ESI Audiotechnik GmbH—a branded and OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) pro audio design/manufacturing firm since 1998—is now shipping its 24-bit/96 kHz-capable U168 XT audio interface ($499.95 street), featuring what are arguably a recordist’s most commonly needed I/O at very attractive price points. Having used a wide range of USB I/O units, I was happy to find such an affordable, well-built 1U box with precisely what I find myself needing in most of the laptop, site-based multitracking sessions that I do. And at this price, I expect the U168 XT would serve a wide range of users well, notably those who may need a secondary I/O for on-the-go tracking situations, as described below.

Mac or PC-ready, the U168 XT provides four microphone preamps via front-panel XLR inputs with phantom power, two of which are switchable Hi-Z instrument inputs (with XLR/TRS combo jacks); 16 line inputs and eight line outputs via quarter-inch TRS, all on the rear panel; S/PDIF I/O via RCA connectors; dual headphone outputs with individual gain adjustment; L/R mix outputs via quarter-inch TRS; 16 channel MIDI I/O; and USB 2.0 port.

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The unit came with an eight-track version of Bitwig Studio music creation/performance software, GK Amplification 2 LE bass amp simulation, ampLion Guitar amp simulation, and a license for Stanton’s Deckadance LE software. Though I did not use these packages, opting just to get running with my preferred DAW (Logic Pro X), these offerings are a good bonus for fledgling recordists. It also ships with an installation DVD, though as my new Mac Book Pro comes DVD-less, downloading and installing the driver from ESI’s website was quick and easy.

The software control panel for the U168 XT is simplistic, clean and intuitive, offering detailed and useful metering, clock source and input and output selection parameters. Following a quick setup taking no more than a minute or two, I was up and running with the hardware unit, accepting a combination of XLR (dynamic and condenser microphones) XLR combo (instrument) and line-level sound sources. The front panel “on” light glows red until connected via USB to a DAW’s CPU, then glows green. Other simple pleasantries include green LEDs corresponding to each XLR input’s “on” switch; a simple three-knob monitoring mixer (1-8 inputs, 9-16 inputs, 1-8 outputs, respectively); and impressive onboard preamps that provide sufficient, crystal clear gain.

In use, I multitracked two separate live acts on site: one, an five-piece bluegrass band, where I sent signal on to FOH; and two, a traditional rock band, in which I grabbed signal from 14 channels, post mixer. In both cases, my laptop and the compact U168 XT gave me all I needed (other than the front end, of course) to bring home clean performances to mix, build upon and more. Having 16 line inputs for less than $500, to me, is the appeal here. That, and it performed flawlessly. While ESI Audiotechnik is a virtual unknown amongst pro-audio types, I expect that will soon change with products like the U168 XT on its roster.

ESI Audiotechnik

Strother Bullins is NewBay Media’s Technology Editor, AV/Pro Audio Group, active musician, recordist and club-level sound reinforcement wrangler.