M-Audio Sonica Theater

February 23, 2006

I’m hesitant to call myself a audiophile — it seems to imply a mysterious fetish involving vinyl and an unhealthy devotion to somewhat pretentious magazines.

On the other hand, I do like my music to sound good when I listen to it. I grew up playing the piano, and I worked as an AV engineer for a while, so at the very least I know my ass from a square wave.

That said, I’m thoroughly impressed with the M-Audio Sonica Theater. Simply stated, it’s a 7.1 channel sound card that plugs into your computer’s USB port (perfect for a laptop). The guts are closely related to M-Audio’s professional lineup, and the sub-hundred dollar price tag puts it within reach of mere consumers.

Anyhow. Lets get down to it:

Pros:

Reasonably priced. This sort of thing would easily have cost more than $300 five years ago. Now it can be had in the range of $85, and it’s available all over the Internet (and most likely your local electronic music shop).

Lots of I/O. The analog input is equipped with a good AD converter (see below); the SPDIF digital out handles PCM, AC3, and DTS at a variety of rates; and there’s 8 analog outputs for surround & bass channels.

Good DA (digital to analog), and AD converters. All of the channels, in and out, handle up to 24 bit / 96Khz sample rates. I haven’t been able to find technical information about the chip used to do the conversion, but it sounds quite good.

Very clean preamp. Few things bug me more than hiss, and when the Sonica Theater is cranked all the way up during silent passages between songs, there’s nothing there, even when using sensitive headphones. For the price it just sounds great — far better than the headphone jacks built into my laptop or iPod.

Plug and Play, USB powered. Works out of the box with Macs and Windows PCs, no software required, and no extra power cords!

Cons:

Minijack (1/8″) analog inputs and outputs. It’s a bummer for people who want to use RCA connectors with their home theater equipment, but converters are plentiful and inexpensive. The only exception is the RCA SPDIF output.

Crappy bundled software. Activision Wakeboarding Unleashed (oh, YES!) and the usual assortment of demo software. Better than nothing, but I didn’t buy it for the software anyway!

The Bottom Line:

4 out of 5 stars — it’s a great sounding device at a reasonable price. My only beef is lack of RCA outputs!

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