Looking to get high-quality stereo sound from your Mac? If you don’t have access to a surround-sound system but still want to increase your Mac’s sound fidelity by hooking it up to your receiver, M-Audio’s cool blue Sonica will let you do just that. Featuring a minijack stereo analog output and a 24-bit, 96kHz digital optical (SPDIF) output, the portable Sonica plugs into your Mac’s USB port and uses licensed TruSurround XT software, from SRS Labs, to simulate multichannel surround sound via just two speakers.
Getting started with the Sonica is easy, and the process is well described in the manual: you just install the driver, attach a USB cable, and select the Sonica as your sound output device — then you’re ready to experience surround-sound audio via your Mac. This ease of installation has a flip side, however: M-Audio doesn’t include the TOSLink (optical) cable you’ll need to connect the Sonica to your receiver — and at approximately $20, this cable is expensive.
If your receiver doesn’t have digital inputs, you can hook up the Sonica’s analog output to your receiver, using a standard 1⁄8-inch minijack cable. The supplied drivers worked without a glitch, and M-Audio’s tech support responded promptly to our test call.
The sound quality is significantly better via the optical cable than it is through either the Sonica’s analog output or the Mac’s. The digital output is louder and cleaner, and the upper frequencies are crystal clear, while the volume level of Sonica’s analog output is low, making it difficult to enjoy simulated surround sound via your headphones.
The Sonica’s digital output can carry multichannel sound such as Dolby Digital 5.1 (AC-3), Dolby Pro Logic, and DTS to your receiver for decoding, but if you want to use Apple’s DVD Player to play a DVD, you won’t get the multichannel sound you expect, since DVD Player doesn’t yet support this feature. According to M-Audio, a future update of DVD Player should fix this, since multichannel sound is the DVD standard.
For now, in OS X 10.1.5, the freeware VLC (VideoLan Client, available at M-Audio’s Web site) can pass AC-3 sound to your receiver. The TruSurround XT settings in Sonica’s own Sound preference panel can simulate surround sound even with just two speakers, as well as enhance dialogue and bass reproduction, but these settings won’t necessarily improve sound quality.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
The Sonica’s digital output greatly improves the sound quality you can get from your Mac, even in higher-end setups. If you want to expand your digital hub to include your stereo setup, the Sonica is your best bet.