Asus Xonar U7 and Focusrite Scarlett 18i20

Asus Xonar U7 – adding a touch of class to your notebook audio

Although we do not as a rule do comparison tests it was interesting to get a contributor write in whom had purchased both the Asus Xonar U7 and the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 external audio interfaces. Here are his comments:

Needing a high quality audio mixer with USB interface I dabbled with the numerous options advertised, sadly the Behringer FCA1616 was out of stock which left me with the Steinberg UR824 and Focusrite 18i20. Both receive equal attention on the forums but the Steinberg was possibly just a bit too heavy in price for my intentions although admittedly the landed price for the Focusrite as advertised at 500U$D came closer to 800$ which could have made the Steinberg a lot more attractive (or buying two FCA1616s). After testing the Focusrite, rip off price or not, my buyer’s remorse quickly dissipated.

For wanting to catch 7.1 surround movies the 18i20 was sometimes a bit of a bind. I use Reaper as my main DAW and as an interface for aspiring musicians it’s really a beautiful piece of equipment but it is a bit heavy to switch back and forth from projects to surround – and no, it’s a simple setup process but I needed something which with only one click of a button would give me music and surround sound with the very necessary option of having USB connectivity or direct hooking to a Bluray player through SPDIF. I looked at the Vantec USB card but this was now obsolete, the supplier recommended the Asus Xonar U7 which I did a little bit of research on and gauging by the glowing reports was a no brainer to purchase.

Looking at the two interfaces side by side one needs to realise that they are completely different, catering for the mid budget professional audio market to the gamer and notebook user looking for better audio quality.

Asus Xonar U7
Asus Xonar U7

Comparison with Realtek HD

Doing a blind listening test on two colleagues the U7 was the winner, not hands down of course – for high quality HD audio (or HRA – high resolution audio) the U7 is good, pretty darned good. By no means is the Realtek a slouch and admittedly a big advantage of the U7 is the software but hey, this is why we have blind listening tests. More about this later.

Scarlett 18i20

The Focusrite Scarlett should cost 5 times that of the U7. It has ADAT out which means an extra 8 input channels which makes the Octo-pre a very useful (and expensive) companion) to add 8 extra input channels. The 18i20 utilises a software mixer called  Mix Control which is also used to configure your inputs/outputs. For a home studio the 18i20 is really a great product. It also has two headphone amplifiers.

What makes the Focusrite more expensive than the U7 is not just build quality but the low noise microphone preamplifiers, all 8 of them. Better known for their ISA 110 mic preamplifiers, Red Range and Rednet used in pro recording studios, the Saffire range became very popular amongst musicians and mid-budget home studio owners. The Saffire range was Firewire powered which unfortunately is in the process of becoming defunct, opening the road to USB class compliant devices, the Scarlett being one of them. Another cost attached to more expensive gear is the DAC. High end DACs cost upwards of 1000$ and this is where many audiophiles believe is the fall down of cheaper, even mid-budget digital devices. More expensive is better. At 500$ therefore the layman would assume that the 18i20 is cheap junk. But it’s not. If you live in the USA, 499$ is possibly pocket change.

The tests: Asus Xonar U7 and Scarlett 18i20

These were done with a Sennheiser 457 and a loaned HD8. Same program material input and different codecs – mp3, wav, wma, ogg and cda. The lossy formats were not all that good, the wma files I thought were a lot better and the cda – well, that’s why we buy cda. But cda is also a bit of a problem because it is not rated as very good audio, indeed only mediocre. You Tube audio brings out the weaknesses on home recordings and where we had professional recordings the sound difference was incredible. All of this is obvious of course. Not so the listening tests. Listening tests are always subjective so if we had to do a test with ten different opinions this may have swayed things a bit but you be the judge, this is not an audiophile portal.

The U7: strong low bass, mids and weaker highs. All high quality program material. Brilliant for gamers of course. Mid budget audio card for your notebook? Very good buy.

The 18i20: strong bass, mids very good, highs great, frequency response on par with the best of them, possibly even the more expensive RMEs but at three times the price point this starts becoming more of a high end showdown and farce. The 18i20 costs 5 times more than the U7 but definitely is not five times the quality from a sound aspect. Is this comparison fair?

Fair Comparison

First of all, for people like ourselves, the non-audiophile community, we need to look at what makes a fair deal and herein lies the problem – not all formats are the same. Our home CD has been recorded at a sample rate of 44.1kbps 16 bit which gives a transfer rate of 1411kbps. MP3 has highest bitrate set to only 320kbps and when recording at 192kHz 24bit the transfer rate is 9216kbps. As your microphone is an analogue device, this signal is first transferred to digital and saved into memory. When you decide to listen to it, it must be downconverted through a DAC to analogue again. Sounds pretty stupid to me but then again digital has a huge advantage, size and SNR (signal to noise ratio). By size, we look at storage medium and recorder and by SNR we need to look no further than having an 8-track magnetic tape recorder which can record 8 tracks simultaneously and playing back with virtually no (realistically speaking, none whatsoever) audible noise. Yes it can be done but not on a standard RTR (reel to reel) and neither will the storage medium cost anywhere near that of a DVD. For all intents and purposes digital is a clear winner unless you opt in to pay over a 100 000$ for a studio 24-track.

