BLA Finally Lets the Lion out of UA’s Apollo

BLA Apollo Mod Preamps

To jump straight to the audio file links, click here.
To read my impressions of the physical aspects of the mod after popping the top, click here.
For our insights, opinions and methodology that led to the audio files and conclusions of our test, please read on.

BLA Apollo Mod Preamps

If you haven’t heard of Black Lion Audio before now let me enlighten you.  Black Lion Audio is a Chicago based audio upgrade and gear company that specializes in controversy.  What I mean is, they take mid to high-level devices, and rework them to get every last ounce of performance out of the design.  Their focus is particularly on audio interfaces and converters.  Why I mentioned controversy is simply because numerous exhaustive comparisons between stock and BLA modded gear usually result in passionate disagreement as to whether or not an improvement is audible, let alone worth the price tag.  But let’s face it.  Not everybody recording music to a hard drive needs the ultimate in performance to get the job done, and not everyone listening necessarily has the ears to hear the difference anyway.  There.  I said it.  The majority of people participating in these comparisons simply lack the listening equipment to pass accurate judgment.  By this I mean monitoring, acoustics, AND ears.  Well, it takes a lot of experience to know what to listen for when you get to this level of sound quality.  To some, a 5% improvement is worth twice the cost of the box, while to others it’s a game of value, and expensive upgrades come as a waste.  Regardless of which category you fall into, if you have a box that’s on the list of BLA modded gear you’ll at least be curious to hear what BLA can do for your setup.

For the last year and a half one of the most exciting and most talked about new interfaces to come to market has been the Universal Audio Apollo.  Positioned strategically to attract attention from buyers looking at mid to high-end boxes like the RME UFX and Lynx Aurora it has managed to earn quite a reputation.  For most, the Apollo delivers not only on the quality of its conversion and preamps, but in its ability to run UAD2 plugins in the DAW and in real time.  It’s such a fun and exciting box, in fact, it has even garnered much attention from the high-end pro arena.  As good as the conversion quality is, it doesn’t sit next to boxes like the Apogee Symphony and Prism Orpheus that take digital conversion to the next level.  It was only a matter of time before Black Lion Audio finally gave in to the numerous rabid requests for the Apollo to receive the BLA treatment and bring the conversion quality up to the level of the higher end boxes.  Then even the big-budget guys could play with UAD’s fantastic plug-in library (behind closed doors, in secrecy from their hardware-wielding buddies, of course).  About two months ago, BLA announced the Apollo mod was finally to arrive and speculation began.

A local engineer, musician and friend I met on the highly cordial Apollo user’s thread on Gearslutz asked me if I’d like to come by and help him examine one of the first modded Apollo’s to come out of BLA’s facility.  Better yet, he still has a second un-modded box for comparison.  This made for a perfect opportunity to really quantify whether or not the modification makes a real difference in actual use.  Technical issues with UA’s cascading feature prevented us from doing all the tests we had planned to do, but we were able to do a comprehensive enough test to reveal the sonic differences between the two boxes, and depending on your ears and monitoring situation you may find them quite apparent.  If all you care about is hearing for yourself, now is the time to scroll to the links at the bottom of the page.

Ken’s (Iamjohngalt on gearslutz) monitoring chain is exceptional and his room is professionally treated so the environment is conducive to exposing the differences in this test.  To get a true apples to apples comparison we ran various microphones through a Radial mic splitter, feeding each Apollo an identical 600ohm mic signal, carefully level matched, and proceeded to record a sample each of acoustic guitar, drums, and vocal (all at 96KHz).  We felt these sources would adequately show any sonic differences between the two Apollos.  Our original plan was much more ambitious and we had planned to do exhaustive DA listening, and comparison of the line input/output channels as well.  Unfortunately an exercise in system reboots and cable swapping took the place of those other tests so we will have to add them at a later date.  In my opinion, the results we did get should be good enough for many to decide whether the costly upgrade is worth a reservation in the “soon-to-be” long line at Black Lion Audio.  Reservations are two weeks out as I write this, though I expect that may increase as word gets out.

