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Best Sub-$200 USB Audio Interface for Most People
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Provided you just need a simple audio interface to record a guitar & mic or stereo instrument, it's hard to beat the design, quality & price of the 2i2. Perfect for podcasters and budding & experienced music producers alike.
What to Look for When Choosing Your Audio Interface
Before jumping into the list, let's make audio interfaces less confusing. Let's clear up some of the terminology and break down what some of the specs mean so you can make an informed decision:
» Inputs & Outputs
You'll see the breakdown of an interface's inputs and outputs written like 2-in/2-out, or just 2x2 for short. This means the interface can handle 2 mic or instrument input, and can output 2 channels.
Not every input is created equal:
If you need to plug in a microphone you'll need an XLR input that goes into a mic preamp. These inputs can usually accept a mic OR line level instrument, so the jack is an XLR-1/4" combo jack.
If you need to plug in a guitar or bass you'll need a 1/4" input.
Just because an interface says "2-in" doesn't necessarily mean you can plug in a stereo instrument like a synth. That might refer to a single XLR jack for a mic, and a single mono 1/4" input for a guitar.
One or more inputs might be digital, which you may or may not need.
One confusing thing is when an interface claims 10-in but it only has 2 physical inputs. What's the deal with that?
Answer: While the interface that you are buying does indeed only have 2 physical inputs, in the case of a 10-in interface it can handle 8 more, but you have to expand it by purchasing another mic preamp.
The Audient iD14 is a great example. It has 2 combo jacks, but it also has an 8-channel ADAT input so you can buy the Audient ASP800, which is an 8-channel Microphone Preamplifier, and voila the iD14 can now handle 10 mic channels going into it at once.
» Connection Format
How an interface will hook up to your computer: Different types of USB, FireWire (which is becoming obsolete), Thunderbolt, or even something else.
Typically more budget-minded interfaces will be USB, which is slow relative to FireWire and Thunderbolt but fast enough to function well.
The Best Beginner & Budget Audio Interfaces
Budget limit in this section: $300
NOTE: Just because we say "Beginner & Budget" does not mean these are not professional grade. Technology has come so far that a $99 audio interface can be the center of your small studio and make your recordings sound great. In fact, most pro musicians, producers, and recording artists use an interface from this section.
The Focusrite Scarlett family of audio interfaces is ubiquitous in home and pro studios worldwide, easily recognizable with their bright red case.
So, why are they so popular? They hit the mark with a combination of an attractive price point, good design, good sound quality, and every few years they release a new version that improves on the shortcomings of the last one.
The gain knobs feature LED rings around them which pulse green, orange, or red depending on how hot your signal is. It's a handy visual cue to help set your levels for recording.
For the mic preamps you've got 48V phantom power available, as well as AIR (models a high-end preamp and gives more brightness and openness to your voice or instruments).
The included software is pretty impressive, with the highlights being Ableton Live Lite and Pro Tools First Creative Pack.
Here are the audio interfaces we recommend from the Focusrite Scarlett series:
Focusrite Scarlett Solo
The Solo is the most junior member, and features one Focusrite preamp and a DI for your guitar, bass, or keyboard. This is perfect for a solo artist or podcaster.
Unfortunately the headphone output does not have its own independent volume control.
The 2i2 replaces the Solo's 1/4" DI with another mic preamp. The headphone output volume can be controlled with a dedicated volume control. If you know you'll need to record two mics or a stereo instrument, this is the one to get.
The 4i4 keeps the two mic pres on the front panel, and adds another pair of 1/4" inputs on the rear so you can plug in a synth or any other stereo instrument. You also get an additional set of outputs. If you need MIDI I/O, this is the interface to get since that's included as well.
One downside of the 4i4 is that they did away with some of the physical controls. In order to switch the mic preamps between Line/Instrument inputs and to select the Pads and AIR mode, you need to use the Focusrite software.
The Focusrite Scarlett interfaces are hard to beat in terms of value for the money. Each generation that comes out is better than the last which shows Focusrite is listening to their customers and always striving to improve. The preamps and converters might not be the best we've heard, but they do the job and in most contexts nobody will be able to tell.
