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Avid Mbox Pro Computer Interface - Now with Conclusions


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Some companies adapt and change, survive, and ultimately, thrive. For example, if you think SSL just makes big consoles that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, you haven’t been paying attention: they’ve expanded out from that original charter with smaller controllers, software, signal processing, preamps, and the like. By diversifying, they managed not only survive, but grow into new areas.

Hey wait – isn’t this about Avid? Yes, indeed it is. But first, we need to set the stage.

Few companies have made such a concerted effort recently not to rest on their laurels as Avid (née Digidesign). I was never a huge Pro Tools fan; yes, I got started in multitrack hard disk recording with Pro Tools back when it was about getting four tracks out of a Mac NuBus card, but over the years, Pro Tools seemed content to provide an excellent, obvious emulation of a multitrack tape-based studio. In fact, for those transitioning from tape to computers, my #1 recommendation was always Pro Tools. But, it was about recording, not composition or remixing, and I found other programs that filled my particular needs better.

Then around the time of Pro Tools 5 and 6, things started to change and accelerated further with the introduction of Pro Tools 7. Digidesign purchased A.I.R. to get access to some great virtual instruments, including the outstanding (for traditionalists) Velvet electronic piano and the outstanding (for beatmeisters) Transfuser, which was also the subject of a Pro Review. Elastic Audio let groove fans do the same sort of tricks that Ableton Live, Acid, and Sonar had done for years, but although Digidesign was late to the party, their implementation was stellar. The MIDI implementation, which could charitably have been called basic, pursued an increasingly sophisticated path. The user interface became increasingly streamlined with each release, and new features—some novel, some designed to play catch-up—kept being introduced. And the Windows version, which often seemed like an afterthought compared to the Mac version, became accepted as an equal.

When Pro Tools 8 arrived, I found myself using it more and more, particularly when engineering classical music sessions at Maricam Studios. But there was still the Achilles Heel of being a closed system: you had to use Digidesign interfaces, which lagged behind the competition in terms of audio quality and were often derided by non-Pro Tools fans as “the world’s biggest, most expensive dongle.” Sure, there were budget interfaces, like the original Mbox—but while decent, it too was simply not up to the competition. One of my guaranteed laugh lines at seminars was when someone would ask about mic pres, and my answer would be “Well, within a given price range, they’ve all reached a certain level of parity. Well, except for Mbox, of course.”

When Digidesign became absorbed by the Avid borg, there were fears that the days of Pro Tools were over, it would become a corporate program for doing audio-for-video, and development would stagnate. Nothing turned out to be further from the truth. There’s no question that at Avid’s audio division, the inmates run the asylum. During the course of trade shows and such I’ve met a lot of the people driving Avid’s audio efforts, and not only are they all hardcore musicians, you would never, ever mistake them for Goldman-Sachs executives. They have incredible enthusiasm for what they’re doing, and even when they go out on a limb—like they did with the Eleven Rack—they’ve had a string of successes.

But the bombshells kept coming in 2010, culminating in the announcement at the 2010 AES that Pro Tools 9 would no longer require Avid hardware, and would work with any ASIO interface (which is does in my experience, as long as the buffer time is a multiple of 64 samples). The irony, though, is Avid also introduced a series of interfaces in 2010 that were light-years beyond previous designs, boasting excellent audio specs and clever functionality. It’s interesting that Avid interfaces were now really worth using, concurrent with Avid not requiring that you use them any more.

Now, the following isn’t based on any inside knowledge, but let me speculate. Software theft remains a problem; I’m sure that a large part of what keeps the lights on at, for example, MOTU is their line of interfaces. When Avid opened up Pro Tools, they also opened it up to a world of cracks and piracy. Their ace in the hole: The confidence that, like Apple, they could be more about the hardware than the software.

It was a gutsy move, and one serious misstep with their interfaces could have been fatal. My first experience with the new world of Avid interfaces was Eleven Rack, and if you’ve seen the Pro Review I did of it, you'll know I was blown away—not just because it sounded right, but because it felt right.

So here we are with the new Mbox line from Avid (I have the smaller, less expensive USB version and the larger, FireWire version here for review; we’ll concentrate on the Mbox Pro, but even though Avid didn’t request coverage of the USB box in this review, I want to at least get into it on some level for reasons that will become obvious).

