Audio Interface Breakdown: Apogee Duet 2, NI Komplete Audio 6, Focusrite Saffire Pro 14

Finding the proper audio interface for your studio can be a daunting task. I know because I’ve bought and returned about four of them in the past month. The people at my local music shop love / hate me at this point but I am determined to get the right setup for my studio. I have specific needs and ideas that require the right audio interface to get the job done. With so many different audio interfaces on the market I’ve had to test my way through the pros and cons of many devices and this article is an attempt to share that knowledge with you.

In starting this discussion I assume that you have found the need for an audio interface in your studio. Your laptop wasn’t engineered to rock a club as much as it as built to store data and most stock sound cards are weak in performance and signal strength because they share the same resources for processing with the rest of the machine. The 1/8th inch output on most computers will suffice for casual listening and the beginnings of a project but if you plan to produce and possibly release music professionally then you need to upgrade to something better. The first reason to upgrade to an audio interface is to really hear the sounds you are producing in Reason, Ableton, Logic, Maschine or other DAWs. An audio interface will add processing power and a DAC (digital to analog converter) to your setup and your sounds will come across much clearer. This is especially true when you have projects with multiple tracks which take up much processing power.

The second reason to invest in an audio interface is to record sounds that happen outside of your computer. This includes record players for sampling, sythns, drum machines, Kaoss pads, guitars or any other instrument. In preparation for this discussion I’ll ask: how many things do you want to record (at the same time) into your computer? This is probably the most important question to ask because it will greatly affect the price range of what you purchase (two inputs can be fairly inexpensive, more inputs gets pricey.) Another consideration is whether or not you will use microphones in your setup. Mic pre-amps come in a range of quality and this variable will affect the cost of your purchase as well.

In my own search for an audio interface I came across a few unexpected hurdles on the way to a proper interface. The first was going for a low-priced ($150) interface and thinking it would suffice next to my pro-end monitors and DAW. You get what you pay for was the lesson there. The second mistake I made was buying a mixer that boasted great performance with it’s built-in USB audio interface. Given that the company has a great name I figured it must be a good piece of gear. Well it turns out the mixer itself is incredible but the interface that comes inside is a bit lacking and only offers 44.1/16-bit sound – a problem for those of us running at higher rates that provide cleaner sound. With both of these devices I also encountered latency problems which felt very obvious with using Maschine.

The biggest lesson learned from this experience was to find that there is no all-in-one magic piece of gear for under $500. You really need to invest in a dedicated, high-quality interface to make the investment worthwhile. You can get something decent for a couple hundred dollars and you’re more likely to spend a few hundred to get the things you really need.

After buying and returning a few pieces and researching quite a bit I came down to three interfaces that seemed to offer what I needed and those pieces were: the Apogee Duet 2Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 and the Focusrite Saffire Pro 14. Priced at $595, $299 and $249 (respectively), they are three great sounding interfaces with a lot to offer for the price. The Apogee Duet 2 is the obvious winner in terms of sound quality (Apogee’s Digital to Analog converters and preamps are legendary) but for durability, input/output options and great sound I think the Komplete Audio 6 and Saffire Pro 14 are both really nice pieces of gear. Something I had not thought about until experiencing it for myself is – they all have slightly different sound and despite what I had read it really came down to the sound of the device with my own ears.

Apogee Duet 2 - Audiophiles have been eagerly anticipating the release of this box which is due on shelves any day now. Apogee is known for very high end Digital to Analog (DAC) converters and preamps and the Duet 2 is no exception. The original Duet is known to be one of the best values for sound quality and Apogee claims they have rebuilt the device from ground-up. “The Duet 2 mic preamps feature a new design, all new components and seamless click-free transitions as the gain increases and decreases throughout the incredible range of 0-75dB. This unprecedented feature allows you to dial in the perfect level while delivering ultra-low noise and smooth, crisp detail. Most importantly, the Duet 2 mic preamps are optimized for any sound source and the Duet 2 AD/DA converters are an all-new design and deliver the purest recordings and best listening experience possible.”

Apogee One – I should also mention that if you are looking for clean sound but don’t need much in the way of inputs / outputs, you should listen to the Apogee One which offers an awesome mic, one input and Apogee DAC sound for a mere $250. I have one at my work computer and along with some Grado headphones it’s delightful.

Komplete Audio 6Native Instruments have just released a new six-channel audio interface aimed at studio musicians that has a sweet price point for the features included. As a follow up to the highly-popluar Audio Kontrol 1, this new interface provides more connectivity, increased performance and a lot of cool features for an interface priced at $299. “It provides everything you need to record, play and perform music, with four analog ins/outs, digital in/out, MIDI and low-latency performance — all in a sleek, rugged metal casing,” say Native Instruments on their site. The unit also comes with 24-bit/96kHz Cirrus Logic converters and +11dBu analog output stages for clean and powerful sound. Both Apogee and N.I. offer a nice, big assignable knob on top of their devices which allows for easy volume control. The Komplete Audio 6 comes bundled with some nice software including (you guessed it) Komplete Elements as well as Cubase LE 5 and Traktor LE 2.

