USBPre 2: My Impressions After 4 Weeks

In the simplest terms, audio interfaces are devices that connect to your computer via USB, Thunderbolt, Firewire or some other connection and allow you to record sound into your computer and play back sound from your computer. They're typically much higher quality than the sound card or circuitry built into your computer and usually include professional types of audio connectors (XLR and/or balanced TRS 1/4 inch plugs). With an audio interface you can record with pro microphones and playback your sound with pro monitors (which lay people typically think of as speakers).

Ok, with that out of the way and now that we're all starting from the same place, what's so special about this audio interface from Sound Devices - the USBPre 2?

First the specs from Sound Devices for the USBPre 2:

  • Extended bandwidth, low-noise microphone preamplifiers with 48 V phantom, limiters, high-pass filters, and 15 dB pad.
  • Dynamic range greater than 114 dB (in 24-bit operation).
  • Flat 10 Hz to 40 kHz (@96 kHz SR) audio bandwidth with very low distortion characteristics.
  • Each input individually selectable between microphone, line, and aux level signals (both channels selected simultaneously for S/PDIF connections).
  • Precision, 23-segment, multicolor LED peak/VU meter, selectable between input and output sources.
  • High-output headphone amplifier can drive a wide range of headphones.
  • Balanced outputs on XLR connectors with dedicated level control can be used to drive line- or mic-level inputs.
  • Mix control enables zero-delay monitoring of source audio, computer audio, or a mix of both source and computer audio for multitrack recording or computer telephony.
  • Phono (RCA) jacks connect Aux Output to external loudspeakers or preamplifiers.
  • Bus powering via USB for convenient, single-cable connection to the computer.
  • In Stand-Alone mode the USBPre 2 operates as a microphone preamplifier and analog-to-digital converter.
  • Hardware loop-through for test and measurement to send computer audio directly back to an input.
  • High-strength extruded aluminum chassis.
  • Mac® OS X 10.4+, Windows®XP/Vista/7, and Linux, class-compliant audio device.
  • Additional features controlled by hardware DIP switches on the back panel; no software-only features and no control panel.

The Sound Devices USBPre 2 is a USB 2 class compliant audio interface. That means that when you plug it in to a Mac, you don't need any drivers, it just works in full 24-bit recording mode and with very low latency. Same with a Windows PC except that if you want the lower latency benefits, you have to install an ASIO driver. This is super handy because if on a project I need to use somebody else's computer for whatever reason, I can plug this in and go without muddling with driver installs.

A good, solid set of input and output options: You get two XLR inputs, two 1/4" line inputs and 2 unbalanced RCA inputs (for tape/CD player/iPod input). You also get TOSLink and SPDIF inputs for bringing in digital signals from ADAT or other digital devices (I've never used these, but they're there if you need them). The output options are the same as the inputs including left and right XLR outputs which you can route to a set of monitors (called speakers by most laymen and women). There are also 1/4" and 1/8" (3.5mm) headphone jacks controlled by a nice big, metal volume knob.

And that brings me to build quality. This is the toughest little piece of audio gear I have ever used. And by that I mean you could literally drive a truck over this thing and it would probably be just fine. Everything is metal. Everything. Well, except for the rubber cover over the dip switches on the back. The potentiometers (gain and volume knobs) are large and smooth and also metal. Then there are two recessed potentiometers for the XLR outputs and pan which you push in to extend so that you can adjust and then push them back in again to get them out of the way. The buttons are very solid and activate with a solid, reassuring click. Sound Devices specializes in making pro level field recorders and mixers and they applied the same top-notch build quality to the USBPre 2 as well. This thing will last you a very, very long time, even if you toss it in your bag and take it with you everywhere. And in fact, that appears to be its intended purpose.

I've owned four audio interfaces over the last ten years, and compared to those, this is the one I've enjoyed the most in terms of audio quality, build quality, ergonomics, and features. You get everything that you need, and nothing you don't need.

Audio quality both in and out are top notch. The preamps have plenty of gain to drive even the most gain hungry mics (e.g., dynamic mics like the Shure SM-7B or SM58) without pushing the preamps anywhere near max. Most of my audio interfaces had to go to max gain to get a reasonable signal out of dynamic mics like this. And when you push the pre-amp to the max, you also push the noise floor to the max. No so with the USBPre. You can listen to a recent comparison vs. some less expensive audio recorders over here.

When I originally requested the evaluation unit from our friends at B&H Photo, I thought that the USBPre 2 shared the same pre amps and analogue to digital converters as the much more expensive 700 series Sound Devices field recorders. But that was because I mis-read the marketing materials. Technically, the preamps and analogue to digital converters in the USBPre 2 use the same "topology" as those in the 700 series field recorders. A closer look at the specs show that indeed, the preamps are not identical, though the analog to digital converters may be. In any case, I was not at all disappointed by the sound of the preamps and converter in the USBPre. The practical noise floor after loudness normalizing dialogue clips to -16LUFS sat at around -60dB which is good. They have the same warm lows and defined highs I have always envied from Sound Devices recorders and mixers.

While most people don't usually get very excited about the audio meters on their devices, the USBPre 2's meters were a revelation to me. They feature 23 LEDs per channel. And while is not always better than less, in this case it makes a huge, positive difference! I didn't consciously realize how annoying and nearly useless 4 or 6 segment meters are. But when you have 23 segments, it is quick and easy to set your gain level. And the nice little curve makes is super easy to tell where you're at. Wow, I really love this feature. I know, I'm a nerd, but it really does simplify things when you're mixing in real-time.

At this point you might be wondering if there was anything not so great about this audio interface. Overall, I don't think that there were any things that I didn't like, but there two things that I should mention.

First, all this quality does not come cheaply. In June 2015, the USBPre 2 retails at street prices of $879 USD. And Sound Devices don't usually do any special pricing events so waiting a little longer isn't likely to result in price drops.

Secondly, and this is both really good and a little bit inconvenient but makes sense when you consider the intended purposes for this device: Many of the settings, such as the switch to turn on phantom power for one of the preamps, or to set the bit-depth and sample rates, or to turn on the limiter, are all set via tiny little dip switches under a very solid rubber cover on the back. At first I was a little annoyed that I had to pull the entire little device out to turn it around, work that cover off of the all-metal case, and then get a pen to reach in to the switches and change those that I needed changed. But it also a very good thing. This device is made to also be a field mixer which you would use in a bag. As soon as you put something like this in a bag, the last thing you want is to ruin a take by accidentally bumping the phantom power off or bumping the limiter off. So it was really a well conceived design decision. Also, so that you don't have to install any software on your computer, all the relevant digital settings are accessed via dip switches such as sample rate and recording bit depth. Same with some of the hardware features like whether the big volume knob controls the XLR outputs or the headphone outputs. Not a bad design decision once you consider why they did it. Also, so that you don't have to remember what all 20 of them do, there's a great reference chart on the bottom of the case that reminds you exactly what each switch does.

My thoughts on who this device fits: If you need a two input, incredibly durable, portable audio interface that works without a lot of fuss or installing drivers, I don't think you can do much better than the Sound Devices USBPre 2. The intended market seems to be film and video sound mixers though podcasters and musicians could certainly find a lot to love about this as well.

Do I plan to buy it? I am very, very tempted but I probably will not only because I'm saving up for a pro field recorder of the same quality from Sound Devices or Zaxcom. Stay tuned for more on that.