A while back, Mackie came out with a clever computer audio interface called the Satellite. It had a dock suitable for using in the home studio with I/O and connectors, but also, a smaller interface you could lift out and take with you for portable recording. I ended up using the portable interface a lot, and wondered why Mackie didn't just make something similar for those who didn't really need the dock.
Well, the Onyx Blackjack pretty much fits that description. It's a small (the front panel is about 4" x 6.5"), USB 1.1, bus-powered 2 x 2 interface (XLR mic, hi-Z, and line in) with excellent audio performance. We'll let the pictures and specs tell most of the story, because this is one sweet interface that doesn't wilt under scrutiny.
Mackie has a history of paying attention to build quality, which I was reminded of recently when I was visiting a studio in New York that had a 1604 mixer sitting in the corner. It looked like it had been through hell, but it still worked. The metal-encased Onyx Blackjack is well-designed, and includes a few nice touches that aren't immediately obvious.
Fig. 1: The bracket is removable, but you probably won't remove it.
Fig. 1 shows a detail of the bead-blasted aluminum metal bracket that circles the back, and props the Onyx Blackjack up at an angle. This makes it extremely easy to see the control and switch settings, and for all you guitarists doing overdubs away from your computer to avoid picking up hum from any nearby transformers, it's easy to see everything from a distance.
Fig. 2: The naked Blackjack.
I always like to take things apart ("a review isn't real until I've voided the warranty"), and Fig. 2 shows the insides (no warranty is left unvoided around here). Everything is built on one circuit board, except for the headphone jack. Note that there's a lockwasher on the headphone jack shaft, which locks the jack in place to the front panel (there's another washer and hex nut that secures the jack to the front panel). Bottom line: Plug and unplug your phones as much as you want, and the jack almost certainly won't work loose. The pots are soldered to the board, with their shafts protruding through a front-panel hole; however, the knobs sit low and tight, minimizing the wobble that sometimes happens with this particular construction technique.
INS AND OUTS
Let's take a look at the rear panel, which is where you'll do your patching.
Fig. 3: Onyx Blackjack's rear panel.
Referring to Fig. 3, the USB jack is on the left. Moving toward the right, you'll see the balanced/unbalanced monitor outputs, which are secured to the panel with a washer and hex nut (they don't just poke through the rear panel). Finally the two inputs are on the right, and these are genuine Neutrik Combo jacks that handle XLR or 1/4" inputs (by the way, in case you wondered, the highlight on the Neutrik logos in Fig. 3 is due to a lighting fluke - they're not illuminated). The ins are your entrance to Mackie's Onyx mic preamps, which have a reputation for sound quality. Subjectively they sound clean and transparent, which is confirmed by the test results presented later in this review.
The input control section is simple, but functional.
Fig. 4: The input control section.
In Fig. 4, note that there are switches to choose between line or hi-Z (instrument in) when inputs are plugged into the combo jack's 1/4" phone section. In this case, gain goes from -15dB (so you can handle hot line level sources) up to +45dB for signal sources like a guitar with really weak pickups. When used as a mic preamp, the gain goes from unity to +60dB. The Sig/OL LED glows green to indicate signal present, and red if the signal is in danger of distorting.
Fig. 5: The rest of the controls.
Fig. 5 shows the rest of the controls. The Input Monitor provides zero-latency monitoring so you can hear what's going into your DAW if you don't want to track with delays, and you can monitor in mono or stereo. To the right is the phantom power switch, which applies 48V to both inputs simultaneously. Incidentally Mackie got some flack with a couple of their very early interfaces because the 48V was actually more like 36V, but that issue is long gone - I measured a phantom voltage of 47.4V.
The Monitor control sets the level going to the monitor outputs, and Phones is a separate volume control (thank you!) for the headphones. The headphone amp seems loud enough for just about any application short of blowing out your eardrums.
The Power LED indicates that Blackjack is getting power via USB (there's no provision for powering with an AC adapter, nor does there need to be; I can't imagine a USB out that couldn't provide enough power), while the USB LED indicates that Blackjack is communicating with your computer.
Fig. 6: The Control Panel that appears under Windows.
Speaking of computers, the control panel (Fig. 6) is straightforward. With Windows, Mackie installs an icon in the System Tray that glows green when the computer is communicating with Blackjack. Sample rate options are 44.1kHz or 48kHz (no 96kHz, if that matters to you), with buffer size options of 96, 128, 256, 512, and 1024 samples. And if you don't have a DAW of choice, no worries; Onyx Blackjack comes with the Tracktion Basic Bundle, which includes the Mackie suite of mixing and mastering plug-ins.
Let's check out the performance in detail.
Fig. 7: Frequency response
Regarding frequency response, refer to Fig. 7. You can see it's pretty much ruler-flat to 10kHz, then drops off a little bit at 20kHz (about -1.6dB) - as expected with 44.1/48kHz sample rates.
Fig. 8: Noise level
Fig. 8 shows the A-weighted response, which at better than -120dB beats Mackie's own quoted spec of -114dB. Granted, parts vary and there might be some units out there that hit Mackie's spec, but I'm happy to see that they're conservative about their claims.
Fig. 9: Intermodulation distortion plus noise (swept frequency)
Here's where the rubber meets the road - under worst-case conditions, without A-weighting, and taking distortion and noise into account, we're looking at better than -84dB (Fig. 9). I'm a little fuzzy on my math, but I think that's probably well under -100dB A-weighted.
Fig. 10: Crosstalk
Now let's turn our attention to crosstalk, as shown in Fig. 10. As expected, higher frequencies are more susceptible to crosstalk, but even at 10kHz it's around -80dB and at the midrange frequencies, the crosstalk is better than -90dB (if that doesn't mean anything to you, it's basically inaudible).
Fig. 11: Total harmonic distortion
And finally, Fig. 11 shows THD. The spike at 1kHz is the test sine wav; the second and third harmonics are down at about -105dB, and any remaining harmonics are below -120dB.
Now, I'm sure the geeks in the crowd have enjoyed this trip into specs-land but if this is a little too much tech for you, here's the summary: Blackjack has excellent audio performance, any way you look at it - or listen to it.
The only omission I can think of is MIDI; Onyx Blackjack is audio-only. However, there really isn't any room to put MIDI connectors, and as one of Onyx Blackjack's huge advantages is compact size, if you're really intent on adding MIDI you can add a separate interface. Then again if you're dealing with MIDI gear, you're already toting additional stuff, so throwing an interface into the mix is probably not a big deal.
The laser focus here is on audio - quality audio that's simple to set up and use. Blackjack doesn't take up much space in a suitcase, desktop, or even a laptop bag (particularly if you remove the rear bracket). If the idea of good sound at an economical price that goes anywhere appeals, then Onyx Blackjack was designed with you in mind.
Craig Anderton is Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.