|Introduction and Specs|
Specialty or niche' products have always caught our attention here at HotHardware, for the simple reason that, when it comes to PCs anyway, attention to detail or a specific characteristic usually equates to something interesting. And after all, we're not into publishing stories and evaluations of uninteresting things here. You are reading the pages of "Hot" Hardware.
PCAudioLabs is a different sort of boutique system builder out of Chatsworth, CA. While so many custom computer systems you see here are targeted toward gamers and mainstream users, the folks at PCAudioLabs, you guessed it, cater to musicians, both professional and amateur, as well as production studios and educational institutions. There aren't many system builders that can say they've worked with the likes of Peter Frampton, the Grand Ole Opry and Eric Clapton. PCAL builds what folks in the music biz call a "DAW" or Digital Audio Workstation. A DAW can come in the form of a notebook, standard ATX tower or a rack-mount chassis. Today we're looking at the PCAL Rok Box MC 7xs, a mini-tower ATX platform built for sweet, melodic content creation.Full disclosure; PCAL sponsored this machine for our Giving Thanks Sweepstakes here at HotHardware. As such, for a variety of reasons, including objectivity and fairness, we won't be running down the usual review gauntlet with this machine. Rather, we'll give you a hands-on look at the product, what it's made of and a quick-take look at performance.
At the component level, we get a hint by the way this system is configured, that content creation is of primary importance for the Rok Box. In fact, "content creation" is a bit too sterile. Audio production is specifically what the Rok Box does best, with a secondary strength in video production. Note that the primary 7200RPM 500GB hard drive is setup with a 20GB Intel SSD cache. Storage subsystem access times and bandwidth are always important for the large sequential transfers associated with digital video and audio production. In addition, Firewire connectivity is abundant here, on both the motherboard and with a discrete PCI card, so attaching various forms of AV and DV equipment is well accommodated, not to mention other high speed interfaces like eSATA and USB 3.0 are available.
Then of course there's the software complement. The Rok Box we're looking at came setup with PCAL's "Anniversary" bundle which includes Cakewalk Sonar X1, Komplete 7 Elements and VielKlang Instant Harmony 1.5, just to name a few tools of the trade. Let's take look under the hood.
|Design and Layout|
DAW computers are built with certain specific characteristics in mind. In short, you need copious amounts of connectivity and solid horsepower but, in general, they should take a low profile and blend in with the scenery, so they're barely seen and definitely not heard. It's easy to see why PCAL went with the Lian Li PC-A05 for their chassis selection of the Rok Box. It fits the requirement to a tee.
The case itself is very light with a net weight of just under 9lbs, without components installed. It is however, a well-built, relatively strong all aluminum chassis that has a lot of very convenient features going on, including its small top IO panel for front USB and audio access. PCAL also dropped in a 3.5-inch drive bay IO module that delivers four more USB 2.0 ports (USB 3.0 ports are on the rear IO panel), 4P and 6P Firewire ports and another eSATA port.
You'll have to forgive my misstep in the video preview on the previous page, however. This case is unique in that it actually pulls cool are in from the back via a rear 120mm intake fan that quietly (1500RPM) pulls air in over the CPU cooler that then pushes warm air to the front of the chassis. As you can see above, the PSU actually mounts in the front of the chassis and has its power cable routed out the back via an extension. This is a somewhat unconventional design but it works relatively well. The front bezel of the chassis is vented to allow warm air to escape and right in front of the drive rack there is another 120mm fan that you can't see, pushing warm air out through the front. The rear of the chassis is vented above the card slot area as well.
The motherboard that PCAL chose is another solid selection. It's a midrange Gigabyte Z68-based motherboard that came equipped with all four of its DIMM slots filled with a total of 16GB of DDR3-1333 memory. This specific Gigabyte board has a TI 1394 Firewire chip on board that a lot of folks working with AV will appreciate as being sort of the defacto standard for compatibility with various audio and video devices.
You'll also notice the passively-cooled graphics card in the first PEG slot. This is an AMD Radeon HD 5450 card that offers HDMI and DVI output while remaining completely silent. It's not going to offer much in the way of gaming performance but the card does incorporate ATI's UVD2 video engine for acceleration of digital video transcode workloads, as you would expect, and certainly will get the job done for light duty gaming and HD video playback.
