Upgrading the Sound from Your PC
September 5th, 2009 -- by default
Source: The Absolute Sound
Finding out was easy. Because of its preference for FireWire, the pro recording industry offers a plethora of boxes that can, among other things, convert FireWire-to-S/PDIF. Even more conveniently, I happen to own one, the Focusrite Saffire, which I use in my home studio. The Saffire’s primary mission is to bring microphones and line-level musical signals into a PC to be recorded. However, along the way it does perform the desired conversion function, coincidentally at the same price point as the Link. (A less elaborate version, the Saffire LE, offers identical conversion capability for a hundred dollars less.)
Like the Link, the Saffire handles files with resolution up to 96/24. Otherwise, though, the two are quite different. For instance, the Saffire requires loading multiple sets of drivers, only one of which (ASIO) permits on-the-fly sample rate adaptation. And whereas the Link has and needs no user interface, the Saffire’s operation is governed by a non-intuitive PC-based control panel. Finally, the Link offers a high-performance BNC output whereas the Saffire must make do with RCA.
But the biggest difference between these two converters—and where the Saffire comes out on top—is in their sonics. Frankly, the Saffire’s sound bowled me over. From it emerges a gorgeously rich, relaxed, airy, rhythmically cohesive, flesh-and-bloodpresentation that is the antithesis of USB. No, this converter cannot match reference-level S/PDIF in inner detail, instrumental body, or bass definition. Perhaps someday these, too, will arrive courtesy of a FireWire converter built to high-end standards. In the meantime, the Saffire’s blissful freedom from USB’s foibles constitutes a genuine breakthrough in extracting audiophile-grade sound from a PC.
The contrast between the Saffire and the Link was evident no matter the source material. I heard it on the intricate, aforementioned Serenades, but also on extremely simple tracks like “That Dress Looks Nice on You” from Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans. This song has very little going on instrumentally; Stevens’ vocal is backed by a plaintive acoustic guitar figure, supplemented occasionally by a banjo. There are no big dynamic swings, no depth-charge bass notes, not even many expressive nuances. In other words, there are not a lot of bits (of information) to work with. And yet, with FireWire as the PC output and with the Saffire managing the digital hand-off, the song comes into its own. Timing snaps into place, the banjo strings acquire realistic bite, and the vocal and guitar sound both more lifelike and more coordinated with each other.
On high-resolution material, the difference between interfaces and converters is even more striking. Listen, for example, to Rebecca Pigeon’s “The Raven,” which can be downloaded at 96/24 from HDtracks. The high-res version of this song is awesome in its purity, regardless of interface. But what a relief it is to revel in the benefits of that resolution—the effortlessly open highs, the wealth of timbral information—without any accompanying USB crud. Through the Link, this HD music file sounds better than the CD, but only marginally so. The Saffire/FireWire version utterly stomps the CD.
For those with a suitable PC and the willingness to tackle a greater operational challenge, the Focusrite Saffire is the best way I have found to derive high-end audio from a PC. But FireWire’s surprise showing in this test should take nothing away from Bel Canto’s achievement. The USB Link 24/96 is a smart and timely idea, a piece of cake to install, and invisible in operation. For those who opt for USB’s simplicity and ubiquity, it is easy to recommend.
SPECS & PRICING
Bel Canto USB Link 24/96
Inputs: One USB
Outputs: One S/PDIF BNC
Dimensions: 2.2" x 1" x 4.2"
Weight: 3.5 ounces