PCRECORDING.COM - - Hoontech AudioDSP24 - ADC/DAC Package Review
South Korea is becoming a manufacturing center for computer products on a scale that rivals their already well-known capacity to build automobiles. One of these companies is Hoontech. A visit to their website revealed a rather robust product line though the English language site was a bit difficult to decipher. On a whim, I sent an email to the company inquiring about their products and the possibility of a review. To my delight and surprise, I received a very nice English language reply from Petit, one of the developers of the Hoontech products. Subsequently, I received a package from Hoontech.
The system came with a AudiodDSP24 PCI interface card, the ADC/DAC 2000 external converter box, a set of connector cables, a daughtercard, a CD installation disk and a dual Korean/English manual.
The owner's manual was helpful though it was a challenge at times to understand. It did have helpful diagrams and pictures. A person already well-versed in DAW applications and hardware would have an easier time understanding the diagrams and explanations than a beginner. To Hoontech's credit, they are aggressively addressing the English language issues by having their manual rewritten/edited by a native English speaker, namely me. (I felt I had to mention that).
I installed the AudioDSP24 in an open PCI slot in my system - - a Celeron 366 (OC'd 550), Win98SE, 128 meg of RAM, 20 gig Maxtor Harddrive, on a Soyo Motherboard. I put the ADC/DAC 2000 in a spare slot on my studio rack, hooked up the cable between it and the AudioDSP24 and booted the computer. The system was recognized by Windows and the installation instructions contained in the manual easily guided me through the installation process. (I used the recently updated drivers that I downloaded from the Hoontech website). I noted there were no conflicts and the device was working properly in Windows. I then installed the External Links mixing/routing software from the disk as instructed by the manual. A mixer icon appeared in the systray at the bottom of my desktop.
This package features what is in essence two soundcards in one. Any compatible external converter box or device can connect via sub-D cable to the AudioDSP which will support up to 24-bit/96kHz rates. The AC97 codec on the PCI card separately provides 16-bit/48kHz support and employs a standard set of 1/8" stereo output, Mic In, stereo Line In jacks on the PCI card. This feature is attractive because Windows native sounds can be routed there, and thus will not interfere with higher resolution recording applications output through the separate external box. In addition, these outputs can be used as a synthesizer output or a separate monitoring channel. (IMHO, the AC97 codec is convenient though should be limited to use for monitoring Windows sounds and MIDI playback. It should not be used for critical audio playback however). Analog and digital CD outputs can be directly connected to the AudioDSP24 card and the XG DB I daughtercard and routed via the internal mixer.
The AudioDSP24 comes with a S/PDIF, Optical and AES/EBU capable daughtercard - - the XG DB I. The XG DB I uses a separate space in your case but does not need a PCI slot. It connects via a provided cable directly to the AudioDSP24 card. The user can connect a variety of devices to this daughtercard., including, internal CD analog/digital In/Out, external S/PDIF and AES/EBU devices. Routing is handled via the External Mixer by calling up the XG DB I virtual box and clicking on the connections you wish to make, just like you would plug in real cables.
The ADC/DAC 2000 features 8 analog I/Os via 1/4" unbalanced jacks, 2 XLR inputs/outputs with gain control and phantom power. The analog inputs are lined up across the front of the external converter box, as are the XLR Inputs with a gain control knob right next to each. To the left of the front of the box is a headphone monitoring jack with a volume control. On the back of the unit there is a row of 8 analog outputs, MIDI In/Out/Through jacks, and two XLR outputs fill out the connection options for this unit. The 24-bit AKM 4524 converters are housed within the rack-mountable box and are connected to the PCI card via a sub-D cable.
Figuring out how to use the mixer/routing software, External Links, was a bit of a challenge, given the language problems in the manual. The routing software is quite attractive, linking virtual units representative of real units via colored virtual cables. By clicking on the box menu item, the user can select a virtual representation the physical device that the AudioDSP24 is hooked to. Monitoring of virtually any input or output can be routed to a specific output channel. These connections are represented by different colored cables.
The software includes an "internal mixer" that controls settings for the AC97 codec for routing signals from the internal CD and to/from external devices via the 1/8" stereo out, Mic In, Line In jacks on the PCI card. Pan, level and mute controls for Line In, Mic In, CD, Aux and Stereo out are displayed here for the AC97 codec. These settings are separate from the settings on the external mixer depicted below.
Lastly, the External Mixer controls the settings for the external converter box. Master output controls are on the far left along with a mute button. Immediately adjacent to the master level sliders is a vertical row of monitoring buttons where the user can select which channel/device signal is displayed and whether the system is in analog wave or S/PDIF format. Then, to the right all the available channels are displayed with pan/level sliders and mute/solo buttons.
