Best Audio Interfaces | The Ultimate Guide
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface (2nd Gen)
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is undeniably the best-selling USB audio interface in its class and the 2nd generation version is loathed by competitors for its performance and high-quality components. It is a versatile 2-in, 2-out unit suitable for the home studio singer-songwriter or musician on the road.
Focusrite are known for their superior preamps and the two in these inputs are highly transparent with plenty of gain to support any instrument via the combo style XLR/1/4” (TS&TRS) inputs. The Scarlett 2i2 is easy to use, featuring GAIN controls for each channel that use coloured LED lights to indicate input signal and clipping. Power any condenser mic with the 48V phantom power switch located to on the front.
The largest control is your main monitor output level control, and the outputs for these are two 1/4” TRS sockets on the rear. Next to this control is your headphone level control and input. A Direct Monitor feature sends the output signal directly to your headphones to prevent any latency that may occur from your signal needing to be processed through your computer and back out into your headphones. This makes tracking immediate and keeps your playback up to speed with your performance.
For the budget home studio musician in need of no more than two channels, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a great way to go.
PreSonus AudioBox USB Audio Interface
PreSonus is an authoritative audio brand with a reputation for dependable gear for every budget. The PreSonus Audiobox is their two channel audio interface that offers two combo style XLR/1/4” (TS&TRS) inputs and a MIDI in and out. This unit is equipped with two Class-A mic preamps that offer plenty of headroom and gain to support any incoming signal.
Gain is controlled by two Gain/Trim dials and a Mix Control dial allows precise control between the level between the input signal and the playback for zero latency. As you’d suspect it is equipped with 48V phantom power for any condenser mic in your cabinet, and has a master volume for each your Main output and headphones.
The addition of the MIDI I/O really makes the PreSonus Audio box stand out as others in its class tend to leave these out. These are great for synching up with your favourite synthesizer and gives electronic musicians a little more room to play.
For years the continuous sales and customer satisfaction has put this in the family of the best usb audio interfaces for its value.
Mackie Onyx Blackjack USB Audio Interface
Built like a tank, the Mackie Onyx Blackjack is a high-quality 2-in, 2-out USB interface with boutique quality preamps that allow for wide dynamic range and the transparency found in their most expensive consoles. Home and mobile musicians will love it for its high-fidelity, transparency and lifetime durability.
The face holds two gain dials for the two combo style inputs which are place on the back. Each input has Mic/Line switches with a Hi-Z setting allowing individual DI switching for using the line jacks as high-impedance inputs or Mackie’s flagship Onyx mic preamps.
In the front and center is a Monitor Out control which features a Mono/Stereo switch which is unheard of in USB audio interfaces in its class. This is an excellent feature for mixing engineers to easily A/B their mix. Next, to the right of the unit are a 48V phantom power switch and controls for monitor and headphones.
The design is fantastic for home studio set ups, keeping all the controls accessible in the front and all the inputs tucked away in the back for a clean, fluid set up.
Akai EIE Pro USB Audio Interface
If you’re looking for more inputs and features then you’ll want to take a close look at the Akai EIE Pro. A highly versatile 4 channel USB audio interface with 4 combo style channel inputs with excellent preamps, 4 balanced outputs, MIDI In/Out connections, and a powered three-port USB hub. Each channel has its own gain controls and Line/Guitar switches and phantom power for every channel.
The Akai EIE Pro is great for artists and bands looking to get multitracking with a variety of instrument inputs. Patch any analog gear right into the mix or input signal path, including any outboard racks or foot switches. Two very classic looking back-lit VU meters allow glow red to indicate clipping. A Monitor In/Out control sets the balance between inputs monitored at source and the output playback level. This will provide zero-latency monitoring for comfortable playback during recording.
The Akai EIE Pro’s headphone amplifier delivers a sufficiently strong signal, strong enough to drive professional headphones of very high impedance. On the rear you’ll get four balanced inputs and outputs, two MIDI I/O’s and a 3-way USB hub to connect additional gear or hard drives. The unit can also be powered by a 6V D/C adaptor to relieve your computer of CPU usage.
This is a super versatile USB audio interface with a lot of features and a durable build that can help elevate your hobbyist home studio to a professional project studio.
Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 Firewire Audio Interface
Moving up in features and inputs is the Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 Firewire Audio Interface. This is great for project studios doing some heavy multitracking of drums and ensembles. The price for value in this audio interface is very impressive and it allows for plenty of playback customization for mix engineers.
The Focusrite Saffire is a series of interfaces with models ranging from 8 – 28 inputs, all equipped with legendary Focusrite preamps and sold at a wildly affordable price. The analog/digital conversion in the Saffire series outperforms many of its competitors and the preamps are transparent with minimal distortion, offering plenty of gain on any signal. All channels feature combo style XLR/1/4” (TS&TRS) inputs equipped with 48V phantom power, and channels 1 and 2 feature a -9dB pad for extra headroom.
