One of the most common frustrations that many users face with their laptops is the inadequate built-in sound cards that don’t have the capacity to satisfy the needs of audiophiles. The ASUS Xonar U3 just might change all that, by providing the necessary bridge to enjoy premium sound options while remaining portable at the same time.
The whole concept of having a laptop or netbook is mobility. Therefore, it seems intuitive that any external accessories or enhancements should be equally convenient to transport as well.
This is where the Xonar U3 really shines. It is an external USB soundcard, and what makes it appealing is its small size—it is only a little wider than the average thumb drive. Don’t be fooled by its dimensions however, for it provides a worthy upgrade to your pre-installed soundcard.
Setting it up is a breeze, but it is not as simple as plug-and-play. After inserting the Xonar U3 into an available USB port (which fits in nice and secure), you will have to install the driver from the included CD-ROM and then reboot for the changes to take effect. Nevertheless, installation is fairly quick, and once it’s up and running, clicking on the volume icon in the Windows task bar reveals an additional mixer to independently control the Xonar U3. All your audio is now routed through the USB sound card, although you may change your settings to allow both soundcards to function at the same time, and you may specify which applications access either device.
To further fine-tune your audio settings, you must launch the Xonar U3 Audio Center, which can be done through the Windows notification tray or Start Menu. The initial “compact” user interface is simple and well-designed—it consists of a graphic EQ that doubles up as VU meters. It provides a wonderful visual representation of your audio and it is fairly accurate with its real-time readings. This compact GUI mode also shows which other settings are active, namely DSP Mode, EQ Mode, and Output Device.
The Xonar U3’s expanded GUI reveals all its options and is easy to navigate, regardless of whether you’re completely brand new to setting up sound cards or have some previous experience. The learning curve is minimal, and you will have no problem customizing your preferences. The usual standard preset EQ modes are available, such as Rock and Jazz, but you will probably dabble with the 10-band equalizer in order to achieve your preferred frequency balance. You can then save your own presets as UserDef files for quick access later on, which is useful for instantly applying your personal settings for different output systems.
There are also several DSP effects available, although I usually consider this as a novelty rather than a necessity. There are two interesting add-ons however, the Karaoke and VocalFX modes. As the first implies, it gives several creative options such as Key Shifting, Vocal Cancellation and Mic Echo. Out of the three, only Key Shifting presents any real viable use—it is able to effectively alter the pitch of your audio while preserving the tempo, but some users might experience stuttering and clicks in their audio because this can be a hardware demanding process.
The VocalFX mode on the other hand, lets you add some nice effects (i.e. delay, reverb) to audio from the X3’s microphone input, which can be fun to use during VOIP or gaming. An additional feature under the VocalFX mode is Magic Voice, which allows you to alter and modify your own voice, which can be fun for multiplayer gaming or just for messing around.
With regards to the Xonar U3’s sonic quality, this will mostly depend on the superiority of your headphones and/or speaker system. However, what this little pocket-sized device offers is a significant amount of amplification compared with your laptop’s built-in soundcard, which is perfect for headphones. This boost in overall volume provides a greater amount of headroom for increasing the volume later on, which helps in audio that have low volumes to begin with. Moreover, the Xonar U3 also adds a tiny amount of audio clarity, opening up a little bit more detail to high frequencies at lower listening volumes.
This little external soundcard also gives you the ability to enjoy 7.1 surround sound, providing you have the necessary speaker setup. It supports various Dolby technologies, so it is highly unlikely for you to run into any compatibility issues. Having full-fledged surround sound definitely amps up your laptop’s multimedia capabilities, and once you see how small the Xonar U3 is you will find it hard to believe how such a small device can be a bridge for such enormous sound.
The Xonar U3 is perhaps one of the most useful products that ASUS has come out with. It is small, convenient and does everything it offers to provide. It’s well designed, and is unobtrusive to your existing setup, unlike other soundcards in the market. It delivers, and it does so with flying colors.
Dimensions: 19.6 x 9.7 x 19.6cm
• Pocket size
• 7.1 surround sound
• Not plug-and-play
The ASUS Xonar U3 is on the cusp of perfection – it provides the ability to enjoy high-quality audio on your laptop, in a device that can literally fit inside your pocket.
Buy Meter: 9.5
[This review originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Gadgets Magazine]