Sporting chrome EMI shielding, some very unusual heavy-grade outputs, a built in headphone pre-amp and a dedicated power source, the Asus Xonar Xense has smashed its way out of the cage and onto the Atomic test bench. This card has a few differentiators going for it. Does it stand up against a serious set of ears and demanding 192kHz, 24bit audio, though?
We popped Crysis 2 in, and plugged the very comfortable Sennheiser PC 350 series cans into the gold finished 6.35mm jack outputs of the new Asus board. Instantly, our mind was emptied of all but one solitary word. Loud. This was rattling the very core of the Atomic audio testing district. The drivers in these headphones output far more than our little ears could take, and with perfect (perceived) clarity, too!
The package you get is fairly tightly integrated. The PC 350 headphones have their own profile inside the Asus control panel for impedance and gain matching. The PC 350 headphones are a 150-Ohm unit. The Xense will allow for Ohm settings of up to 300, however, suggesting this card was made with high end, high gain headphones in mind.
The PC 350s aren’t reference quality. They are vibrant, relatively transparent, punchy, loud and had an ample spread of low, mid and high colours on the sound stage, but they aren’t something you’d compare to a set of Sennheiser HD 650s.
The Asus Xonar Xense card however, is a different matter entirely. We plugged it into our usual reference speakers and were shocked by what we heard. Above and beyond the Creative X-Fi Titanium HD, and then some. We took apart this glistening monument to sound and peeled off the shiny exterior using RightMark’s Audio Analyser, as per usual.
RMAA scored a solid set of sixes across Frequency Response, Noise Level, Dynamic Range, Total Harmonic Distortion, Intermodulation Distortion, and Stereo Crosstalk. We’ve not seen a sound card do this before, nor do we expect Creative to rest on its laurels too long before they produce a card capable of this also.
So the question is, where does this leave us, in terms of what this card represents? It’s a weird mixture of things. If you want very serious sound from your PC, and you have a set of speakers and amplifier that can justify 192KHz resolution @ 24bit (and your content is of sufficient resolution and bit depth!), you might consider this the focal point of a very serious HTPC. It’s a highly potent and effective replacement for an expensive receiver. We blew some 24bit content through the Xense, and it certainly delivered on our Tannoy Reveal reference monitors.
For gamers, we’re left wondering. This card is a no-brainer if you want the very best that money can buy in terms of audio resolution, sampling quality, total harmonic distortion et al. That being said – it’s not actually that cheap, even with the arguably very good PC 350 headphones. Sure, they are good, but pairing these cans with this card leaves us wanting more. To experience this card in all its glory, you easily need a set of HD 600s, or a very high end set of speakers. In this respect, perhaps ASUS missed the mark in the matching of card to cans. That said, we cannot begrudge Asus for providing a value package.
The bottom line is that we can recommend this card to audiophiles and those that want the very best pristine audio from their PC. We can recommend the PC 350 headphones too, for gamers that want arguably one of the best gaming headsets out there. We can’t recommend them together however, if you have a foot in both of these encampments. Maybe it’s for the best that ASUS will shortly be offering the Xense as a stand-alone product. We'd buy the card in a heart beat, and add our own very sweet headphones. For time being, Atomic has a new king of sound cards, irrespective of the package eccentricities.