ASUS HP-100U Dolby Headphone Set Page: 1
 
ASUS HP-100U Dolby Headphone Set
 
 HP-100U
In 2007 ASUS broke the stranglehold Creative had on the soundcard market with the release of their Xonar range of audio products. The combination between excellent sound quality and sensible pricing was a hit and has lead to ASUS producing an array of Xonar based cards from the value models up to semi-professional quality.
 
Today we take a look at their combination of a Xonar U1 Audio Station, Dolby Headphones and a 2 channel vertical array microphone. This designed as an all-in-one solution for the mobile user, whilst the inclusion of the Xonar U1 should ensure that all users get the same quality of sound no matter what the abilities of their on-board soundcard are.
 
 
 Specifications
 
Something of a rarity amongst hardware the HP-100U is compatible with both Windows based systems and Apple's Macintosh so the Mac fans among you should be pleased. Let's take a look at the technical specifications for the three components :
 
Headphones and Microphone Array
 
Speaker Dimensions40mm
Array MicrophoneSuppresses ambient noises up to 15dB
Dynamic Range125Hz ~ 20KHz
Sensitivity (S.P.L)117 ± 3dB at 1mW/1KHz
Frequency Response20 ~ 20KHz Output S.P.L ~10dB
DistortionLess than 5% @ 1000Hz
 
U1 Audio Performance
 
Output SNR (silence, A-Weighted)100dB
Output SNR (~60dB, A-Weighted)96dB
Cross-talk (10Kohms, 1KHz)~104dB
 
Build-in Headphone Amplifier
 
THD+N<0.005% @ 47mW x2 / 32ohms
THD+N<0.006% @ 88mW x2 / 16ohms
96dB SNR
>1.1Vrms full-scale output voltage for >8ohms load
Frequency Response (~3dB/48KHz) : 20~20KHz for 32ohms
Headphone with a 8~150ohms @ >10mW x2 recommended.
 
On paper a very impressive set of parts. In-built headphone amplification is always a bonus. Anyone who's suffered through a VOIP conversation with someone who hasn't got a noise-cancelling microphone will appreciate it's ability to remove the underlying noises, and a very good dynamic range should ensure that all three uses, gaming, movies and music, will shine.
 
We will be looking at how those details translate into real-world results later, but as with all recent ASUS products the packaging is exemplary. So let's move on and have a closer look at that.
 


ASUS HP-100U Dolby Headphone Set Page: 2
 
Packaging
 
As previously mentioned, lately ASUS have been on something of a roll with the quality of their packaging and the HP-100U is, whilst not quite on a par with their graphics cards, nonetheless very good indeed. Especially when you consider that headphones, more than many other hardware items, will be mainly sold at retail outlets and therefore informative packaging is a must.
 
Front Box  Box back
 
The front of the box is everything one would expect. A bit picture of the three items contained within, all the relevant logos including four Dolby logos, for Dolby Digital, Dolby Headphones, Dolby Pro Logic IIx and Dolby Virtual Speaker. A logo for the Xonar that powers the U1, and a some brief text explaining the key features of the HP-100U.
 
The rear of the box is contains much less information and is a basic retread of front in multiple languages. The sides also give the specifications mentioned on the previous page and a run down of the minimum specs you need to meet to be able to run it. A mere 1.4GHz processor and 256MHz of RAM ensures that it will be compatible with almost any computer or laptop still running.
 
So why the plaudits for the packaging? Well it contains a few hidden gems, which are a boon to those of us who still peruse the local computer emporium.
 
Boxinside1   Insidebox2
 
Behind the front of the box are two Velcro fasteners that hold the key to the superlatives. By opening the stiff cardboard main front, very sturdy to withstand multiple curious shoppers, the contents are revealed. How often have you brought something and it doesn't resemble the picture, or you just love to see things in the flesh? Well ASUS has answered that with a handy plastic cover that allows you to see what is inside and also gives them a huge amount of real-estate to further explain the features without getting into the "tons of information in a tiny space" problem that can plague some boxes.
 
On the inside flap is a more detailed explanation of the four Dolby Home Theatre features and how they help create a realistic sonic environment, how the HP-100U can be connected and some of the uses it can be put to. But enough of the outside, let's open it up and get a look at the goodies.


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Inside the box
 
The box is a normal flip top one sealed with a easy-tear clear sticker. None of the "how the heck am I supposed to open this without ripping it" that plague some hardware items.
 
The contents come in two vacuum-formed trays. A white plastic one containing all the hardware itself, and the clear one that mainly serves as a protective cover from the prying fingers of those who've sussed the Velcro tabs on the main box. Neither of these have any securing mechanism between the two of them, making finally getting to your purchase a quick and simple process.
 
