Edirol are best known for their desktop music products, but they're heading into the professional arena with the DA2496, a high-quality eight-channel audio interface with a PCI card and breakout box.
You might think that every avenue has already been explored in eight-in/eight-out soundcard design, but Edirol have managed to come up with a new combination of features in the DA2496. As its name suggests, it's capable of 24-bit/96kHz recording and playback, and offers two mic/line inputs, two guitar/line inputs, and a further four analogue line inputs, two of which can be switched to either optical or co-axial digital format. There are eight analogue outputs, the first two of which are mirrored at the headphone output and at both the optical and co-axial digital outputs. With word clock and MIDI I/O, and a recommended price of £499, this looks a very attractive package.
The DA2496 is a two-part design: a PCI soundcard just over five inches long connects via a generous two-metre-long umbilical cable to the smart 1U rackmount case that houses all the I/O sockets, as well as the AKM AK4524 A-D and D-A converters. The PCI card features two three-pin connectors labelled Clock In and Clock Out, which enable you to synchronise up to four DA2496 units as long as you have enough slots in your computer — a short clock cable is supplied. As well as the 25-way D-type umbilical connector, the backplate also features a cutout to provide access to a dual DIP switch on the circuit board, which lets you give a unique identity to each card in a multiple setup. If only other manufacturers used this approach instead of having inaccessible links for such things as optical/co-axial and +4dBu/-10dBV input switching.
Similar attention to detail can be found at the rackmount end, with a clearly laid-out flow chart on the top panel that makes it easier to get to grips with the unit. The first two inputs use front-panel Neutrik Combi XLR/jack sockets that can accommodate either mic or line-level signals, either balanced or unbalanced. When you have mics plugged in on XLR connectors, a front-panel switch provides +48 Volt phantom power to both simultaneously, while a second one introduces a 24dB pad. In addition, each input also has a Peak LED and a rotary Sensitivity control with a 40dB range — when using a mic this provides a maximum sensitivity of -60dBu for full digital output.
Inputs 3 and 4 offer a pair of TRS balanced sockets with 24kΩ impedance on the rear panel, which can be overridden by plugging a guitar or similar source into the 470kΩ high-impedance unbalanced inputs on the front panel, an approach that makes perfect sense for most setups. Both inputs have a front-panel Sensitivity control which provides a range from +4dBu to -50dBu.
The remaining analogue inputs are all on the rear panel, TRS-balanced with standard impedance and the same sensitivity range of +4dBu to -50dBu. Inputs 5/6 have a single stereo-ganged front-panel Sensitivity control and Peak LED, while inputs 7/8 are identical except for an extra front-panel switch which lets you choose between analogue and co-axial/optical digital input. The co-axial I/O and the optical output are on the rear panel, while the optical input is on the front panel. A signal at this socket overrides the rear-panel co-axial input.
Along with the mains power switch and LED for the internal PSU, the front panel is completed by a stereo quarter-inch jack socket and associated volume control for headphone monitoring, a set of eight LEDs that display playback activity in the eight output channels, and a switch to toggle between internal and external clock signals, along with an associated LED indicator which illuminates when word clock is being received correctly, either from the PCI card or another device.
Apart from the analogue input sockets for channels three to eight, the rear panel also has eight analogue output sockets that are TRS-wired for balanced or unbalanced connection, the three digital I/O sockets mentioned earlier, a pair of BNC connectors for word clock in and out, the D-type connector for the PCI card, MIDI in and out sockets and a standard IEC mains socket.
The DA2496 comes with a CD-ROM containing drivers for Windows 98, ME, 2000 and XP, while Mac users have Sound Manager and OMS support for OS 9 (OS X drivers are in development), and the option of three different ASIO drivers. ASIO2 DA-PCI supports ASIO 2.0, ASIO Edirol DA-PCIv4 dispenses with the DirectMonitor function when used with Sound It!, while ASIO Edirol DA-PCIv3 is intended for use with Digital Performer, Cubase v3, Reason, Reaktor, Unity and Peak.
I downloaded the latest version 1.02 PC drivers from the Edirol web site. They support ASIO 2.0, EASI, GSIF and MME across all Windows versions, while those for Windows 2000 and XP also support WDM format. I installed the Windows 98SE version without a hitch, and I was soon back in action with the DA2496 running with no conflicts alongside my own Echo Mia and Yamaha SW1000XG soundcards. I found I didn't even need to remember to switch on the rackmount unit before powering up my PC.
