Setup, Design & Observations
Setting up was simple with consideration. Plug in the Xonar via USB 2.0 using the cable provided, install drivers then plug in audio device of choice. Some may need a RCA splitter for their speakers which isn't provided unfortunately but otherwise straight forward. One consideration is, on the underside of the product there is a small switch saying 'USB 1.1 - 2.0', make sure it is in the 2.0 position otherwise you may run into issues with installing the driver. The Xonar U7 is fairly light and compact and looks sleek enough to have on your desktop. As I understand it, the audio processor used is the CM6632A which is a high performance USB audio processor with the CS4398 DAC handling the 24-Bit/ 192 kHz needs of the primary stereo inputs with the CS4362A chip handling the rest of the channels. The headphone amp appears to be integrated on the CM6632A processor, something that is slightly questionable but may be fine. Another mention is that the Xonar U7 supports AISO.
The microphone volume control and master volume control dial is handy and easy to access while being able to swap between speakers and headphone by just clicking in the dial is genius, a feature many will enjoy.
Right Mark Audio Analyzer
RMAA suite is designed for testing quality of analog and digital paths of any audio devices, be it a sound card, an MP3 player, a consumer CD/DVD player or an acoustic set. The results are obtained by playing and recording test signals passed through the tested audio path by means of frequency analysis algorithms. A more common mark is also provided for those unfamiliar with measured technical parameters.
Understanding the limitations of a test is something that should be addressed in regards to giving an accurate portrayal. RMAA is a useful tool but testing has many variables thus results are only comparable under similar set standards and parameters and shouldn't be compared directly to other results that may have been obtained under different testing conditions.
In this comparison, I used the backlooping method of plugging an 'out' jack into the 'in' jack. The Xonar U7 allows for 24bit 192kHz recording so I also tested at this sample rate. Mostly the Xonar U7 performed on par with the reference integrated solution, this doesn't mean to say that the Xonar U7 didn't perform well when you consider that the Realtek ALC 889 is fairly high performance in regards to integrated solutions. However, it does raise the question 'how much difference does it make subjectively?'
16 bit 44kHz
24 bit 96kHz
24 bit 192 kHz
Upon using the Xonar U7 there is definitely better fidelity over the integrated solution giving clarity and shine to the highs and bass. This difference was noticeable via speakers and headphone and the Xonar U7 does give better perceived audio fidelity than the RMAA results suggest. The headphone amp feature seems a bit weak, with normal gain being too quiet (using just a 32Ohm headset) and the medium gain setting was needed to be used. Even on medium, the volume seemed dipped compared to normal use as I would expect, however, I didn't want to use the high gain setting in case it could give too much power.
Overall the Xonar U7 can provide those big sounds gamers and movie enthusiasts enjoy with improved fidelity. Of course, with such a product you will want some capable speakers to compliment such a thing.