Xitel INport Brings Clean Audio In

Dave Salvator

As a freshly minted college graduate, and as a struggling musician, there wasn’t much money to buy CDs or LPs. But I soon discovered the wonders of the local public library, which had a pretty good collection of both. And good quality cassettes were cheap so much of my music collection was on tape.

I’ve since managed to acquire over 400 CDs, but I’ve still had probably another 150 or so albums on tape and LP that I occasionally dust off. I’ve been meaning to rip them in to MP3 player and onto my home server’s music jukebox volume, but have only managed to get small parts of it done. I thought about using a laptop, but very few laptop line inputs have clean enough signal quality to do the job right. But a new product from Xitel, called the INport, promises to overcome those obstacles, allowing you to create clean audio files on your PC or notebook. At $69, it’s the least expensive USB audio device we’ve seen to date, and has a lot going for it. It’s a good (though not great) solution to handle getting your vinyl and tapes into the digital domain. There’s a lot we liked, but some things we didn’t. Turn the page to find out more.

Although there are other USB audio products on the market that are more versatile, including Creative’s Sound Blaster Extigy and M-Audio’s Sonica Theater, both these products are a good bit more expensive than Xitel’s INport. The INport is designed to do one thing and one thing only: make clean recordings inside your computer, from analog audio sources like a cassette deck, VCR, TV or phonograph

For the $69 price, here’s what you get with the INport:

USB external pod with analog RCA stereo jacks

CFB Software’s LPRecorder, which records the incoming audio signal.

CFB Software’s LPRipper, which takes the recorded file and parses it into tracks, and can encode to MP3 or WMA with the right external encoder module present.

30-foot shielded RCA patch cable – which includes a ground-loop isolator (more on that later)

This load-out gives you everything you need to get going, and having a 30-foot long patch cable means that after the initial fumbling around behind your stereo receiver, you can sit comfortably on a couch with your laptop to do your recording.

This device will live or die based on whether it records audio better than the standard PC or notebook audio-in jack.

We compared the INport to three other options – a standard notebook audio input on a Dell Inspiron 8200, a PC with a clean sound card in it, and Creative’s Sound Blaster Extigy – a $125 option.

Our test system was a Dell Inspiron 600m (check prices) laptop with the following system components:

1.6GHz Pentium 4M (Centrino)

Intel 82855 chipset

512MB of DDR SDRAM system memory

ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 GPU

SigmaTel C-Major audio codec

Windows XP Pro with SP1

DirectX 9.0b

System updates as of 8/18/03

As it turns out, this laptop is an ideal candidate for the INport, since Dell’s implementation of Sigmatel’s C-sharp audio solution lacks a line-in input, and only has a microphone input. The result is that without INport, no recordings would be possible at all on this system.

We first wanted to get a general idea how clean the INport’s line-input was, so we tested it using RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.1. We used a signal generator system equipped with Terratec’s DMX6fire sound card, whose own dynamic range is around 103dB.

We generated our test signals from another system equipped with Terratec’s DMX6fire sound card, an Envy24-based PCI sound card whose own dynamic range is around 103dB, making a clean and viable piece of hardware to use for test signal generator. We then recorded the reference system’s output using the INport.

Here’s what we found:

Resolution: 44KHz/16-bit/stereo

Xitel INport

ESS Maestro3

Desktop PC

Sound Blaster

Noise level dB (A):

-86.9

-61

-92.6

-95.4

Dynamic range dB (A):

86.5

60.6

91.6

90.8

THD %:

0.03

0.045

0.0011

0.0046

IMD %:

0.102

0.279

0.0078

0.014

Stereo crosstalk dB:

-81.3

-7.9

-92.6

-6.5

Resolution: 96KHz/24-bit/stereo

Xitel INport

ESS Maestro3

Desktop PC

Sound Blaster

Noise level dB (A):

-86.1

-58.4

-94.9

-94.3

Dynamic range dB (A):

86.2

58.4

94.8

90.6

THD %:

0.03

0.034

0.0023

0.0027

IMD %:

0.103

0.389

0.006

0.0089

Stereo crosstalk dB:

-80.7

-7.9

-91.9

-6.5

Overall these numbers are pretty good compared to desktop PC sound cards, although they’re not stellar. Interestingly, we saw no pickup when we increased our sampling resolution to 96KHz/24-bit, so while it’s cool that INport supports this resolution, it’s also pretty clear that you don’t really gain anything here by using it.

