We’re crazy for new gear, but when it comes to not only one of our favorite brands in Apogee but also with a new audio interface? We had to get our hands on this thing at Winter NAMM 2020. As always at the convention, we do our best to not only find what’s new in the music equipment world but also what the real truth is about all of these products — are they worth our money? What are they bringing to the table for the new year? Apogee has come out with some amazing gear this past decade and there was a big buzz going on about the new Symphony Desktop audio interface, especially with how many fans of their original Symphony I/O interfaces there have been through out the years. Let’s check it out!
Main highlights of the Apogee Symphony Desktop
- Compatible with Windows, Mac, iPad Pro
- USB-C connection
- Dynamic touch screen interface
- Vintage alloy mic preamp emulation
- Hardware Digital Signal Processing (DSP)
- 10 in by 14 out channels
- Two (2) advanced stepped gain preamps
- Gain up to 75 dB
- Variable impedance
- FET instrument input
- Built-in processing (hardware) of FX rack plugins
- Software included: Symphony ECS Channel Strip, Symphony Reverb
- Zero latency workflows with plugins
- Two (2) headphone outputs (1/4″ and 1/8″)
Standout features and design
First and foremost what’s beautiful here is the fact that this is essentially Apogee’s beloved Symphony I/O Mk II converted into a desktop interface that fits nicely on your desk, and is compatible cross-platform (yes Windows, Mac and even iPad Pro). This and it’s little brother the Duet made it in our best audio interface for Mac article.
We finally don’t have to choose between a whopping original Symphony interface (for that sound) vs. one of their smaller desktop units (that’s usually only geared towards those with smaller budget and beginning home studios). What we’re really getting here in the Apogee Symphony are those juicy AD/DA converters, mic preamps and analog circuitry that Apogee is famous for, giving us a sound and quality a lot of music snobs can all agree on sounds pretty elegant, especially in such a muddled audio interface world.
When we’re talking audio interfaces within this price-range and from a brand like this, we’re spending those extra hundreds on (in our opinion) the most important of recording in general — what’s inside that little interface, and with the question, how is our sound actually being processed? This particular interface brings us quite a few head nods when it comes to actual conversion and process of our sound, whether that’s vocals, guitars, even piano and other strings you may have lying around.
The actual components and design of the circuitry is key here, and to begin, let’s look at it’s DSP (which most interfaces use). For those who need a little expansion on that, DSP stands for digital signal processing, and is the means to which a device can understand sound by converting it into data (a sequence of numbers that represent samples of a variable), which then sends it as a pulse train to the receiving end (to process it all and send the message). Sounds a bit techy we know, but to really get down to the nitty-gritty and why audio interfaces are important is literally because of this. What then makes other interfaces better than others is the overall quality as well as actual type of components that are inside of the unit which are responsible for processing the data. The speed and quality to which the data is created and sent
With that being said, the Apogee Symphony Desktop here has a few standouts in regards to it’s skeleton far beyond the DSP, with one of our favorites being something called ‘Alloy Mic Preamp emulation’, which gives us sound tones and ‘warmth’ (subjective term, yes) of old-school analog preamps (the word alloy actually means combination). To achieve this, the preamps have actual analog circuitry inside that combines with the DSP to try to get rid of that traditionally digitally-sounding processing. This is attained by including more advanced terminology we won’t get too in to — input impedance, transient shaping, harmonic spectrum as well as certain characteristics of distortion in the analog build itself. Then comes the DSP circuitry to create a sort of ‘hybrid’ sound processing, if you will (hope that made sense!). A lot of interfaces (especially cheaper ones) just use only DSP because it costs less to include actual analog hardware into their units, unlike the Symphony Desktop.
The mic preamps themselves built-in give us a whopping 75 dB of gain, Apogee’s termed ‘Advanced Stepped Gain Architecture” (low noise and distortion, can handle a high SPL, and variable impedance settings for mic and instrument ins for a better overall input stage). You can also actually ’emulate’ certain preamps and they’ve given us two choices, the ‘British Solid State’ and ’50’s American Tube’, giving you some nice options in regards to ‘sound’, something we’ve rarely seen on an audio interface before.
