FireWirevs.USB: The Saga Continues…

You can read white papers all day and never find a conclusive answer to the question of connectivity.Is it better to have more bandwidth (FireWire), or more raw speed (USB)?
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And when you add the question of support, with FireWire operating on a relatively open protocol (Apple-style) and USB entrenched in the plug-and-play game (Microsoft), the contest becomes even more esoteric. The early battles seemed to indicate that USB would satisfy more consumers, but the IEEE (FireWire) standard has gained ground. Now, we present a new battle, between a FireWire interface from an industry giant (TASCAM) and a USB device from a relatively new line offered by a competitor (Edirol). Both devices promise high-performance at well under $1,000.

But do they deliver?!?!!


OK, TASCAM has been providing audio solutions for the home studio since cassette ruled the domain. Their more recent digital audio workstation offerings have not disappointed fans of their multi-track cassette recorders, however, with generous connectivity and control options. And the FW-1804 follows hot on the heels of their FW-1884, delivering a 2 rack-space unit for those of us who don’t have enough real estate for the 1884’s control surface, but still offering all the connectivity TASCAM is known for. As a relatively mobile “notebook” user, I was initially wary of the rack-mount unit, but it is actually rather lightweight and portable (if you’re into that sort of thing). Furthermore, the FireWire connection is a little less cumbersome than a CardBus interface, and provides greater bandwidth than USB. Although I had to adapt the laptop’s 4-pin FW port to the 1804’s 6-pin connector (something TASCAM does not recommend, by the way, even though there is no way to power the 1804 via the 6-pin connector), once I powered it on and saw the warm glow of the front-panel buttons, I felt right at home (probably because I actually was at home).

The FW-1804 met my expectations. There are Neutrik and 1/4" inputs on four channels, with 1/4" inputs on the remaining four analog channels. The phantom power rated well and recording quality was very good. I have yet to actually use the ADAT optical in/out pair, but they are there, along with the ubiquitous S/PDIF in/outs that I do use regularly. I actually have limited opportunity to use the Word Clock in/outs (downloading samples from older drives), so it’s nice that they thought to include them, but I do have to wonder who else needs this connection. Then I discover that the unit also has two MIDI inputs and FOUR, yes, FOUR MIDI outputs, which fits with TASCAM’s description of this unit as a “FireWire Audio/MIDI Interface”. I began dabbling with digital audio in the days of the Mirage sampler, so all those MIDI connections are actually handy for me. For those who are cutting their teeth on the M-Box, however, that part of the rear panel may end up gathering dust. Speaking of the rear panel, that’s where all the inputs and outputs are (except for one 1/4" “Guitar” input on the front), leaving a very clean looking front panel.

The sound was very nice across the board, although it did seem to lack power at the outputs compared to other units. The S/PDIF out was pretty much all that I listened to, since the only other options are the optical out and the stereo 1/4" pair. This is typical for home studio offerings, however, so I won’t sweat that too tough here. It does deserve mentioning, however, that even home studio users could benefit from a pair of Neutrik outputs to run into a PA system. The neighbors might not like it, but the DJs would be a lot happier.

The software interface is minimal, allowing the trim knobs on the eight channel inputs to do their work in traditional TASCAM style. Obviously, a control surface would be more user friendly, but that’s not the point of this unit. Instead, the FW-1804 is designed to allow maximum connectivity with high-quality converters in a reliable fashion, and it delivers. I was using the 1804 with a 3.2GHz Dell Inspiron “notebook” with 1G RAM running XP, so I expected no problems with latency or cutout. For the most part, I was satisfied. Playback was only rarely interrupted at the lowest latency setting, especially when running ACID, my primary DAW, but things improved somewhat, although not completely, when using Cubase LE (bundled with the unit). The real payoff came with GigaStudio 2 LE (also included), which performed flawlessly. I haven’t spent much time with GigaStudio before, but once I started dabbling, I began to suspect that the FW-1804 was designed with sampling in mind.

