I'm always impressed with the sheer value that PreSonus is able to offer across its product lines. For decades, the company has been selling affordable audio gear and software, while still managing to include features and deliver sound quality beyond what you'd expect for the price. Take for example AudioBox iTwo Studio. This "recording kit" includes an AudioBox iTwo USB 2×2 interface, an HD7 semi-open headphone, an M7 side-address mic, cables, and a license for Studio One Artist DAW software — at a street price of $260. If you're a singer-songwriter recording at home or a musician who wants to put down ideas while on the road, this is a great deal. Likewise, AudioBox Stereo, a similar kit which includes the previous-generation AudioBox USB interface, an HD7 headphone, a pair of SD7 pencil condenser mics with shockmounts, a stereo mic'ing bar, and Studio One Artist - all for $250 — is a great starter pack for stereo recording of instruments, bands, choirs, ensembles, and stage productions.
Let's start with the AudioBox iTwo. First of all, it looks great. Its brushed aluminum chassis wraps around from top to bottom, book-end style. Two combo jacks on the front operate as XLR mic or 1/4'' instrument/line-level inputs. Two input gain knobs are next to switches that choose instrument or line-level for the 1/4'' inputs. A single 48V switch toggles phantom power for the XLR inputs, and a 1/4'' headphone jack is paired with a volume pot. Importantly, there's also a mix knob for analog zero-latency monitoring; it allows you to vary the relative levels of what you're recording versus what's being played back from software. Therefore, there's no need to worry about driver latency, software buffer size, or a separate virtual monitor mixer. A big knob in front controls the volume of the main output, accessible via a stereo pair of balanced 1/4'' TRS line-level jacks in back. Also in back are MIDI I/O and two USB ports. One USB port is for connecting the AudioBox iTwo to a host computer, while the second is for connecting to an iOS device. Interestingly, because the AudioBox iTwo is bus- powered, it requires USB power supplied to the first port when you're using it with an iOS device connected to the second port. An iPad power supply or an external USB battery unit works fine for this purpose.
Due to the AudioBox iTwo being Core Audio class- compliant, installation on Mac OS or iOS is a no-brainer. Plug it in, and you're good to go. On Windows, driver installation is required, as you would expect. Setting up the driver is explained clearly in the user manual. After installation on my Windows 8.1 Pro laptop, I chose to run the AudioBox iTwo as an ASIO device in Cubase [Tape Op #90], which required tweaking a few Device, VST, and MIDI setup panels. Later, I installed and ran the bundled Studio One Artist software. On its opening screen, Studio One confirmed that the AudioBox iTwo was connected, even displaying clickable links into the Audio Device and External Devices panels. Seconds later, I was up and running. Clearly, PreSonus thought out the hardware/software integration here, because this process was seamless and void of needless noodling within I/O configuration options.
Upon first use of the AudioBox iTwo, I was pleasantly surprised with its sound. The Class A mic preamps sound clean and they have plenty of gain for most dynamic and condenser mics, including the bundled M7. (On the other hand, there isn't enough gain to record a quiet source with a passive ribbon mic, but I wouldn't consider that a typical use case of this bundle.) The instrument-level DI has an input impedance of 1 MΩ (standard for an active DI), and it works fine with magnetic pickups. (I didn't have any instruments with piezo pickups that I was able to record with the AudioBox iTwo.) I didn't spend as much time with the AudioBox USB, which is housed in the "classic" PreSonus chassis, but it has a similar feature set to the iTwo, minus the iOS compatibility and line- level inputs. Its mic preamps (also Class A) have more gain than the iTwo's, but they also have more self- noise, so signal-to-noise ratio is about even between the two preamp implementations.
