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Review: Prism Sound Orpheus

December 1, 2008
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Orpheus'' single big knob defaults to control output volume, but you can assign it to other things, including input channels, in the Orpheus Control Panel software.

Orpheus'' single big knob defaults to control output volume, but you can assign it to other things, including input channels, in the Orpheus Control Panel software.

If you've never heard of Prism Sound, you're not alone. The boutique manufacturer makes some of the most respected A/D/A converters in the world, building bridges between analog and digital in major commercial recording studios and soundstages worldwide. Prism's lack of street cred in project studios isn't surprising given the sky-high price tags on most Prism gear; the workhorse ADA-8XR is nearly $12,000 fully loaded, and the specialized AD-2 and DA-2 converters are more than $9,000 each.

That's awfully expensive, but Prism has kindly built a converter for less — miraculously not sacrificing any pristine audio clarity or rock-solid reliability in the process. In fact, Prism upped the ante in some respects over its far more expensive gear. The Orpheus is a Mac- and PC-compatible FireWire 400 audio interface, complete with mic preamps, peak limiters, surround-sound volume control and a comprehensive software mixer. At $5,000, it isn't for the weak-walleted, but it's relatively inexpensive for a Prism product. So is this really a box worthy of the Prism name, and more importantly, is any audio interface really worth five grand? I took the Orpheus for a spin over the course of a month and walked away thinking that good things never come cheap, as well as that the Orpheus may be the benchmark against which all other FireWire interfaces are judged.

THE PHYSICAL

One thing is immediately clear: Prism built the Orpheus to stand the test of time. The 1U metal chassis is finely machined, with a burnished front panel that looks as professional and expensive as it is. The most prominent feature — the large soft-knob in the center — primarily controls output volume, but you can assign it to input channels as well.

A basic display panel showing I/O level, input source, word clock status and other basic status indicators bears the Prism logo and sits just to the left of the volume knob. Studios recording live musicians will appreciate the dual headphone outputs with individual volume controls. A pair of ¼-inch instrument jacks offers convenient access to the first set of analog inputs, dispensing with the hassle of digging the Orpheus out of a rack and swapping cables.

As with most audio interfaces, the real business is around back, where the Orpheus packs enough I/O for any modern project studio. With eight analog inputs and outputs, optical and coaxial digital and BNC word clock connections, the only thing missing is AES/EBU, which is available by using the included adapter and software setting that pipes AES/EBU over S/PDIF.

Scoping the back of the unit, analog inputs 1 through 4 had XLR connectors. With such a hefty price tag, I expected balanced XLR for each of the eight inputs and outputs; however, four is all right for a 1U rack, and they all sport quality microphone preamps and phantom power. These XLR jacks are dual-connector for both XLR and ¼-inch connections. The remaining four inputs are ¼-inch, as are the eight outputs, all of which accept balanced and unbalanced signals. Each of the eight input channels feature Prism's Overkiller technology, a basic (but effective) peak limiter that keeps hot signals from clipping the converters.

THE DIGITAL

The Orpheus stars as an A/D converter, but also admirably handles digital I/O with both optical and coaxial connectors. Digitally, the optical interface can operate with 2-channel S/PDIF at a maximum of 192 kHz, 8-channel ADAT as high as 8 kHz or 4-channel ADAT at 88.2 or 96 kHz. If you have multiple instruments in your studio with optical interfaces, simply daisy chain them all into the optical input and route them in the Orpheus control panel, leaving the beautiful converters on the analog I/O free for mics, acoustic instruments and old-school electronic gear.

The coaxial digital input is standard S/PDIF at a maximum of 192 kHz, but the Orpheus has the unique ability to switch that output to AES/EBU digital format with the supplied RCA-to-XLR adapter. A simple setting in the Orpheus control panel on the host PC makes the necessary change.

Another unique feature is Orpheus' real-time sample rate conversion (SRC), which you can apply to either S/PDIF output — useful when older outboard gear can't keep up with today's high sampling rates. A good example is my old TC Electronic Fireworx. It's one of the earlier effects processors with built-in I/O, and it only handles sampling rates as high as 48 kHz. I typically work in 88.2 kHz, so I've been patching the Fireworx with its analog connections. With the Orpheus' SRC, I'm able to switch over to 48 kHz transparently at the optical output and send pure digital audio straight from my DAW to the Fireworx, with the return audio coming in analog through two channels of the Orpheus' beautiful A/D conversion. As an added bonus, Orpheus can apply four types of dithering (or noise shaping) on the S/PDIF output.

I tested the Orpheus on a Core 2 Quad Q9400 with Windows Vista, and it worked like a champ in the latest versions of Ableton Live and Steinberg Wavelab and Cubase, churning through complex multitrack arrangements without a glitch.

The Orpheus Control Panel is the nerve center of the device while attached to a PC. The unit itself lacks any buttons or switches for mode settings, so changing the sampling rate, clock source, buffer size, etc., happens in the software, which syncs to the unit. The software can also control multiple daisy-chained Orpheus boxes, forming as many as 40 additional channels of Prism I/O.

