|Ease of use||4|
|Bang for buck||4|
Overall: 4 || |
UAD Apollo Quad Full Review
Universal Audio Apollo Quad UAD Interface by Matt Hepworth
The Universal Audio Apollo sounds like a dream come true for project and home studios. Boasting features like top shelf converters, high quality mic preamps, Thunderbolt connectivity and a full blown UAD-2 on board, could Apollo really be all it's cracked up to be?
At the NAMM show in January, Universal Audio announced the Apollo - a shockingly powerful combined 24-bit 192 kHz high-resolution interface and a full UAD-2 DSP system capable of real-time processing that caught everyone by surprise and filled page after page on online forums like UAD Forums and Gearslutz. Pre-loaded with the same capabilities as the UAD Satellites and class leading conversion, as well as the promise of Thunderbolt connectivity, we were all drooling over this gorgeous, silver creature, and dying to check this new Greek god of light out.
With a little help from JRR Shop, I was able to get my hands on an Apollo Quad from the first batch.
The Apollo is well laid out and beautiful. It's a sleek interface with great front panel input and output metering and has looks that inspire confidence. The preamplifiers and monitor control are handled digitally from smoothly turning knobs. A unique metering system fills in a semi circle visually outlining your knob with green luminescence to show your levels. To the right of the panel metering is the monitor control knob that can push to mute the main outputs by pressing it in. When muted the meter ring also changes color to red to give clear indication of when audio is active or inactive from your monitors. One quick note is that the unit defaults to unmuted when power cycled, instead of recalling its last setting. On the left is the preamplifier control with function buttons just to the right of the knob. Finishing off the front panel are two instrument inputs on the far left and two individually controlled headphone outputs on the far right, just left of the sturdy power switch. On the backside are eight line inputs and outputs and four microphone preamplifiers. A separate set of line outputs for the monitors in TRS are also included, along with wordclock, ADAT, and S/PDIF. Capable of 18 simultaneous inputs and 24 outputs, it is well equipped to take on most projects.
The analog connections consist of four high-quality microphone preamplifiers with XLR connections and eight quarter-inch TRS line inputs. Any eight of the analog inputs can be used at one time. The mic preamplifiers each feature up to 70dB of clean gain, 48V phantom power, polarity invert, 80Hz high pass filter, a -20dB pad, stereo link, and a line switch - all of which can be physically controlled via the front panel knob and buttons, or controlled via software.
Analog outputs are eight quarter-inch TRS balanced line level outs, and one pair of TRS balanced outputs for the main outputs that are controlled from the front monitor knob. TRS unbalanced stereo headphone outputs are located on the front and have individual volume control knobs.
The digital input and output capabilities are reasonably expansive and consist of: two sets of ADAT optical input and output connections for up to eight channels of 96 kHz audio, and stereo S/PDIF coaxial input and output connections.
Set up was very simple, but it turned out I had one of the few Macs with an inadequate FireWire bus and had to order a FireWire 800 card from universal audios compatibility list (as of this review, JRR Shop is including a compatible card with all Apollo purchases).
Although I had been using the unit successfully on FireWire 400, the DSP capabilities were quite limited. Once I popped in the new FireWire 800 card everything ran just like it was supposed. And kept on running. Even though it's normal to have a few bugs in generation one software, the Apollo worked great and never let me down during the session. The mixer application called Console, on the other hand, had quite a few minor glitches and would disappear from the screen randomly, or when minimized, and would have to be relaunched from the menu.
Unit settings were quite simple and are accessed from a menu in Console. Settings include clocking, sample rate, and the other things you'd expect from a typical interface. Sample rates are selectable from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. Buffer sizes range from 64 samples up to 1024 samples. There's also a DSP usage control that can help you achieve maximum performance for balanced audio and DSP loads over the same FireWire bus.
Console is the onboard DSP-based mixer that allows real-time use of UAD plug-ins. This is an impressive feature, and I found it to be very useful. The layout of console is much like an analog counsel with two Auxes, channel assigns, two dedicated headphone sends, and main bus. Preamp controls are also conveniently located in Console. Additionally all of Console's settings can be saved as a plug-in in your DAW software with the session. Although it was quite apparent that the goal of Console was to work like recordings in the glory days, and printing to tape. However, in the modern age of DAWs, many of us expect much more advanced routing and monitoring capabilities. More about this later. For now, let's get on to what everybody cares about – the sound.
I put the Apollo's converters to the test against a plethora of opponents - some of which were more than double the price. Among the contestants were an Apogee AD8000 mk II, a Black Lion modified Apogee AD8000, a Rosetta 800, an AD16X, a Digidesign 192, a Benchmark DAC-1, and also a TC Konnekt 48. Unfortunately, I had just parted ways with my Lynx Aurora prior to the shootout, but even on first listen I felt that the Apollo was very similar in sound to the Aurora, with the Aurora being slightly wider in stereo field, and slightly less bright, according to my memory.
Apollo's conversion is intended to be clean and open and it definitely delivers. I did hear a slight hint of extra air, or splish, if you will. Though not huge, it caught me on my first listen to some very familiar material.
