Best Audio Interfaces 2021: Ultimate Buyer’s Guide


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In his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less”, American psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that too much choice in the market can actually cause anxiety for consumers.

I personally think this is problematic in the world of home recording and audio production – there are now SO MANY quality choices for every type of gear, from microphones to preamplifiers to interfaces, DAWs, plugins, etc.  The list goes on and on.  So how do you make a choice?  Hopefully, this list will help you!

I will list some of the best audio interfaces to choose from, grouped into three different price ranges and will give you some info about each:

Premium Audio InterfacesMid-Range Audio InterfacesBudget Audio Interfaces
1. RME Fireface UFX+ USB3.0/Thunderbolt1.Universal Audio Arrow x41.PreSonus Audio Box USB 96
2. Universal Audio Apollo x8 18×24 Thunderbolt 32. Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII Duo2.Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB
3. Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt 30×343. Apogee Duet3.Audient iD14
 4. PreSonus Quantum 

As I think you’ll learn, the choice will really come down to personal preference instead of “quality,” as thanks to the wonder of modern technology, ALL of these interfaces are quite capable of producing great recordings!

Let’s begin…

Best Budget Audio Interfaces

1 – PreSonus Audio Box USB 96

The PreSonus Audio Box USB 96 is a 2-channel 24-bit/96kHz USB 2.0 Audio Recording Interface with

  • 2 Instrument/Microphone Preamps
  • Low-latency Monitoring
  • PreSonus Studio One Artist DAW Software
PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 2x2 USB Audio Interface with Studio One Artist and Ableton Live Lite DAW Recording Software
3,449 Reviews
PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 2x2 USB Audio Interface with Studio One Artist and Ableton Live Lite DAW Recording Software
  • 2 high-quality Class-A mic preamps make it easy to get a great sound
  • 2 high-headroom instrument inputs to record guitar, bass, and your favorite line-level devices, plus MIDI I/O
  • Studio-grade converters for 24-bit/96 kHz recording and playback
What We Like

This little guy packs a lot into a small package, and while basic and easy to operate, it is capable of making some great stuff.  It has two inputs and is extremely portable, making it an easy choice for people recording on laptops and doing things on the go.

I love that it comes with a license to Studio One Artist, so for one low price, you will have both an interface and a DAW application to work with.

What We Don’t Like

It only has USB 2.0 connectivity (and you can’t really complain) for this low price. Still, newer laptops (like the new MacBook and MacBook Air) now only come with USB-C ports, so depending on your situation, this might not be compatible.

2 – Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 ir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B01E6T56EAis a USB 2.0 Audio Interface with

  • 2-in/2-out
  • 24-bit/192kHz
  • 2 Mic/Line/Instrument Inputs
  • USB Bus Power
  • Bundled Software
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (2nd Gen) USB Audio Interface with Pro Tools | First
2,691 Reviews
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (2nd Gen) USB Audio Interface with Pro Tools | First
  • Two natural-sounding Scarlett mic preamps with plenty of even gain; two instrument inputs, 1/4-inch balanced jack outputs to connect professional studio monitors; one headphone output with gain control
  • Class-leading conversion and sample rates up to 192kHz / 24 bit; super-low roundtrip latency for using your plug-ins in real time without the need for DSP
  • LIMITED TIME OFFER: FREE Venomode DeeQ, Maximal 2, and Pivot, plug-ins upon registration and download.
What We Like

Focusrite is popular among music producers and musicians. Like the PreSonus Audio Box, this is a powerful device in a small package.  It’s probably one of the most common interfaces on the market, the preamps sound great, and it’s straightforward to work with.

What We Don’t Like

Like the Audio Box, it’s limited to USB 2.0 connectivity.  Other than that, it’s tough to find anything negative to say about this interface; it’s trendy for a reason, and the online reviews I’ve found are mostly very, very positive.

Find out how it compares with the Behringer UMC404HD here.

3 – Audient iD14

The Audient iD14   ir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B00UALWPCAis a 10-in/4-out USB Desktop Audio Interface with

  • 2 Class A Mic Preamps
  • 8-channel ADAT Input
  • JFET DI
  • Burr-Brown Converters
Sale
Audient iD14 High Performance USB Audio Interface
359 Reviews
Audient iD14 High Performance USB Audio Interface
  • 10-in/4-out USB Desktop Audio Interface with 2 Class A Mic Preamps
  • Burr-Brown Converters
  • 8-channel ADAT Input
What We Like

Audient is known for their amazing audio quality, and this is one of their entry-level boxes that still come with a lot of cool features, like Class A mic preamps and Burr Brown-brand converters.

