APOGEE SYMPHONY I/O
Symphony now comes pre-configured, while still remaining the most flexible converter on the market.
Review: Brad Watts
For nigh on a quarter of a century, Apogee has sat at the pinnacle of audio-to-digital conversion technology. The definition of the term apogee itself denotes: ‘the highest point in the development of something; a climax or culmination.’ Indeed a great choice to name a company aiming for some of the most sophisticated recording I/O you can buy.
Since this century’s commencement, the company has broadened its range to include entry-level interfaces to suit all recording budgets, but this hasn’t negated development of top-of-the-line interfaces for the most demanding professional situations. A few years back now, Apogee dropped its AD- and DA-16X, Rosetta, and long-standing AD8000 ranges, replacing all these units with a Swiss Army knife approach — the Symphony I/O. And while the army knife analogy might imply a makeshift resource for when real tools are unavailable, the Symphony I/O is quite the opposite — it’ll tackle its duties with aplomb. So much so that it’s feasibly the final word in multichannel digital audio I/O available.
MIX IT UP
The Symphony I/O is quite a sexy piece of electronics. Yes, it’s a ‘looker’, but I’m more specifically referring to the extensive array of configuration options.
The Symphony I/O initially was released as a basic mainframe or chassis, into which you could then install the appropriate I/O options. These are quite varied, allowing for pretty much any patching situation. Two card slots can accept any mixture of the following cards:
The A2x6 incorporates two XLR inputs, AES digital I/O, optical I/O for ADAT, SMUX and S/PDIF, and six balanced analogue outputs as a D-Sub connector.
The A8x8 offers eight analogue I/O (balanced) and 8 AES-EBU on D-Sub connectors, plus the other optical and S/PDIF digital I/O as on the A2x6.
The A16x16 provides 16 balanced analogue I/O as two sets of D-Sub connectors, along with a S/PDIF coax I/O for up to 192k.
The A8MP option for the upper slot includes eight built-in mic preamps offering a hefty 85dB of gain, each with selectable 48V phantom power, Soft Limit and phase invert, and eight software assignable analogue insert points. These are presented as discrete sends and returns, again as D-Sub connectors. It also includes four high impedance, high-level instrument inputs (as jacks).
Additional cards include simple AI16 and AO16 cards, with 16 inputs and 16 outputs respectively.
So you see, between all these options are all the permutations you could hope for in an audio interface; from the serious home user through to high-end studios. Oh, and if 32 I/Os isn’t enough (two 16I/O cards), two Symphony I/O units can be ganged together from a single Symphony 64 PCIe card for 64 I/O. Incidentally, the main chassis of the Symphony I/O includes a USB port which acts as both a conduit for control of services to the unit from the host computer, and as an audio interface when the device is running in USB mode (however, you’ll still need an I/O card in the unit to get audio in and out).
To make things a bit simpler, these days the Symphony I/O is released in various ‘pre-configurations’ rather than simply the chassis and then adding cards. Those ‘factory’ configurations include: Symphony I/O 2×6 for $2995, the Symphony I/O 8×8 at $3695, the Symphony I/O 16×16 at $4895, and the Symphony I/O 8×8 + 8MP for a cool $5495 (which is the one sitting here on my desk). When you consider the pricing structure, it’s not that unwieldy — three grand for the entrance fee and $4.9k for 16 I/O.
Now for the sake of clarity with all these I/O options, I’ll also point out the various integration options. Given who the Symphony I/O will appeal to, there are a number of host systems you can attach this unit to. Firstly, as alluded to earlier, the Symphony I/O will function via USB — all good — handy for connecting to any Apple laptop, and especially handy if using the Symphony I/O in standalone mode and requiring access to the mic preamps of the 8MP card. Secondly, the unit will, of course, converse with Apogee PCIe Symphony 64 cards, which are connected via what Apogee refer to as a ‘PC-32’ cable. Thirdly, you can connect the unit to ProTools HD, Native, and HDX cards, as the PC-32 cable is exactly the same as the Avid/Digidesign interface cable. This is quite pertinent as those studios running ProTools hardware-based systems such as HD, HDX, and Native, can use the same Symphony I/O interface when switching between ProTools and a completely native DAW platform such as Logic Pro or Digital Performer via Symphony 64 cards. In a pre-‘trashcan’ Mac Pro you could feasibly run an HD2 system alongside a Symphony 64 card, switching between the two platforms with a simple cable swap (I’m yet to find a manufacturer supplying a hardware switch to do this — but wouldn’t that be just dandy). It’d be a clear cut method of platform swapping while keeping the same A/D D/A hardware patched permanently in place.
Apogee hasn’t left the recent Mac Pro or non-PCIe-endowed Macs, such as iMacs, out of the Symphonic equation. For connecting these host machines to a Symphony I/O, the answer lies with the Symphony 64 ThunderBridge. In essence, this unit takes over in the absence of PCIe slots and an installed Symphony 64 card, providing two PC32 ports for connection of up to two fully populated Symphony I/O units. That’s a lot of I/O in a very small space, and remember it’s ThunderBolt, so you could quickly swap between MacBook and Mac Pro/iMac systems with a cable swap. Piece of cake! What’s more, the ThunderBridge unit is nearly $500 less than the Symphony 64 card.
The Symphony I/O is quite a joy to drive. Most of the settings are accessed via the Apogee Maestro software control software, including control of the eight mic preamps (with that hefty 85dB of gain). The mic pres can also be grouped for ganged level control, and these retain any offsets from initial gain settings. And, the review unit also provided insert points which could be shunted across mic pre inputs at a moment’s notice. All inputs offer limiting at -2 and -4dBFS, along with Apogee’s ‘Soft Saturate’ and ‘Soft Crush’ algorithms. I/O points can be set for various levels individually and can be trimmed in 0.1dB steps within ±2dB. For precision setup you’d look no further.
The Symphony I/O actually sent me scurrying about looking for a better monitoring path, leading me to the conclusion that there isn’t a monitor controller worth owning which can pass audio information as cleanly as the Symphony I/O. With a number of high-end interfaces at my disposal during the last couple of months I’ve been re-evaluating my monitoring path. I’ve come to the realisation the only option is to come directly from the audio interface to the monitors, as no monitor controller can come close to the spec provided by units such as the Symphony I/O and, indeed, the Prism Sound units I reviewed recently. With a dynamic range of 120dB (A weighted) on the way in (A/D) with THD+N -113dB (0.00024%), and a D/A spec offering a dynamic range of 129dB and THD+N of -117dB (0.00014%), adding another veil of analogue switching, connectors, and associated resistance simply isn’t going to cut it.
As it transpires, the Symphony I/O is perfectly set up for directly connecting to powered monitors, and behaves admirably when switching inputs and I/O (from the front panel or Apogee’s Maestro software for OSX) as there’s soft muting on outputs so as not to give your monitors a sudden belting when switching and powering up. As for the actual sound quality, the Symphony I/O is up there with the best of them. The sound is precise, musical, warm and inviting. When directly compared with the Prism Titan for example, I’d put the Titan above the Symphony I/O in terms of presentation of sound stage, with the Apogee sounding slightly veiled in comparison, but remember we’re talking another couple of grand in price discrepancy here, and this also needs to be tempered with the fact the Symphony I/O is a far more versatile unit, with more mic preamps if required and far more potential I/O configurations. In some ways this is an unfair comparison but it gives you an idea of where the Symphony I/O sits in the grander scheme. As a workhorse studio and recording I/O the Apogee certainly wins in the price/performance ratio stakes.