The AudioFire4 front panel sports universal input and headphone output jacks and associated level controls. The rear panel holds all other I/O.
The AudioFire4 ($299), little brother of the successful AudioFire8 and AudioFire12, is Echo Digital Audio's latest offering in FireWire audio interfaces. It supports a wide range of input formats, and you get both balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs. The AudioFire4 handles 16- and 24-bit audio at 44.1, 48, 88.2, or 96 kHz sampling rates.
I wasn't able to try the AudioFire4 with my ancient Windows 2000 desktop PC, but the unit supports Windows XP and Vista 32-bit, with 64-bit support on the way. I did test it on a wide variety of G3, G4, and Intel Macs, and it worked quite well on most of them. However, on a dual G4 Power Mac, playback gave me only an odd clicking noise. I emailed Echo, and within a couple of hours the company sent me a newer version of the I/O routing console, which automatically flashed the device with updated firmware that solved the problem.
The Ins and Outs
The AudioFire4 rear panel holds S/PDIF and MIDI jacks (for the obligatory 1-port MIDI interface), two line inputs, and four line outputs. The two 6-pin FireWire ports support device chaining and bus-powered operation, but you also get a power supply for use with laptops having 4-pin FireWire connectors. The front panel holds two combo-jack inputs and a headphone output, each with a dedicated level control. Input switching is handled by a hardware sensor; for the AudioFire4, an XLR plug always means mic level.
Touching the input trim knobs sometimes caused loud pops through the outputs, suggesting questionable isolation. Phantom power added a little noise, but other than that, the preamps were surprisingly clean. I didn't hear any problematic buzzes or hisses until I cranked the gain to the highest levels.
Mackie Tracktion is included as a free recording platform, but I was surprised to see that it was version 1. Echo says that Tracktion 2 will be included as soon as the Vista version is available.
The routing-control program for the AudioFire4 was developed in-house, and it is excellent. You can link the input signals for stereo operation as necessary and then mirror them to any of the outputs, including the S/PDIF jacks, for latency-free monitoring. In addition, levels for playback and live monitoring can be adjusted separately, and you can even set them differently for each output pair. The only shortcomings are that phantom power isn't individually switchable and the black-on-black color scheme sometimes makes buttons hard to discern, but at least the text or numerical value is always visible, even when the button around it is not.
The Soft Touch
The AudioFire4 is a very capable unit, but many of its functions can be accessed only through software. Fortunately, Echo has its software game together, but some additional hardware controls would be welcome. The missing hardware switch for phantom power might be a problem. Lack of an output volume control could be an issue for anyone who plans to plug directly into a pair of powered monitors. The unit would be considerably compromised if support or software updates were to lapse, but Echo has a strong track record of legacy support, and relying on software controls does help keep the cost down. If you're planning to pair the AudioFire4 with a small mixer, the missing hardware controls will be supplanted by the mixer's, and I can recommend the AudioFire4 without hesitation.
I was surprised to find a standalone mode in such an inexpensive device. Every time you quit the I/O configuration console, your most recent settings are saved to the AudioFire4's onboard memory. That lets you use it without a computer for basic mixing, routing, and monitoring tasks. Even in a worst-case obsolescence scenario, you could program the unit from another machine and then move it into your recording rig until you need to change the setup again.
The AudioFire4 gives Echo access to the lower end of the market, but there's a lot of competition in inexpensive audio interfaces. Although not remarkable, the AudioFire4 is a solid player and is fairly priced. Having a selection of products as cheap and powerful as this to choose from is pretty incredible.
Value (1 through 5): 3
Echo Digital Audio