American purveyor of audio equipment Apogee has long commanded an enviable reputation regarding the quality of its hardware. The most recent iteration of the Apogee Duet sees iOS functionality added to the popular recording device, allowing users to easily move between an iOS device or a Mac to record and perform music. Gizmag takes the newest Duet for a spin to see how well it performs on both an iPad Air and a Mac.
Though the Duet also features a MIDI interface, along with headphone amp and DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) functionality, its primary purpose is as a digital audio interface. The device can handle up to two simultaneous high quality inputs from sources such as a guitar, microphone, or keyboard, and route that audio into your computer's DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), making a viable home studio.
At a recommended retail price of US$595, the Duet sits at the higher-end of the price scale for home users. The device is compatible with both Lightning cable and classic 30-pin iOS devices, and Mac – the latter via a standard USB 2.0 connection. PC users are out of luck though, as it doesn't work with non-Apple computers.
A note concerning the USB 2.0 connection. Though I've always been a big fan of Firewire's superior transfer speeds, I found USB 2.0 perfectly capable of "keeping up," and found no latency or clipping during my time with the Duet.
The following review was carried out while using the Duet with a Mac running OS X Mavericks and Ableton Live 8, in addition to an iPad Air running iOS 7 and GarageBand.
Here's the basic specifications for the Duet:
Housed in a reassuringly hefty and very attractive metal casing with rubber slip mat that recalls the industrial lines of the MacBook Pro, the Duet sports an OLED screen on the top panel that displays information such as output and input levels. Also on the top panel are two small programmable touchpads and a large central control knob that turns either clockwise or anti-clockwise with a satisfying click. The same control knob can be pushed like a button to access different functions, such as input level, output level, headphones level, and so on.
Connectivity comes in the form of a stereo headphone jack, a MIDI port, a power adapter socket (this was only needed when the Duet was used with an iOS device during my time with it, more on that later), a mini-USB port, and a Breakout port – the latter being the port that you plug your guitar or other audio input into, via an included Breakout cable.
Before doing any recording, and to get a better sense of the onboard amp wizardry, I tried out the Duet in the role of headphone amp by simply plugging the device into my Mac and selecting it through OS X's built-in sound preferences. Listening to some familiar music with a decent set of headphones for reference, the sound proved crystal clear, far and above the quality you'd expect from most headphone amps.
The accompanying Apogee Maestro 2 software is definitely worth a download, as it offers fine control over the device, including mixer controls and the ability to re-assign the two touchpads on the top panel to perform such functions as quick mute, or volume boost.
Mac and Ableton Live
The Duet should work just fine with whichever DAW you choose to use it with. Since Ableton Live 8 happens to be my own preferred software, that's what I went with. During my time with the Duet, I only used it with USB power, so the adapter wasn't necessary. It's possible that you'd need the adapter to get the phantom power functionality working for more power-hungry microphones, depending on the power going into your Mac's USB bus.
Setup is simple and involved just choosing the Duet from Live's sound preferences. This done, it worked exactly as expected, with all Live's output sound controlled via the control knob and monitored by my headphones. During some prolonged use, the touchpads proved useful for quickly muting audio, and clicking the control knob to switch between controlling input levels and headphone level also worked very well and felt intuitive. Playback quality was, again, exceptional.
Indeed, though I didn't have a chance to test it with some decent audio monitors, it would be difficult to overstate just how good audio sounds through this device and some decent headphones, to my ears at least.
During recording, the difference in sound quality between my usual setup (an aging M-Audio FastTrack Pro long due for an upgrade) and the Duet was even more apparent, with the Duet easily blowing my old setup out of the water.
Plugging a guitar directly into the Duet without noise gate, pedals, EQ or anything else produced surprisingly good results too, and notwithstanding my single-coil guitar's hot and noisy pickups, the signal quality sounded very clean.
I performed a test recording comprising five tracks of basic hand-picked guitar straight into Ableton Live, again with no EQ or amp and it sounded great.
iPad Air and GarageBand
I also had the opportunity to use the Duet with an iPad Air and GarageBand, though my time with this setup was more brief than that spent with the Duet and Mac. Also, in case of confusion, though the full name of the device is the Apogee Duet for iPad and Mac, Apogee's documentation states it also works on iPod Touch and iPhone.
Unlike some similar devices like the iRig for example, the Duet needs to be plugged into the mains in order to operate with an iOS device. That said, it does charge your iOS device while it's plugged in. Depending on your needs, I reckon the resulting boost in quality is well worth that trade-off, but if you're looking for an inexpensive sketchpad, the more portable (and cheaper) iRig may also be worth considering.
An Apogee Maestro app is available free from the iOS App Store for configuration along the same lines as the Mac software, and since the device is Apple-certified, the volume control works properly with the iPad, as do the touchpad shortcuts.
Recording with GarageBand's built-in effects and amps produced a surprisingly authentic sound, certainly good enough for demos, sketches and song ideas. Though the iPad still can't compete with a "real" Mac-based DAW setup in my opinion, the gap is closing.
I recorded a short song comprising three tracks of guitar which went smoothly, and I played around with GarageBand's on-board effects for some time, always maintaining a good connection, without any glitches, pops, or the audio signal cutting out. There was no noticeable latency either.
I'm very impressed with the Apogee Duet. Though there's a few minor drawbacks that could annoy some users that you should be aware of, such as a lack of PC compatibility, and the need of a power adaptor when using it with an iOS device, I feel confident recommending that you spend your hard-earned cash on the Duet if you're in the market for such a device.
In my opinion, it's an excellent audio interface and well worth the slightly higher price tag compared to similar units. Of course, when dealing with audio equipment, even more than most reviews, such opinions are subjective, and it's always worth testing a device of this nature in person if at all possible, but for what it's worth, this is the best quality audio interface I've yet come across by quite a wide margin.
Product page: Apogee Duet for iPad and Mac