McGary Audio

Monday, November 22, 2010

Home Recording/Audiophile Review!
Prism Orpheus Eight-Channel A/D-D/A,
Mic/Line, Preamp Computer Interface

Price: $4,495
Likes: A/D-D/A, Easy-to-use, preamp;
Dislikes: FW 400 only, onbaord metering

by Russ Long

Lets face it. These days, the computer is king when it comes to recording digital audio. To take advantage of all that computing horsepower, audio manufacturers offer FireWire or USB compatible analog/digital audio interfaces to get the audio in and out of the computer. Today’s premiere FireWire audio interface has to be the Prism Orpheus.
Originally introduced to the professional recording niche, the $4,495 Prism Orpheus is just as compatible with home audiophiles and recordists who want to record and playback up to eight channels of high-resolution PCM audio. It even has a high-end phono preamp built-in for the never-die, vinyl fan. With comprehensive connectivity, easy-to-use software and hardware controls, as well as Prism’s exemplary 24/192 PCM converters, the Orpheus is a perfect fit for high-end computer recording and playback tasks.

Why interface?
For those who may not be familiar with FireWire and USB audio interfaces, these boxes provide connectivity for analog and digital sources so the audio can be routed in and out of the computer. Audio professionals need lots of connectivity, so these interfaces usually include various channels of analog mic preamps, analog line stages, and SPDIF and/or AES/EBU digital and multichannel digital connections.
The interfaces are controlled by software that is installed on the computer. The software enables the routing, playback, recording, mixing, and processing that takes place between the interface and the computer. Besides the comprehensive routing options of the computer interface, they also can deliver high-quality A/D and D/A conversion that is not inherent in a standalone stock computer.
FireWire connection has been the choice for professional audio products over USB because of its real-time bandwidth advantage and its incorporation into computers — especially those made by Apple. However, the USB 3 spec is on the horizon and is likely to make its way to these audio interfaces.

The made-in-UK Prism Orpheus, is a Mac and Windows compatible, FireWire audio I/O interface that includes eight analog inputs and outputs, two high-impedance instrument inputs, four microphone preamps, a MIDI interface, and several advanced synchronization and monitoring features. While there are many FireWire interfaces that provide similar functionality, the Orpheus is unique in that it packs Prism Sound's well-regarded digital converters, clocking and signal processing into a 1U integrated package that connects to a computer via a single FireWire cable. In my opinion, the multi-channel Prism Orpheus is one of a few audio interfaces that offers the pros and audiophile/home recordists complete, uncompromised sound that rivals the performance of the best converters found in the world’s finest studios.

In my opinion, the multi-channel Prism Orpheus is one of a few audio interfaces that offers the pros and audiophile/home recordists complete, uncompromised sound that rivals the performance of the best converters found in the world’s finest studios.

The Orpheus is a 1RU, 11.5” deep box that weighs just over eight pounds and offers exceptional build quality. It includes eight 24-bit, 192 kHz AD/DA converters (selectable between +4 and -10 operation), four mic preamps, two instrument inputs (on 1/4” jacks), word clock I/O, MIDI I/O and an M/S decoder. Several key features are on hand including: an RIAA phono cartridge preamplifier on the first two inputs (transforming the box into a wonderful turntable preamplifier with up to 65 dB of gain and a THD+N of 0.00028%), a high-quality master clock, a digital upsampler and sample rate converter.
Stereo digital I/O is provided in both S/PDIF (RCA) and optical (TOSLINK) formats. The S/PDIF input can also accept AES3 signals, and its output can be switched to AES3 mode — if necessary. The optical connectors can be switched to ADAT format allowing eight channels of I/O at 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz sample rates or four channels at 88.2 kHz or 96 kHz.
The coaxial I/O is capable of two-channel S/PDIF audio (or AES/EBU by utilizing the supplied RCA-XLR adapter) from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. The optical port offers two-channel S/PDIF, eight-channel ADAT protocol (44.1 kHz to 48 kHz) or four-channel S/MUX format at 88.2 kHz/96kHz rates. Dual-channel S/PDIF input and output signals can be routed through the Orpheus' onboard sample-rate converter, which is a cut above most sample rate converters that I have heard.
When used alongside a computer, the Orpheus can be accessed by any software application with WDM or ASIO capability; with Apple OS X, it shows up as a Core Audio device. Twin FireWire 400 ports make it easy to sync multiple Orpheus units (up to six units at 44.1/48 kHz, three at 88.2/96 kHz and one at 192 kHz). The software interface includes a full-featured mixer for each output channel pair, including the headphone and digital outputs; each mixer allows a low-latency blend of any input channel to be sent to the designated outputs.

