Choosing an audio interface can be a daunting task. There are dozens to choose from, and it’s not exactly like an instrument that you can pick up and play at your local music shop and compare options. Hearing the subtle difference between how interfaces color (or don’t color) the sound is tough, especially for musicians and producers just starting out. You’ll likely find yourself shopping based on specs, and user reviews.
Lucky for you, here at Equipboard we live and breathe music gear, and have musicians from all walks of life who love spending time reviewing and comparing gear. For this guide, we took a vocalist, guitarist, and music producer and
locked them in the studio kindly asked them to help us test over a dozen audio interfaces in the studio, come up with pros and cons, and round up their favorites while taking price into consideration. We’ll talk a bit about what you should look for in an audio interface, and based on our many hours of testing we reveal 5 of our favorite audio interface recommendations for your home or mobile studio. If you’re pressed for time, we summarized our findings in the chart below, but we encourage you to read our in-depth reviews for each of the interfaces we chose.
Last Updated: January 2018With 2018 upon us, we thought it would be a great time to revisit and revamp our recommendations. After all, audio interface manufacturers occasionally release updated drivers and new generations of hardware, some of which might be worthy of our list. We poured in several more weeks of research, ordered a few new interfaces to our test lab, and revised our guide to make sure we’re giving you the most up-to-the-minute info and recommendations! The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 continues to be a top recommendation everywhere, we added the slightly pricier Audient iD4 which gives the 2i2 a run for its money, and the Steinberg UR22 moved up a few spots.
- Bottom Line:The Audient iD4 proves that good things come in small packages. Despite being a tad pricier, with rock solid build quality, reliable drivers for Win/macOS/iOS, and mic a preamp that hits way above its weight class, the iD4 gives similarly priced interfaces a run for their money.
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- Why Is an Audio Interface Necessary?
- What Does an Audio Interface Do?
- Top 5 Audio Interfaces
Why Is an Audio Interface Necessary?
The simplest explanation is this: An audio interface allows you to hook up your audio gear to your computer. Your instruments/voice/etc will go into it, and sound will come out of it and to your speakers or headphones.
To get a little more in-depth, your computer probably already has a built-in sound card, which lets you hook up to a set of speakers, probably a headphones jack, and maybe one input (or perhaps no inputs at all). Most desktops and laptops are simply not made for professional music production. They are optimized for listening to your audio, regardless of whether you’re gaming or listening to YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, etc.
By hooking up an audio interface to your computer, you are transforming it into a machine that can handle the needs of pro music production. An interface will have high quality inputs so that you can connect musical instruments and/or microphones. It will also have high quality outputs to hook up to studio monitor speakers, and a separate headphones jack. In some cases, an audio interface will even take stress off of your computer’s CPU by handling most (if not all) of the sound processing, leaving the CPU power to run your audio software.
What Does an Audio Interface Do?
Without getting overly technical, an audio interface handles the conversion from a digital audio signal to an analog signal, and vice versa. A digital audio signal in your computer is composed of a bunch of 1s and 0s, and the interface needs to convert it to an analog audio signal so that it can be sent out to your studio monitor speakers (or headphones). The reverse of that is also necessary; a guitar or microphone outputs an analog audio signal, and when plugged into your audio interface, it gets converted to digital so the computer can “understand” it. The conversion is done by a chip known as a DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter), and the reverse of that, ADC (Analog-to-Digital Converter).
If you’re a visual learner, here is a diagram of what your home studio setup might look like if you’re using a fairly minimal USB-powered interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2:
The USB port connects the interface with your computer, and the line outputs go to your studio monitor speakers. Don’t have monitor speakers? No problem, there is a dedicated output for your headphones. The Scarlett 2i2 in this case has two inputs, which can either accommodate two mono instruments (a guitar and a mic in this example), or a single stereo instrument (a digital piano in the diagram). The more external gear you need to plug in at the same time, the more inputs you will require. The interface pictured above can be referred as a 2-in/2-out, or 2x2 for short.