I like that it has an Optical ADAT connection that allows you to add 8 more preamps (for a total of 10), which is a feature most entry-level interfaces leave out.  You could say that it’s a pro-level front end at a student price.

What We Don’t Like

Honestly, the only thing I don’t like about this interface is that Audient is always throwing the “Burr-Brown thing” at you via their marketing.

But you know what? That’s because Burr-Brown makes some amazing converters, and it’s definitely worth it to them to highlight that fact!  That its marketing “fluff” doesn’t take away from the quality of the unit.

Best Mid-Range Audio Interfaces

1 – Universal Audio Arrow 2×4

The Universal Audio Arrow 2×4 Thunderbolt 3 ir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B0794P3R35is a 2-in/4-out Thunderbolt 3 Audio Interface with

  • Solo DSP Accelerator
  • 1 SHARC Processor
  • 2 Unison Preamps
  • Realtime Analog Classics Plug-in Package
Universal Audio Arrow Thunderbolt 3 Audio Interface,Gray
121 Reviews
Universal Audio Arrow Thunderbolt 3 Audio Interface,Gray
  • Desktop 2x4 Thunderbolt 3-powered audio interface with class-leading 24-bit/192 kHz audio conversion
  • Unison mic preamp and guitar amp emulations from Neve , API , Manley , Marshall, Fender , and more.
  • Real-time UAD processing allows near-zero latency tracking with classic UAD plug-in effects, regardless of software buffer setting
What We Like

From the maker of the Apollo series (more on those later), the Arrow is a great way to get into the phenomenal quality of UA products, which come with not only amazing-sounding converters and preamps but also feature a bevy of their own high-end plugins, modeled on and licensed by some of the biggest names in the industry (Neve, SSL, Teletronix, Pultec, Manley, Sonnox, Empirical Labs, etc.).

This is a big-name brand at an awesome price.  It’s a Thunderbolt interface, so it’s compatible with the latest and greatest computer models.  Not exactly “future proof,” but you’d be good for a few years anyway!

What We Don’t Like

The UAD model of requiring their own hardware to run their plugins is, I think, an old business model, and companies like Slate have probably shown the way forward with their monthly subscription packages and iLok Cloud compatibility.

2 – Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII Duo

The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII Duo ir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B01N9MWJKHis a 10-in/6-out Thunderbolt 2 Audio Interface with

  • DUO DSP Accelerator
  • 2 SHARC Processors
  • 2 Unison Preamps
  • and Realtime Analog Classics Plug-in Package
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo (APLTWDII)
250 Reviews
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo (APLTWDII)
  • Desktop 2x6 Thunderbolt audio interface for Mac and Windows with world-class 24-bit/192 kHz audio conversion, uncompromising analog design, superior components, and premium build quality
  • Real-time UAD processing for tracking through vintage compressor, EQs, tape machines, mic preamps, and guitar amp plug-ins with near-zero (sub-2ms) latency*
  • 2 premium mic/line preamps; 2 line outputs; front-panel Hi-Z instrument input and headphone output, 2 digitally controlled analog monitor outputs, 8 channels of digital input via Optical connection. Apollo Thunderbolt System Requirements MAC- Apple Mac computer with available Thunderbolt port.macOS 10.11 El Capitan, 10.12 Sierra, 10.13 High Sierra, or 10.14 Mojave. WINDOWS- PC computer with built-in Thunderbolt 3 port. Windows 10 Fall Creators Update (64-Bit Edition). Qualified Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter (sold separately)
What We Like

The bigger brother to the Arrow (above), the Apollo Twin is a top-of-the-line interface that offers more inputs and outputs, with all of the bells and whistles you expect from Universal Audio.

What We Don’t Like

See above for my thoughts on the UAD proprietary hardware business model.  Other than that, there really isn’t much to NOT like about a UAD product—they are big kings in the industry and make a quality product.  You pay a premium sometimes for the brand loyalty aspect, but you won’t have misspent your money if you buy one of these.