PackageOur first look
 
As you can see it's a very compact arrangement. The headphones are a little tricky to remove as they aren't the simplest shapes for the vacuum-former to work around, but it's nothing greatly problematic. The microphone is held in securely and the Xonar U1 itself is covered with another small plastic cup to help protect the shiny aluminium finish.
 
All the cables are held using twist-ties apart from the Xonar U1 which has a permanently fixed ASUS branded double-sided Velcro cable tie. This has the fur on one side and the hooks on the other, ending the problem that some Velcro can have in that the hook and fur don't ever quite line up as tight or as loose as you require.
 
The main problem with the packaging and the reason I compared it unfavourably to some other ASUS efforts is in the manual and the driver/utilities disc. Neither of these have anywhere to be kept apart from down the back of the box behind the main hardware holder. For the CD this isn't much of a problem but the manual was slightly bent at the corners. Admittedly not a huge issue, but when something is new I like the only marks on it or bends to be a result of my own clumsiness and not a problem with the packaging.
 
 
Taking it all out and first impressions
 
OUthtebox
Once out of the box three things become immediately apparent.
 
Firstly, that the headphones are nice and light. Many an evenings gaming has been ruined by headphones that are very uncomfortable for anything but the shortest session, so hopefully these will be better suited to the long hours I will be wearing them. The height adjustment mechanism is sturdy and whilst it doesn't have the range of many headphones I don't know many people who wear them whilst still in a top hat, so it has more than plenty for all but the Ascot faithful.
 
The microphone is amazingly light, and if anything slightly top heavy. It will be interesting to see if this is actually an issue once it is in place and being moved around a lot. The arm section has a lot of flexibility but still holds itself wherever it's put without a fuss.
 
Secondly, the base unit itself is hefty indeed. A very solid hunk of aluminium has been used and it's both pleasantly cool and definitely wont be accidentally moving around the desk. As it doubles as the volume control for the system and so will likely see a lot of use it's reassuring to know that it has been designed in the knowledge that it's not just going to sit in place.
 
Third and finally, ASUS certainly haven't been generous with the cabling. Because my desk and PC are in my lounge I always use the PC with headphones on. I appreciate that ASUS are aiming this as a solution to the mobile gamer, but it's certainly not something that you could slip into a pocket. Full-size headphones rarely are. So to discover that the USB lead (hard wired) for the Xonar U1 is a mere 16 inches long precludes it ever being used it the top USB ports of my case. In fact with a very large case you'll struggle to use it in some of the higher ones and still have the base in easy reach to adjust volumes or mute. The microphone has a 3.5mm hard-wired jack with only 19 inches of cable. Between the two that's probably the size of a reasonable desk and so it will need to hold up to its claims of noise-reduction and excellent sensitivity. Finally the headphones have 4 feet of cable on them. I normally use Hi-Fi style headphones that come with more cable than I could ever possibly need, so to suddenly find myself with such a short leash took some getting used to. Luckily I didn't get up without taking them off, but it's something I was always aware of.
 
Enough waffle, how does it perform. Read on


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Installation
 
Installation is extremely easy. The ports on the main unit are clearly labelled with the left one for the microphone and the right, naturally, for the headphones. Plug the USB cable into any free port and insert the driver and utilities disc. The drivers themselves are light, with a small resident application to adjust for the graphic equaliser and choosing one of the four DSP settings. Then you are all set and ready to make your ears bleed!
 
Test Setup
 
Our test setup for today is as follows :
 
CPU : AMD X4 620 @ 3.2 GHz.
Motherboard : Gigabyte MA785GT-UD3H (On-board audio disabled)
RAM : 2GB Corsair XMS3 DDR3 @ 1333MHz
GPU : ASUS EAH4850 TOP
OS : Windows 7 Home Premium 64
Sound : ASUS HP-100U Dolby Headphone set.
 
Because it comes as a package I'll be using it all for any tests. However, each element has little things I want to mention, and it's a great excuse for a closer look at each part.
 
The Xonar U1 Soundcard/Control element.
 
Volume  Xonar
 
The Xonar U1 provides the main thrust of the package, and also has turned out to be the weakest part in elements. That is not to say that it is by any means bad, just to me it's got a lot of niggles.
 
