APOGEE SYMPHONY I/O MK II PROFESSIONAL CONVERTER
We compare the second rendition of Apogee’s flagship AD/DA converter against its professional competition, and run it off against a prosumer interface to hear what’s missing.
Review: Preshan John
Conversion. One step in the grand scheme of a recording signal chain, but a giant leap between the fluid domain of voltages and alternating current to the precise, unforgiving world of 1s and 0s, and back again.
Somewhere in your audio journey, you may or may not arrive at the point where you place a heck of a lot of importance on that leap. The machine that breaks down the organic makeup of your sound, teleporting the bits, and reconstructing them, will be treated with the same suspicion as if it was your own body on the line.
Another factor likely to affect your standing is the gear you already own. If your outboard rack looks like Millionaire’s Row, you’re not going to make everyone catch the bus to work. You’ll want to plug all those Neves and APIs into a device that’ll accurately capture their desirable nuances.
The Apogee name has been synonymous with high-quality conversion, ever since the company devised standalone converters. Even the novel Apogee GiO and tiny Apogee One sell themselves on the premise of ‘industry-leading Apogee conversion’. They may very well be the best there is in pedal board or single-channel interface conversion, but there are different levels at play here, and the absolute best Apogee has to offer can be found in the new flagship Symphony I/O Mk II.
Apogee has moved with the times, and abandoned PCIe cards altogether. The previous incarnation split out to it’s possible connections via Symphony PCI ports, with its optional ThunderBridge box required to get you into a new Mac. The Mark II now natively ships with two Thunderbolt 2 ports onboard. There are also two other interface cards — the already available Pro Tools HD variant, and an impending Waves Sound Grid one. As well as connectivity, you can select I/O modules relevant to your needs, with the choice of 2×6, 8×8, 16×16, and 8×8 + 8MP with eight built-in mic preamps. If you get the preamp model (also the most expensive), all gain, polarity, filter and pad settings can be controlled from the onboard touch-screen. Crucially, Apogee has kept its modular upgrade promise. There are two revamped Mk II I/O cards — 8×8 and 16×16 analogue — to update the older ones with slightly better specs. However, the original Mk I versions are still compatible. The only cards to fall off the wagon are the two 16 analogue x 16 digital variants.
The Symphony I/O Mk II has a number of upgraded features over its predecessor, not the least of which is a slicker chassis. The Mk I had two knobs and two headphone outputs, the Mk II has just one of each. Other differences include the new touch-screen, and the air intake port on the front for better ventilation. Apogee says the Mk II also has a quieter fan that engages less often thanks to improved airflow within the unit. Good news if you plan to keep the unit on your work desk and not tucked away in a back-room rack.
It’s intriguing why Apogee has chosen to revamp the front panel with a touch-screen. Units like these are often designed as set-and-forget workhorses, kept out of sight and requiring little to no TLC. Kinda like a wi-fi router. Once it’s set up and doing its job, you don’t want to interact with it much. That’s why Avid’s HD I/O has nothing more than a Power button and LEDs on the front. Apogee’s touch-screen addition assumes the Symphony may be placed within arm’s reach of the user, which — like the Thunderbolt inclusion — shows the company considers laptop-toting producers part of the professional connoisseur category.
If you think an expensive gear purchase entitles you to a prestigious unboxing experience, don’t buy the Symphony I/O Mk II — it’ll tell you warm fuzzy feelings are for sissies. Flip open the cardboard box flaps and you’ll uncover not much more than the power cable, a skinny user guide, and the unit itself. No Thunderbolt cable, no break-out cable, no extra goodies, not even a ‘Congratulations, you now own an expensive converter’ fly sheet.
It’s very black, and very heavy. The front panel is extremely minimal, and if you didn’t notice the 4.3-inch TFT touch-screen you’d think the only control was for Power. Once it’s on, the touch screen comes to life with vivid colour and it’s pleasantly responsive. You can slide between multiple pages and do most of your tweaks right from the screen — monitor all your inputs and outputs, trim and calibrate line levels without getting the screwdriver out, adjust your output levels, select what parameter the big knob controls, etc.
Perhaps you’re of the mindset that it’s absurd owning a unit like this in today’s world. Maybe your recording system consists of a single interface with sufficient I/O for your daily work. I can empathise with you.
