You are here

Echo Mona 24/96

Echo Mona 24/96

There's a new addition to Echo's well‑established family of PCI recording interfaces, and it caters for recording guitarists and those mixing in surround for DVD production. Martin Walker has a date with Mona...

Regular readers of my soundcard reviews will already know that I have an Echo Gina in my own PC. Reviewed in SOS December '97, this was the first card that convinced me it was possible to place digital converters inside a computer and still get excellent audio performance. Although the subsequent Echo driver releases had a somewhat turbulent history of bugs, they eventually went on to provide solid reliability, ASIO latency down to an excellent 4mS, and support for ASIO 2.0 Direct Monitoring. Two and a half years later, the Gina's 20‑bit converters might seem behind the times, but when used for 24‑bit recording they still provide me with background noise figures that have so far been beaten in my tests only by the Midiman Delta 1010.

However, technology marches on, and 24‑bit converters are becoming the norm in 'serious' soundcard designs, even at the budget end of the market. With this in mind, Echo have now replaced their entire range of 20‑bit cards (the Darla, Gina, and Layla) with a new, up‑to‑date range of 24‑bit versions (the Darla24, Gina24, and Layla24). They've also introduced a completely new product, the Mona, which is the subject of this review.

Different Strokes

As the ADAT interface can be used at the same time as the analogue I/O, the Mona can provide a total of up to 12 inputs and 14 outputs, with very low latency.As the ADAT interface can be used at the same time as the analogue I/O, the Mona can provide a total of up to 12 inputs and 14 outputs, with very low latency.

The Echo Mona may sound like an extension of the existing range, but is in fact intended for a completely different user. Advertised as a "complete 24/96 digital studio", it not only provides six analogue outputs — enough for 5.1 surround and hence DVD mastering — but also a clutch of four switchable mic/instrument preamps with optional phantom power, each with front‑panel level controls and LED ladder arrays displaying input levels. Since these high‑quality preamps are directly connected to the A‑D converters, Mona provides a very clean and simple signal path, with the added benefit of balanced operation for both mic and line inputs if required. The analogue outputs are available on both balanced XLR and unbalanced phono connectors, along with a headphone output with its own front‑panel level control.

Digital interfacing is comprehensive, with S/PDIF co‑axial, S/PDIF optical, ADAT optical, and word clock ins and outs. The Mona is capable of recording four analogue and eight ADAT inputs at the same time, while replaying six analogue and eight ADAT outputs, but if this is not enough you can use the internal Esync connection to lock together multiple 24‑bit Echo products for even more simultaneous channels.

Breakout Box

The updated Echo Console provides even more controls than its predecessor, with additional pan controls alongside the already comprehensive input monitoring facilities.The updated Echo Console provides even more controls than its predecessor, with additional pan controls alongside the already comprehensive input monitoring facilities.

With this many controls and sockets, it's not surprising that the Mona (like the Layla and Layla24) is designed in two parts, with the computer interface on a PCI expansion card and all the analogue and converter circuitry inside a separate 1U rack case. Unlike the many anonymous black front panels on the market, this brushed‑aluminium design has a very tasty retro look, largely due to the elliptical cutout housing the level meters and the 'carved' logo and channel markings that are cut into its surface.

Arranged from left to right across the front panel are a mains power switch button with green LED indicator alongside and a quarter‑inch jack socket labelled Remote, followed by a switch to globally enable 48 Volt phantom power for those inputs currently being used by microphones. The Remote socket isn't mentioned in the manual, and doesn't do anything with the current driver version.

Following these is the cutout section, which contains four 10‑segment LED ladder arrays showing current input levels, and then four sets of identical controls for the inputs themselves. At the right‑hand side of the panel is a quarter‑inch stereo jack socket for headphones, with its own level control. This is permanently connected to outputs one and two, and doesn't mute the main outputs as the manual states — Echo obviously changed their mind after printing.

Each input consists of a Neutrik combi‑jack/XLR socket with a rotary gain‑trim pot, Guitar button and associated green LED. Anything plugged in as an XLR is expected to provide a mic‑level signal, while the Guitar button switches the TRS jack input from line level to a gain and input impedance more suited to DI'd electric guitar.