While the front-panel volume control is ideally used as a stereo or surround monitor level control, it can also be assigned to any of the digital or analog outputs. The dedicated headphone output includes two analog stereo headphone jacks with independent level controls. On the metering panel are eight plasma-style meters (switchable to display the eight analog inputs or outputs) and two for the S/PDIF channels.

The setup
A few years ago, I was fortunate to spend several weeks with the Prism ADA-8 — and then later with the ADA-8XR high-end analog-to-digital converters. I still believe that the Prism converters are among the best — if not the best — I’ve ever heard. After receiving the Orpheus, I wanted to see how well the Orpheus converters performed. Could they be as good as the more-expensive standalone professional Prism units? After just a few minutes recording and listening to studio tracks with the Orpheus, I quickly realized that it is every bit (pun intended) as good — maybe better — than the Prism standalones. I did not believe a FireWire-derived converter was capable of such transparency and accuracy.
I tested Orpheus using a variety of software on a 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro with 3GB RAM and an Apple Macintosh 2 GHz Dual Processor G5 w/2 GB RAM. Monitoring was done through Focal Twin6 Be, PMC AML-1, Dynaudio BM-5A monitors and Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones. Apple Logic Pro, iTunes & DVD Player, Harrison MixBus and Peak Pro software all worked like a charm with the Orpheus.

Another great feature in the Orpheus is “Overkiller” — a function carried over from the Prism ADA-8XR. It provides gentle limiting for the analog inputs, while assuring there are no distortion-causing digital overs. It can be independently turned on and off for each channel.

If the Orpheus is being used as a standalone phono preamp, D/A converter or other device, its settings are stored within non-volatile memory, allowing it to operate completely independent of the host computer once it has been configured. If you only want to use the magnificent Orpheus converters in your monitor rig —and nothing else from the box — the computer never has to be turned on again.
One negative; the Orpheus supports FireWire 400 (FW400) instead of FireWire 800 (FW800). The FW400 spec is adequate for the audio I/O tasks, but I would imagine that FW800 would offer more redundancy with its faster speed. And besides, FireWire is more of an Apple conduit, and even they have abandoned FW400 in favor of the FW800 input on their latest computers. In fact, if you use the Prism or any other FW400 device with a current Apple computer, you must use a FW400-to-FW800 cable adapter. Perhaps Prism will use USB 3 in the future?

The audition
Coming from a pro audio background, I had no problems coming up with the right cabling to interface the Orpheus with my studio rig or home-listening environment, but users without a studio background or proper cable kit will find the need to purchase or make a host of new cables and/or adapters since all of the audio connectors on the Orpheus are TRS 1/4” or XLR; most home audio equipment utilizes RCA connectors, though quite a few high-end audiophiles link components via XLR.
I found the software straightforward and easy to operate. It is, however, based on the architecture of a professional studio, so home users will need to allow for some time to acclimate themselves to this logic. Once they do, they will find the software to be extremely flexible, powerful and easy to use; it opens up a whole new audio landscape for home recording, playback of high-res Internet downloads, archiving vinyl at the highest possible quality, etc.
During one home recording/playback session, I captured an acoustic guitar using a pair of Audix SCX-25 microphones through the Orpheus’ mic preamps and ended up with a fantastic recording! With a vibrant, detailed, deep and wide stereo image, I found the preamps to sound smooth, natural and uncolored.