So is choosing an audio interface that simple? Of course not! There are several connectivity options to choose from (USB 2.0, USB 3.0, FireWire, Thunderbolt, etc), bit depth, sample rate, compatibility with both Mac and PC, and more. We won’t dive into these in depth here, but rest assured the recommendations we’ll make have all been well reviewed and well researched, and should serve you very well in your studio setup. All of the interfaces we recommend in our best-of list are compatible with both Windows and Mac.
Top 5 Audio Interfaces
To find out what audio interfaces we should take into consideration, we scoured the web for ratings and reviews, and checked popular communities like Gearslutz, reddit’s /r/edmproduction, /r/wearethemusicmakers, and /r/guitar, and our own Equipboard community to find the most highly recommended and best selling audio interfaces. We took that list, and tested out the interfaces ourselves in our studio to come up with the final list of the best ones. While a decent interface can be had for about $50, the general consensus is that the price of admission for a very highly rated interface to start at about $100. For the most part, you get what you pay for.
Without further ado, here are Equipboard’s selections for the best entry level audio interfaces.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB
Without a doubt the most recommended audio interface out there is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface. It seems Focusrite has hit the mark by providing a perfect combination of an attractive price point, excellent build quality, more or less reliable driver support, and overall utility. “Very good and cheap” seems to be the overwhelming sentiment here.
The 2i2 is a 2-in/2-out interface. It has two mono inputs (each with a mic pre), meaning you can plug in two mono instruments at a time (two microphones, or a mic and a guitar for instance) or one stereo instrument, and two mono outputs which go to your studio monitor speakers. The front of the unit also features a 1/4” headphone output with its own volume control, which is a nice feature. On the back of the unit you’ll simply find left and right line outputs which you can hook up to your studio monitor speakers, and a USB 2.0 port which also powers the Scarlett 2i2 so you don’t need a separate power supply (this is great for portability). This audio interface is very compact and lightweight, though its all-metal chassis makes it feel like it has a great build quality. The signature red brushed metal finish is very attractive, and though it does nothing for sound quality we have to say we love the way it looks on a desk! A really neat feature is the LED ring around the GAIN knobs of the two inputs, which pulse green, orange, or red depending on how hot your signal is. In our tests this was a very handy visual cue available at all times to help us set our levels for recording.
In terms of sound quality, the Scarlett 2i2 doesn’t disappoint. The mic preamps are clean, with little to no sound coloration to speak of. Are they the best preamps in the world? In a $150 audio interface, of course not. Will they color your sound like preamps found in a multi-thousand-dollar vintage console? Again, no. But they do the job with no fuss. We were able to get very professional sounding recordings of vocals and guitar (both acoustic and electric). On top of quality preamps, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 has extremely low latency, and a sample rate up to 24-bit/192kHz.
Just about the only negatives we could uncover were some claims of unreliable drivers, particularly on Windows. In our studio tests we were able to get up and running on both Windows and macOS with no troubles, and experienced no glitches or sound drop-outs over many hours of use. It appears the vast majority of Scarlett owners experience no issues, but we feel we should report that we read more complaints about driver issues than we did for a comparable interface like the Audient iD4.
Bottom Line: If you’re in the market for an audio interface and don’t have an immediate need for more than two inputs, you would be hard pressed to find a better combo of price, features, and quality than the Scarlett 2i2. For as long as we’ve been reviewing gear, it seems the 2i2 has been a best seller in the audio interface category at nearly every retailer, which speaks to how great of a value it is. It has received by far the most number of user reviews than any other interface. If you find yourself needing a little more than what the 2i2 has to offer, its big brother the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 can be had for roughly $50 more. It adds four RCA phono outputs, MIDI IN and OUT ports, and includes pad switches which result in a 10dB gain reduction to the signal.
Whether you’re a singer/songwriter, recording artist, podcaster, bedroom musician, hip-hop or electronic music producer, it’s hard to recommend a better overall package than the 2i2, and for that reason it takes home our award for Best of the Best.