Focusrite Saffire Pro 14 – If you have a firewire port on your computer this piece is the winner in terms of value for the price. It has 8 inputs, 6 outputs and very low latency (thanks to the firewire connection). The packaged MixControl software took some getting used to but seems very powerful for a packaged tool. Focusrite is also known for high-end preamps and you get two of those on this piece as well. “The two Focusrite preamps ensure low noise and distortion, whilst quality digital conversion and JetPLL™ jitter elimination technology ensure pristine quality as your audio flows between the analogue and digital domains.”

Michael Walsh is the Editor of Dubspot’s Blog, a producer of audio/visual art and a journalist living in Southern California. Read more of his work at soundsdefygravity.com

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  • Meg Whitney
  • 6/13/2011

Mike, what’s your take on the RME Babyface?

  • Michael Walsh
  • 6/13/2011

Hey meg! The RME devices are top-end gear. On par with apogee. I didn’t include the babyface because of its price tag.. You pay for a lot of ins and outs on that device. I prefer the sound and price tag of the duet 2.

  • Dennis K
  • 6/13/2011

Mike, What do you make of M-audio’s Fast Track Ultra. I’ve heard mixed reviews on it, but i normally don’t have a problem with that brand any comments?

  • Michael Walsh
  • 6/13/2011

In the professional realm there are a lot of lingering issues/questions about M-Audio’s drivers for Apple computers. They can be glitchy and trigger off loud noises in OSX. The sound quality and price point of those devices are great – but at the cost of unstable drivers. I had an M-Audio Mobile Pre that would react badly to Microsoft Office products and sent squealing sounds out of my speakers. This triggered the above upgrade that I wrote about.

  • Spirit
  • 6/13/2011

Mike, what’s your take on the Duet 2 for DJing? I need one output for the main and one for cueing on headphones. Seems like it would do the trick. Also would like to be able to bring in live vocals over my beats and mix that in Ableton Live in real time. Is the Duet 2 a good choice for that?

  • Michael Walsh
  • 6/13/2011

Spirit – The Duet 2 will work for DJing (assuming you are on a mac). It has 4 outputs (so that works out to 2 stereo outs) and the headphones are assignable so you can use the Duet 2 as a cue point and switch between sources. As many people are speculating it’s probably the best sound you can get for the price and many djs will be using it.

Having said that – It sounds like you also want to do some other interesting things with your performance (such as live vocals.) If you dj with the Duet 2 you’ll be using all of your outputs for the turntables and won’t have additional ins/outs to work with. If you have a mixer with a mic input this is no problem (just plug in a mic.) If you want to have the vocals running on a sep channel on the sound card – you’ll need a different sound card.

The Duet 2 is amazing for sound quality but limited with ins/outs. A comparable unit as far as quality would be the MOTU Audio Express 6×6. Goes for about $395. I should have included that unit in this overview because it seems to be widely used by pro musicians (many of our staff use this unit.) The sound quality should be awesome.. maybe not the same DAC as the Apogee but still on the A+ end of things. The extra ins/outs will benefit you in the long-run.

  • Daniel
  • 6/13/2011

Hi Mike.
Thanks for this detail discussion. I found this really useful. I’m currently deciding between a SAFFIRE PRO 24 and the Komplete Audio 6. Which one will offer me the best sound. I play folk/singer-songwriter and acoustic type styled music. I’m choosing between these two over the apogee is the extra in/outs and the lower price.

Thanks in advance!

  • Michael Walsh
  • 6/13/2011

Hey Daniel, I think both of those interfaces (NI6, SaffirePro) are great pieces of gear and both offer nice preamps and DAC. The are pretty on-par with each other. I think the Saffire 24 might offer more ins/outs although I don’t have the specs in front of me to check.

  • Ariel
  • 6/13/2011

Hey Mike!

I want to buy a new audio interface and I’m considering the new Duet 2 and the RME Fireface UC. I know that they are in different league’s in terms of I/O but I dont know which one should I get. I dont need that many I/O right now because I dont use any external gear and I dont know if I will use any in the future. Should I get the Duet 2 and than upgrade it to something bigger if needed or should I get the RME? Isn’t the RME a more professional device?

Best,
Ariel

  • jonas18z
  • 6/13/2011

What about the new ALVA nanoface?

  • Michael Walsh
  • 6/13/2011

RME vs Apogee is like comparing a Mercedes Benz and a B.M.W. You’ll find drivers of both that pledge allegiance to the brand.. but it really comes down to the way it drives. This is the exact same experience with audio interfaces. You’ll need to hear both devices to make a decision. Both companies make very high-end DACs, preamps and gorgeous sounding boxes. Can’t go wrong with either.. but go with what your ears tell you.

  • Michael Walsh
  • 6/13/2011

Jonas – that piece of kit is not the same as the RME. It uses a similar housing and looks slick but it’s a consumer-level product, not pro end.

  • Wayne
  • 6/13/2011

Hey Mike, I am an event emcee / charity auctioneer and want to use my Duet 2 to play iTunes during dinner etc while running my wireless mic through the Duet during the emcee duties/auction to take advantage of its preamps and other features. Do you see any problem with this?

