It's no secret that affordable FireWire interfaces have hit the marketplace, and the options targeting DJs and laptop musicians are verging on plentiful. Like many, I've been using the notoriously noisy built-in ⅛-inch headphone jack on my Apple PowerBook for as long as I've owned it, and the need for an inexpensive I/O has always been looming in the back of my mind. So when I was given the opportunity to check out the M-Audio FireWire Audiophile, I was quite happy to hook it up and tweak away with my favorite laptop programs.
FOUR IN, SIX OUT
The M-Audio FireWire Audiophile is a half-rackspace unit designed primarily for live performance and home recording. The Audiophile works at 44.1, 48 and 96 kHz at 16- or 24-bit resolution, and M-Audio has written drivers for Mac OS 9/OS X and Windows 2000/XP. The unit can also play back stereo audio with sample rates as high as 192 kHz. The four-input, six-output recording and playback interface also has a stereo headphone output with A/B switching between assignable sources. Coupling this with a software-based assignable aux-bus management application, the unit allows users to create dedicated headphone mixes and effects sends. The unit also has a 1×1 MIDI I/O and boasts zero-latency hardware monitoring and low-latency software monitoring — not to mention a digital I/O option via S/PDIF.
All of the analog inputs and outputs are designed for hooking up to small mixers and pedals, and as a result (and also because of its price point), they are all unbalanced RCA jacks. The Audiophile also has a headphone output jack that accepts a standard ¼-inch stereo TRS headphone connector.
With just two knobs and one switch, the unit's front-panel tactile controls are minimal. The controls are split between the input/headphone-monitor section and a multifunction knob that controls various parameter levels via the Audiophile's virtual control panel. The Level Controller knob is set by default to control the output monitor level of the Audiophile's analog outputs. It is also assignable to any group of mixer or output faders in the software control panel. The front panel also includes a headphone output level control knob, and this control is independent of the line and S/PDIF output levels. The rear panel also includes dual FireWire (IEEE-1394) ports, which allow you to connect one to your computer and the other to an external device, such as a hard drive. It is recommended to use the Audiophile as a self-powered device only (that is, do not use the FireWire bus as the power source for a string of other devices, such as an external hard drive).
DRIVERS AND SOFTWARE
Installing the control-panel software and drivers on my laptop was straightforward, and I was up and running in no time. Because I am using Mac OS X on an Apple laptop, I installed the Core Audio drivers along with the control panel (which puts it into the OS X System pane). ASIO and Windows versions are also available, and support for OMS is implemented, as well. My DAW of choice is Emagic Logic Audio, and Audiophile had no problem latching onto the program in both the audio and MIDI pipes.
Inside the control panel, the global options include the Level Controller Assignment, which allows you to choose which group of mixer or output faders that the front-panel knob is addressing; the options include SW Return, Output and Input. The SW Return controls the levels of the three virtual stereo pairs returning from your computer's audio-workstation software. The Output setting controls the levels of the FireWire Audiophile's four analog and stereo digital outputs. This is the default selection and is the best choice when you simply want to control the monitor levels going to your speakers or sound system. Finally, Input controls the input monitoring level. The unit uses a fixed input gain, and the input level control is designed to control the monitoring level only.
Each of the virtual channels can be adjusted with the Level Controller knob when the Ctrl button is marked within the software. Because the FireWire Audiophile has its own dedicated headphone-level control on the front panel, the headphone output is not selectable in the control panel. Solo and mute functions are available for all of the mixer channels, as well as the main headphone output channels. You can save and load control-panel settings, which makes calling up setups in a live situation possible. The Global Menu options also include a reset button, which returns all of the control-panel settings to their default values.
The Mixer page controls routing and levels of the Audiophile's analog and digital inputs, as well as the six virtual channels coming back from your DAW of choice. The Mixer page provides access to six virtual audio returns, which show up in your DAW as available audio outputs. I kept the faders at zero and used Logic to control the monitor levels, but you do have the option to control them from the control panel. Each stereo pair can be assigned to any of the FireWire Audiophile's analog or digital outputs by clicking on the output button of the desired output pair. Any or all output pairs may be selected (the buttons turn blue when active) for each mixer input channel pair. These channels' output signals appear on the selected outputs in the control panel. The Mixer page also provides software-level control for direct monitoring of the FireWire Audiophile's analog and S/PDIF digital inputs.
The Output page provides you with control of each of the FireWire Audiophile's analog and digital outputs, as well as that of the aux bus and headphones bus. Virtual faders control the individual channel output levels. The output faders correspond to their respective outputs as they appear in your DAW. The headphone output channel controls the functions of the Audiophile's headphone bus. Both channel faders can be linked together with the Link button. You can monitor any of the FireWire Audiophile's output buses via the headphones bus. Using the monitor assigns, you can select any or all of the three output buses or the aux bus to route to the headphones. Selecting the Mute button (the button turns red) mutes the headphone output.
The Hardware page gives you control of the various hardware functions of the Audiophile, including sample buffer sizes, sample rate and sync source. It also includes the headphone source settings' (HP Source) virtual controls. This field allows you to choose the operational mode of the front-panel headphone Source switch. The HP Source will reflect the selections made here in the control panel, and the front-panel headphone Source LED will indicate the current source selection, A or B. The Momentary Switch Settings field allows you to change the assignment of the front-panel HP Source Settings momentary switch, toggling between the Headphone Source Settings or Direct Monitoring On/Off. When direct monitoring is selected, the front-panel headphone Source switch will enable and disable direct monitoring.
FOUR WITHOUT THE NOISE FLOOR
Using the Audiophile with my 500MHz Titanium laptop proved to be a noticeable strain on the computer, but all of the functionality remained intact. M-Audio says that 500 MHz (for Macintosh) is at the low end of the usable spec for the device, so in this instance, a substantial hit to the CPU is expected. However, when I hooked it up to a desktop dual 1.25GHz, it was smooth as silk. I also used the Audiophile with a few other programs (Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason and Cycling '74 Radial), and in each case, the audio and MIDI worked as specified. The unit sounds good for its price, and dollar for dollar, it's well worth the $349 just to have four quiet, nice-sounding channels coming out of your laptop.
FIREWIRE AUDIOPHILE > $349
Pros: Reliable, clean-sounding interface. Audio I/O and MIDI all in one place.
Cons: Lacks ¼-inch connections.
MAC: G3/500 (G4/500 required for OS 10.x); 128 MB RAM (256 MB RAM for OS 10.x); OS 9.2.2/OS 10.1.5/OS 10.2.6 or higher; native FireWire ports; G3/G4 accelerator cards not supported
PC: Pentium III/500; 128 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; DirectX 8.1 or higher; 6-pin FireWire port or adapter