As you can see, the INport falls in the middle of the pack, certainly better than the ESS Maestro3, but not as solid as the PC desktop sound card, Terratec’s DMX6Fire. Creative’s Extigy did very well on all the tests, save one: stereo crosstalk, where it fared very poorly. But INport’s overall performance here is pretty strong, although certainly not the cleanest we’ve seen.

Noise Floor: We then ran some noise-floor tests using SoundForge 6.0, where we removed all connections from the INport to get a reading of the card’s noise floor. After recording ten seconds of silence, we noted the RMS Power Value in the statistics window. RMS gives us the average signal energy value present throughout the ten-second recording. More is bad, less is good.What we’re measuring is “what’s there when nothing’s there,” and so we’re measuring the noise the device itself generates when sitting still.

These tests were more of a mixed bag, and the INport didn’t fare as well. The RMS noise level was around -61dBFS, and compared to the other audio products we tested here, it was by far the noisiest.

This finding doesn’t align well with the results seen in RightMark Audio Analyzer. However, on some recording inspection tests we did using SoundForge, that level of noise floor was clearly present in the device, although it wasn’t readily audible.

The problem we have with this amount of noise floor is that it effectively compressed the dynamic range the device can deliver, since quieter passages and more subtle sounds can have levels that fall beneath the noise floor. We’ve seen instances where an audio device delivers a higher (i.e. worse) noise floor when sitting completely idle, but that this noise floor lowers (improves) significantly when signal is being run through the unit.

We then used the INport to record both cassette tapes and LPs, using the unit’s two bundled apps, to gauge not only the recording quality, but how easy these apps make the recording process. How did it do? Turn the page and find out.

We recorded several albums, both from LPs and from cassettes on the INport and our other test machines. The results we got using the INport were very clean, and in the cases where the LP being recorded was in very good condition, the sound quality was very good. Perceptually, recordings made using the other sound cards were not notably better in terms of audio quality, but this has partly to do with the somewhat limited sound quality of the source material. Unfortunately, tape hiss was unavoidable unless we wanted to run Dolby noise reduction, which does reduce tape hiss, but also filters out a lot of desirable high-frequency information as well.

Software Test Results

The INport comes with two separate applications designed to ease recording and encoding, called LPRecorder and LPRipper – both are from CFB Software.

LPRecorder: Allows you to record line-level signal coming into the INport. It includes three features we particularly liked.

Audio Configuration State Memory: LPRecoder can remember, and restore audio device and mixer settings so that you get a consistent audio configuration for your recordings. This is a “set it and forget it” type feature, where you have to set it up initially, but once done, the app remembers and restores that configuration when you restart it.

Auto-Stop: This is especially handy for those times when you want to start a recording and then run to the store or take a nap and not have to manually hit the stop button when it’s done. The app “listens” to the incoming signal, and upon hearing a sustained period of silence, automatically stops recording. This feature worked flawlessly, and is a very nice touch.

Auto-Level: Manages your audio level so you get a strong signal level without overdriving the INport’s input. This feature spares you the trouble of having to manually dial in the right recording level. However, if the incoming signal gets too hot, this feature will dial down the recording level, which will result in an inconsistent overall level. However, our tests we found that it apparently has a “gentle hand” in tweaking the recording level, and as such, it works well.

This app also generates a .TRK file, which its companion app – LPRipper — uses to identify “black holes,” or silence holes between tracks on the material you’re recording.

LPRipper: This application is designed to break your recording up into separate songs, or tracks, and then encode them as WMA, or MP3 files, provided the needed encoder engine is installed (separately).

With LPRipper we were able to open both .WAV files and the .TRK files generated by LPRecorder. Annoyingly, the app always asks you how many tracks are in the material you’ve just recorded — but this step was necessary to best locate where songs start and end. When we left it at the default value of zero during our testing, it marked every low-volume area as a potential black hole. Although useful, this particular part of the app could use some polish.