BLA Apollo Mod outputs+

Before recording anything we decided to listen to some of Ken’s favorite mixes through his newly modded Apollo.  This allowed me to become familiar with his monitoring environment, and also allowed us to relax and enjoy some good music.  We weren’t able to directly compare the DA of the two modded Apollos due to some driver limitations, but we did decide to compare the main outs to the DA of the popular and well-regarded Dangerous D-Box.  The modded Apollo sounded excellent, as expected (I always did hold the Apollo’s DA in high regard even in stock form) but if I am to be honest I must say that even in its upgraded state it was no match for the D-Box.  This should be seen more as love for the D-Box than a mark against Apollo.  I had heard plenty of praise for the D-Box DA but never expected it to be as good as it is.  I think you will have a hard time finding ANY interface that can match it.  With that in mind, we chose to use the D-Box as our DA for listening to the AD tests.  Many studios looking to bring the Apollo up to higher spec will have dedicated monitoring DA, so this seemed fair enough.  It also let us know what we were hearing was strictly the influence of the modded Preamps and conversion, and not the cumulative effect of both conversion stages.  After some listening, and little fudging with the Apollo driver trying to get the two machines cascaded properly, we were ready to record some tracks.  In reality this in-between period took several hours so most of what you hear was recorded in the wee hours of the morning.  In other words, go easy on us.  😉

The guitar was a Martin Dreadnought, full body acoustic mic’ed with a modest, stock MK012 about a foot from the 12th fret, pointed at the junction between the neck and body.  We could have changed mics and positions around all night long but this is a very well regarded, common mic in many studios and the positioning we chose is a likely starting point for most.  The difference between the two was immediately apparent.  The BLA box made the stock Apollo sound closed in and boxy by comparison.  Even though we are dealing with a mono source, switching from the BLA to the Stock Apollo seemed to not only shrink the sound, but focus it more narrowly in the center of the sound field.  Both boxes captured a usable image of the guitar but after hearing both, Ken and I agreed we would pick the BLA track almost universally.  It simply seemed that the deeper you listened into the track the more detail you could discern.  The stock Apollo definitely had a limit to the resolution it could reveal.  Better mics and preamps will make this even more discernable.

For drums, we simply put a single microphone about 6-feet up, centered over the kit and above the snare.  The mic is a rare specimen of the JZ-4, which was once sold as the Blue Dragonfly before Blue’s production was moved from JZ’s factory in Latvia.  I have a pair and they are favorites of mine for OH.  The levels were kept low simply because we kept getting stray overs, and while audible clipping was not apparent throughout we wanted to keep the track as clean as possible.  Our immediate impression in the room was similar to that of the guitar.  Switching to the stock Apollo track seemed to shrink the sound and confine it more narrowly in the center.  Particularly the detail of the transients and especially the upper frequency detail was captured with more depth on the BLA track.  This one is very dependent on listening environment because in my un-treated room back home, on far lesser monitors it was much more difficult to pick the BLA from stock.  Wearing headphones, and toggling between the two tracks, however made it clear the difference is there (as was apparent on Ken’s Focals) and especially in a dense mix the more detailed image of the BLA will leave more space to construct a dynamic and focused soundstage.

The vocal track was the last one we did, and it was admittedly somewhat rushed.  The mic was a homebuilt LDC using a Chinese copy of a CK47 capsule and a Jim Williams designed transformerless circuit.  I had just built the mic so thought to bring it along for the test.  My voice has a breathy character to it that can be hard to get in front of a mix without a little bit of added “air” eq.  It’s apparent that the frequency content is there, especially in the BLA clip, and this is where I notice the most difference between the two boxes.  The BLA Apollo seemed to preserve the upper reaches of the vocal without adding any edge or harshness to the signal.  It is my opinion that the BLA track will take EQ better too, because it is much easier to pull out detail that is there in the first place than it is to try and fashion it from a less detailed track.  Toggling between the two once again makes the image shrink in size and become seemingly more confined.  Those of you thinking to yourself that perhaps this would sound better in a mix I urge you to rethink that.  It’s far easier to sculpt detail in the mixing stage than it is to try and replace it.

