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The Digital Difference
For the cost of a simple cable, anyone can connect their computer's sound card to their stereo system. But the stereo-link--an external USB (Universal Serial Bus) device--improves on this method by sidestepping the sound card entirely. It keeps your audio in digital form until it leaves the PC, thereby avoiding the electromagnetic interference that causes noise in sound cards. In addition, the 20-bit D/A converter (used by the stereo-link to turn 1s and 0s into an analog signal) is better than similar components used by consumer-level sound cards. The result is exceptional-sounding audio.
Setup couldn't be simpler. Just plug the stereo-link into your USB port, and Windows 98 will automatically detect and install the appropriate drivers for your audio device. (Note that USB devices are not compatible with Windows 95.) Then connect the stereo-link to your hi-fi using the enclosed audio cables; you can also plug a pair of headphones into the jack on the unit. It's important to note that, unlike other recently released wireless solutions (such as the Sonicbox iM Remote Tuner or the ), the stereo-link's hard-wired connection mandates that your stereo and PC must be less than ten feet away from one another. You can connect several USB hubs to allow more distance, but that can get costly.
We played both CD audio and MP3 files on our computer, and the stereo-link produced extremely crisp and clear sound across the dynamic spectrum. We noticed little, if any, background hiss, which is quite an improvement over the sketchy sound quality provided by some sound cards.
A Bit of a Stutter
USB audio is nothing new. About two years ago, a bunch of USB speakers hit the market but failed to catch on. For one thing, circumventing your sound card means that you may miss out on features such as advanced MIDI playback, hardware-accelerated 3D-audio support for games, and environmental sound effects. Also, USB audio has a tendency to stutter occasionally. We experienced this problem in our testing of the stereo-link when accessing the floppy drive and switching between applications. However, we didn't notice any system sluggishness.
Do you really need to spend $199 when a simple cable will let you connect your PC to your stereo? Well, if you're frustrated by the quality of your current sound card and don't plan to buy a new one, you'll appreciate the stereo-link's easy, external USB connection. It might also be a boon to notebook users, who don't have an internal upgrade option.