The hard drive cage is installed in the front of the chassis and in this build all of its rubber grommet lined bays are filled with Seagate Barracuda hard drives -- a 500GB OS drive, along with 1TB and 2TB drives for bulk storage and production targets. You'll notice there is also a single 20GB Intel SSD 311 drive in one of the 5.25-inch bays up top. This SSD acts as a cache drive for the 500GB OS volume, in conjunction with Intel SRT technology in the Z68 motherboard. This affords the system SSD-like bandwidth and access times in conjunction with the OS drive.
Wiring inside the chassis is fairly neat and tidy, with zip ties pulling cables together. However, their really isn't much room to tuck cables out of sight, as you would have in a full-sized ATX case. The fansink used on the CPU appears to be an Arctic Cooling unit and it's very quiet, operating at sub 1K RPM in our tests, yet the CPU idles at a tepid 34ºC.
Finally, you'll note the Enermax NAXN PSU on the bottom of the chassis. This is a 600W PSU with plenty of room for growth, from a capacity standpoint. Enermax offers a quality line of power supplies to be sure and there's additional power headroom here for future expansion, should you need it. Note that the PSU also exhausts via the front of the chassis, so all cool air is pulled in via the rear and exhausted out through the front of the system.
|Bundle Software and Accessories|
Before we run down the software bundle, here's a quick shot of the Intel RST BIOS configuration screen in the Rok Box, that shows right after POST.
As you can see, the 20GB Intel SSD is setup in a RAID 0 and listed as a "cache disk." Specifically, this SSD is caching the 500GB Seagate Barracuda drive, while the other two 1TB and 2TB drives are not in an array. All told it's a real nice setup for speed and throughput on the OS volume with lots of secondary bulk storage.
PCAL keeps their installation otherwise free of bloatware, along with a clean setup of the OS. The "Anniversary Bundle" as they call it, comes with ~ $600 of full version software. We'll run through some of the highlight apps.
We can’t profess to be audio production professionals here at HotHardware, but it behooves us to give you all a glimpse into the myriad of editing and production tools included with the PCAudioLabs Rok Box MC 7xs. The list of applications installed on the machine included:
Cakewalk's Sonar X1 Essential
Sonar X1 Essential features support for 64 audio tracks and unlimited midi-tracks, a Matrix view, Step Sequencer 2.0, and a variety of included instruments and effects, including the Cakewalk sound center. The Matrix view can be used to make percussion or sound arrangements (among other things) and the suite offers pro-level production tools that aid users through all steps of the process from sound arrangement to editing to equalization and final production.
Amplitube Free offers 24 sound models for guitarists, including 9 stomps, 4 amps, 5 cabs, 3 mics, 2 rack effects and a tuner, and more models can be added via an on-line shop. SampleTank Free is a full-featured version of SampleTank 2.5, with a 500MB samples library, with 16 part multitimbral and easy layerable / mixable parts, along with 3 synth engines with built-in DSP and multi-effects tools as well. This software suite definitely left me hankering to dust off the old Fender Twin Reverb for a twist of the volume nob, making those vacuum tubes glow a bit warmer.
Komplete 7 Elements is comprised of a suite of production-ready sounds and effects and includes studio-quality tools to aid in production. The Komplete Elements collection also offers three player engines—Reaktor 5 for synthesizers, Guitar Rig 5 for amplifiers, cabinets and effects, and Kontakt Player 5 for sampled instruments—which can be used stand-alone or within your DAW (digital audio workstation).
VielKlang Instant Harmony can be used to harmonize melodies and XILS 3 is a virtual instrument based on the architecture of a classic matrix based modular synthesizer. PCAudioLabs also throws in a Nimbit.com subscription to make it easy to sell your music or merchandise on Facebook.
|Performance Quick-Take and The Wrap|
Before we bring this preview to a close, we figured we'd give you a short rundown of some performance numbers with the PCAL Rok Box MC 7xs.
We enjoyed our time with the PCAL Rok Box, so much so that we're going to be sad to see it leave the lab. Ahh, but that's a pain we'll have to endure in an effort to "give thanks" to our valuable community members here at HotHardware.com. We'd also like to thank PCAudioLabs for sponsoring the Rok Box MC 7xs in our November Giving Thanks Sweepstakes. If you'd like to build a Rok Box of your own, head on over to PCAL's Rok Box configuration page and dial one up. You'll get an email from Jack notifying you that your system build has begun and then maybe you'll even get Fred in PCAL Technical Support reaching out to you to offer assistance, once you get your new rig home or in studio. As Sly and the Family Stone once sang, "it's a family affair" over at PCAL.