Overall, the unit performs well when compared to many competitive offerings, although they could have either packed a little more into the box, or made a smaller box. Without the control surface, I’m not sure what exactly TASCAM is going for with this unit, since it still requires a fair amount of space for the 2 RU’s with all the connectors out the back. I suspect that it is geared toward dinosaurs like me, who still have loads of MIDI hardware, but are looking to get away from our antiquated samplers. Otherwise, they will have an uphill battle trying to market it as a digital recording replacement for the limited, but reliable 4-tracks they are known for (not to mention that it doesn’t work with Windows 98 or earlier). Mac users may have a better time with this unit, but will likely find the FW-1804 to be a bit overbuilt with little to show for it. Solid converters with TASCAM style reliability characterize the FW-1804 as a workhorse for the home studio though. Score another hit for FireWire.


And in the left corner, wearing the anodized-blue faceplate, we have our USB contender, the UA-101 by Edirol. When one goes looking for USB audio interfaces, Edirol’s are usually first on the list, generally bringing good value and compatibility in this format. And on paper, the UA-101 looked great: a low-latency interface capable of operating at up to 192kHz with plug-and-play, USB 2.0 capability for less than $700. Apparently, the UA-101 is supposed to be a stripped-down UA-1000 in a half-rack breakout-box, with the added feature of being USB 1.1 compatible for older computers (two channels only at 44.1/48kHz sampling rates).

Out of the box, things still looked good. The UA-101 is well constructed and sturdy, with decent connectivity and control setup. The faceplate is the aforementioned groovy anodized blue affair with a handy LED level meter. There is even a block diagram of the internal wiring on the top, for whatever that’s worth. Setting it up on my 3.2GHz Dell Inspiron with 1G RAM and XP Pro seemed easy enough. Once I got it up and running, however, things started to go downhill. Periodic bursts of digital flatulence were present in both recording and playback, even with the buffering/latency at maximum.

Investigation at the website though revealed that Edirol does not recommend using this petite, ultra-portable unit (or any of the UA series) with laptops because of the greater potential for IRQ conflicts when connecting USB devices. However, a quick IRQ address change seemed to resolve the distortion issue, but then I found the device was cutting out periodically during playback, even at maximum buffer/latency settings. Edirol’s advice is to change the computer’s performance settings to adjust for best performance of “background services”. This cleared up most of the problems with playback and actually allowed for a decreased latency setting during recording, although it was still around 100ms. That at 192kHz, mind you. At 96kHz things get below 50ms and 48kHz is acceptable at around 25ms, but that’s still way too high for anything that claims to have “incredibly low-latency”.

In general, the sound was not appealing. It’s a bit thin and grainy. Despite having a rather weak output signal, the unit appeared to be distorting when the input signal got anywhere close to 0 dB. It’s not a pretty distortion, either, kind of like my old Peavey Bandit after all the knobs got rusty (a lot quieter, though). Experiments with various apps seem to indicate the converters are to blame. With the internal levels turned down, the distortion cleared up, but the sound was still not much better than the hardwired POS soundcard that came with my notebook.

Connectivity is what makes this unit worthwhile, but even then, the UA-101 has stuff about it that I didn’t like. Like? The two onboard preamps were disappointing, which I sort of expected, given that no competing interface has preamps worth writing about. Having two Neutrik inputs on the front is nice, though, especially if you have to plug in an external preamp. The additional six 1/4" inputs on the back are standard, as are the eight 1/4" outs, so no news there. The ADAT optical connections are a welcome sight on the front panel, although S/PDIF would have been even more useful for me. They make a big deal about the direct monitor patch having zero-latency during recording, but that’s an analog feature any hardware audio device should have. It certainly does not make up for 100ms of latency when overdubbing.

The UA-101 software is adequate for most applications, even if the rest of the unit is not. It’s simple, capable and easy to use. The only flaw there is that it sets itself up in the Windows Control Panel, but a desktop shortcut gets it out where it’s useful. The software is bundled with the LE’s of both Cubase and GigaStudio, both of which are worth checking out, but not for the $695 list price this unit carries. Overall, the UA-101 is somewhat disappointing and serves to strengthen the growing opposition to the USB ‘plug-n-pray’ system. With comparable FireWire devices available for the same money (Edirol’s own FA-101 actually retails for slightly less) and without all the USB driver problems, it seems that IEEE has won this latest battle, even if the war continues. . . .