- Connectivity: USB 2.0
- Compatible with macOS and Windows
- Two Focusrite mic pres
- 24-bit/192kHz conversion
- Metal uni-body chassis
- Software included includes Pro Tools | First Focusrite Creative Pack, Ableton Live Lite, Softube's Time and Tone Bundle, the Focusrite Red Plug-in Suite, and 2GB of Loopmasters samples, as well as access to Focusrite's Plug-in Collective
- Halo LED gain/clipping indicators
- Zero-latency direct hardware monitoring
The Audient iD4 comes roaring into our list as one of the best compact audio interfaces money can buy. It might be small, but it’s big on quality and features. It’s right on the edge of what we would consider a budget audio interface; as of time of writing, the price is hovering around $200 (we found it for a little less on Amazon but it fluctuates). The big question is, is it better than the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2? We would say yes for some things and no for others, and it’s going to be up to you if the things it does better are worth spending a little more money for. Let’s dive in.
First of all, let’s talk about the size, build quality, and design. This unit is nice and compact, around 5 inches on each side. It also feels rather heavy and solid with a metal case and metal knobs; it’s apparent that Audient put some special attention to the build quality, it truly feels like a premium interface. In terms of the design, it’s fairly minimalist and features a tabletop design where the knobs and indicators are on the top, as opposed to the front panel like the Scarlett 2i2. One design is not necessarily better than the other, but the iD4’s tabletop design makes tweaking knobs a bit easier.
In terms of inputs and outputs, the rear of the unit has a USB 2.0 port (it is fully bus powered and doesn’t require a power supply), L & R monitor speaker outputs, and the first of the two inputs, a line/mic combo jack with phantom power. The front of the unit features the second input, a JFET DI (instrument input for connecting guitars and basses), and dual headphone jacks (one 1/4” and one 1/8”) so you can monitor your signal with someone else. In terms of the knobs and controls of the interface, we love how intuitive and easy to use it is. The mic and D.I inputs each have their own gain knob, and indicator lights on top of the unit show you how hot your input and output signals are. There’s also a MONITOR MIX knob so you can dial the mix in between the direct signal, and the one processed through your DAW or software. The largest knob is a volume control, although if you press the iD4 button, it essentially turns into a mouse scroll wheel, so that you can tweak DAW and plugin parameters, or even scroll through your iTunes library. It’s one of those features you don’t think you need until you actually have it!
Where the Audient iD4 crushes the competition in its price range is the quality of the preamps. Simply put, they are phenomenal and crystal clear. We read review after review singing their praises, with people making claims like:
The mic pre and speaker outputs are light years beyond competitors at this price.
Once we tried it ourselves, we for the most part agree. It’s probably a slight exaggeration to say that the preamps are light years better than the ones on the Scarlett 2i2, PreSonus AudioBox, and others; the difference is subtle, but there’s certainly a crispness and extra clarity on subtle things like vocals and acoustic guitar that go through the iD4. Essentially, this is the difference that you’re paying a bit more for.
One drawback of the Audient iD4 versus the Scarlett 2i2 is that your headphone signal is tied to the main output, and not controlled separately with a dedicated headphone volume knob like the 2i2 has. This is a minor annoyance, but enough worth mentioning. Furthermore, you only get input indicator lights when the MONITOR MIX knob is turned all the way to the left to INPUT, whereas the “halo” meters on the Scarlett 2i2 show input level all the time. The iD4’s resolution is 24-bit/96kHz, whereas the Scarlett is capable of 24-bit/192kHz. If you’re a mobile musician, you’ll be very glad to know the iD4 is compatible with iOS, whereas the Scarlett is only Windows and macOS. And speaking of operating systems, we had zero problems getting the iD4’s drivers to work with a Windows machine, a Mac, and an iPhone. Most of the reviews and forums we combed through indicate that most owners have had little to no problems with the drivers, which is unfortunately more than we can say for the Focusrite Scarlett interfaces.
