Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB Audio
The increasing popularity of digital music and video
downloads has resulted in the personal computer being used more and more as a home
entertainment center. The convenience of storing hundreds or even thousands of
high-quality audio files on todays high-capacity hard drives has prompted even many
audiophiles to begin using their computers as music servers. Using the analog output of
the built-in soundcards found in Macs and PCs -- the output typically connected to the
speakers found on most peoples desktops -- provides less than stellar sound. A
better method is to invest in a soundcard with high-quality analog outputs -- or, better
yet, connect its digital output to an outboard D/A converter, or digital receiver or
processor. Other options are to use something like the Logitech (formerly Slim Devices)
Squeezebox to extract the digital signal from the computer, or use a DAC with a built-in
USB input, such as those from Bel Canto, HeadRoom, Stello, or Benchmark.
There are also devices that convert the digital audio
output from a computers USB port to a conventional S/PDIF signal that can be used
with a DAC or digital receiver or processor. The Trends Audio UD-10.1 is just such a
product. For only $149 USD, it offers the ease of connection and portability of a USB
accessory, and is said to provide the sound quality of an audiophile digital transport
from any PC.
The UD-10.1 comes in the same sturdy little aluminum case
as Trends Audios Tripath-based TA-10.1
integrated amplifier, which I recently reviewed. On the front panel is a type B USB
input and power indicator. Around back are four digital outputs: XLR, RCA, BNC, TosLink,
and an optional DC power input. The UD-10.1 can be powered from the USB input or from an
optional, rechargeable pack that holds four NiMH AA batteries ($20). Although the UD-10.1
is described as a digital audio converter, there is also a 1/8" stereo minijack on
the front thats designed to be used with headphones or as a line-level output with
the provided 1/8"-to-stereo-RCA converter plug. An A-to-B USB cable is also included.
Compared to the UD-10, the UD-10.1 is said to have upgraded
parts, such as high-quality Japanese-Korean SMD resistors and capacitors, Sanyo OS-CON,
ELNA Silmic and WIMA film capacitors, and an improved circuit board. It also uses a type B
USB connector rather than the more common type A version used on the original UD-10.
To use the UD-10.1, you simply connect its input to a PC or
Macs USB port, then connect one of its four digital outputs to a DAC or digital
receiver or processor. It should then convert the audio signal from just about any type of
media file played back on any media player and output it as an S/PDIF signal through its
I used the UD-10.1 with a relatively new Celeron laptop
running Windows XP, as well as a vintage Pentium II MMX laptop running Windows 2000. I
primarily used the Winamp 5 media player with both systems, and plugged the RCA digital
output of the UD-10.1 into an Anthem D2 audio/video processor. The UD-10.1 also worked
flawlessly with media players such as Windows Media Player 9, Foobar2000, and iTunes 7.
The rest of the system consisted of Bel Canto e.One REF1000 monoblock amplifiers and
Paradigm Signature S8 loudspeakers.
The UD-10.1 is a plugnplay device, as should be
expected from something thats compatible with Windows Vista/XP/NT/2000 and plugs
into a USB port. It didnt require the installation of any drivers, was automatically
recognized by the operating systems, and began working without any additional
configuration. It presumably was passing "bit-perfect data," as I was able to
successfully transmit a 16-bit/44.1kHz signal from a DTS CD -- as long as the volume
control of the media player remained at its highest setting. Reducing the volume
presumably throws away bits or changes the signal in some other way, corrupting the DTS
bitstream and resulting in the output of only random noise. Various file types -- AAC,
FLAC, MP3, WAV, WMA -- played back without any problems.
I was also able to play back multichannel Dolby Digital and
DTS-encoded DVD soundtracks, though the UD-10.1 seemed to convert these to stereo PCM at
48kHz, according to the Anthem D2s display. Playing back a 24-bit/96kHz WAV file
also resulted in a digital signal with a frequency of only 48kHz. Judging by this, I
presume that 48kHz is the maximum sampling frequency supported by the UD-10.1, and that
its maximum word length is 16 bits.
