A few years ago, a brand new product category appeared in high-end audio: the USB to S/PDIF converter. As a matter of fact, the explosive growth of computer audio has spawned multiple new product categories for audiophiles. These include the proliferation of USB DACs, “audiophile” grade USB cables, and high-end playback software. The idea of using a consumer grade computer coupled with the products above as a source has taken foothold, and manufacturers have found a brand new market.
For those starting from scratch, and no other digital sources other than a computer, buying a USB DAC with a single input may make sense. The makers of USB-only DACs have probably maximized the USB input to its maximum potential and there are no additional parts needed to accommodate multiple inputs. However, if one is determined to use a computer as a USB source, but has a DAC with no suitable USB input, a converter is the answer. This is especially true if one has multiple digital sources besides a computer. USB converters are a great choice in this context, as they generally cost well under $1000, and are very easy to integrate into a system.
Essentially, USB convertor translates your computer's USB digital output to the more common S/PDIF format. S/PDIF stands for Sony Philips Digital Interface Format. This can be in the form of coaxial RCA, optical, or BNC. Some convertors also allow you to convert to AES/EBU, a common professional digital standard. USB converters can also be self-powered, or USB hub powered. Most convertors on the market also operate in “asynchronous” mode, reducing jitter, and allowing the DAC to call the shots, so to speak.
Tempo, the esteemed US importer of Musical Fidelity products, sent along the brand new V-Link 192 for me to review. This is the third USB convertor Musical Fidelity has brought to market -- the first being the V-Link, then updated as the V-Link II, which handles up to 96 Khz sampling rates. The V-Link II accepted USB, and outputted either coaxial or optical S/PDIF. The V-Link 192 accepts USB and outputs either to galvanically isolated AES/EBU via XLR or coaxial S/PDIF. The V-Link 192 is housed in the same sized, attractive minimalist chassis as the wonderful V-DAC II. The V-DAC II, by the way, is currently my budget reference DAC. The V-Link 192 retails for $399.
According to Musical Fidelity, “we designed the V-LINK family of USB to S/PDIF converters from the ground up, optimizing them for rock-solid consistency regardless of the computer or operating system involved. A low-jitter power supply feeds an ultra-high-precision clock, which is sited close to the V-LINK 192’s key components, ensuring the shortest, most accurate signal path possible.” Does V-Link 192 live up to this billing? Read on.
Set Up & Listening:
The V- Link 192 is USB hub powered, so there is no accompanying wal wart power supply. At the end of the V-Link 192 that has the AES/EBU and coax outputs, LED lights indicate power, lock, and incoming sample rate from 48 Khz to 192 Khz. I could make an argument that the LED indicators should be on the USB input side, as this is how I found myself naturally positioning the unit. I had to loop the cables in such a way as to have the DAC connections facing me so I could see the indicators.