Our best quality album we had was a 24-bit/192kHz FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) – we also downloaded a file from eClassical, the track being Soprano and baroque ensemble – H. Purcell: “Sweeter than roses” from this album (1536-1) – Carolyn Sampson, Laurence Cummings, Elizabeth Kenny, Anne-Marie Lasla. Maybe not my kind of music but why listen to good quality rock when you can have classical?

Note: The track above was converted to .wav 192kHz/24bit.

Back to the Test

Both the U7 and 18i20 are designed for a different target market, taking the Focusrite to a gamers party may look snazzy but it sure isn’t practical. The U7 is also likely not to get much appeal in your homestudio rack. Therefore we are not looking at the cons here – they are both completely different products with really great output quality. BTW Asus do make higher end products but so do Focusrite. Emphasis here is on listening pleasure and they both come out looking and sounding pretty damned good.

In my own listening tests I must admit the Focusrite detail at the high end was much crisper than the U7 but using quality headphones and only stereo imaging they are both excellent. We need to stress here that the Focusrite is been used in an area for which it is known, music reproduction, the Asus not. I’ll also stress here that for it’s price I cannot fault the U7. Just as mentioned, you would not drag the 18i20 to a gamers party – the U7 is just so much easier and better for this purpose. Although it’s not something one would like to harp on about, cheap headphones for your listening pleasure just does not cut it. I like the 457s because it’s exceptional value. If I had the money I would buy the HD8’s and more money, the HD-800s.

Depending what you want it for and what you are prepared to pay. There are of course other products on the market which can suit every budget. I own both these products and would buy them again although I would shop around for the 18i20 so as not to feel so blatantly ripped off. As it was our intention to act as a guide not as a bringer of bad news, both these products live up to their hype and are just perfect for music reproduction as well as 7.1 surround sound. The hype is all around silent mic preamps for the 18i20 and for the U7, 114dB SNR. Both of them are extremely quiet.

A word on headphones and audio tracks

The Sennheiser 457 is known to be a bit heavy on bass, the HD8s a better all round performer technically wise. Also poles apart price wise, from 30$ for the 457 to nearly 400 for the HD8. Again not nearly ten times the quality for ten times the price. The AKG K-267 is supposedly better but my personal favourite is the Sennheiser Momentum, unfortunately not available for testing. The HD8 and AKG K-267 are professional DJ headphones, the Momentum more for studio purposes. Listen first, check the seating position on your head – remember you may have to use these for at least 60 minutes at a time. I like the 457s for that exact purpose, bass and all. If you have wads of cash the Sennheiser HD-800 is rated as one of the world’s best.

Now that you have decent set of headphones, great audio interface coupled through USB to your PC we have a really, really huge range of music to listen to. Unfortunately free downloads and pirated music comes with a huge con and besides being locked up or having to face a hefty fine almost all home recorded videos or audio (ripped from DVDs or CDs) really ever sounds the same as the one purchased from the store. Also look at where the material comes from. I won’t rip off the many companies that have their own recording studios and labels suffice to say that the USA and British material was nearly always better than elsewhere. Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water is a case in point. On a good sound system things just came to life with the American label. So distribution under licence can mean many things, as ‘hot off the press’.

Compression is used more and more in the studio and sadly on a good system it shows. If you are planning to pay out some of your hard earned money on a good audio interface remember that a lot of music these days has been ‘modified’ somewhat from the artist to the disk and the dynamic range gets compromised. The general rule of listening to a great artist, with a great dynamic range live – Freddie Mercury would have been one, can sound spectacular on a high end system but it simply sucks when the life is pulled out of the music for broadcasting purposes (high compression on FM) and now sadly, CDs. When purchasing a sound system take your favourite program material with – it’s your ears and your money. Money does not always buy you the best, in many ways our audio industry is lead by marketing, not the other way round. Blind listening tests prove this time and time again.

The Sennheiser HD-800 is not a budget set of headphones, in fact it is regard as one of the best in the industry. We would not use this for gaming just as we would not use a Steinberg 824 or any RME. Know what you want to do and then take it from there. Many music purists have oodles of cash, buy what you can afford but use common sense as well.¬† Bose 901s are really terrific speakers but for what you pay, most purists are in agreement that they are merely mediocre. I don’t think so.

I liked the Asus Xonar U7 because of it’s simplicity and elegance. Likewise the software. The Scarlett drives my NU4-6000, a powered mixer with equaliser and a Crown XLS-202D. Superb from a recording point of view, making jingles, recording artists and fooling around.

It’s all between the ears.