Holiday 2012: Premium Tabletop Audio Interfaces

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An audio interface is a piece of hardware that enables you to use a computer as the centerpiece of a recording studio. It gives you a way to connect professional microphones and instruments and record them into the computer, and it provides a way to connect studio monitors and headphones so you can listen to your work with optimal quality. The demand for audio interfaces in home studios has always been strong, and in recent years there’s been a rise in the popularity of a specific variant. Many people desired audio interfaces that shared the same design language as their premium-quality computers. They wanted gear that was thin and compact, visually appealing, built durably and provided top-notch sound quality. Thus, the premium tabletop-style audio interface was born.

The very first product that defined this entire category was the original Apogee Duet. Announced back in 2007, its design was totally radical, and many people were doubtful that it would find an audience. Despite having only two inputs, two unbalanced outputs, Mac-only compatibility and an unsightly breakout cable that protruded from its back panel, the Duet quickly became a popular hit. While its industrial design was stunning, its attractive exterior isn’t what won over so many fans. People loved using the Duet because of how great it sounded, and the pleasing user experience it provided.

Many competing products have emerged following the success of the Apogee Duet, and each one of them offers different features and capabilities. The nice thing about premium tabletop-style audio interfaces is that they all have a living-room-friendly size and appearance. Because they offer optimal sound quality, they’re great to use for casually listening to your digital music collection, as well as producing great-sounding recordings. In this article, we take a look at all of the various options that are available, point out their strengths and explain how they differ from one another.  

The Apogee Duet 2  

Even though the original Duet was popular, there was still room for improvement. The Apogee Duet 2 arrived in 2011 with many changes that were hotly requested by users. The two main outputs were updated to balanced 1/4”, which gives you optimal low-noise monitoring. The ability to route different audio to the main outputs and the headphone output was added, which is essential for digital DJing. Instead of just having segmented LED meters on its face, the Duet 2 features a color OLED screen with the ability to display several audio meters, and lots of information about settings, levels and modes. Two buttons were added to its face, which can be assigned to various tasks, such as muting the speakers, summing to mono, toggling the headphone source, etc. The Duet 2 is also capable of creating higher-resolution recordings. The original was capped at 24-bit/96 kHz, whereas its replacement can go up to 24-bit/192 kHz. The preamps and converters were also redesigned for better performance.

An included breakout cable connects to the back of the Duet 2 and supplies you with two combo XLR and 1/4" TRS inputs, and two balanced 1/4" TRS outputs. Like the original Duet, you are limited to only being able to use two microphones at a time. If you don’t like the idea of using a potentially messy breakout cable, Apogee offers an optional Breakout Box that features the same aluminum construction as the Duet 2, and provides dual balanced XLR inputs and outputs, as well as two 1/4" guitar inputs. A six foot connection cable is included with the box so you can neatly situate your connectors where you want them. The Duet 2 is only compatible with Mac computers, and it features USB 2.0 connectivity. USB 2.0 allows the unit to be compatible with Macs that lack FireWire ports. The oversized controller knob on the face of the Duet 2 is a central feature on most tabletop-style audio interfaces. In addition to being a knob, it also acts as a push button, giving you control over its multiple inputs and outputs. The Duet 2 is available in a custom B&H Kit that includes a Neumann TLM 102 microphone, studio headphones, Logic Express 9 and other useful accessories.

The Apogee Quartet

The Apogee Quartet is a bit larger than the other tabletop-style interfaces featured in this article, but it’s worth including because it’s such a close relative to the ground-breaking Duet. The limitation of being able to use only two microphones at a time is a deal-breaker for many would-be Duet 2 users. Being limited to two inputs makes it impossible to properly mic a drum set and other instruments simultaneously. However, Apogee recently announced the Quartet, which features a very similar tabletop design as the Duet 2, and has four combo XLR inputs with preamps built into it. You can also add up to eight more inputs through its ADAT ports, using an external piece of equipment with ADAT outputs. Most importantly, the Quartet features Apogee’s stellar sound quality, so you can use it confidently to record and mix your most important projects.

Like the Duet 2, the Quartet is only compatible with Mac computers, and it features USB 2.0 connectivity and a nicely sized controller knob. It has two color OLED screens to display meters and other helpful information. The Quartet has six touch-pad buttons that are dedicated to selecting inputs and outputs, and there are three more that you can assign. There are six 1/4" TRS outputs on the Quartet, which makes mixing in 5.1 surround sound possible, as well as being able to switch between three different sets of studio monitors. There are two USB ports on the rear of the unit. One is for connecting to a computer, the other is dedicated to MIDI. There are two ADAT inputs so you can utilize up to eight tracks of higher-resolution SMUX ADAT audio. A word clock output is provided for syncing with external equipment. If you already own a Duet 2, you can plug both interfaces into a Mac and use them together as aggregate devices. Another nice touch is that the Quartet is made in the USA.

The RME Babyface

If you like the idea of the Apogee Duet 2, but you use a Windows operating system, you should check out the RME Babyface. Its form factor is very similar, but the Babyface is both Mac and PC compatible, and it features more inputs and outputs. Besides its cross-platform compatibility, the big feature on the Babyface is its ADAT input and output. This means that with the addition of an external Lightpipe expander like the Behringer ULTRAGAIN PRO-8, you will have enough inputs and mic pres to track an entire band—as opposed to being limited to a maximum of two microphones with the Duet 2. The RME babyface is also available in silver, and a pink version is available under the moniker Ladyface.

Aside from the other benefits, the main reason to choose a Babyface is its sound quality. We have many computer recording workstations on display in the B&H SuperStore in New York City. Shortly after one of these workstations was outfitted with an RME Babyface, I asked the B&H Sales Associate who works in that area what he thought of it. He told me that people tend to think that all audio interfaces have the same sound, but then when you suddenly upgrade to something like the Babyface, you realize immediately how much better the audio quality is.

