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Published December 15, 2007

 

GOODSOUND! GREAT BUY


Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB Audio Converter

The increasing popularity of digital music and video downloads has resulted in the personal computer being used more and more as a home entertainment center. The convenience of storing hundreds or even thousands of high-quality audio files on today’s high-capacity hard drives has prompted even many audiophiles to begin using their computers as music servers. Using the analog output of the built-in soundcards found in Macs and PCs -- the output typically connected to the speakers found on most people’s desktops -- provides less than stellar sound. A better method is to invest in a soundcard with high-quality analog outputs -- or, better yet, connect its digital output to an outboard D/A converter, or digital receiver or processor. Other options are to use something like the Logitech (formerly Slim Devices) Squeezebox to extract the digital signal from the computer, or use a DAC with a built-in USB input, such as those from Bel Canto, HeadRoom, Stello, or Benchmark.

There are also devices that convert the digital audio output from a computer’s USB port to a conventional S/PDIF signal that can be used with a DAC or digital receiver or processor. The Trends Audio UD-10.1 is just such a product. For only $149 USD, it offers the ease of connection and portability of a USB accessory, and is said to provide the sound quality of an audiophile digital transport from any PC.

Description

The UD-10.1 comes in the same sturdy little aluminum case as Trends Audio’s Tripath-based TA-10.1 integrated amplifier, which I recently reviewed. On the front panel is a type B USB input and power indicator. Around back are four digital outputs: XLR, RCA, BNC, TosLink, and an optional DC power input. The UD-10.1 can be powered from the USB input or from an optional, rechargeable pack that holds four NiMH AA batteries ($20). Although the UD-10.1 is described as a digital audio converter, there is also a 1/8" stereo minijack on the front that’s designed to be used with headphones or as a line-level output with the provided 1/8"-to-stereo-RCA converter plug. An A-to-B USB cable is also included.

Compared to the UD-10, the UD-10.1 is said to have upgraded parts, such as high-quality Japanese-Korean SMD resistors and capacitors, Sanyo OS-CON, ELNA Silmic and WIMA film capacitors, and an improved circuit board. It also uses a type B USB connector rather than the more common type A version used on the original UD-10.

Plug’n’play

To use the UD-10.1, you simply connect its input to a PC or Mac’s USB port, then connect one of its four digital outputs to a DAC or digital receiver or processor. It should then convert the audio signal from just about any type of media file played back on any media player and output it as an S/PDIF signal through its digital outputs.

I used the UD-10.1 with a relatively new Celeron laptop running Windows XP, as well as a vintage Pentium II MMX laptop running Windows 2000. I primarily used the Winamp 5 media player with both systems, and plugged the RCA digital output of the UD-10.1 into an Anthem D2 audio/video processor. The UD-10.1 also worked flawlessly with media players such as Windows Media Player 9, Foobar2000, and iTunes 7. The rest of the system consisted of Bel Canto e.One REF1000 monoblock amplifiers and Paradigm Signature S8 loudspeakers.

The UD-10.1 is a plug’n’play device, as should be expected from something that’s compatible with Windows Vista/XP/NT/2000 and plugs into a USB port. It didn’t require the installation of any drivers, was automatically recognized by the operating systems, and began working without any additional configuration. It presumably was passing "bit-perfect data," as I was able to successfully transmit a 16-bit/44.1kHz signal from a DTS CD -- as long as the volume control of the media player remained at its highest setting. Reducing the volume presumably throws away bits or changes the signal in some other way, corrupting the DTS bitstream and resulting in the output of only random noise. Various file types -- AAC, FLAC, MP3, WAV, WMA -- played back without any problems.

I was also able to play back multichannel Dolby Digital and DTS-encoded DVD soundtracks, though the UD-10.1 seemed to convert these to stereo PCM at 48kHz, according to the Anthem D2’s display. Playing back a 24-bit/96kHz WAV file also resulted in a digital signal with a frequency of only 48kHz. Judging by this, I presume that 48kHz is the maximum sampling frequency supported by the UD-10.1, and that its maximum word length is 16 bits.

