Apogee Duet, road tested by Musimac

Well yes, after the Ensemble, which we have already spoken about in the past, comes the union between Apple-Apogee, which looks to be proceeding well. Actually, we’re positive about what’s now happened, at the beginning it didn’t seem the fruits of this union would be very favorable, but we’ve already spoken a lot about this in the past. The Ensemble in fact, has had a difficult gestation, before Mac OS X 10.5 it was never completely compatible with the CoreAudio driver, though evidence of any faults have been mainly about the profile of the software.Although, after upgrades many of these problems were thought to be solved only to show up again under Leopard.

Actually, at present there are still a series of unsolved issues, like the sudden inability to save running configuration in the non volatile memory, and the impossibility to use more units and so on.

To compensate this, the hardware is undoubtedly at the maximum levels for this category and this helps customers of the Ensemble to put up with these difficulties.

So, because of Ensembles patchy introduction we weren’t sure at all if the Apogee’s web-site would ever show a completed second product with Cupertino’s strong collaboration, but evidently our doubts were destined to be unfounded.

duet macbook

Enter Duet, the little sister of the Ensemble, equipped with a sensitive reduction in features, though smaller, it promises almost similar qualities. Anyway, let’s see what she’s able to do and if she’ll be able to help people forget her big sister’s embarrassments.

(english translation by Fabiana Deacon)

Well yes, after the Ensemble, which we have already spoken about in the past, comes the union between Apple-Apogee, which looks to be proceeding well. Actually, we’re positive about what’s now happened, at the beginning it didn’t seem the fruits of this union would be very favorable, but we’ve already spoken a lot about this in the past. The Ensemble in fact, has had a difficult gestation, before Mac OS X 10.5 it was never completely compatible with the CoreAudio driver, though evidence of any faults have been mainly about the profile of the software.Although, after upgrades many of these problems were thought to be solved only to show up again under Leopard.

Actually, at present there are still a series of unsolved issues, like the sudden inability to save running configuration in the non volatile memory, and the impossibility to use more units and so on.

To compensate this, the hardware is undoubtedly at the maximum levels for this category and this helps customers of the Ensemble to put up with these difficulties.

So, because of Ensembles patchy introduction we weren’t sure at all if the Apogee’s web-site would ever show a completed second product with Cupertino’s strong collaboration, but evidently our doubts were destined to be unfounded.

duet macbook

Enter Duet, the little sister of the Ensemble, equipped with a sensitive reduction in features, though smaller, it promises almost similar qualities. Anyway, let’s see what she’s able to do and if she’ll be able to help people forget her big sister’s embarrassments.

By Roberto Lanzo and Giuliano Michelini

How it appears

Nothing to object, even more than the Ensemble, the Duet is a “Mac-Like” product.

Everything about its appearance (design and materials) is in common with the products of Cupertino, and notably if placed side by side to a MacBook Pro, it seems a sort of “extension”, that’s how it looks.

On the upper panel, we have clearly standing out the great multifunctional potentiometer, some LED Meters, and the IN/OUT indicators.

On the front we find the standard headphones socket (6.3" Jack) and the LED that displays the Phantom’s signal insertion; while on the back, we have the FW 400 port (just one) and the connector (the “breakout” cable connects with the IN/OUT of the Duet), both coexist.

These connect with some small cables of a rather reduced thickness. This is perhaps the least convincing aspect of it, robustness apart, we would have preferred a more refined solution able to join all the connections in one cable, with FW enclosed. Apart from this, the Duet is honestly beautiful and well made, without any screws in sight and made totally of aluminum.

duet port

Let’s connect

Headphone socket and FW apart, all the connections of which the Duet is capable of live in the already discussed Breakout Cable and consist of:

  1. A couple of analog OUTs with signals of -10 db
  2. A couple of Inputs for instruments (line level)
  3. A couple of Ins for balanced Microphones and a ‘Phantom line’ with adjustable sensibility (-10 or +4)

These last two are alternate able and therefore the interface can manage 2 Ins and 2 total OUTs at the same time. That’s all, no MIDI, and no digital I/Os.

For those still puzzled about such a minimal choice we want to remember you that:

  • Practically all the Macs in the marketplace today are equipped with digital ports (using the appropriate adapter Toslink-mini optical on all Laptops). These can be coupled to the Duet using the “Aggregate Devices” function of the CoreAudio.
  • By now every Master Keyboard is provided with USB ports and they can be used as an interface just in case there’s a need for a MIDI input; for example in order to receive the Sync from another system.

duet cinch cable

We were not completely convinced about the necessity of adopting a unbalanced output equipped for home stereo systems, but we must also admit that the reasons adopted by Apogee in support of this choice have a sense. This way the Duet nicely facilitated to be combined with some diffuser amplifiers or HI-FI systems. Remember that today a lot of audio systems, including professional models, are active and able to manage well this kind of connection. Though, we would have also preferred the line inputs to be on the unbalancing connectors and not on the XLR, but this is solvable with a single adapter. Nothing else to point out about the inputs – Mic and Instruments, all electrical characteristics are similar to those of the Ensemble.

