Check out the video for The Bottom Line in a Brooklyn Minute, and the recording samples at the bottom of the page to hear for yourself.
Mackie’s Onyx 1620i mixer has historically been a favorite of mine: it’s intuitive to work with, the feature set is well thought out and genuinely useful and, most importantly, it sounds killing, especially for the price point. With the Onyx Blackjack, Mackie has taken several of the components from the Onyx mixers and packed them into a relatively low cost, compact, bus-powered 2×2 interface called the Blackjack. At $200 street, the Onyx is entering a crowded market: there are several interfaces in that price range and literally dozens within a $100 of it. So why buy the Blackjack? Read on Macduff…
The Blackjack is admittedly pretty spartan. There are 2 Neutrik combo jack ins (XLR and 1/4”) and 2 1/4” monitor outs (balanced or unbalanced) on the back panel, a headphone out and “To Mon” control, which mixes the active recording input in with the monitor and headphone outs for essentially latency- free monitoring. Both inputs feature Hi-Z instrument DI capability and 48v phantom powered mic pres. The unit itself is bus-powered and core-audio compatible (no special drivers needed), and the converters feature sample rates up to 24/48. If you need S/PDIF or MIDI connectivity, or a higher I/O count, consider instead the likes of the comparably priced M-Audio Fast Track Pro or Focusrite Saffire 6, or the slightly more expensive Presonus Firestudio Mobile or Echo Audiofire 4.
On the flipside, while many of you (like me) will already have a DAW you’re comfortable working with, for those just getting started, it’s worth noting that the bundled Tracktion 3 production software is uncommonly capable: unlimited tracks, a high quality 64 bit, 192khz capable engine and eminently decent bundled plugins coupled with VST compatibility for 3rd party plugins are features you usually won’t find in the freebie DAW that comes with your budget interface. It’s one of the easiest DAWs to wrap your head around too, with most of the functionality accessible from a single main screen. No, it’s not Logic or Pro Tools HD, but it’s not an “LE” DAW either. I’d take this over any other bundled DAW out there for an interface at this price range.
Basically it rocks. There’s nothing at this price range that can TOUCH the Onyx. Even the headphone amp (which is usually an afterthought on even relatively high end interfaces) sounds surprisingly decent, provided you’re not trying to make it push picky phones like AKG K701s or the like.
The Cirrus Logic AD/DA chips are pretty much the same ones you’ll find on comparable Focusrite interfaces, but chips alone only account for part of overall converter performance (which is why you should always take quoted performance specs, especially A-weighted chipset S/N ratio, with a grain of salt. Your converters are never going to perform as well in the real world as these best case scenario numbers make them out to). That said, the conversion is excellent. DA conversion sounds well defined and dynamic, with good stereo imaging and frequency extension, and the AD is low-noise and detailed.
But it’s the preamps that really just kick the competition to the curb. Most preamps on interfaces at this price range are trash, and even the ones that are decent (like the Presonus XMAX or Focusrite Saffire pres) are largely soulless. They’re fairly clean, they’ve got a decent amount of headroom, usually they’re pretty neutral, if anything they’re a little bright and “airy” sounding. They work. The Onyx pres are a totally different beast. These pres actually have some warmth and character to them (which is damn-nigh unheard of for a compact interface). They’re detailed, they’re rich, they’re maybe even a little dark of neutral. They don’t sound generic, which is more than I can say for the pres on any other bus powered interface I’ve ever tested. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they “meet or surpass expensive, esoteric standalone mic pres” per Mackie’s purple prose (trust me, Grace Designs and Universal are hardly shaking in their little space boots), these are far and away the best pres $200 will buy. There aren’t even standalone pres I’ve heard in this range that compete.
When you start to understand just how high a level of sonic quality the Blackjack represents, you realize that the real competition is the likes of something like the $500 Apogee Duet (which is a fantastic piece of gear I might add). I’d take the Apogee converters over the Cirrus Logic ones in the Blackjack, and the Onyx pres over the Duet’s. Factor in a few other respective limitations, like the Duet being Mac only and questionably roadworthy, and the Blackjack’s sample rate being capped at 24/48, and it’s basically a toss-up. Which, given that Blackjack is just north of a third the price of the Duet, is frankly unreal. Serious props.
