The Ensemble Thunderbolt isn’t just an update — Apogee have completely redesigned it, and the results are impressive.
Apogee have been close partners with Apple for many years now, and their original Firewire Ensemble has become a firm favourite with Mac users seeking excellent audio quality and plenty of I/O in a compact device. In recent years, however, Apple computers have been shedding Firewire ports, leaving Ensemble users dependent on Thunderbolt-to-Firewire adaptors. With that in mind, Apogee have now joined the ranks of manufacturers offering native Thunderbolt connection.
Though Apogee have stuck with the Ensemble name, the new Ensemble Thunderbolt is a very different animal from its forebear, not least in appearance. Gone is the brushed-metal ’70s hi-fi look, in favour of a very smart matt black design that incorporates twin high-resolution colour displays. In a development which will delight those who prefer to interact with their equipment through physical controls rather than software utilities, the original’s Input and Output encoders are joined by no fewer than 14 illuminated buttons, plus dedicated rotary controllers for the two front-panel headphone sockets.
On the subject of Thunderbolt, the new Ensemble is not actually supplied with a Thunderbolt cable, despite its £2000$2500 price tag, so you’ll need to provide your own.
Superficially, the new Ensemble offers a similar range of I/O to the earlier Firewire Ensemble, but dig deeper and you’ll find some significant changes. For one thing, although the Ensemble Thunderbolt retains its antecedent’s word clock and coaxial S/PDIF input and output, it adds a second optical input and output, permitting up to 16 channels of 24-bit digital audio to be piped in and out at base sample rates.
The Firewire Ensemble had eight analogue inputs and outputs; four of the former were switchable between mic preamps and high-impedance inputs for direct injection of electric guitars, while the other four were line inputs on TRS quarter-inch jacks. Things are arranged somewhat differently on its Thunderbolt descendant. There are now 10 analogue inputs and 10 line-level outputs, and eight of the inputs have mic preamps on XLR. The first four of these also have the high-impedance option (implemented this time through combi XLR/jacks rather than on independent sockets), but there are also two new inputs and outputs located on the front panel specifically for recording and re-amping guitars.
This arrangement ups the total I/O count, and gives you a possible total of six high-impedance inputs, should you ever encounter six guitarists who wish to DI their instruments simultaneously. It also makes possible the Ensemble Thunderbolt’s unique and very effective re-amping provision, as described in the ‘Panel Games’ box. However, there is a down side, and the cloud behind this particular silver lining concerns the line-level I/O. There’s no longer space on the back panel for eight full-sized output jacks, so they have been shunted onto a D-Sub connector, with only the main Monitor 1/2 available on quarter-inch sockets. And on the input side, although the first eight inputs are all capable of accepting line-level signals (and offer switchable +4 or -10 sensitivity options), they will only do so on XLRs. I asked Apogee why they’d implemented things this way, and they explained that they feel that some compromise on audio quality is entailed in employing the same jack socket for both high-impedance and balanced line inputs.
This is understandable, but it certainly had me scrabbling around at the bottom of the cable drawer, and the fact that the XLR connectors are shared with the mic preamps means that it’s possible to accidentally apply 48V phantom power to a line source if you fail to switch the input out of microphone mode. Apogee’s design does, however, bypass the mic preamp completely when one of the line input modes is selected, which is a welcome improvement over most cheaper interfaces. And if your own cable trawl draws a blank, all is not quite lost, for the Ensemble Thunderbolt retains its predecessor’s insert points on the first pair of analogue inputs. There are separate, balanced quarter-inch jacks for send and return, so you can plumb a line-level source into the insert return using a conventional cable.
The level of control over the inputs that is available from the front panel is vastly improved over the Firewire Ensemble, as is the amount of visual feedback available. The colour display on the left normally shows small but detailed vertical bar-graph meters for all 10 inputs, with the upper third or so depicting configuration parameters for whichever input is ‘in focus’ at the time. Turning the Input encoder adjusts the gain, if it’s set to mic or instrument mode, while pushing the encoder switches focus to the next input. Each input also has its own dedicated select button; pressing and holding this brings up the complete list of parameters that can be adjusted for that input, including input type, polarity, phantom power, high-pass filtering and so on. All in all, it’s a very neat and intuitive system, and pretty comprehensive — there’s very little that requires a visit to the software control panel.
