Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt Review - Thunderbolt 2 Audio Interface For Mac

12-13-2014 10:16 AM

We sometimes get people saying how amazing it must be to get gear to review all day. To be honest it’s a bit like working in a chocolate factory, the novelty soon wears off and in fact it can have the opposite effect and leave one cynical and unmoved by most new offerings.
So when Apogee announced the new Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt, I even surprised myself by how excited I was after reading the specification. As I’ve already said I’m rarely excited by new product announcements, but I wanted to be the one reviewing the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt.
Why? It seemed to tick all the boxes for what I needed in terms of an interface, I was days away from moving to a second Apollo, but neither the Apollo or the Apollo 16 had exactly the I/O I needed for my workflow. Thankfully I have an Apollo Twin and a 4-710D, as well as an Octo card so I still have an Apollo tracking workflow when I need it, I couldn’t live without my UAD stuff.

  • 30×34 Thunderbolt™ 2 Audio Interface for Mac
  • 8 Mic preamps with up to 75 dB of gain and Advanced Stepped Gain circuit
  • Thunderbolt connectivity for ultra-low latency (1.1ms round trip with Logic Pro X)
  • Front panel Guitar I/O with Class A JFET inputs, dual mode re-amp outputs
  • Talkback functionality with built-in mic and control button
  • 2 PurePower headphone outputs
  • 10 separately assignable analog inputs
  • 16 analog outputs of premium Apogee conversion
  • Core Audio optimized DMA engine frees up Mac CPU for plug-ins and software instruments

However the large I/O count on the new Apogee Ensemble along with the flexible connectivity looked like it was designed just for me…how often does that happen? I have to be honest and say that I’ve become less and less happy with my Avid Omni interface, not because of the sound, but because I’ve always seemed to be working around it to get what I need, including if you recall having to replace a noisy fan. The only other reason for owning the Omni was that it gave me an easy way into Pro Tools HDX, which to be frank for a composer using a lot of virtual instruments (of which there are zero running AAX DSP) was becoming somewhat of a waste of time and money for my needs - I use the Apollo solution when I need to track with plug-ins at low latency. I’m not tracking orchestras or mixing Hollywood blockbusters so I’m really not going to miss the HDX. This is not to say that HDX is not of use to some such as large studios or sound stages, but in my experience and for my needs it offered no real benefit. I’m also unable to use it when working in other DAWs as they can’t take advantage of the DSP, so I wanted an interface that was not just limited to a single application. A recent survey we ran showed that around two thirds of us are using two or more DAWs in our work so interfaces need to be able to deal with that.
Anyway back to the review, getting hold of the new Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt was proving difficult, right now it’s easier to find unicorn poo, they seem to be in short supply. However thanks to Richard at Eastwood Sound and Vision one finally arrived at Pro Tools Expert HQ.
An interface was needed that could handle external hardware
Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt - What’s In The Box?

Unboxing was pretty uneventful, certainly not exciting enough to create a click bait video on YouTube. In fact it was a little disappointing, in the box is the interface (thankfully) and a little plastic zipped wallet of a ‘getting started guide’ which is slightly larger than a postage stamp, a power cable with the US plug on it (not great) and 4 self adhesive rubber feet. For a brand that have worked so closely with Apple over the years Apogee have some work to do on the ‘first 2 minutes’ of the customer experience. I’ve opened 4 Thunderbolt products this month and this is the first one to not have a Thunderbolt cable in the box, granted it’s likely people buying this may need long cables, but the whole unboxing did make me feel a little disappointed, I’ve opened vacuum cleaners and felt more excited. I cannot overestimate this ‘first two minutes experience’ enough to all brands selling gear, if one has just shelled out a couple of thousand pounds on a piece of equipment and then the first couple of minutes feel like the brand either lack imagination or are just trying to save a few dollars, it leaves a lasting impression. Remember you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
Setting Up Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt

Anyway, not to be put off by Apogee’s lack of flair for packaging it was time to set up the Apogee Ensemble in the slot that had minutes before been occupied by my Avid Omni. As I said earlier I have a specific I/O set-up, partly determined by the offering on the Avid Omni. It includes using the ADAT input for my Audient ASP880 8 channel pre-amp, the SPDIF from my Avid Eleven Rack and also the D-Sub and other connectors back to my patchbay. I was dreading this operation, there’s a lot of spaghetti behind my rack and the thought of doing this wasn’t filling me with joy. However 5 minutes later the Apogee Ensemble was installed without any issues and I was ready to roll.
The next part of the set-up is downloading the software from the Apogee website, there’s also a getting started guide and manual to download, but I wasn’t expecting much from the getting started guide if the unboxing was anything to go on, and in true PTE tradition it’s not a review if we’ve read the manual. The installer downloaded and I restarted my Mac, still filled with anticipation despite Apogee’s best efforts to reduce the excitement.
More holes than a Swiss cheese

The Apogee Ensemble In Use

I fired up Pro Tools, went to the I/O setup window and set up the I/O for the Apogee Ensemble, this was simple, I just deleted all the I/O settings and hit the default button on the input, output and buss tab. I then saved these and created a new session. One small point to mention about the Apogee Ensemble is that when using external clock sources, the DAW session set-up determines the master clock rate, so even if you put the Ensemble into external clock and try and set the clock on the master device you can run into some issues if you don’t set it correctly in the DAW, it will not resolve the clock. I think this is a good thing, I’m forever having to remind myself to set the clock on the master hardware device to the same settings as my DAW - it’s seems the Apogee makes that even easier to remember.
You light up my life
Using the interface is very easy, with a set of input selectors for the main I/O on the front panel, hold any of these buttons down for a couple of seconds and a menu appears offering input type, soft limit, insert, phase, filter and also group. Group enables the user to simultaneously adjust the input gain on all channels in a group, the offset on any channels that is there before the group is created remains, handy if you want to pull down all your drum mics for example. There are also 4 user assignable soft keys that can be used to do things like monitor mute, talkback etc, they come pre-assigned with functions that right now I have not seen the need to change. There’s also a talkback mic, handy in project studios and also if you want to use it as an extra effect, like routing a guitar amp in a room through it.
Talking of guitars, a review would be incomplete without mentioning the 2 guitar input and outputs on the front panel. In the words of Apogee “The inputs’ Class A JFET circuits reproduce the feel and tone of a vintage tube amp for more realistic modeling and add harmonic character to keyboards and other electronic instruments. A “bootstrapping” circuit design provides an ultra-high impedance load to the connected instrument to preserve its tone and high frequency response.” In practise they offer a simple way to record, reamp and even put effects chains back into the guitar signal, the channels sound great and the reamping is simple, you can see my video reamping guitars using the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt here.
The two important things with any audio interface are sound and performance, the latter especially as it’s working as a native interface so latency needs to be minimal.
I created a test Pro Tools session on a new Mac Pro 3.5ghz 6 core at 32 sample buffer size with multiple VIs, after all one of the claims from Apogee is ultra low latency so I wanted to see if I’d be battling with that when tracking both MIDI and Audio. I then started to add audio tracks by putting down electric guitar parts using one of the two guitar inputs on the front of the unit. As the track was building up I decided to send one of the guitar tracks and the bass track out to external hardware and retrack it. This is a sure fire test of latency on an interface as monitoring the original and the incoming hardware soon gives that horrible phasey sound if there’s even a hint of delay. I have to say that I ran the test a couple of times because there is very little of this when doing parallel processing with external hardware, in fact it is so good that if you don’t mix in the original, the timing of the part is almost unaffected, I measured 14 samples when zooming in on the waveform at 44.1Khz, it’s certainly not enough to drive anyone tracking nuts. If you are tracking multiple mics then all those tracks need to be phase aligned, but in most cases that one is easily fixed in a matter of seconds. Of course there is also the Apogee Maestro 2 software which offers an out-of-DAW monitoring option should latency be an issue - so far I’ve not had a need to use it.
In terms of sound the Apogee is very, very good, it is transparent and open and it lives up to the reputation that Apogee has garnered for making great sounding audio interfaces. This is the first Apogee interface I’ve used and I have to say I’m impressed by the sound.
Another nice feature, but not exclusively an Apogee one, is the soft clipping that deals with any overs that might sneak in during a tracking session. It seems it doesn’t matter how hard you tell some people to play wehn setting up to track, they play louder on the real take. Soft clipping can help with this, although it’s important to note it’s not going to cover someone if they just thrash the nuts out of the channels.
I’m bringing sexy back