I used the UD-10.1 with several combinations of USB and coaxial digital cables, and found that it sounded best in my system when used with a long USB cable and a short coaxial digital audio cable, rather than the other way round. I settled on the combination of a generic 15’ USB cable and a 1m DH Labs Silver Sonic D-75 coaxial digital cable. Although it was an annoyance to have to recharge its batteries, I found that the optional battery power supply improved the performance enough to warrant its use.

Sound

As promised, the UD-10.1 provided high-quality sound from my computers’ USB ports. The sound of its headphone output was quite good, as judged from listening through a pair of Sennheiser HD-580s -- clear and powerful -- but adjusting the digital volume of the media player slightly degraded the sound quality. I suspect that most audiophiles would use the UD-10.1 to send high-quality digital audio signals from their computer’s hard drive to an outboard DAC or processor, which is its primary function. That’s how I used it, and how it truly excelled.

The UD-10.1 sounded excellent playing back WAV files ripped to a hard drive with Exact Audio Copy: there were a clarity and a smoothness to the sound that weren’t there otherwise. The bass tightened up considerably, and the imaging was more precise and focused. I like the sound of "Red Book" CDs played back by an Oppo DV-970HD universal player feeding the internal DACs of my Anthem D2 processor. However, the same tracks played back as WAV files from a PC’s hard drive through the Trends Audio UD-10.1 sounded consistently better than the Oppo used as a CD transport.

The three basses on "Brown Funk," from SuperBass [CD, Telarc CD-83393], were readily distinguishable from each other. The late Ray Brown’s instrument even seemed to be set farther back in the soundstage than those of John Clayton Jr. and Christian McBride. Not only was the imaging spot-on, but individual notes from each bass were precisely articulated, as were the piano, percussion, and crowd noise. The result was a believable soundstage that realistically captured the atmosphere of the jazz club in which it was recorded.

There was also a sense of unrestricted dynamics with the UD-10.1. The guitars on Eric Clapton’s Unplugged [CD, Reprise 45024-2] had a lot of weight and speed and sounded like, well, real acoustic guitars. "Hey Hey" had great rhythm and pace, and the guitars sounded incredibly robust. Older, less-than-stellar recordings also sounded wonderful through the UD-10.1. The guitar and piano on Bruce Springsteen’s live rendition of "Thunder Road," from Live/1975-85 [CD, Columbia C5K 40558], were a little indistinct, but his voice was so immediate and palpable that I could feel his anguish and purpose.

Comparison

Did WAV and FLAC files played back from my computer’s hard drive through the Trends Audio UD-10.1 sound better than the original CDs from which they were ripped? In a word, yes. The UD-10.1 consistently sounded better than an Oppo DV-970HD used as a CD transport when I used my Anthem D2 A/V processor as a DAC and preamp. The UD-10.1 seemed to smooth out the sound of CDs without robbing them of detail. There was also a new power and speed that made recordings sound more dynamic. I won’t say that the UD-10.1 made files ripped from CDs sound like high-resolution SACD or DVD-Audio recordings, but most everything now sounded subtly but noticeably better.

Conclusion

SoundStage! Network’s publisher, Doug Schneider, thinks that computer-based music servers are the way of the future. After listening to the Trends Audio UD-10.1, I have to agree. I haven’t heard such products as the Logitech Squeezebox in my system, but I’m sure that many people will prefer its wirelessness, remote control, and advanced user interface. However, I love the sound of the Trends Audio UD-10.1, and don’t mind running a USB cable to my audio system and controlling playback through a media player on a laptop computer. If that doesn’t bother you, then the UD-10.1’s high-quality sound, ease of use, and low price may make you rethink how you play back music on your audio system.

In my review of Trends Audio’s TA-10.1 Tripath-based integrated amp, I stated that there wasn’t another audio component that I’d had more fun with in recent years. Well, I have to say that I’ve now had even more fun with their UD-10.1 USB converter, which didn’t seem out of place in the company of the far more expensive components in my reference system.

If you have a high-quality outboard DAC, you should at least consider connecting it to a PC or Mac with Trends Audio’s UD-10.1 -- you might be surprised by what you hear for only $149. Not only that, but having all of your music available through a computer-based music server is much more convenient than having to get up and constantly change CDs. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the UD-10.1 to play ripped audio files through my reference system -- not just for the convenience, but for the better sound. The UD-10.1 is that good.

...Roger Kanno

Price of equipment reviewed


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