Steinberg have made interfaces before — but none so ambitious as the AXR4. Can it hold its own against the competition?
Steinberg's Cubase music production program is a household name, at least in houses where music production happens; and the Hamburg-based developers are also responsible for numerous other well-established software titles. Over the years, they have introduced a fair quantity of hardware products, too, including fader controllers, MIDI interfaces and audio interfaces, all targeted squarely at the home- and project-studio end of the market.
With the AXR4, however, Steinberg have struck out in a different direction. This is very much a flagship product, occupying a premium price bracket and targeted at users who are willing to invest in pristine sound quality, flexibility and expandability. It's a 1U, rackmounting, multi-channel Thunderbolt audio interface that incorporates technologies developed by Steinberg's parent company Yamaha for their advanced digital consoles. The aim, clearly, is to stake a claim to territory currently occupied by manufacturers such as Apogee, Lynx, Focusrite and Antelope Audio. It's a crowded market with plenty of very strong competition: is the AXR4 good enough to take a piece of it?
Multi-channel audio interfaces typically take one of two design philosophies. Some provide lots of one type of I/O, such as analogue line-level ins and outs, to cater for users who just want to connect an analogue console, or lots of outboard mic preamps. Others try to offer as many different types of input and output as possible, for those who never know what might cross their path from one day to the next. The AXR4 undoubtedly falls into the latter category. It features 12 analogue inputs in total, of which the first four have mic preamps; the first two also provide optional high-impedance modes for DI'ing electric guitars. These are joined by a wide array of digital inputs, of which up to 16 are available for recording at any one time: two optical ports provide either stereo S/PDIF or up to 16 channels of ADAT-format I/O depending on sample rate, and there is also a DB25 connector, which delivers eight AES3 inputs and outputs. There's also MIDI and word–clock I/O.
On the output side, there are eight line-level outputs on quarter-inch jacks, plus two independent front-panel headphone sockets, and a matching selection of digital options. Again, up to 16 digital channels are available for playback. Digital I/O format is switched in blocks, so for example if you use the AES3 channels, the second pair of optical connectors becomes unavailable.
The inclusion of multiple AES3 inputs and outputs is unusual, and is a clear statement of the AXR4's professional intent. Nor is it the only novel feature on offer. The AXR4 supports sample rates up to 384kHz, at word lengths of up to 32 bits, and employs a technology called Super Suppression Phase Locked Loop to deliver supernaturally low levels of jitter. Its mic preamps are also not your common-or-garden designs: they use a topology called AXR that is employed in Yamaha's premium digital consoles, and offer a licensed recreation of the Rupert Neve Designs Silk circuitry for situations where intentional colouring of the sound is required.
If there's an obvious limit to the professional intent behind the AXR4, it's that there are no RJ45 connectors. Audio-over-IP is making steady inroads into this sector of the market, with an increasing number of products able to act both as 'native' interfaces and as Dante or AVB hubs. Steinberg haven't gone down that route, and nor have they...
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