3 – Apogee Duet

The Apogee Duet ir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B00BB2QBLIis a 2-in/4-out USB Audio Interface with

  • 24-bit/192kHz Resolution
  • 2 Microphone Preamplifiers
  • Full-color OLED Display
  • Configurable Touchpads
Apogee Duet 2 - 2 Channel USB Audio Interface for Recording Mics, Guitars, Keyboards on MAC and iOS Devices, Made in USA
85 Reviews
Apogee Duet 2 - 2 Channel USB Audio Interface for Recording Mics, Guitars, Keyboards on MAC and iOS Devices, Made in USA
  • AD/DA conversion for recording up to 192kHz / 24-bit.
  • USB 2.0 High Speed connection to Mac or Windows PC
  • Direct digital connection to iPad and iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. Lightning and 30-pin cable sold separately).
What We Like

Another heavy-hitter in the world of audio interfaces is the Apogee Duet, which was my personal entry into the world of upgraded audio quality.  Apogee makes some top-of-the-line and costly interfaces, and this is its entry model.

These units sound FANTASTIC.  Nice and clean, plenty of headroom, and a nice sturdy design.  The mic preamps are amazing, and really the operation of this thing is as simple as it gets.

What We Don’t Like

It used to be the case that Apogee products were available on Mac computers only, but they’ve expanded into the world of Windows now too, so I can’t even complain about that (although I’m a Mac user myself)!

I’ll say I’m not a huge fan of the breakout cable that provides your ins and outs, which can be subject to strain and ultimately is at risk for failure, unlike other boxes where the in and out connections are all integral to the chassis itself, but that’s really a small thing to complain about.

4 – PreSonus Quantum

The PreSonus Quantum 26×32 Thunderbolt 2 ir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B071DNQW1Gis a 24-bit/192kHz, 26-in/32-out Thunderbolt 2 Audio Interface with

  • 8 Recallable XMAX Preamplifiers
  • ADAT Optical and S/PDIF Digital I/O
  • Center-console Controls with Talkback
PreSonus computer-audio-interfaces, Black, 26x32-8 Mic Pres (QUANTUM)
67 Reviews
PreSonus computer-audio-interfaces, Black, 26x32-8 Mic Pres (QUANTUM)
  • PreSonus’ fastest and best-sounding audio/MIDI interface
  • Uses high-speed Thunderbolt 2 bus
  • 24-bit resolution and up to 192 kHz sampling rate (120 dB dynamic range)
What We Like

People don’t really talk about PreSonus interfaces in the same way they talk about UAD or Apogee, but they really should.  This company makes some truly amazing products at a great value; a similar interface from another company would likely cost three times as much.

The Quantum is PreSonus’s top-of-the-line Thunderbolt interface, it has 8 great X-Max preamps and line-level inputs for connecting external pres instead, and it boasts that it has the lowest latency on the market.  I can certainly attest to that, as I upgraded to this from my Focusrite 18i20.

I have recently made the switch from Pro Tools to Studio One (made by PreSonus), and I love that I can directly control my preamp gain levels from within the DAW instead of reaching for a knob.  It’s fully integrated, and that is really very, very cool.  I also like that it also integrates a full headphone distribution system in-the-box, including two headphone circuits AND a talkback mic.

What We Don’t Like

PreSonus is still making a name for itself on the audio interface market, so the resale value might not be as high as some units.  I also don’t really like that the soft gel on/off power button on the front, while conveniently located, isn’t latchable. When I flip my power conditioner switch on to power up everything in my rack, I still have to turn this on separately.  First world problems, I suppose…

Best Premium Audio Interfaces

1 – RME Fireface UFX+ USB3.0/Thunderbolt

The RME Fireface UFX+ ir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B01LOVYVE4is a 94-in/94-out, 24-bit/192kHz USB 3.0/Thunderbolt Audio/MIDI Interface with

  • 4 Mic/Instrument Preamps
  • MADI Connectivity
  • DSP Mixer
  • Direct USB Recording
RME Fireface UFX+
1 Reviews
RME Fireface UFX+
  • 94 channels input plus output, 188 channels in total ARC USB remote with 15 assignable buttons, an encoder wheel, and a TS jack TotalMix FX for iPadTM adds full control over hardware mixer and DSP effects New AD/DA converters, optimized analog I/O circuits, as well as improved SNR and THD DURec (Direct USB Recording) with up to 76 recordable channels
  • The Fireface UFX+ becomes the center of any multitrack studio because it is able to handle up to 94 channels I/O with ease
  • With unprecedented flexibility, compatibility, the inclusion of DURec (Direct USB Recording) and RME’s famous low latency hardware and driver designs, the Fireface UFX+ raises the bar to new heights
What We Like

RME is truly a step above.  It’s like the Mercedes Benz of the audio interface world.  Crystal-clear, amazing sound quality, and well-designed workflow.  The RME Fireface UFX+ can handle any audio task that you may encounter by its extensive connectivity.