If you think you know what the Mbox is about, expect to be surprised. I sure was when I opened the box—here’s why.

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I traditionally start off Pro Reviews with a photo tour, so you can feel like you're looking over my shoulder as I open up the box. In fact, let's start with the box itself.

Bfmjx.jpg

But the one thing a photo doesn't convey is how frickin' substantial the Mbox Pro is. Here's a picture of the case.

VRb7g.jpg

This is one heavy box, no doubt due in part to the wrap-around, 1/8" thick metal casing. If you're thinking about mobile computing, think of it as a combination interface and upper body exercise program. Well okay, it's not that heavy...I've reviewed some excellent interfaces lately, but this is definitely the one least like to break if dropped. It might, however, damage your floor.

Not to jump too far ahead, but I just have to show you the next picture before going further. As I've often said, a Pro Review isn't a real Pro Review until I've voided the warranty, so I went to take the MBox Pro apart. There are no obvious screws on the outside, but using my Jedi troubleshooting skills, assumed that the four rubber feet on the bottom covered up screws. Aha! Four Phillips head screws later, I had slipped off the outside casing, only to find...

kCpH0.jpg

Yes, a case within a case. This thing is shielded, within shielding. But equally importantly, take a look at the potentiometer shafts and jacks: They're secured firmly to the (metal) front panel with (metal) nuts and lockwashers. I've never seen this mentioned in any of the marketing for the MBox Pro--it's probably considered over-the-top nerdy to say "Hey, we have lockwashers!"--but what this means for reliability is huge. With many inexpensive interfaces, the potentiometers and jacks are secured to circuit boards, with holes drilled in the front panel to give access to the shaft and jack holes. This is why the controls "wobble," and while it's a valid way to meet a price point, you can't "manhandle" the controls without putting pressure on the circuit board, as well as place uneven pressure on the resistive element inside the potentiometer.

This type of construction is even more problematic with jacks if you plug and unplug them a lot. With normalized, set-and-forget setups, it's not a real problem. But, plugging and unplugging puts considerable pressure on the jack, which again is not the way to make a circuit board connection happy over time. Now, I'm not saying your interface with shafts poking through holes is going to fail next week; what I'm saying is that the Mbox most definitely will not fail due an overly-stressed circuit board.

And that's why I've waited this long to mention the price--$749 street ($899 MSRP). Compared to what else is out there, that's pretty costly. Granted, some of that is because it ships with Pro Tools 8 LE (supposedly it will ship with Pro Tools 9 at a slight price increase; the Mbox alone without Pro Tools is $799 MSRP). But I have to say, the build quality is simply outstanding. It just reeks of quality, inside and out. This applies to details, like the raised rubber rings around the gain and volume knobs, which give a super-positive feel to adjusting them.

Curious to see if this level of quality translated to the components, I wanted to take the unit apart further but was stymied by, you guessed it, the quality construction. If I was a service tech I could probably take it apart pretty fast, but I was concerned that I might damage something in the deconstruction process...there's a difference between voiding a warranty, and committing gearocide. However, peeking in I did notice the use of a TC Electronic DICE chip to handle the FireWire, and it sure looked like at least some of the signal switching is handled by relays. Again, I've not seen this mentioned in marketing, but relays--while more expensive than solid-state switches--are basically wire, so they introduce no signal degradation.

Okay, so I'm running behind on getting into the specs and such. But really, you can find out about system requirements and such from Avid's Mbox landing page, as well as check out a comparison chart of different MBox systems. The Mbox family is a collection of products that also includes the Mbox Mini (which I don't have here for review, but that starts getting into territory where an M-Audio M-Powered solution might be more appropriate anyway).

Avid claims that the audio is just as good as the construction...which we'll find out when we run our HC exclusive bench tests. However, we've gone far enough for tonight, and I have more photos of the front and back panels to prep for tomorrow. One thing's for sure, though: I'm already impressed by the engineering. If the audio is in the same league, we're in for a treat.

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Along with the interface itself, here's what comes with the package.