After some studying and referencing the manual, I was able to figure out how to use the External Links - - the problem being that the labeling of the various virtual jacks on the external mixer emulation device is unclear. Hoontech describes the External Links as the heart of the system and they are right. However, it would be helpful to have a full written explanation of the routing options that the AudioDSP24 supports to augment the helpful routing diagrams. Nevertheless, after a bit of experiementation its functions became more clear.
Basically, I used a pull-down panel to select which virtual devices were represented in the panel. The virtual boxes emulate the physical devices that will be used in the session. Using the mouse, I clicked on the output jack of one device and then on the input devices of where I wanted the signal to travel. A colored virtual cable then appeared connecting the two. A second routing selection results in a different colored connection cable and so on. The choices are the ADC box, General Box, Digital Audio, XG DB1 (daughtercard), and ADAT box. Flexible routing/monitoring is is possible here. For instance, you could hook an external sequencer as an external device and route its signal into a particular input, while monitoring a previously recorded audio track.
Hardware sample rate settings and such are done in the hardware window. This is pulled up within the External Links window menu. The user can select sample rates, bit rates and buffer rates for Windows and Asio here. In addition, S/PDIF sample rates can be locked as can multiple soundcards to a particular sample rate.
After setting my routing from the ADC to the AudioDSP and then the DAC to the External Mixer, I was set to record. A LED light lit up on the face of the ADC/DAC 2000 to indicate the selections I had made. I plugged my microphone into my mixer and plugged it into the 1/2 In jacks on the front of the external box. I then set input levels in the External mixer which showed it was receiving a signal on its LED meters. I then opened a variety of multitrack software programs to see if they recognized the AudioDSP24, in particular, Cakewalk, n-Track Studio, Samplitude and PowerTracks. Each system displayed the tracks as stereo pairs. I selected inputs 1/2 and was all set to start recording.
I then set my input levels in Samplitude 2496 and began to record. I laid down a basic drum track with the Drag and Drop Drummer - - a very cool program that features sampled drum sounds. Next, I recorded my guitar and a vocal track. I hooked my synthesizer into the MIDI In on the back of the ADC/DAC 2000, as a controller. I then booted up GigaSampleLE and ran some GigaSampler samples through the external converter box. It worked well, with minimal latency and sounded great. So, I added a bass track with GigaSampler Rickenbacker bass. Multitracking was a snap, I was able to change routings and select which outputs I wanted to monitor in the External Links, easily and listen in real-time with the headphones. Overall, the system was satisfying and easy for me to use.
However, the external mixer was a bit irritating. First, it looks too much like a game card mixer and in itself, provides little more functionality. Second, if you are using all the tracks and it is open it is very large, dominating the screen. I have a 17" monitor and it was too big, at times for that. It would be helpful to be able to stack the channels and/or be able to dynamically resize the mixer size. Perhaps a simple redesign of the interface itself would aid in addressing this concern. The sliders and overall dimensions of the individual channels could be designed on a smaller scale and closer together.
Given the design of the AudioDSP and the ADC/DAC 2000, I was expecting quiet, full-sounding recording quality. I was not disappointed - - this card sounded very good. The sound quality holds up well to other better known products such as the Terratec EWS88MT and the Delta 66. The Hoontech sounded very similar to the Terratec EWS88MT, a unit I previously reviewed. None of this should be too surprising because all these units use the same converters (AKM 4524), the center piece of most of the tech specs you read about a soundcard, such as noise floor, signal to noise ratio and dynamic range. With respect to the Terratec, the underlying soundcard architecture was essentially the same (Envy24), particularly with the combination of the AC97 codec and the external converter connectivity.
All the recordings sounded very good, evenly representing the full audio spectrum. As to the acoustic guitar, it sounded full and well-rounded with clean highs and a pleasant, non-boomy bottom end. This is in part to the high-quality microphones I was using, the point being though that the card captured this quality. The GigaSampler Rickenbacker bass was nicely represented and my voice, well it was my voice. I particularly liked the way the system sounded when playing the Drag and Drop Drummer. This program features well-recorded actual samples of drum beats, including drum loops and single beats. The system played these samples very accurately from the low visceral thump of the bass drum, the crack of the stick striking the snare drum and the shimmer of the cymbals. It sounded great. It must be something about drums I guess because this was really fun to listen to. (As an aside, I played the Gigasampler GigaPiano which sounded just like a Yamaha Grand, giving an accurate impression of a real piano).
