Published on June 17th, 2011 | by Greg0
Focusrite: Virtual Reference Monitoring In A Box
If you aren't obsessed with sound and music, you can probably safely look away. Today's review, and product, are definitely niche- we'll be throwing around acronyms and phrases that might seem like a different language if you aren't immersed in the audiophile world. It's actually aimed at a subset of those folks, even- primarily, people who mix sound and produce music. This includes a lot of folks, of course- every Garage Band and Pro Tools and EDM musician for instance. And before you ask, EDM is electronic dance music, and many of the folks working in that world have been looking for a box like this.
The Focusrite VRM Box is actually a couple of things crammed into one. It's similar to a USB DAC- like one of the several that we've checked out before. You were warned- acronyms galore! Plug it into your computer via USB, and it works as a soundcard of sorts, offering a low-distortion, broader-range, higher-quality sound output. No extra power is required- it pulls from the USB port. And both Macs and PCs are supported. An S/PDIF optical input connection is also provided, but we didn't test it out.
You'll want to use a good set of headphones, like those from Beyerdynamic or Sennheiser or Grado- mini-jack output isn't supplied, so you can just leave the earbuds in your iPod. Nope, instead the output is via 1/4-inch TRS- which we just found out stands for 'tip, ring, sleeve'. And you can choose to listen to music just like that, with no extra effects- there is even a nice indicator light to let you know. But the fun stuff happens when you start playing around with the VRM part- and try out the ten different sound systems that they have acoustically characterized.
Instead of mixing your song to one system, only to have it sound completely different- and perhaps awful- on another, the VRM box gives you the power to quickly and easily test out your tracks in a variety of environments. Living room, bedroom, and sound studio systems are captured, and it's impressive to see how different they sound from one another. The idea is simple- you really should listen to your tracks and balance them using real-world live reference monitors. But for those in apartments or other crowded areas, it might annoy the neighbors- or the family, as listening to the same samples can get repetitive quite quickly. With the VRM box, you just slap on the headphones and close your eyes, chose the appropriate staging effect, and you can almost pretend that you are there, listening to systems that cost more than your car (or perhaps your possessions combined). There are also flatscreen TV and computer speaker effects, though the latter didn't seem to accurately replicate $100+ PC speaker systems (which may be above the norm).
Of course, every space and system sounds a little different, but Focusrite's VRM Box makes a valiant attempt to capture both elements- and does a pretty remarkable job. We're not big-name musicians, but we did have some EDM folks play with the VRM and see what they thought. Impressions were positive- it's lightweight and portable, and pretty simple. Certainly, some of the effects could be done through software, but the price on this box is pretty fair- at $100, it's reasonable even for a good external soundcard. And it's a lot cheaper than buying and setting up a bunch of expensive reference monitors!