OWC make high‑quality computer accessories with musicians in mind.
Other World Computing are a long‑established supplier of storage and expansion solutions for computers. One of the things that sets them apart is that many OWC products are designed to meet the needs of professionals working in audio and video. This, in turn, means the company have much more of a focus on the Mac platform than most manufacturers in their field. On the software side, they are responsible for the MacDrive utility, which allows disks formatted using Apple’s APFS and HFS+ systems to be mounted and used on Windows machines, and SoftRAID, a cross‑platform package which amalgamates separate drives into a RAID 0, 1, 4, 5 or 1+0 array at the software level, either for faster data streaming, redundancy or both.
The hardware division of the company, meanwhile, offers a huge variety of storage options, including internal and external SSDs, network‑attached storage and hardware disk arrays. Another strong focus is expansion, with half a dozen Thunderbolt and USB 3 docks to choose from, alongside the Mercury range of PCIe expansion chassis and the Akitio Node Titan external GPU system. Other hardware in OWC’s line‑up includes a comprehensive selection of cables and adaptors as well as niche products such as Mac‑compatible RAM and the clever Data Doubler, which replaces the optical drive in older Mac laptops with a second SSD for additional storage.
It would be impractical to review everything in OWC’s line‑up so, as a representative sample, I chose to look at three of their products: the Thunderbolt 3 Dock, the Envoy Pro EX external SSD, and the Thunderbay 4 RAID system.
The first of these is very much targeted at Mac users who have been short‑changed on expansion options by Apple. For a couple of years now, Mac laptops have sported only a limited number of sockets, and Apple have phased out USB Type‑A connectors, preferring to provide Type‑C sockets that can host either Thunderbolt 3 or USB devices. As they’ve also dumped the old and rather wonderful Magsafe power connector, this leaves some laptop users with only a single Thunderbolt socket available for connecting all their interfaces, drives, dongles, external displays and what have you.
The Thunderbolt 3 Dock goes a very long way towards righting this wrong. It’s a chunky piece of kit about half the size of a Mac Mini, and requires an equally hefty line‑lump external power supply. Audio interface manufacturers would do well to note that OWC provide Thunderbolt 3 cables with all products that need them, though the one included here is only just over a foot in length. This connects to one of the Dock’s two Type‑C connectors; the other can be used to daisy‑chain further Thunderbolt peripherals or displays, and there’s also a mini‑Display Port socket (which, alas, does not act as a Thunderbolt 2 adaptor). One of the Thunderbolt 3 sockets is intended to supply power to an attached Mac laptop, meaning you’ll only need the Thunderbolt Dock’s PSU connected and not the laptop’s.
This is all well and good, but the real value for many Mac users will be found in the extensive USB socketry. On one side of the unit you’ll find four USB Type‑A sockets, all supporting the USB 3.1 protocol and thus backward‑compatible to all previous versions. A fifth Type‑A socket appears on the reverse side and is specifically badged as a ‘high‑powered’ port, which should make it perfect for bus‑powered interfaces. There’s also a USB‑only Type‑C port, SD and microSD card slots, and an RJ45 Ethernet port.
In short, then, connecting the Thunderbolt 3 Dock to something like a MacBook Air transforms a machine that is dubiously usable for serious music‑making into something that can rival any Windows laptop for connectivity. The chief cost in doing so is that you become dependent on a mains power supply, but then serious music‑making rarely takes place without one. As long as you can find space in your laptop bag for it, the Dock is a comprehensive and very well thought‑out solution to a whole bunch of eternal Mac problems.
OWC’s Thunderbay 4 RAID system is available either as an empty housing, ready for your own drives to be added, or in a number of pre‑stuffed configurations. The chassis itself is a pretty substantial piece of kit, weighing in at almost 4kg without drives. As the name suggests, it can house up to four 2.5‑ or 3.5‑inch SATA 6Gb/s drives, and if you order it with disks pre‑fitted, everything should be pretty much plug and play. Once again, the Thunderbay is supplied with a Thunderbolt cable, slightly more generous in length than that included with the Thunderbolt Dock.
