The RME Babyface
As I’m sitting down to write this review, my favorite album – Taylor Eigsti’s superb “Daylight At Midnight” – is playing through it on my vote for the best midfield monitors ever made: the Acoustech 8025s. I’m writing more slowly than usual. After every sentence I’m forced to stop, and sink a little deeper into the subtlety of what I’m hearing. The spacious, enveloping, practically holographic imaging. The powerful, controlled, deep bass extension. The richness and detail of the mids. The pristine treble, so effortlessly precise, and yet not fatiguing. Out of curiosity, I turn the digital attenuator down as far as it will go, just to see how well it can maintain channel balance. The stereo image doesn’t move a micron. A smile creeps across my face, as I hear an especially tasty lick on the ride from the inimitable Eric Harland. I don’t believe I’ve noticed it before. My smile broadens as I anxiously anticipate hooking the Babyface into my Scherzo Andante and repeating the same process with my HiFiMAN HE-6 orthos. And in the midst of this gleeful, childlike grin, Becca Steven’s haunting, smokey voice floats across the sound-field on “Between the Bars” and I literally start to tear up. If this were a DAC and nothing more I’d tell you it was the bargain of the century. Wolf will have to pry this from my cold, dead hands.
Of course, the Babyface is a whole lot more than a DAC. It’s one of the most fully featured compact interfaces that has ever been made. Fully balanced on both input and output? Check. Phantom powered pres? Of course. Hi-Z DI? Yep. Toslink I/O for both digital audio and ADAT, and support for up to an absurd 192khz sample rate? You bet. Dual headphone amps, each with a dedicated DAC, up to 8 configurable sub-mixes with simultaneous main and cue mix outputs, onboard DSP effects processing, 11 segment LED metering and fully recallable settings on nearly every parameter? Why not. Oh, and did I mention that the whole thing runs bus-powered via standard USB 2.0 protocol? Only the Germans could possibly attire this with the epithet “baby” (I’m part Austrian, I get to make these jokes). I have my gripes, especially with the ease of use and UI design, which I’ll get to shortly. But it’s taxing the full extent of my willpower to refrain from just launching into a superlative-laden diatribe about the sickness of this unit.
A quick note before beginning, in the interest of full-disclosure, there will be many references and comparisons to the Apogee Duet in this review, because that’s clearly the competition here. The Babyface looks like a Duet. It has the same multifunction, all-purpose knob. Many a PC-using friend of mine has been eagerly anticipating it as the ‘PC Duet.’ It even has the same ridiculous octopus-like cable assemblage attached to the back. Given the price and corresponding feature increase, it would seem that RME designed the Babyface to one up the Duet. My apologies for ruining the suspense, but I’ll tell you right now they’ve succeeded. Don’t get me wrong: I love Apogee gear, and I especially love the Duet. The Duet was the first interface I ever owned, and before it tragically died on me, it served my needs valiantly and with class and pizazz. Apogee makes an excellent product, and their legendary converters need little introduction. That said, this is hardly going to be a fair fight…
Design and Build Quality/Ease Of Use
Since pretty much everything else I have to say about the Babyface is laudatory, it’s probably best to get the monkey off my back up front. The Babyface can be absurdly frustrating to use sometimes, especially if you’re trying to take advantage of its submix routing capabilities. It literally took me an hour to figure out how to get the main mix to play on one HPA and the cue on the other. The Total Mix FX software is confusingly labeled, and you’ll find yourself digging through the manual at first just to get around the basic functions. Phantom power, for example, is enabled and disabled from a hidden context sub-menu on the input tracks. There’s no hardware means to enable or disable it. The list sort of goes on like this.
I give RME props for giving the Babyface so much functionality, and so many professional features, but at times it can all feel overwhelming. The learning curve is too steep for what I imagine is its core use. Yes, it’s very cool that I can create eight separate mixes, and dozens of groups, and rout them at will to any of the plethora of outputs, but in the vast majority of situations where I’m going to be using it, I’m going to have to have it set up and running as quickly and painlessly as possible. To my mind, RME needs to take some of the baby fat off its UI, or at the very least create a more purpose-driven incarnation of the Total Mix FX software for the Babyface. This is actually the primary area where RME could use to take a cue from Apogee’s Maestro software. The Duet (which, in all fairness, has far fewer features), is entirely painless to use. As a complete newbie six years ago, I never once struggled with it.
