Choose the best audio interface for your recording project with our reviews. Check out our buyer’s guide too for the low down on what you should be looking for.
A poor standard recording can’t be saved “in the mix” so it’s important to have the right gear to do your music justice.
A key part of the recording chain is the audio interface, and in this post we take a look at the top audio interfaces on the market right now.
We’ll start by giving an outline of what an audio interface does, and highlighting the things you should be looking for before you buy. If you’ve heard it all before then jump straight to the reviews of our favorite audio interfaces.
The audio interface is quite simply the hub that allows you to connect your audio equipment to your computer. Home computers typically don’t have the necessary ports to allow your instruments and microphones to be connected, and this is why a good interface is essential.
An audio interface connects to your computer using USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt and translates the analogue signals of your instruments into digital ones and zeros ready to be read by the computer. It also works in the opposite direction and turns computer signals into audible ones for you to hear.
Now, you might ask why you might need one when USB microphones are readily available. Plus, every home computer has a sound card. Well, the answer is sound quality. Any musician seeking a professional level of recording quite simply needs a decent audio interface. The audio interface acts like a purpose built sound card complete with inputs/outputs, gain, phantom power and all the tools required to make a high quality recording.
The diagram above shows an audio interface with two mono inputs. This can handle two instruments like a guitar and microphone, or one stereo instrument. Audio interfaces come with different numbers of inputs and this should be one of the main considerations when looking for the right one for you. We’ll go into more detail about what else you should be looking for in the next section.
Audio interfaces offer a lot of different recording options. They determine the quality of the recording (bit depth & sample rate), the number of instruments that can be recorded at once, the type of microphone you can use (does it have phantom power?), and how you listen to your recordings. In this section we’ll explain the common features of an audio interface, so you can make an informed choice. Here are 9 things to look for….
Bit depth is the number of bits of information that is held in each sample in your recording. It represents the resolution of your recording.
In mathematical terms 1 bit = 6 dB. Your standard CD quality audio is recorded at 16 bits. This gives it a dynamic range (like the range of volume) of 96dB. As this includes digital noise, the dynamic range that is left is not that big. This means that quiet sections of audio might not be as clear as you would like. 24 bit audio is commonly used in professional recordings as it gives a much bigger dynamic range. This means higher resolution, clearer music. A larger bit depth allows more date to be captured to re-create the audio more accurately.
Good audio interfaces will allow a bit depth of 24 bits. If you want crisp and well defined recordings then 24 bits is a must.
The sample rate is the number of samples of audio taken each second. The CD standard is 44.1 kHz meaning that 44,100 samples of audio are carried each second. The highest frequency of sound that is produced in the audio is equal to 1/2 the sample rate.
Highest Recorded Frequency = 1/2 Sample Rate
This means CDs are capable of reproducing frequencies only as high as 22.05 kHz. Now, as humans our hearing range is limited from 20 Hz to 20 kHz (only the very best ears will manage this), so you may ask why sampling rates above 44.1 kHz would matter. If the sample rate is too low then distortion might occur (aliasing). Also, these high frequencies that are above the 20kHz limit of human hearing can interact with lower frequencies to give subtle audio effects.
The sample rate is really a subjective value. The rate you choose really depends on what medium you are recording for. The top audio interfaces will allow sample rates of up to 192 kHz, but this is above and beyond what you need for recording good audio. These days 24 bit, 96kHz recordings are considered to be high resolution.
Condenser microphones require an external power supply called phantom power. This is a 48V DC supply that some audio interfaces will have. If you use condenser mics then make sure your audio interface is equipped to power it.
Latency is the delay between the audio signal entering the system and then you hearing it. It is usually caused by the buffer and analogue to digital converters. A good audio interface will have minimal latency. This shouldn’t be an issue with the more well known brands.
Some interfaces will offer direct monitoring or zero latency monitoring. This is a button that allows you to hear the audio source directly, with no latency delay.
XLR and TRS connections are balanced and are less prone to any signal interference, while TS are unbalanced and can cause interference called ground loop. Cheaper audio interfaces might use unbalanced connections.
The mic preamp takes the quiet signal that is picked up by a microphone and boosts it to a useable level that is suitable for recording. The quality of the preamps can make a big difference to the sound of your vocals. Also, the number of preamps dictates how many mics you can record.
A huge consideration has to be the number of inputs. Just how many instruments do you expect to be recording? Also, take into consideration what type of inputs there are. As seen in the diagram in the previous section, two mono inputs equal just one stereo input. A singer/songwriter would need just two inputs and a stereo output, while a band might want something more, especially if recording drums. A DJ would probably want at least two stereo outputs.
How will you connect it to your computer? There are 3 main choices: USB, Thunderbolt, and Firewire. Thunderbolt 3 promises huge data transfer speeds, but it is still a year or so away. USB is reliable and widely accepted across computer manufacturers. Firewire gives more consistent data transfer rates, but is not as widely accepted.
MIDI isn’t as important a consideration as it once was because most MIDI devices offer a USB connection to computers now. But, if you have a few MIDI instruments then a MIDI connection on your interface might be something worth considering.
