When it comes to listening to high-quality music, users depend on high-end audio equipment. PCs and notebooks come with integrated audio solutions and that has been the trend for several years now. For the kind of onboard speakers on most notebooks, these solutions work just fine, but when it comes to high-end headphones and earphones, enthusiasts demand more.
Decent, minimal design
Now, it’s possible to purchase a discrete audio card for a couple of thousand rupees for a desktop PC, but it’s not the case with a notebook. Asus’ Xonar U3 is a USB-powered DAC-cum-amplifier for earphones, headphones, as well as speakers. Clearly, there's a market for high-end earphones and headphones
Design and Features
The Xonar U3 looks like an oversized USB-flash drive. It has a USB port that’s protected with a cap. Asus has put a small handle that you can attach to a keychain and it also helps keep the cap from getting lost. The Xonar U3 is powered by the ASUS UA100 chip that was used on previous portable models of the Xonar series such as the Xonar U1. Unlike the desktop solutions, the U3 is limited by its size and also its capability to 16-bit, 48kHz sample rates. There are, of course the standard set of enhancements in the form of equalizer, virtual surround effects and the lot. Most audiophiles will turn these settings off. The lack of ASIO will also annoy some.
Driver design borrowed from other Xonar devices
The unit has two circular areas that look like small speakers, but they act as no more than indicators for the device. There are two 3.5mm audio jacks at the rear. One of them is the audio out, the other for the microphone. The Xonar U3 uses a similar set of drivers as some of the other cards from the Xonar. The U3 is a plug and play device. It sets up perfectly fine for use on Windows 7 without any drivers installed. Of course, then you don't get access to many of the settings for the DAC - there are several shortcomings in terms of settings.
We tried using the Xonar U3 on a number of devices from laptops to PCs. We used headphones and earphones to judge the quality of the U3 output. We used the TDK ST-800 headphones to see how well they could be driven by an audio solution of this size. We also used a pair of Koss KDE 250 earphones.
Designed like a flash drive
The U3 offers decent amplification and can drive a fairly good set of headphones with little effort. In fact, when compared to an integrated audio solution on a desktop, it’s actually a bit louder. There seems to be a drop in the amount of static, as well using the U3. The characteristic of the earphones and headphones doesn’t change drastically, but the boost helps you hear the finer details even with the volume turned down. Clearly, it’s better than most desktop and notebook solutions and this does enhance the experience, quite a bit. With very basic earphones or headphones however, you're unlikely to hear a big jump in quality.
Asus sells the Xonar U3 for Rs. 1,800, exclusive of taxes. At that price, it’s way cheaper than some of the more serious sound cards such as the Xonar DX and the Xonar Essense STX. Those cards are made for a completely different set of users with high-end enthusiast listeners. For someone spending roughly Rs. 2,000 on earphones, this is a matching audio source.
Primarily for portable use
The Xonar U3 is a decent solution for anyone using a netbook or a notebook, but has a decent pair of earphones for use while travelling. But if you're a desktop user, then you should ideally invest in a good pair of headphones and of course, a better audio card.
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