In 2001, Digidesign introduced the Mbox, a 2-channel USB audio interface that, for the first time, made the Pro Tools LE system available for under $500. The bus-powered device included a pair of Focusrite mic preamps, TRS inserts for each analog input, and zero-latency monitoring.
The Mbox 2 includes MIDI I/O and lets you record four channels simultaneously.
Last year, Digidesign completely redesigned its popular low-cost interface. Not only is the Mbox 2 ($495; with the Factory Bundle plug-ins, $595) snazzier looking and more portable, but Digidesign has enhanced it ergonomically and implemented some welcome changes, thus keeping the Mbox platform competitive and taking advantage of the increased feature set of Pro Tools 7.
Four on the Floor
Among the most welcome new features is the ability to record four channels — two analog and two digital — simultaneously in supported versions of Pro Tools (6.8.1 and later). This allows you greater leeway when tracking than with the original Mbox.
Besides the S/PDIF and USB 1.1 ports, the rear panel of the Mbox 2 includes a surprise — MIDI I/O. As a laptop user, this allowed me to free up a USB port by plugging my keyboard controller directly into the Mbox 2 MIDI ports.
Instead of the Neutrik combo jacks that were previously used for the analog inputs, the Mbox 2 gives you separate jacks for each type of input: balanced ¼-inch TRS for line-level signals, unbalanced ¼-inch TS for instrument-level signals, and XLR for microphones. I originally thought they offered the separated jacks so you could leave all your cables plugged in. However, when a TRS cable is plugged into the Line In jack, the XLR input gets disconnected internally. Unfortunately, the Mbox 2 does not include the insert jacks found on the original version, and the main analog outputs are a pair of unbalanced ¼-inch jacks, operating at -10 dBV.
Another Pretty Face
The front panel of the Mbox 2 has changed as well. Instead of the cone-shaped knobs reminiscent of the Focusrite Platinum series, the Mbox 2 has round, reflective knobs: a headphone-output level control; a source/playback Mix control; input gain pots; and a new, dedicated monitor-level control. In addition, the phantom-power switch is now on the front panel. One thing missing is a printed indication of which side is which on the source/playback control.
Each of the front-panel switches — Mono sum, 48V phantom power, -20 dB pad, and Mic/DI source — has an associated LED, and S/PDIF and USB status LEDs are also included. The Mbox 2 has only one stereo headphone output: a ¼-inch jack located on the front panel. The ⅛-inch jack has been dropped, but I don't miss it.
The Mbox 2's removable handle props the interface up when it is horizontal, and stabilizes it when vertical. In the vertical position, the Mbox 2 is 2.5 inches taller than the Mbox (they had to put the MIDI I/O somewhere), as well as 1 pound heavier and nearly the same width and depth.
Notably, the Mbox 2 is easy to store when the handle is removed. (By comparison, the nonremovable feet on the original Mbox took up nearly an inch on each side of the box, making it difficult to fit in a laptop bag.) A replacement panel, which props up the Mbox 2 by 0.25 inches when the unit is horizontal, can be attached when the handle is removed.
Digidesign has replaced the Focusrite preamps with its own in the Mbox 2, as well as revamped the rest of the electronics. However, the sound of the two interfaces is remarkably similar, and a number of the specs (available on Digidesign's Web site) are very close and in some cases identical. Nonetheless, the Mbox 2 does have an increase in its dynamic range and is greatly improved in its THD+N spec. The phase characteristics in the upper frequencies are significantly better as well, which you will notice in terms of stability in the imaging of instruments such as cymbals.
My only beef about the Mbox in general is that the mic preamps have slightly more than 50 dB of gain available. I had to crank up the input when using some of my mics, which, in turn, increased the noise floor. If I had a wish list, it would include balanced analog outputs at +4 dBu, USB 2.0 support, more preamp gain, and the ability to configure four channels of output.
Overall, the Mbox 2 sounds very good and works equally well for live and studio recording. And although it's no longer the cheapest way to get a Pro Tools LE system — if you have an M-Audio interface, Pro Tools M-Powered gets you there — it offers a convenient I/O implementation with robust Digidesign build quality.
As it is, the added features in the Mbox 2 — MIDI I/O, 4-channel recording, and a greater dynamic range — are strong selling points. Mbox owners will want to seriously consider this upgrade. But if you're shopping for your first Pro Tools system, and a 4-in/2-out audio interface with MIDI is all you need, the Mbox 2 is a great place to start.
Value (1 through 5): 3