After listening many more times to these clips I am more and more convinced that the BLA mod really brought out the talent this little box has been hiding.  Adding compression and EQ after the fact only further demonstrates how much easier it will be to mix with the BLA tracks.  They simply give you a more focused and tighter signal to start with, which leaves more acoustic space to place other tracks as you construct your music.  I am sure most will come to the same conclusion the more they compare these clips.  In fact, the more you hear them the more you will start to learn what you are listening for.  The cumulative benefit will definitely be orders of magnitude higher.  Of course there will be plenty who don’t hear the difference.  Some won’t care, some will be limited by the listening medium or environment and believe it or not many will pass judgment after a few seconds listening on laptop speakers.  That’s perfectly fine.  This test was not done as an endorsement for Black Lion Audio.  It was merely to satisfy our own curiosity, and to share with other curious friends looking to combine the flexibility and fun of the Apollo with the high end conversion we lust for in this era dominated by the DAW.  The stock Apollo is a fine sounding box with thousands of happy owners (myself included).  Plenty of the work that has been done on the stock box is certainly Pro quality by any standards, but if you’re one of those engineers who struggle to get things “just right”, and can’t help but tweak mindlessly trying to evoke every nuance out of the performance than it is my belief the BLA Mod will take you to that next plateau.  It is certainly one of the most expensive mods BLA has offered, but I believe it is because they took extra care to make sure they improved an already excellent box.  The time it took them illustrates that is no easy task.  Again I will re-iterate that BLA has not endorsed this review or taken part in any way.  These are my findings, and my opinion only (and Ken’s too if I may speak for him).

Keep in mind we listened in a professionally treated room on broken-in Focal twins with closed eyes and careful ears.  If you struggle to hear any difference I urge you to improve your listening  situation before passing judgment.  Also I will provide a link to a free plugin from Brainworx that will allow you to toggle between the two tracks while they play.  This makes hearing the difference much easier since it does not rely on your auditory memory (which never fails to fail!).

For my initial impressions of the mod itself, after popping the top to look at all the electronic goodness inside, see the transcript below from the Apollo users thread on Gearslutz.  Also, for those of you looking to have some fun and educational discussion regarding the Apollo and the art of making music with it please stop by Cowboycoalminer’s user thread at Gearslutz.com.  It is honestly the friendliest, most enjoyable forum thread I have ever taken part in.

 

So What’s Different Inside the Box?

(Originally posted to Cowboycoalminer’s excellent thread on Gearslutz – http://www.gearslutz.com/board/product-alerts-older-than-2-months/712858-ua-apollo-first-look-user-review.html )

I am having a look at the BLA Apollo pics I took at IAJGs studio now. It was too dark to see anything in IAJG’s studio. I will say this, we both definitely heard a difference. Better or not I will reserve judgment until IAJG posts the clips. (Go easy on us, they were recorded at 4 am after troubleshooting and headaches 😉 )

BLA Apollo Mod DA

Looks like they chose to dump the 2068D and almost all of the 5532 op amps. Apparently their favorites (secret sauce didn’t they call them?) are the Burr Brown OPA2134 and the TI LF353. Both are jfet opamps. Don’t know much about the LF353 but the 2134 is a favorite of the DIY community and a solid performer.  They used the 2134 wherever they could.  Since the 2134 is a jfet op-amp, and can reliably replace both bi-polar and jfet op-amps they are everywhere.  It is an opamp with a good reputation and you will even find them inside the coveted Aurora.

There are of course very good quality BC electrolytic de-coupling caps on all of the converters, protecting against parasitic AC from the power supply. Theoretically this decreases noise so it is a good thing.  The big yellow electrolytics are Nichicon Fine Gold audiophile grade caps.

My favorite part is where they have artfully removed 5 surface mount caps from the PGA2500 preamp chips and replaced them with very high-quality polypropylene caps. Polypros are one of the best choices when capacitors must be placed in the signal path.

Let me say that the guys at BLA have ninja-like soldering skills because surface mount components are tiny and putting through hole parts where surface mount components were is a task I’d not want to tackle. I can barely see the tiny traces with my aging eyes, let alone work with the precision of the BLA guys. Kudos for that.

As far as how the parts affect sound, other than the opinion of my ear I can only say that the polypros should help the preamps where the caps are in the signal path, and decoupling should reduce noise as stated above.

Also, not all of the 5532s have been replaced. 4 remain on the preamp circuits which are used as DC servos to compensate for any offset at the output of the pres.  No need to change them at all.

BLA obviously felt they could improve the circuit, or at least make a marketable mod but the rest will obviously be subjective. I have done a lot of op-amp swapping and modding and many times arrived back at the conclusion that the parts I replaced actually worked better. Experimentation is fun, but no match for good circuit design so be aware simply putting “better” more expensive op-amps in place of “seemingly” inferior parts doesn’t always make things better. At worst it can mess things up, and sometimes op-amps are used elsewhere apart from the audio signal. BLA obviously knows these circuits well, and made these choices based on their expertise, which definitely exceeds mine.  After auditioning the device I can declare that they didn’t screw anything up for certain.