Firstly the software and specifically the ASUS Xonar control panel that is provided with the HP-100U. Upon first installation the software didn't really function as the PDF manual indicated it would. The manual showed the headphones identified as Dolby ones and various little boxes and buttons. No amount of fresh installs or similar things made a difference. Secondly the volume nob in the software, whilst certainly acting like a volume nob, isn't linked in any way to volume on the Xonar U1. Turning it all the way down, as in the screenshot, and then turning the volume back up via the U1 you can hear music clearly, but the software hasn't changed. It definitely needs to be linked. The DSP settings, visible in the bottom right, don't appear to make any noticeable difference to the sound at all. Not even minor increases in bass or middle.Least of all any alleged "hall" like effect. Luckily I don't enjoy being entertained by pretending I'm in a tiled room, but it's still a concern. 
 
I'd go so far as the say the software is barely beta. Loads of buttons don't do anything. Drop down boxes contain nothing. Settings do nothing. Generally it's not good at all. Luckily for ASUS it's far and away the worst part of the deal and can be patched.
 
My other niggle is, comparatively, slight. However I dislike my music or movies to truly blare my eardrums out. The Volume control built in to the Xonar U1, the top part of the base, with the LED, rotates as a large volume control, adjusts the volume in 4% intervals. If anyone else has great hearing, then they'll know as I do that 4% can be the difference between too quiet and ear-splittingly loud. And if there is one thing this setup can do with aplomb it is ear-splittingly loud. Barely 40% volume on most things was enough to make my headache, whereas my own headphones are in the 90% bracket. I appreciate however that most people like their stuff loud, so that certainly wont be an issue with them. As I say, slight niggles, and truly woeful software, initially spoil the party.
 
 
2 Channel Noise Reducing Microphone
 
Mike Quite simply this was a revelation in sound quality and not so much in the design stage. Let's get the bad out of the way first. The base is far too light. Way too light. It falls over in the merest hint of a breeze. In some ways this can be compensated for by leaving the microphone standing up straight to keep the centre of balance over the middle and alleviate the tipping problem. 
 
The microphone works equally brilliantly regardless of orientation, so if it doesn't need adjusting because it's abilities are so good it can hear perfectly well in the vertical position, why give us a flexible "neck". If they have given us a flexible neck then, like myself, buyers will think of it like every other desk-microphone and bend it toward them, Whereupon it falls over.
 
It is aching for a little junk in the trunk which would make the neck useful, reassure consumers and, with such a tiny amount of cable available, stop it falling over as soon as you move it. A 10g weight in the bottom would eliminate this whole problem.
 
But the sound quality. WOW. I ran it through both Skype, and Audacity to test how well it drowned out background noise and how well it picked up voice from distance. I ended up three feet away, talking in my normal quiet voice, whilst the microphone was on the top of my tower with the fans doing their thing. Without adjusting the neck in any way from the vertical it easily picked up what I was saying, and upon playback had drowned out most of the din coming from my 12v fans. My Skype partner for the test reported a vast improvement upon the standard headset I normally use in both clarity of my speech and the reduction in noise from the general vicinity.
 
 
A brief word about the headphones
 
Headphone comfort
Because the audio performance on the headphones is the main area under review in the next page I thought I'd just cover the comfort of the headphones themselves. As I mentioned earlier they are very light indeed and certainly anyone who finds headphones either push too hard on their ears, or are generally too hefty to wear for long stretches, will be delighted to know how comfortable these are. The amount of adjustment available is excellent. Large amounts of padding on the ears, as you can see from the photograph on the right. 
 
The hole for your ear to sit in is large enough to accommodate all but the most enormous human aural interfaces and has some soft foam padding to again alleviate pressure and increase comfort.
 
Finally with a closed back the volume can be set quite high indeed, lucky because these are some loud puppies, before you get the look from across the other room.
 
I utilised a few test pieces of noise to see how accurate the claimed frequency response was. I got as low as the rated 20Hz before I could no longer hear it so kudos indeed to ASUS for accurate specs.
 
No we've covered the foibles of each part let's watch some movies, grab some music and enjoy our favourite games before we draw a conclusion.


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Now the preamble is out of the way here is the part you've all been waiting for. How good do they sound? Firstly I must point out that I am more of a mid-range man. I like clarity and would prefer a softer bass rather than the ear-bleeding, ornament shaking kind.
 
Movies
 
What would be the point of Dolby Headphones if I didn't dig out some favourite old movies to really test the comparison between a film I know well through headphones I know well, and the differences with the ASUS Dolby ones. For this test I set the mode in the Xonar utility to Movie and settled in.
 
To this end I grabbed a couple of recent films, a couple of favourites and a couple that should provide a good test. The films chosen were Igor, The Watchmen, The Fifth Element, Blade Runner Final Cut, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Dark Knight. If anything can make Christian Bales husky whisper audible then these should be the fellows.
 
