Hmm, what metaphor do we go with here? How about: Apogee's new flagship interface is a badass truck that drives like a futuristic sports car.
Nailed it. Lemme explain.
The new Symphony I/O Mk II is an incredibly solid and reliable beast — a sleek, matte-black, 2RU-height, multi-channel audio interface system that features Apogee's latest and greatest AD/DA conversion technology, with swappable I/O modules that allow you to tailor the interface to your needs, thus effectively future-proofing your studio. The chassis is backward compatible with I/O modules that were designed for the original Symphony I/O [Tape Op #87], so if you've already invested in the platform, you can migrate to the new and improved chassis and retain or supplement your I/O as needed. (Exceptions are the first-generation AI16 and AO16 modules, which Apogee states are not Mk II compatible.)
Although Symphony I/O Mk II currently has three interface options (Thunderbolt built-in; or Pro Tools HD or Waves SoundGrid via option cards), the model we tested was equipped with two Thunderbolt ports as well as one 16×16 I/O module. This configuration integrated nicely with our existing Thunderbolt interfaces and hard-drive arrays. The chassis has two module bays plus one option card slot for a maximum of 32 channels of analog I/O, and one of the module models has eight mic preamps as well. The 16×16 I/O module uses two banks of standard DB25 connectors, and the same connectors are used throughout most of the other modules as well. Check out Apogee's website for all of the options available, as I'm sure they'll keep expanding the number of choices as audio technology continues to evolve.
The chassis itself is minimalist, thanks in no small part to the new TFT touchscreen on the front panel, where all of the essential settings and metering for the interface can be accessed. With the touchscreen, using the Symphony I/O starts to take on a Tesla-like experience, as virtually every possible parameter and calibration can be controlled via a series of pages and/or gestures. Beyond the touchscreen, the only physical control on the front face (except the power button) is a large, central rotary encoder, à la the Apogee Ensemble [Tape Op #105], which offers tactile control of various onscreen parameters. The TFT display looks great, and it has adjustable brightness and excellent off-axis viewability.
I was skeptical at first of using the touchscreen, in particular for setting critical parameters, but the system actually works differently than I had assumed. The Apogee team has built a great UI that makes the experience intuitive and easy. In many ways, it feels like the Maestro control software — in miniature — and is supplemented by the large control knob, which allows for fine adjustments. I could just tap (or "focus") on a given parameter, and then use the knob to dial in settings. Pushing in on the control knob allows for quick muting of the main monitor and headphone outputs, as well, which is a nice shortcut. We should give a shout-out to the onscreen metering here, which is well-implemented, despite the somewhat limited screen real estate. All of my input and output levels could be easily viewed at a glance, and the segmentation offered by the high-res TFT display is clear and easy to scan, even from a 5 ft distance.
So, yes, there is a balance here in this design between utilitarian function and modern control (pickup truck meets Tesla "Ludicrous Mode"), which I ended up really warming to. Having all of that control available via the front panel would simply be near-impossible without a paged-view, swipe-able touchscreen. Even if you were able to crowd all of those physical controls into a 2RU-height panel, it would undoubtedly be an ergonomic nightmare.
Another improvement in the Symphony I/O Mk II is heat management. The original Symphony took a little, ahem, "heat" in some reviews for its fan noise, but the new temperature control system has not only some vastly improved ventilation, but what Apogee calls Dynamic Temperature Control — a temperature monitoring system tied to the already quiet internal fan. The Settings page of the touchscreen even displays the current internal temperature of the unit as well as the fan speed. In my testing, the fans were incredibly quiet, and with normal rack ventilation considerations taken (some space above and below in my racks), I never saw the fan speed rise above 20%. Ambient noise from hard drives and other sources in my room was much more noticeable than the Symphony I/O Mk II's fans. All in all, an excellent improvement.
No surprises — the Symphony I/O Mk II crushes it where it counts — the conversion, clocking, and sound of the beast are phenomenal. Beyond my studio monitoring, I actually did a lot of my test listening using my UE Pro Reference Monitors [Tape Op #83] and was super impressed with the built-in headphone amplifier, too. It's gloriously detailed, and smooth as Yacht Rock, with truly stellar imaging. This is an area where some manufacturers cut costs, so even though there is only one headphone output on the front face, I'm grateful that Apogee didn't skimp in any way with the design. The conversion, folks, is astounding and does not disappoint. The specs are online, and I'd encourage you to nerd out on them, but suffice it to say the dynamic range provided with the Symphony I/O Mk II's converters can't be beat right now, and it's difficult to think of an interface that comes close to it in terms of clarity and response. Apogee's venerable Soft Limit feature is available on each input, acting as a fallback for any gain-staging errors made. Although I wouldn't slam any Soft Limit–enabled tracks and expect the limiting to sound as musical as, say, an 1176 or something, Apogee has always led the pack with that feature, which acts as a nice "session security blanket" to save you from harsh clips.
The Maestro control software which complements the Symphony I/O Mk II is familiar and relatively easy to navigate, but if there is a weak link, Maestro is definitely it. While totally functional, it just feels a little dated and underpowered in tandem with such a pro-level interface. Fortunately, Apogee seems to recognize this as well, and is introducing a new Symphony-specific software package soon, called Symphony Control. We haven't had a chance to test this software yet (it's in beta, Mac-only, and is expected to be available in March 2017, free for all Mk II users), but early details are encouraging, indicating greater customization, talkback features, and effects-send mixer functions. Apogee is also introducing support for its Apogee Control remote accessory when Symphony Control rolls out. Check out the Apogee blog for details.
Take note — the Symphony I/O Mk II is not a "prosumer" interface, and as such, it comes with a pretty, ahem, professional price tag after kitting it out with a few modules. It also is not necessarily meant to be a "grab-n-go" style mobile-friendly interface, as it's very heavy and seems most at home in the studio, wired up to your outboard gear in a rack (although I suppose one could easily add a couple of the 8×8+8MP modules for built-in mic preamps and instrument inputs). But per-channel, it is very price-competitive with many other interfaces out there (many with converters that are much less impressive). Plus, the modular nature of the system ensures that this unit won't be obsolete any time soon. So... if you're a Mac studio rat looking for the best and you have the bucks, the Symphony I/O Mk II comes with a confident recommendation.