At this price point there should not be much of a difference right? Well, one thing we do not like around here is assumptions without any real evidence or experience to support that assumption. So, while writing a new column for Remix magazine about sound cards I took it upon my self to try and find out what separates a $100 sound card from a $800 one. After talking to all kinds of “experts” and engineers and after sifting through mountains of marketing propaganda I had a really hard time really finding any quantifiable differences. This reality is hard for us to accept in a society that places a high value on the price tag of a product. “Its $1000, so its got to be the best right?!”
Trickle Down Value
In the end after much discussion and subsequent testing I discovered the real differences for djs don’t really lie in the physical casings at all. They are in the drivers, which owe more to the quality and experience of the company than the price of the unit. So, using trickle down logic the story goes something like this. If a company like BMW puts a lot of money in R&D for their high end cars then the result of that research should trickle down to their lower cost products as well.
Its worth mentioning that there are some significant differences in sound cards as you increase the price but many of those differences are usually related to recording inputs like microphone pre-amps and different connectivity ports. The actually quality of the circuits and D to A (digital to analogue) converters don’t seem to vary enough that my ears can tell a difference. So you have the chance to listen for yourself check out the following mp3 and “listen” to each of the 4 sound cards:
The Sound Test
First I set up a good broad frequency microphone in front of a KRK V-8 speaker to recorded the output of each sound card. Both the microphone and the speaker are certainly coloring the sound but I was not looking for accuracy here just trying to notice any differences between them. Then in Traktor I played a mono drum loop through each of the 4 sound cards making sure everything was exactly the same each time.
To test the stability of the cards I played the same drum loop inside Traktor with high quality key-lock on and tried to do some cue point juggles at lower and lower latencies. I was running a dual 2.0ghz Macbook with 2gigs of ram.
Pros: light and compact with 2 pairs of RCA ins and outs
Cons: no headphone volume knob. There was one annoying issue where the output levels have to be reset with each re-start in the software prefs.
Performance: great, good performance down to 2ms and then things started to break apart at 1ms but the drivers never crashed.
Opinion: This card my not look as cool or pro as the others but looks can be deceiving. I think this card boasted the best value out of the group. It also worth noting that the maya 44 is the sound card in the vcm-100 which bodes well for that unit as well.
Numark Dj I/O
Price: $95 +/-
Pros: small, light and inexpensive
Cons: plastic, driver issues,
Performance: This is the only card I had serious driver problems with. Performance bellow 5.5 ms was impossible and when the driver crashed it completely crashed forcing a program and then system re-start many times.
Opinion: If you want a simple low price box for home use- this is a easy option. If you need solid performance I would personally shy away from the testy drivers.
Pros: A lot of bang for your buck with gain knobs, instrument and mic inputs and a native effects rack for live jamming. Well made and robust case feels solid.
Cons: A bit heavier and larger than the others. All the knobs and routing possibilities can get confusing if you are just djing. It took me a while to get sound out and figure out how it worked.
Performance: No drop outs or problems down to 1ms
Opinion: Great dj card and well made. I was really excited to see if I could run some master effects on top of the master dj output using the included effects rack with the free focusrite mastering plug ins. The ability to tighten up the whole mix could be a HUGE plus for digital djs. Sadly, the routing does not support that concept right now.
Pros: Very compact, Stable drivers, Bus operated
Cons: wont work with the new mac-book card slots, 1/8 outputs are a bit amateur. Lower output than the others (-2.5db)
Performance: Good, no drop outs down to 1ms with key lock on in Traktor.
Opinion: This is a great card to start out with if you have the right card slot to support it. Echo has a dedicated line of very high quality sound cards and this was the first dj focused card on the market. its a tiny bit quieter than the others but nothing a little gain adjustment wont fix. I would not play big clubs with this one but for small bars or home its great.
For the lowest price I would go with the maya44 USB but if you can pay more and want to produce some tracks as well get the Novation. For traveling light and trouble free setup the Indigo dj is a great workhorse.