As soon as I first launched the DA-PCI Control Panel, I recognised it as almost identical to the one used by M‑Audio for their soundcards; apparently, although Roland designed all the hardware including the PCI soundcard, they contacted M‑Audio to write licensed drivers for them. This makes sense, since M‑Audio already have huge experience in this area, but it's important to remember that although the software looks the same, the hardware it controls is completely different — you can't for instance download and use M‑Audio's Delta 1010 drivers with the DA2496.
The DA-PCI Control Panel lets you set up the DA2496 to suit your system, and can either be launched from within suitable applications like Cubase, or directly from the new applet that appears in the Windows Control Panel. Its functions are similar to those of M‑Audio's Delta range with five tabbed pages in all, along with overall Save, Delete and Load buttons to create presets of every setting, and radio buttons to let you select which of up to four cards you are currently adjusting in multi-card setups.
The first page is the Monitor Mixer, which lets you create a stereo mix from any combination of the four stereo WavOut playback channels and the signals appearing at the four stereo pairs of DA2496 input sockets. The output of the Monitor Mixer also appears as an input device in the Patchbay/Router page which, as its name suggests, controls the routing within the DA2496. The Hardware Settings page is where you select internal or external clock and set the sample rate, unless this is overridden by your music application. There's also a choice of DMA buffer sizes for the ASIO drivers and Mac Sound Manager I/O ranging from 28mS down to 8mS, and in the case of Windows 2000/XP applications, an extra box for WDM latency down to 2mS.
You can, if you wish, tick a box that prevents music applications controlling the Monitor Mixer and Patchbay Router; you can also decide whether the driver devices are synchronised for a single multitrack application, or independent for use with multiple MME-based ones. Unlike most of the M‑Audio cards, the DA2496's clock facilities allow multiple cards to remain locked in perfect sync without having to connect them using the rackmount digital I/O sockets.
Listening tests with both 16-bit and 24-bit files showed that the DA2496 is no slouch in the audio department. Despite having very similar converters to my benchmark Echo Mia card, it sounded slightly cleaner and tighter at the top end, while transients were slightly more focussed and the bass end seemed a tad more controlled. This suggested a lower level of clock jitter, and when I reclocked the Mia from the DA2496, the two cards sounded very similar indeed. Recordings made at various bit depths and sample rates also sounded clean and extended, while the mic and guitar inputs seemed to provide more than enough sensitivity along with subjectively low background noise.
RMS background noise was trickier to measure than normal, since there are so many varied signal paths, including mic preamps, which will always exhibit higher noise levels than line-level inputs. I decided in the end that the fairest way was to measure line-level inputs three to eight at their lowest sensitivity of +4dBu, in line with my other reviews. They proved to be surprisingly consistent, giving the typical -93.3dB RMS with 16-bit/44.1kHz recordings, and dropping to a good -99.5dB RMS at both 24-bit/44.1kHz and 24-bit/96kHz — within a fraction of a dB of virtually every other card using the AK4524 converters.
I managed the lowest 8mS latency setting without dropouts or glitching on my Pentium III 1GHz PC, both using the ASIO drivers on Cubase VST 5 and the EASI ones with Tassman 2.1. I even found this 8mS setting low enough to play 'real time' guitar through some plug-in effects using inputs 3 and 4. Unfortunately, as with M‑Audio cards, changing latency in the Control Panel doesn't 'take' until you exit the currently running application and relaunch it, though this is only likely to be a problem for those who are used to setting a low value for playing real-time soft synths and then raising it slightly to manage more simultaneous audio tracks during mixdown.
Windows 98/ME users may also face a bug I discovered at intermediate latency settings. Although the Windows 98/ME ASIO drivers worked well with 8, 20, 24 and 28 mS settings, when set to 12 or 16 mS I experienced severe playback distortion and the unexpected duplication of channels 1 and 2 at outputs 6 and 7. Edirol are aware of my findings and have confirmed that this doesn't occur on Windows 2000/XP, so this will only be a problem for relatively few users.
The GSIF drivers worked well in GigaStudio 160 but are not yet multi-client, so can't be used simultaneously with Cubase. The MME drivers managed a healthy 15mS with Pro 52 — just 5mS above the minimum setting — while with Sonar 2.0 I managed to tweak the MME latency down to 20mS. Windows 2000 users should better this with the WDM drivers.