Performance all around was outstanding. Whatever reservations I might have about the quality of the software that comes supplied with it or the tiny cable lengths were quickly forgotten. Dialogue was clear and easy to understand, yes even in The Dark Knight, whilst background noises and things I'd never heard before bombarded my senses. Whether it was the gentle quiet romance of Eternal Sunshine, or the firefights in Watchmen it was all handled without fuss and without losing any clarity at all.
 
Two moments really stood out, and both of them auger well for the music test, and that is a moment in The Fifth Element when a operatic Diva is singing. That sounded better than I have ever heard before and it's a film I have seen countless times. In a similar vein, Blade Runner Final Cut showed the Vangelis score in a way I'd not quite appreciated. Dramatic when it needed to be and yet subtle and quite at times too. If you only use your home computer for movies you can stop reading right now and go and buy a pair. Incredible.
 
Music
 
Music is, like so many things in life, subjective. The expression "one mans meat is another's poison" has never held truer than if you enter into a musical discussion with someone. With the Xonar Utility in "music" mode I chose a variety of tunes and genres, some I know very well, some provide the bass or quiet needed to get a feel for the full abilities of the headphones. To this end up chose quite an eclectic set of music. I started, like I do with anything musical, with the Dresden Dolls. As a two piece it's important for the piano and drums to sing out equally. For the bass-heads amongst you I chose one of the few heavy bass songs I could bring myself to listen to, Sven-R-G - Going Crazy. Finally a couple from different genres to test all ranges, starting light with Beethoven's Fifth, and finishing with the new Rammstein album.
 
Such a wide variety of music should surely trip these headphones up. The HP-100U handled them easily. Sven-R-Gs bass was thumping but not distorted. Crystal clear would be too strong but you a good feel for the driving bass without knocking down pots and things. When it transition to the breaks with heavy synthesisers they retained their clarity. Rammstein again sounded clear and, despite them singing industrial metal in German, they sounded better than ever before. Staying with Germanic artists for a moment, the incredibly famous Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was up next. I won't profess to be a classical music aficionado, but the HP-100U made the orchestra almost come alive. There was a wonderful feeling of space and lightness that allowed every instrument room to breath whilst still coming together and interplaying in a way that surely makes Beethoven smile.
 
I left the Dresden Dolls until last, because they are my favourite band and if previous results stand up I couldn't wait to hear many things I hadn't heard. Sure enough what was previously a little bit of a sonic car crash in places suddenly made sense. Glassy pianos rose above the drums.
 
Gaming
 
Unlike even music or movies, which have to retain some semblance of reality, games are the one area that can quickly put audio hardware to the test with anything from obscure bleeps to the crackle of your teammate requesting assistance on the radio. Having been a complete gaming addict since the days of Tempest and Moon Cresta, I really wanted to put the HP-100U through its paces on a fair selection of games.
 
To reward those who have read this far rather than skipped to the conclusion, I started with Modern Warfare 2. Infinity Wards latest in the Call Of Duty franchise. Once again the headphones shone. MW2 is outstanding at recreating both the uneasy silence and sheer chaos of warfare, and the HP-100Us delivered such highly defined sounds that you really could play through the quiet sections without straining every sinew trying to catch a footstep, and in a heavy firefight the noise from your weapon, and the direction finding of others weapons, were easily distinguishable even with headset noise.
 
Need For Speed : Shift was next. Providing some of the best race-car noises heard in game thus far it became a lot easier to keep track of your competitors without having half an eye on your mirrors. Works tuned cars really did whine, spit and create the kind of hellish din a pure racecar would without the sound ever becoming muddy. The various external noises of tyre squeal, wind, your crew chief etc all found space within the soundscape to drag you deeper within the fantasy of barrelling round in a hypercar.
 
The final modern game to be put to the test was the ever faithful Company of Heroes. For this I used the Tales of Valor add-on. The bouts of silence interspersed by a comment from an annoyed Pioneer gave the whole experience the immersive quality that CoH is renowned for. And when the first sound of a incoming artillery shell were detected the large response range of the headphones gave me a tiny bit of earlier warning that I had previously enjoyed, and when it landed I nearly ducked under the desk.
 
Lastly I ran through some of my classics. Just to see how they sounded on some proven excellent headphones. Naturally there is a lot less going on it something like Super Mario World or Twinkle Star Sprites, but the sounds there are were faithfully recreated. I kept reaching in my pocket for another 10p.
 
Phew. Let's move on and draw all this together into a conclusion.


