Antelope Audio are all about high-end quality at a lower price. Does the third generation of their Orion 32+ deliver the goods?
Over the last decade or so, Antelope Audio have become major players in the world of audio interfaces. Their range takes in the USB, Thunderbolt and HDX connection protocols, as well as stand-alone mic preamps, master clocks and A-D/D-A converters, not to mention an intriguing selection of modelling microphones. And while there are no 'budget' products in the Antelope range, one of their selling points is to offer state-of-the-art specifications and sound quality at relatively affordable prices.
The Orion 32+ Gen 3 under review here is a good example. It provides 32 channels of A-D and D-A conversion, with connection to a host computer over Thunderbolt or USB2, and achieves dynamic range figures of 121dB on its inputs, 120dB on its line outputs and a remarkable 129dB on its stereo monitor outs. It employs Antelope's Acoustically Focused Clocking technology, with a built-in oven keeping its clocking crystal at a constant temperature. Digital I/O is available in optical MADI and ADAT format as well as stereo coaxial S/PDIF, with a total of 64 inputs and outputs available over Thunderbolt, and dual word–clock outputs to allow you to share the acoustic focus with your other digital hardware. The icing on the cake is a powerful internal FPGA, which powers a versatile system of low-latency effects.
In terms of specifications and features, then, the Orion 32+ is a potential competitor to products like Apogee's Symphony I/O MkII 32x32 and Lynx Aurora (n) — but it's a lot more affordable, and actually goes beyond those rivals in providing both 32 channels of analogue I/O and comprehensive digital I/O simultaneously. It's supported under both Windows and Mac OS, with a custom Thunderbolt driver promising very low latency on both platforms. So, if you're in the market for a single interface to serve as the focal point of a powerful studio setup, will the Orion save you money without compromising on quality?
The third-generation Orion 32+ is a smartly presented, 1U rackmounting device finished in an understated black. Its front panel is relatively minimalist, with the only controls on offer being a handful of buttons. Five of these, arranged in a bank to the right, offer instant recall of preset configurations, while the red Antelope button opens a control menu that lets you set the clock source and trim levels on the I/O using increment and decrement buttons to the left of the display. In normal use these adjust the sample rate, which is displayed on an LCD that is almost as large as the two 16-channel meter banks adjacent to it. There are no headphone outputs or hardware monitor controls, but pressing and holding the power button provides access to various housekeeping and global settings.
The rear panel is, as you'd expect, much busier, with eight DB25 connectors carrying the 32 line inputs and outputs, plus a pair of quarter-inch jacks for the additional stereo monitor outs. The manifold digital I/O is present on all the usual connectors, but even in this third-generation model, the Orion 32+ still sports the older USB Type B and Mini DisplayPort Thunderbolt 2 sockets rather than the more current Type C variants. A USB (A to B) cable is included, but Antelope are, sadly, members of that large club of interface manufacturers who somehow feel it's OK to not supply Thunderbolt cables with Thunderbolt interfaces. Incidentally, I found that the review Orion was not recognised over USB if I'd previously connected it by Thunderbolt, unless I physically powered it down by switching the mains power off in between.
My first encounter with an Antelope Audio product was in December 2014, when I reviewed their Zen Studio. Five years on, the control panel software supplied with the Orion 32+ is recognisably the same, though it has of course evolved somewhat. One of the most welcome improvements is that it's now freely resizable.
As before, you can't open this control-panel software directly. Instead, you begin by double-clicking Antelope's Launcher program, which checks for software and firmware updates and presents you with a list of attached devices. Thankfully, it's no longer compulsory to install every update, but the launcher still seems very keen to do so, frequently bringing up a Mac OS dialogue asking for permission. Whilst I can understand Antelope's desire to have all users running the latest version of everything, those who prefer to establish a stable system and stick with it might tire of this.