The Input tab provides control over the Orpheus' A/D converters. The first four channels feature utilities, including phase flip, phantom power and highpass filter (fixed at 80 Hz), with the first two channels also offering RIAA equalization for direct use with turntables — perfect for archiving old vinyl. All eight channels have switchable Prism Overkillers to keep inbound audio from clipping the converters.

On the Output tab, each individual channel can be marked for control by the large hardware volume knob. I used it to control a single pair of speakers, but it's also ideal for surround setups; simply click on the Vol button above each channel you want to use, and it's immediately mapped to the knob for easy monitor control. Groups of outputs can be routed to the subsequent mixer tabs for low-latency monitoring of incoming signals, useful for low-latency monitor mixes for session players and vocalists.

THE RABBIT HOLE

Running as close to full scale without clipping is absolutely crucial for squeezing top performance out of any A/D/A converter, but unfortunately the Orpheus metering facility is simply abysmal. Using an Apogee PSX-100 for many years, I'm accustomed to relying on its calibrated multisegment LED meters for dialing in hot levels without clipping. Sadly, the Orpheus offers nothing useful in this department, bringing only the most basic metering to the table and then obfuscating it all behind a frosted plastic panel. The violet, blue and red glow may attract oohs and ahhs from studio bystanders, but from a practical standpoint, it's useless for checking levels. Fortunately, the Orpheus Control Panel features meters that display a signal in 0.5 dB steps, and I constantly referred to the Orpheus software mixer while dialing in gain settings.

The sole difficulty I encountered during my review was related to the software-controlled volume knob. While I appreciate the flexibility of a software-based control, I would have preferred a quality analog knob hardwired to a pair of main outputs for maximum control and repeatability. Using the software-driven knob to adjust volume didn't give me the fine accuracy I expected, and I ended up using the Orpheus Control Panel to make minute adjustments.

THE SUBLIME

If it sounds like I'm coming down too hard on the Orpheus, it's only because I'm searching for things not to love about it. Aside from the previous two minor gripes, the interface behaves flawlessly from a driver and software standpoint and performs reliably as a professional audio card for everything from precision mastering tasks to multitrack production. The one spot where it truly shines, though, is its unparalleled sound quality.

The pristine clarity of its converters is Prism's claim to fame, and with 16 of them in the Orpheus — one on each input and output channel — music simply sounds better when recorded and played through it. In my A/B comparisons with a Lavry DA10, Apogee PSX100 and M-Audio 1814, the Prism sat at the top of the heap in playback quality. My day-to-day DAC is the Lavry DA10, and the Prism easily sounds every bit as good, if perhaps a bit more glossy and euphonic versus the Lavry's more clinical sound. High-quality WAV files sounded phenomenal when played back through the Orpheus; I downloaded the latest Nine Inch Nails record in 24-bit/96 kHz as a test and played it back to back with a little Trentemøller and Pink Floyd. The sense of space and stereo imaging in all of the recordings was outstanding, with none of the coldness attributed to digital recording and playback — no doubt thanks to the Orpheus' topflight clocking.

Ultimately, that is the reason to shell out big bucks for the Orpheus. Sonically, it's unparalleled in the sub-$10K market, and as an all-in-one solution, it's easily the finest batch of high-end converters to skirt the professional project studio market. However, it's important to realize that getting real satisfaction out of the Orpheus requires serious investment in other parts of your studio. Plugging this box into a pair of $500 monitors with white-label cables won't do it justice. Great converters are a blessing and a curse — they make good stuff sound great and bad stuff sound horrible. If you take the plunge with Orpheus, be prepared to upgrade the rest of your gear along with it.

Obviously, the Orpheus costs astronomically more than the average project studio competition; it's a luxury for all but the most successful studios. Similar gear from Apogee, RME and others clocks in at less than half the Orpheus' list price. For most studios, the Orpheus probably doesn't justify the premium. If you're the sort of producer who composes exclusively in the box, you won't realize much of a sonic gain from Orpheus outside of enhanced monitoring. However, anyone recording bands or other multitrack analog sources will definitely hear the difference with the Orpheus, and the inclusion of nice mic preamps on four channels might allow some users to do away with the expense of separate mic pres.

There comes a point in every producer's career when he or she realizes that recording and producing on top-notch equipment is often what sets hit records apart from those middling tunes that clutter the long tail of every online music shop. The Orpheus fits that bill. It's a trophy piece — finely crafted and filled with some of the finest DAC on the planet. If music is your life, this is the box that will treat your recordings with the respect they deserve.

PRISM SOUND

ORPHEUS > $4,995

Pros: Pristine sound quality. Abundant I/O. Four microphone preamps. Flexible software interface. Prism Overkillers on input channels. Onboard dithering and sampling rate conversion.

Cons: Expensive. Useless front-panel meters. No balanced XLR line inputs.

Contact: www.prismsound.com

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