I was also impressed with the bundled M7 condenser mic. Although it's made to look like a large-diaphragm mic, if you shine a bright light into its basket, you can see the outline of its 0.5'' small-diaphragm capsule. The mic is voiced for close-in work, and its multilayer screen does a good job of avoiding pops, as long as the mic isn't being hit with a direct blast of air. If you have good singing technique, you could use this mic without a pop filter. Frequency response is fairly flat, with a slight emphasis in the midrange between 900 Hz and 4 kHz, and the highs aren't hyped like they are on countless other low-cost condenser mics. There is a tiny bit of extra "air" from 13 kHz and above. The M7 does exhibit some stridency in the form of harmonic distortion at 7 kHz when presented with high SPL, but when recording low to medium volumes, the M7 sounds refreshingly neutral. I especially like how female vocals sound through the M7 - lots of midrange presence, very little sibilance. You do have to be careful positioning the mic, as its sweet spot is quite small. For most sources, including voice, it sounds fullest 3''-8'' out, on-axis within 30° of center. At greater distances, the low-frequency response thins quickly below 200 Hz — helpful for recording a boomy acoustic guitar but not ideal for tracking a drum kit sans close mics. Conversely, at distances less than 3'', proximity effect ramps up steeply.
The SD7 pencil condenser mics bundled in the AudioBox Stereo kit are also impressive for their cost. These come with screw-on cardioid capsules, but I wasn't able to look into the tiny holes of the 0.5'' diameter front screen to determine actual diaphragm size. Because it's voiced for distance mic'ing, the SD7 has less low- frequency roll-off than the M7 does at distances greater than 8'', and it exhibits a few dB of high-frequency lift in the range of 5-15 kHz. The included shockmounts are actually pretty nice. They're lightweight (being plastic), but they keep their set angle without slipping, and a bunch of extra rubber elastics are included. The stereo bar is quite heavy, as it's made of steel and brass. Together with the shockmounts, the stereo bar can be set up for X-Y or NOS recording (but not ORTF). The substantial thumbscrew bolts that hold the shockmounts can be threaded out of the bar for reinsertion from the other side of the bar, giving you more mic placement options. I tried the SD7 mics on acoustic guitar, drum overheads, background vocals, and room ambience. The extra crispness up top means the SD7 sounds more "modern" to my ears than the M7, but it's easily subdued with subtractive EQ.
The bundled HD7 headphone looks like the Superlux HD681, a low-cost clone of the venerable AKG K 240 line. Like its inspiration, the HD7 has a self-adjusting headband and earcups that are semi-open. Comfort-wise,
I could wear the HD7 all day. Given the HD7's semi-open design, I was surprised to hear commendable low-frequency extension. With the HD7 donned, my ears can make out fundamental tones down to 22 Hz, with low-order harmonic distortion becoming audible from 32 Hz on down. Thankfully, the lows aren't exaggerated like they are on headphones from lifestyle brands. On the other end of the spectrum, I hear a dip at 3-4.5 kHz, followed by a peak that extends to 8 kHz. At higher volumes, this peak is augmented by harmonic distortion, highlighting any sibilance that might be in the playback. I wouldn't rush out to buy this headphone on its own, but it's a great addition to each of these bundles. The HD7 feels and sounds expansive, and importantly, you can trust it to honestly convey the low-frequencies in your mix, in a way that small speakers in an untreated bedroom or practice space can't.
Admittedly, I didn't spend a lot of time using Studio One Artist, but I am amazed with how far this DAW has come since its initial release [Tape Op #76]. Thankfully, it's remained free of the bloatware that plagues the more established systems, so it still feels streamlined despite it being rich in features. Nice workflow enhancements, like a truly useful right-click contextual menu that not only "learns" your most recent actions, but also allows you to edit event names, tempos, tuning, and other parameters directly in the menu, make Studio One a pleasure to use. Many plug-ins, virtual instruments, and sound libraries are included. Check out the PreSonus website for details. On a related front, I did try the wireless-transfer feature from iPad. After you record in the free Capture Duo app (or the full-featured Capture), you can transfer your audio files to Studio One via WiFi — very cool! I also tried the AudioBox iTwo with WaveMachineLabs Auria [#92] on my iPad, and it worked flawlessly. Note that the zero- latency Mix knob on the AudioBox iTwo is pretty much a necessity when overdubbing on an iPad.
One last thing I want to point out — both AudioBox manuals are very well written, and not only do they each include a "Quick Start" section for Studio One Artist, but they also include a whole chapter of tutorials covering mic'ing technique, dynamics processing, and EQ'ing. A ton of useful information is presented, and it's definitely worth reading. Overall, PreSonus has done a wonderful job of integrating several products with high value for money into the affordable and easy to use AudioBox iTwo Studio and AudioBox USB recording kits.