One rarely needs to buy a dedicated sound card these days. The integrated sound chips in most notebooks and PCs are more than adequate for listening to music and watching movies. However, if the sound from an older computer is below average, or users want a little more than stereo sound, then the Asus Xonar U1 is an enticing choice. It's USB-based, so it can be used either with a PC or a notebook, and is easy to install.
It can supply analogue stereo as well as digital surround sound. It worked without any problems on a brand new Lenovo notebook, which had USB 2.0 ports, yet it also ran perfectly on an old IBM Thinkpad T30, which has USB 1.1 ports. Likewise, we didn't have any issues using it with Windows XP or Windows Vista. This makes the Xonar an ideal upgrade for old notebooks and PCs, especially since it doesn't require users to venture under the hood of their PCs.
The sound card unit is housed in a flashy round base with a volume knob on top. Rotating the knob affects the master volume control in Windows, while pressing it mutes the sound. The base has two ports: one for the headphone output, which also doubles as an optical audio output. The other is for the supplied array microphone, and doubles as the line-in port. Our only criticisms of the main unit are that it has a short USB cable and doesn't have a visual volume level indicator.
The sound quality from the card was mostly clear and crisp during our tests, using Sennheiser MX90 ear buds, and a little louder than the sound from the standard audio chips in our test notebooks. We did notice some distortion at lower frequencies when running the card on the old Thinkpad notebook, however. Likewise, we had to make sure that we used the right playback mode.
The Xonar's software utility has four different playback modes, which use settings such as Dolby Virtual Speaker and Pro Logic to enhance the sound. For music, these aren't great as they make songs sound hollow and distant but for watching movies they are great. The sound can be customized further through the 'Effect' section of the utility, which has a 10-band equaliser, as well as 12 presets to choose from.
It's important to note that when this card is plugged into a notebook, the notebook's built-in speakers can't be used.
Only headphones or a set of powered speakers can be used, which grab the output from the Xonar's headphone port. For multi-speaker home theatre sound, the optical output can be connected to an amplifier, as long as users have a suitable cable.
An array microphone is supplied in the package, and this can be used to record voice comfortably from about half a metre away. Like the sound card's USB cable, the cable attached to the microphone is very short.
As for quality, it's decent for Internet applications, such as Skype, but not for applications where voice needs to be heard back instantaneously. Indeed, the karaoke function in the software utility didn't work too well while we sang along to Bohemian Rhapsody - there was a delay before the voice was heard through the speakers. Echo was also evident, and we couldn't fix this.