The large potentiometer that camps on the upper panel looks after the management of the entire interface and it is supplied by a coaxial Switch that allows it to take part separately with the gain of the Inputs/Outputs, the OUT/Headphones Stereo and to activate the Mute, which as we shall see in this case does more than the name would suggest. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to set up the levels separately for the OUT Stereo and headphones.

Apogee explains this choice by maintaining another qualitative level control with the only output stereo available, but we felt this function lacked a bit while working in studio. While moving between listening with headphones and monitoring the direction it was necessary to adjust the level continuously. Despite this being an easy trick to sort using the Aggregate Device and connecting the headphones to the Computer. It is definitely an inconvenience under the operating profile.

Let’s install it

We can say immediately that the Duet is directly compatible with the CoreAudio without needing any Driver and is therefore compatible with FwCoreAudio present inside Leopard.

For complete functioning however, that includes also the possibility of controlling it with a remote mode, it is necessary to install the dedicated Software.

As with the Ensemble, the program that deals with the management of the interface, is Maestro.

From here it is possible to attend to all the accessible parameters through “the big knob”, as with the many others (Phantom, selection levels/typology Input, allocation meter on IN or OUT etc.) A special mention is deserved about the setting of the Mute. This is in fact, apart from its traditional uses, can be used as a Switch between the analogic OUT and the headphones output, as well as to realize all the other options (always active headphones, always active Out Stereo etc). It is a comfortable and indeed useful function, that in part amends the absence of a dedicated volume regulation control for the headphones.

However, the surprises don’t finished here, through Master it is possible to assign the usual big knob up to 4 midi Controllers selectable in rotation through the coaxial Switch. In this way the Duet can be even used as a Jog Shuttle or like an automatic controller.

A beautiful hit indeed.

And to the cherry on the cake – the integration with Mac OS X has come up superbly and all activities accomplished with the Duet are shown on the Mac’s monitor in a small window provided by the “contestual” pointers, as well as the due transparency (exactly as those for the system for the volume function). A really excellent result then with the profiles of the Software and management of the peripheral, we are well ahead is regards to the debatable debut of the Ensemble.

As for the Ensemble, the Duet is also verifiable straight from the internal part of Logic and other Apple applications through an integrated control panel. The included functions are those which are most important.

At work

Apparently, the Duet is the Ensemble project’s daughter and has already collected many favorable opinions about its sound quality. The expectations of the customers are therefore very high, and in light of a strong reduction of channels available, many expect the same sound quality of her older sister.

But is this true?

duet

No, and it can’t be for the very simple reason that it is not true at all that the two plans are identical on the structural level. As the less ingenuous have noticed, one of the Apogee’s “battle horses”, the Soft Limiter, that in the Ensemble had been implemented at least in reduced form (the fixed threshold), here is completely absent.

This is felt for example while recording the guitars, where the limiter would have allowed to use a higher level of input, without too many concerns of bumping into digital clipping with an energetic stroke across the strings using a plectrum.

Moreover, the Intelliclock is not present as the licence of Apogee guarantees the highest stability of the digital clock, and also the UW22HR is absent, which is their famous dithering. It does not seem to relevant that the sampling frequency is in this case limited to 96 Khz, against the 192 of the Ensemble.

It remains that the converters and the MIC/Instruments Inputs seem to be the same ones as the Ensemble and also the electrical characteristics would seem to confirm this. In effects, limiter aside, we have found again all have excellent qualities like the Ensemble. Moreover, it would have been unjust to expect that all the technologies of Apogee could be integrated in a system for its price range.

With the exception of the interfaces audio powered via BUS, at least with the systems used to test it (G5 Quad and MacBook Core2Duo), we haven’t found noises or buzzes of any kind coming out from the Duet. This would have been much more serious, because there’s no other way to power this interface.

We’ve used the Duet in studio while monitoring a DAW dedicated to the pre-production (Logic Studio) before passing the work on to ProTools. Even if this is not the natural use of this product we must say that we haven’t had problems of any kind, even with the output levels. That it has a nominal value of 14 DB under the standard pro reveals itself as being correct. Also very handy is the Mute with its additional functionalities. We have used the Apogee’s “little one” like a ‘pre’ with some effects, in order to record low pitches and guitars through the computer, and even here, the Duet has proudly shown a very low latency.

Conclusions

As is our habit, even this time we are distinguished by our nastiness and we have unmercifully given evidence on all the less convincing aspects of the Duet. But the truth is that this is a well made, successful product being integrated to maximum levels with the Mac OSX.

The absence of the Soft Limiter and the inability to control the level of the headphones, is perhaps the only true lack that we have pointed out. The absence of a FW second port even passes unnoticed, considering that the greater part of the external HD is equipped and the Duet can be connected in queue or linked.

What cannot pass unnoticed though is the total high quality of its interface, both under the audio and the constructive profile. Moreover, its functioning has been absolute and its Software is thought out in a intelligent way. Despite the obvious minimalism of the Duet, it abounds with available functions, some of these being absolutely exclusive.

All of this is not for free and the Apogee’s price tag speaks for itself. Today there does exist better products in terms of features, such as more channels with a cost that is little more than half the Duet, but if what you are looking for is quality without any compromises bounded together with portability, a perfect Hardware/Software integration with the Mac and a touch of exclusivity, the Duet doesn’t have a competitor.