That said, a lot of what the Babyface can do that others can’t is incredibly useful. For example, having two independent DACs for each headphone out, so that the engineer and the “talent” can have separate mixes, is an absolute Godsend. So too is the I/O functionality for both S/PDIF and ADAT. In essence, this feature lets me integrate the Babyface into a larger setup as a master clock, or for its excellent pres, at will. It’s a seemingly small thing, but, as they say, the devil’s in the details. And what’s important about these particular details is that they give the user immense flexibility.
As far as the physical plant is concerned, the Babyface is a beautiful unit. It has a fittingly Teutonic heft in your hand and the fit and finish are stellar (I’m especially a sucker for the Blue color scheme). Small details, like the sexy metal flake finish on the primary knob, abound. The LED metering excels in its functionality and elegance, and, while it might seem quite minor, I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate that RME includes a purpose-built padded carrying case standard, especially in light of its lone Achilles heel in the build department. For those with any familiarity with the Duet, you know what I’m talking about already: the dreaded tentacle fetish cable dongle of doom.
Look, I understand why companies do it. It helps keep the rest of the unit small and streamlined, and it’s cheap to make and cheap to replace if it ever fails (which I can guarantee you it will if you’re as rough on your travel gear as I am). But I hate the breakout cables. They look shoddy, they’re confusing, they have an infuriating penchant for getting tangled and, most importantly, they’re fragile, which is not a good for a unit that has to be roadworthy. ALVA, the company RME has contracted out to build the Babyface’s breakout cables, has not even executed them well in my opinion. The plastic tied, paper-printed indicators that let you know what cable corresponds to what function look like a DIY project, and the cable itself feels flimsy (though they seem to function without issue). I’ve no doubt some enterprising folks will create an upgrade similar to the Breakout Box for the Duet, and I will begrudgingly go out and buy it.
I don’t even know where to start. So I’m picking the preamps at random. They’re phenomenal. My jaw is around here somewhere, though given how hard it hit the floor when I first heard these pres, I’m not sure it’s all in one piece. Holy frackin’ schneikies! Rich, subtle, enveloping warmth, beautiful top end air, clear and neutral but hardly cold or analytical sounding, detailed, musical … basically every superlative I can possibly think of. For integrateds on a buss-powered interface? You’ve got to be kidding me; it’s not even right how ridiculous these sound. You’d be entirely justified in paying the $750 for the preamps alone. For my personal musical palate, they have an absolutely perfect character. They are immensely versatile, while still boasting the kind of depth and soul I usually associate with boutique standalone pres. And they’re seemingly telepathic in terms of their response. Want a fat, present sound? Push yourself up on the mic and get a little proximity effect, and the Babyface pres will ooze with saturation in kind. Want more air and delicacy? Try a couple of small condensors as room mics with mid-gain. You’ll think you were standing there. And with 65 db of available gain, I can even push my pickier ribbons with them. Suddenly, my Blumlein pair just became a viable option for room overheads on the go. In case you’re wondering, this makes me ever so very happy.
And it only gets better from there. In case my flowery intro didn’t clue you in to how wonderful the converters are, allow me to expound: these are hands down the best converters I’ve ever heard on a portable interface. Ever. They handily best the Duet, and they make the run-of-the-mill converters you’ll find on your average, big name, mid-price interface look a 6th grade science project. They are as clear, detailed and resolving as their superb tech specs suggest they should be, but that’s only half the story. Give the Babyface a spin around the block in the real world, and you realize that these are incredibly musical converters as well. Just for giggles, I A/Bed the analog-to-digital converters against my Grace Design M201’s converter unit – which is something of a benchmark for me – using the M201 pres as the reference point. Both excelled, but for my tastes the Babyface converters sounded richer and more natural.
