Review: Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt

Brad Watts got his hands on the new 30 x 34 audio interface for Mac, and found a lot to get excited about.

Apogee isn’t an entity to rest on its laurels, although it could easily do so. The company has been at the forefront of digital audio conversion since the very beginnings of the format, having been founded by Bruce Jackson in 1985, along with Christof Heidelberger and Soundcraft USA president, Betty Bennett.

For many years, Apogee DACs and ADCs were the bastion of the professional sphere, with devices aimed at the upper echelon of recording. Yet from 2007, with the release of an audio interface aimed at the project studio market, the Ensemble FireWire-based interface brought top-shelf Apogee audio conversion to a wider audience. The Ensemble then went on to win a TEC Award, chosen by the awards group’s 100-plus audio industry professionals.

Eight years on, Apogee is offering a continuation of the Ensemble heritage. Gone is the original FireWire connectivity, supplanted with wider, faster and vastly more versatile Thunderbolt connectivity. This fact leaves the Ensemble steadfastly in the realm of Apple computers – a tactic Apogee is more than comfortable with, having renounced development for Microsoft operating systems in early 2009.

Physically the new Ensemble is one of the sturdiest pieces of audio gear you’ll come across. The casing is constructed of 2mm-thick steel – no aluminium to be seen here. Equally as reassuring is the fact that all I/O ports are firmly attached to the chassis, so there’ll be no fear of bending connectors held to the board by way of solder connection alone. Plus, in somewhat of a recent departure for Apogee, the Ensemble is black.

I/O to the unit includes eight of Apogee’s high gain (75dB) mic preamps. The preamps include Apogee’s Soft Limit, 48V power and high pass filters – all switchable via software. Connection is via the rear, with the first four being combo inputs for either XLR or jacks, and inputs one and two including inserts. The inserts offer separate jacks for in and out as opposed to a single TRS jack. Outputs one and two are presented as balanced jack outputs with the remaining eight balanced analogue outputs presented via a 25-pin D-sub connector. A further 16 I/O points are available via four TosLink/ADAT optical connectors, which can be configured for S/PDIF or S/MUX. Alongside are coaxial S/PDIF in and out, wordclock in and out, and two Thunderbolt 2 ports. All up you’re looking at 30 x 34 I/O points (including the two headphone outputs) should you add additional ADAT interfaces.

Out front are two additional high impedance instrument inputs. These incorporate Class A JFET circuitry for more realistic harmonic character when recording guitar and bass. What’s exciting about this section is the additional instrument outputs. These are provided for re-amping duties, or indeed, strapping high impedance stomp-box effects across a track. Top marks Apogee – a creative gold mine built right into the interface. I’ve seen many an audio interface, and nothing else can pull this trick. Exemplary.

Visual feedback such as metering and headphone output levels is delivered via OLED displays, or of course, via the downloadable Maestro 2 control panel software. In fact, Ensemble has a hybrid creative user interface whereby most controls can be accessed from both software and hardware. Pressing and holding the desired input selection buttons on Ensemble lets you access input settings such as 48V power, high-pass filters and grouping from the front panel.

Speaking of software, you’ll need to be running version 10.9.3 of OS X (a.k.a. Mavericks). But more on that in a moment while we peruse the Ensemble’s front panel. Either side of the OLEDs are large detented potentiometers. The left side pot adjusts the selected input’s gain, and the right side pot adjusts monitoring level. A push on the right post will mute or un-mute the main outputs, and a push on the left pot scrolls through the 10 primary input channels (one through to eight and the two guitar channels). To the left of the input level pot are dedicated buttons for quickly selecting input channels for adjustment. Off to the right are four assignable buttons, which can be assigned via the Maestro 2 application for dozens of functions. These can include options such as clearing meters, through to toggling the guitar channel outputs from the DAW software or the guitar inputs.

What’s interesting is the ability to assign a button to engage talkback via the talkback microphone planted in the front panel. The talkback destination can be set to go to either or both of the headphone outputs, and outputs 9-10. That’s right, the Ensemble Thunderbolt entirely negates the need for an external monitoring device. This ensures you’re hearing every drop of sonic goodness from the Ensemble without sullying the fidelity with a sonically inferior monitoring unit. You can even assign outputs to three sets of monitors and choose to use an external mic for talkback. Absolute gold.

Speaking of fidelity, Apogee has upped the ante again, with a definitive upgrade from units such as the Duet and Quartet. The Ensemble incorporates an ESS Sabre32 32-bit Hyperstream DAC with ‘Time Domain Jitter Eliminator’. And while the Ensemble doesn’t outshine Apogee’s flagship Symphony I/O, it comes extremely close in specification. The Ensemble pulls THD+N of -114dB (at 96kHz) and a dynamic range of 123dB for its D-A, while the Symphony I/O manages -117dB and a dynamic range of 129dB. Equally as impressive is the device’s latency performance, with a 1.1 millisecond round trip delay at 96kHz. The resulting sonics are something to behold, with Apogee’s usual smooth and crisp high frequency reproduction, but with a bottom end that’s simply glorious. You’ve never heard your kicks captured and replayed like this before. All in all, you’re going to have to look hard to find an interface to offer all the Ensemble can at a price like this. Truly a watershed moment for Apogee.

Brad Watts has been a freelance writer for numerous audio mags, has mastered and mixed various bands, and was deputy editor of AudioTechnology in Australia. He is now digital content manager for Content and Technology.