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Clockwise from the upper left, there's a breakout cable for Word Clock, MIDI, and S/PDIF I/O. I have mixed feelings about breakout cables, because while they save panel space for (theoretically) lesser-used functions, you don't want to lose it. My general rule with any piece of gear that has a proprietary cable or adapter is to contact the service department and order a spare - just in case. These kinds of adapters and such tend to be pricey, but not as pricey as needing one and not having it.

Next comes a standard 6-pin FireWire cable, and a second FireWire cable with 6-pin at one end and 4-pin on the other (e.g., for typical Windows laptops). On the right is the power supply, which is a global type that handles 100-240V, 50/60Hz. It's a "line lump" type with a detachable AC cord, so to accommodate power sources in different countries, you simply need an appropriate AC cord.

The final electronic component is a FireWire 400/800 adapter. The pile o' stuff toward the lower left is the installation DVD for Pro Tools (both Mac and Windows versions are included), registration code card, quick start guide, and "introduction to Pro Tools" brochure. You won't find a manual per se or disc with drivers, but as with so many computer-based products these days, the place to find support materials is on the company web site. I downloaded the most recent drivers (which also include control panel software) as well as some supplementary guides.

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The Mbox Pro is marketed as an 8 x 8 interface, so let's see how the ins and outs shake out by looking at the front and rear panels.

Toward the left, you'll find inputs 1 and 2. These are combo jacks that you can use with XLR mics or as a DI For instruments. The Front/Rear pushbutton switch, when set to Rear, replaces the front panel jacks with two rear-panel 1/4" balanced line level ins. It's convenient that this is switchable from the front, as you can leave a device with a line-level out "normalized" to the rear panel jacks, and switch it in as needed.

xsklK.jpg

The Gain control is calibrated in dB, but pulling up on the knob inserts a -20dB pad. The other associated push button introduces a soft clip. Typically the way you'd use this is to set levels to what you think is going to be sufficient to prevent overload, but then push in the soft clip button "just in case." Any overloads will clip in a less drastic, obvious way. But of course, if you want to drive the heck out of it to "warm up" the sound, don't let me stop you! We'll have audio examples later on so you can hear how this affects the signal.

Now let's turn out attention to inputs 3 and 4.

ZXppz.jpg

There are two XLR mic ins (not combo jacks) and two 1/4" balanced line ins on the back for these inputs, and as with ins 1 and 2, front panel switches choose between the mic or line input for each of inputs 3 and 4. Each of these inputs also has a pull switches to introduce a -20dB pad, as well as the soft clip option.

To the right of these channels are four meters for inputs 1-4, as these are the only inputs with gain controls and therefore, the only inputs where you need metering to check on the levels. Each meter has 10 LEDs, not just activity/warning/overload.

The final part of the front panel is the output section toward the right.

txc1K.jpg

The Multi button is Pro Tools specific, and can be programmed to do things like tap tempo, start record, add track, etc. The +48V button applies +48V phantom power globally to all mic inputs (up to 10mA per input). There's no way to enable/disable phantom power for individual mic inputs, which looking ahead, may be an issue as ribbon microphones become more common in the studio.

Moving to the right, there are two headphone outputs with individual volume controls. Props for this; it always seems like one headphone out isn't enough for some sessions.

The Dim/Mute switch, also known as the "incoming phone call" switch, can reduce the gain on outs 1 and 2 when pressed, or mute them when held. You can assign this to affect different control room outs if you'd like.

The Mono switch makes it easy to monitor outputs in mono as well as stereo, which I think is very important - I recently received a track to master where the kick drum and one guitar part were in stereo and out of phase, so they canceled in mono. If the artist had an Mbox Pro and hit the mono switch, maybe I wouldn't have had to send it back...

Anyway, our last two front panel features are a master volume control and Speaker/Source switch. This will make more sense when we look at the rear panel, but suffice it to say you can push it to toggle through control room output pairs, or push and hold it to have inputs 5 and 6 take priority over your DAW's playback output.