I have a $600 Focusrite Saffire interface I lug around in my portable rack. It gives me 18 inputs. That includes eight built-in preamps, digital expandability, multiple headphone outputs, plus I didn’t have to buy pricey Thunderbolt cables and break-out cables to start using it. And, to be honest, it sounds pretty good. That said, I don’t use much more than its computer interface and outputs, as I send my Focusrite ISA pres into the conversion of my Universal Audio 4-710D, hooked up to my Saffire via ADAT.
The market is full of great-value interfaces like these. So who on earth shells out over $5k for a box that’ll give you just eight channels of no-frills, line-level conversion? No preamps. No input DSP. Just conversion. Oh, and a headphone output.
LET’S TALK SPECIFICS
Before getting bogged down in the whole ‘What’ll this give me that I don’t already have’ debate, let’s crunch some numbers and find what makes the Symphony I/O MkII stand out on paper.
Dynamic range is a major factor in what makes a professional converter ‘professional.’ You pay through the nose for a video camera that’ll give you lots of detail in both the highlights and shadows. Same deal with audio gear. A peek at the specs for my middle-of-the-range Saffire interface shows the dynamic range for an input channel to be 109dB. In contrast, the dynamic range of a line input on the Symphony I/O Mk II is 122dB. Logarithmic scale or not, that’s a big difference. Frequency response? The Saffire covers the auditory spectrum from 20Hz to 20kHz with ±0.1dB deviation throughout. The Symphony’s specs state an extended spectrum of 1Hz to 20kHz with half of that; ±0.05dB.
Output specs are just as important — you want to monitor with über clarity too. The Saffire’s line outputs have a dynamic range of 108dB, while the Symphony boasts 126dB. These numbers, ladies and gentlemen, are what you pay for.
Obviously comparing apples to oranges will reveal substantial contrast. What about apples vs apples?
As far as high-end conversion is concerned, Pro Tools HD systems are up there with the best. Avid’s HD I/O converter box went up against the Symphony I/O Mk II during our review tests — a much ‘fairer’ comparison than with the Saffire. Its line input ADC dynamic range is stated as 122dB; neck and neck with the Symphony. Frequency response deviates slightly less than the Symphony at ±0.03dB, but that’s within 20Hz-20kHz. Digital-to-analogue conversion falls 1dB behind at 125dB.
SYMPHONY OF BINARY
Numbers aside, the Symphony sounds amazing. The first time I ever ran it up, I was immediately struck by the clarity of the Symphony’s outputs. It doesn’t take a pro to appreciate all that glorious detail coming out of your headphones, or monitors. Compared to the Saffire, the soundscape presents with more dimension and space. Highs are smoother, lows are cleaner, and there’s more distinction between tracks in busy mixes. It has a huge impact on tracking, to a large extent removing any disconnect between playing and hearing it back. While a lot of us focus on getting the best quality into a DAW, the outputs commonly seem to be the area of least attention for prosumer interface manufacturers. They’re much more important than that. As a side note, the headphone DAC and current drive technology is actually copped from Apogee’s mini headphone DAC, Groove. It seems the little guys can be ‘industry-leading’ after all.
The other factor crucial to modern tracking environments is latency. While interfaces like the Saffire use direct monitoring to skirt the issue, Apogee is beholden to a much more rigorous set of standards, where users like to track through software at the lowest possible latency. Good news here, the latency is extraordinarily low. Apogee quoted its best number as 1.35ms roundtrip when going hell for leather in Logic at 96k with a 32 sample buffer. We achieved bang on the same internal latency number in Pro Tools, on an older Mac laptop, over Thunderbolt, without the option card — pretty awesome.
The Apogee Symphony I/O Mk II’s soft-clipping feature is supposed to sound better than just a levels insurance gizmo. I tested this by slamming excessive level into the line-ins. It responded in a musical fashion up to a point, beyond which it started sounding like the limiter was trying too hard, marked by gooey breakup and unpleasant harmonics. ‘Get-it-right-at-the-source’ gain staging gets my vote in this case, and with such high-end conversion you’re not losing anything by being conservative with your input levels anyway.
Apogee’s first Symphony had some known issues with overheating so I set up a long-haul recording test with the Mk II to put the Symphony’s improvements in this area to the test. Recording eight tracks into Pro Tools at 96k saw it keep its cool, even when wedged between other rack units. It yielded rock solid reliability throughout the marathon. Eventually Pro Tools carked it after 22 hours, bringing the 163GB recording to an end. And when it did switch on, the Symphony’s fan was appropriately quiet.