Lastly and now that we’ve expanded upon the most important parts of the heart of the Symphony Desktop, next of course we have the option of A/D conversion (analog to digital conversion) or D/A (digital to analog conversion). The A/D conversion has some very low distortion analog op-amps and a higher-end converter for some great reproduction, and the D/A has a higher current output driver for a nice transparent message for your mix.
Design of the Symphony Desktop audio interface
Let’s talk I/O and overall design of the Apogee Symphony Desktop. A highlight we definitely noticed is the two independent headphone outputs, both being low in impedance, routable individually, and entailing dual-sum ESS DACs (higher-end digital to analog converters for those unaware). The front headphone out is for any type of headphones while the back is made especially for higher-efficiency headphones (why not? great for those engineering with higher-end open-backs and needing another simple out in the front for your musician in the booth).
We also as seen in the picture have two mic-line instrument inputs that use their step gain preamps and FET-driven input on the front panel (optimized for guitars). You also have two-balanced line outs in the back. Otherwise, we’ve heard some buzz that a con of the interface is the relatively small I/O options (you’ll need a b set of speakers), as well as no word clock I/O.
Of course one of our favorites of this is merely the touch screen user interface and is quite immersive and comprehensive, being able to access numerous controls and tweaks at our fingertips. It’s a pretty big screen considering the size of this unit and are quite happy with it and great if you can get around the lesser in and out options.
Included software bundle
Lastly we’re going to briefly expand upon the Symphony Desktop audio interface’s software bundle and overall FX and DAW workflow since it’s another huge selling point of this thing, and gladly if you’re in the market for it (we still think it’s worth it even without the software, but we’ve heard some complaints that really they aren’t too essential especially for those who can afford or want to spend this much on an interface like this, not to mention it costs less to include their new ‘Apogee Channel Strip’ plugin, or another option with all of their FX plugins for only a hundred bucks more).
First and foremost the device to DAW workflow is quite nifty here (if you’re even a fan of doing so). Considering it is first touch screen and the large knob on front, you can access a lot of major settings without needing to wiggle with your DAW. We personally just get that all out of the way before we start recording, but in the end you never know when you’ll need to do so during the process altogether.
In terms of a specific DAW, if you’re a Logic Pro X user, you’re in luck here when it comes to enjoying their “Apogee FX Rack” and “DualPath Monitoring” features. There’s a Logic Pro X Direct button and ‘Audio Device Control view’ that can both be accessed in one window in the DAW. With these features you can access direct monitoring of your inputs (low latency), actually hear the Apogee FX Rack through the DSP, tweak the channel strip fader and pan control playback settings.
Some other standout plugins we’ll sift through include their “Symphony ECS Channel Strip” (EQ, compression, saturation, as well as providing workflow options like zero latency tracking — you can also use it as just the plug-in in your DAW), “Print FX” (record Apogee FX plugins directly from the hardware DSP), and “Monitor FX Rack”. Ultimately in terms of workflow advantages, you can use the plugins natively without the hardware, or can even print through them with the on-board DSP. The dual-path link workflow specifically is made for direct monitoring with plugins in a simple and intuitive way. You can work in your DAW, open plugins, manipulate the signal all at the same time without any interruptions
Concluding the Apogee Symphony Desktop review
All in all, we’ll be honest — this was one of our favorite new products at the NAMM show this year. We’re definitely suckers for audio interfaces, but when it comes to actually providing value and something new (a lot of brands are just releasing rehashes of other’s products so they can compete in existing games), Apogee has clearly made a stamp in the game with this. Their ability to convert their more expensive and advanced Symphony I/O MkII into something (relatively) affordable for a home studio (cross-platform at that) is great here. We know a lot of you will go for a cheaper alternative if you aren’t too huge into having a budget or large studio, but for those who really want to take a step up in their music game and want to get into more advanced forms of recording, this is a beautiful entry-level interface into a middle-tier studio workflow.
Any best audio interface guide of course will provide us with some of the more popular models out there, but this particular interface will blow a lot of those out of the water considering it’s more advanced a bit more expensive than most would search Google for. This audio interface here is really the sum of it’s parts. All in all, we’re really digging the Apogee Symphony Desktop audio interface, and highly recommend you upgrade your interface if you have the cash and want your recordings to include more detailed-oriented facets in your mix.