TC Electronic keep the price of their newest audio interface low by cutting down the I/O count, not the quality.
The Konnekt range of audio interfaces has earned TC Electronic an enviable reputation for audio quality. Starting with the 14-in/14-out Konnekt 24D, the series has also included the slightly simpler Konnekt 8, back in 2006, which was followed up in 2007 by the rather more exotic Digital Konnekt x32 digital patchbay, format converter and Firewire audo interface, and then the upmarket Studio Konnekt 48 in early 2008.
Not every musician needs an audio interface with loads of inputs and outputs, however, and many require no digital or MIDI I/O at all. Unfortunately, while there are plenty of entry-level interfaces available from various manufacturers, many tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater, reducing both the feature set and the audio quality to bring the price down.
With their new Konnekt 6, TC Electronic have taken a rather different approach, in more ways than one. Not only does it enjoy similar audio quality to the rest of the Konnekt range, it also abandons the rackmount case format for a stylish desktop design featuring lots of handy knobs and buttons to make your recording and playback experience as 'hands-on' as possible. Great care has gone into making this interface easy to use, with a handy reverb that you can use while recording and a high-quality headphone amp. It also functions as a monitor controller, complete with 'big knob'. Let's see how it all adds up.
The Konnekt 6 gets off to a flying start with the inclusion of an Impact mic preamp and two Hi-Z instrument inputs (as seen on TC's high-end guitar processors), all identical to those in the rest of the Konnekt range. However, the input options have been particularly well thought out, with three front-panel 'Scene Select' buttons that optimise the unit for different recording scenarios, in conjunction with the TC Near Control Panel software.
The latter features a mixer with one or two channel strips whose various parameters change for each Scene. The simplest Scene is 'Stereo In', catering for two line-level inputs such as a stereo keyboard or synth, where the single channel strip offers a balance control, send level to the TC reverb, and a fader controlling monitor level. Switching to 'Inst + Inst' adds a second channel strip, so that each separate instrument gets its own pan, send, and monitor level controls. 'Mic + Inst' adds a further two controls to the mic strip — an extra 12dB gain boost for low-output mics or quiet signals, and 48V phantom power for condenser mics.
Although a TC-badged, 12V line-lump PSU is bundled with the unit, the Konnekt 6 can be bus-powered via its Firewire connector if the host computer supports bus power, so only PC laptop owners with four-pin Firewire ports are likely to need the PSU. This makes the 48V phantom power option particularly noteworthy, since many competing interfaces rely on a mains PSU to generate this voltage, or restrict you to 12V phantom power (Firewire ports typically supply 12 Volts), resulting in lower mic headroom. The hardware front-panel Input/DAW mix control also lets you monitor your input signals with 'zero' latency (including any contribution from the M40 Reverb — more on this later).
There are just two (balanced/unbalanced) analogue outputs, although the Konnekt 6 cleverly provides two additional output channels, accessible from most audio software, which you can route to the headphone outputs. Thus you can send a different signal to the headphones from that of the main audio outputs, ideal for cueing during live sets, for instance, or for sending a performer a different mix to that being heard in the main monitors.
Having some analogue monitor controller functions on your interface makes it so much easier to set loudspeaker level without audio compromises, as well as allowing you to quickly reduce it. However, for some users the most exciting aspect of the Konnekt 6's domed analogue volume knob will be that it is illuminated from within by red LEDs, the brightness of which varies as you rotate the knob. Very chic!
The high-resolution meters have 12 LEDs per channel, enabling them to display a wide range of signal levels, from digital clipping down to -60dB. You can toggle between monitoring input levels or the combined signal level of the inputs, any reverb and DAW playback signals — both 'pre' and 'post' master volume control.
You also get a Mono button for checking the radio-friendliness of your mixes, plus a handy Dim button to quickly reduce the main output level (when talking to performers, or when the phone rings, for instance). The only oddity I spotted was that while the Control Panel utility lets you set the Dim level over a huge range, from -6dB to complete silence, this is a fixed level unaffected by the main level control. With a typical Dim setting of -20dB, and depending on the position of the main output level control, this can sometimes result in the odd behaviour that clicking on the Dim button does not change output level at all, and may even make it louder!