Headphone listeners will not be disappointed with the headphone amp. Its ability to bring out the best in any high-end headphone was obvious — even versus some standalone headphone amps.

Even though my computer is running a bit sluggish by today’s standards, monitoring was a breeze since the Orpheus’ zero latency (delay) monitoring is established in the Prism hardware and is not dependent on the computer. The software Control Panel is exceptionally well designed and provides a clean GUI with great metering; the metering on the actual Orpheus, however, is good for a quick visual reference but not much more. In contrast, the software Control Panel meters provide accurate metering.
Another great feature in the Orpheus is “Overkiller” — a function carried over from the Prism ADA-8XR. It provides gentle limiting for the analog inputs, while assuring there are no distortion-causing digital overs. It can be independently turned on and off for each channel.
I used the Orpheus to upsample Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon CD played back through the digital output of my TASCAM DV-RA1000HD recorder/player. I was amazed at the sound improvement. Although it was difficult to hear a difference between upsampling to 88.2 or 176.4 kHz, the audio at either upsampled frequency was significantly better than listening at 44.1 kHz.
Additionally, I compared the sound of the TASCAM’s converters at 44.1 kHz to the Prism’s (also at 44.1 kHz) and was again impressed with the sonic refinement that the Prism offers. The Prism converter quality cannot be overstated. The Orpheus’ converters sound open and smooth and have amazing hi-end resolution (an area where compromised converters often sound edgy or harsh). The box is a pleasure to listen through — even after long monitor, mix and record sessions.
Headphone listeners will not be disappointed with the headphone amp. Its ability to bring out the best in any high-end headphone was obvious — even versus some standalone headphone amps. The Orpheus’ digital clock, key to high-end converter performance, also is exceptional. I experimented with various clocking options, using the Orpheus as a stand-alone clock for my ProTools HD rig and comparing it to my Lucid Gen-X-96 and the clock in my Lynx Aurora converters; it yielded amazing resolution and imaging.

The verdict
After logging dozens of hours with Prism’s Orpheus, I can confidently recommend it for professional, musician or high-end home use. If you are in the market for a USB or FireWire audio interface and you absolutely have to own the best (and you have $4,500 bucks in the cash sock), the Orpheus is the way to go. We have reserved a Stellar Sound Award for this box.

Russ Long is a Nashville-based producer, engineer, and audio mixer, whose clients have included Sixpence None The Richer. Follow him on Twitter.

Second Opnion!

Prism Orpheus for Audiophiles!

Orpheus Offers Tremendous Audiophile Potential

With Phono Preamp and 24/192 Audio Converters

As an audiophile and a home studio fanatic, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the Prism Orpheus computer analog/digital interface spans both genres with ease — offering incredible flexibility, as well as some of the best-sounding converters I have ever heard. It’s not a simple plug and play device, but with a set of XLR cables, a little manual reading and software menu exploration, the Orpheus will reward you with beautiful audio quality.

The Orpheus can record and play up to eight channels simultaneously, so you could use it as an analog playback for multichannel surround — from the computer or from a separate source. Since it does not, however, contain decoding for any of the digital home cinema formats, such as Dolby Tru-HD, etc, I focused my listening in stereo.

Since the Orpheus has first-rate A/D and D/A conversion, I wanted to hear both sides of its PCM equation. First, I recorded the analog stereo output of my Esoteric DV-50 universal player (SACD, DVD-A), using several commercial SACDs and DVD-As as the source music. The Orpheus was connected via FireWire to a Macbook Pro with Intel processor and 4 GB of RAM.

Once I mastered the Orpheus’ software parameters — which are deep — routing the audio in and out of the Orpheus computer combo was easy. To get a sense of its audio capabilities, I recorded and played back the Carpenter‘s Greatest Hits SACD, several of the Bob Dylan SACDs (Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding.) On playback, I then listened through the Orpheus’ headphone amp (AKG K701, Grado SR-325) — and, later, through the balanced Prism line output into a Pass Labs XP-10 preamp, Pass Labs X350.5 and Legacy Focus 20/20 loudspeakers.

