ANTELOPE AUDIO ORION32
The keepers at Antelope have crated and freighted their newborn fawn to the other side of the globe. Still developing, a pride of reviewers poised to pounce; the Orion32 is a rising star that’s hard to pin down.
Preview: Andrew Bencina
In an age of non-disclosure agreements and media embargoes it’s unusual to find a new prototype floating around the AT office. Rarer still when you consider Antelope’s first venture into multichannel devices had travelled to our antipodean outpost from Sofia, Bulgaria. Antelope has made its name in recent years developing a range of master clocks for studio sand post production facilities. The alpha buck of the herd, the Isochrone 10M employs a ‘rubidiumatomic reference generator’ promising 100,000 times the accuracy of crystal oscillators. Success in the audiophile reference DAC market followed and in the last 12 months their 384k Eclipse mastering AD/DA converter, master clock and monitor controller signaled a broadening of focus; pairing their now established technology with considered designs to tackle a range of recording and mastering requirements.
RUNT OF THE HERD
The Orion32 is the latest result of this expansion and signals a shift from the haute cuisine of the audiophile and mastering markets into the meat and potatoes of multitrack recording and audio installation. A 32-channel AD/DA converter, the Orion32 dwarves the channel capacity of earlier Antelope products yet is delivered in a single rack space chassis smaller than not only its stereo siblings but any comparable multichannel product on the market today. It is this size, or lack thereof, that makes the Orion32 such an exciting option for both installations requiring a high channel count, by combining a number of units, or simply a relatively large number of I/O in a portable form factor. Other 32-channel solutions will require double to quadruple the rack space and two to three times the investment. While not settled, the expected local price should be in the realm of $3000. This makes the Orion32 a real player for those considering a third-party solution with their next ProTools upgrade and offers to take a 128-channel installation from ceiling height rack tower into a single carry-on case.
The key to this slimming regime is the use of eight 25-pin D-Sub connections for all analogue I/O; taking up just over half of the rear panel. In a touring installation, this can make life very easy with stock D-Sub cables available invarious lengths and some patch bays offering pre-wired D-Sub termination. If you require a more flexible range of XLR and TRS connections there are some commercially available D-Sub break-outs, just be sure to have a few gender changers on hand as most of these are intended for use with a longer D-Sub cable in between. The rest of the rump is neatly packed with optical MADI I/O, two channels of ADAT I/O, S/PDIF via coaxial RCA and a USB port. Each of these digital interfaces support sample rates up to192k, with only MADI and USB offering the full complement at all rates. The ADAT ports do however support SMUX, so four channels of I/O are possible at 192k when used with compatible devices (eight channels at 96k, 16 channels at 48k). Two BNC word clock inputs (one for Antelope’s high resolution 10M Atomic Clock),and four word clock outputs located at the left of the rear panel also make the Orion32 a viable master clock distribution option; using either the internal oven controlled quartz crystal (for increased stability at constant temperature) or an external clock source as master. Like many other Antelope products, the Orion32 employs its Acoustically Focused Clocking (AFC) technology— but more on this later. Finally, the IEC mains power connector supports a range of input voltages from approximately 95 to 245V and with a greenish power consumption of only 20W you’ll also be able to trim down some of your friendly supplier’s recent bill hikes.
The front of the Orion32 is positively stark by comparison with its ample hind. A simple matte silver finish certainly makes it blend in with other herds across the retail savannah. Three white LEDs indicate the current clock source while a large central multifunction display contains both the current sample rate and metering for all I/O channels. At present the meter source can be changed from within the software control panel, as can the brightness of all front panel illumination, however these controls should also be available via some button combination from the front panel. The lack of on-display labelling and updating of the number of displayed meters (64 meter strips are shown, even when monitoring the stereo S/PDIF I/O) makes it difficult to know exactly what you’re looking at. Front panel control is limited to eight, barely visible but audible, silver buttons — and a slightly larger power button. At present all but the ambiguous ‘Antelope’ button have specific single functions (sample rate adjust and configuration preset selection) but I would like to see this change to expand standalone configuration in the future. I worry slightly that the omission of a continuous rotary encoder and perhaps one or two more multi-function buttons may limit further development in this direction but potential exists for satisfactory workarounds. Thankfully, the Orion32’s core is an entirely programmable FPGA, so issues like these can bead dressed as further user feedback is received. As an indication of this, I understand a zero-latency DSP mixer is already in the pipeline for a free future firmware update.