Design and Build Quality
It’s a Mackie: it cannot be destroyed (not that I’d recommend you try). Nothing about the Blackjack feels flimsy or cheap. The case is powder-coated metal, the pots feel solid, the unit itself has a nice heft to it; everywhere you look it exudes quality workmanship. True to its name, you could probably use it for hand to hand combat and it wouldn’t break a sweat (again, not that I recommend you try this at home, no matter how thick your drummer’s skull is).
Ergonomically, it’s extremely well thought out. Everything is nicely spaced and easy to access, the controls feel solid and precise and the 25 degree angle that it sits at on your desk is one of those “why has no-one ever thought of this before” design features. It makes it so much easier to see what you’re doing, and make fine adjustments.
My one major gripe is that, while the Hi-Z DI setting can be engaged individually on either input, phantom power must be enabled or defeated for both inputs simultaneously, which essentially makes it impossible to combine condensor microphones with ribbon mics or certain instrument ins (though dynamic mics will still function fine). I’m sure there was a real technical roadblock somewhere that made it infeasible for Mackie to provide individually defeatable phantom power, but it’s still a royal pain in the butt sometimes.
Ease of Use
The Blackjack is about as straightforward as they come; you plug it in and it works. It’s plug and play, it integrates painlessly into pretty much every major DAW, and there aren’t very many controls to worry about. Plug in your microphone(s), engage the phantom power if you need to, set the gain where you want it and press record. Use the “To Mon” as a ‘more me’ knob, and you’re good to go. Just make sure you mute your active channels in your DAW or you’ll get some real nasty latency echo.
The bundled Tracktion 3 software is also Garageband levels of easy to use (albeit much more capable). Nearly every major function is easily accesible from a single screen, and the workflow feels very natural and intuitive for the most part. For the non-techie musician out there who still wants to be able to do some high quality recording on a budget, you’re not going to find a better combo than the Blackjack and Tracktion.
Assuming you don’t need any of the features or connectivity the Blackjack doesn’t offer, its price to performance ratio is unparalleled. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: nothing at this price range comes anywhere close to offering this level of sonic fidelity. And given that the hardware alone is an outstanding value, if the quality bundled DAW is something you actually need, the Blackjack’s value is absurd.
The Final Verdict
The Onyx Blackjack is the cheapest product I know of that can boast a truly professional level of sound quality, and that’s before you even take into consideration the eminently competent DAW it comes bundled with. It’s a lean, mean recording machine, and if you don’t need more functionality than it offers, it’s a no brainer choice. Even if you’re a professional engineer with a studio full of sexy boutique toys (that clearly I covet), the Blackjack still deserves consideration for mobile and live sound recording. In short, the Blackjack is a serious winner. Kudos to Mackie for making a ‘quality over quantity’ budget interface in a sea of mediocre alternatives.
Mackie Onyx Blackjack Audio Comparison by ProAudioStar
About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record three different takes of the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar and bass, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.
Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded with an Avenson STO-2 microphone (an extremely neutral small-capsule omnidirectional pressure-transducer microphone that’s ideal for comparison testing because of how little it colors the sound on its own). All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, gain was attenuated at 75%, and Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.
Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.
Bass Guitar: This was recorded as a DI, using an ESP LTD F-204 and the same Mogami Gold instrument cable. No amp modeling was used, and all tone controls were set to neutral.
Male Vocals: Using the same microphone and XLR cable as the guitar recordings, I sang a clip from the as-yet-unreleased song The Enlightened Paige, a piece I wrote for Wire Spoke Wheels’ upcoming debut release: After The World Ends.
Dev is a professional jazz-fusion composer, singer, sound engineer and front man for the band Wire Spoke Wheels, living and operating in beautiful Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s also co-founder and co-chairman of Frost Audio, a small Michigan based audio company specializing in high performance cables and loudspeakers, all hand-made in the USA. He’ll be releasing his next studio album, Tears of Men, in early 2011. To learn more or hear his work, check out www.devavidon.com