One thing that puzzled me to start with is that the launcher seemed to present three connected Orions — and, if I had the auto-run option ticked, loaded three instances of the control panel. This is, apparently, not a bug but a side-effect of a powerful feature, namely the fact that Antelope interfaces can be controlled by additional computers connected to the same network, with the number of possible Orions appearing depending on the network configuration. Unfortunately, this feature and related behaviour are not described at all in the documentation, and I still can't claim to understand it properly. Error handling could also be a bit more friendly: if for some reason the launcher can't communicate with the Orion, it tends to generate messages like "'NoneType' object is not subscriptable".
When the control panel itself opens, you're greeted by a colourful virtual patchbay showing all the available inputs in the top half and outputs in the lower half. Inputs can be connected to outputs by clicking to select them and then dragging to the relevant destination. You can Shift-click to select blocks of I/O to speed the process up, and as long as your colour vision is good enough to differentiate the various input and output types from one another, it's about as clear as it could be expected to be. There is a pop-up matrix view for those who find the routing easier to visualise on a grid.
One unusual feature of Antelope interfaces is that there are independent record and playback paths for both the Thunderbolt and USB connections, which appear as separate blocks in the patchbay. This doesn't allow you to connect two computers simultaneously, but does mean that because the default configuration is set up for Thunderbolt use, if you connect using USB, you won't actually hear anything until you modify some of the routings. It would be a good idea if, first, this was documented more clearly, and second, the interfaces shipped with a factory preset that allowed them to be instantly reconfigured for USB use (which is eminently possible, thanks to the front-panel buttons). Note that although there are 64 Thunderbolt Rec and Play patch points — thus allowing you to address all the MADI channels simultaneously, or 32 analogue and 32 digital inputs and outputs at once — there are fewer USB ones. This is because the Orion 32+ is a USB 2 rather than a USB 3 device and thus subject to bandwidth limitations. The default limit is 24 ins and outs over USB; the Settings dialogue includes an option to increase this to 32, but not all systems will work at this setting.
Physical inputs and DAW record/playback buses aren't the only connection points that appear in the patchbay. There are also inputs and outputs to four 32:2 mixers and to 16 channels of 'AFX' processing, while the FPGA is also used to provide a global reverb which can be applied within the first of the four mixers. The mixers themselves mostly behave in a conventional way, except that the pan behaviour is strange. When you pan a mono source inwards, nothing audible happens until you get near the centre, whereupon the signal suddenly jumps into the middle and gets twice as loud. Antelope acknowledged that this is not how it's supposed to work, so hopefully a fix is in the offing.
Antelope Audio are very proud of the AFX system, which they see as a major selling point for their audio interfaces. Conceptually, it's not dissimilar from Univeral Audio's UAD platform or Pro Tools HDX, in that the processors run on hardware within the interface, rather than using the host computer's CPU. In broad outline, the range of AFX available also overlaps to an extent with the UAD 'Powered Plug-ins' range, and is likewise focused mainly on emulations of classic studio hardware. There are, however, some significant differences, and Antelope themselves don't use the term 'plug-in' to describe AFX.
One difference is that whereas the UAD and HDX systems employ multiple SHARC DSP chips to handle the processing, Antelope's interfaces use a single field-programmable gate array (FPGA). A benefit of this is that there are no issues relating to the distribution of processing load across separate chips; you simply add plug-ins until the entire system runs out of juice. I was surprised to find that there's no meter showing what proportion of the FPGA's processing resources is taken up, but Antelope say that this is impossible to implement because of the way their plug-ins share resources. On the down side, whereas UA and Avid allow you to boost your system's DSP resources by bolting on Satellite units or adding further HDX cards, there is no direct equivalent in Antelope Audio's range.