Native Instruments' line of Komplete Audio compete closely with Focusrite and PreSonus, and they are a great choice if you buy into the Native Instruments ecosystem of hardware and software.
Truthfully, there's not a lot between the NI and Focusrite interfaces. They are priced very similarly and nearly match each other feature for feature.
It comes down to if one speaks to you more than the other in terms of design, and if you want an interface that's more software-agnostic (Focusrite) or one that leans more towards Native Instruments' impressive suite of software.
One of the distinctive feature of these interfaces is the big volume knob which is easily within reach on top of the unit, as are the meters. We prefer this to a front-mounted knob. Also the entire line features a dedicated volume knob for the headphones, which is nice.
The included software includes Maschine Essentials, several NI plugins, Monark (an analog synth), Komplete Start, and Ableton Live Lite being the only non-NI software.
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1
The Komplete Audio 1 offers one XLR mic input (with 48V phantom power), and a DI for guitar, bass, or other instruments. Each of course has a gain control.
The outputs to your monitors/speakers are RCA jacks, unlike most other interfaces with 1/4" jacks.
The Komplete Audio 6 is a big step up. You still get the two front-facing XLR-1/4" combo inputs, but in addition you get another set of stereo inputs, a secondary 1/4" stereo output, and S/PDIF digital in/out.
The Komplete Audio 6 also includes MIDI I/O, and a secondary headphone jack with its own volume control (separate from the primary headphone jack).
It's difficult not to compare the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1, 2, and 6 to the Scarlett Solo, 2i2, and 4i4. They are extremely close in terms of audio quality, features, and price. If you know you like the Native Instruments family of software, you should go with a Native Instruments interface.
Between the Komplete Audio 6 and 4i4, we'd choose the Komplete Audio 6 due to the dual headphone jacks (in case you're collaborating on music) and the inclusion of S/PDIF ins/outs.
The Audient iD are one of the best compact audio interfaces money can buy. Feature-for-feature they're a little pricier than comparable interfaces from Focusrite, NI, and PreSonus; that said there are several things that make them worth splurging on.
The design and build quality are superb. The tabletop format - with the knobs and indicators on the top - makes tweaking knobs and controlling things a bit easier.
What's great is that no matter which interface you buy, Audient uses the same excellent Class A mic preamps in their whole product range.
And that's truly where Audient has a leg up on the competition in its price range, is the quality of the preamps. Simply put, they are phenomenal and crystal clear. There's a subtle yet noticeable extra crispness and clarity on things like vocals and acoustic guitar that go through the Audient mic pres and converters.
The iD4 features 1 x XLR-1/4" combo jack in the rear (with switchable phantom power), and 1 x JFET instrument DI input on the front. It also has dual headphone jacks which is cool (unfortunately they don't have independent volume control and are tied to the master volume).
The large volume knob on the top can also be used to tweak DAW and plugin parameters or scroll through your media library.
The MONITOR MIX knob lets you dial in how much of your input you want to directly hear, versus what's playing back on your DAW/computer.
The iD14 is right on the edge of what we would consider a budget interface, but it's pretty awesome and can be expanded quite a bit.
You keep the JFET direct input in the front, and get an additional mic preamp in the back for a total of two. Unfortunately it only has a single headphone output (shame they didn't keep the secondary headphone output like on the iD4).
The expandability comes from the Optical In found on the rear panel. By using an external mic preamp like an Audient ASP800, you can get 8 additional channels for a total of 10 inputs.
The converters are also upgraded to high-grade Burr-Brown converters.
The Audient iD4 and iD14 interfaces are a force to be reckoned with. The iD4 is our own personal go-to for a tabletop audio interface for any quick recordings we want to make. We've owned other interfaces in the past and the preamps on the Audient are truly superb.
These interfaces are missing MIDI I/O, and we wish they had dedicated volume knobs on board. Minor gripes aside, if you can swing the slightly higher price you will be rewarded with superior quality sound.