The back panel (again from left to right) has three pairs of XLR sockets for +4dBu level connections, each of which is mirrored on a pair of phono sockets providing unbalanced –10dBV outputs. Beyond these are a 9‑pin D‑type connector to connect the breakout box to the PCI expansion card, a pair of optical sockets for ADAT or S/PDIF optical In and Out, a pair of phono sockets for co‑axial S/DIF In and Out, and a pair of BNC sockets for word clock In and Out. The back panel is completed by an IEC mains socket.

In my quest to find out what lay inside, I removed a total of 29 screws from the well‑built rack case. The three stereo D‑A converters are all AKM AK4393 devices, claimed to be the first capable of 120dB dynamic range and identical to those used in the M Audio Delta 1010, whose audio quality I praised in SOS January 2000. The four stereo A‑D converters are AK5393 chips, which have a slightly better spec than the AK5383s used in the Delta 1010. Analogue preamp duties are taken care of by four Burr Brown INA103 low‑noise, low‑distortion instrumentation amplifier chips. All analogue input and output sockets have gold‑plated contacts, and in general construction quality on the review model was very good, apart from a couple of tiny last‑minute modifications where extra decoupling capacitors and shielding had been soldered on by hand.

The PCI card is just five inches long, with a small selection of chips including a Motorola 56301 DSP, a 2‑pin connector marked Esync to sync to a Darla24 or Gina24 card if you need more channels, and an unmarked 12‑pin connector. The backplate simply has a 9‑pin D‑type connector that connects to the rack unit, and the Mona is supplied with an extremely generous 4.5‑metre cable to do so. The bundle is completed by a well‑written 79‑page printed manual with lots of FAQs at the end, and a CD‑ROM containing the Mona Windows drivers (Mac versions were not available at the time of review), the ubiquitous Echo Reporter utility, and a special version of Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro editor.

Getting Started

With the 'View ADAT Ctrls' box ticked, you get the same comprehensive input monitoring and metering facilities for another eight inputs and outputs.With the 'View ADAT Ctrls' box ticked, you get the same comprehensive input monitoring and metering facilities for another eight inputs and outputs.

Installation was a breeze, and it only took me a few minutes to insert the card alongside my Gina, have it recognised, install the drivers, and arrive back on the desktop. The Mona worked happily with my existing Gina, SW1000XG and AWE64 Gold cards with no conflicts. To Windows audio applications the new drivers appear as seven pairs of inputs, and eight pairs of outputs. The inputs consist of Mona 1/2 and 3/4 Analog Record, Mona S/PDIF Record, and Mona 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, and 7/8 ADAT Record, while the outputs are Mona 1/2, 3/4, and 5/6 Analog Playback, Mona S/PDIF Playback, and Mona 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, and 7/8 ADAT Playback.

The ASIO drivers provide exactly the same options as previous Echo cards, with ASIO 2.0 Direct Monitoring, and buffer size adjustment from the default 8192 samples (which gives 187mS of latency at 44.1kHz), right down to 128 samples for those PCs that can manage it, giving 4mS of latency at 44.1kHz.

According to the Cubase DirectSound Setup utility, the Mona has full DirectSound drivers for its Mona Out 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, and S/PDIF outputs, but the inputs are all emulated (like most other drivers). If you open up the Mona's Properties page in the System applet of Control Panel you can tick a box to enable or disable DirectSound support. This is enabled by default, but as with previous Echo cards you need to disable it and reboot your PC before you can use the Mona with Nemesys' Gigasampler. The Mona, Gina24, and Layla24 also all require an update patch from Nemesys, along with updated Echo drivers, before they will run with Gigasampler.

Also on the Properties page is a tick box to 'Lock DirectSound format', along with buttons to select sample rate, bit depth, and mono or stereo. These overcome a limitation of DirectX 6.1 and 7, which apparently only correctly set up the first stereo output pair of any soundcard — by choosing values appropriate for your soft synths here, you should be able to use any or all of the DirectSound outputs without problems.

Other options in the Mona's System Properties include a switch to enable multi‑client audio, so that you can allocate different outputs to multiple applications running simultaneously, such as a sequencer and a soft synth, and 'Monitor during playback', which determines whether or not you can hear input signals before switching to record mode in your software. You may want to disable this during punch‑in recording.

