The Orion 32 truly is a marvelous box that does lots of things right, raising the bar when it comes to overall functionality for the price.

There’s a lot of buzz about the new Antelope Audio Orion 32 and for good reason.
 

1. It is made by Antelope Audio, the respected high-end clock and converter manufacturer. This is their first foray into a multichannel professional recording interface.

2. It features a full 32-channels of not just A-D but also D-A converters, with sampling frequencies (Fs) up to 192 kHz, in a single rack space unit that is only 9” deep. Plus it draws a max of 20 W of power (less than an average lightbulb).

3. It offers 32 analog I/O on DB-25 connectors, 16 channels of ADAT I/O via four Lightpipe connectors, 64 channels of MADI via fiber I/O and SPDIF I/O in addition to USB2. The back panel also has Word Clock in (x2) and out (x4). Plus it has an internal power supply.

4. Its chassis is dead quiet: no fans at all. And even then it runs cool, with venting only on the sides.

5. The biggest news of all is the price: $2,995 street. That’s a tremendous value per channel.

So it’s affordable, compact, lightweight, and offers lots of I/O options. But how does it perform?

Features

There’s a lot to love about this box. The size is perfect for hauling to location gigs and the lack of fans is a boon to people who need their I/O in their control room. It offers Antelope’s AFC clocking and will accommodate just about any I/O you need, with the exceptions being AES (which can be routed into SPDIF with an adapter) and a DigiLink connector that, for some who considered swapping their Digi hardware for it, is a disappointment. It’s fast to set up, by just connecting eight DB-25 connectors for analog I/O (note that the inputs are on the bottom row, not the top), or with MADI or USB or Lightpipe. Users can move 32 channels of data to PC or Mac via USB and the fiber MADI offers 64 channels. A detailed list of the unit’s capabilities (track count) per Fs is presented at Antelope’s website. Latency is typically between 1 and 6.5 mS, depending on buffer settings and I was able to use 64 sample buffers for my sessions in PT. 

The front panel is sparsely populated with buttons for power, sampling frequency and five presets. A large red LED display shows Fs next to the world’s tiniest meters, two rows of 32 bar meters in one square inch. They’re fine for knowing if signal is present but users will definitely be relying on the metering in their software.

Let’s consider the breakthrough facet of this unit: the price. For comparison, to get 32 analog I/Os, an Avid HDIO (16 x 16) x 2 will cost about $10,000 ($312 per AD/DA path) and 4 rack spaces. An Apogee Symphony with analog expansion module (for 32 I/O) would be $7k ($220 per AD/DA path) and 2 rack spaces. Both of those leave you with no optical I/O (which are optional on both those, and the user may or may not need). The Orion handles all 32 analog I/O, including optical, and is roughly 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of either ($94 per AD/DA path). And it’s one rack space.

At Right: A glimpse under the hood of the Orion 32. Photo: Lynn Fuston

When I did my converter shootout in 2002, the best converters on the market were $3000 per converter channel, so someone could easily have spent $12,000 for a stereo AD/DA. Compare that to $3000 for 32 channels of AD/DA and it’s clear how far we’ve come. With performance specifications pushing the limits of physics and human hearing, the current and future focus in AD/DA technology is reduced size, reduced cost and reduced power consumption. The Orion clearly is the beneficiary of those improvements and a technical marvel on many levels. I tested it both as a standalone unit, as the front end for recording into Pro Tools and PreSonus Studio One and Auria via USB and Lightpipe and SPDIF. I don’t have a MADI card so I was not able to test that.

One other fascinating thing about this converter is that it is fully iOS compatible. That means I could take the supplied USB cable and plug it between the Orion and my iPad and immediately recognize 24 assignable inputs and outputs with no configuration, no drivers, nothing. Just plug and go, which I did: plug and record. More later.

Compared to the Avid HD I/O, the specs are very close. 122 dB and 125 dB dynamic range for ADC/DAC for the Avid versus 118 dB and 118 dB for the Orion, with THD+N at -114 dBFS and -110 dBFS on the Avid and -98 dBFS and -105 dBFS on the Orion. In the real world, I saw noise on the analog inputs typically at -104 versus -107 on the Digi 192. Virtually insignificant.

In Use: Routing

When hooking up any new piece of computer gear, that’s job one. On a unit with 148 input sources (ADC, USB Play, MADI In, ADAT In, SPDIF In and Mix) and just as many outputs, getting from point A (In) to point B (Out) could be a real challenge, and for myself and most of the users I loaned the unit to, it was. Many of them found it difficult to get signal routed in and out of the unit via the control panel software. While learning something new isn’t always easy, I don’t think it should be this hard either. The small manual (only 19 pages) didn’t help much and is surprisingly brief for a unit of this complexity. The software Control Panel (which will run on a Mac or PC with a USB port, plus it would be perfect running on an iPad, an option I hope they offer soon) is very clean and attractive with Clock Source and Sample Rate pulldown menus, five preset buttons (which I wish could be named), full metering for every input and every output (mirroring the hardware meters on the unit), and a light dimmer control and a mixer.

