Looking to get high-quality stereo sound from your Mac? If you don?t have access to a surround-sound system, but you want to increase a Mac?s sound fidelity by hooking it up to your receiver, M-Audio?s cool blue Sonica can do just that. Featuring a minijack stereo analogue and a 24-bit, 96kHz digital optical (SPDIF) output, the portable Sonica plugs into a Mac?s USB port and uses licensed TruSurround XT software from SRS Labs to simulate multi-channel surround sound via just two speakers.
Getting started with the Sonica is simple, and well described in the manual: it requires only installing the driver, attaching a USB cable, and selecting the Sonica as the sound-output device before you?re ready to experience surround-sound audio via the Mac. This ease of installation has a flip side, however: M-Audio doesn?t include the TOSLink (optical) cable needed to connect the Sonica to a receiver ? for £12.95, this cable is expensive.
If a receiver doesn?t have digital inputs, you can hook up the Sonica?s analogue output to the receiver using a standard 1/8-inch minijack cable. The supplied drivers worked without a glitch, and M-Audio?s tech support responded promptly to our test call.
The sound quality is significantly better via the optical cable than through either the Sonica?s analogue output or the Mac?s. The digital output is louder and cleaner, and the upper frequencies are crystal clear, while the volume level of Sonica?s analogue output is low, making it difficult to enjoy simulated surround-sound through headphones.
The Sonica?s digital output can carry multi-channel sound, such as Dolby Digital 5.1 (AC-3), Dolby Pro Logic, and DTS to a receiver for decoding, but if you want to play a DVD using Apple?s DVD Player, you won?t get the expected multi-channel sound you expect, as Apple?s DVD player doesn?t yet support this feature. According to M-Audio, a future update of the DVD Player should fix this, since multi-channel sound is the DVD standard.
For now, in Mac OS X 10.1.5, the freeware VLC (VideoLan Client, available at M-Audio?s Web site) can pass AC-3 sound to the receiver. The TruSurround XT settings in Sonica?s own Sound preference panel can simulate surround sound even with just two speakers, as well as enhance dialogue and bass reproduction, but these settings won?t necessarily improve sound quality.
The Sonica?s digital output greatly improves the sound quality from your Mac, even in higher-end setups. If you want to expand the digital hub to include a stereo setup, the Sonica is the best bet.