Its impressive 94 channels of I/O include 12 analog channels (including four high-quality mic/instrument preamps), 16 channels of ADAT, two channels of AES, and 64 channels of MADI. Thunderbolt technology imbues the Fireface UFX+ with PCIe-like audio performance, offering the lowest latency, system overhead, and CPU load you’re likely to encounter.

The Fireface UFX+ also connects via USB 3.0, so it’s compatible with Thunderbolt-equipped computers. Low impedance Hi-Power headphone outputs serve up a +19dBu maximum output level, injecting it with more than enough output power for any set of headphones, high or low impedance.

What We Don’t Like

At almost 3k, the decision to purchase this particular unit would have to be undertaken after careful thought and consideration. Still, if you really want to be an audio PROFESSIONAL, you have to have professional tools.

2 – Universal Audio Apollo x8 18×24 Thunderbolt 3

The UA Apollo x8 ir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B07H1CDWJZis an 18-in/24-out, 24-bit/192kHz audio interface which has six cores processor and many others :

  • It has AD/DA Conversion of an elite class
  • It has Dual Crystal Clocking
  • It has Four Unison Preamps
  • It has 24dBu Operation
  • Talkback
  • 7.1 Surround Support, and Realtime”
Universal Audio Apollo X8 Thunderbolt 3 Audio Interface
17 Reviews
Universal Audio Apollo X8 Thunderbolt 3 Audio Interface
  • 18 x 24 Thunderbolt 3 audio interface with class-leading 24-bit/192 KHz conversion
  • Realtime UAD HEXA Core Processing for tracking through UAD plug-ins at near-zero latency regardless of audio buffer size
  • 4 Unison-enabled mic/line preamps, giving you fully authentic preamp emulations from Neve, API, Manley, SSL, and more
What We Like

Place the Universal Audio Apollo x8 at the center of your studio, and it’s guaranteed to turbocharge your productivity. You can track and mix with more processing power(50% more) than Apollo’s old versions, thanks to its 6-core HEXA Core processor.

You can experience superb sound quality due to its upgraded AD/DA conversion and Dual Crystal clocking. You will appreciate the native 7.1 surround monitoring support and many other included features such as the talkback, +24dBu operations, etc.

Four Unison preamps allow you to track through models of the industry’s most legendary hardware. Plus, you get enough expandability and sub-2ms latency due to its Thunderbolt 3 connectivity.  You can find these in pro studios the world over. Industry-standard, this one.

What We Don’t Like

I’ve read that this interface lacks a low end from a few online reviews, but I’ve not found that to be the case.  The headphone amps are also a bit weak, in a way—less than I expected them to be, anyway.

3 – Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt 30×34

The Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt 30×34 ir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li2&o=1&a=B00O9VR75Cir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B07H1CDWJZis a Thunderbolt 2 Audio Interface with:

  • 30-in/34-out with 24-bit/192kHz Resolution and 32-bit Playback
  • 8 Mic Preamps
  • Soft Limit
  • OLED Display
  • 2 Headphone Outputs
  • Talkback Mic
Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt 2 Audio Interface
3 Reviews
Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt 2 Audio Interface
  • Audio Quality Max bit depth: 24-bit Max sampling rate: 192kHz Inputs Total inputs: 30 Analog inputs: 10 Digital inputs: 20 Mic preamps: 8 XLR/TRS combo jacks: 4 XLR only jacks: 4 1/4 only jacks: 2 S/PDIF in: 4 ADAT/optical in: 16 RCA in: No AES/EBU DSUB: No MADI: No Outputs  Total outputs: 32 Analog outputs: 12 Digital outputs: 20 XLR out: 0 1/4 out: 4 S/PDIF out: 4 ADAT/optical out: 16 RCA out: 0 AES / EBU DSUB: 8 MADI: No Other Connectivity Connections: Thunderbolt 2 MIDI I/O: Yes Headpho
What We Like

This is probably my favorite high-end audio interface. Apogee has brought out all the knowledge they have on digital audio and put them into the newly-rebuilt Ensemble Thunderbolt, giving us some of the best sound quality, performance, and functionality.