Bottom Line: While Audient may not be a household name yet, it’s making waves with its high-performance, yet relatively affordable audio interfaces that hit above their weight class. With intuitive design, rock solid drivers, and a slight edge in terms of preamp quality, considering the price this is a phenomenal interface. Reasons to get this over the Scarlett 2i2 would be if you need an audio interface for iOS, want the best mic pres for this price range, and are able to spend the extra cash.
- Connectivity: USB 2.0
- Windows, macOS and iOS compatible
- 1 x Class-A Audient Console Mic Preamplifier
- 1 x Discrete JFET Instrument Input
- iD ScrollControl Mode
- Zero Latency Monitoring with Monitor Mix & Pan
- Main Speaker Output
- Independent Class-AB Headphone Amplifier with Dual Outputs
- Monitor Control Functionality
- All-Metal Enclosure
Steinberg UR22mkII USB
The budget friendly Steinberg UR22mkII USB Audio Interface earns a well-deserved spot in our list of the best audio interfaces. The mkII is the newer upgraded version to the well-loved original UR22. In terms of price point and features, it is most comparable to the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, with the added benefit of costing a bit less. It receives praise for its durability, build quality, and inclusion of MIDI I/O.
Features include two mono inputs (both with mic preamps), two mono outputs, phantom power for condenser microphones, MIDI ports, and a dedicated output for headphones (with its own volume knob). The second input has a “HI-Z” high impedance switch to accommodate guitars and basses - a welcome feature for those of us recording guitar. On the back panel are two USB ports - a larger Type-B USB 2.0 port, and a smaller Micro-B USB connector. When the UR22mkII is hooked up to your computer via the larger USB 2.0 port, it also gets power through that, so you don’t need a separate adaptor. If however you hook up the UR22mkII to your iPad, the iPad can’t sufficiently power it, so you’ll need to use a power adapter connected to the smaller Micro-B USB port. Just something to be aware of if your mobile studio is centered around an iPad and iOS.
The drivers are solid, and Steinberg is good about squashing bugs in a timely fashion when they are discovered. The firmware is also user-upgradable, so it’s a good idea to keep it up to date (check Steinberg’s website for the latest versions).
Aesthetically, it feels more on the rugged side. The all-metal chassis feels pretty indestructible, which is more than can be said about some other interfaces. Sure, it lacks some of the “polish” found in Focusrite’s Scarlett line and the NI Komplete Audio 6 (fancy indicator lights for instance). At the end of the day, it should be about the way an audio interface works, not the way it looks - and the UR22 certainly delivers.
The Steinberg UR22mkII uses choice Yamaha D-PRE preamps, which sound fantastic, clean, and transparent.
Bottom Line: Our recommendation is if you need to stay at the bottom of the budget range, connecting the UR22 to your iPad, and connecting a device via MIDI is important for you, the Steinberg UR22mkII is an excellent choice over the Scarlett 2i2.
- Connectivity: USB 2.0
- Compatible with Mac and Windows
- 2 analog inputs and 2 analog outputs
- Two Yamaha D-PRE microphone preamplifiers with XLR/TRS jacks
- Includes Cubase AI recording software, as well as Cubasis LE for iOS
- 24-bit/192kHz conversion
- Latency-free hardware monitoring
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6
Like the Audient iD4, the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 is priced slightly above what we would consider a budget interface. That said, if you can stretch your budget, it absolutely deserves a close look. If we take price out of the equation, there’s a strong argument to be made that this is the best one overall in our comprehensive tests. Based on the price point and features, it’s not completely fair to pit it against the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 - the 2i4 is its closest rival, both in terms of feature and price. So, what makes the Komplete Audio 6 so good? Let’s dig in and find out.
