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Review: Universal Audio UAD-2 Solo-Laptop ($649 MSRP)

October 1, 2009

We reviewed the UAD-2 PCIe card in the 11/08 issue, and looking back from almost a year’s perspective, it’s more than stood the test of time—between the dedicated hardware power that allows running tons of plugs without stressing out your CPU, and the uncannily analog sound quality of the plugins themselves, Universal Audio’s Powered Plug-Ins have become one of my select group of go-to processors.

Now, those options are available for portable recording with the UAD-2 Solo/Laptop, which essentially shoehorns the UAD Solo card (with a single DSP chip that provides about 3X the power of the original UAD-1 card) into the laptop-friendly ExpressCard format. (However, Apple fans beware: Of the current MacBook Pro laptops only the 17" model has an ExpressCard slot; it was removed from the 15" models last time the line was revised.)

We’ve referenced the quality of UA’s plug-ins in the past, and no, they haven’t lost the recipe. The Solo/Laptop comes with the Pultec EQP-1A EQ, 1176SE Limiting Amplifier, RealVerb Pro Room Modeler, and CS-1 channel strip—a solid, basic collection but the real action is the optional-at-extra-cost plug-ins, which have grown into an extensive line that includes virtualizations of products made by Roland, Moog, Boss, Helios, Empirical Labs, SPL, Harrison, Fairchild, Little Labs, and Neve (all done with the blessings of the companies). Individual plug-ins range from around $80 to $300—not bad compared to hardware, and bundles save more. To get you into the habit of checking out their online store, the card comes with a $50 voucher good toward any plug-in.

In use. The Solo/Laptop supports VST, AU, and RTAS (MacOS Tiger/Leopard and Windows XP/Vista). Just to throw it a challenge, I tested the Solo/Laptop with 64-bit Vista (using my PC Audio Labs Rok Box laptop); both installation and operation was flawless, with the plug-ins running as x86 plugs.

One of the Solo/Laptop’s most welcome aspects is that if you already own UAD-2 plug-ins for your desktop, you can “sync” the ExpressCard to them and authorize the same plug-ins for your laptop—you don’t have to re-buy them. Thank you!

For those not familiar with the UAD-2 family, there’s also an applet that shows authorizations, how much DSP power you’re using, provides links for updating, and the like. This is definitely one of the more evolved applets I’ve seen to accompany what’s essentially a hardware product.

Conclusions. I first got turned on to UA plug-ins when an “analog snob” friend of mine called and, both excited and perplexed, told me he couldn’t hear any difference between UA’s LA- 2A emulation and his beloved hardware unit (which he subsequently sold on eBay). I understand his enthusiasm, and having that kind of power on a laptop is a game-changer, especially when the UAD-2’s DSP lets you save the computer’s precious CPU power for other functions, and you can load any plug-ins that already exist in your desktop setup.

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