After surprisingly little begging on our part, the nice people at Sonoma Wire Works in California agreed to send one of their GuitarJack 2 review models over to the UK for us to take a look at.
Of course, we agreed to let you know what we thought of it in return, and as always we have written our review just as we found it, in 'real world' situations we would use the device in, so here goes.
We expect by now you already know what the GuitarJack 2 is, but its main purpose is to provide you with the best sounding, cleanest audio input into your iOS device, specifically the iPhone 4, iPad 2, iPad, and iPod touch (not 1st gen.).
Here's a little video showing the GuitarJack 2 in action:
First Impressions - Construction
Our first observation? This thing is built like a tank!
All the other interfaces we've laid our hands on have been made of plastic of some sort. They seemed fairly substantial but one was certainly flimsy enough that if it were left on the floor it would not withstand the impact from a misplaced boot.
GuitarJack 2, on the other hand, has an aluminium shell and a heft to it that makes us think it could easily withstand a stomping from our 'gig boots' (we haven't tried it because we do have to send it back). It is a big chunk of made-in-America metal.
This solid shell is backed up by the very welcome metal jack sockets for a ¼" guitar/instrument cable, an ⅛" headphone jack (with increased drive for monitoring with headphones) and on the other side an ⅛" stereo microphone/line in.
The ¼" input is a solid brass Switchcraft jack, which we think is a good thing. In fact it is so solid that removing our guitar cable from this jack often involved inadvertently disconnecting the GuitarJack 2 from the device's dock connector.
About the Dock Connector
The one thing that we have found with most dock connecting devices, including Apple's own Camera Connection Kit, is that it is very easy to knock the 30 pin connector loose and it remains a problem in a busy recording setup even with GuitarJack 2.
This connector issue also means that GuitarJack is not best hung off your device with cables connected to each jack, whether in portrait or landscape mode. The weight is liable to pull the interface away from the dock.
Sonoma have obviously thought about this though and you will find four little rubber feet on the bottom of the unit which give it some grip on a desk surface when your device is laid flat on its back, as in the product shot with the iPad (above) and iPhone (below).
They also suggest using a dock extender cable, even offering a $26 one for sale on their site, but we managed to pick one up on Amazon (UK) for under £5 (pictured above) that has full charging and syncing capabilities. It is this cable that we used when recording all the samples below and it never came loose.
Some info and hardware specs
Before we get into how the GuitarJack 2 sounds, here are a few specs from Sonoma Wire Works for the techies in our audience:
- 1/4 inch (6.5 mm) instrument input
- 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) stereo mic/line input
- 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) stereo headphone/line output with increased drive for headphones
- Dock connector designed for use without removing most cases
- Device powered for ultimate portability - requires no batteries or power adapter
- GuitarJack Model 2 includes a 24-bit AD/DA Converter, however only 16-bit audio playback and recording is currently possible until a firmware update becomes available.
- Sleek and rugged aluminum shell
(Control Panel in GuitarTone, FourTrack, StudioTrack & TaylorEQ)
- Level Control: 60 dB of continuous level control
- Input Modes:
- Instrument (1/4 inch) - mono - Pad, Lo-Z or Hi-Z mode
- Mic/Line (1/8 inch) - mono, dual-mono or stereo - Pad, Normal or Boost mode
- Both inputs - Mic/Line input on the right channel and Instrument on the left channel
- Included Software:
We will be taking a look at the software integration in a future post. For this review we will be concentrating on the GuitarJack 2 hardware and its sound.
So what does it sound like?
We know, by now you're probably thinking, "This is all very good, but what does it actually sound like?", so let's get to that.
For a device costing this much, it better be good right?
Well, we have to say, it is!
GuitarJack 2 is by far the cleanest audio input device we have tested. Noise is non-existent in all but the highest of gain settings and even then you have to turn the volume up very high to know it's there.
Audio from a microphone is clear and totally devoid of noise. Sound recorded from another audio device (in our test the audio from an iPad's headphone socket) sounds just as good.
Guitar tones are crisp, clear and well balanced. Even with high-gain, distortion loaded, fuzz-maven settings in AmpKit+, there was an obvious lack of feedback.
We ran plenty of sound tests and we recorded our general observations and a few samples for you to hear below.
Compared to Headphone jack input devices
Our main concern was how the GuitarJack 2 would sound in comparison to audio input devices that used the iOS device's headphone jack.
We have always been a bit disappointed with the noise levels present in audio interfaces connecting via the headphone jack.
The iPad/iPhone audio circuitry always generates noise in our experience and, as such, we think devices like iRig Mic, etc., will continually be at a disadvantage because of this.
But let's see what GuitarJack 2 sounded like with a guitar.
We tried lots of different guitar apps and setups. GuitarJack 2 worked with everything we tried except Amplitube. IK Multimedia's apps just don't seem to detect an audio source via the dock connector, something we hope they rectify very soon.
