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Asus Xonar U7 Echelon Edition Review : Great Sound for FPS Gamers

When we were given the opportunity to review the Xonar U5 last December, comparing it with the U7 was a bit of a nonsense. The first question would be "is it worth the extra money?". Luckily, ASUS even provided us with an even better option. The Asus Xonar U7 Echelon Edition is an updated version of the U7 designed specifically for FPS gamers who wanted the highest fidelity audio possible while having extra features that would give them a competitive edge among the rest. 

The U7 Echelon is capable of 7.1 surround sound with the addition of Dolby Home Theater 4 and Sonic Radar.  A special visual plug-in which acts as a visual motion detector that can be used to track explosions, footprints, and gunfire giving enhanced situation awareness to the player. Home Theater 4 provides enhanced automatic equalization presets and options for those who like to push their surround systems to their absolute limits. All that control in a device painted in a digital-camouflage pattern.

Packaging
At first glance, the packaging of the U7 Echelon sports in an impressive digital-camo pattern that separates it from the standard U7. Removing the top flap exposes the unit and the Sonic Radar's feature set.


The contents include : 
-Asus Xonar U7 Usb Sound Card
-S/PDIF to TOSLINK adapter
-Driver/ User Manual CD
-USB Cable
-Quick Start Guide

First Impression

Branded towards gamers, the apparent digital-camo pattern on the U7 Echelon stands out towards the product and its packaging. The headphone and the mic/line-input jacks are were positioned to the front from the rear placement of the U5. That slight change was required in order to place the Left/Right surround sound output jacks to the U7 enabling the 7.1 surround that the U7 is capable of. Be sure to check the official U7 Echelon product page for details.


Similar from the U5 is the volume click-wheel which controls the volume out digitally thru their own corresponding Sonic Studio software and also enables the user to change the  output device. The USB interface switch is also placed exactly the same as the U5.


Installation
The standard U7 is pretty much smooth-sailing with its included driver disk. However, it's another story for the U7 Echelon. There is a quirky bug that happens during installation that prevents you from installing the drivers properly. We found out that by setting the date to "January 2013" before installation would fix this issue. Alternatively, you can download the latest beta driver via the Asus product page but you will lose Sonic Radar and ASIO support in the process. Another option is to download the latest driver from the standard U7 if you really want to enable ASIO for reduced audio latency.


Other than the driver issue, the installation if straightforward. The Sonic Studio for the U7 Echelon posses the same interface as the U5. You can always check out our Xonar U5 review for more details.  On the bottom of the Sonic Studio interface is the addition of two advanced plug-ins. Sonic Radar and Dolby Home Theater 4(DHTv4). Enabling DHTv4 will disable all Sonic Studio enhancements.

Sonic Radar and Dolby Home Theater 4


Sonic Radar is an exclusive plug-in available in the U7 Echelon that is commonly found on their Republic of Gamers (ROG) line-up of motherboards and sound peripherals. To put it into simple terms, Sonic Radar shows a visual, 360-degree sound map of the surrounding area. It can detect footsteps, gunshots, and explosions and presents them in an easy to understand visual interface for the user. A good arsenal to any FPS gamer for increased situational awareness enabling the player to predict the paths of their enemies in order to outmaneuver them into an ambush.

Included in the Sonic Radar are game-specific presets optimized to three of the most famous FPS shooters to date. For what reason they needed to renamed is a mystery. Other options include the position of the radar, its opacity, the color and style of the display, and custom key bindings for on-the-fly radar adjustments. The only downside is that you need to have a 5.1 or 7.1 surround set-up in order to take full advantage of the software. Software performance may also vary depending on the game being played and the audio codec implemented in-game.

On the other hand, the Dolby Home Theater v4 is packed with flexibility and features for audiophiles and music lovers alike. There are basic sound profiles on the left side panel for Music, Movie, and Gaming out of the box.  You can also make your own customized profile for by playing with the sliders on the right for those sound aficionados. You can also choose to adjust the EQ settings manually or choose from among seven of the Intelligent Equalizer settings.

Intelligent Equalizer - An automatic equalizer that adjusts the settings dynamically based on the specific frequency parameter chosen by the user. The options include (from left to right):

  • Gentle Lift - An all-purpose setting for general music listening
  • Bass and Treble Boost - Perfect choice for pop, rap, and electronic music.
  • Mid/Vocal Boost - Increase vocal presence and acoustic instruments.
  • String Boost - Boosts the bass and significantly amplifies the higher frequencies. Good for rock and live concerts as well as guitars and other string instruments.
  • Low-Pass/High-Cut - A standard filter used by audio professionals, this EQ greatly blocks the higher frequencies while gradually increases the rest of the spectrum to a small degree. Recommended for vocal recordings and other voiceover work when you need to separate the vocals from the backing track.
  • Bass Boost/Treble Cut -  Optimized for surround sound and movie entertainment.

Volume Leveler - Also known as a "Hard Limiter", it limits the maximum amplitude of the signal in order to avoid clipping when using analog equipment. Use this when you are connecting to an analog surround system or when the output from the U7 creates excessive cracking and bleeding through your external audio device/headphones.
Dialogue Enhancer - A filter used for enhancing the voice from your input device.
Surround Virtualizer - Enables virtual surround output for stereo devices.

Testing

In our testing, we decided to use the stock drivers that are included in the driver disk. Using RightMark Audio Analyzer (a synthetic audio benchmark), we managed to get near the products -115 signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). A -105db noise level is still a good result considering that we only used a standard 3.5mm cable for the test while maintaining a 12-milisecond latency time at the highest possible setting at 24-bit,192kHz. By unlocking ASIO support using the standard U7 driver we even managed to reduce the latency to around 2 milliseconds while running a 7.1 surround sound setup (and a better cable).  I wished we have better audio equipment to fully pushed the limits of the device but this simply proves that the U7 lives up to its expectations.

Conclusion
Overall, we have mixed feelings about the U7 Echelon. Without the additional bits from the U7 Echelon, it's already a good performer. The high quality components, solid construction, and great surround sound performance is already a stand-out among the rest of the competition. The included Dolby Home Theater 4 is also a plus. However, the quirky installation issues and capped performance on the stock drivers might shake heads for a lot of music lovers and audio enthusiasts.
Apparently, U7 Echelon is designed for gamers who want the best audio quality at a portable package. The Sonic Radar  plug-in on its own is already a good reason for buying the U7 Echelon. The digital-camouflage does attract attention and an absolute conversation piece at LAN parties. If you are a FPS player who loves to play for hours and requires the matching hardware to power your mid/top of the line gaming headset then this is the right one for you. The U7 Echelon creates the perfect balance between serious gaming performance and portability in a very stylish way.

Pros :
- Excellent surround sound performance
- Great included plug-ins (Sonic Radar and Dolby Home Theater 4)
- Nice digital-camouflage styling
- Good Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR)
- Great plug-and-play compatibility
- Excellent 150-ohm headphone amplifier
- Audiophile quality sound in an affordable package
- Affordable price

Cons:
- Nearly the same headphone performance as the Xonar U5
- Handicapped by buggy installation drivers
- Sonic Radar is optimized for 5.1/7.1 surround sound
- No ASIO support on stock U7 Echelon drivers
- Can only power headphones ranging from 32-150 ohms

OTK Says : "Gamer? Buy it! Audio guy? Buy it and use the stock/beta U7 drivers. " 
Asus Xonar U7 Echelon Edition Review : Great Sound for FPS Gamers Reviewed by Chadog on 6:31 AM Rating: 5

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