Look and feel
There really isn't too much to say about the design of this simple, 4.25-by-0.2-by-0.77-inch device other than it looks like a shrunken, silver Hostess Ho-Ho with a USB port on one side and an 1/8-inch headphone-style jack on the other. In the box, you'll also find a coiled 30-foot cable, which features gold-plated contacts and shielding to avoid interference and signal degradation.
If you run Windows 98 SE, XP, Me, or 2000 or Mac 9.0.4 or later, then you probably won't have any trouble installing the HiFi-Link, as your operating system already has the proper USB audio drivers installed. Just connect the cords, and off you go. However, some vendors ship computers without these drivers. If yours is one such machine, you'll have to request the drivers from the company that sold you your computer--a hassle, to be sure.
But why wouldn't you just buy a 30-foot, 1/8-inch-to-dual-RCA cable and run it from your sound card's headphone jack to your stereo, since that would be an even cheaper approach? Well, aside from the fact that most internal sound cards don't deliver pristine audio, long cables can degrade sound quality significantly, especially toward the higher frequencies. To combat this, the HiFi-Link churns out audio that's matched to the sonic attributes of its cable, so music comes out clean and undistorted.
Unlike some similar devices that we've reviewed, the HiFi-Link doesn't output digital or surround sound; just plain, old analog stereo to two dual RCA jacks. But despite traveling in analog over 30 feet of cable, music sounded clear and rich--significantly better than with our internal sound card--through the whole sonic range when played on our Yamaha Natural Sound stereo. Should your USB port choke due to laptop power-conservation measures or connections with other devices, the music could glitch, but we didn't experience this during testing.
If your stereo is between 10 and 30 feet from your computer and you don't mind another wire in your domicile, $50 is a small price to pay for easy, reliable, decent-sounding audio. Just make sure that your computer has the right USB drivers, or you'll find yourself on the phone with tech support asking them for a disc.