Small Consolations

The PCI card component of the Mona system is a mere 5 inches in length.The PCI card component of the Mona system is a mere 5 inches in length.

The Echo Console utility will already be familiar to all Darla, Gina, and Layla users. Described as a 'virtual control surface' application, the console is installed automatically along with the drivers, and normally appears on your Taskbar as a single 'M' unless you choose to disable the 'Show Console on Taskbar' option in the properties page. Echo have updated Echo Console for the Mona, but according to the About box it's still an interim version until the "new sizzling hot Java console arrives".

The console window is divided into three main areas, and lets you adjust input monitoring, control output levels, and select from the various sync options. Panels for the two analogue and single S/PDIF input pairs are at top left. Unlike previous Echo products, the Mona has physical controls for trimming input gain, so for each input device pair there is simply a pair of peak‑reading level meters (which in the case of the analogue inputs mirror the front‑panel ones). However, these have no markings and no peak‑holding facilities, so their usefulness is a bit questionable. The right‑hand side of the console has panels for the analogue outputs with Mute and Solo buttons, level faders with a range of +6dB to ‑100dB, peak‑reading meters, and a Gang button per stereo pair. The S/PDIF output simply has a pair of meters, like the inputs.

Beneath each input panel is a corresponding monitor section, where there's a surprisingly comprehensive set of controls to send each input in any amount to any combination of output channels. Each input pair has a Gang button to link its two faders when you are recording stereo signals, along with eight destination buttons, labelled 1, 3, 5 for the three analogue output pairs, D for the S/PDIF digital output, and A1, A3, A5, and A7 for the ADAT outputs. For each destination there is a duplicate set of controls comprising Mute and Solo buttons, a level fader with a range of +6dB to ‑100dB, and a pan control.

It's important to note that Echo Console remembers the input monitor settings for all of the eight possible outputs, so you could set up different monitor mixes from each of the outputs, if you require. Given that the outputs can also be simultaneously playing back different audio tracks, this could for instance provide you with several different simultaneous mixes suitable for sending to external headphone amplifiers during live recordings.

Sync Options

Across the bottom of the console are the four input sync options — Internal, Word, S/PDIF, and ADAT. Apart from the internal clock, which is always available, the other buttons remain green until a suitable clock signal is detected at the appropriate input socket, when they change to grey and become another input sync option. Clicking on one of these grey buttons makes it the active input sync option and turns the button yellow.

I found this colouring confusing — surely it would make more sense to 'grey' out inactive clock options, and turn them green when available? This is further confused by the drop‑down box to the right of the sync buttons labelled Digital Mode Switch, which lets you choose between S/PDIF RCA (co‑axial), S/PDIF Optical, or ADAT modes. Since only one of these is available at a time, it would make the panel display clearer if the S/PDIF and ADAT buttons were replaced by a single one which read Co‑axial, Optical, or ADAT depending on the position of the mode switch. However, there's no denying the flexibility on offer here once you get your head around the options.

When ADAT mode is selected, a further tick box labelled 'View ADAT Ctrls' becomes available, and when you tick this the entire console switches to a display of the ADAT Ins and Outs. The eight inputs simply have meters like the analogue inputs, but still provide the same comprehensive options for input monitoring beneath, while the eight ADAT outputs once again just have peak‑reading meters. Since the Mona can send out ADAT Master clock as well as slave to it, Echo recommend selecting the Internal clock setting and using this to provide the sync to your ADAT, since this is claimed to give the lowest possible jitter, resulting in a cleaner sound.

The Mona console has a Preferences page with further options. The sample rate can be locked at any of the supported values to prevent any application changing it accidentally — otherwise, for instance, if your song is set up to record at 44.1kHz and you launch a soft synth running at 22kHz, your songs may end up being recorded at 22kHz. Locking the sample rate will also prevent similar calamities if you insist on leaving Windows system sounds enabled. 'Sync Wave Devices' should normally be left enabled, but can be disabled by developers who need totally independent inputs and outputs.

'External Box Warning' toggles the messages that Windows pops up if you don't switch on the Mona rack unit before your PC is booted. However, I was also pleased to see that even if you forget to switch the Mona on before booting your PC you don't have to reboot for it to be recognised — you can just switch it on at any time and start using it straight away.