The drives themselves are held in place by a thumbwheel of the sort that was sometimes used to fix mixer modules into large‑format consoles, with a lockable door at the front. On the rear panel you’ll find an IEC power inlet, two Thunderbolt 3 connections (a Thunderbolt 2 variant is also available), a security port and an HDMI connector. The Thunderbay can thus be used to daisy‑chain further Thunderbolt devices as well as a display.
Also visible on the rear panel is the grille for a cooling fan, which OWC call “whisper‑quiet”. It’s good that they are aware of the problem of fan noise in creative contexts, but in the review system, I have to say this description seemed a little optimistic. It would not be realistic to expect silence from a box containing four hard drives, but the fan is clearly audible even when no drive activity is taking place, and seems to run at a constant speed regardless of the internal temperature. If you wanted to banish the Thunderbay to a machine room without also exiling your computer, the only obvious way to do so would be using a Thunderbolt 2 optical cable and adaptor.
Once you’ve installed OWC’s SoftRAID XT, a version of which is supplied with the Thunderbay, the drives in the Thunderbay show up as a single volume within your operating system, and can be treated as a conventional drive. The review system was preconfigured to use RAID 5 across four 2TB Toshiba drives. In effect, the use of parity data in RAID 5 means that the price of redundancy is the capacity of one drive, so the total capacity as seen by Mac OS is 6TB. That sacrifice buys you the security of knowing that your data will survive the loss of one of the four drives in the array.
Some would argue that the main benefits of RAID arrays have been matched by other technologies in recent years. Modern solid‑state drives are faster and more reliable than spinning‑plate hard disks, whilst cloud‑based backup strategies offer a level of robustness that is hard to match with physical drives. Nevertheless, storage is a numbers game, and some of the most important numbers still favour hard drives and RAID arrays. Per terabyte, SSDs currently cost a little more or less than four times as much as 3.5‑inch internal hard drives, depending on whether you get SATA or NVMe variants; and whereas individual SSDs of greater than 2TB capacity are still relatively rare, you can buy single hard drives offering 16GB or more of storage. So, although the review configuration could be matched using SSDs, 8TB is a pretty conservative spec for the Thunderbay, and the largest supported configuration offers a colossal 64TB of storage. You’d need a fast Internet connection and a lot of cloud capacity to back that up online!
According to the specifications, the Thunderbay 4 can support data transfer speeds of up to 1.5GB per second. What’s actually achieved in practice will depend on the speeds of the drives that are fitted, other traffic on the Thunderbolt/PCI bus, and the type of data that is being transferred. To get a real‑world idea of the performance of the review configuration, I ran Blackmagic’s Disk Speed Test, which is intended to estimate performance as it pertains to the streaming of large media files. This reported write speeds of around 160MB/s and read performance of around 580MB/s: marginal for some forms of uncompressed high‑quality video, but easily enough for any multitrack audio project, and much better than you’d get from a typical portable hard drive, especially on the read side. Orchestral composers would also have to be streaming an enormous number of samples before drive bandwidth became an issue. If it does, you could always choose a Thunderbay configuration that uses SSDs. As only the SATA standard is supported, this still won’t quite give you the same performance as, say, the internal NVMe SSD in my newish Mac Mini, which measured a blistering 2.7GB/s for both read and write, but I can’t imagine many real‑world situations in which it would prove a bottleneck.
Choosing the right computer peripherals will never be as much fun as buying a new synth or plug‑in, but it could turn out to be a lot more important in the long run.
From the user’s point of view, the Envoy Pro EX is the simplest of the three review products. It is a portable, bus‑powered device that connects to the host computer using a captive Thunderbolt 3 cable (USB variants are also available), and contains a single solid‑state drive. The case itself is made of rigid aluminium and is protected by a chunky rubberised sleeve. Between them, these are said to provide drop protection that meets the US military MIL‑STD‑810G standard.
