Review: PreSonus AudioBox USB

Since July last year I’ve owned a nice laptop, and haven’t been using a desktop computer much at all. Laptop computers are great, but as I pointed out in my review of the one I bought, the onboard speakers suck. I can wear headphones with my laptop, which produces quite reasonable sound, but unfortunately wearing headphones all day becomes a pain (literally). So in January I bit the bullet and bought a new external audio interface for my laptop. There were a number of considerations for my purchase:

  1. It needed to sound good (or rather, not sound like anything at all). I have plans to do a bit of audio recording via this hardware, and it is important that as little of my audio equipment as possible taints the sound.
  2. It needed to be portable. Although I don’t often move my laptop outside my bedroom, the option to do onsite recordings would be very handy. This means no external power supply, and no large rackmounted equipment, no matter how sexy it was.
  3. I wanted it to connect via USB. I have all the external devices on my laptop connected via a USB hub, and a single Firewire device would mean a second cable. While true recording engineers might scoff at the idea of putting the sound hardware on the same USB hub as any other device, in practise I haven’t seen any difference, and it sure makes it a lot easier to manage.
  4. MIDI would definitely be a bonus, though with most MIDI controllers today coming with USB connections, this wasn’t crucial. Besides which, I don’t have a MIDI controller, and can’t play the keyboard anyway.

After a bit of research, the two options I found were the Tascam US-122L and the PreSonus AudioBox USB. Both of these interfaces did roughly the same thing, though the Tascam device did not have balanced outputs (although I don’t currently have an amplifier with balanced inputs, I may do in the future). In addition, the Tascam device only had one intrument (high impedance) input, whereas the PreSonus device had two. And the price? The Tascam box was $370AUD, and the PreSonus box $365AUD. After twisting the salesman’s arm, I managed to get the PreSonus for $345AUD, and get a bonus Rode T-shirt and three year warranty as well.

Included in the (relatively small) box were the following contents:

  • The AudioBox USB itself.
  • USB cable.
  • Drivers CD.
  • Cubase LE4 CD.
  • Several installation manuals, one for the drivers and one for Cubase.
  • Some foam.

Close inspection of the front of the AudioBox reveals two inputs on the left hand side, each of which can be used for either a microphone or a instrument input. The power LED and button are in the top right of the front of the device. Also on the front are 5 knobs, two for input gain, one for headphone volume, one for main output volume, and one to mix between computer output and the inputs (in real use, one would expect to keep this set to computer output most of the time). On the rear of the device are found the USB connector, MIDI input and output, two 1/4″ balanced outputs, and a headphone out.

The device itself is quite heavy (around 2.5kg) for the size, mostly due to being manufactured out of large pieces of steel. Negative points for enviromentalism here, but when you’re constantly picking up and moving it, like would be expected from a portable unit such as this, I can see that this is a great idea. I haven’t been game enough to try and scratch the unit, but I don’t think you could ever remove more than a thin layer of paint.

The first thing I can report on is that the drivers for this device suck. I was told by the salesperson in the shop that it would be supported on my Vista x64 machine, and if it didn’t, I could always use ASIO4All. The drivers on the CD don’t support Vista x64. And after a bit of thought I realised that ASIO4All wouldn’t help at all, since I’d need WDM drivers anyway before that would work. In the end I reformatted my machine to use Vista x86, and installed the drivers included on the CD. Unfortunately, those drivers only support ASIO or WDM, but can’t do both at the same time. So I could use iTunes, and that would work, but any attempt to open Cubase would crash the machine. I’ve since downloaded the newer drivers off the Internet, and everything seems to be working fine for the moment. One thing to note is that PreSonus do not digitally sign their drivers. In this day and age, that is a very poor performance.

On to sound quality (which is the most important thing, really). It has to be said I’m very impressed with the audio quality for both recording and playback. There is no distortion of the sound that I can hear (playing back songs I know well, such as Time by Pink Floyd or Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day). I don’t have the equipment to say whether it produces a perfect sound, but then again, that’s relative anyway. As for recording, I’m also quite impressed. There is very little noise added to recording above that from the room I’m in. The converters are obviously quite high quality, and very clear. PreSonus’ specs state a >95dB signal to noise ratio for digital to analog conversion, which is comparable with most devices in this lower-end range.

Summing up, this unit is a mixed bag. I love the features, I love the hardware, but the drivers that come with this machine are utter crap. If you have an older operating system such as Windows XP, I can imagine it would be a bit less painful, but if you own a newer machine running Vista 64bit, I’d consider buying a different audio interface. Once you’ve got that sorted out though, you’ve got a powerful and hard-to-kill unit that performs quite well. 3.5 Stars.