Apogee Symphony IO Audio Interface Reviewed
By Jon Regen
Wed, 20 Nov 2013
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I’ve been recording music professionally since 1996, both independently and on a variety of record labels. Throughout my journey, I’ve encountered Apogee converters in studios from New York to New Orleans and Los Angeles to London. From their Big Ben Master Clock and Rosetta line to their mobile-oriented One and Duet, Apogee has staked its reputation on pristine audio conversion. True, Apogee products have never been called “budget,” but if tracking and listening through them saves you time in the mixing or mastering phases of a project—as has happened to me on many occasions—they’ll save you money in the long run. In fact, I got so tired of hearing the mix engineer I work with complain about the converters in my previous audio interface that I started looking for alternatives. Hence, this review.
 

PROS: Unmatched, world-beating converter quality. Perfect stereo imaging. Modular, portable, and expandable. Thunderbolt connectivity via ThunderBridge interface. Maestro 2 software offers seamless control.

CONS: Works on Mac only. Expensive. No onboard DSP. ThunderBridge costs extra.

Bottom Line: The high-end audio interface to want if you value sound quality above all else.

2 x 6 analog: $2,495 | 8 x 8 analog: $2,995 | 16 x 16 analog: $3,995 | 8 x 8 analog with eight mic preamps: $4,490 | ThunderBridge: $995

apogeedigital.com

 

Overview

With the Symphony I/O, Apogee has attempted to raise their own bar, delivering a multi-channel audio interface with unparalleled audio quality and flexible I/O configurations. How much did I like the review system that I’ve been testing for the past four months? I bought it. Here’s why.

The Symphony I/O is a modular multi-channel audio interface operating at sample rates from 44.1 to 192kHz. The main hardware consists of a 2U rack unit available in four stock configurations: 2 x 6 analog plus 8 x 8 optical plus stereo AES/EBU; 8 x 8 analog plus 8 x 8 AES/optical; 16 x 16 analog; and 8 x 8 analog plus 8 x 8 AES/EBU plus optical plus eight mic preamps.

The Symphony I/O contains two slots for I/O cards, letting you change or augment the system as needed. Being a pianist and singer-songwriter, I opted for the 8 x 8 analog configuration with the eight mic preamps.

Unlike recording systems that include onboard DSP and associated plug-ins (i.e., the Universal Audio Apollo family), Apogee’s Symphony I/O is an audio interface only. It does, however, include Apogee’s renowned Soft Limit feature via Maestro 2, which tames transient peaks before they hit the analog-to-digital converter, all but eliminating the possibility of digital clipping.

 

Hardware

 

The Symphony I/O handles analog inputs, outputs, and inserts via 25-pin D-sub connectors on its back panel—so you’ll need appropriate snakes to fan out to XLR and 1/4" balanced connections. The eight mic preamps on the preamp card features 85dB of gain; the card also has four 1/4" hi-Z instrument inputs for electric guitars or passive keyboards such as a Rhodes Stage model. Digital I/O is handled via D-sub, ADAT lightpipe, and coaxial S/PDIF on RCA jacks.

The front panel is sleek and minimalist, and features two rotary encoders and 16 ten-segment meters. The encoders have a variety of functions, from selecting Symphony’s connection and output modes to changing sample rates and output levels. Also on the front panel are two loud headphone outputs.

The Symphony I/O works on Mac systems only and connects to the computer via multiple hardware protocols: the Symphony 64 ThunderBridge (a separately sold box that provides Thunderbolt connectivity to newer Macs), Apogee Symphony 64 PCIe card; USB 2.0; directly to Pro Tools HD Core, Accel, HDX, or HD Native cards; or as a stand-alone converter connected to your sound card with AES/EBU, S/PDIF, or ADAT lightpipe inputs.

For this review, I connected my Symphony to a Thunderbolt port on my 2012 Apple MacBook Pro running OS X 10.7.5, via the ThunderBridge unit.


In Use

My very first test of the Symphony I/O involved listening to a variety of familiar source material played back through its digital-to-analog converters. First up was Sting’s “Fortress Around Your Heart,” from his 1985 album Dream of the Blue Turtles. I’ve been listening to that song for nearly three decades, so I know it like the back of my hand—or do I? Played back through the Symphony I/O, I literally heard instruments I had never noticed before in the soundscape: “Is that a synth on the tail end of the chorus?” was just one of the things I was asking myself. Plus, while many audio interfaces seem to hype certain frequencies, everything coming out of Symphony I/O sounded full, balanced, and natural. Bass response was huge, yet tight and focused.

Next, I listened to a track from a “new age” album I recently wrote and produced involving synths backing Tibetan singing bowls. I remembered what that song sounded like through the system I’d recorded it on, but played back through the Apogee, it sounded positively gigantic. It made me wonder how much better the album would’ve sounded had I used a Symphony I/O to record it in the first place.

Then it was time for some fresh recording. I fired up Pro Tools 10 and recorded a quick demo with my Nord Stage 2 and vocals through a Shure SM58 mic. I dialed up a piano/synth/organ combi on the Nord and plugged its outputs 1 and 2 directly into the instrument inputs on the Symphony I/O. Then I plugged the XLR output of my microphone into input 1 on a snake that fed the Symphony’s eight mic inputs. A quick adjustment on Maestro 2’s input screen was all I needed to get a beefy mic level, changing the “Analog Level” to “Mic” and adjusting the Level Trim until I achieved the tone I was looking for. The mic preamp sounded full, detailed, and natural—just the thing for the track I was working on.

I then swapped the SM58 for an AKG 414 B-ULS condenser mic, toggled the “48” indicator on Maestro 2’s input screen to engage phantom power, and suddenly I had an intimate vocal recording channel. Having eight digitally-controlled mic preamps on board Symphony I/O is not only a convenience; it’s a mobile engineer’s godsend that could form the basis of a fierce location recording rig.

 

Symphony 64 ThunderBridge 

 

The Symphony I/O connects to Thunderbolt-equipped Macs via the Symphony 64 ThunderBridge interface, which supports up to 64 channels of I/O. In my tests, latency measured at 1.8ms at 24bit/96kKz with the buffer set to 32 samples. The breakout box also includes a second Thunderbolt port to daisy-chain other Thunderbolt devices such as drives. I connected Symphony I/O to it, connected it to my MacBook Pro via a Thunderbolt cable, and was immediately off and recording.


Maestro 2

If, like me, the time you’ve spent getting out of your studio chair to adjust your audio interface would add up to five years or more, the Maestro 2 console software is a lifesaver. Not only can you instantly see all input, output, and routing information for the Symphony I/O, but you can also adjust headphone and output levels, change clock sources and sample rates, and more. With my unit’s included mic preamp card installed, Maestro 2 let me adjust inputs, trims, and gain structure, and engage Apogee’s Soft Limit when I wanted to tame unruly transients.

 

 

Conclusions

The Symphony I/O is really in a league of its own. It takes Apogee’s renowned audio conversion and marries it to a plethora of expandability options. While this is a box built mainly built for the upper echelon of recording artists and engineers, you get a tremendous amount of bang for your buck. My test system priced out at $5,485 including the ThunderBridge interface. While that seems like a small fortune, you truly are getting unparalleled converters and connectivity, along with eight channels of premium mic preamps. If you’re looking for an all-in-one box that comes with DSP-powered audio plug-ins and a more standardized complement of mic and instrument I/O, you’ll need to look elsewhere. If you’re looking for an audio interface that sounds better than anything you’ve ever heard, you will find what you seek in the Apogee Symphony I/O. I know I did.

 
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