We had been sent an A/B switch by Sonoma Wire Works too, which let's you input your guitar and split the output in two so that we could record on the iPad and iPhone at the same time. We used the amazing sounding AmpKit+ because it has both iPhone and iPad versions and we know it well.
After trying lots of distortion laden settings and comparing the GuitarJack 2 with iRig, AmpKit LiNK and the JamUp Plug, the biggest difference was the lack of screeching feedback using the dock connected device as compared to the headphone jack devices.
But it was when we stripped everything down to the cleanest amp settings we could in the AmpKit+ app, took away the noise gate and matched the settings on both the iPhone and iPad, that we finally understood how clean the signal was from GuitarJack 2 in comparison.
Here's a few sample recordings so you can judge for yourself. We used our A/B setup shown above to record the same audio onto two devices simultaneously. We recommend listening with headphones for a better comparison and don't worry, Phil doesn't have to rely on his guitar playing to make a living!
First up, clean as we can get it, using AmpKit LiNK:
and now using GuitarJack 2
It is the audio hiss that you can clearly hear from the device connected to the headphone jack (in this case the AmpKit LiNK) that sealed it for us. The GuitarJack 2 is far superior and offers the cleanest signal we have heard so far, even without a Noise Gate pedal.
This demo took us by surprise. When we were recording these we could only listen to one of the devices for monitoring (unless we wore two pairs of headphones, which seemed a bit weird).
So we chose to monitor our guitar through the GuitarJack 2 connected to the iPhone whilst recording. That sounded ok with this sample, noisier than we would normally use because of the high gain and lack of Noise Gate pedal, but acceptable:
Then later we listened to the version we had recorded via the AmpKit LiNK into the iPad. The feedback we heard here was not the nice tonal kind, but even using AmpKit's excellent re-amp feature afterward we had trouble dialling it out.
Here's how the same set-up, with the same 'Dynamically Dirty' preset, sounded through AmpKit LiNK, the headphone socket audio device that has arguably the best feedback prevention (warning: it's not very comfortable to listen to):
The difference is clear, we're sure you will agree. We haven't done anything with these sounds except trim the end bit off and export them from the apps used to record them.
As mentioned, GuitarJack 2 has an ⅛" stereo mic input with software controls to use mono, dual-mono or stereo input depending on whether or not you are using the ¼" input at the same.
When we used our old mono condenser mic (XLR to ¼" mono) we couldn't get it to work using both of the GuitarJack 2's inputs (for example vocals and guitar, or vocals and output from an iPad for video demos).
After playing with lots of of step-down/mono/stereo adapter combinations we gave up and ordered an XLR to stereo ⅛" cable that is bridged, so the mono signal is split into a left and right channel output. This worked wonderfully.
So how did the microphone sound? We compared GuitarJack 2's input to the nearest headphone jack competitor we had, the iRig Mic from IK Multimedia. This device also has three hardware switchable sensitivity settings, as does GuitarJack 2 (via the software control panel).
We wanted to specifically show you what the noise levels were like on each setting. We strongly recommend you listen with headphones to more effectively hear the comparisons.
First, the iRig Mic:
And here's our inexpensive mono condenser mic connected to the ⅛" stereo socket on GuitarJack 2:
Hopefully the difference is obvious, especially on the high sensitivity setting used at the end of our audio. GuitarJack 2's noise-free audio is clearly evident here in the second example.
Further testing underway
We are still conducting various 'real world' tests with GuitarJack 2, especially using dual inputs for videos of the iPad in action recorded on the iPhone 4, as well as the GuitarTone software that only works with FourTrack currently, but hopefully with StudioTrack on the iPad very soon.
As soon as we have more to show you we will let you know.
In our opinion, audio recorded via the GuitarJack 2 sounds better, cleaner, more dynamic and more reliably useable than that of any other audio interface we have used for iOS devices.
Much of this is due to the fact that GuitarJack 2 interfaces with the dock connector. But just as much of the GuitarJack 2's performance comes from the way it has been professionally engineered and optimised to work with both the hardware and especially the compatible software.
If, like us, you could not normally justify the $199 RRP cost of the GuitarJack 2, you can get away with devices like the ones we have mentioned above that connect via the iOS device's headphone socket. For many purposes these would probably be enough and are a fraction of the cost.
If, though, you are serious about your sound, if you want the best possible start and quality of audio recording that you can reasonably expect on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, then we think you should sell something else and/or scrape together the pennies to buy yourself the GuitarJack 2.
We are sure you'll consider it a worthwhile investment in your music and other audio productions.
GuitarJack 2 was still available for a discounted price of $149 from Sonoma Wire Works direct, at the time of writing and its online and street price may be around the same when the deal finishes. A quick Google search has the price at a fairly uniform £139 here in the UK.
Further reading: iRig vs AmpKit LiNK - which is better? Part 1 of 2
Further reading: iRig vs AmpKit LiNK - which is better? Part 2 of 2