Audio Interfaces suitable for 5.1 Surround Sound Monitoring

My Digi 003R is on it’s last legs, so I’ve searched around for some information on audio interfaces that are suitable for 5.1 surround monitoring. I couldn’t find a definitive source where all the information was contained on one page so I thought I’d make one for anyone interested (although it’s quite subjective!).

My criteria for a surround sound interface are:
– It needs to be able to group the outputs to gain/attenuate the whole 5.1 system from the front panel volume knob.
– At least 96k/24-Bit sample rate/bit depth
– Good D/A conversion (on a see-saw with price)
– Cost effective
– Well built, rugged unit
– At least 2 mic pres for SFX/Dial recording
– Aesthetically pleasing (although, this is the least important requirement)
– Internal DSP isn’t sought after, and probably wouldn’t be used so is not desirable

Picture 6Avid Omni – £2000 (£3800 w/ HD Native Card)
Pros – Great Features, Can group outputs
Cons – Very expensive, Requires a PTHD card, Low resolution meters
Thoughts –
I really like the look of the Omni, and I’ve heard it sounds pretty good too. It has a wealth of features and fits in with the PT ecosystem nicely. The only thing that puts me off is the price. I don’t own PTHD (I own PT10 + CPTK), so to get the base requirements to use the Omni, we’re looking at just under £4k which is far too much, and only brings features I don’t need to the table (Low Latency input + HD Software, most of which the CPTK provides).

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Universal Audio Apollo Duo – £1600
Pros 4 mic pres, Thunderbolt, Excellent supporting softwareHigh resolution meters
Cons Built in DSP pushing the cost up, Can’t group outputs through supporting software
Thoughts: One of my major gripes with the 003 is the lack of being able to group my outputs. This means that my volume knob only controls outputs 1-2 with the other outputs (2-6) not being affected by it. Whilst the Apollo features supporting software, it seems like it doesn’t allow the ability to group the outputs, which unfortunately for me is a deal breaker. The unit does look absolutely gorgeous though and I’ve heard excellent things about the sound of it. It packs a UAD DSP card in there too so you can run your favourite plugs externally, without taxing your system.

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RME Fireface UFX – £1600
Pros – 4 mic pres, Supporting software, Rock solid construction, Very high resolution meters, Can Group Outputs
Cons – Built in DSP pushing the cost up, Uninspired Design
Thoughts – I’ve heard excellent things about RME, but never come in contact with any of their products personally. Apparently RME make super rugged interfaces that rarely go wrong, but their utilitarian design principles have always put me off. I originally included this into my list, rather than the Fireface 800/UCX (priced at £980 and £800 respectively), because I had the impression that they didn’t utilize the TotalMix software that the UFX does. This is untrue, so the cheaper counterparts without DSP are definitely under consideration now. Although, there have been varying reports of each units pros and cons in regards to ADC, DAC, and mic pres so I’m currently unsure as to which is better or worse.

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Apogee Ensemble – £1400
ProsAble to group outputs, Cheap and readily available on the used market
Cons –
Thoughts –
Apparently excellent on the D/A stage, however, there are also some reports of it sounding ‘thin’. It contains 8 fantastic mic pres which is nice, but would largely go unused for my purposes. A positive, is that they’re quite abundant on the used market with one coming up every few weeks which is something to look out for. The feature count seems to be slim, especially compared to the Omni/Apollo, but my main focus is for 5.1 monitoring, so this isn’t a problem. I quite like the idea of this unit, and seems to be a good balance between cost and feature set. (Since writing this blog post, I have found out that Apogee doesn’t support the Ensemble anymore and is is no longer in production)

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Metric Halo Mobile IO 2882 – £1250
Pros – 4 mic pres, Supporting software, Able to group outputs
Cons – 10 year old unit
Thoughts – I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad word about Metric Halo gear; although this unit is over 10 years old,  it’s still held in such high regard today. I’m really interested in it based on MH‘s fantastic reputation and attention to detail. It’s also priced nicely for the feature set and oozes quality. Definitely one to keep my eye on.

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MBox 3 Pro – £600
Pros Able to group outputs, Inexpensive, Apparently excellent sound quality
Cons

Thoughts – After just coming from a low end Digi (or ‘Avid’ now) interface, this option doesn’t fill me with joy. The feature set however, is absolutely spot on. A couple of mic pres, a group output section – and it obviously fits within the Pro Tools ecosystem perfectly. My only problem is past experience and I think I want something with a bit more quality than an Mbox (although the convertors and pres have been upgraded dramatically from what I can gather). 

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Echo Audiofire 8 – £460
Pros Very Inexpensive for the feature set
Cons – Cheap-looking build quality, No group outputs, No metering or visual diplays
Thoughts –
Mixed reports on driver stability and sound quality are conflicting my opinions of this unit. I’ve heard some excellent things about it, and some not so excellent things. The general consensus is that it’s worse than something like the RME Fireface 800, which is double the price, but it’s not double as worse. Something to consider if the budget gets dented.

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Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 – £400
Pros – Able to group Outputs, Excellent supporting software, Very inexpensive
Cons –
Too many mic pres (although price isn’t affected, so not really a problem)
Thoughts – This unit seems too cheap for it’s feature set and, whilst I really like focusrite gear, I can’t believe that £400 is going to give me the best DAC I can get. Cramming in 8 mic pre’s for this price seems unbelievable, and is clearly great value for what you get, but the quality of the components worries me.

Conclusion
After spending a lot of time researching these boxes, I’m starting to get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses and have a better picture of which ones I’m drawn to.

The Focusrite Saffire Pro 40, Echo Audiofire 8 and Avid Mbox Pro 3 are all but discarded from my selection. Whilst they offer an attractive feature set for their prices, I really want to upgrade rather than just replace my oo3R – and I don’t think these will do that.

The Avid Omni, Universal Audio Apollo Duo and the RME UFX are the complete opposite. They’re a bit too pricey for me and have feature sets far beyond my needs. However, I’m sure they would provide the upgrade I’m seeking. The UA Apollo has to be discounted for it’s lack of group output functionality which seems criminal considering it has supporting software in place. The RME UFX seems pretty perfect, but has too much functionality I wouldn’t use, so I can’t justify the price tag, especially when the Fireface 800/UCX offer what I want for less. The Avid Omni is just massively too expensive when factored in with an HD Native card. If it was a standalone for around £1500, I’d be interested, but as it stands, it’s just too much.

The Apogee Ensemble, Metric Halo 2882 and RME 800/UCX are my current favourites. The Apogee is apparently great and has a great presence on the second hand market, meaning it’ll be cheaper. The Metric Halo 2882 gets amazing reviews from everyone – in fact, I don’t think I read a negative one at all. The RME 800/UCX both have great feature sets and prices – but some more research needs to be done into their differences.