The AFX plug-ins are inserted on 16 channels, each of which has eight insert slots. These channels are addressed through dedicated input and output patch points in the Orion's routing matrix, an arrangement that is flexible enough to support a pretty wide range of possible configurations. One obvious approach would be to route 16 hardware inputs into the AFX patch points; you could then either record the AFX-processed signals by routing the AFX outputs to the Thunderbolt or USB Rec patch points, or leave those connected directly to the hardware inputs and route the AFX outputs only into the mixers, so that they remain only in the monitor path. Alternatively, you could route 16 Thunderbolt Play patch points to the AFX inputs and treat them as a 16-channel effects processor, addressed from your DAW. You could turn it into a powerful stand-alone digital effects unit by routing the MADI or ADAT inputs into the AFX input, and if you wanted to get really fancy, you could even route multiple AFX outputs into one of the Orion's mixers, then patch the output of that mixer into another pair of AFX channels to implement bus processing. The only obvious functional limitation is that there is no send/return structure, but it would also be nice if there was a global visual overview that allowed you to take in the entire AFX setup at a glance — at present you can only view a single channel at a time.
The Orion 32+ sounds as good as interfaces costing much more, and does twice as much as they do.
Antelope Audio are constantly adding new AFX to the line-up, and this now includes more than 50 different processors in total. However, not all of their interfaces support all of the processors, and in fact around half of the collection is not available for the Orion 32+. There is no support for Antelope's Edge mic–modelling system, since that requires a dedicated hardware input stage that's not present here, but Orion owners also miss out on all of the company's guitar–amp emulations and mic preamp models, which seems a shame. True, the Orion has no mic or instrument preamp inputs, but it's not as though it won't be used to record microphones or guitars; it's just that you'd typically route these through a console first. You'd think that users might also want the option to re-amp (or re-preamp?) their signals after the fact. It's also striking that apart from the global AuraVerb, there are currently no delay-based or reverb effects available for any AFX-enabled interface — even Antelope's guitar amp emulations don't model reverb tanks.
Of the AFX that are available, six are bundled free with the Orion: the aforementioned AuraVerb, which occupies its own dedicated position in the mixer, plus a very competent EQ, compressor, de-esser, expander and gate. They're well-specified and effective, but not wildly different from the generic processors you'll find in many other audio interface mixers, for instance from RME and MOTU. The excitement around AFX centres, rather, on the processors that emulate classic and modern studio hardware.
On both the dynamics and equalisation fronts, the list of emulated devices on offer is pretty mouth-watering, and includes some devices I've not previously seen recreated in software, such as the RCA BA-6A compressor and Lang PEQ2 equaliser. The EQ category also includes several emulations of Neumann and Studer designs along with the more familiar SSL, API and Neve–alikes, while among the Vintage Compressors, you'll find virtual Grove Hill Audio Liverpool and Retro/UA 176 valve models, as well as the classic UREI, dbx and Fairchild types. (The former is one of the handful of Antelope's AFX that are officially licensed recreations; most of the others are creatively named homages.) The review period was too short to fully explore the 19 Vintage EQ and 15 Vintage Compressor models installed in the review system, but the ones I tried were uniformly impressive. I particularly liked the models with emulated valve circuitry, such as that Lang EQ and the Gates/Retro-inspired 'Stay-Levin' compressor; what begins as a touch of warmth evolves nicely into thickness and saturation as you crank up the input dial.
From a sonic perspective, then, I think Antelope's AFX definitely hold their own both with rival native plug-ins and with DSP-based alternatives. They are also priced roughly in alignment with UA's range, generally listing at $195, $245 or $295 each, and significant savings can be made either by purchasing bundles or waiting for Antelope's regular sale events. So the question of whether this represents good value for money turns not on how good they are but on how useful they are; and the key issue here is DAW integration. The point of UAD's Powered Plug-ins and Waves' SoundGrid processors is that they can be run in two different ways: independently of the DAW as a low-latency 'front end' for tracking, like the AFX, or loaded into insert slots in a DAW, where they behave just like native plug-ins as far as the user is concerned. This DAW integration makes a huge difference to the usefulness of externally hosted processing, and for some of their interfaces, Antelope make available a plug-in called AFX2DAW that allows the AFX to be used in DAWs. Unfortunately, this is not yet available for the Orion 32+, and although Antelope's Vintage Equaliser and Compressor models sound very good, they won't deliver full value until it is.