Returning to the start of the story, have Apogee managed to put a little excitement back into the life of this old cynic? Does the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt deliver on the sound and ‘ultra low latency’ performance?
The simple answer is yes. Enough for me to have gone and purchased this unit, it’s not coming out of my rack any time soon. In the words of Victor Kiam “I liked it so much I bought the company.” Well not quite, but it is now my new interface, bought and paid for with my hard earned. When I first saw the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt I thought this unit was made just for me, now having used it I was right.
It’s not going to be everyone’s choice, especially of you are a PC user, but I think for those Mac users wanting a flexible, great sounding and low latency audio interface this one has to be on your short list.
Thanks again to Richard and Louise at Eastwood Sound and Vision for doing what the UK distributor couldn’t manage to do, which was get me this unit to review, your efforts were rewarded.
Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt Pros

  • Great sound
  • Flixible I/O
  • Guitar I/O for reamping
  • Low latency
  • Easy to use

Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt Cons

  • Mac only
  • Thunderbolt only
  • Although some features are aimed at the enthusiast, it may prove too expensive for them.

Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt Specification

System Requirements
Mac OS: Computer: Thunderbolt-equipped Mac (iMac, Macbook Pro, Macbook Air, Mac Pro)
Memory: 4 GB RAM minimum, 8 GB recommended
OS: 10.9.3 or greater
Connection: Any available Thunderbolt port on a Mac
Compatible Software:
Any Mac Core Audio compatible application
Recommended apps: Logic Pro, Pro Tools, GarageBand, MainStage, Final Cut, Ableton Live, Digital Performer, Studio One, Cubase, and Nuendo
In the box:

  • Ensemble
  • 3-pin IEC power cable
  • Rubber feet
  • Quick Start Guide
  • Warranty Booklet


  • Thunderbolt 2 Mac audio interface
  • Analog-to-digital conversion (ADC) for recording up to 24-bit/192kHz
  • Proprietary Thunderbolt audio driver and ESS Sabre32 DAC offer full 32-bit playback
  • Groundbreaking low latency performance
  • Core Audio-optimized hardware engine frees your Mac CPU
  • 2 high-resolution OLED displays show levels and settings
  • Input select buttons and controller knob for convenient selection of parameters and settings
  • 4 assignable buttons to control:
  • Talkback mic (built-in or external)
  • Output settings such as speaker set selection, mute, dim, sum to mono Complete input/output control with Apogee’s Maestro software
  • Works with Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton and any Core Audio compliant app on Mac
  • Designed in California – Assembled in the U.S.A.

Analog Inputs:

  • 4 Combi mic/line/instrument inputs
  • 2 1/4″ balanced analog inserts
  • 4 XLR mic/line inputs
  • 2 1/4″ hi-z guitar/instrument inputs with Class-A JFET input stage

Digital Inputs:

  • Optical IN: Supports ADAT, SMUX & S/PDIF
  • ADAT: 16 channels 44.1-48 kHz on 2 Toslink connectors
  • SMUX: 8 channels 88.2-96 kHz on 2 Toslink connectors
  • S/PDIF: 4 channels, up to 96 kHz on 2 Toslink connectors
  • Coax IN: 2 channels of S/PDIF, up to 192 kHz on 1 RCA connector
  • Word clock input on BNC connector

Built-in Microphone:
Mono omnidirectional condensor capsule on front panel
Mic Preamps:
8 Mic preamps
Gain: Up to 75 dB and advanced stepped gain circuit design
Selectable 48v phantom power, hi-pass filter, Soft Limit