On all the music, the sound was incredibly open, smooth and detailed with a huge soundstage. The A/D converter revealed excellent accuracy and lack of harshness, just like the company’s big, much more expensive standalone converters. The DAC also was outstanding — especially at 192 kHz.

It’s a DAC; it’s a preamp...

In my second audition setup, I tried the Orpheus as a standalone DAC, And, as it is equipped with line output and gain, I also gave it a trial run as a standalone DAC/preamp combo.

First, I connected the digital output of an Oppo BDP-83SE straight to the Prism, and the Orpheus analog outputs were linked directly to the Pass XP-10 preamp. I played several DVD-As: Talking Heads Little Creatures, John Hiatt Bring the Family, Elton JohnCaptain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy, and high-res classical recordings from Reference Recordings. I also threw in a few well-recorded CDs to try out the upsample feature.

Used as a standalone DAC, the music sounded as good as any high-end converter I have ever auditioned. And the upsample feature is about as good as I have heard, too. Some perfectly fine sounding 44.1 kHz CDs ended up sounding stellar at 176 kHz. The DCC Classic release of Ricky SkaggsHighways and Heartaches was almost 24-bit in its imaging textures, compared to the non-upsampled listening session. Most upsamplers make pop music with enhanced midrange and treble a little too edgy for my taste, but the Prism’s upsampling circuit was pretty darn smooth.

The Orpheus’ preamp line-out stage section holds up well versus some of my separates — many that cost three times the price of the Prism. There was a slight warmness — almost like a tube preamp, but still resolute and super clean. None of that ear grit I have heard with a number of the under-$1,000 FW interfaces I have auditioned.

All this and a MacBook, too!

If you are not into recording musical instruments, etc., an audiophile listener will still find plenty to like with the Orpheus. I can see the computer music fan using the Prism and a laptop, like the Macbook Pro, as a tandem for playing back high-resolution download music from such services as HD Tracks, I-Trax, etc., as well as music dubbed onto the computer from various sources. The audiophile may never tap into all the features the professional would use, but he will have an audiophile-class, playback/record computer audio system that takes up much less space than a full set of traditional audiophile components. The Prism Orpheus and a computer could easily replace a DAC, preamp and a disc player.

Speaking of traditional audiophile components, how about that Orpheus’ phono stage? I connected it to my Rotel RP-950 equipped with an A-T 150ML MM cartridge. My audiophile pressing of Wes Montgomery’ Full House sounded nearly as good as my Audio-by-Van Alstine tube phono preamp stage in the AVA EC hybrid preamp or the Rogue Model 99 Magnum phono stage. Very quiet.

Because the Prism A/D and phono stage is so good, the Orpheus is a perfect high-end system for archiving LPs. With Orpheus and the MacBook, I recorded three of my direct-to-disc virgin vinyl jazz records at 24-bit/192 kHz, and their sonic playback was quite a treat to my ears. The Wes Montgomery audiophile LP, for example, is now preserved in all its splendor as a high-res PCM 192 kHz recording — without loss of that analog record feel. The Orpheus is that good.

My only quibble with the Orpheus is the FireWire 400 interface. It works well — even when recording multiple tracks — without glitching my MacBook Pro, but its 400 Mb/s bandwidth is half of the FireWire 800 connection. Also, FireWire is likely on its way out with USB 3 on the horizon. Hopefully, Prism makes a USB 3 version to ensure future computer compatibility.

As good as it gets

The recording market is full of Firewire and USB audio interfaces that cost as little as a few hundred dollars to as much as a few thousand. None of the ones I have heard are as high-end in sound quality as the Prism Orpheus. Although it seems pricey at $4,495, it really isn’t. When you consider what you get in the integrated package: high-end multichannel A/D and D/A, high-quality preamp and headphone amp, phono preamp, upsampler, sample rate converter and the operational software, the price is quite reasonable. With Orpheus and a laptop, you are looking at the future of high-end music recording and playback for audiophiles. I want one. Maybe one for each of my computers.

—John Gatski

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