Looking for all the world like a high-end audiophile stereo radio receiver as much as pro audio equipment, the shiny, new Symphony I/O has arrived from Apogee. It’s a top-of-the-range audio interface designed for low latency, high-quality digital-to-analog conversion, and quality clocking, as well as flexible input and output, coming from a company known in the category. With Pro Tools HD support, it’s also a rival to Avid’s own audio interfaces, while also working with all major Mac DAWs – even Ableton Live. You’re talking an investment of a few grand here, depending on configuration, so this isn’t likely to appeal to every bedroom producer. But pricing, starting at US$3690 with the I/O modules, also isn’t astronomical.

Another big highlight: Ethernet and USB releases planned for later in the fall mean the Symphony I/O is a viable alternative for mobile, laptop-based users, not just PCI as on Avid’s Pro Tools HD interfaces. That makes the Symphony interesting as a solution for the road. (The Symphony also works as a standalone converter, not just as an interface.)

Your best bet – check out the full specs from Apogee.
Symphony I/O

I’m mostly ignorant of high-end audio boxes; I can speculate about them a bit as I would pro baseball. I can, say, however, that the trend in converter quality has absolutely been to greater quality for dramatically lower price. It’s also notable that configuring and using converters is much easier than it used to be. The Symphony I/O makes it easy to switch DAWs (though sadly only on Mac, not other OSes), and even plans 64-bit kernel support on Mac OS later this fall. It’s a far cry from the days in the 90s when you’d spend a couple of days mucking about with Mac classic drivers and expansion chassis just to get a Power Mac to do any audio recording at all. (I’m unfortunately more knowledgeable about that than I care to be; I’d like to leave that in the 90s with memories of the Lewinsky scandal.)

What I can offer is the first-hand thoughts of a very biased – but also very interesting – source. Kevin Vanwulpen is one of the engineers at Apogee, responsible for firmware, software, and digital engineering. He was excited enough about his baby that he wrote me an extended explanation of why it’s cool and why it matters. Note that this is not an official PR line (I’m sure PR’s not going to be terribly happy to see it – blame me, not Kevin, guys). And it should be taken with a grain of salt; this device is basically family to Kevin. But taken as such, I do enjoy hearing engineers talk about their creations, so here’s what Kevin has to say.

Executive summary of the highlights from Kevin:

  • The converters sound a lot better.
  • “Modes” for working with a variety of DAWs makes switching Logic, Live, and Pro Tools far easier. (That’s not news for your basic audio interface, but it’s new to interfaces of this class.)
  • Analog fans, this is DC capable. Route control voltage to your heart’s content.

the proverbial cat is out of the bag: SymphonyI/O is online. As usual, I won’t bore you with the stuff you might as well read on our website :-) …but I do want to highlight some other points about the product you may find of interest, which is one of the things I love about your blog.

Also note this was not written by marketing but by myself and thus there is some of my bias/opinion/whatever in there.
Ok here it goes, in random order:

a. The sound….yes I am sure marketing covers that, but I am sure it will take a little while before people ‘get it’.
I do not have ‘golden ears’ (but some who do agree)…I truly can not tell doing a blind test whether I am listening to the analog source or AD-DA. Don’t get me wrong the previous generation was great…but well this is truly a major step up, which I am excited about (I am not in the business of designing the same thing in a new jacket…and neither are some others here, including Lucas our analog wizard)

b. I am excited about the Modes (marketing called it Audio Interface Mode). I personally compare it to multi-booting a computer (such as bootcamp and many others)
In the past Apogee’s products often got complicated very fast, because they are used in very different contexts and we had a hard time squeezing features and trying to make them make sense to everyone. In the end of the day if you’re using Logic you don’t care about ProTools HD specific features and vice versa for example.
Symphony I/O can be restarted in a mode of the users choice and allowed us to keep the box make total sense and easy to use…for the context it’s living in at that moment. Rather than all contexts all at once :-)

I personally will use it with Symphony64 at home…but it’s nice to (down the road) hook it USB to a laptop as that’s plenty in most cases (for me at least) when on the go, which I am not all that often anyhow.

c. As you know I am personally an Analog-synth and modular (eurorack) geek…until now us poor CV-needy souls had to more or less pick between the DC-capable MOTU with it’s crappy sound (for some reason with modulars that is sooo obvious) or better sound quality. I am talking about use with Expert Sleepers’ Silent Way (which I use) or MOTU’s Volta.

Well this thing’s DA’s are DC capable…yay.

