There’s a roaring trade in premium USB audio interfaces at present, this new AVID Mbox (third generation) being the latest. It’s the middle child of the new AVID range, which consists of Pro Tools Mbox Mini,Pro Tools Mbox and Pro Tools Mbox Pro.
Basics first - this is a USB powered audio interface, with four channels - (two analog, two s-pdif) audio interface (MIDI too) with a big volume knob plus a Mono and Dim button making it suitable for plugging directly up with active monitors. Additionally, there’s a touch of DSP on board which means you get low latency monitoring mixes and a single effect, also for monitoring.
Sample rates of up to 96kHz are supported at 24-bit, with 44.1 , 48 and 88.2 on the way. Two instrument line inputs suitable for guitar are on the front panel, along with the gain (with pull -20dB pad), Soft Limit button and a switch to flip to the rear combi XLR/jack inputs. Additionally on the rear, there’s an S-Pdif IO which means with the 2 x analog and 2 x digital you have four channels of I/O. Monitor output jacks represent the analog output, with separate a ¼ inch headphone out with dedicated volume - which you’ll be pleased to know, goes LOUD. MIDI in and out complete the interfacing options, with the USB connector handling the data and the power - there is no option to power this unit - so you will need either its own USB port or a powered Hub.
Outputs We’ve all been told that all mid price audio converters use basically the same of a few chipsets these days, so I wasnt expecting miracles on that front, but I have to say there’s a certain something about the sound here - in daily use I have a Macki Onyx iSeries firewire mixer that I drive my Genelec 1029A speakers from., Plugging the Mbox in added a touch more definition, clarity and tightness I wasnt expecting, so as far as the D/A convertors go, they get a thumbs up from me.
Inputs Mic/line amps have plenty of gain though there’s a sort of hot spot that makes the signal really jump in level and can give you a bit of a shock - from clean and slightly quiet to LOUD and driven is a fine line so watch out. Having said that they do sound fine and the addition of the Soft Limit button gives you just a little more headroom on the input - it introduces a smooth limiter. To my ears I couldnt quantify a warmer sound or anything, but the peaks did stop lighting. Subtle would be the word I would use.
Control Panel The Mbox control panel adds some monitor mix features - two separate mixes - analog and s-pdif with controls for all inputs plus four software returns. Each channel allows you to send to the on board DSP effect - thats both hardware input and software return. Effects are Room, Hall, Plate, Echo and delay. Nothing that will set the world alight here but usable monitoring effects to help a performer get into the mood. You also get some additional monitoring options - mute L/R swap L/R - all handy for quick mix checking stuff. In addition theres a useable software guitar tuner - a nice touch.
In The Box You also get a fully working copy of Pro Tools LE so you’ll be able to get going from scratch - although you will need an iLok to run the software. Most people will be looking towards Pro Tools 9 and its native support though I guess. You can upgrade to that - see prices below.
In The End Overall, I was impressed. Its hard to generally hear the difference in USB class mid price audio interfaces, but I honestly can say that this one does sound good - and also interfaces well with an active monitor setup, making it a useful compact studio centrepeice.
Sure, its not the cheapest USB audio interface you can buy, but I think you can hear the difference.
Price: Mbox £425/ $679
Also available: Mbox Mini £245 / $399 Mbox Pro £650 / $899