I also tried some digital transfers to and from an external DAT recorder, and got the desired bit-for-bit copy, although it is rather confusing that, for correct operation, external clock must be set both for the DA-PCI card in software and on the front panel of the DA2496.
Edirol have certainly made an impressive debut with their first high-end soundcard, and the DA2496 has a clever combination of features that should suit musicians who need to plug in a variety of signal sources. Although its converters and background noise figures are identical to those of many other soundcards such as M‑Audio's Delta 66 and Terratec's EWS88 MT and EWX 24/96, the low-jitter clock of the DA2496 does seem to noticeably tighten up overall sound quality. If you demand even lower noise then you'll have to pay considerably more money for products like Echo Mona and Aardvark's Q10 (see The Competition box), but if you need to plug in a maximum of two mics and two guitars, and need eight simultaneous inputs overall, Edirol's DA2496 provides high audio quality in an elegant package, and is excellent value at £499.
There are various options open to those looking for a high-quality soundcard with multiple mic/line inputs, one example being Aardvark's £569 Direct Pro 2496 (reviewed in SOS April 2000), which has four, along with four outputs, built-in DSP effects, and a handy desktop breakout box. You can apparently add high-impedance converters to it if you want to record guitars, but there are several products available that have inputs that cater specifically for mics, guitars, and line-level inputs.
The Seasound Solo is sadly no longer with us, but M-Audio's Omni Studio bundle (SOS January 2001) again provides four ins and outs and co-axial digital I/O, two high-quality mic/guitar preamps with +48V phantom power and TRS inserts, four stereo Aux inputs, and an effect send/return system, along with monitoring and headphone outputs, for a new low bundled price of £399. If you want a rackmount unit, Echo's Mona (SOS October 2000) has four identical switched mic/guitar/line inputs with LED metering, six analogue outputs on balanced XLRs and unbalanced phonos, plus a headphone output, and an impressive audio spec with dynamic range of 115dBA, but is considerably more expensive at £850.
If you need to use even more mics, Aardvark's Q10 (SOS December 2001) has eight mic/line inputs with global +48V phantom power and TRS inserts on 1 to 4, and switchable guitar preamps on inputs 7 and 8, plus eight direct analogue outputs and monitor and headphone outs. Like the DA2496 it also has MIDI, word clock, and co-axial digital I/O, but has no optical I/O and is again considerably more expensive at £789.
- Mic/line inputs 1 and 2: balanced/unbalanced front-panel XLR or TRS jack with 24kΩ input impedance, -60dBu to +4dBu sensitivity, global switched +48V phantom power.
- Guitar/line Inputs 3 and 4: unbalanced front-panel quarter-inch jack with 470kΩ input impedance, or balanced/unbalanced rear-panel TRS jack with 24kΩ input impedance, -50dBu to +4dBu sensitivity.
- Line inputs 5 to 8: balanced/unbalanced rear-panel TRS jack with 24kΩ input impedance, -50dBu to +4dBu sensitivity.
- Analogue outputs: eight, on balanced/unbalanced rear-panel TRS jacks with 300Ω impedance, nominal output level +4dBu, plus stereo headphone output.
- Digital I/O: stereo co-axial and optical in and out.
- Word clock: in and out.
- MIDI: in and out.
- A-D Converters: 24-bit 64x oversampling (part of AK4524 Codec chip).
- D-A Converters: 24-bit 128x oversampling (part of AK4524 Codec chip).
- Frequency response: 20Hz to 40kHz (+0/-2dB) at 96kHz sample rate.
- Supported bit depths: 16, 24, 32-bit float.
- Internal processing: 36-bit.
- Supported analogue sample rates: 22.05kHz, 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, and 96kHz (22.05kHz not supported with external clock).
- Versatile selection of mic, guitar, and line inputs.
- Provides both optical and co-axial digital I/O, plus word clock and MIDI I/O.
- Low-jitter clock and clean audio quality.
- Using digital input disables analogue inputs 7 and 8.
- GSIF drivers are not yet multi-client.
- Bug on current Windows 98/ME driver version at some latencies.
Edirol's DA2496 provides a versatile combination of analogue, digital, MIDI, and word clock I/O, in an elegant rackmount format, with high audio quality, at a very competitive price.
Edirol Europe +44 (0)20 8747 5949.