Simon Allen gets familiar with the top end of the company’s new range of Thunderbolt interfaces.
This latest audio interface releases from Focusrite certainly confirm the company’s commitment to use Thunderbolt connectivity. There are good reasons for this choice, though, and combined with the quality feel of these products, the new Clarett range shows they mean business.
When I had the opportunity to test Focusrite’s RedNet system, I thought they were among the best A-D and D-A converters I’d heard. I was excited to try out these new boxes to see if they were close to the high standard that Focusrite had set itself. For this review, Focusrite sent me the flagship Clarett – 8PreX.
The overall quality of the unit was immediately obvious from the moment I unboxed it. The anodised finish of the red front panel, the firm feel of the knobs and buttons and clear LED display is reminiscent of the RedNet units. This makes the Clarett range appear streets ahead of the Scarlett, or any of Focusrite’s other interfaces.
The 8PreX is designed to be used mainly as a permanent fixture in a small studio. Taking up two rack spaces, it offers eight analogue inputs – switchable between mic or line – and the first two channels also offer an instrument direct input from the front panel. The rear panel has separate TRS line inputs as well as XLR mic inputs, allowing gear to remain connected and selected via the software. The 8Pre offers the same eight analogue channels, but the connections are via combi Jack-XLRs to save space. The 8PreX also offers separate phase, high-pass filter and phantom power switches per channel, whereas the 8Pre only has two phantom power switches for channels 1-4 and 5-8 respectively.
The 8PreX features ten line outputs, dual ADAT optical connections (in and out), SPDIF, word clock (in and out) and MIDI connections. This adds up to 26 inputs and 28 outputs. The 8Pre loses one of the optical connections bringing its total to 18 in and 20 out, which is still impressive considering the quality and price points. A 2Pre is shipping now and we can expect a 4Pre in the first half of next year with predictable breakdowns of these specs, but interestingly all models will sport at least one ADAT optical connection.
Along with the improved look and design of this line of interfaces, Focusrite has a new control app. This is a big improvement over its previous software, mostly because it’s so simple. Simple is good in this case, especially because you probably won’t need to spend much time here as a result of the low-latency Thunderbolt connection. All manner of routing options are possible, and the 8PreX and 8Pre can also provide two headphone mixes.
Many will argue that the decision from Focusrite to only offer a Thunderbolt connection leaves some Windows users out of the picture. At the moment, while the initial units are shipping, the drivers and software are available only for Mac, but Windows versions are on their way for those who have added a Thunderbolt port to their systems.
The main reason that the Clarett range is Thunderbolt-only is down to the extremely low latency. In fact, (depending on the host machine settings) the total round-trip latency can be as low as 1.38ms. This is virtually impossible for any musician to detect, or at least be concerned over. Therefore, with computer processing power being what it is, you should be able to track most sessions monitoring from your DAW, even with some plug-ins inserted.
This is great as it’s simpler to build separate headphone mixes inside your DAW and beneficial to some, actually hearing a slightly processed signal instead of the direct sound. Obviously, for those who are running their session at higher sample buffer settings of 512 upwards, this is also possible with the new and improved control app.
On a simple listening test I could hear the quality of the D-A converters and output stages. It was clear and open with great detail in the ultra-highs and an excellent stereo image. Audio going into the unit, though, is where the real magic happens. Each mic preamp has a ‘Clean’ mode or Focusrite’s ‘Air’ mode. In Clean they sound natural and have a very low noise floor.
Air mode switches in an analogue circuit to the preamp stage, before the A-D, simulating Focusrite’s famous ISA preamps. With Air enabled there is an obvious lift to the signal, which is much brighter and more present. To be honest it sounded great on all sources that I tried with the unit and was far more apparent than I was expecting it to be. I’m a big fan of this feature and because it’s implemented with an analogue circuit there is no additional latency.
The specifications for dynamic range and total harmonic distortion on Clarett’s inputs and outputs are far better than most mid-range USB or FireWire interfaces. In fact, they are comparable with some units in the high-end sector of the market. I can safely report that this is audible too.
Focusrite has done a great job designing the Clarett range, focusing on audio quality and low-latency. The Air mode on each preamp isn’t a gimmick, and in fact helps set this interface apart from the competition. This is a viable solution compared to alternative Thunderbolt interfaces from other high-end manufacturers around more than twice the price. Focusrite has clearly made use of the benefits of Thunderbolt – let’s hope it wasn’t a mistake not adding a USB connection alongside.
- Up to 119dB dynamic range and precise 24/192 conversion
- Round-trip latency can be as low as 1.38ms
- Specially designed for permanent studio installation
- New control app
Simon Allen is a freelance, internationally recognised engineer/producer and pro-audio professional with over a decade of experience. Working mostly in music, his reputation as a mix engineer continues to reach new heights.