As for the digital to analog converters, just re-read the intro if you need any reaffirmation of how heart wrenchingly beautiful they sound. Even the clock on the Babyface is outstanding. Just using the optical I/O to set the Babyface as the master clock for a friend’s system that centers around a Motu 828mkII (and I might note that optical is hardly as robust a word-clock signal path as BNC) made for a decidedly marked improvement in imaging and definition.
If I have any complaints at all here, it’s with the headphone amps. Especially if you’re using both at once, they really don’t sport enough gain for pre-normalized tracks. In a session I did with Jesse Mills, I was at or near max gain on every track. The superb DAC still translates to fairly reasonable definition and clarity, but if you’re interested in the Babyface primarily for personal listening, understand that you will definitely want to invest in a quality dedicated amp. As a point of reference, the integrated HPA on the Mackie Blackjack is considerably better.
The flipside of the ease-of-use dilemma is that the Babyface does everything you could possibly want it to do short of making your coffee and washing your Pink Floyd pajama bottoms. ADAT, S/PDIF and MIDI connectivity are all rarities in a compact interface, and the onboard DSP powered plugins that come bundled with the Total Mix FX software are surprisingly good, especially the reverbs. And because they’re powered from the unit itself, you can expect next to no latency from them as well. Yes, the Babyface is very complicated, but once you get used to it, you’ll realize that it’s capabilities rival that of much larger interfaces. And thoughtful features like the aforementioned configurable cue mixes and recallable settings make the Babyface a very rewarding unit to invest the time into understanding. The Babyface is equally at home nestling comfortably into a large existing setup, serving as the centerpiece of a growing one, or standing alone as a primary interface. Its feature set is a genuinely versatile, useful one, that, combined with its superb sound quality, should make the Babyface an attractive unit for a wide range of users.
The only other portable USB interface I can think of in this price range is the Sound Devices USB Pre2, which certainly has the features and pedigree to compete, though I don’t have any real experience with it beyond a few third party samples and word-of-mouth. The Babyface is not a budget unit by any stretch of the imagination. So it’s really a question of what you’re looking for. You want the best possible sound quality you can get for $750? As far as the gear I’ve heard, this is undoubtedly it. But for that price you could get a full-rack interface, with 8 pres instead of two, many more inputs, bundled DAW software, etc. If you need all of that, there are several excellent options in this price range. But I can pretty much guarantee that none will sound anywhere near as good the Babyface. I’d pay full freight for just the DAC. Or just the preamps. Hell, maybe even just the ADC and clock. This is not quality you ever used to be able to get for under a grand. The Apogee Duet is definitely the closest thing I can think of that I have any kind of real experience with, and this outclasses it in nearly every conceivable regard.
The Final Verdict
The Babyface is a knockout. I was literally dancing around like a little kid when I first heard what this baby can do. Sure, it’s pricey. You could buy a legit full-rack primary interface for what this costs, and a good one at that. Yea, it’s a royal pain in the padded petunias to get used to the maddeningly complex user interface. If this is your first time around the block, get your feet wet with something like the Mackie Blackjack (which is a real standout for its sticker – you can check out my review of it here). But the Babyface is in a class all of its own. Every facet of its design – from the clock to the preamps to the converters – is stunning. A number of my friends on Head-Fi have been asking me if I think this is a worthy PC counterpart to the Apogee Duet (whose converters have been, up to this point, the de-facto standard for the price point). The answer is easily, and then some. This is a straight up Duet killer. Yes, it’s more expensive by a fair clip, but it does more, the converters are yet better, and the preamps are a lot better. If I were Apogee, I’d be awful nervous right now.
About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.
Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded with an Avenson STO-2 microphone (an extremely neutral small-capsule omnidirectional pressure-transducer microphone that’s ideal for comparison testing because of how little it colors the sound on its own). All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, gain was attenuated at 75%, and Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.
Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.
Male Vocals/Spoken Word: Using the same microphone and XLR cable as the guitar recordings, I sang a clip from the as-yet-unreleased song The Enlightened Paige, a piece I wrote for Wire Spoke Wheels’ upcoming debut release: After The World Ends, and spoke a short introduction to the Babyface test.