Next, we take a look at the best audio interfaces for your home recording project. The interfaces that we have included all come with exceptional feedback from users. We’ve selected the best models in each price category too, to give a fair representation of what’s available. Start by taking a look at the comparison table below, before we discuss each in a bit more detail. The table can be sorted for each category.
|Picture||Model||Rating||Price||Analog Ins/Outs||MIDI In/Out||Max Sample Rate/ Bit Depth||Phantom Power||Connection|
|Focusrite Scarlett 2i2||4.1||$$||2/2||No||192kHz / 24 bit||Yes||USB|
|Steinberg UR22MKII||4.1||$$||2/2||Yes||192kHz / 24 bit||Yes||USB|
|Mackie Onyx Blackjack||4.0||$||2/2||No||48kHz/ 24 bit||Yes||USB|
|PreSonus AudioBox||3.9||$||2/2||Yes||48kHz/ 24 bit||Yes||USB|
|Audient iD14||4.6||$$$||3/2||No||96 kHz / 24 bit||Yes||USB|
|Behringer U-Phoria||4.5||$||4/4||Yes||192kHz / 24 bit||Yes||USB|
The Focusrite Scarlett 212 is the best selling audio interface in the world. This is the second generation upgrade to the already impressive Scarlett 2i2. The 1st generation model earned rave reviews and is still widely used (check it out here). The new version can handle 192 kHz sample rates instead of 92 kHz, deals better with latency, and has more software, but the old model is still a worthy piece of kit, especially at the new reduced price.
It has 2 analog inputs that each come with preamps. This makes it capable of recording 2 instruments, 2 mics, or a mixture of both at the same time. The Scarlett range also features the 6 input/6 output Scarlett 6i6 model, and the huge Scarlett 18i20. They too can record at 192 kHz sample rates and 24 bit depth to give the highest resolution of recordings.
Focusrite aimed to achieve “the best sound, the fastest speed, and the easiest experience” with the Scarlett range, and are pretty close to the mark on each count. The 2i2 is super low latency and will handle the processing needs of real time plug ins with ease.
It has 1/4 inch balanced outputs so it can be hooked up to studio monitors, and can also take a headphone jack and has its own gain control. It can also handle condenser microphones as it provides +48V phantom power. It has a direct monitor mode too, which means you can bypass to the audio sources directly and hear them without any threat of latency.
The new mic preamps have a redesigned gain structure, and the instrument inputs will easily handle hot guitar pick ups. Also, the new 2i2 comes with high quality signal converters. This means the quiet parts of songs will be clear and crisp, without the threat of hissing or buzzing.
This newer version comes with more software than before. Included with this model is:
The 2i2 is compatible with all major DAWs and both Mac and PCs. It connects via USB and is bus-powered (USB powered).
Bottom Line: The Focusrite Scarlett range balances the right levels of overall quality, value, and driver support. The 2i2 is a quality interface that doesn’t have a fearsome price tag. It has everything you need for home recording projects. At this price bracket it’s untouchable.
The iD14 is the most expensive audio interface on our list of the best. However, it does offer some extra features that might make it a worthwhile investment. The biggest difference at first glance is the ScrollControl wheel. By pressing a button, this volume control changes into a scroll wheel that can control DAWs, plug-ins, iD14’s mixer app, and even iTunes libraries. By simply hovering over an object with your mouse, it can then be controlled with the iD14 wheel. This extra interface makes life easier, and really speeds up processes that can be very time consuming.
It comes with some well designed software that means the hardware and software work together like a dream. Everything you need is available on screen, and you can route channels really easily. Plus, with the scroll wheel you can adjust things in milliseconds.
The iD14 offers two analog inputs (each with mic preamps), and also a harmonically rich JFET D.I. input. This was designed to sound like a classic valve amplifier, and means you can plug in a bass, guitar, keyboard, or drum machine directly in and start to record.
A cool feature of this interface is the option to expand it and increase the amount of inputs. There is an optical input that supports S/PDIF and ADAT. This means you can expand your interface to up to 10 inputs with an 8-channel mic preamp (like the ASP800). This makes tracking drums a possibility.
Audient prides itself on the quality of the preamps. It uses the same mic pre with all of its models, and it has a really smooth and versatile tone. It has actually been refined over 18 years with the help of industry experts. It has low noise and distortion, and plenty of room for gain.
The iD14 also comes with Burr Brown converters. They are leaders in analog to digital and digital to analog conversion technology. This gives you sound quality of the highest level, and also a really low latency performance.
Bottom Line: It’s a bit pricier than most interfaces of this size, but the scroll wheel interface, some well designed software, and the ability to upgrade make this one not to be taken lightly. The Focusrite wins on overall value, but the Audient iD14 has some outstanding extra features.
The UMC404HD has the most inputs of all the audio interfaces we have chosen, and is also one of the cheapest. It packs an amazing amount of quality features into a price tag that is so unassuming. For a start it offers 4 inputs, each with mic preamps. It even offers a professional quality recording resolution of 192 kHz/ 24 Bit.
