There is no catch.
That was my original review. But my editors suggested I elaborate. Many people have contacted me to ask if the Apollo was a marketing gimmick or compromised in some way. I confess to find no "catch," limitation, or shortcoming of this product, particularly at this price. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The 1RU-height Apollo is an audio interface capable of 24-bit, 192 kHz operation. It includes eight analog input channels via eight line-level TRS connectors in the back. Front-panel buttons allow you to individually swap channels 1-4 to mic-level XLR connectors, also on the back. Conveniently, there are two high-impedance 1/4'' jacks on the front for instrument-level DI use on channels 1-2. Fourteen analog output channels are also onboard. In back are eight TRS line-level outputs as well as two TRS jacks to feed your monitoring amp or powered speakers. In front are two separate stereo headphone feeds on standard TRS jacks. Ten channels of digital I/O are provided in the form of coaxial S/PDIF and ADAT Optical (with S/MUX for high sample rates as one would expect), allowing one to easily add more channels of analog I/O. Connectivity to the host computer is via FireWire 800, and a second FW800 port can be used to daisy-chain a second Apollo interface or a UAD-2 Satellite processor. All of this is on top of the onboard UAD-2 processing, with two versions available - QUAD Core and DUO Core.
Universal Audio has another surprise. With real-time UAD processing, Apollo allows you to record through UAD Powered Plug-Ins, and monitoring latency is less than 2 ms. For example, you could record a drum set through a Neve 88RS console going to a Studer A800. Guitars could run through an SSL E Series Channel Strip into a Fairchild Limiter. Apollo comes with the Analog Classics Bundle. Other titles are available for demo and purchase at the UAD online store. Assuming you own the plug-in for the UAD platform and remain within the limitations of Apollo's DSP resources, the combinations are up to your imagination. Of course, recording through plug-ins during tracking frees Apollo's UAD-2 chips for mix-down effects.
As previously mentioned, Apollo connects to your computer via FireWire 800. Some users have reported the unit working with a FW400 port, but with limited throughput. Universal Audio also offers a Thunderbolt option card, which fits in an expansion bay on the rear of the Apollo. Thunderbolt is the cat's meow - a direct connection to the CPU (via PCIe protocol), and much faster than other standards for connecting external peripherals. With Intel announcing a faster Falcon Ridge Thunderbolt controller, I hope to see Apple and PC builders expand availability. It is a godsend for audio and video professionals. When connected via Thunderbolt, Apollo has more plug-in instantiation capacity (due to increased bandwidth), improved high sample-rate performance, and lower plug-in latency than with FW800. Additionally, the two FW800 ports become a FW800 hub for the host computer when the Apollo is connected via Thunderbolt. This is great for connecting high-speed audio drives or other devices.
To manage real-time plug-ins and panel controls, Apollo ships with Console, a standalone program with a GUI that resembles an analog desk. Console runs as a separate process, alongside Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Live, and all other major DAWs. Console settings can be saved for future recall. Even without a concurrently-running DAW application, you can use Console with the Apollo as a live mixer, with aux bus routing, monitor mixing, and plug-ins. You used to need a dedicated digital mixer for that. Another option is to first create your mixer configuration in Console, then disconnect the Apollo from the host computer and use it standalone. Apollo automatically remembers level, pan, routing, and other settings; but no plug-ins can be used in this case. You can, of course, skip using Console altogether and do all your routing in your DAW application, but that would forgo Apollo's low- latency monitoring and UAD plug-ins during recording. However, taking a point from how Apollo retains settings, if you wanted to always track through a given plug-in, tape machine, vintage unit, or limiter, you can set that up in Console, close Console, and know those plug-ins are on the inputs you chose - until you turn them off when you open Console again. There are plenty more features and usage scenarios, so be sure to check out Universal Audio's website for videos and further details.
The four digitally-controlled mic preamps onboard the Apollo offer phantom power, high-pass filter, and polarity reverse. Additionally, the Apollo can link two preamps at a time, making gain-locking of stereo pairs super accurate. Opening the unit reveals that the preamps are based on the Burr- Brown PGA2500. These rank with the best IC-based op-amps on the market. You would have to shift to discrete op-amp, tube, or more expensive topologies to do better. In use, the preamps are very versatile, exhibiting a flat response and a good deal of gain. Since users may track through UAD-2 plug-ins, having a clean preamp is a prudent design choice. What you put in is what you get out. Having a neutral response also provides more flexibility regardless of source or recording environment.
The converters are built around Asahi Kasei Microdevices AK5388 ADC and Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chips. Again, these are top-level ICs designed specifically for recording and high-fidelity systems. How do the converters sound? Comparing the Apollo to our Digidesign 96 I/O was interesting. Digidesign had rounder, almost woody, low mids, making it a strong choice for drums and bass. Apollo had a flatter response, with slightly more high-end extension. While almost everyone could pick Apollo versus Digidesign in our blind tests, it was only because the Apollo sounds less "colored" to our ears. Looking back at what I paid for the Digidesign units versus the Apollo's street price made me shake my head. Of course, the Apollo is no Apogee Symphony I/O [Tape Op #87], but darn... its converters are really solid, and it costs thousands less.
Our tests generated some usage notes and observations. Here comes the scatter. The unit runs hot. You will need one rackspace above, with one below being helpful too. As engineer Dylan Ray pointed out, there's something to be said for the "it just works" factor. We did comparisons with many converters, and not all can make that claim. This includes the $699 USB interface offered by a leading DAW maker; there went 11 hours of my life I'll never get back, and it was designed to work with the DAW. Meanwhile, Apollo connected to a new Mac Mini worked in minutes. Don't be afraid to track with plug-ins. This generation of "never committing" needs to finish a record. Do tests, and see if running through an expensive channel strip or a tape machine is the right thing for you. Thunderbolt cables are not included. Thunderbolt cables are not free. One quirk happened back when we first got the review unit. It related to a numbering offset in the I/O configuration for Pro Tools, but Universal Audio already has a fix, making the issue moot. Worth mentioning is that when we got stuck with this, we called the Universal Audio support line. We got a human right away. We didn't mention we were from Tape Op, but they still treated us like Sir George Martin. The respectful tech person resolved the issue quickly (in this case, our inability to RTFM). The only negative is you're going to want more UAD-2 plug-ins. Take advantage of the 14-day demos, and demo the plug-ins in your studio. (That gives you two weeks to find money for the plug-ins. You're going to want them.)
As I was writing this review, Universal Audio announced a new member of the Apollo line, the Apollo 16. Instead of preamps, the Apollo 16 provides an additional eight I/O channels for a total of 16 analog I/O channels via DB-25, as well as AES/EBU connectivity, and of course, real-time UAD processing. That could be a good option if you already have enough preamps and just need more analog I/O. In the meantime, the original Apollo provides neutral preamps, uncolored conversion, and a heck-of-a-lot of DSP firepower. Universal Audio packed decades of design experience into a single rackspace. It looks good. It sounds good. And there is no catch... other than you'll want more UAD plug-ins. But is that really a bad thing?