turn even a simple netbook into a portable, low-latency recording station. We tested the Xonar U5 on a lot of test recordings and sample podcast sessions and we managed to easily reduce the latency times to two milliseconds while racking up the frequency response at 48000khz without hogging the CPU. The line input is also great for such a small device. A nice addition for those who wanted to record directly from professional grade devices without the use of step-down attenuators.

If you are even crazy enough, you can buy another Xonar U5 for a three-way recording set-up both with independent headphone and line inputs. Something that a standalone PCI-E sound card can't match in terms of value.

The Asus Xonar U5 is a bang-for-buck solution for professional grade audio for gamers and audio geeks alike. The small size and portability is as unique as the smaller U3 and its bigger brother, the U7. Although a lot of people might be saving up to purchase the U7 , the U5 still has a place for people who wanted to start in the field of professional audio or for the experienced gamer who likes to manually tweak their settings. The excellent hardware and software is enough to justify its place in the market. A long-term investment than your annual headphone upgrade.

- Excellent 150 ohm headphone amplifier
- Good signal-to-noise ratio (SNR)
- Small size and portability
- Plug-and-play operation for basic playback functions
- Included Sonic Sense Audio is well featured yet easy to use for beginners
- Advertised for gamers yet its feature set can compete with professional audio solutions.
- Near zero latency on recording/mixing sessions using ASIO

- Jack sensing is sometimes quirky on the mic/line input when used in USB 3.0
- Sonic Sense EQ & Headphone profiles can be problematic for expert users.
- Its price bracket can easily be replaced by higher priced audio solutions

OTK Says : "Are you gamer who does a lot of multimedia work and likes tweaking with the settings? Get the U5 instead of the U7 and use the extra money to get a good pair of headphones ."

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