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Quote Originally Posted by Anderton View Post
The Front/Rear pushbutton switch, when set to Rear, replaces the front panel jacks with two rear-panel 1/4" balanced line level ins. It's convenient that this is switchable from the front, as you can leave a device with a line-level out "normalized" to the rear panel jacks, and switch it in as needed.
I love this feature, if only to use the Front/Rear switch as the fastest way to mute. For example, if I've got a mic in Ch. 1 (XLR plugged into the front combi), I can simply hit the switch immediately after recording, effectively muting the mic (though it's really activating the rear jack, but if there's nothing plugged in, it's the same as a front-panel mute). There are many times--especially with vocalists--where the very first thing you want to do, just after you've stopped recording, is mute that open mic. The Mbox's Front/Rear switch is the quickest way to do that, and involves no fussing with the level/mute controls or input-monitoring settings on your DAW.

So "rear-panel normalization" plus "undocumented front-panel mute switch" are two common situations this feature services.
KC0U7.jpg
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Now let's take a look around the back, starting with the left rear.

e8iWA.jpg

The footswitch is assignable, for example, for punching. The breakout connector for word clock, MIDI, and S/PDIF is to the right. There are two FireWire ports for daisy-chaining, and above that, you can see the jack for the AC adapter.

Now we'll move to the middle of the rear panel.

lqpEc.jpg

Here you'll see the six main outputs, as well as Aux Input 5/6. DJs, take note that just because these are RCA phono jacks doesn't mean that you plug a turntable in here...they're more for consumer gear, like CD players.

Moving to the right, you can see the line outs for 1-4, which as you recall can be selected via front-panel switches as an alternate to the XLR ins.

ImM1b.jpg

But also notice that ins 1-4 have "TRS-friendly" insert jacks. These are, of course, great for throwing that vintage tube preamp or limiter into the signal path to condition your input signal prior to hitting your DAW of choice. Finally, all the way to the right are the XLR ins for channels 3 and 4. Note that these are not combo jacks; if you want to plug in a guitar or bass, you need to do it with the front panel jacks.

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Before getting into audio examples, testing out specs, and such, let's take a quick detour and look at the standard Mbox, which uses USB 2.0 instead of FireWire and is a 4 x 4 interface with MIDI. Now's a good time to do so because as you'll see from the following images, there's a lot of commonality with the two units. Here's an overall shot to give you an idea of the size and case.

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Next up, the front panel.

WMGdW.jpg

The two audio inputs are handled a bit differently here. The front panel has two 1/4" jacks for direct inputs from guitar etc., while the rear panel has two combo jacks. However, these handle mic and line ins.

s9I2p.jpg

Also note that as there's less I/O, there's no need for a breakout connector to handle MIDI and S/PDIF, so those jacks are mounted right on the back. Also note the monitor outputs.

Okay, back to the Mbox Pro...but I thought you might like to know that the lower-priced alternative is not exactly some cheapo box!

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Hey all - it's off to Frankfurt Musikmesse, which makes doing pro reviews pretty difficult. However, before leaving, I ran tests for noise, distortion, frequency response, etc., and saved screen shots so I can post them next time I have internet access.

I gotta say - the test results/specs are impressive, as in, extremely impressive. No wonder Avid wasn't the least bit concerned when I said "we're really going to put this through the microscope, you know."

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As a side note, Sensei, I want to add that we at AVID are promoting the MBox line as our PREMIUM Line of portable interfaces.

This time their competitive advantage is not "they come bundled with Pro Tools LE" -which could or not happen now, given they can also be bought without any software- or that they are actually the only ones to run a mobile version of Pro Tools (which is not true any more), but the actual quality of the hardware itself: construction quality, better preamps and premium conversion.

It is good to know you can confirm this thumb.gif


Have a safe trip and lots of fun at Frankfurt!
wave.gif

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Quote Originally Posted by Gus Lozada View Post
As a side note, Sensei, I want to add that we at AVID are promoting the MBox line as our PREMIUM Line of portable interfaces.
And with good reason. It's quite a leap from "a cheap way to get into Pro Tools" to "extremely high quality construction and state-of-the-art specs."

Got a little delayed posting the screen shots of the specs, been working on the Frankfurt videos/debriefing (not enough hours in a day, that's for sure) but very soon...
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Time for specs! Let's put the box through some analysis. Remember, I do worst-case type testing and make sure to include the mic preamps as part of the specs, not just the line ins and outs.

Let's start off with frequency response.

zdq8J.png

It's down less than 0.5dB at 5Hz - performance on a par with the Roland Octa-Capture, which I noted for its extreme low frequency response. At the top end, response is essentially flat out to 20kHz, after which it drops off a cliff - as befits the 44.1kHz sampling rate used during testing.