This screen in LPRipper allows you to specifically set the begin- and end-points for each track. The top view is the “macro” view of the entire recording, whereas the bottom view is a more detailed “micro” view, which allows for finer tweaking of the actual begin/end-points. Once you have your begin/end-points set, there’s also a feature that will allow you to connect all the tracks, which closes small gaps between the start point of one track and the end-point of the one that preceded it.

Once you’ve identified your tracks, LPRipper lets you rename each track, and write out individual wave files for each one. You can also encode to MP3 or WMA, but annoyingly this feature won’t work until you download either the fastencc (MP3) or WM8eutil.exe (WMA).

CBF software provides a link to download the two encoder engines, but they should be included.

Even after installing these encoders, there’s no graphical configuration screen for setting bit-rate and other encoding parameters. Instead, you have to hand-edit a config file! There’s also there’s no provision for editing ID3 tag information within the app, so you’ll have to use an external app program to tweak album name, artist, genre, and other ID3 information your MP3 player will need. These are two rough spots that CBF, and by association, Xitel need to address.

The INport’s installation process is delightfully simple, and since it’s a USB composite audio device, the driver is built into Windows XP. The INport also supports Winodws 98SE, Windows ME with the USB Audio update, and Windows 2000. The two bundled audio applications also installed without incident, although we had to locate and install two encoders to get them to work.

The INport, as the name suggests, is an audio input device only, and cannot playback audio. Oddly, though, the installation program does not walk you through setting the INport as the default recording device. We had to do this by hand – easy for us, but perhaps not for everyone.

Missing from this lineup however is a standard wave editor. At the very least, Xitel could have included the bundleware version of CoolEdit or the open-source app Audacity. Since the latter app is free (audacity.sourceforge.net), this isn’t a big gripe, but it should nonetheless arrive in the box with the INport.

Also missing is any kind of audio quality cleanup software to help reduce or eliminate snaps, crackles and pops from LP recordings, and a utility to reduce tape hiss that dogs almost all cassette recordings. True, you could use Dolby B or C on your tape deck, but these solutions take their toll on high-frequency information, some of which gets lost during the Dolby filtration process.

Ground Loop Isolator: One thing we liked — the ground-loop isolator circuit located in the unit itself, which can notch out the 60-cycle hum that sometimes makes its way into audio recordings. Ground loops are usually the result of differences in resistance in your home’s electrical wiring, If your audio source is plugged into one circuit, say in the living room, and your PC or notebook is plugged into another in the next room, this can create a path where electricity flows from one socket to another. As the electrical system attempts to balance itself, you can sometimes hear a 60Hz humming, which corresponds to AC polarity switching rate (60 times a second).

INport has the convenience factor going for it, along with good performance, a nice price, and a good set of bundled apps. If you want to rip your wax stacks to your laptop, and are looking for a clean pipe to run the signal through, the INport will do a good, but not great job.

We really like not needing a separate power supply, and the stupid-simple basic installation was another nice touch. There were a few annoyances with the bundled apps, but the two also have some very handy features that make them more of a help than a hindrance to the audio capture process.

The other thing INport lets you do is use your laptop as a highly portable digital tape-deck that writes out wave files directly to your hard-drive. And while the line-input’s audio quality isn’t professional, or even prosumer level, it’s still good enough for most consumer applications.

INport does work as advertised, but if you’re looking for a more pro-level USB audio device, we’d suggest waiting to see the verdict on Echo Audio’s upcoming Indigo IO, a 2-in/2-out 96KHz/24-bit PC Card audio solution that will be shipping in a few short weeks.

If you can’t wait, consider either Creative’s Sound Blaster Extigy, which delivers cleaner sound quality, multichannel output, Dolby Digital decode and MIDI in/out ports as well.

Product:

Xitel INport

Company:

Xitel

Pro:

Low price, good bundled apps, and a frickin’ huge shielded patch cable

Con:

Bundled apps missing MP3/WMA encoder engines; no wave editor in the box; audio signal quality is good, but not great

Summary:      

A good consumer-level audio interface that makes ripping LPs and cassettes a fairly painless process.

Score:

Price:

$69, direct from Xitel

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in ExtremeTech.

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