But not only that they have an amazing sense of zero (forgot what Lucas calls it, he calls it true-zero or something)…but in short the zero offset is not comparable to the other stuff out there. The legs are veeery symmetrical which does mean you absolutely without worry can use it to get double the voltage swing (and thus octave range)

Second it’s extreeeemely temperature stable, which is clearly important in that situation. I have not ‘measured’ it versus a MOTU but in my experience once tuned I have not had issues (which i do with MOTU as my rig happens to be near the AC airflow in my relatively small appartment where there are physical constraints where I cna put my modular)
I actually last week got an Expert Sleepers ES-1 with DB25 to use with this puppy. I pre-ordered my personal SymphonyIO. I like my Ensemble and all I use right now, but well this is a good notch up.

Obviously it can go out quite hot (+24dBu) so you get a nice large range to play.

d. We do see this not just as a product but more so as a project or platform or whatever you call it.
That does imply we decided to not ship it all at once….yes it doesn’t do everything under the sun today and for those people they can hold of. Likewise for many it is everything they wished for.
Likewise the box is very modular in design in many aspects which will allow us to adapt and allow people to invest in this without the stuff that is valuable obsoleting as fast as technology in general does.
Personally I like the Hasselblad analogy where they had an impossible time selling such expensive digital cameras…untill they figured out to make the digital part a slide-in part that gets updated whenever new stuff comes out and evolves with digital camera technology…but the body/optics and all that stay.

Don’t get me wrong there are many great aspects to this box, but well I know you know how to read and can go through our website and all that…the above is sort of my own input and highlight of less obvious stuff that I find cool about it.

If you’re an Apogee user or in the market for this kind of device, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this offering and how it stacks up to the competition. And what do you think of the staggered release schedule as far as features, which starts now but extends through 2010?

  • JAN

    USB connection? With latency not lower than 12ms @44k1 and a jitter a lot higher than via FW? This is no way "professional"…

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @JAN: You have to read the whole story. I can't fit the complete specs in the headline. The I/O works with PCI, Ethernet, etc., as well, and functions as a standalone device. USB is there as a convenience. Read the specs on Apogee's site:
    http://www.apogeedigital.com/products/symphony-io

    (or, for that matter, what I wrote above)

    Also, I think you may want to check your facts regarding USB jitter. Jitter is not an inherent feature of the USB spec; it's dependent on real-world operation of software and hardware firmware and drivers. Yes, USB is clockless, but that hasn't stopped people from doing USB implementations for audio.

  • http://regend.com regend

    i'm drooling…our home studio got an RME rack but i wanted an apogee. i'm still hoping i can get something i can afford in the apogee line for my iMac.

  • Paul

    Offhand, it reminds me somewhat of the enSoniq PARIS system, with its different I/O configurations.

  • Michael

    This looks really great. I'm on two rigs, a Pro Tools HD and a Logic rig so this thing looks really good to me!

    Still looks like a hifi tuner though…. hehhehe

  • mediawest

    i have used all the older appogee stuff, and tried other daw interfaces, and unless i am doing large dynamic orchestral work with humans, i cannot hear a huge difference in stock converters or the so called high end stuff….

    especially when you do contemporary stuff, and it has a dynamic range of +-6db, you wont hear it…. not worth the extra costs….. its like the same bs you get from monster cable, that it will make a huge diff., it wont….

    in fact there has been a double blind study on monster cable, and they used the monster stuff, and a wire coat hanger[!] for connections, and the 'experts' could not hear the difference……..

    your stock digi pre's, and other pre's today are really good for 90% of what is recorded…..

  • http://tomdavenport.co.uk Tom Davenport

    I can't believe you published his private email. Moving on, this is an exciting style of product… if I had to go high end, this is the solution. You can be confident that it can upgrade along with other technology around it. On the other hand, I want to see how other companies respond.

    And as for the look, I'm totally torn… hated it, then dug it, then saw photos of it in a rack and it looks relatively like a toy compared to everything else… but overall, I got lust for it.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Tom:

    I published his email with his permission, and because he contacted me and wanted to share his perspective and his enthusiasm for a project on which he worked. He was aware I was sharing it.

    The problem is, had I simply parroted what he had told me, I think the post would have been irresponsible. I think his perspective on the project is interesting. Identified with its source, it's possible to follow what he's saying but be aware of his bias. I routinely have conversations with engineers and find them enlightening; I see no reason why readers here shouldn't have the same opportunity.

    Peter