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Review: Apogee Symphony I/O Mk II

Anyone desiring a truly significant interface upgrade should give Symphony I/O Mk II top consideration.

I reviewed the original Apogee Symphony back in 2007 and loved it. Since then, I have used the converters for numerous projects and have always been pleased with their performance, reliability and sound quality. Technology has radically changed over the last decade, so I couldn’t wait to see how the product has evolved over time. To say the least, I was thoroughly impressed.

The Symphony I/O Mk II is a 2U multi-channel audio interface that features Apogee’s latest flagship AD/ DA conversion technology coupled with modular I/O technology (up to 32 channels of I/O) and the ability to include eight pristine microphone preamps. The beautifully designed, American-made interface incorporates a design aesthetic including a clean, sleek front panel with a large control knob and large, high-resolution touch screen. The idea of a “future-proof ” modular design is nothing new among interface manufacturers, but there have always been flaws to such implementations (e.g., having to physically switch cards to change interface options). This is not the case with the Symphony I/O Mk II; in it, Apogee brilliantly implements modular technology. Additionally, the Symphony is backwards- compatible with original Symphony I/O modules, adding upgrade appeal to current users.

Symphony currently has three interface options available: Thunderbolt, Pro Tools HD and SoundGrid. The Pro Tools HD interface with DigiLink connector occupies the Option Card slot, while the Thunderbolt ports reside below the fan. This allows up to two Module cards to be installed, regardless of the interface type (DigiLink or Thunderbolt). Thankfully, the Thunderbolt version provides two ports. Thunderbolt’s protocol allows up to six devices to be daisy-chained per port but many computers and most Thunderbolt hard drives only have a single port, making it impossible to utilize more than one Thunderbolt device. Having two Thunderbolt ports on a Thunderbolt-equipped interface should be a given in the pro audio world; unfortunately, it isn’t. Thus Apogee has incorporated two ports into Symphony I/O Mk II’s design.

In the instance of my review unit, I had both Thunderbolt and Pro Tools HD cards installed. The choice to change interface options is available in the touchscreen menu, requiring a system re-boot but no cards must be physically changed. I was able to utilize Symphony in my studio, connecting its Pro Tools HD card directly to my studio computer’s HDX card via Digilink Mini cable. I was then able to take it home to use with my MacBook Pro via Thunderbolt without having to add or remove a card. The SoundGrid card, which Apogee is adding to the peripheral list in Q1 2017, allows the interface to be connected to a SoundGrid network, delivering real-time DSP processing from Waves and third-party Sound Grid-compatible plug-ins. I anticipate we’ll see more options (Dante, MADI, etc.) in the near future.

The Symphony I/O Mk II has four base I/O configuration options: 2×6 (2×6 analog I/O, 8×8 optical I/O and AES I/O), 8×8 (8 x 8 analog I/O and 8 x 8 AES/Optical I/O), 16×16 (16 x 16 analog I/O) and 8×8+8MP (8 x 8 analog I/O, 8×8 AES/optical I/O and 8 mic pres). The configurations are expandable (check Apogee’s website for all of the options), making it possible to have up to 32×32 analog I/O in a single chassis. My review unit had the 8×8+8MP configuration.

Since Big Ben’s release in 2003, Apogee has been considered by many to be the leader in uncompromised clocking; for decades, its converters have been the standard by which others are generally measured. The Symphony I/O Mk II continues that tradition with the incorporation of the ESS Sabre32 32-bit Hyperstream DAC with Time Domain Jitter Eliminator. This chip provides premium audio clarity with a broad dynamic range and ultra low distortion. Though no stranger to the audiophile community, Apogee is one of the first pro-audio manufacturers to incorporate it into an interface and, in addition to Symphony I/O, it is utilized in Duet 2, Duet for iPad & Mac, Ensemble and Quartet interfaces.

I’ve been using the Symphony I/O Mk II for several weeks now and it sounds stunning. Most importantly, it flawlessly integrated into my studio via my HDX card. It has performed equally well coupled with my MacBook Pro utilizing the Thunderbolt connectivity. I’ve had success utilizing a wide variety of DAWs and other applications via Symphony I/O, including Logic Pro X, Harrison Mixbus 32C, Pro Tools, Studio One 3, Garage Band, iTunes, Audacity and Hoffa DDP Player. When running Logic Pro X (or any other Core Audio compatible DAW) at 96 kHz with a 32-sample buffer and connecting via Thunderbolt, latency is an amazing 1.35 milliseconds—virtually un- detectable.

Symphony I/O’s built-in monitoring functionality makes it easy to configure monitoring through a DAW. This will be more than enough monitor control for many studio configurations, eliminating the need for an independent monitor control device. The interface’s audiophile-grade headphone amplifier provides top-quality resolution, perfectly powering virtually any make of in-ear monitor or headphone. I spent hours listening to various cuts from my hi-res music collection via Blue Lola, Focal Spirit Professional and Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 headphones as well as my UE Reference Remastered IEMs; the headphone amp consistently sounded great, providing exceptional imaging and astounding detail.

The Symphony I/O’s converters are also superb. In this evaluation, I recorded acoustic guitar and vocals at 44.1 kHz, 96 kHz and 192 kHz; in each instance I received tremendous sonic clarity and transparency. I’ve used a lot of converters over the past three decades, and I would easily put Symphony I/O up against any of those I’ve heard through the years.

Symphony I/O’s mic preamps are quite impressive too. I was skeptical about the performance potential of eight mic pres with an impressive 85 dB of gain on a modular card, but Apogee has worked wonders by designing a preamp that is extremely clean and natural yet in no way sterile or cold. The first four channels can be used as either instrument or microphone inputs and the second four channels are dedicated mic preamps. Additionally, all eight of the mic pres include inserts, making it possible to insert analog gear between the mic pre and the A/D. However, the best feature is that Symphony I/O’s inserts are software-configurable via the front panel or the Maestro software; for example, I can leave my Tube-Tech CL-1B attached to the first insert and move it from one preamp to another with the push of a button.

I used Symphony I/O’s mic pres coupled with a wide variety of mics and sound sources and heard remarkable results in every instance. These include a rhythm section consisting of a drum kit and bass guitar (AKG D112 on kick drum, Heil PR 20 mics on snare, hat, floor tom, Royer SF- 12 on overheads and bass recorded through an instrument input); finger- picked acoustic guitar with a Royer SF-12 (requiring almost all of the available 85 dB of gain) which sounded fantastic; both male and female vocals with the ADK Z-67; and other examples, all with great results. When controlling preamps directly from Apple Logic, Symphony I/O’s settings will be stored with the track; for example, if you have to replace one line in a vocal performance a whole month after recording the original track, the exact pre-amp settings will be recalled when the session is opened.

The Maestro software is easy to download and install, and for users who aren’t particularly fond of the application, they can access most of the software’s functionality via touchscreen control. However, the software is required to have full control of grouping and routing functionality. The touchscreen coupled with the control knob provide extremely intuitive operation. Maestro remains Mac-only; PC users are limited to touchscreen control.

I’ve never felt that there could be one “perfect converter” because interface needs significantly vary from one user to the next, but after reviewing Symphony I/O Mk II, my feelings have changed. Its modular design allows it to be “perfect” in both project studios and the most I/O-complex multi-room facilities. It is well-built, beautifully designed and sounds marvelous. Anyone desiring a truly significant interface upgrade should give Symphony I/O Mk II top consideration.