Next up, let's check out noise levels.

WSdH4.png

And again, we have another outstanding spec: There are no noise components higher than -120dB, and many of them sit around -130dB. Few interfaces are able to achieve this level of performance, let alone any I've tested.

Let's also take a look at Total Harmonic Distortion.

oH4Sk.png

And here we go again...more audiophile-type stuff. You can see a 2nd harmonic distortion component that sits at -110dB, and a 3rd harmonic distortion component that's just a hair over -100dB...and that's it.

Bottom line so far is a ruler-flat frequency response, exceptionally low noise, and exceptionally low THD. The answer to the question "So why are these more expensive than other interfaces?" is starting to become self-evident...

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I'm glad you went into depth about the build quality on the Mbox Pro Craig - that was something that definitely impressed me about the regular Mbox (3rd Gen) when I did my HC Expert Review on it ( http://www.harmonycentral.com/docs/DOC-1956 ) - there is a bit of a "hit" in terms of overall weight, but the way they're constructed really does bode well for their reliability as a mobile / "on the go" interface; where knocks and bumps are pretty much inevitable.

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Quote Originally Posted by Phil O'Keefe

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It's also nice to see the frequency response, noise and THD test results - that helps confirm what my ears were telling me in terms of the audio quality. biggrin.gif BTW, what program are you using for those test measurements?

 

The RMAA6, which is available for free from Rightmark. It hasn't been maintained in a awhile, though, so I have to use it with Windows XP...it doesn't seem to like 64-bit W7. (And a tip o' the hat to Milo Street at Echo for turning me on to this.)
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You thought those were good? Here's more...

The Intermodulation Distortion is particularly dramatic, as in, "where is it?!?" Yes, there's you 60Hz and 7kHz tones, which should in theory produce intermodulation distortion products, but I'm really not seeing much of anything except a teeny distortion product at 180Hz and another at 240Hz - and nothing for all practical purposes at the high end. Either I really, really need new glasses, or the Avid engineers did their job.

ZEK2Y.png

Now for THD vs. level. With digital systems, distortion increases as levels decrease because you have less resolution. The following shows that at -6dB. THD is well under -84dB, and at -15dB, THD remains under -72dB - more extremely respectable specs.

7m7Ju.png

...and here's dynamic range, which exceeds 120dB.

c4hDR.png

And finally for our trip into specs-land, here's the scoop on crosstalk. If you think -70dB is a good spec, check this out: The left channel sits well under -90dB, and the right, under -84dB. Maybe this is why the imaging seems better than average.

DJRkS.png

This adds up to truly excellent overall performance. I was expecting the specs to be good, or Avid wouldn't have been so confident about the quality of their interfaces...but these are really good.

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Hi, Craig.

I've been searching around for an in depth review on the avid mbox, namely the pro... so thanks!

The interfaces I've been going back and forth on has been the avid mbox and the RME fireface 400 or RME babyface (since I personally don't require more than 2 inputs at a time). I haven't had a chance to play with the Avid Mbox, but I did NOT like the older mboxes' sound quality.

The first FF400 I ordered came with a horrible high pitched noise (not incredibly audible, but enough to bother mixes). I returned it and am since teetering on a decision to go with a different interface. Sweetwater felt it was a faulty unit, but this issue comes up often in the RME forum. Often enough to make me question their interfaces.

Do you have any thoughts on RME vs the Avid Mbox? I felt the sound quality was great on the ff400 (at low volumes/without the noise), but if the mbox is not too far off, I may just go that route. Of course, all of the RME fans rip on any other product than RME...

I realize the internet is not the best way to pass final judgment, but I thought I would ask since you review so many.

Thanks,
Wren

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Quote Originally Posted by IHK View Post
Hi, Craig.

I've been searching around for an in depth review on the avid mbox, namely the pro... so thanks!

The interfaces I've been going back and forth on has been the avid mbox and the RME fireface 400 or RME babyface (since I personally don't require more than 2 inputs at a time). I haven't had a chance to play with the Avid Mbox, but I did NOT like the older mboxes' sound quality.
Me neither. The mic preamps in particular seemed muffled and indistinct - that's one reason I'm so pleasantly surprised by the turnaround in the Mbox Pro. I thought my ears were fooling me until I ran the tests and realized that yes, the fidelity really is that good.