At Right: The Control Panel routing panel allows patching for 148 inputs to 148 outputs.

Also included are dual oscillators (440 and 1 kHz at dBFS levels of 0, -6, -12 or -20) that can be assigned to any output for calibration purposes, and the ADC and DAC levels are trimmable in 1 dB steps (which may be fine for consumers, but professionals would prefer finer resolution of .1 dB). I ran the control panel on several different computers and it worked fine, but on my Mac Mini (2.6G with quad-core Intel i7), I could only open the Settings panel once and after that I would have to quit the Control Panel and reopen to access it again. This and a randomly flashing Input 4 meter were the main bugs I experienced.

The other major problem I encountered was that, with the Mac Mini and this OS (10.3.8) and Apple’s USB3 implementation, I could not use sampling frequencies above 48 kHz. The same was true with Auria on my iPad. NOTE: This was solved with the Rev. 1.2.8 software I received the day before the print deadline. I was able to confirm that it worked at the higher Fs but was unable to do any listening. I did hook it up and noticed that the idle noise on the converters is predictably higher at 96 kHz than 48 kHz (-96 dBFS vs. -104 dBFS, respectively). I also noticed that I was unable to use a USB extender cable (even an active one) with it successfully, meaning that the Orion always had to be within a 1 M cable radius of the computer.

So now comes the true test. How does it sound?

In Use: Listening Session 1

At Mayfield Mastering, I listened with veteran engineers John Mayfield (Dave Matthews Band, Sara Evans, Kathy Mattea) and Glenn Meadows (Shania Twain, Steely Dan, George Strait), comparing just the DAC via SPDIF inputs using CD sources like Alan Jackson, Diana Krall, Rascal Flatts over the Bryston-powered PMC monitors, comparing it to an Apogee Rosetta 200. In this test, the differences were very subtle and all of us agreed that reliably identifying which converter was which would be difficult if not impossible. On one source, we could identify a difference between the two but it was subtle enough as to be insignificant. That says a lot for these experienced ears.

At Right: Serious listening at Mayfield Mastering on the Bryston/PMC monitors. Photo: Lynn Fuston

In Use: Listening Session 2

At Addiction Sound with Glenn Rosenstein (Ziggy Marley, U2, Madonna) and David Kalmusky (Journey, Small Town Pistols, Emerson Drive), using ½” 2-track master mixed from 2” as the source, through five different converters, routing into the AD and out the DA path; see Studio Sense (http://www.prosoundnetwork.com/choosingconverters) to read about the setup. In this test, against converters like the Digi 192, Avid HDIO and Cranesong HEDD that cost between $250 and $750 per channel, the Orion did not fare as well. Each listener had a clear favorite but none preferred the Orion. The clarity and definition in the other converters made them clear winners.

In Use: Recording Session

I needed to record a choir rehearsal so I took six mics and the Orion 32 along with my Millennia Media HV-3R preamp and routed the Orion into Auria on my iPad 4. It’s really amazing to just plug the USB output from the Orion into the Apple Camera Connection kit adapter (USB to Lightning), plug that into the iPad and automatically have 24 inputs mapped to 24 tracks. I set the levels, armed six tracks and hit Record. Over two hours later, I was all done. I listened to the recording once I got back to the studio and it sounds great. The 100+ dB signal-to-noise ratio is certainly appreciated in situations like this where there is no chance to set levels ahead of time. And the whole setup, exclusive of mics and preamps, was under $4000. Amazing.

At the eleventh hour, I got a newer unit, hardware rev 4.1 (the unit I reviewed was 3.1), that Antelope said should sound better than the unit I had been reviewing. I listened to them side by side. On the input side (ADC) I could not distinguish any difference. With the DAC, there might have been a slight improvement but not one that was significant enough for me to change my opinion of its overall performance.

Summary
 
At Right: The world’s most expensive ($9000) front end for an iPad recording: Millennia HV-3R and Orion 32 AD/DAC. Photo: Lynn Fuston 

I really like that technology has progressed to the point where we have a very usable box like this with so much functionality at such a small size and remarkably low price. I’ve joked that in another 10 years, we’ll have 32 x 32 digital interfaces in our phones. The big picture overview? The Orion 32 truly is a marvelous box that does lots of things right but with a challenging, but masterable, interface. For most users, it will be a great and affordable option. It certainly raises the bar when it comes to overall functionality for the price. Is it a challenger for the best ADC/DACs out there? In my opinion, not quite, but considering the price, it deserves consideration for those looking for quiet conversion at an affordable price.

Price: $2,995 street

Contact: Antelope Audio | http://www.antelopeaudio.com

Lynn Fuston is a Nashville-based recording engineer and mixer, owner of 3D Audio, Inc., and the Technical Editor of Pro Audio Review. http://www.3daudioinc.com