Xitel's Pro HiFi-Link connects your computer to your stereo using a USB converter and 30 feet of included analog or digital cable. You can use the HiFi-Link to listen to MP3s, Internet radio, Dolby 5.1 sound from DVDs, or any other computer audio. This device outputs crisp, rich sound to your stereo system and is a good solution--as long as you don't mind another wire in your house. The Pro HiFi-Link's design is quite simple: It's a little, silver box with a USB cable on one side and three audio outputs--analog RCA, digital optical (TosLink), and digital coaxial--on the other. Xitel bundles the three corresponding 30-foot-long, electromagnetically shielded cables, which have gold-plated jacks for maximum electrical contact.
Although this unit sounds great and handles surround sound, some people might choose to pay extra for a more completely designed digital audio receiver (DAR) with a display and a remote. DARs let you control playback from the stereo rather than just from the PC. Most of these units can't handle surround sound, but they allow further emancipation from the computer.
Likewise, those who cannot bear to introduce another wire into their home should go with a wireless solution such as the Motorola Simplefi. It, too, lacks the HiFi-Link's support for surround sound, but if you watch movies on your DVD player and never download surround clips anyway, that omission won't matter. With stereo audio, the Pro HiFi-Link has no features to speak of and simply provides a clean connection from your PC to your stereo. It would be nice if the HiFi-Link could also send audio the other way--from your stereo to your computer. If it had that capability, you could use the unit to encode MP3s from vinyl records, among other things. But adding the analog-to-digital converter necessary for stereo-to-PC encoding would have increased the price of the unit significantly.
If you have a six-channel speaker set, the Pro HiFi-Link really shines, although you still have to watch movies on your computer screen (unless you have a graphics card with a TV output). We transformed our office into a home theater with nothing more than the Pro-HiFi Link and Logitech's six-speaker Z-680 surround-sound system. However, you'll need to install CyberLink's PowerDVD software on your desktop or your laptop in order for the device to pass 5.1 and AC3 signals to your system.
The Pro HiFi-Link's main strength is its squeaky-clean digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which processes the audio signal outside of your computer case to eliminate digital noise. The HiFi-Link's DAC either turns the ones and the zeros representing your digital music into an analog signal for older stereos or just relays the digital signal to newer stereos and home-theater systems.
If you don't need all the connection options or the digital surround sound, save money and go for Xitel's HiFi-Link analog or digital-optical units; they cost about half as much as this Pro model and still deliver clean sound. Stereo music and DVD soundtracks were clear and rich over both the analog and digital connections. Both cables yield exceptional sound, although the digital cords--TosLink/optical and digital coaxial--sound slightly better in stereo and support Dolby Digital and DTS audio from DVDs and other surround-sound sources. With the digital connection, Fantasia 2000 sounded more realistic and exciting. The HiFi-Link adds sonic depth and range that improve all kinds of music--from Prokofiev to Ralph Stanley.
The unit gets its power from your PC's USB port and doesn't require driver installation. However, this device is compatible with only Windows 98 SE, 2000, Me, and XP. We played a variety of Internet-radio selections--as well as countless MP3 and WMA files--through a Yamaha amplifier and Klipsch floor-standing speakers, and we thought that the audio quality was equivalent to that of audio CDs and FM-stereo stations. We did notice one slight operation problem: After disconnecting the device in order to use our internal sound card, then reconnecting it, the audio signal suffered dropouts. The problem is easily fixed by restarting the computer, but if you plan to use your internal sound card, be prepared to restart your machine before you switch back to the Pro HiFi-Link.