The first FF400 I ordered came with a horrible high pitched noise (not incredibly audible, but enough to bother mixes). I returned it and am since teetering on a decision to go with a different interface. Sweetwater felt it was a faulty unit, but this issue comes up often in the RME forum. Often enough to make me question their interfaces.
Are you using a PowerPC Mac, by any chance? If so, then my response would be very different compared to whether you're using an Intel Mac or Windows machine.
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"Are you using a PowerPC Mac, by any chance? If so, then my response would be very different compared to whether you're using an Intel Mac or Windows machine."

I am using Windows 7 - 64.
AMD 6 core thuban
8gigs RAM
SATA III HD
....etc. (all new stuff purchased specifically for a windows based recording environment).

I sold my macbook pro (was using an apogee duet that I liked well enough) and decided to go back to windows as a much less expensive upgrade.

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Quote Originally Posted by IHK View Post
I am using Windows 7 - 64.
AMD 6 core thuban
8gigs RAM
SATA III HD
....etc. (all new stuff purchased specifically for a windows based recording environment).
Then it's not the famous Mac G5 whine. My guess would be a ground loop somewhere, but it's impossible to troubleshoot something like that remotely, as there could be many reasons. If you're using a FireWire port on the motherboard, the solution may be as simple as using the port on a FireWire PCI card instead.

That said, I've reviewed a few RME interfaces in my time, and they always performed well and the drivers were solid. I'm not as familiar with their recent products, so can't make any direct comparisons...I've worked with a lot of interfaces, true, but certainly not all of them!
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I did try a couple of firewire workarounds, so it's possible that I received a faulty unit. If I try out the Avid Mbox, I'll be sure to post my results if you like. Will make a decision by the end of the week.

Thanks again for your reviews and comments. I find them quite informative and good read!

Cheers,
Wren

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UPDATE: I apologize for the delay in continuing this pro review, but to make a long and frustrating story short, I had to re-install my system and programs after returning from Frankfurt - a hardware problem with the motherboard scrambled my system drive upon either startup or shutdown (or both, I don't know). The motherboard is fixed, I have a new hard drive, and I've been re-creating my system - I'd only switched over to Windows 7 full-time about six weeks prior to the mobo problem, so didn't consider the system finished enough to image for a restore.

I have most of the system back to normal, and re-installed Pro Tools today for use with the Mbox (FYI, there's a 9.0.2 update for Pro Tools). Again, apologies for the delay.

By the way IHK - would be very interested to hear if you don't have whine problems with the Mbox. So far I have to say the Mbox is a really well-engineered unit. No slam on RME, of course, but I doubt anyone would be disappointed by the Mbox's level of performance. If it has the I/O you want, I don't think you could go wrong.

Just curious - did you try using a FireWire port that's not connected directly to the motherboard, and make sure nothing else is connected to the same FireWire controller?
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I have to say...I'm surprised this hasn't gotten more attention, as the Mbox Pro is a really fine interface. I wonder if maybe people see "Mbox" and they think "yeah, those middle-of-the-road interfaces you had to buy to run Pro Tools" instead of recognizing these are a whole new ball game.

I think I'll wait a few days to see if anyone has questions, and then start covering the smaller, USB 2.0 interface. It may just be that people are less into FireWire these days and would be more interested in the USB 2.0, and I think we've hit all of the Mbox Pro's high points.

Any thoughts on the subject?!?

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Quote Originally Posted by IHK View Post
I did try a couple of firewire workarounds, so it's possible that I received a faulty unit. If I try out the Avid Mbox, I'll be sure to post my results if you like. Will make a decision by the end of the week.

Thanks again for your reviews and comments. I find them quite informative and good read!

Cheers,
Wren
So...did you get the Mbox? It's one of those units where the more closely you look at it, the better it looks - unlike some where you start finding little flaws you missed the first time around.

Funny story: A TSA guard in Dallas saw my Harmony Central shirt and said he was thinking of buying an Mbox Pro after reading the Pro Review...I guess not all TSA folks are monsters. smile.gif
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