You kids today and your audio interfaces. Back in my day, we had to trudge five miles uphill in the snow by foot to a dilapidated brick and mortar music shop, then find the one crusty, bitter employee in the back of the store who had been designated the "pro audio" guy, taking his quasi-monosyllabic grunts as gospel that the DigiFart 2000 would indeed play nicely with your creaky Dell before maxing out your credit cards. "Works awesome. Trust me. You'll make hits!" $12,000 lighter, we would drag the 200 lb sled back to the studio, full of obscure connectors, weird PCI cards, and a 2-channel interface that took up 14 RU of rackspace. Three days into the install "process," you discovered that, although not even hinted at in the arcane, 40,000-page spiral-bound user manual, the driver updates would have to be shipped on 43 floppy disks, and you would need to update the majority of your system just to boot the D.F. 2000 up. If you were lucky, you were tracking by the spring thaw.
My point (besides "Get off my lawn!") is simply that interfaces are freaking amazing now. Every year seems to deliver a whole new level of innovative awesomeness — compact, well-designed machines which take their design cues from real-world use and address the needs of audio pros and modest home-studio warriors alike. Take the brand new Apogee Ensemble, for instance. It's a 1RU-height unit that connects to your Mac via a single, absurdly fast Thunderbolt 2 connection, yet provides eight analog inputs with great mic preamps, two hardware insert points, ten analog outputs, two headphone outputs, guitar I/O with re- amping possibilities, talkback, up to eighteen channels of digital I/O, stellar AD/DA conversion, etc. — all at a price point that is accessible, and an installation that is dead simple. I went from opening the box to a fully operational battle-station in less than 20 minutes — that includes the time it took to download and install the Apogee Maestro 2 software plus install a firmware update for the Ensemble!
The design of the new Ensemble is carefully considered and is what I would characterize as "sexy-practical." Practical, in that almost every function needed for tracking and mixing with this interface is available via hardware buttons or knobs (including four buttons which are soft-assignable via Maestro). And sexy, in that even with all of this immediate tactile control, Apogee has deftly avoided a cluttered front-panel layout. In contrast to the ergonomic disaster of many interface panel designs, the controls and lovely bits of feedback via the two OLED displays enhance the Ensemble's usability. I found myself going to the Ensemble over my other rackmount interfaces, not only because it sounded great, but also because it was so darn easy to initiate tracking on it. Decide on a channel (1-8 are available, plus Guitar 1-2), press a button, and it lights up to highlight the selection. Press and hold to access channel parameters like insert point in/out, phantom power, high-pass filter, or even channel/group assignments; then twist (or press) the input selection knob to adjust those parameters. It's all very hands-on, and these thoughtful user experience touches, based on the principle of essential control, help to elevate the Ensemble above the crowded interface market in this price bracket.
A few other elements that really shine in this interface: Built-in talkback is available, and assignable to not only the two independent headphone outs, but to other hardware outs, allowing some flexibility in designing headphone mixes. The talkback is via a mono mic on the front panel, and Ensemble automatically dims your monitor source when engaged. The talkback is engaged via one of the four assignable buttons labeled A, B, C, and D. Other assignment options for these soft buttons include sum to mono, monitor dim, speaker set selection, etc. — much of this immediate control has made my Dangerous D-Box [Tape Op #61] seem a little redundant.
Speaking of the D-Box, I appreciate having eight of the analog outs available via a single DB-25 connector on the Ensemble. (Apogee shipped a DB-25 to XLR snake with our test unit, but the retail box does not include audio cabling.) Should I choose, I can directly connect the D-Box via a standard DB-25 cable for summing, and still have multiple output points available for alternate monitoring, re-amping, etc. Yes, re-amping! The guitar-level I/O is really handy for re-amping or using stompboxes as track inserts when mixing; the front panel inputs have Class A JFET circuits and a "thru" mode which can be used to record dry direct guitar signal while listening through an amp connected to the guitar output. I ran dry, direct-recorded bass tracks back out of my DAW through the front panel and had a blast re-amping them through an assortment of distortion and flange stompboxes, then back into a "wet" DAW track via Ensemble, all while maintaining a proper impedance match.
Power is supplied via a single IEC cable (no wall wart). Apogee says that the design of the power regulators borrows custom elements from the flagship Symphony system [Tape Op #87, #99] (more details on that are available on their site). There is no internal fan, so Ensemble is dead quiet, with only a tiny "click" when switching inputs. This means that the unit will run pretty hot, and in fact, Apogee recommends leaving a rack space above or below for ventilation when possible.
The quality of the AD/DA conversion is stellar, and while it specs out just shy of Symphony's, note that Ensemble actually gets a little lower roundtrip latency than Symphony I/O (due in part to a redesigned driver architecture). I had no issues multitracking eight tracks of drums with buffer size set to 64 and even 32 samples in my DAW testing (Pro Tools 11, Live 9 and Logic X). Recording at 96 kHz with a 64 sample buffer, for instance, yields 1.8 ms roundtrip. Ensemble's conversion "sounds" ("feels"?) great, as expected from Apogee, but again, what mattered to me most in this testing was not specs so much as the fundamental ability to simply make music with the thing. The best interface is the one you use, right?
Bummers? Not many. There is no Thunderbolt cable included, and as mentioned earlier, no DB-25 snake. You'll really need both of those, so order those in advance of installing Ensemble to ensure zero frustration. With Thunderbolt being the only connectivity to the computer, only Thunderbolt-based Macs are supported, so older computers are out of the picture (as are Windows machines for the foreseeable future), but the throughput and viability of Thunderbolt coupled with Apple's apparent commitment to the platform pretty much ensure years and years of solid service. I was a little surprised to find that the ADAT S/MUX I/O had a ceiling of 96 kHz — no support for 192 kHz over S/MUX, just S/PDIF coaxial. But these mild bummer-points are far from being deal-breakers, based on my workflow.
All in all, this is a tremendously flexible box that I wouldn't hesitate recommending to anyone in the market for a new interface. At its price point, it offers a lot of extras that help to distinguish it from similarly-priced interfaces sold by Universal Audio, MOTU, Lynx, and others. Bonus: you won't need a sled to get it home!