There has always been a thriving market for audio interfaces but since Apple and some PC vendors started pursuing portability and ever-thinner form factors, a new breed of computer peripheral has become a necessary addition for many pro setups. “Docks”, as they are sometimes called, add data ports in the way that USB hubs used to, only they’re much more advanced. Caldigit’s Thunderbolt Station 2 is one such device.
Most people are happy that their computer has shrunk down while getting more powerful processors, but rather fewer are overjoyed about the dramatic reduction in I/O that goes with this. If you’re on a MacBook Air you have to contend with two USB3 ports and one Thunderbolt. On the highest end MacBook Pro these are joined by a second Thunderbolt 2 port, HDMI and a card slot but it’s still a long way from the desktops of old with racks of ports and the ability to add PCI cards. Devices like the Thunderbolt Station 2 are the equivalent of sticking lots of PCI cards inside a tower PC, but much easier. It’s backwards compatible with Thunderbolt 1 computers as well, though obviously top speeds are a little lower.
Thunderbolt is a remarkable technology that provides huge bandwidth (especially Thunderbolt 2 on newer devices) and as such is ideal for connecting a dock or hub. The TS2 is small: much smaller than the pictures suggest, sitting easily in the palm of one hand, and it feels very sturdy but still lightweight in its aluminium case which can sit on its end or on its side. It’s powered from an external PSU and this enables it to pass power on to any devices you connect to it like hard drives or card readers, which can usually be bus powered. It also means that the front-facing USB port can charge a mobile device even when no computer is present.
There are a total of three USB3 ports as well as two 6GB/s eSATA ports, an HDMI port that can drive a 4K display if your computer’s graphics card supports this, a second Thunderbolt 2 port and an Ethernet connection. These last two are particularly useful because an extra Thunderbolt port lets you daisy chain more devices like monitors, cameras, hard drives and audio interfaces. And Ethernet is a faster and more reliable network protocol than Wi-Fi, especially for large file transfers. Plus, Apple’s laptops don’t have Ethernet ports any more (even though the Mini, iMac and Mac Pro and many PCs still do). The front panel also has a stereo headphone mini jack out and a mono mic mini jack in. These are fine in a pinch but this isn’t billed as an audio interface, it’s a data dock so you’ll want to keep hold of your existing box as well. One other nice touch is a small app you can download to monitor all connected devices and if necessary, eject them all in one go.
The Thunderbolt Station 2 is an excellent solution for adding connectivity to a modern computer, especially Apple’s portables or similar PCs. You only have to tie up one Thunderbolt port and you add a host of new ports as well as a power source for external devices. There’s no FireWire but this is increasingly a redundant format—times move on—and there’s no Thunderbolt cable bundled but you can add one at purchase. Those are minor quibbles and for the attractive price, this box means no more agonizing over what you have to unplug so you can connect something else. It brings back the ins and outs you may have lost and is an elegant and affordable way to do so.
UK RRP £156 incl.VAT
US MSRP $199.99
Attractively priced. Add a good selection of high speed ports to any Mac or PC that supports Thunderbolt. Brings back Ethernet! Saves fiddling with lots of Thunderbolt-to-something adaptors. Nice form factor.
No Thunderbolt cable thrown in. No FireWire, if that’s essential to you (though adaptors are supported).
Hollin Jones was classically trained as a piano player but found the lure of blues and jazz too much to resist. Graduating from bands to composition then production, he relishes the chance to play anything with keys. Formerly a lecturer in videographics and music production, Hollin has been a freelance writer on music technology and Apple topics for well over a decade, along the way publishing several books on audio software. He has been lead writer at a number of prominent music and technology publications. As well as consultancy, full-time journalism, video production and professional photography, he occasionally plays Hammond, Rhodes and other keys for people who ask nicely. Hollin is Contributing Editor at Ask.Audio.