Sonnet Echo Express III-D Desktop Thunderbolt 2 Expansion Chassis - Review

08-07-2014 11:04 AM

Thunderbolt is appearing on more and more computers, especially Apple Macs. In fact nearly every Mac in the current range offers Thunderbolt connectivity.
Thunderbolt offers speeds of up to 20gbps, which for those working in creative sectors is a must for either data bandwidth on audio/video streams or for moving large amounts of data from hard drives. No one likes to see a progress bar that runs into minutes or even hours.
The Sonnet Echo Express III-D Desktop Thunderbolt 2 Expansion Chassis is aimed at the high-end user who needs a Thunderbolt equipped chassis that holds multiple full length PCIe 2.0 cards. In this case the Echo Express III-D can hold 3 full length cards and so could house 3 HDX cards.
Sonnet Echo Express III-D - The Unit

Unboxing the unit you immediately feel the quality of the build and finish with its sleek black finish and attention to detail. Then you unscrew 8 screws and slide the lid off to reveal the internal workings and find that the inside of the unit is just as well designed and manufactured as the outside.
They say when it comes to design it is the small things that matter and it is easy to see that Sonnet have taken a lot of time to build something of quality, partly by paying attention to the small things as well as the large ones.
We are not usually ones to make comparisons with other products but having reviewed the Magma ExpressBox 3T chassis some time ago, the Sonnet wins hands down when it comes to design and build quality. Everything about the Sonnet Echo Express III-D speaks of quality. There are nice touches like a lock to secure the Thunderbolt cables and pre-drilled holes for those needing BNC connectivity.
It also seems that the Sonnet design team did basic science at school and so have put the fans for cooling on the top of the unit, allowing nature to take its course and to assist the powered fans in cooling the unit. Rather than the air being pulled through the unit the fans simply remove it as it build up, a smart move.

Sonnet Echo Express III-D - In Operation

Setting up the Sonnet Echo Express III-D is a breeze. Simply remove 8 screws, slide off the cover and then insert your cards as required. For this we installed a HDX card, UAD Octo card and an ESata card to utilize the third slot. The HDX card requires a power supply and Sonnet have made sure there’s plenty of connections for the cards to pull power from. Then it’s a case of securing the cards with a nice Mac style card clamp, which again is built like a tank and would probably secure a Pitbull let alone these cards
Then it is a simple case of sliding the cover back on, plugging in the power and Thunderbolt cable and then installing the drivers for your cards, that is if they are not already installed on your rig.
We tested the unit with the new Mac Pro ‘trash can’ and opted to use the top Thunderbolt port, this is because of the way Apple have distributed the bandwidth across the Thunderbolt ports, see here, so we wanted to make sure we were taking advantage of the maximum amount of bandwidth.
One thing that did fox me for a little while was locating the power switch on the unit. There isn’t one, instead the unit powers up when a Thunderbolt cable is connected to the computer. There may be a very good reason for this and may have something to do with the Thunderbolt protocol, although my Lacie drive has a power switch. I personally hate not having a power switch on units for two reasons. The first is noise, when I’m not using stuff I don’t want it to be wirring around in the background and so I’ll turn stuff off or unmount drives when not in use. The second one is the unnecessary use of power, I’m not a tree hugger but at the same time I am aware of the rising cost of energy and the environmental impact of wasting it. Perhaps someone from Sonnet can comment on this, I hope it wasn’t to save money as this would really be a case of ‘sinking a ship for a ha’porth of tar.’

Sonnet Echo Express III-D - Noise Levels

In the world of modern creative production more and more of us are working from home, or in production rooms that do not afford us the luxury of machine rooms, or even a cupboard. I have that exact set-up so have become somewhat of a noise freak when it comes to choosing equipment, noise levels are often right up the list of my buying priorities. It seems a little pointless to be buy mics and pre-amps with low noise floors only to have a load of noise in the background from other equipment.
I’m pleased to say that although the Sonnet Echo Express III-D produces some noise, the combination of placement of the two larger brushless fans make them very quite. Certainly quite enough to exist in the same room. They even vary in speed depending on how hot the cards get inside the unit.
Sonnet Echo Express III-D - Conclusion

I have never been a huge fan of external chassis, not because I don’t understand the need for them, but up until now most of the offerings I’ve seen seem to be a little unpolished both in design and execution. Sonnet have changed my mind with the Sonnet Echo Express III-D Desktop Thunderbolt 2 Expansion Chassis.
The Sonnet Echo Express III-D Desktop Thunderbolt 2 Expansion Chassis allows me to use Pro Tools HDX and my UAD Octo cards with my Mac Mini, MacBook Air and my newly acquired Mac Pro ‘trash can’ (which will be written about more in coming weeks).
As already written in this review the Sonnet Echo Express III-D is well thought out, beautifully designed and built like a tank. The operational noise is excellent and will perform well even under the most taxing loads.
Thanks to the deal I got from the excellent gang at HHB Scrub I have chosen to purchase the unit, which is the best way of saying it gets my Editors Choice Award.
If you are looking for a Thunderbolt Expansion chassis then check out the Sonnet Echo Express III-D, it’s the best one we’ve seen.
Full specs, compatibilty, dealers and price can be found here