Review: Stereo-Link 1200 USB audio device
Recently a new breed of “soundcards" has appeared to the PC market. These are external USB connected audio device, like for example SoundBlaster Extigy and the Stereo-Link 1200. The concept of USB audio makes perfect sense. The device out of the computer case and therefore not exposed to the disturbances generated by the PC circuitry. The USB cabling allows digital (loss-less) connections of a longer distance and can be extended further with a USB hub. This way you can bring the audio source next to your stereo set, just like a CD player and use short & high quality RCA cabling. USB devices are well supported by Windows (2000 at least) and there is no driver hassle either. I was delighted for the chance to test the Stereo-Link 1200.
The 1200 came with a slightly transparent blue plastic case. The device has a slightly cheap plastic feel to it. There is only a large power button and a mini-plug for headphones on the front panel. The back panel has RCA, USB and a power connector, so this is a real “KISS" (Keep It Simple Stupid) device. The provided RCA-cables immediately got my attention, since this is the first PC audio device I’ve seen to have good quality cables included. Fairly thick RCA-cable with stiff medal connectors gave me an positive idea that this company means business in audio quality.
The installation and usage in Windows 2000
The installation was a true plug-and-play. I connected the device to my PC and after few seconds everything was operational. No drives or special settings to any software or Windows was needed. After couple of months of heavy usage I haven’t seen any problems or bugs. The device works great in music, system alert sounds and movie playback. Only very slight setback is the fact that heavy system load may cause slight skips in the sound. I guess this due to the USB connection and it happens a little more than with a regular soundcard, but it’s nothing annoying (PIII 585mhz system, 256mb RAM).
How does it sound?
I have tested the device with Genelec 1030A studio monitors in a regular non-damped room. I benchmarked it to a regular SoundBlaster Live! Value soundcard and to a hi-fi CD audio player Rega Planet. The SoundBlaster was connected to the pre-amp with decent quality 3 meter Caliber RCA-cable, and Stereo-Link with the provided 3m RCA-cable, so the wiring distances were equal.
The difference to SB Live! was very obvious. The sound of the SB Live! lacks dynamics and the frequency range seems limited at the both ends. The Stereo-Link deliveres more “boom" and a lot brighter sound in general. I verified my conclusions with a couple friends and they agreed. It was no news for me that the Live! is not too impressive as I have previously compared it to my CD player and a Terractec sound card and the SB has always been a clear loser. Comparison to the Rega Planet was much more challenging. I was not able to pick up any specific sound quality differences and that’s a good result for the Stereo-Link. So we can safely say that the Stereo-Link is a true high fidelity audio device.
The Stereo-Link is equipped with a 20bit DAC and it supports sampling rates in between 5-55kHz. The manufacturer promises good signal to noise ratios and a frequency response rate of 5Hz – 21kHz. One of the key issues of Stereo-Link is that it does not alter the sampling rate of the input signal, known as resampling. Many soundcards, like most SoundBlaster, make on-the-fly conversion of all audio data to 48kHz sampling rate and this process is known to decrease the sound quality. Also the digital outputs of cheaper soundcards are known to be far from perfect and the manufacturer of Stereo-Link suggests that their product outperforms poorly implemented SPDIF outputs, but I have NO personal experiences in those.
The Stereo-Link 1200 comes with a price tag of 149$ for the US model and 169$ for the international 220-240V voltage, so it is no cheapo. On the other hand the price is similar to mid-end PC soundcards. The Stereo-Link does not provide all the functions of a sound card: It’s not the best thing for gaming, it has no 3D-sound or surround support and it can’t be used for recording music to your PC. It is just for regular high quality stereo sound listening.
To me as an old school Hi-Fi freak, the concept of Stereo-Link is very appealing. The USB cabling solves many of the problems in connecting your PC to your stereo system. Also the sound quality is definitely good. For anyone looking a good way to enjoy high quality computer sound from your stereo system, the 1200 is a good pick and worth the money.
Stereo-Link has seen great effort in putting up an informative web site and I strongly suggest everyone to have a look. It explains for exp. the resampling issue very well and also has online shopping features.
Stereo-Link.com very informative!
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Written by: Lasse Penttinen