In a portable setup, the Shure X2u can function as a pint-sized mic pre and audio interface.
XLR-to-USB converters allow you to use any mic in your collection to record directly into your computer over USB, and they function essentially as mini audio interfaces. Because of their minimal size, they're particularly useful for portable setups, allowing you to plug a mic into your laptop without having to carry a bulky external interface.
The Shure X2u ($129) is approximately 5 inches long and 1 inch wide, and it comes with a carrying pouch and a USB cable. The metal-encased, cylindrical unit feels surprisingly hefty for its size, and it features a female type-B USB jack on one end and a female XLR connector on the other. It has three thumbwheel-type controls — Mic Gain, Volume and Monitor — as well as an indicator light that shows when the unit is connected to USB, and a +48V phantom power switch with a status light. On the side is an ⅛-inch stereo headphone output.
The Mic Gain control is self-explanatory; I was able to get plenty of level using both condenser and dynamic mics (as expected, I got more with the former). The Volume wheel controls the headphone level. The Monitor control lets you adjust the relative volume of the microphone to the audio coming back from the DAW. Shure recommends muting the microphone's output in the DAW itself when recording to avoid hearing disconcerting latency delay.
MAC VS. PC
The X2u is designed to be plug-and-play; in many applications, you don't need drivers for it to be recognized by Mac or Windows software. On the Mac side, the X2u showed up as an input and an output in Ableton Live 8, Apple Logic Pro 9, Apple GarageBand 5.1 and MOTU Digital Performer 6.02. The only program I had problems with was Propellerhead Record; the software simply would not recognize the X2u.
On my Windows laptop (running Vista), setup was smooth in programs such as Sony's Acid Pro 7, Acoustica's Mixcraft and Audacity, which support WDM drivers. But Cakewalk SONAR 8, which only supports ASIO, didn't recognize the X2u until I installed the freeware ASIO4all driver (asio4all.com). In Live 8, for which Ableton's specs say ASIO is the preferred driver format, I got much better results using ASIO4all.
The mic pre in the X2u is surprisingly good for a product in this price range. It was a tad hyped in the upper mids, but overall I found it quite useable. Since the X2u supports only 16-bit audio (with up to a 48kHz sampling rate), it may not be your choice to record your next album, but it's fine for demos.
TRY ME, PLEASE
I recorded an acoustic-guitar-and-resonator-guitar duet into Live using a Røde NT5 pencil condenser through the X2u on both sources. I recorded them one at a time, and I was pleased with the sound (see Web Clip 1). I also tried the same setup on violin with equally good results. In addition, I recorded voice-over tests through an Alesis GT AM52 mic; those sounded clean and kept the mic's character intact.
As usual with Shure products, the build quality is impressive. I did have a bit of an issue with the USB cable not fitting snugly into the type-B jack, but that seems to be a problem endemic to such connectors rather than a design issue with the X2u. I also discovered I needed to be careful to orient the male type-B connector on the USB cable correctly when plugging it into the X2u. That may sound like a no-brainer, but it's easy to accidentally connect it upside-down; it still feels like it's fitting in correctly, but the unit doesn't work.
I also found it was best to use an XLR cable between the mic and the X2u. Because the X2u is a bit heavy, it was somewhat clumsy to have it plugged directly into the mic on the stand, especially considering that I had a headphone cable plugged into it, too. Putting the mic cable in between also greatly reduced the potential for the USB cable to come loose. It allowed me to lay the X2u flat, reducing the chance for accidental pulling and eliminating gravity from the equation.
THE FINAL BIT
Overall, the X2u is a solid, well-made and good-sounding product that does what it's designed to do. If you're looking for an inexpensive and portable recording interface — and the 16-bit limitation isn't an issue for you — then the X2u is an excellent choice.
Overall rating (1 through 5): 3