The two final options on this page are for digital I/O: S/PDIF output flags can be switched between professional and consumer, and Dither Input enables or disables dithering of signals received through the S/PDIF and ADAT digital inputs.

In Use

As always, I started by playing back 16‑bit 44.1kHz files and comparing the sound with my own Echo Gina. The biggest difference was at the high end, where the Mona was sweeter and more focussed. This let me hear further 'into' the mix, and was particularly noticeable on percussion transients and reverb tails; on some music, switching to the Mona gave the impression of removing a net curtain. Its bass end also seemed slightly warmer, although this was quite a subtle difference.

Quiescent background noise from the D‑A converters was also considerably lower on the Mona, while the RMS background noise measured by Wavelab from the A‑D converters during recording measured ‑93dB for 16‑bit/44kHz and ‑107dB for 24‑bit/44kHz, rising to ‑102dB with 24‑bit/96kHz. These are excellent results, bettered in my tests to date only by the M Audio Delta 1010, which managed ‑109dB at 24‑bit/44kHz. Using the ASIO drivers with Cubase VST, I found that the lowest practical buffer setting for my 450MHz Pentium II PC was exactly the same as for my Gina card at 256 samples, providing an excellent latency of 7mS at 44.1kHz.

On the digital side, I found an additional complication caused by the console Mode switch when using applications such as Cubase VST that grab all the available inputs and outputs. You need to select the appropriate Mode before launching VST, since once launched it hangs on to whatever digital I/O channels you have chosen, and the console then ignores any subsequent changes unless you exit Cubase first.

All the recordings I made had excellent audio quality, although I did notice some noise pumping as I changed the gain trim settings, so you should avoid doing this during a recording. However, this was less obtrusive than the clicking you nearly always get when adjusting the digital gain control used by many other soundcards.

I suspect some guitarists would prefer a significantly higher input impedance than Mona's 107kΩ to avoid loading some pickups. However, Mona is one of the very few soundcard options available that let you plug in a guitar directly and record it while using a string of plug‑in effects with ASIO latency low enough to feel 'real time', so few musicians will have cause to grumble. The headphone amp had more than enough level for my Sennheiser phones. My only disappointments were that the Mona was launched with an interim console utility, with no support for the Remote socket, and with no Mac drivers.

Final Thoughts

The Mona will appeal to those who need to record up to four simultaneous signals, including guitars or vocals, onto separate tracks, although this wouldn't be enough to record a drum kit or complete band live unless you could use the ADAT I/O as well. There are various alternatives for those who want mic/guitar inputs on their soundcard, and I've covered these in the 'Competing Products' box on page 46. The Mona has excellent audio quality, as well as the flexibility of six analogue outputs for adding hardware effects, or surround mixing with suitable software. The ADAT I/O will endear it to those who already have ADATs and want to integrate them with a hard‑disk recording system, or you could use it to connect third‑party converters and add another eight channels of analogue I/O later on.

However, the Mona's ability to record a total of 12 simultaneous inputs while playing back 14 simultaneous outputs comes at a price, and at £799 this is somewhat steeper than I originally expected. Its facilities would prove ideal for a professional musician who wants a more compact setup and doesn't need a huge mixing desk any more, but sadly, I suspect that it will prove too expensive for many guitarists who are looking for a plug‑and‑play solution to their hard disk recording requirements. I suspect that Echo would do well to launch a 'Mini‑Mona' with fewer inputs and outputs, without the ADAT I/O and at a lower price. That said, the Echo Mona has an excellent technical specification and sound, a versatile set of options, and a definite feeling of quality about it.