The BLA modded unit definitely sounded different on the Preamp/AD stage. We didn’t get to compare the DA properly because IAJG and I both agreed that without both units running the same signal at the same time our memories would not be reliable enough to judge the difference. We will remedy that at a future meeting by running the second Apollo off another machine and switching back and forth like we did with the D-box.

I also must give props to the dangerous D-Box. It’s DA is better than I expected. This was my first time hearing one, and I have to say the box is a tremendous value.

I will make my pics available on my p-base site today. They were snapped with an iPhone, but surprisingly contain plenty of detail.

Worth $800? The device already sounds excellent so that’s up to each of you.

Thanks to IAJG for the hospitality. You have a really great studio, a killer house, and the Focals sound excellent. I am quite sure my trip there will cost me some money in future gear purchases (like to BLA for instance). Lol

Data Sheets

Here are the data sheets for those who care:

Originals

NJM5532 – http://akizukidenshi.com/download/NJM5532.pdf
NJM2068D – http://www.mouser.com/ds/2/294/NJM2068_E-217911.pdf

Replacements

OPA2134 – http://www.ti.com/lit/ds/symlink/opa134.pdf
LF353 – www.ti.com/lit/ds/symlink/lf353-n.pdf

EDIT – Here is the data sheet for the PGA2311 digital volume control chip. It is my belief that this part limits the potential of the main outs and therefore the individual outs should yield better performance. This should be particularly interesting to those of you summing externally.  http://www.ti.com/lit/ds/symlink/pga2311.pdf

FILES

Brainworx FREE bx_solo plugin – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

http://www.brainworx-music.de/en/plugins/bx_solo

Place each sample on it’s own track in the DAW and time align them.  Create a bus and send one track to the right channel, and the other to the left.  Place the FREE bx solo plugin on the stereo group track and use the L/R buttons to toggle between the sources while they play.  This make auditioning the differences much easier since you won’t have to rely on memory for comparison.

You can download the samples from Dropbox HERE

Herbie Music (cowboycoalminer) compared the line ins of both Apollos and the Apogee Symphony HERE

Images of the BLA Modded Apollo can be found HERE

Images of the stock Apollo can be found HERE




There are 9 comments

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  1. Benjamin Bidlack

    First rate writing and review. Thank you so much for the detail and care with which you conducted and wrote the review! Please start a magazine or review blog site. I’ll send money! 🙂
    Thanks again.
    Benjamin

    • category 5

      A is the modded set. When we first did the test the difference was glaring at the studio on the Focals. At my home listening environment I was cautious to hear any difference at first but after listening and zoning in more the difference is way apparent to me now. Stock seems very mid forward, almost aggressive comparatively. Plus, especially on the DA side there is a high level detail that I simply miss when switching back. Spending time with the units these differences really start to become apparent but I can recommend the upgrade without caution. It absolutely makes a fantastic interface better. Where the original was about at parity with my Aurora I would choose the BLA Apollo every time now. It’s a game of millimeters, not inches for sure since you could make a great record with either but it’s a matter of “once you hear you won’t really like having to go back” I also maintain that the ear is a poor measuring device and it’s really important to switch back and forth with no dead air (use the plugin I linked to). I also recommend using the highest resolution DA and monitors you have access to. Headphones might help you discern more as well. Spend some time with the files and get to know them. Once yo hear start to zero in on the diff you won’t be able to un-hear it.

  2. Brandon

    Is it just me, or are the differences in the files negligible? I did the phase flip trick, and only a bit of high end material came through, and who’s to say which file they’re coming from? I’ve been hounding BLA for samples of before/after audio, and I keep getting the run around. I wonder if they’ve done them and realized this mod really has little effect?

  3. Matt

    Thank You Shane and Ken for an exceptionally well informed , readable and concise, yet fun to read comparative analysis of the BLA modded UA vs’s the stock Apollo: it had me on the edge of my seat : which was better !:). I appreciate the care that was taken to control your findings using the great Dangerous Music Dbox DA(I have one and agree with your comments). The links and tools are thoughtful: thx ! Can’t wait for review mkii, will it be 50% off at the UA on-line store ?:)


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