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Say hello to the Xense
Asus hides much of the Xense's hardware under an EMI shield polished to a mirror-like finish. This thin metal piece is contoured to match the cup shape of the included headset, which is a nice aesthetic touch. So is the faux-chrome, although you're not going to see much of it with the card buried inside a case.

The shield is held in place by five screws secured by a smidgen of blue Loctite. You'll need to remove these screws and lift the shield to gain access to the Xense's replaceable operational amplifiers, or OPAMPs. The stock JRC units tied to the front-channel output can be swapped for units of your choice. Asus even sells its own OPAMP upgrade kit for the card: a $10 package that includes a pair of LME49720 chips from National Semiconductor. Newegg is actually throwing the upgrade kit in for free if you buy a Xense before the end of the year.

The card itself is a full-height affair measuring 6.6 inches (168 mm) long. It's actually the same length as the Xonar DG, although unlike the budget model, the Xense has a PCI Express x1 interface. Since the AV100 Oxygen HD audio chip was built to ride a PCI bus, Asus has to use a PLX bridge chip to tap into modern PCIe slots. Bridging isn't as slick as a native PCIe implementation, but those are scarce in the audio world. Sound cards aren't exactly hurting for bandwidth, anyway, and we've had no problems with other bridged Xonars.

A standard PCI Express x1 slot is only equipped to supply up to 10W of power. That's not ideal for the Xonar Xense, which has a four-pin Molex connector for auxiliary juice. We'll test power consumption a little later in the review to see whether the Xense is particularly thirsty.

Over to the right of the power plug and just out of the frame in the picture above, the Xense offers headers for a front-panel connector, an auxiliary digital input, and an S/PDIF output. These internal ports are complemented by an array of additional jacks that poke out of the rear expansion plate.

Alongside quarter-inch headphone and microphone ports, the Xense has a digital S/PDIF output with an RCA plug. In between those ports sits what looks like a gold-plated DVI connector. That isn't a video output, though.

Instead, the port feeds an eight-channel array of 1/8" analog audio jacks. That means no more crawling around under your desk to switch between headphones and a surround-sound speaker setup, and no jack sharing for the microphone input. Asus also throws in 1/4" adapter for 1/8" devices and a TOS-Link converter for the S/PDIF output.

You'll also find an entire headset in the box—and not just a token throw-in, but a special version of Sennheiser's PC 350 gaming headset, which normally sells for $180 on its own. These closed cans have 38-mm dynamic speakers backed by neodymium magnets. Sennheiser claims a frequency response of 10-26,000Hz and distortion of less than 0.1%. The adjustable boom mic has noise canceling built in and a 50-16,000Hz rated frequency response.

While testing the Xonars, I found the PC 350 to be comfortable to wear for hours at a time, and I quite like how the headset folds flat for transport. I expected the closed design to make my ears sweat, but much to my surprise, these Sennheisers feel a little cooler than our HD 555 headphones, which are an open design, albeit one with fuzzy earmuffs that seem to retain heat. The PC 350's closed cups definitely do a better job of insulating the user from his surrounding environment, which you may prefer depending on whether you use headphones to avoid disturbing others or vice versa.

Sennheiser's standard PC 350s have 1/8" headphone and microphone jacks connected to nearly 10 feet of cabling. The Xense edition keeps the cable length but swaps in quarter-inch jacks to match the card's oversized ports. You also get an in-line volume dial and mute switch, both of which should be useful for gamers and Skype users alike.

Although we're going to concentrate on the sound cards today, I should take a moment to give my impressions on the PC 350s. I don't have a lot of experience with gaming headsets outside of Psyko's funky 5.1-channel model, but I do use a pair of HD 555 headphones with regularity, and I have a bit of a picky ear. When compared to the HD 555s, which can be found online for under $100, the PC 350s sound to me like they're a little short on body and richness. I can't put my finger on anything more specific that's lacking, and to be honest, the difference is quite subtle. Matching volume levels exactly is nearly impossible due to the Xense's headphone gain needing to be adjusted to account for differing impedances, making a proper back-to-back comparison rather difficult to conduct.

I suspect some of my siding with the HD 555s may be a preference for how open cups sound versus the headset's closed-cup design. One should also keep in mind that the PC 350 folds flat and incorporates a microphone, while the HD 555s are strictly headphones and more cumbersome to transport.