During the review period, I also experienced some odd AFX-related behaviour: on occasion all the compressors simply stopped compressing, and I once found myself in a situation where clicking to load new AFX into slots did nothing, and I had to quit the control panel. Antelope say they're aware of the former issue and are working on a fix, but in general, although their software has definitely improved over the years, I still feel it doesn't quite match the quality of their hardware design. In particular, there are a number of single-click actions, such as recalling presets, that completely reset either the entire panel's settings or a large subset of them, without warning and without the option to undo. It would be heartbreaking to set up an elaborate cue mix and AFX configuration, only to accidentally touch one of the preset buttons and lose it all before you'd saved! The situation is not helped by Antelope's written documentation, which is quite basic and rarely helpful in troubleshooting. In a professional situation where time is money, some of the cost saving in buying an Orion might need to be balanced against time spent figuring out software quirks, or contacting tech support to ask questions that should be answered in the manual.
So, to return to the question I posed at the start of this review, does the Orion represent a way to save yourself money without compromising on quality? From the hardware point of view, my answer is an unreserved yes. The Orion 32+ sounds as good as interfaces costing much more, and does twice as much as they do. From the perspective of audio quality, I'd be equally happy to have an Orion 32+ in my studio as I would any of the competing products mentioned at the start of this revew. It delivers excellent low-latency performance when connected by Thunderbolt, with the useful option of USB 2 as a backup; and unlike those modular rivals, it offers an advanced system of effects processing and 64 channels of MADI and 16 of ADAT I/O in addition to its core 32-channel A-D/D-A functionality, all within a single 1U rack. As long as the software element of the system works ergonomically for you, and runs reliably on your Mac or PC, it represents superb value for money, and if you're in the market for a device of this sort you should try it out in your studio to see whether that's the case.
As the Thunderbolt protocol is at heart an externalised version of PCIe, it offers the potential for very low-latency operation, and Antelope's drivers make full use of this potential. At the second–lowest (32-sample) buffer size, Reaper reported a round-trip latency of 3.1ms at 44.1kHz, but when I ran a loopback test, I found the actual measurement was lower — only just above 2ms, in fact. This is a very good figure indeed; and although I don't have a Windows machine with Thunderbolt for testing, Antelope's measurements suggest it performs even better under Windows 10. You might be able to shave a few fractions of a millisecond off by running at the 16-sample buffer size, though this was beyond my ageing Mac.
When connected over USB, by contrast, the Orion 32+ uses generic drivers, namely the Apple Core Audio USB driver on Mac OS and the ubiquitous Thesycon driver for Windows. You'd expect performance to be more pedestrian over USB, and it is; I measured the round-trip latency at a 32-sample buffer size at 44.1kHz as being about 5.6ms on my Mac, and Antelope's figures suggest that Windows performance is similar. Given that the Orion can only operate with a restricted channel count over USB in any case, it's probably best to think of USB operation as a useful reserve option rather than a straight alternative to Thunderbolt connection.
- Good-sounding hardware that delivers excellent technical specifications.
- Very good value for money given the audio quality on offer.
- Provides 64 inputs and outputs to your DAW over Thunderbolt, with excellent low-latency performance and a huge complement of analogue, MADI and ADAT I/O.
- USB connection available as an alternative to Thunderbolt.
- AFX system offers a wide range of good-sounding vintage compressor and EQ emulations, which can be used with minimal latency.
- Flexible internal mixing and routing.
- The software component of the system isn't as robust or as elegant as it might be.
- Documentation isn't great.
- The AFX2DAW plug-in that allows AFX to be used in your DAW is not yet available for the Orion.
- AFX range doesn't include any delay or reverb effects, and many others are not offered on the Orion.
- Lower channel count and less good low-latency performance over USB.
- No Thunderbolt cable supplied.
The Orion 32+ packs an enormous amount of I/O into a 1U rack, and offers excellent audio quality at a compelling price. If Antelope can bring their AFX processors into the DAW world and further improve the software side of the user experience, it'll be a world-beater.