The first thing that will jump out at you is how hefty this unit feels. Don’t get us wrong, it’s still a compact interface (roughly 6x5 inches), it’s just that the build quality is out of this world good. Solid steel all around, and knobs that are sturdy and very satisfying to turn. Despite the small size there are a lot of features packed in. The front panel has the two primary mic/line combo inputs, direct monitoring options, and a headphones jack with its own independent volume control. The back panel has the USB 2.0 port (which also powers the unit), switchable 48V phantom power for using condenser mics, MIDI IN/OUT, digital ins & outs, another pair of 1/4” inputs, and last but not least the outputs. While the inputs and outputs are on the front and rear, the top of the unit is functional as well, with indicator lights for everything, as well as a large MAIN VOLUME knob. As one reviewer puts it:
The BIG Main Volume knob is nothing short of a necessity for me now. It’s so convenient to have the master volume control as the biggest knob in reach, it’s intuitive. The lighting on top is really prominent and is the icing on the cake. Again, it’s very intuitive and tells you the status of pretty much every input and output at a glance.
The preamps in the Komplete Audio 6 are very clean and transparent. They’re Cirrus Logic converters, which is a quality component. This interface has extremely low latency, and the sample rate goes to 24-bit/96kHz. We had absolutely zero problems getting this baby to work on macOS and Windows, and judging by user reviews most people experience no reliability issues.
Bottom Line: If you don’t need MIDI ports, and two audio inputs are enough for you but you still want top quality mic preamps, we would urge you to look at the Audient iD4. However, if you think you might need more than two inputs and you’re able to stretch your budget, we recommend the NI Komplete Audio 6 hands down.
- Connectivity: USB 2.0
- Compatible with Mac and Windows
- 4 analog inputs: 2 balanced mic/line/instrument (XLR); plus 2 balanced line (1/4" TRS)
- 4 balanced analog outputs (1/4" TRS)
- Digital stereo input and output (S/PDIF / RCA)
- MIDI in/out
- Headphone output with independent level control
- Two pre-amps with individual gain controls
- Direct monitoring for live, latency-free recording
- +48V phantom power for using condenser mics and active DI boxes
PreSonus AudioBox USB 96
The PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 interface is remarkably good considering its very budget-friendly price tag. With audio interfaces, the general rule is that you get what you pay for, but with the AudioBox it definitely feels like you’re getting more. For starters, it’s a 2-in/2-out interface which is more than what its main competitors offer at this price point. It includes MIDI I/O and up to a 96 kHz sampling rate. Throw in the fact that it includes a DAW which normally costs the same as the audio interface itself, and you have a very compelling little package.
Our first impression was that the AudioBox USB 96’s build quality is good - not quite as solid of a build as the Audient iD4 or NI Komplete Audio 6 - but it seems like it could stand up to some abuse. We dig the brushed aluminum blue finish on the front panel. Speaking of the front panel, no surprises here. You’ve got two combo mic/instrument inputs, a 48V switch for phantom power, gain knobs for each input, headphone volume control (we got a chuckle that it goes to 11, Spinal Tap would be proud), and main volume control. The Mixer knob controls how much direct monitoring you want to hear. The rear panel features the USB 2.0 connection (which also powers the interface), MIDI I/O, the main outs, and the headphone jack. We much prefer the headphone jack to be in the front, but it’s a minor annoyance at most.
Under the hood, this is a nice little workhorse. The Presonus preamps are transparent, and absolutely do the job especially considering the AudioBox USB 96’s price tag. One nice thing that PreSonus has upgraded from previous AudioBox models is the increased sampling rate to 96 kHz. And to sweeten the deal even further, buying this interface gets you a full copy of the PreSonus Studio One Artist DAW, which is itself a $100 value. If you already have a DAW of choice this might not matter much to you, but if you’re just getting into recording or producing, it’s an incredible deal.
Bottom Line: The PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 is not an exceptional audio interface in any one particular area, but it’s an extremely well rounded interface offered at a very reasonable price. If budget is your primary concern and you need an interface to get you going, the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 should be at the top of your list. If you don’t already have a DAW, it’s a no-brainer. Best Bang for Your Buck.
- Connectivity: USB 2.0
- Compatible with almost all recording software for Mac and Windows
- 24-bit resolution; 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96 kHz sampling rates
- 2 combo mic/instrument inputs with high-performance, low-noise, high-headroom mic preamplifiers
- Zero-latency analog monitoring
- Includes Studio One Artist DAW software and 6+ GB of third-party resources