I used the UD-10.1 with several combinations of USB and
coaxial digital cables, and found that it sounded best in my system when used with a long
USB cable and a short coaxial digital audio cable, rather than the other way round. I
settled on the combination of a generic 15 USB cable and a 1m DH Labs Silver Sonic
D-75 coaxial digital cable. Although it was an annoyance to have to recharge its
batteries, I found that the optional battery power supply improved the performance enough
to warrant its use.
As promised, the UD-10.1 provided high-quality sound from
my computers USB ports. The sound of its headphone output was quite good, as judged
from listening through a pair of Sennheiser HD-580s -- clear and powerful -- but adjusting
the digital volume of the media player slightly degraded the sound quality. I suspect that
most audiophiles would use the UD-10.1 to send high-quality digital audio signals from
their computers hard drive to an outboard DAC or processor, which is its primary
function. Thats how I used it, and how it truly excelled.
The UD-10.1 sounded excellent playing back WAV files ripped
to a hard drive with Exact Audio Copy: there were a clarity and a smoothness to the sound
that werent there otherwise. The bass tightened up considerably, and the imaging was
more precise and focused. I like the sound of "Red Book" CDs played back by an
Oppo DV-970HD universal player feeding the internal DACs of my Anthem D2 processor.
However, the same tracks played back as WAV files from a PCs hard drive through the
Trends Audio UD-10.1 sounded consistently better than the Oppo used as a CD transport.
The three basses on "Brown Funk," from SuperBass
[CD, Telarc CD-83393], were readily distinguishable from each other. The late Ray
Browns instrument even seemed to be set farther back in the soundstage than those of
John Clayton Jr. and Christian McBride. Not only was the imaging spot-on, but individual
notes from each bass were precisely articulated, as were the piano, percussion, and crowd
noise. The result was a believable soundstage that realistically captured the atmosphere
of the jazz club in which it was recorded.
There was also a sense of unrestricted dynamics with the
UD-10.1. The guitars on Eric Claptons Unplugged [CD, Reprise 45024-2] had a
lot of weight and speed and sounded like, well, real acoustic guitars. "Hey Hey"
had great rhythm and pace, and the guitars sounded incredibly robust. Older, less-than-stellar
recordings also sounded wonderful through the UD-10.1. The guitar and piano on Bruce
Springsteens live rendition of "Thunder Road," from Live/1975-85
[CD, Columbia C5K 40558], were a little indistinct, but his voice was so immediate and
palpable that I could feel his anguish and purpose.
Did WAV and FLAC files played back from my computers
hard drive through the Trends Audio UD-10.1 sound better than the original CDs from which
they were ripped? In a word, yes. The UD-10.1 consistently sounded better than an Oppo
DV-970HD used as a CD transport when I used my Anthem D2 A/V processor as a DAC and
preamp. The UD-10.1 seemed to smooth out the sound of CDs without robbing them of detail.
There was also a new power and speed that made recordings sound more dynamic. I wont
say that the UD-10.1 made files ripped from CDs sound like high-resolution SACD or
DVD-Audio recordings, but most everything now sounded subtly but noticeably better.
SoundStage! Networks publisher, Doug Schneider,
thinks that computer-based music servers are the way of the future. After listening to the
Trends Audio UD-10.1, I have to agree. I havent heard such products as the Logitech
Squeezebox in my system, but Im sure that many people will prefer its wirelessness,
remote control, and advanced user interface. However, I love the sound of the Trends Audio
UD-10.1, and dont mind running a USB cable to my audio system and controlling
playback through a media player on a laptop computer. If that doesnt bother you,
then the UD-10.1s high-quality sound, ease of use, and low price may make you
rethink how you play back music on your audio system.
In my review of Trends Audios TA-10.1 Tripath-based
integrated amp, I stated that there wasnt another audio component that Id had
more fun with in recent years. Well, I have to say that Ive now had even more fun
with their UD-10.1 USB converter, which didnt seem out of place in the company of
the far more expensive components in my reference system.
If you have a high-quality outboard DAC, you should at
least consider connecting it to a PC or Mac with Trends Audios UD-10.1 -- you might
be surprised by what you hear for only $149. Not only that, but having all of your music
available through a computer-based music server is much more convenient than having to get
up and constantly change CDs. I wouldnt hesitate to use the UD-10.1 to play ripped
audio files through my reference system -- not just for the convenience, but for the
better sound. The UD-10.1 is that good.
Price of equipment reviewed