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Audiotrak OptoPLAY USB S/Card: Mini-review

post #1 of 4
Thread Starter 
This is my first attempt to make a meaningful contribution to Head-Fi, so please be merciful!

In some of the earlier posts I was asking about a cheap, small external solution to provide decent analog headphone output to my workplace PC. After checking opinions, reviews, availability etc. I finally got Audiotrak OptoPlay USB S/card, and would like to provide some of my early impressions in this mini-review. But first, some factsheet.

Device name: Audiotrak Optoplay USB
Manufacturer: Audiotrak
Device type: External USB Soundcard
Key Features: 24/96 audio output; virtual surround sound over stereo output; single analog stereo/headphone output (1/8" stereo minijack) combined with TosLink Optical Digital Out.
What's inside: AK4353VF Stereo DAC chip from Asahi-Kasei; MOSA MS6308 stereo headphone driver chip from Mosanalog. The first one seems quite respectable, the other is probably just cheap.
Price (in my village): US52$

I'm not posting any pictures of it, as they're abundant on the vendor's web site and elsewhere.

Just to remind, I was looking for: cheap, easily removable/transportable external audio output solution to provide better quality/less background noise than an on-board ALC650 solution. I did not need any input functionality, nor extensive connectivity. I didn't even need the optical digital out.

I picked up the thing on my way back home from work, so the first testing environment was quite tough: I put it up against Creative's Audigy 2ZS Platinum in my home PC. Let's see how this baby kept.

Installation

Installation is just as simple as it can be. You just plug it in, and for XP that's it! The system recognised the device flawlessly, and it appeared as a USB Audio Device. The supplied CD contains software that enables TrueSurround features, which I didn't even bother to install. As it's only output capable, there are just four sliders in the volume control: Master, Wave, SW Synt and CD Player. The only glitch in my home set up was that it somehow messed up Creative's mixer settings, and right after the installation sound was not reproduced from Audigy at all, even if it was selected as a default device in Audio settings. However, a quick run of Creative Diagnostics did its job, and they both lived together happily. All U needed to do to enable one or another for sound output, is to select it either in WMP's Properties tab, or in Winamp's Output PlugIn settings.

Optical Out:

While I did not test it, I must say that the construction is just plain stupid!!! Guys from www.short-media.com, who reviewed this card, said enough about how uncomfortable the construction of the optical "cork" is, so please refer for more details: http://www.short-media.com/review.php?r=249

Testing headphone out

As I recently rewired my K501s and it now has a hardwired 1/4" plug, and I did not have a 1/4 to 1/8 adapter at hand, I ran the tests using other cans I had: KOSS SB-40 Headset (120 Ohms, 96dB, quite a heavy load) and Senn PX-100 (32 Ohms, 114 dB, a much easier load). I was A/Bing them, switching the cans from Opto to A2ZS dedicated front-panel headphone out, playing the same CD using Winamp DirectSound SSRC Plugin sending signal to Audigy and Windows Media Player feeding DirectSound stream to Optoplay.

For Senns (hence easy load) the volume was widely enough for reasonnable listening. With WAVE slider at its maximum I had WMP's volume control at about 70% to get enough power. With Koss it was not as easy, and with all controls maxed out I had just about the volume level for normal listening, but no reserve. Apparently, Audigy has much more power in the dedicated headphone out on the Drive.

In terms of sound quality the little gadget was darn good!!! Compated to much more expensive A2ZS Platinum it had just a tad tighter soundstage, slightly messier sounds in the lower register, but was very clean and pleasant in the upper mids and highs (goes without saying that all quality tests were done using PX100, not KOSS SB40). BTW, once again I recalled that these are some really nice cans! I rarely use them, as it's part of my wife's portable setup.

OK, but what if we exclude the possible effects of direct passive load, and connect Optoplay to the headphone amp?

Testing line out

I did basically the same thing, except that now I was replugging my Laconic from A2ZS Line Out to OptoPlay, listening to K501s, and instead of playing both Winamp and WMP I decided to simply switch between SSRC pluging feeding A2ZS and simple DirectSound plugin feeding Optoplay, of course stopping and restarting playback after each switching.... Guess what?????

Overall, OptoPlay was a CLEAR WINNER!!!

The curse of all Creative products - the need to resample everything to 48KHz - played its mean trick with Audigy: Optoplay had a clear edge over it, especially in terms of the crystal clarity of highs! The difference was clearly noticeable. Another strong point of Optoplay over Audigy was the natural-sounding vocals. Bravo!

Optoplay had again a slighly tighter soundstage (Audigy sounded airier), and maybe just a little less bass (although Audigy does not excel here neither), but the gain in clarity and natural reproduction of voices outweighted this.

Against onboard sound:

The next day I brought it to the office, where I tested it with AKG K55 (again, very efficient and easy to drive cans with 32 Ohms and 114 dB SPL). I won't even bother saying how much better it was than the crappy onboard audio, but I will emphasize two aspects: 1) ABSOLUTE ZERO NOISE. I mean it. In fact, I had to literally turn "all ears" to try and hear any difference in K55 when I plug and unplug them - and I am not sure I'd do the blind test right Of course, at the moment itself of plugging/unplugging there's a noticeable click, but other than that - dead silence. Excellent noise floor for the price range!
2) With K55, which are a) closed and b) efficient, the volume provided was widely enough even at about 50% main volume control and 30% Windows Media Player volume setting, which means there's a decent reserve of power.

Conclusions:

Pros: excellent sound quality for the price, tiny and portable, instant install under XP, very good noise floor.

Cons: Still rather weak headphone out - not easy to drive some not very efficient cans; optical output plug does not fit tightly - might easily fall off at a minor touch.

Overall: IMO, at 50$, this baby is a no-brainer for anyone wanting to add very decently sounding analog output in a compact, portable and truly P&P way to a PC with a crappy (or no) soundcard - like mine at work. Just choose the right (low ohm, high dB) cans for it!

At home I think I will be using it more and more often for CDDA output, as it's just plays better than Audigy - up until I buy a more serious external SC (Waveterminal is one of them on my list).
post #2 of 4
Thread Starter 
Quick update:

1) I've got a good quality 1/4" Female to 1/8" male adapter by Klotz Cables, and tested the Optoplay directly driving my rewired K501s.

The result was quite expected: generally, good sound quality/clarity, but very little to no reserve in volume: with all Windows sliders maxed out I was getting enough volume for comfortable listening, but not more than that. Still, I am very happy with this piece.

2) I've tested it also against the onboard audio of my Fujitsu-Siemens LifeBook P7010. The sound signature was almost identical, to my surprise: the headphone out of this little 10.6" baby turned out to be good enough!

The only two (very subtle) differences were that the onboard audio provided a bit more power to the cans, sounding slightly louder (but still almost no reserve in volume for K501s). The second nuance is that the onboard audio sounded a little "fuller", while Optoplay was "airier" - both behaviours would be advantageous for some types of music.
post #3 of 4
how does it compare to audigy ZS PCMCIA?

thanx
post #4 of 4
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Chan_ryu
how does it compare to audigy ZS PCMCIA?

thanx
Frankly, I don't know as I had no chance to compare them, however, if the Creative's universal ->48kHz resampling curse applies to ZS PCMCIA as well, I'd bet Optoplay may well have an edge over it in terms of sound quality (not in terms of feature set, of course).
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