The four buttons to the right of the Output knob, meanwhile, are labelled Assignable, though actually assigning roles to them is something that does have to be done within Apogee’s Maestro utility. The range of available options is broad, and almost all of them are potentially useful. For example, they can dim or mute main or headphone outputs, collapse them to mono, clear the meters, switch the mode of the guitar outputs (see box) and engage alternate monitoring paths. They can also be used to engage a talkback facility, which makes use either of mic input 8 or of a small microphone built into the front panel (which can be recorded, if you like its rather lo-fi sound). The talkback button can’t, however, be made to latch. A nice touch is that when you press one of the Assignable buttons, a message flashes up on the Output display telling you what it is you’ve just done.
The Output display itself has a stereo bar-graph for every output pair, topped off by information about clocking and sample rate. Whatever the four Assignable buttons are assigned to, pushing the Output encoder acts as a mute control, which is handy. And I should point out that although the Apogee’s displays are not the largest I’ve seen, the use of colour OLEDs means they are very clear, and legible from almost any angle.
Everything that can be done from the front panel is also configurable in Apogee’s Maestro utility. This always mirrors the current state of the interface, and the last-used settings are remembered on power-up. However, it is not possible to store and recall Ensemble setups, as there are no Save or Load options in Maestro’s File menu. This is a shame; admittedly, once the Ensemble is plumbed into your studio, there are aspects of its configuration that are unlikely to change, but it would be very handy to be able to store things like gain settings, input names and cue-mix setups as starting points for different recording sessions.
As well as various configuration options and input and output routing matrices, Maestro offers four low-latency cue mixers. Each makes available all of the interface’s audio inputs, along with a single stereo software return, and can be routed to any or all of the Ensemble’s output pairs. It’s an arrangement that is adequate for most real-world purposes, but it feels a little basic compared with what’s possible in current rivals from the likes of RME or MOTU. For example, there’s no way to link adjacent mixer channels so that they behave as a single stereo channel; nor is there any sort of EQ, dynamics processing, reverb or delay available; nor are there any visualisation tools such as phase meters. And with no facility to show/hide, re-size or re-order the channels, anyone working on a small screen will quickly tire of scrolling left and right to keep tabs on all their inputs. Given that Apogee have clearly put a lot of effort into the physical design of the Ensemble itself, I was also surprised at how unappealing — and, frankly, dated — the Maestro software looks. It’s clear enough, but is decked throughout in the utilitarian grey of some long-forgotten Apple control panel from an earlier version of Mac OS X.
I mentioned some of these points to Apogee, and they explained that they have been working towards eliminating the need for a control-panel utility. Apart from the cue mixers and the function of the assignable buttons, almost every Ensemble Thunderbolt parameter can be quickly and easily adjusted from the front panel; while Apogee believe that the unit’s excellent low-latency performance (see box) renders Maestro’s cue-mixing features redundant in most applications. Given that the Ensemble Thunderbolt can operate at latencies comparable with Pro Tools HDX, I think that’s fair enough, and I’m sure most of us would rather handle everything from our DAWs where possible. Logic users in particular might find themselves hardly needing Maestro, as Logic 10.10 builds in the ability to control Apogee interface parameters directly.
The review Ensemble arrived at SOS Towers just in time to be thrown in at the deep end, recording a complicated live show in a chapel that has no fixed sound system. I hooked it into the insert points on the mixer using TRS-TS cables and a Creamware A16 Ultra A-D converter, and rigged some extra mics of my own which went straight into the Ensemble’s own preamps. Recording into Pro Tools HD11, I encountered no problems whatsoever (apart from discovering that you can’t plumb a line input in on a quarter-inch jack, as already mentioned). The audio quality was excellent, the Maestro cue mixers made it straightforward to route everything I wanted to hear to the headphones, and it proved totally stable under Mac OS 10.9.4 with my ‘early 2014’ MacBook Air.
