I’ve spent the better part of the last two years listening to many different converter systems. Frankly, my limited budget hasn’t enabled raising my entire rig up to what I’d consider “top shelf.” I first focused on transducers—microphones and monitors—as my top priority and did so for many years. As much as I like and use plug-ins, I felt that outboard processing was of greater importance as I loaded up on my favorite hardware compressors and effects.
I soon began reviewing some impressive converter sets for Pro Audio Review and managed to bring clients in for test recordings and evaluations with their input from critical listening sessions. Even as I found myself impressed with offerings from Focusrite, Prism, Lavry, iZ, Benchmark Media, SPL, Mytek, SSL and others, my clients weren’t at all wowed by any of the audio we recorded for evaluation at sample rates over 96 kHz. I stuck with my older MOTU rig but began researching a much-buzzed-about new chip—the ESS Sabre32 32-bit DAC—found in the Duet 2, Duet for iPad and Mac, Ensemble, Quartet and Symphony I/O. It’s actually found in numerous product lines including those by Lynx and even MOTU. These converters promised improvements in distortion, noise floor, imaging, jitter and overall clarity. Although I’m really not a disciple of specs, I have found that THD+N (total harmonic distortion plus noise) is truly indicative of audible differences between different components, even when other specs aren’t (e.g., frequency response linearity, where an array of converters sport similarly “flat” full ranges on paper). I finally brought a number of Sabre32-equipped models into my studio for evaluations after reading trustworthy endorsements from those pros who can use anything they want—guys like Bob Ludwig and Chris Lord-Alge—and noting their significant spec-based improvements over older converters (as well as some rather noisy modern ones, too).
I finally settled on an Apogee Symphony system, thus spending a substantial amount on one of the costlier converter systems available. I had three main reasons:
1. Clarity: The Symphony had all the clarity I desired without the somewhat clinical characteristics of some other models, especially noted at higher sample rates. Signal clarity can be costly and perhaps overrated—definitely the opinion of some of my clients—but nonetheless I sought transparency so as to not color my chosen mic/preamp pairings and so that my dirtiest of compression applications and crunchy tube amps are the added flavors.
2. Longevity: The Symphony’s modularity eased my fears of obsolescence. Having seen once superior (and pricey) legacy converter units slip into obsolescence, I was very concerned about making a good choice today that would hold up over time. The Symphony’s replaceable modules (a feature now available on many modern converter models) eliminated such concerns and allowed me to configure to my exact desires; I chose a full 24-channel analog I/O.
3. Flexibility: Symphony’s flexibility also met my ever-changing interconnect needs with additional AES/SPDIF I/O and ADAT optical I/O. Furthermore, operation via USB (16 channels at up to 96 kHz with reasonable latency performance and throughput); PCIe card (with minimal latency and maximum performance levels as utilized in my eight-core Mac Pro); or Thunderbolt via Symphony 64 Thunderbridge (equaling PCIe performance and compatibility specs with newer “black cylinder” Mac Pros and MacBook Pros) ensure I can flex and create new setups for growth and/or reviewing.
Sonically, I think the large investment is paying off. Familiar clients have noticed improvements and are more excited about their mixes with fewer requested revisions. Overall stereo imaging has improved with more definition to the phantom center, more front/back depth, and much more precision to soft pans even if the far sides are largely unchanged.
To my ears, the biggest audible difference is at the track level, which I didn’t expect; I’m using very similar tracking methods as before the Symphony but have applied noticeably less EQ to tracks when mixing. It’s not that I’m hearing big differences in frequency response; it is that my tracks just sit better in a mix, aren’t at all harsh, and seem more linear in their bottom end. Honestly, the improvements are hard to define yet easy to enjoy, and to mix.
As extensive as it was, my journey didn’t include auditions of all the converter choices on the market. My process did utilize some blind testing and “shootouts,” but not for all models, as I relied more on my workflow, clients and my memory. Scientific tests are always useful, but real world tests—in all their complicated, imperfect glory—are ultimately what motivated me to reach a final decision and whip out a credit card.
My choice wouldn’t be right for everyone, and I won’t say that clients should define a professional’s choices in gear. I am saying that the cliché of “harsh digital” is no longer a reality. Converter technology in just the last two years has made very significant advances. For me, this converter update is proving to be a great way to stay competitive in 2015.
Rob Tavaglione is the owner/operator of Charlotte NC’s Catalyst Recording, a full service music production facility with a focus on the needs of the discriminating independent artist.https://twitter.com/robtavaglione