The rear panel has ten analogue outputs to enable an array of customizable speaker setups and there are also a pair of Toslink I/O connecters and coax S/PDIF I/O and MIDI I/O on standard 5-pin DIN connectors.
The Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 and the entire Saffire series are of the most affordable options on the market to get your home or project studio running like a professional multitrack studio, hands down.
Related | The Best USB Microphones
MOTU UltraLite-MK3 FireWire/USB2 Audio Interface
Engineers praise the MOTU Ultralite MK3 Hybrid for its wide range of features in such a compact design with the option of connecting USB2 or Firewire. Perfectly functional with both Mac and Windows, the MK3 will get it’s power from your computer – including phantom power for condenser microphones, when connected via FireWire. When connected via USB, you have the option of connecting the included power adapter for full functionality, freeing up your computers power.
With a whopping 10 inputs and 14 outputs, you can multitrack in 24-bit/192kHz well within the demands of a home or project studio and mix on a variety of speaker configurations. Two tracks have microphone preamps, eight balanced line-level 1/4” analog TRS ins and 10 analog TRS outputs. Stereo S/PDIF digital I/O allows for the connecting of additional inputs. Connect any synth in the rear into the MIDI port.
Dial in a great headphone mix without taxing your computer with the UltraLite-mk3’s built in effects and DSP routing. Reverb, EQ, and compression/limiting allows you to create over-the-top wet headphone mixes to your hearts content while keeping your monitor mix totally dry. Add the effects to the recording signal if desired to save you from having to repeat the work later.
MOTU’s CueMix FX software lets you control routing from your iPad. This allows you to handle aspects of your template set up from another room if you’re recording alone and don’t want to go back and forth from your tracking room. Bring it on stage without plugging in to a computer as it works as a standalone mixer — complete with effects.
– Hybrid FireWire and USB 2.0 audio interface
– 10-input, 14-output audio interface with FireWire bus power
– Included power adapter for when connected via USB 2.0
– Two microphone preamplifiers with 48V phantom power
– Six balanced line-level TRS inputs
– Ten analog TRS outputs
– Stereo 96kHz S/PDIF I/O
– Latency-free monitoring with four monitor mixes
Related | The Top 10 Best Home Studio Monitors
Apogee Duet 2 USB Audio Interface
The Apogee Duet has received an incredible amount of attention since it’s release for being so compact and portable while having a surprising amount of features, speed, and ease of use. Mobile producers and touring musicians love the Duet 2 for it’s stability.
The design is extremely minimal with one single port that receives a cable to provide two analog inputs (XLR and 1/4’) to connect any microphone, preamp, instrument or outboard gear. It offers four analog outputs for speakers, outboard routing, and then an independently controlled 1/4” stereo headphone output. All of these levels are controlled by the aluminum knob in the center.
A high resolution OLED screen is the main control center of the Duet. This gives you a visual for the multiple metering functions and I/O levels, muting, grouping, Phantom power, and Soft Limit indication. This gives you an overview of all inputs and outputs at any moment, saving you from having to refer to your recording software.
The components of the Apogee Duet are outstanding, using their legendary Apogee AD/DA converters, world-class microphone preamps, USB MIDI I/O and ESS Sabre32 DAC technology. It fits on any desktop or in any travel bag. It works flawlessly with your iPad or Mac in any major DAW. Hear the incredibly transparent sounding recordings for yourself.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin Thunderbolt Interface
One of the ultimate desktop two channel audio interfaces is the Universal Audio Apollo Twin Thunderbolt. It offers world-class 24-bit/192 kHz audio conversion with outstanding models of classic tub and transformer-based mic preamps. Apollo Twin includes the ‘Realtime Analog Classics’ plug-in bundle, featuring a choice selection of vintage compressors, EQs and reverb, plus guitar amps and tube mic preamp emulation. These come as Audio Units, VST, RTAS & AAX 64, fit in all major DAWs.
The Apollo Twin has near-zero latency, regardless of your software buffer size meaning you can run the full range of plugins in a massive session while recording with barely noticeable to zero latency. Recording with high dynamic range and low noise in absolute clarity. Apollo use what they call “Unison Technology” which allows their mic preamps to behave like the most sought after tube and solid state preamps, including their famous characteristics.
The Thunderbold connection features PCIe audio drivers that offer high bandwidth and low latency. Thunderbolt offers 12x the bandwidth of FireWire 800 meaning you can connect plenty of devices such as hard drives and USB keys and still get a sufficient performance from the Apollo Twin.
Like most audio interfaces, the Apollo Twin comes with an intuitive software control interface which allows for realtime tracking and monitoring with UAD plugins. This means you can save console configurations as presets, including all of the plugin settings.
The Apollo Twin includes two class-leading mic/line preamps, two analog line outputs, two digitally controlled analog monitor outputs for full resolution at all listening levels, and up to eight additional channels of digital input via Optical connection.