Further tests confirmed my positive impressions of the Ensemble’s audio quality, and I was particularly taken with its versatile input options. As well as the unique re-amping arrangements (see box), the mic preamps are worthy of note; not only do they sound impeccable, but unlike nearly all built-in interface preamps, they offer up to 75dB gain, with phantom power switchable on a per-input basis.
There is stiff competition in this area of the market, and the Ensemble Thunderbolt currently has a somewhat higher street price than rivals such as the Antelope Zen Studio, RME Fireface UFX and Universal Audio Apollo. While it doesn’t have the latter’s ability to host DSP plug-ins, however, it does have some compelling advantages of its own. The versatile front-panel controls and high-quality displays make it a pleasure to use, and its dedicated re-amping facilities will make it especially tempting to guitarists. It’s a shame that, like most Apogee products, it’s not supported on Windows computers, but the flip side of Apogee’s close relationship with Apple is evident in its fine low-latency performance on Mac OS and ever-closer integration into Logic Pro. The Ensemble Thunderbolt is a first-rate piece of kit, and although it’s not cheap, it’s an investment that few will regret.
The Ensemble Thunderbolt’s most noteworthy innovation compared with the original Ensemble — and, indeed, with all other audio interfaces that I know of — concerns the two front-panel guitar inputs. Each of these has a dedicated quarter-inch output socket, which can be switched to emit either the direct signal from its associated input, or a software return from your DAW. If you choose the former option, a small tickbox in the Apogee Maestro configuration software offers the choice of mirroring the input at unity gain.
This is an absolutely superb idea, which makes all sorts of re-amping scenarios child’s play to set up. For example, let’s suppose you want to record a clean DI’d signal alongside the miked output of a guitar amplifier. Simple: plug your instrument into one of the guitar inputs, set its output to mirror that input at unity gain, and connect said output to your amp. You can then apply as much preamp gain as you need to get the DI’d signal into your DAW at a healthy level, without changing the level of the signal going to the amp. Brilliant. And it doesn’t stop there. For instance, you could treat the outputs of these guitar inputs as dedicated effects loops, allowing you to record wet and dry signals to separate tracks. Or you could use them to route software instruments and the like into guitar pedals, without any of the usual worries about gain and impedance matching.
To test how accurately the guitar output reproduces its input, I plugged a guitar into the first input, set its output to unity gain and cabled it into the second guitar input. Then I recorded some guitar on both inputs simultaneously. When I played the two files back with polarity reversed on one, the nulling was not absolute, but gave more than 40dB attenuation, suggesting that any differences are unlikely to be significant in practice.
One claimed advantage of the Thunderbolt protocol is the ability to deliver very low latencies, and the Ensemble’s performance bears this claim out. At the lowest 32-sample buffer size, PreSonus’s Studio One reported the input and output latency as 80 and 78 samples respectively, and a loopback test confirmed that the reported latency was correct to within a couple of samples. At 44.1kHz, this equates to a round-trip latency of about 3.6 milliseconds, which is pretty impressive. I then experimented with switching to 192kHz, the highest supported sample rate; Studio One reported input and output latencies of 161 and 101 samples, giving a theoretical round-trip latency of only 1.4ms, but I couldn’t actually persuade it to adopt any sample rate other than 44.1kHz. However, Pro Tools 11 was happy to work at all the sample rates I tried.
- Thunderbolt audio interface.
- Compatible with: Mac OS 10.9.3 or later.
- Analogue inputs: two high-impedance guitar inputs, four combi mic/line/guitar inputs, four XLR mic/line inputs. Insert send/return on inputs 1/2.
- Line outputs: stereo monitor output on quarter-inch jacks plus eight line outputs on D-Sub.
- Other analogue outputs: two stereo headphone outputs and two guitar outputs for re-amping.
- Digital inputs: stereo coaxial S/PDIF, dual optical S/PDIF or ADAT.
- Digital outputs: stereo coaxial S/PDIF, dual optical S/PDIF or ADAT.
- Other I/O: built-in talkback mic, word clock in and out.