Because it’s Thunderbolt 2 technology, the Ensemble Thunderbolt gives you ultra-low latency and unmatched CPU efficiency, allowing you to monitor more effectively, record more tracks, and process more plug-ins. Moreover, the Ensemble Thunderbolt’s eight digitally-controlled mic preamps plus AD/DA converters will give you exceptional sound quality that you could expect from a high-end product.

What We Don’t Like

Unlike their Duet model, this particular Apogee unit is Mac only, so Windows users are unfortunately out of luck here.  Pretty much all the reviews of this unit are 5 stars, so it’s tough to find anything negative to say about it!  The price is obviously steep, but so is the quality, and you get what you pay for!

THE OVERALL WINNER

It’s certainly a tough job to pick ONE “winner” interface out of a field of so many worthy competitors, especially when this overview selects only a few of the literally dozens of available makes and models. Still, for the sake of settling the barroom argument (haha), I am going to go with…

The PreSonus Quantum 26×32 Thunderbolt 2 ir?t=homestudio101 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B071DNQW1Gis the winner!  It has a rare combination of features and price that make it just too good to pass up.  It exists in that “sweet spot,” where it provides both a high number of inputs (8 actual onboard preamps with XLR) that will allow you to record a full band or a drum kit if you want and a reasonable price.

There are plenty of interfaces that cost around the same, with only 2-4 preamps, and plenty that cost way more, but this unit will get the job done for only a grand.  You really can’t beat that.

How to choose an interface? Buyer’s Guide

Wow, this has been a lot so far!  But we’re not even done.  How do you CHOOSE an interface?

The two most important features to look out for when buying an interface are

  • Connectivity (computer connectivity)
  • I/O (input and output) configuration.

The type and number of I/O you want on the interface will depend on the type of recordings you do or will do in the future. Audio interfaces ranged from 2-channel units to units that can record hundreds of channels.

A singer may only need one or two pairs of inputs. Almost all audio interfaces come with microphone preamps. Moreover, if you are going to use a condenser mic, you need to make sure that the preamp(s) comes with phantom power.

For plugging a guitar or keyboard, the interface must have instrument level inputs. And for connecting headphone amps, studio monitors, and outboard processors, line-level inputs and outputs are needed.

Now, with some more extra channels, you can even turn your small set up to record a full track band.

Check out how the Focusrite Scarlett 8i6 compares with Komplete Audio 6 MK2 here!

1.Computer Connectivity Options

As we are living in a fast-developing world, recording technologies also change and upgrade relative to it. Some of the standard types of connection that are commonly used for an audio interface are

  • Thunderbolt
  • USB
  • FireWire
  • PCIe.

USB ports (either USB 2 or USB 3) are found in almost all PCs and Macs, while the FireWire type of connections (either 400 or 800) is mostly found on Macs.

USB and firewire have the same average speed and are fast enough to record multiple tracks at once under ideal conditions. Some simple interfaces still use USB 1.1, which is much slower but fast enough to record one or two channels.

2.Thunderbolt

It’s the new kid in the block and turning out to be one of the favorite types of connection among the users because of its ultra-high-speed. Low latency, The latest Thunderbolt (i.e., Thunderbolt 3) is faster (twice) than Thunderbolt 2 and 8 times faster than USB 3.

And so high-end interfaces are also upgrading to Thunderbolt type connections.

3.USB

USB interfaces (3.0, 2.0, and 1.1) are much slower than the above, but they also have their own advantages. Several interfaces are designed to run on USB bus power without an external power source, which will help you if you want a portable or mobile rig that you can power with your laptop.

4.Firewire

Firewire transfers data more consistently than USB and is more suitable for recording more channels at once.

However, a small number of interfaces use FireWire when compared to the ones using USB. A fewer number of computers also come equipped with Firewire ports. You will still need to install a Firewire card even if you own a pc.

These are some of the points that you need to look out for when buying an interface. I hope you enjoyed it, whatever you end up choosing… GOOD LUCK and Happy Recording!!

authoradam

Author: Adam Coolong has been playing with his band Wild Colonial Bhoys full-time for over fifteen years and has recorded dozens of albums through his studio business, Varsity Audio Recording Services.

Don’t miss out on my review of two other audio interfaces that I really like here!

Last update on 2021-05-09 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Vinnie

I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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