The U-Phoria also allows direct monitoring for a zero latency experience. This means musicians can hear there performances without delay, resulting in trouble free sessions. Another cool feature is the ability to choose to monitor A/B sources. This means you can switch between channels in a DJ style.
It will connect to your computer using USB 2.0. It also has 4 analog inserts that allow you to patch it into external effects like EQs, gates, and compressors. The U-Phoria is rare in an interface of its size and includes a MIDI in/out too.
It comes with Tracktion which is a straightforward DAW for mixing, recording, and editing. Register your UMC404HD on the Behringer website and you’re eligible for a free download of the complete software program.
Bottom Line: This is out top budget choice audio interface. It’s well priced, but it’s not inferior, as it packs a tremendous amount of features. With 4 inputs, MIDI capabilities, and the option to record in 192 kHz, this ones hard to ignore at its current price.
The UR22MKII is the second version interface from the award winning UR range. Like most of the other models we have featured today, it has two inputs and two outputs. They are both equipped with preamps, and one is also suitable for high impedance.
It offers latency free, direct monitoring for the most accurate of recordings. It is also capable of recording in the highest quality of 192kHz/ 24 Bit. But, a feature that makes this model standout from the rest is its durability. Audio interfaces are notoriously fragile pieces of equipment, but this one is housed in a durable solid metal casing. It’s ideal for the recording artist on the move.
This mark II version is compatible with the Cubase iPad app. This means you can produce music on an IOS device. Using the touchscreen to control the faders makes mixing so much easier and more intuitive. The Cubasis LE music production application is included with the interface.
Like most other interfaces of this size, the two inputs will accept either XLR or 1/4 jack connecters. They are both supplied with phantom power, so are suitable for any kind of microphone. Each comes with a mic preamp too. The D-Pre preamps are high quality and used on lots of Yamaha and Steinberg studio equipment.
The UR22MKII also has MIDI connections, allowing you to connect things like drum pads, synths, and MIDI controllers.
It runs especially well with Cubase software and comes with Cubase AI. The interface and software work really well together, and you can start recording and producing in next to no time. No configuration needed.
Bottom Line: The UR22MKII offers a real alternative to the similarly priced Focusrite interface. If MIDI is a must or you’re likely to be on the move a lot then could be the answer. This is one of the most durable interface we have included, ideal for the recording artist without a home.
Being a PreSonus audio interface gives this model a big advantage over most, and that is the inclusion of the PreSonus Artist DAW software. This software costs $100 on its own so that is a huge incentive alone to go with this interface. Luckily, both the software and the interface are really good, and importantly, work very well together.
The AudioBox is sturdily built and isn’t as flaky as some other interfaces. PreSonus actually claim to have driven a truck over it in testing, so you can be assured of it being strong enough to withstand being knocked around. It has the standard 2 inputs and 2 outputs. They both have mic preamps and give 48V phantom power for condenser microphones. It has a convenient mix knob that allows you to control the balance between input signals and the computer playback. This means you can have zero latency monitoring when needed.
It also has MIDI in/out connections for those who need MIDI connectivity on their interface.
As mentioned before, the standout feature of this is the inclusion of the PreSonus Artist software. Most interface manufacturers give you just the basic versions of DAWs. But Artist is actually a professional standard piece of software that we reviewed really well. It really is an amazing deal to get them both for this price. Other brands will surely have to take note.
Bottom Line: The fact that this comes bundled with PreSonus Artist for under $100 is just amazing. It’s not the best interface we have reviewed (minor complaints of preamps running hot), but it’s still a very good one. If you’re in the market for some DAW software too, then this bundle represents impressive value.
The Mackie Onyx Blackjack boasts a more user friendly design than most interfaces. Unlike others, it uses the space on the top of the box to angle the controls towards the user. Audio interfaces are long overdue a design overhaul, and like the Audient iD14 this model offers a little extra. That being said, it isn’t going to fit very well in a rack.
The Onyx Blackjack is built to last. It is very well put together and has a sturdy construction. It’s ideal for recording artists on the move. It’s a 2 output plus two input interface with combination jacks for XLR, TRS, and TS connections. It includes phantom power, built in DIs, and analog hardware monitoring for zero latency tracking. It also comes with Mackie’s Tracktion Music Production Software. This means you can get started right away, and don’t have to splash out on an expensive DAW.
The Onyx comes with high end DA/DA converters. These give you among the most headroom and lowest distortion seen in interfaces in this price range. The preamps are also of the highest quality and are actually identical to the ones found on the most expensive Mackie studio mixing consoles. They offer plenty of gain and a rich tone.
Bottom Line: The Mackie Onyx Blackjack falls into the cheapest of our price categories, but still has plenty to offer. The ergonomic design makes it much easier to use than most. It is really well put together too, and won’t be damaged easily. The combination of these things make it perfect for those who are going to be recording in lots of different places.
That’s all for our piece on the best audio interfaces. We’ll update this as new models enter the market that are worth a look. New articles on Home Recording Pro will be coming thick and fast too so stay tuned.
If you have any questions then we’d be happy to help. Leave us a message at the bottom of the page or over on our contact page.
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