ASUS HP-100U Dolby Headphone Set Page: 6
 
Conclusion
 
So what thoughts and conclusion can we draw from all this?
 
Testing the ASUS HP-100U Dolby Headphone Set has led me to have quite a conflicting opinion upon it. There is no doubt that initial impressions are good. The packaging is excellent being both sturdy, clean to look at thanks to the excellent Velcro door system, and containing all the information someone planning to purchase could ask for.
 
Each of the three items are packaged well within it, and certainly look the part. Build quality is excellent, the design appears to be very good and the connections are simple. Because ASUS haven't gone the route of "install the drivers before plugging in the hardware" that can catch out the impatient, even the most manual-phobic person could be up and running in a very short period of time.
 
However it would be a good thing if you were one of those people who only reads the manual when all other avenues fail. The manual that comes in the box is slim at best. In fact it's barely sufficient to be called a quick start guide. The driver/utility CD does come with a more comprehensive PDF manual, but why go to the effort of printing one manual and then expect people to sit in front of their computers reading the real one? PDF manuals are a pet-hate of mine. There is nothing to compare to having a hard copy of it all in front of you.
 
Once installed again that was a difficult first impression. Despite the many claims of the manual and repeated attempts to reinstall the software, the including control software refused to do almost anything it promised. The four DSP buttons for Music, Gaming, Films and Hi-Fi mode certainly change the button that lights up, but I couldn't find any obvious changes in the sound quality between the setting. Luckily the Hi-Fi mode that it defaults to is excellent, and so this is a small issue. The volume control in the software not being "attached" to either the volume within Windows, or the volume control built in to the Xonar U1 is also a huge oversight. To have one of them reading zero, but still have the volume working as expected is not impressive. Maybe there are some early bugs in the software or early compatibility problems with Windows 7 64 and the problems will be ironed out. But still, as this is a retail package, it's unimpressive to say the least.Fortunately once I just ignored the ASUS utility and purely treated it as a headphone, microphone and volume package it shone.
 
The sound quality of the microphone is incredible. The short amount of cable that initially presented a problem actually doesn't matter because the combination of the noise-reduction built in to the microphone, and it's exceptional ability to detect voices at natural volumes means it can be left it one place and not moved as and when you need it. The base is still far too light for my liking and a even a small amount of extra heft would aid the stability, and the users peace of mind, greatly.
 
The Xonar U1 provides good quality sound and is certainly built like a tank. The volume control has a tiny notchy quality to it, think of a good scroll wheel, which doesn't interfere with it's usage. Although I'd love to have the capability to change how much each turn increases or reduces the volume because sometimes that extra four percent changed something quiet into something very loud indeed. And my word does this do loud. On half volume I could barely tolerate it, so if you're a bit deaf or wish to become so this is absolutely the product for you. Assuming you don't want to put it too far away from your computer, thanks to ASUS giving you so little cable to work with.
 
Finally the headphones themselves are the star of the package. Large comfortable ear pieces coupled to a light frame meant that even after a solid eight hours in them I wasn't desperate to remove them unlike most other headphones. The sound quality is fantastic with surprising amounts of definition between loud and quiet things, and the ability to differentiate multiple sounds and their source from each other was quite an eye opener. Or an ear opener if you will.
 
Final thoughts and rating
 
Rating this is very difficult. It has an expected retail price of around £75 so it's certainly not cheap. It's marketed as a Mobile Dolby Solution, but clearly fullsize headphones and a weighty volume/controller are not the kind of items you can slip into your pocket. The multitude of issues I experienced with the software certainly put a dampener on my initial feelings and if having the capability to adjust if you are standing in the Albert Hall or a tiny corridor is vital to you, they are tough to recommend.
 
However, if you need an excellent microphone and a fantastic pair of headphones for all around usage, it's very difficult not to recommend these. The sound quality is good enough that I never once felt the need or desire to tweak any equalisers.
 
The Good
- Comfortable headphones for long usage
- Fantastic sound quality from the headphones under all conditions.
- The microphone is truly outstanding and I will miss it greatly.
- A good value all-in-one sound solution
- Excellent packaging, apart from the manual and disc being just "in the box"
 
Mediocre
- Cable lengths. Why do companies insist on being so stingy with the cables?
- Pricing. Reasonable for a sound-card and headphone package.
 
The Bad
- The manual is woeful, and despite the PDF manual being quite good a hard-copy would always be more welcome.
- That software. Risible. So many of the extra features are controlled with it. Or not in this case.
 
 
 
 
Thank you for Asus for providing the review sample today. Discuss these in our forums.