  • Dave
  • 6/13/2011

Hi Mike,
I have a large library of jazz 33 1/3 records I’d like to digitize. Quality of sound is very important to me so I want high bit/sample rates. I plan on connecting the following components from my stereo system to an audio interface: Precision Fidelity Pre-amp (vacuum tube), Hafler DH-500 two channel power amp, Walker CJ55 Turntable … possibly a microphone in the future. My computer is a MacBooK Pro, OS X 10.7 (Lion) and my software is GarageBand.
Can you tell me how many input channels and output channels I’d need in an audio interface? Re: audio output do I need both Monitor for headphones and Channel outputs?
Would it be correct to say that the audio interface with FireWire connectivity (vs. USB) offers a greater advantage because you have the ability to connect devices to each other as in daisy chains? This way you can expand the capacity of your current setup by combining multiple units, such as with audio interfaces to increase the number of inputs.
OK now the biggie: Of the Duet 2, Komplete6 and the Focusrite Saffire Pro 14 which do you feel would best meet my needs based on my input above.

Thanks in advance for your input!

Dave

  • Jason h
  • 6/13/2011

Hi Dave it’s been 3 months I don’t think you’re getting that reply so let me jump in, Duet2 turned out to be the phantom menace so for your needs I would say in a heartbeat the sound devices Usbpre-2, it costs more sounds amazing so quiet so loud – strange because apparently they use some/most of the same cirrus logic converters, either way it’s amazing, I liked the DUET2 would have loved the duet2 specs inside the duet1 chasis because my duet2 plastic top cracked now unreadable but working, dropped off my desk hense the upgrade 3 months later to the usbpre2
Duet2 is great but just not the holy grail I was expecting.

  • JE
  • 6/13/2011

MY Duet 2 powered up worked for a few and now its not turning on. I unplugged it on all levels still not response any help

  • Michael Walsh
  • 6/13/2011

JE – Call Apogee! And keep us posted!

  • Michael Walsh
  • 6/13/2011

Dave – for your use I’d look for an original Apogee Duet (skip the 2)

  • Understanding Audio Interfaces: DACs, Bit Depth, Sampling Rate, Analog vs Digital | Dubspot Blog
  • 6/13/2011

[...] MIDI connection and monitoring options. The options available are sometimes overwhelming so earlier this year on our blog we explored some of the devices available on the market by Apogee, Focurrite and Native [...]

  • Anil nc
  • 6/13/2011

Hi Mike, Thanks for your post. I’m sorry for commenting so late. I want to buy audio interface with atleast 4 ins, great pre-amps, midi I/O. Right now I ‘ve M-audio FW410 since 7years. Its pres are bad, it easily clips the audio and has some noise also. I need upgrade for 3 main reasons.
1. the interface should help my CPU/ASIO loads while using loads of VST plug-ins and Virtual instruments.
2. Great Mic preamps atleast 2 micpres, (a built-in compressor optional)
3. atleast 4-8 analogue inputs including 2-4 micpres with XLR/Line combo.

I can afford upto 800$. But if it really meets my need. I was looking into RME FF400. But in some blog I read someone saying KA6 is far better than FF800 in terms of latency. Does that mean KA6 is also better in reducing CPU/ASIO loads and peeks while using loads of Virtual synths and plug-ins?

I have i7 920 2.67 Ghz with 4GB RAM in WinXP SP3 (or media center) on Intel DX58SO MoBo, MSI GT 9600 with Nvidia chipset 512 DDR3. Using FW410 via onboard TI firewire port.

While using in Cubase 5 with VSTi and plug-ins the task manager sho CPU not loads more than 20% but in Cubase ASIO it peeks and glitches in 512buffer size 48khz and 24bit.

Can you please advise me which device or upgrades best suits me?

  • A S
  • 6/13/2011

Hi I am just wondering can the Duet 1 or 2 work with a program like Reason 6 in terms of recording into Reason? Or with Live? Thank you!

  • Michael Walsh
  • 6/13/2011

@ A S – Yes, the Duet (one or two) will work with recording into Reason, Live, Logic or any other sound recording program. The Apogee sound cards integrate very well with Apple’s operating system – very easy to use.

  • Jay
  • 6/13/2011

Hi Mike,

I have recently bought a Mac book Pro, apogee Duet 2 and AKG mic. I see in the diagrams above you got one more piece of kit that runs from the audio interface to the mic. Could you explain to me what that is and what products you would recomend. I use my set up to record vocals mainly.

  • How to Build a Home Studio / Electronic Music Production Setup for Under $1000 | Dubspot Blog
  • 6/13/2011

[...] One crucial and often overlooked part of the home studio is an audio interface that will provide connections to route sound in and out of your computer. Your computer may have something like this (if you use Apple they provide decent sound output with the included 1/8th inch jack). But you may lack some connections such as input for a microphone or instrument. This is where you’ll want to figure out exactly what plugs into what in your studio, and purchase an audio interface to fit your needs. For a bit more information on audio interfaces, check out our Audio Interface Breakdown. [...]