I’M AN AVID APOGEE FAN
As mentioned, we conducted as accurate a recording experiment as we could devise between the Symphony I/O Mk II and the Avid HD I/O. We used passive Y-cable splits to keep transformers out of the equation (level loss didn’t really concern us considering we were comparing conversion), pre-calibrated levels with pink noise and set up parallel Pro Tools systems. Instruments recorded were drums, upright piano and acoustic guitar. After syncing the files up and blindly A/B-ing the tracks, it became painfully obvious that the view from the top doesn’t differ much from product to product. Much to my relief, and the justification of my existence as a pro audio reviewer, I managed to consistently distinguish between the two recordings thanks to an ever-so-subtle sizzle in the extreme highs present in the HD I/O tracks. It was mostly an ego thing to be honest, and not the kind of difference Joe Bloggs would appreciate in the slightest. It was impossible to say which was minutely more realistic, both were pleasing. [I was also pleasantly surprised to be able to repeatably select which unit was which in a blind test – Ed].
If you’d like to have a crack pitting your wits on two of the industry’s leading converters, you’re in luck. The high-res 96k files are right here, ready for you to download (see bottom of page). Let us know if you can spot the difference between the two. Gather your audio buddies together and house a listening party with your nicest Focals or B&Ws. Winner gets bragging rights.
SAFFIRE VS SYMPHONY
Here’s the juicy stuff — the Saffire vs the Symphony, prosumer vs professional. Using the same Y-split method as with the HD I/O, we laid down four acoustic guitar tracks, sync’d them up, matched levels, exported, and imported into a new ’Tools session for comparison. Predictably, the difference was significant. I’ll do my best to explain.
Imagine standing front and centre before a large, flat panel, hi-definition screen, watching a scene from a western flick with a cowboy-laden horse galloping full speed towards you. Behind the charging stallion a red cloud of dust rises like a fiery backdrop. As the horse nears you can see the expression on the rider’s face, the pistol in his belt, the crest on his Stetson. It’s an impressive sight, but you’re still looking at a screen, observing from a distance, impersonally.
Now imagine watching the same scene on a gigantic, floor-to-ceiling cinema screen that curves around, enveloping your peripheral vision. It’s like you’re standing right there in the red wilderness beholding the sight in person. As the horse approaches, you feel your muscles tighten. You physically flinch when it does an almighty jump over the camera.
This is how I’d describe what it’s like listening to the Symphony’s recording after the Saffire’s. You hear much of the same detail, there’s plenty of quality and resolution in both, but the Symphony presents a more convincing, bigger, wider, more real sonic image. In comparison, the Saffire feels a bit wimpy; the soundstage is flat, two-dimensional, pushed back, less ‘inclusive’, maybe even boring. Though the Pro Tools meters peaked identically for both recordings, it seemed like the Symphony was louder. The guitar tracks leapt out of the speakers with vigour and an authoritative presence that was simply lacking with the Saffire.
I have to add that the Saffire’s conversion in no way sounded bad. Also, I’m pretty convinced many people won’t notice any difference, and genuinely not care even if they do. I gave a friend a pair of cans and played him the two recordings. His response: “Well, yeah, it sounds better but not four-and-a-half grand better.” While we were marvelling at how good the Symphony sounded [it was significant – Ed], he was wowed by how well the Saffire measured up against it.
Takeaway point from all of this? If you’ve got a Saffire, or another prosumer interface — good news. You’ve got a great converter that’ll go up against an industry standard without falling completely to mush. If you’ve got a Symphony I/O, or other top notch converter — also good news. You’ve got something that’s noticeably better than what prosumer interfaces can offer.
The Apogee Symphony I/O MkII offers no surprises. It’s an astounding converter with incredible detail, superlative specifications and 24/7 reliability. If you buy one, your recordings will undoubtedly step up in quality, and along with the superlative outputs, give your mixes every chance to reach a new zenith too. The price and ‘one-trick-pony’ nature of a converter like the Symphony Mk II position it within reach of only those who rate quality conversion very highly. For such people, the Symphony I/O Mk II will by no means disappoint.
JUDGE FOR YOURSELF
Still not convinced? You can listen to and compare the unadulterated recordings by downloading them from our SoundCloud playlist. Compare the multi-track mix (minor level balances, no EQ, compression or effects) of the Avid HD I/O against the Apogee Symphony Mk II, as well as the guitar recordings of the Symphony vs Saffire. Invite your friends around, break out the beers, get someone to blind test you, and let us know what you hear by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.