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For those reading this who know a little about the professional side of audio equipment, you’d almost be sure to have heard of Behringer already, but for those that haven’t, Behringer is a company that focuses on manufacturing professional audio equipment at the lowest price possible.

Up until recently Behringer have been focusing manufacturing Live and Studio sound equipment. However, they have started to move towards the computer music section of the market. This is where the subject of this review comes in.

The Behringer FCA202 Firewire Audio Interface is a simple two-in, two-out external sound card aimed at laptop users, or those simply looking for a low-cost professionally orientated soundcard.


Given the size of the FCA202, I was a little surprised at both the size and weight of the box, until I opened it up.


Unpacking the box revealed a number of items in addition to the FCA202; separate user manuals in both English and German, and a jumbo user manual in 11 other languages; AC adaptor; 6 pin Firewire cable, 4 pin Firewire cable, driver and applications CD; Ableton Live Lite 4 Behringer Edition; Behringer sticker and finally, a product catalogue.

The FCA202

The FCA202 is a relatively small device, only about 15cm across, and fairly light – perfect for laptop musicians on the go, and is probably the least complex sound card I have ever come across.

The front panel of the FCA202 has a very “Mac” look to it, almost entirely white, suggesting Behringer’s target audience.


The left side of the front panel holds the 6.5mm headphone jack and volume control. This control only affects the headphone output, the rear inputs and outputs are unaffected.

On the other side there are two LEDs, the red one signifying if the AC adapter is connected, and the blue one below it signifying if the Firewire cable is connected.


The rear panel holds the rest of the connections; power input; Kensington lock socket; two Firewire ports for daisy-chaining devices; two balanced mono 6.5mm outputs; two unbalanced mono 6.5mm inputs.

The FCA202 has no microphone or instrument inputs, so you’ll need to use a separate pre-amp or mixer for these sources.

Balanced? Unbalanced?

The terms “Balanced” and “Unbalanced” refer to the amount of wires used per channel of audio signal. Most consumer audio cables are unbalanced, having only 2 wires per channel (signal and ground).

However, in the professional world, balanced cables are generally the norm. Balanced cables have an advantage over unbalanced, as they use three wires per channel; Hot: the original signal; Cold: the original signal 180° out of phase to the Hot wire; and the ground wire.

The advantage that balanced cables have is that they drastically reduce the amount of interference and noise picked up in cables over long distances. Once the signal reaches the end of the cable, the signal in the Cold wire has its phase inverted again so it matches the signal in the Hot wire as is mixed back in. Any interference picked up would be out of phase now, and is almost entirely cancelled out.

However, if the cable used is relatively short, high quality and well shielded, unbalanced cables will perform a decent enough job.

Using the FCA202

System Requirements

Before going out and buying a piece of hardware, it’s always useful to know if it will actually work with your computer or not.

PC
Mac
1 GHz or higher CPU
G4/G5, 800 MHz or Higher
512Mb RAM Minimum
512Mb RAM Minimum
4 or 6 Pin Firewire port*
4 or 6 Pin Firewire port*
Windows XP SP2
Mac OSX Panther or higher

*If using 4 pin Firewire cable, AC adaptor must be connected.

Installing the FCA202

Windows
The manual recommends that the drivers are installed before connecting the FCA202, so I decided to play it on the safe side and pop the Driver CD in before I plugged anything in.

The driver installation is typical of any piece of hardware, and once installed the FCA202 can be plugged in.

Unlike most consumer and professional soundcards, the FCA202 does not have a complex control panel application, in fact it’s extremely basic.


There are only two settings that can be adjusted here, the sample rate, and the latency. Behringer decided to give us a basic block diagram of how the analogue paths of the FCA202 work. Not that it was really needed – inputs to analogue-digital converter, digital-analogue converter to outputs – but it was a nice touch.

One downside to this, if the FCA202 is the default audio device, is that there is no longer a master fader in the Windows Mixer, in fact there are no faders in the Windows Mixer – this means that any programs that rely on the windows mixer for volume control will not work, and neither will the volume keys on many multimedia keyboards. You will have to use the volume controls either in any applications used, or on your speakers.

Unfortunately for many laptop users, whose laptops only have the 4 pin Firewire port if at all, the FCA202 will require the use of the bundled AC adaptor.