If you like the design of the Babyface and its ADAT I/O, but it’s out of your price range, take a look at the Alva Nanoface. Though the black-and-sliver Nanoface may appear 100% identical to the premium-quality Babyface at less than half the price, the similarities do not carry through to the internals of the device. While the Nanoface performs well sonically, it certainly doesn’t have the stellar sound quality for which the RME Babyface is famous. Though it may look like one, the Nanoface isn’t a litigious knockoff. Alva is a strategic partner of RME.

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The Focusrite Forte

Windows and Mac users have another option for premium tabletop-style audio interfaces with the sleek Focusrite Forte. With a lengthy history of manufacturing high-caliber equipment, Focusrite claims that the two preamps and converters used in the Forte are of exceptional quality. This USB 2.0 audio interface has a unique software control functionality not found in any of the competing models, and it’s capable of 24-bit/192 kHz high-resolution operation. An included application called Forte Control lets you adjust all of the features on the interface, and a selection of Focusrite EQ and compressor plug-ins are also included.

The oversized push-button control knob on the Forte lets you control elements of your DAW, such as pressing Play and zooming in on waveforms. The knob also lets you control basic necessities like headphone volume level. There are four touch-sensitive backlit buttons on the face of the unit, which work in conjunction with the knob. The buttons give you access to the parameters of the inputs, main outputs, headphone output and DAW control. The face of the Forte also features a color OLED screen, which displays multiple audio meters and other pertinent information, such as gain and level settings. Touching and holding one of the four buttons opens a menu on the OLED screen, letting you select different options. The Forte can run from USB bus power, but when the included AC adapter is used, it can supply +48V of phantom power to microphones, and the maximum output levels of the headphones and main outs is increased.

The MOTU Track16

If you like the additional input and output capabilities of the RME Babyface, but you want a little more versatility at an attractive price, take a look at the MOTU Track16. You can add up to eight extra channels of ADAT inputs and outputs on the Track16, with separately available external hardware. Without separate hardware, the Track16 can record two mics, two guitars and two line-level signals simultaneously. It features both USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 ports, as well as Mac and PC compatibility.

The Track16 is a very appealing interface. Its face features eight LED meters, as well as ten backlit buttons and the token oversized control knob. There are two headphone jacks on the front: 1/8” and 1/4” jacks. The front also features a 1/4” guitar input and an 1/8” line-level input, the latter of which is an excellent place to connect the audio output of iPad, so you can easily record iOS music apps into your main DAW. The included 44” (1.1 m) breakout cable features two XLR inputs with selectable phantom power, a second 1/4” guitar input, MIDI in and out, and four balanced 1/4” TRS outputs. You can connect each pair of balanced outputs to two different sets of studio monitors, and then use the illuminated buttons to switch between them. The included CueMix FX software arms you with sound-analysis tools, SMPTE time code sync, and it enables you to apply reverb, EQ and compression. 

The Echo Audio Echo 2

Thanks to smart phones and tablets, today’s world is dominated by touch control. In response to this, Echo has introduced the Echo 2, a premium tabletop audio interface that eschews traditional physical controls for a capacitive touch interface. There is no oversized control knob on the Echo 2. In its place are several touch-sensitive buttons and a large touch fader. This is a USB 2.0 audio interface that’s compatible with Mac and PC, and it’s the only product in this article that’s also compatible with an Apple iPad, when an Apple Camera Connection Kit is used. Another nice touch is that the Echo 2 can be used as a stand-alone audio mixer. You can plug in a guitar and a microphone, connect a pair of headphones and use the Echo 2 as a private rehearsal tool, without laying a finger on a computer or a device. It even comes with a bracket so you can attach it to a microphone stand, to make recording and rehearsing easier for performing musicians.

When you connect the Echo 2 to a computer, you can create high-quality recordings of instruments, microphones, keyboards and other line-level signals (such as the outputs of a mixing board). Instead of utilizing a breakout cable, there are balanced 1/4" inputs and outputs on the rear of the Echo 2. Two short cables are included in the box, which feature XLR female connectors on one end, and balanced 1/4" male connectors on the other. They enable you to use professional microphones with the Echo 2, which is capable of supplying condenser microphones with phantom power when the included AC adapter is used. When phantom power isn’t needed, the Echo 2 can run from USB bus power. An 1/8” headphone jack is located on the front of the Echo 2, and DJs will appreciate that it’s possible to send different audio to the headphone and main outputs. Four separate eight-segment LED meters let you see your levels, and the master fader and every touch button feature LEDs as well.

The Digigram Cancun 442-Mic

The Cancun series from Digigram unites AES/EBU digital connectivity with traditional analog channels in a premium tabletop-style audio interface form factor. The Cancun 442-Mic features four analog mic/line channels and two channels of AES/EBU digital I/O. Another model, the Cancun 222-Mic, features two analog mic/line channels and one channel of AES/EBU digital I/O. The analog and digital channels operate simultaneously on both units, and the microphone preamps feature a full 55dB of gain, +24 dBu of headroom, switchable phantom power and -30dB pads. A dedicated dial is available for gain control, and LED-aided buttons control the phantom power and pads. Headphone volume also features a dedicated dial.

Both models connect via USB 2.0, are compatible with Mac and PC, offer low-latency operation and are capable of high-resolution 24-bit/192kHz recording. An included breakout cable supplies you with input and output connections, on Neutrik XLR connectors, for both the analog and digital channels. A 1/4” headphone jack is supplied on the front panel. These interfaces are stylish in appearance, very compact, and offer a professional level of recording and operation.

If you have any questions, comments or opinions on premium tabletop-style audio interfaces, please submit them in the Comments section, below.