As well as a bundled copy of Steinberg's Cubase LE4, low-latency Mac and PC drivers are supplied with the Konnekt 6, in ASIO, Core Audio and WDM formats, supporting sample rates up to 192kHz. However, I visited the TC web site to download the latest software version (2.1.0 build 3657, released July 7th 2008), rather than relying on the bundled CD-ROM software. While I was there I also read the list of known bugs, workarounds and fixes. Such openness is commendable in itself, and I wish more manufacturers would take this approach rather than keeping quiet until they've found the necessary fixes.
On my PC, installation of the TC Near drivers and associated Control Panel software was a breeze, helped by the A4 Quick Installation Guide. Although no printed manual was included in the box, a well-written English PDF-format manual can be found on the CD-ROM, and can be downloaded in another five languages from the TC web site.
The Control Panel software is common to the entire Konnekt range, and can be used to combine the functions of several Konnekt interfaces into one larger one (although the lack of digital I/O on the Konnekt 6 would prevent it being sync'ed to other hardware). In addition to the Mixer page containing the input channel strips and the M40 reverb controls and various setup options, you can access various System settings that apply to all detected Konnekt interfaces, such as sample rate, buffer size, and so on. The Konnekt 6 even features a hardware button labelled 'Panel' that alternately pops up or minimises the Control Panel window, so you can access it quickly when working on a project.
New to this Konnekt model is the M40 Studio Reverb, which, unlike other models in the series, is native (runs in software on the host computer) rather than being DSP-powered. It appears in standard VST plug-in form, so you can access it from your audio applications and during the recording phase. The M40 is also available via the TC Near Control Panel software as a 'cue reverb' (you can hear it through either the main or headphones output, or both).
Although being a native effect means that the cue reverb is subject to buffer latency, these few extra milliseconds of delay are largely irrelevant in practice, even when listening to vocals on headphones, since even in real life reverb is always preceded by a short delay before the early reflections are heard by the listener.
The M40 provides a familiar set of controls, with a choice of larger hall, smaller room, or metallic plate algorithms that each sound distinctly different, along with Pre-delay, to help the reverb sit in the mix without swamping it; Decay Time; HF Colour; and an overall wet/dry mix control. TC also provide around 50 handy presets to suit a wide variety of scenarios (and you can save and load your own as well).
Overall, the M40 lives up to the TC reputation, with smooth tails and plenty of character — it's streets ahead of the old TC Works Native Reverb plug-in, for instance, but only works up to 96kHz, and uses the hardware as a dongle, so you have to have the interface connected if you want to use the plug-in version.
I was particularly interested in exploring the performance of the TC Konnekt drivers, as many users have apparently experienced stability and drop-out problems. TC have been working hard to resolve the various issues, and have also released their own version of the DPC Latency Checker utility to help track down conflicts that can cause audio spikes on particular computers. Fortunately, I experienced no such conflicts on my own PC, which features the widely recommended Texas Instruments Firewire chip set.
As many musicians now know, most Firewire audio interfaces include extra buffering, over and above the normal buffers, to ensure smooth playback, and TC even let let you vary the size of their PC-only 'safety' buffers in several stages. Unless you run into audio break-up you should stick with the Normal settings if at all possible, because — according to my measurements with the Centrance ASIO Latency Test Utility — while input latency remains unchanged, each incremental safety buffer level adds a further 6ms or so to output latency at 44.1kHz.
I managed to run a complex Cubase 4 project right down to a low buffer size of 96 samples with this Normal safety setting before experiencing audio break-up, which means a driver latency of 2.2ms at 44.1kHz. Input and Output latency in Cubase 4, including the various additional converter delays, was declared by the DPC Latency Checker to be 3.673ms and 3.424ms respectively — a total round trip of 7.097ms. However, the round trip as measured by the Centrance LTU was signficantly higher at 11.25ms, so while the Konnekt 6 ASIO performance proved perfectly adequate, my tests do suggest that the declared figures are rather lower than the actual ones.