Mac OSX

Just plug it in and it works. Simple as that – latency and sample rate are controlled from within the application.

Note:

Unfortunately for many laptop users, whose laptops only have the 4 pin Firewire port if at all, the FCA202 will require the use of the bundled AC adaptor. If you are lucky enough to have a 6 pin Firewire port on your laptop, you’ll be able to work on the go, as the FCA202 can draw power from the laptop. I know that some Mac laptops use the 6 pin cable, but I am not aware of any Windows-based ones, so perhaps this is more proof of Behringer’s target audience.

Latency?

To most networking and gaming gurus, the word “latency” won’t be a foreign term. In networking and online gaming, it’s also known as ping, and is the time it takes for a piece of data to reach the other end and back again.

When referring to audio latency, it’s the time it takes for a signal at the input to be processed and sent to the output again. This also includes any audio files on the computer.

For the average consumer, a latency of up to a second isn’t really an issue, but in the professional arena, it’s critical. If you’re trying to record a guitarist along side a drum track, the guitarist may think he’s playing in time, but will always be off by that one second of latency.

So the answer is to drop the latency right down? Wrong. The lower the latency, the less of a buffer the system has, and if it drops too low, there’ll be buffer under runs that are audible as clicks and pops, so like any system, you have to find a compromise – the lowest latency that you can work with without pops and clicks.

Using the FCA202

With the control panel being so basic, there’s really not much set-up required – just select the card in the Control Panel (Win) or System Preferences (Mac) (if you want it as your default soundcard), or from the settings menu within the audio host.

The FCA202 supports WDM (Win), Core Audio (Mac) and ASIO (Win). One thing of note here is that if an application using WDM is accessing the FCA202, any attempt to access it via ASIO will cause an error message. This is not a hardware problem, but a software one, as using a third party driver (Centrance Audio UD) would allow me to use both WDM and ASIO simultaneously.

ASIO?

Audio Streaming Input/Output. Professional audio driver standard developed by Steinberg as an alternative to WDM and MME drivers, providing much lower latency and better control over the inputs and outputs of an audio interface.

ASIO Performance

ASIO performance will be vastly different across a range of systems, and the size of the project, how many audio tracks and effects in use will also affect the minimum latency.

Using the FCA202 on the system listed below, I managed to get latencies as low as 8ms before hearing the pops & clicks of audio death. To put this in perspective, many hardware synthesizers have a latency of 10ms.

Test system:
Pentium 4 640 3.2GHz
1Gb DDR2 RAM 533MHz
Asus P5LD2 Motherboard

Audio Quality and RMAA Testing

These days with many soundcard manufacturers in the market, each proclaiming their card has pristine sound quality while quoting 24bit, 96 KHz, as if supporting that bit depth and sample rate is the only evidence of quality they need. But there are many other factors that affect the quality of the sound produced by a soundcard. This is where RMAA, Right Mark Audio Analyzer, comes in.

RMAA is a benchmark for soundcards, much like Futuremark’s 3DMark is for graphics cards. It runs a series of tests designed to test channel separation, noise generated by the card’s circuitry, and overall fidelity of the sound.

Ideally I would use a reference grade soundcard to take measurements from, but lacking one, the test I performed was the loopback test, where the outputs are connected directly to the inputs. I used high quality gold plated cables, about 1.5m in length to try to reduce any uncertainties that may be caused by cheaper cables.

16bit/44.1khz – FCA202 16_44_1.htm
24bit/48khz – FCA202 24_48.htm
24bit/96khz – FCA202 24_96.htm
Comparison listing – Comparison.htm

These results show, that while not in the league of professional equipment, this card is nothing to be sniffed at for those looking for a quality soundcard on a budget.

Final Word

Behringer’s FCA202 is no doubt an excellent soundcard for the price, with a MSRP of US$99.99, but it’s not without its flaws.

I see the target audience for this soundcard as the users of Apple iMacs and Macbooks. They would also be an attractive option for schools and learning centers, when bundled a set of headphones, it would be the perfect setup for a class learning about music production and recording.

Pros:
Small & Portable
Balanced outputs
Simple and easy to use
Excellent sound quality for the price
Price
Plug & Play for Mac OSX

Cons:
No microphone or instrument inputs
Inputs are unbalanced
No master fader for the windows mixer


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