While I think, for some, the size and price will be reason enough to purchase, for me it’s the flexibility of this device that offers greatest appeal. Branded as an AD/DA converter, theOrion32 is just so much more. As a converter it provides digital connection to three of the most common formats, so chances are there’ll always be something to plug it into. Even the custom USB 2.0 implementation supports Windows (ASIO), Mac and class compliant devices so while there’s currently no official Antelope support and control panel for the iPad, you will be able to access 24 channels from apps like Auria and Cubasis. Importantly, on Mac, the USB interface is also limited to 24 channels at 176.4k and 192ksample rates. On my Windows 7 tower I was able to stably record 32 channels of audio at 192k via the USB ASIO driver with minimal latency. On Windows, buffer settings for both the driver and USB streaming latency are provided via the software control panel settings dialog, allowing for an additional level of tweaking when the USB implementation of your machine is getting in the way. I did find it necessary to tweak these settings to achieve solid performance at lower buffer settings but was always able to find a combination that avoided dropouts without compromising headphone monitoring during a performance. Unfortunately, the omission of key features — like a headphone output, MIDI and basic stereo analogue I/O — do limit the use of the Orion32 as a standalone USB interface. These options, however, would probably be better suited to an Orion16 and the flexibility of having any USB interface far outweighs any shortcomings.
What’s great about the Orion32 is that if you have any concerns about the drivers from Antelope you can pair the converter with any other MADI (or ADAT, or S/PDIF) interface and benefit from the years of experience and additional DSP routing and mixing that a company like RME currently offers. I tested the Orion32 as both a MADI and ADAT converter with RMEPCI-E cards and it worked exactly as you’d expect. But wait there’s still more! The software control panel provides a simple to use channel routing matrix for directing any input to any output. It’s simply a case of dragging from one input channel on the grid to another output channel and they’re linked. In reality I didn’t find the interface all that instinctive. The use of identical colours for the input and output squares, rather than different shades, did become confusing at times and thinking of your soflware outputs as USB inputs and vice versa took a little getting used to. Improvements can still be made here with group selection and dragging for multichannel configuration, offline preset saving and loading (five configuration presets can be saved in the unit and recalled from the front panel buttons), preset access during USB sync mode, and perhaps a selection of commonly used routings for speedier setup. During some experimentation, I managed to create a feedback loop when my DAW’s input monitoring was enabled; which was certainly undesirable. Even with these teething issues, the ability to take the MADI output from a digital console and route it via USB to your laptop means that with the Orion32, capturing that live performance is now simpler than ever. The flexibility of these internal connections make the Orion32 an AD/DA converter, USB 2.0 audio interface, digital format converter, and master clock controller all at the same time. If you weren’t interested already this utility must surely add a further notch or two onto the Orion32’s belt.
HOW’S IT BLEAT?
While clocking is a critical issue for studios either running a number of digital devices or involved in AV synchronisation, its use to generate sonic improvements in slaved devices has always been a contentious one. This is not the right forum for an extended discussion but if you’re interested I’d recommend seeking out a number of the detailed technical discussions available online. In the simplest possible terms, the science tells us that due to a number of factors (cable distortion, poorly designed slave circuits in many converters…), external clocking almost always produces higher levels of distortion and noise in the clocked converter than when internally synced. What we also know is that often this degradation makes things sound better. What I like about Antelope’s founder and head designer, Igor Levin, is that he acknowledges this truth. In a blog discussing the proprietary Acoustically Focused Clocking (AFC) technology Levin emphasises that the design of AFC was determined not to, “Affect the mathematical specs, but to affect the sound.” This may sound obvious, but it’s actually a critical distinction and differs quite considerably from the prevailing spec-focused spiel. The Orion32 converters are shaped significantly by their internal AFC implementation and I like the way they sound. They compared favourably to other converters I had in the studio and for the convenience of their high channel count and small form factor I’d be happy to use them everyday.
It’s always great to be introduced to new products and new developers. Especially when they seem to be paying attention to how we’re all working. The Antelope Orion32 is a fine AD/DA converter with unique characteristics that I’m sure will give it an immediate place in many installations. There’s room for improvement in some areas but thankfully many of these fixes can be made via updates to the internal firmware. It’s a tough market out there but I’m sure Orion’s flexibility will allow this young buck to survive and mature in its own time.