Symphony I/O Review

Eagle-eyed readers of MTM will be aware that this isn’t the first time Apogee’s Symphony system has appeared on our radar, with our first encounter appearing back in the January 2008 issue of our magazine (issue 58). At the time, Symphony was Apogee’s solution to multi-channel audio, designed to pair the company’s Symphony PCIe card and Symphony ExpressCard (for laptop users) with Apogee’s existing D/A and A/D converters (such as the Rosetta 800 and AD-16X). Despite the cost of a fully fledged system, Symphony marked a ‘coming of age’ in respect to audio quality for Native Mac-based DAWs, arguably exceeding the sound quality and performance of Pro Tools HD.








Building on the success of the original Symphony, Apogee has had a rather radical rethink across the entirety of its product range, arguably in response to the growing number of users working with computer-based DAWs. In particular, Symphony I/O represents a radical reimagining of Apogee’s top-flight solution, centred on a ‘modular’ multi-channel converter (the Symphony I/O, in other words) and a variety of different connection protocols, including the aforementioned Symphony 64 PCIe Card and Pro Tools HD, USB and standalone operation, plus an upcoming Symphony 64 | ThunderBridge for Thunderbolt connection. In short, Symphony I/O is a next-generation solution for multi-channel audio.

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The Full Symphony

More than being just a beefed-up Apogee Ensemble, therefore, Symphony I/O is designed as the logical successor and replacement to Apogee’s X-Series and Rosetta converters that are in the process of being gradually phased out. As such, the Symphony I/O represents the pinnacle of Apogee’s experience in converter design, with refined and updated circuitry offering audio improvements across the board, from the converters themselves through to the mic preamps.

Arguably the most important point to note about the Symphony I/O is its modular design; it’s an entirely scalable solution, from a basic eight-in/eight-out interface for a project studio right up to a 64-channel solution pairing two Symphony I/O units with a Symphony 64 PCIe Card. The key to this modular approach comes from the two expansion slots and the variety of I/O modules that are designed to accompany the Symphony I/O.

The range of I/O modules is impressive, enabling you prioritise balanced analogue connections, for example, with a 16×16 Analog I/O module, or go for a mix of digital and analogue connections using something like the 8×8 Analog I/O + 8×8 AES/Optical I/O option.

For our review, we were shipped a Symphony I/O with an 8 Analog I/O + 8 AES I/O card in slot 1 and the 8 Mic Preamp card in slot 2. In theory, the system gave us a total of eight analogue input paths, with up to eight mic channels entering via the analogue in on card 1 (a DB-25 multi-pin connector) and four instrument-level inputs on standard jack connectors on card 2. Insert paths on all of the analogue inputs could be accessed via the connectors on card 2 (again, using a DB-25 lead for the send and return respectively). Our setup also provided eight channels of AES I/O, S/PDIF connectors and eight channels of balanced analogue outputs for monitoring purposes.

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Conducting Tests

For the purposes of our tests we decided to connect the Symphony I/O system to our Mac via USB 2.0. Of course, using USB potentially restricts the available channel count (with the right I/O options and a suitable PCI card connection you can potentially run up to 32 channels per Symphony I/O), but given our particular setup we were interested to see how the USB protocol would work. Unlike the Ensemble, it’s interesting to note that Symphony doesn’t support FireWire and that a future Symphony 64 | ThunderBridge solution may well solve the needs of laptop-based musicians needing plenty of Symphony I/O paths.

Setting up proved relatively straightforward. You’ll need to install the appropriate Symphony I/O software, which includes the Maestro 2 application used to remotely control the Symphony I/O from your computer. We needed to perform a firmware update for the software we’d downloaded, but this was easy enough to achieve using our existing USB connection. Once up and running, the Symphony I/O should appear as a Core Audio device, making it easy to configure in Logic Pro or any other Core Audio application, such as Cubase, Ableton or Digital Performer.

Maestro In Action

The Symphony I/O’s operation proved to be similar to our experience of using the Ensemble. Principally speaking, the unit is controlled from the Maestro software, although two encoders on the front panel provide quick-and-easy access to features such as output muting, levels and so on. Maestro has a number of screens enabling you to navigate your way through the inputs, outputs, routing options, an internal mixer page (to negate any DAW-based latency issues) and various device settings.

Arguably the most important page, of course, is the Input section, which allows you to modify the trims for each input channel, switch between instrument/mic inputs and so on. Impressively, there’s plenty of detailed control on offer, including the ability to apply Apogee’s renowned Soft Limiting (a great way of avoiding the unwanted digital overs), bass roll-off and phase-inversion. One of the nicest features, though, was the flexibility in the insert path, enabling to you patch any of the eight inserts across any of the eight inputs. In short, the system allows you to keep your inserts permanently patched into the Symphony I/O and call up each device (like an 1176 compressor) by name.

The Gain Game

Of course, the big draw of an interface like the Symphony I/O is going to be the sound quality, and in this respect there’s plenty to be pleased about. The quality of the converters is immediately apparent, with a level of depth and detail that raises the bar on what Apogee has previously offered (and certainly comparable to the excellent Lynx Hilo reviewed last month). Logically, this transparency and depth is carried through to the mic preamp card, with an impressive 85dB of gain and a near flawless amount of noise, even at the highest gain settings. It’s certainly an impressive pairing, and makes the Symphony a perfect solution for audiophile recording, especially for acoustic instruments that need plenty of detail, good imaging and copious amounts of gain.

Possibly our only significant criticism would be the fan noise. Most of the time the fan remains dormant, but if the unit becomes hot enough it can be activated for a short period. Although the Symphony I/O’s fan is no more offensive than most other fans we’ve encountered, it could potentially limit the use of the interface in the same room as a recording, and could become more problematic if you have multiple units.

Symphonie Fantastique

Given its modular design and the delightfully transparent sound, the Symphony I/O is a great solution to a range of professional needs. Whether you need lots of analogue ins and outs paired with your own collection of boutique preamps, for example, or a simple way in and out of your computer via eight super-clean internal preamps, the Symphony I/O can offer it all. As great as many other pro-audio interfaces sound, they are often accompanied by peculiar restrictions that require some ingenious lateral thinking in respect to integration – or in some cases, superfluous features you don’t actually need. Despite the potential expense (extra cards do add up), Symphony I/O is easily the most flexible pro-audio interface we’ve seen.

Despite some strong competition from other manufacturers, Apogee’s close alliance with Apple and clever product design arguably makes Symphony I/O the gold standard for multi-channel audio on a Mac –irrespective of the DAW you decide to use. With more I/O modules and Thunderbolt connectivity just around the corner, it is also a surprisingly future-proofed solution that could comfortably grow and develop as your studio evolves.

WHY BUY
Transparent, detailed converters
Super-quiet mic preamp card
Highly configurable system
Good software integration

WALK ON BY
Mac-only
Occasional fan noise
I/O options can get expensive

 

Verdict

Symphony I/O not only sets new standards for Apogee’s respected conversion quality, it also offers a surprising degree of configurability and flexibility.

9/10

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