Brief Specifications

  • Hardware format: 32‑bit PCI bus Mastering expansion card.
  • Analogue inputs: four, each suitable for mic, guitar, or line‑level signals.
  • Analogue input connectors: Neutrik combi XLR/TRS jack sockets.
  • Mic inputs: 20 to 60dB gain, 1.5kΩ input impedance, globally switched +48V phantom power.
  • Line inputs: 0 to 40dB gain, 10kΩ input impedance.
  • Guitar inputs: 10 to 50dB gain, 107kΩ input impedance.
  • Analogue outputs: six, plus headphone output.
  • Analogue output connectors: balanced (+4dBu) XLRs plus unbalanced (–10dBV) phonos.
  • A‑D converters: AKM AK5393 24‑bit 128x oversampling.
  • D‑A converters: AKM AK4393 24‑bit multi‑bit delta‑sigma 128x oversampling.
  • Input dynamic range: 115dB A‑weighted.
  • Output dynamic range: 116dB A‑weighted.
  • Frequency response: 10Hz to 22kHz (±0.25dB).
  • THD + Noise: <0.002% (20Hz to 22kHz).
  • Supported bit depths: 8, 16, and 24.
  • Internal resolution: 24‑bit.
  • Supported sample rates (analogue inputs): 8kHz, 11.025kHz, 22.05kHz, 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, and 96kHz.
  • Supported S/PDIF sample rates: 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz.
  • Digital I/O: co‑axial S/PDIF up to 24‑bit operation, ADAT optical.
  • Word clock in and out.

Competing Products

There is currently a lot of interest in soundcards that feature mic and guitar inputs, largely because they can eliminate the need for an external hardware mixer for musicians who want to do all their mixing and effects inside a computer. Several manufacturers have launched products in this general area, but their features vary widely, as do their prices.

The most obvious competitor would initially seem to be the new SeaSound Solo at £599, which will be reviewed in SOS soon. This provides two high‑quality mic/instrument preamps and two line‑level inputs, but these four inputs are then mixed down to a single stereo pair for recording, and there is only a single stereo analogue output. In addition, only S/PDIF digital I/O is available, although it does have MIDI I/O, full 24/96 capability, and extensive front‑panel controls on its attractive 2U rackmount case.

A more similar contender to the Mona is Aardvark's Direct Pro 24/96 at £649, which I reviewed in SOS April 2000. This has the same quotient of four mic/line inputs using Neutrik combi sockets, four analogue outputs, S/PDIF and MIDI I/O, but its main claim to fame is the built‑in DSP, offering zero‑latency EQ, compression and reverb. However, its desktop breakout box doesn't look as sexy as the Mona rackmount case, and its line inputs only have a 20kΩ input impedance, making them unsuitable for use with guitar without a high‑impedance converter (which will cost about £20 per input).

Other options include several much cheaper USB designs with mic/guitar inputs and built‑in effects, such as Roland ED's UA100 at under £300 (reviewed in SOS February 2000). This only has two inputs and outputs, but does offer two MIDI Ins and Outs, although at this price and with 20‑bit converters, you can't expect the same level of audio quality. Guitarists who simply want a computer front end could also buy a more basic soundcard with an S/PDIF input and then connect it to the digital output from a Johnson J Station recording preamp (reviewed in SOS August 2000).

System Requirements

Although the box states that PC owners need a Intel Pentium PC system running Windows 95/98, a label had been stuck on mine adding that "AMD Athlon processors with VIA KX133 chipset" are also supported. This is excellent news, since many musicians who have bought Athlon‑based PCs have found out the hard way that Echo soundcards can stop their machines from booting up at all. There is more information on this at Echo's web site, where they state that "the problems are related to the Motorola DSP that we use in our products and certain Athlon motherboard chipsets and not the Athlon processor itself. There is a new Athlon chipset from VIA (the Apollo KX133) that works well with our products." They even provide a link to the VIA web site where you can find a list of suitable motherboards.

Mac system requirements are a "Genuine Apple brand Macintosh with 604 or better processor", along with System 6.1 or higher, but the added label admits that Mac drivers aren't yet finished, and refers you to the Echo web site. They weren't there when I finished this review on August 5th, but are apparently expected quite soon. Both platforms require a PCI 2.1‑compliant motherboard (almost universal nowadays), and thankfully the Mona has a bus Master interface, which keeps your main processor overhead to a minimum.


  • Versatile input options and metering.
  • Very good sound quality and full support for 24‑bit/96kHz.
  • Enough analogue outputs for DVD surround monitoring.
  • Attractive rackmount case.


  • Expensive, given that you'll need separate converters to use the ADAT I/O.
  • Console utility is only an interim version.
  • Non‑functional Remote socket.
  • No Mac drivers available yet.


The Mona is an attractive and versatile solution for musicians who want an all‑in‑one solution for their recording requirements, and would also seem ideal for guitarists who want to plug in and go. It has an excellent audio specification, but far more of them would be bought if the price were a little lower.