Project USB Box
Imagine, if you will, that you are the newly elected president of a once communist nation. You’ve successfully navigated your way through a non-violent revolution and you’re looking to appoint some really serious political advisors.
Putting Frank Zappa and Lou Reed at the top of your list might be considered eccentric, but that’s exactly what Václav Havel did when he became the first president of the new Czech Republic, following the so-called “velvet revolution”.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to dislike any leader who could appoint Frank Zappa to advise his government on trade, culture and tourism. And if the Czech Republic’s trade and economic performance is anything to go by, he must have given some better advice than the bankers who were guiding economic policy in most countries over the last 20 years.
Which brings us, in a roundabout fashion, to the Project USB Box. Oh yes, it really does.
Czech it out
Project Audio Systems is, of course, better known for its range of turntables. Manufactured in the Czech Republic (did you spot the link?), Project turntables have a reputation for idiosyncratic design, with quality that belies their comparatively modest cost.
Also built at Project’s Litovel plant, the USB Box is part of a rapidly expanding range of electronics that includes phono stages, speed controllers, amplifiers, pre amps, a tuner and several iPod docks. All packaged in neat alloy boxes with a footprint of just 103x141mm.
As its somewhat prosaic name implies, the USB Box is a USB DAC that’s designed to replace the sound card or conventional audio output from a computer (PC, Mac or Linux system). Based on a 16-bit Burr-Brown DAC, the little box provides a single sampling rate (44.1kHz) and line output, that’s all.
Power without control(s)
First impressions of the USB Box are limited, but not at all in a bad way. There just isn’t that much to report. The simple exterior boasts no controls whatsoever, and there are only three sockets on the back. At just over half a kilo, the tiny box is, however, surprisingly heavy. Perhaps that’s a nod to Eastern European engineering of old.
Compared to some of the digital audio accessories I’ve tried recently, the ProJect box is laughably simple to set up. I plugged in the USB cable and a spare AudioQuest interconnect I had hanging around, and that was it, everything worked. However, that very simplicity also conceals a potential weakness.
The USB box has been designed to draw its power from the USB connection. And while that means there was no additional power supply to worry about, I had immediate reservations about the simplicity. Even a line level output needs reasonable headroom to allow for musical dynamics, but would the USB port be able to provide it?
Slav to the rhythm
There was only one way to find out, so I fired up something dramatic and not a little industrial; a stirring rendition by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of the anvil chorus from Verdi’s Il Trovatore (ripped from CD as an Apple Lossless file). But while the anvils were certainly singing along joyously, the rest of the piece seemed unnecessarily subdued. Everything was present and correct, the massed voices clearly articulated, and a wide soundstage with everything arranged in its rightful place. But it was all just a little less vigorous than I expected.
Changing the source from a laptop running on battery power to an iMac plugged into the mains made an immediate difference. What had been soft and unchallenging (if perfectly pleasant) became a lot more involving. There was more muscle to the hammers and more body to the chorus.
Of course, sometimes a more relaxed presentation is just what’s required. The Project is relatively kind to low-bitrate files, without sacrificing high frequency articulation or detail. On Under My Skin from her debut albumette Extended Play, Gin Wigmore’s trebley squawk can be a tiring listen – even with iTunes Plus high quality (sic) files at 256kbit/sec – but through the USB Box the naturalness and edge of her voice is given room to express itself. There’s an overtone of tenor in there just occasionally, and the Project shows it off.
It’s the same story with more delicate tracks. Snow Patrol’s gloriously simple acoustic cover of Teenage Dreams tells a story of aching and more grown-up passion rather than the hot frustration of the Undertone’s original. Although it’s a simple recording, the USB Box’s excellent imaging and place the acoustic guitar beautifully and adds an almost palpable sense of physical proximity to the close-miked vocal.
More velvet than revolution
Ultimately, the Project’s performance is a perfect analogue (if you’ll forgive the pun) for the changes in its home country over the last twenty years. The old eastern European heritage is there in the proletarian pricing, simplicity and robust build. But the performance is from the modern Czech Republic, a country where artists, musicians and intellectuals led the velvet revolution to turn a former Communist country into modern social democracy.
And while its presentation is definitely more velvet than revolutionary, Project’s little USB DAC really is astonishing value for money. It’s an excellent first step for anyone looking to try their own music storage revolution. It’ll also help the Czech Republic’s balance of trade just a little.
Another victory for Mr Zappa, I think.
ProJect USB Box DAC. $250