G4 Cube: The Audio Story

It's a children's toy. It's a miniature Borg ship. It's a three-dimensional square. It's the Power Mac G4 Cube. And because of the dark grotto in which Steve Jobs stows his own employees, that's about all any Apple worker bee could tell me about it.

Only 8 inches square, it packs in a fast processor, some RAM, USB and FireWire ports, a big hard drive--everything you need.

Almost.

Because of its small size, Apple was truly forced to "think outside the box" yet again -- precisely because there's no room to put everything inside. The external power supply takes up about as much room as a 3-egg omelette, something Apple didn't bother to publicize. Also completely external -- and much more interesting -- is the sound output.


Cube Speakers

The G4 Cube comes with a pair of crystal-clear, eyeball-shaped speakers created by Harman Kardon ( www.harman-multimedia.com ) and Apple. They belt out 20 fair-sounding watts of sonic force between the frequencies of 80Hz and 20KHz -- all through the power of the Cube's USB port. They are able to achieve this wattage from the USB bus because of the efficiency of the digital amplifier found in a box along the USB cable. The amp even has an analog headphone jack -- great because the Cube itself has no I/O for speakers or microphones (other than via USB add-ons).

So with no audio inputs and no PCI expandability, how can you get music into your Cube? If MIDI is your thing, you can of course use a USB MIDI Interface--but that doesn't cover audio. Luckily, products such as the $248 RolandED UA-30 (and Opcode's apparently discontinued DATport ) will allow you to take both analog signals via an RCA plug (from a CD player or a guitar, for example) and digital signals (from a DAT recorder, for example) from either S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) or optical connections, and pump it all into your G4 Cube over USB. Because of USB's relatively slow transfer speed, however, (12 Mbps max) this limitation doesn't make the Cube an optimal choice for audio professionals. They'd still be better off with a G4 desktop model that has PCI slots for installing a digital sound card or a PowerBook with PCMCIA card.

If the bundled speakers don't muster up enough juice for you--i.e. you want better, richer sound -- you may want to check out Harman's new SoundSticks. Based on the original design of the iSub, the powered, 3-amplifier subwoofer doles out power to two 10-watt totem-like satellites, each with four 1-inch transducers for a total of 40 watts of sweet noise. Best of all, anyone with a USB-equipped Mac, OS 9.0.4, and $199 to spend can now take advantage of these cooly designed 44Hz to 20kHz speakers -- the iSub itself only worked with the previous batch of iMacs.

It's nice to see that the partnership between Harman and Apple, begun with the speakers built into the slot-loaded iMacs, is continuing. Sound is much too important to be left to a crappy single speaker.

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