The Envoy Pro EX is available in various different capacities. Importantly, the internal drive interfaces using the newer NVMe standard rather than SATA. This, in conjunction with the high bandwidth of Thunderbolt 3, makes it much faster than most conventional portable drives: the specs quote maximum read speeds of up to 2.5GB/s and write speeds of 800MB/s. Oddly, Blackmagic’s Disk Speed Test actually reported higher write speeds even than this, and suggested that streaming almost any form of raw video data to or from the Envoy Pro EX should be feasible. It’s not hard to see how a portable drive that’s silent, rugged and extremely fast can be of use to audio producers too, especially those with large sample collections or project libraries that regularly need to be moved from machine to machine. The Envoy Pro EX is certainly much, much more than a convenient backup option!
This review represents a representative sampling from a very comprehensive product range, and has left me very impressed. From the packaging to the construction to the simple installation process for SoftRAID XT, everything about these products exudes quality, and they’re backed by a three‑year guarantee and 24‑hour support. Some of their offerings are niche products that will be invaluable to Mac users; others, like the Thunderbay and Envoy Pro EX, are more universal in application but benefit from a genuine consideration of the needs of audio and video professionals. Choosing the right computer peripherals will never be as much fun as buying a new synth or plug‑in, but it could turn out to be a lot more important in the long run.
RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks (or Independent Disks, depending on who you ask), and the basic idea is to distribute data across multiple physical drives in a way that is invisible to the user. Depending on how it’s configured, this can have two main benefits. One is speed: by writing alternate sections of a file simultaneously to two drives, a RAID array can halve the time it takes to write the entire file. Double the number of drives again and you have, at least in theory, quadrupled the data rate of the individual disks, assuming they’re all the same to start with.
The second benefit is redundancy. If, rather than writing alternate sections of a file to separate drives, we write the entire file simultaneously to both, it consequently exists in two places; so, if one of those drives fails, the data is not lost. This is not in itself a robust backup strategy, since it is still vulnerable to fire, theft and other calamities, but it covers you against one of the main causes of data loss.
There are a number of different RAID standards, which balance out these two benefits in different proportions. RAID 0 maximises read/write speeds by ‘striping’ data across all the disks in the array, but offers no redundancy at all, whereas RAID 1 ‘mirrors’ all data to all the disks in the array, thus offering maximum redundancy with no performance benefit. For many applications, a good compromise is found in RAID 5. This requires at least three drives to implement, but, in effect, ‘stripes’ your data across as many disks as possible whilst retaining some redundancy through the use of a system called 'parity'.
The job of distributing data across multiple disks, and presenting them to the OS as a single entity, is handled by something called a RAID controller, which can be implemented in hardware or software. An array that uses a hardware RAID controller should, in theory, be indistinguishable from a conventional drive as far as the computer is concerned; you can plug it into any machine and it’ll immediately be recognised as a single volume. A software RAID array requires the relevant software to be installed on every machine that wants access to the drive.
Both Mac OS and Windows actually include built‑in software RAID controllers, but the Mac OS implementation only supports the basic RAID 0 and 1 standards. For this and for a number of other reasons, more sophisticated third‑party software RAID packages are widely used, and OWC’s SoftRAID is a good example.
- A comprehensive range of storage and expansion products, many designed specifically with video and audio applications in mind.
- Mac users are fully catered for.
- Thunderbolt cables supplied.
- The short maximum length of Thunderbolt 3 cables means that if the Thunderbay’s fan noise bothers you, there are limited options for doing anything about it.
OWC’s product range has been developed with the needs of Mac users and audio professionals at the top of the agenda, and it shows.
Thunderbolt 3 Dock £263.99, Thunderbay 4 (without drives) £376.99, Envoy Pro EX 1TB £285. Prices include VAT.
Thunderbolt 3 Dock $249, Thunderbay 4 (without drives) $389, Envoy Pro EX 1TB $299.75.