With the Ozone, M-Audio has added a recording-friendly audio interface to its popular Oxygen 8 MIDI controller, delivering both audio and MIDI I/O with a single USB connection.

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With the Ozone ($399.95), M-Audio has added an audio interface toits popular Oxygen 8 MIDI controller, delivering both audio and MIDII/O with a single USB connection. That makes the Ozone the firstkeyboard controller of its kind.

View from the Top

The Ozone offers the same unweighted, 25-key, Velocity-sensitivekeyboard and handy MIDI features as the Oxygen 8, including dual MIDIOuts (one for the computer and one for the keyboard), an assignableslider, and eight great-feeling knobs. The slider can send Aftertouch,although the keyboard can't. You can program any knob to transmit anyControl Change on any MIDI channel and store 40 knob assignments, whichought to be more than enough for most users. I found programming thecontrollers to be awkward; you have to switch the keyboard into Datamode then play a series of keys with misaligned labels. However, thebright display shows each value as you enter it as well as the currentvalue of the controllers in Performance mode.

The remaining five knobs control audio functions: mic and linemonitor level, mic and line gain, and headphone level. I wish the audioknobs were farther from the MIDI knobs, because I constantly grabbedthe wrong one. A knob for the main output level would have been useful,too.

Two LEDs show signal strength. A Monitor/Record button mixes the auxinput and the computer's output to the Ozone's outputs or routes theaux input to the computer for recording. Because the inputs areconnected to the outputs in hardware, there's no monitoring latency. Aswith other USB audio interfaces, when both inputs and outputs areenabled, the Ozone's sampling rate is capped at 48 kHz (to accommodateUSB's bandwidth limitation). Disabling either the inputs or the outputslets you raise the rate to 96 kHz. ASIO and DX drivers areincluded.

Behind the Scenes

On the Ozone's back panel are jacks for power, USB, MIDI Out,sustain pedal, headphones, left and right audio output, stereo auxinput, mono line input (all unbalanced), and XLR mic input. The jacksare labeled in nearly unreadable silver on silver, which I'd like tosee changed. Thanks to its preamp, the line input can accept a guitaror high-impedance mic signal. You even get switchable phantom power, anunexpected feature for a low-cost unit. The phantom-power switch istiny, but I doubt most users need to switch phantom on and offrepeatedly during a session.

Unlike the Oxygen 8, which can run on batteries or USB power, theOzone must be powered by a wall-wart adapter. According to M-Audio,using an AC adapter allowed the company to incorporate higher-qualityaudio converters than would otherwise be possible, so the companysacrificed portability in return for superior sound quality. It wouldbe great if M-Audio found a way to offer a battery-powered version withgood sonic quality for users who want true portability.

Holes in the Ozone

Using the Ozone, I got great sound on a G4 PowerBook under both OS 9and OS X. Audio programs occasionally had trouble finding the Ozoneunder the older operating system, but I have experienced that withother interfaces, too. The sonic improvement on a Pentium III laptoprunning Windows 2000 was dramatic. Normally, that PC sounds pinched andhissy, and it clicks when I move the cursor, but with the Ozone, themusic was clear and full, and the headphone output provided plenty ofvolume. However, whenever I set the latency value to Very Low andplayed audio, the computer blue-screened. (I had no crashes with higherlatency settings.)

A friend and I also used the Ozone on a 1.5 GHz Athlon laptoprunning Windows XP. After disabling the computer's power-managementsoftware (which was causing some crackling), we successfully recordedseveral backing tracks in Sonic Foundry Vegas. During a subsequentseries of seminars on computer-music production, however, Windowsrepeatedly refused to recognize the Ozone and cut off the sound.According to several USB audio experts I consulted, Windows XP —incredibly — often fails to recognize USB devices when they'reconnected to a different port than the one on which they wereinstalled. An M-Audio tech recommends installing the software foreach port. This is clearly an ongoing issue with Windows XP andnot M-Audio's fault, but I wish M-Audio had mentioned it in themanual.

Back in my studio, I noticed an intermittent hiss in the Ozone'sleft output. The first unit I received didn't work at all, so bothOzones I received from the company were defective, which wasfrustrating.

Out of Thin Air

The Ozone blazes a new trail in the perilous frontier of USB audio.Duplicating all of the Ozone's features with separate devices would beawkward and expensive, and it includes nice touches such as auxiliaryinputs and phantom power. But clearly, M-Audio needs to improve itsreliability and documentation. I'd also like to see some of theergonomic problems (especially the hard-to-read labels and poorlyspaced knobs) addressed. These are significant drawbacks that mar anotherwise promising product.

That said, the price is excellent, and the audio quality isimpressive. Although its portability is limited by its dependence on ACpower, the Ozone is nevertheless an efficient space-saver. The Ozonecertainly isn't a home run for M-Audio, but if it makes theaforementioned improvements, it could have a solid hit.

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