Nevertheless, both ASIO and WDM drivers worked well on my PC. They can also be used simultaneously if, for instance, you want to run Windows Media Player with WDM drivers while working on your ASIO-based audio projects.
While technical specs don't tell the whole story, I was still impressed by those published by TC Electronic, which are among the most detailed I've seen anywhere. They confirm that much of the Konnekt 6 circuitry seems identical to that of the more expensive 24D model, with very similar mic and instrument input performance, and identical headphone spec and clock jitter (the last measure being one of the most critical for audio quality).
My first port of call with any interface review is to audition playback quality, since this tests the D-A converters as well as the analogue and clock circuitry. I fired up my hardware/software audio interface comparator, which lets me play back the same digital audio file through multiple audio interfaces simultaneously (each relying on its own internal clock and ASIO drivers) and switch between them at will to judge any differences in audio quality.
It didn't take long to decide that the Konnekt 6 was significantly ahead of my usual Emu 1820M benchmark interface. Every time I switched to the Konnekt the stereo imaging tightened up considerably, letting me pinpoint distant sounds in the mix more easily, as well as allowing me to hear further into reverb tails — all of which demonstrates a superior clock, courtesy of the TC Electronic 'JetPLL' jitter-elimination technology. The Konnekt sounded more natural on vocal playback, too.
The headphone amp also sounded clean and powerful through my Sennheiser HD650 headphones, while on the input side TC's Impact mic and Hi-Z instrument preamp also sounded very clear and extended. I certainly had no complaints about audio quality!
Using the Rightmark Audio Analyser Pro 6 software, I measured the dynamic range of the Konnekt 6 at a good 104dBA (several dB better than the published non-weighted figure) and obtained a very low Total Harmonic Distortion measurement of 0.0028 percent. Frequency response was also very flat between 10Hz and 20kHz. However, while audio applications worked perfectly with the Konnekt 6 at higher sample rates such as 96kHz, for some reason RMAA refused to run in the same situation, so I can't report on any frequency-response extension at higher sample rates.
Back in the July 2006 edition of SOS, Focusrite's Saffire LE gained my personal vote for 'best audio quality for audio interfaces under £500', grabbing this long-held crown from Emu's 1820M by a short head. However, judging by how quickly I chose the Konnekt 6 over the Emu 1820M, I now hand over this crown to TC Electronic, for achieving a clarity and precision that's frankly amazing at a price of just £179.
Apart from the reduced number of inputs and outputs and the lack of any digital or MIDI I/O, in no way did the Konnekt 6 feel like a budget interface — it's simply a deluxe model with fewer sockets. The monitor controller functions and handy TC reverb are the icing on the cake, and with such a stylish package the Konnekt 6 deserves to sell in huge quantities.
There are lots of small Firewire-based audio interfaces available, including the ESI Duafire, M-Audio's Firewire Solo and the Presonus Inspire 1394, while USB2 models such as Emu's 0404USB and Tascam's US144 are worth looking at if you also prefer 'desktop' styling. However, while they all offer some digital and MIDI I/O, none provide a set of monitor control functions like the Konnekt 6's, nor are they likely to beat its audio quality.
- Excellent audio quality for the price.
- A good set of monitor control functions including 'big knob' and 12-segment metering.
- Useful M40 Studio reverb for cue monitoring and general plug-in usage.
- Some users are still experiencing problems with Konnekt drivers.
- Only one mic preamp makes stereo mic recordings impossible.
- Odd Dim control behaviour.
TC's Konnekt 6 provides excellent audio quality and monitor controller functions for a remarkable price, but won't suit everyone due to its lack of digital and MIDI I/O.
£179 including VAT.
TC Electronic UK +44 (0)800 917 8926.