Zoom U-44: all-in-one solution for computer audio and surprisingly sweet sound
Aug 21, 2021 at 11:15 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 1

Ferbose

Headphoneus Supremus
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After purchasing Zoom U-44 for 6 months, I can't believe I am writing a review to describe how good it sounds.
Here is why I highly recommend it for computer audiophiles.

(1) Unbeatable functionality, a swiss-army-knife for all audio needs
Computer audio interface: 96/24, USB, 4-in-4-out
Inputs: channel 1-2 are two mic preamps w/ 48V phantom power, channel 3-4 are optical/coaxial/special accessory microphones
Outputs: preamp out (TRS) + 2 line outs (RCA) + optical/coaxial + one headphone jack
Stand-alone DAC/ADC: optical/coaxial SPDIF, powered by 2AA batteries or 5V USB power (non-computer)
Extras: iPhone/iPad/Android compatible, MIDI connection, onboard mixer function

(2) All of these functions for a street price of $180. Unbelievable value.

(3) Small footprint (19 cm long), coat pocket portable, internal battery power

(4) Headphone driving capability: sufficient to drive power-hungry beast Hifiman HE-560, yet quiet and clean for high-sensitivity Sennheiser HD-595. This will cover all headphone types.

(5) Sound quality: pleasant and clean sound for recording and playback. Not yet professional grade yet (certainly not at this price), but please read on to see why I love it.

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I bought this as a handy recording interface for laptop computer. I never expected that I would write a review about how good it sounds. I am used to much more expensive gears.

I own two pro-grade mic preamps: Audient Mico and Sytek MPX-4Aii, and a custom-modified professional recorder Tascam HD-P2. Zoom U-44 is not as quiet and resolved as the console-grade Audient Mico, but certainly good enough for non-professional recording jobs and podcasts.

My reference systems are Harbeth P3-ESR and Harbeth HL5-ES speakers, and four pairs of AKG K1000 headphones (bass heavy and bass light versions). I treasure sweet and natural tone above all else. For DACs, I am accustomed to the pro quality of my Benchmark DAC1 and DAC2, but my Marvalve Model 2 DAC is clearly in a league above. Speaker amps are Nuforce Reference 9 V3 SE (200 clean watts) and SAC Thailand Minute EL34 (single-ended tube, 10 sweet watts).

What I love about Zoom U-44 is how it pairs with Hifiman HE-560. I never expected the inexpensive U-44 to properly drive this power hungry beast, but yes it can. One day I plugged it in and started enjoying music a lot. I am surprised and perplexed.

First, I compared U-44 in USB mode to NAD D3020 ($500) in USB mode, both driving HE-560 headphones. D3020 has a bit more power but its sound quality is relatively poor. Compared to U-44, D3030 sounds more sibilant, lacking in air and details, weak in bass extension, tonally colored (in a bad way). U-44 is more refined, neutral, transparent, and pleasant. D3020's headphone is just an afterthought, but U-44 has the quality of a dedicated headphone amp.

Second, I compared USB-U44-HE560 versus USB-U44-Toslink-Benchmark DAC1-Cayin HA1A-HE560 (with extensive NOS tube rolling). Compared to Zoom as DAC/Amp ($180), the Benchmark/Cayin combo ($1800 including tubes) sounded a little more spacious, a little smoother and rounded, a bit more resolved, and a bit warmer. But the difference is minor. Strangely, I do enjoy Zoom driving HE-560 very much and never feel that anything is missing when I am not in gear-reviewing mode. I used to like HE-560 with Benchmark/Cayin but did not bother to listen much. With Zoom U-44, the setup is so convenient and portable that I ended up listening more on HE-560 and fell in love (7 years after buying these phones).

To me, convenience is also very important for everyday enjoyment. Zoom U-44 is so easy to set up, move around, and use anywhere, anytime. No worries about space, heat, turning it off, good cables, or breaking it. I can even carry it when I travel. I mostly listen to classical, jazz, and other acoustic recordings. For this type of music listening, having a Harbeth P3ESR as desktop system may counts as one of life's luxuries. When I need that luxury all by myself, Hifiman HE-560 does the job, and I am happy to drive it with Zoom U-44, anytime and anywhere.

The marvel of modern electronics is that we can get decent sound in cheaper and more convenient packages. Zoom U-44 is a fine example, and its designers know how to get proper sound with budget components--that's called experience and proper design. It can do almost everything and sounds decent with anything. It will be useful in may situation for many years. Highly recommended.
 

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