Opening a Pro Tools HD project in Native mode, I got to use the Apollo on a mix I was currently working on. I was very pleased with the imaging and spaciousness of the sound, but found the cymbals sounding just a bit harsh. After putting an EQ across the mix bus with a 1dB cut from 8kHz up, the sound was more what I felt represented what I was used to hearing. Printing the mix with and without the EQ I noticed a slight difference on other playback systems, but not like the difference I was hearing in my control room through my ADAM P33A's. Switching over to my NS-10's with a sub, I loaded each mix into a new session and compared. I noticed the EQ'd mix felt like it had more bass because I was hearing slightly less highs. With the quick, initial listing out of the way, it was on to more serious testing.
First stop was putting the digital to analog conversion against some well-respected and widely used competitors and soon I was knee-deep in comparisons between the Apollo, an Apogee Rosetta 800, and a Benchmark DAC-1. Next to the Rosetta 800, the Apollo was a little prettier and a little cleaner. In contrast, when put up against the Benchmark, the Apollo was wetter and less realistic. In an ABC shootout, each of the three DA converters had things I preferred over the other two. In the end the Apollo stood up very well against the Rosetta 800, but fell a little short of the Benchmark DAC-1. It just felt like the Benchmark was in a little higher class than the Rosetta and Apollo.
Since I had the large pile of converters in my control room, I had the opportunity to put the Apollo up against the previous generation's top-shelf converters; including the AD8000 mk II (which is essentially a mk I SE), and a Digidesign 192 I/O. I found the Apollo to be a bit better than the Apogee, particularly because of the better detail and accuracy of the Apollo DA. Shooting out the Apollo's DA against the 192 DA was not such a close race, though. Apollo had better stereo imaging, better clarity, width, and detail, but a little less aggressive sound overall and possibly just a hint less depth (unless, it was playing tricks on me and the added width was actually de-emphasizing the depth slightly). I was a bit surprised, however, to hear that the Apollo had slightly less punch, in favor of unveiling significantly more detail than the 192's DA conversion.
The AD conversion bestowed upon Apollo is very good sounding - clear, accurate, and detailed. I feel like I can confidently put it in the same league as my Black Lion Audio modified Apogee AD8000 (which just so happens to be the only one in existence and is quite an excellent sounding converter). In my testing I found the Apollo had a slightly wider stereo image, slightly more open top, and slightly less depth and punch. Essentially, they were different, but equal. With the Apogee AD8000 stock unit I found the Apollo's conversion to be wider and more accurately represent the source. While the analog to digital conversion did not sound identical to the source, it was quite similar. Again, Apollo reminded me quite a bit of the Aurora AD conversion, which is wide, clear, and very detailed.
There was a slight difference in the sound of that conversion when using the preamplifier inputs for line-level signals, versus using the separate line inputs directly. If anything, though, I had a slight preference to the four channels with preamplifiers.
Lastly, Apollo's AD converters were put up against the Apogee AD16X where they fared well, but we're not as glorious or as true to the source as the Apogee's converters.
The microphone preamplifiers had very little color to them and I found them to neither flattered the sound, nor detracted from it. I suspect they were intended to be that way for a reason. Particularly, it wood make a very good platform for a future software upgrade that could emulate other preamplifiers digitally in real-time. That aside, they compared very favorably to the Digidesign PRE, an 8 channel unit costing more than an Apollo Quad, but were a bit duller and more boring sounding than the True Systems Precision 2 Analog. The Apollo's preamps' pad and low cut were very welcome features on a unit that's already so feature laden. I also appreciated that the preamplifier design had very low noise - even when turned high.
With all the conversion tests I had the opportunity to compare the Apollo on its own clock and on external clocks. I found the Apollo to be quite sensitive to clocking and I found it to sound noticeably worse when clocked to some converters. Now, I am from the school that believes a better wordclock cannot improve the performance of the internal clock in the unit, but that external clock can, however, change the sound of the converters that are clocking from it.
This definitely seemed to be true with the Apollo. While clocking it from the Digidesign clock noticeably degraded the sound, I found the smoothness, depth, tightness, and punch of the Apollo's converters to improve when clocked to a Big Ben, at the expense of a little stereo width.
What's the Catch?
Even with all the features the Apollo has there are some serious holes that, hopefully, have just not been addressed yet.
There is no DAW playback volume control. While odd, it's not necessarily a deal breaker. On the other hand, what cannot be overlooked, and may be a deal breaker for some, is the fact that you cannot assign your DAW playback to any output other than the main outs. If truly omitted, I'd call it a very careless, costly mistake on Universal Audio's part.
My last complaint is the absolute lack of any routing capabilities. The Apollo cannot be used as an expansion for existing systems, or used to run even basic alternate routing and monitoring plans, let alone outboard hardware.
I spoke to Universal Audio about the mixing console's DSP availability and was encouraged by their response that there's sufficient DSP available to expand the capabilities. That's the beauty of the shortcomings of the Apollo - they can potentially all be addressed via software/firmware updates.
Long story short, the Universal Audio Apollo is a fine piece of hardware from a company with an outstanding track record and highly admired lineage on both the analog and digital sides. The converters are very good - easily outclassing units like the Fireface 800 and TC Konnekt 48. In fact, it's conversion was substantially superior to the industry standard Digidesign 192 I/O.
So, for native users, is it the new Fireface 800 that set the standard for native interfaces last decade? No, but it definitely has the potential to exceed it once the routing functionality gets up to par.
I make it a point to never buy a unit based on future features, but in the Apollo's case, future features will just be the icing on the cake.