I particularly happy with the monitoring headphone jack. It allows for monitoring of all input/output signals with no latency. The ease of use made it all the more attractive, I did not have to do any special cable routing or software settings, I had to simply plug in and listen.
Hoontech supports a unique approach to tech support. Their website at www.hoontech.com has been through several iterations over the last six months. Its splash page presents Korean and/or English language options. The English language support page provides a Q + A forum wherein users post their tech support questions for other users to comment on or offer suggestions and solutions. To a degree, the tech support folks from Hoontech participate as well. At first, it seemed a bit odd to me because some of the posts were downright mean, with very unhappy customers. Moreover, the language barriers revealed itself at times. Nonetheless, Hoontech deserves credit for exposing their dirty laundry, such as it may be perceived, rather than hiding behind "email only" tech support. The forum provides a unique opportunity for a potential buyer to observe real feedback about the products before buying and for Hoontech to get a clear perspective on the public's perceptions and opinions about their products and their company. Ultimately, the user can send an email question into tech support for reply.
Recently, they posted Windows NT drivers and on July 24, 2000 posted ASIO 2.0 and GSIF drivers as well. There are many other companies still struggling to provide these drivers.
Hoontech is on the right track with a rack-mounted external converter box but I wondered why they settled for unbalanced jacks? I asked Petit and Claus at Hoontech. In an effort to keep the price down and still have 8/8 connectivity, unbalanced connections were chosen. I had thought that the price differential between unbalanced and balanced jacks was minimal. Turns out I was right, as it pertains to just the jacks. However, additional electronics were necessary to make the jacks balanced which would have raised the price beyond the price point they were trying to reach. Hoontech does provide balanced jacks on its bigger and more expensive ADC III and DAC III external box. To me, that is a fair explanation.
The ADC/DAC 2000 supports only the -10dBV consumer standard rather than +4 professional standard. As such, it loses headroom for mission critical recordings. Is there a noticeable difference in most recording applications that a home enthusiast/hobbyist/professional would do? Probably not. Moreover, the ADC/DAC 2000 is aimed squarely at the home enthusiast/hobbyist.
The English manual as it presently exists will benefit greatly from the pending rewrite. I give credit to Hoontech for seeing this as a weak point and doing something to change it. Hoontech is also considering an English revision of their website as well, which I would encourage they do. In reading the information on their website it is difficult to get an accurate idea of what a product actually does and how to use it. To make a dent in the U.S. market, Hoontech will have to rely in large part on effectively communicating in English about the Hoontech product line. If they do not, they may be dismissed as too hard to understand and/or the company itself is not professional enough to put together a well written English page/manual. This, in turn, would then reflect on the perception of their products.
Another thing I did not particularly care for seems almost too nit picky to mention. The sub-D cable that is provided with the ADC/DAC units is plenty long at 6' but it has very short handled knobs used for tightening the cable onto the AudioDSP24. It was quite difficult to get an adequate grip on the knobs to sufficiently secure the cable to the AudioDSP24. They were recessed into the body of the cable plug end. This may seem minor but it is very important to get the cable tightened securely on the PCI card.
Hoontech has put together a winning combination with the AudioDSP24 and the ADC/DAC 2000. The combination of the analog I/Os, MIDI, Optical, S/PDIF, and AES/EBU support makes this system compatible with virtually any format commonly used in a recording studio. In addition, the driver support has improved in the last several months to include Windows NT, ASIO and GSIF support. The routing capability of the External Links is rather robust once you get used to it. Having the headphone jack on the unit itself is a major plus for monitoring.
The ADC/DAC 2000 provides 24/96 support that results in high-quality recordings. The sound quality rivals that of other manufacturers using the same AKM chip. This is a good system that deserves being placed in with similar better-known competitors such as the Terratec EWS88MT and the Delta 66 as it pertains to sound quality. Having the converters housed in the external box is very smart and eliminates introduction of internal CPU noise. 1/4" jacks are nice but they would be better if they were balanced.
The difficulties in overcoming the English language barrier are not insurmountable. They simply require some patience. Is this a reason not to buy? No, not at all. Is the expenditure of patience worth it? Yes, this system works very well.
The use of the virtual cabling to emulate hardware is innovative but would benefit greatly from clearer guidance from the manual/webpage.
For the price, the AudioDSP24 and ADC/DAC 2000 combination is a great buy. With a bit of patience, its use becomes natural and efficient and will result in high-quality recordings. The external box configuration is very easy to access and use and provides superior noise isolation for the converters. The headphone jack on the external converter box is a major plus. A buyer would be hardpressed to find greater I/Os, more driver support, plus no-latency monitoring at a lower price.