PreSonus makes lots of fantastic audio interfaces. In the beginner/budget/travel category, we recommend interfaces from both their AudioBox AND Studio lines. Normally we wouldn't mix recommendations from different product lines, but there is truly not a ton separating these.
All four of these interfaces are 2-in/2-out, with the exception of the 26c which is 2-in/4-out.
PreSonus AudioBox USB 96
The AudioBox USB 96 is a 24-bit/96kHz that has two mic preamps, a headphone jack (we wish it was front-mounted like most interfaces), MIDI I/O, and 1/4" main outs.
The inclusion of MIDI ports is a very nice surprise especially for this low of a price.
The Mixer knob lets you dial the balance between hearing your input and the audio playback.
PreSonus' own DAW is included, Studio One Artist. You also get a bundle called Studio Magic Plug-in Suite, which includes lots of cool and useful plugins that can be used with your DAW of choice.
There is extremely little difference between the USB 96 and iTwo. The iTwo is better suited for use with an iPad, and includes PreSonus' Capture Duo recording app for iPad. Aside from that the specs are nearly identical to the USB 96.
The PreSonus Studio line has some nice upgrades, starting with the Studio 24c. It's still a 2-in/2-out audio interface with MIDI, except the preamps are upgraded to XMAX-L Preamps, and 24-bit/192kHz digital resolution. It also has a USB-C connection as opposed to USB 2.0.
There are also meters on the front of the interface to more easily keep an eye on your audio signals.
PreSonus gives you yet more extremely capable audio interfaces at great price points. The AudioBox USB 96 has everything you could ask for and more in a sub-$100 interface. Go with the iTwo if recording on an iPad is a need of yours.
If you can stretch the budget just a bit, the PreSonus Studio 24c and 26c have improved sound quality due to preamp upgrades, and up the resolution to 192kHz. If your computer has USB-C ports, it will make connecting to the PreSonus Studio interfaces that much easier.
The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII is a powerful interface that comes in three flavors: SOLO, DUO, and QUAD. We'll cover the differences shortly.
The Apollo connects to your computer via a low latency Thunderbolt connection. It is marketed as a 10-in/6-out interface, but the physical number of inputs it has are 2 x XLR-1/4" inputs on the back, and a DI guitar input on the front. It has 1/4" stereo out to go to your main monitors, and a secondary 1/4" stereo line out in case you need it.
If you need more mic pres, it has an 8 channel optical input, hence why they call it "10-in."
This all begs the question:
If the analog I/O is relatively limited, why is the Apollo Twin so expensive?
The answer is because of the built-in UAD processing.
Universal Audio's bread and butter is their suite of extremely high quality audio plugins. Unlike most plugins that use your computer's processing power, UAD plugins solely use the SHARC processors built in to their interfaces. This means all the hard processing work is offloaded to the audio interface.
This is exactly where the three versions differ; they refer to the number of SHARC processors on board (SOLO = 1, DUO = 2, QUAD = 4). The more processors, the more plugins you can run simultaneously. Refer to this DSP usage chart to get an idea for how much processing power each plugin uses.
The Apollo Twin MKII is a pricey audio interface. The investment makes sense if you intend to buy into the UAD plugin ecosystem (you get several included with this interface). Their plugins are world class, and it's fun to get lost exploring them on the UAD website.
We found that with an Apollo Twin MKII SOLO it's likely you'll reach its limitations running a couple UAD plugins. For this reason, we recommend saving up for the DUO. If you're a mastering engineer throwing tons of plugins on the master bus, you would be advised going with the QUAD, but price-wise that's well beyond what we'd consider a "mid-range" audio interface.
RME Babyface Pro
The RME Babyface Pro is an awesome audio interface, and despite being very compact and portable it features all of its I/O on the unit itself, without the need for breakout cables (looking at you, Apogee Duet).
It's a 12-in/12-out interface - well really it's a 4-in/4-out, but you can use the ADAT I/O to add 8 ins and 8 outs. In terms of physical ports on the unit itself, it's got:
2 mic preamp inputs
hi-Z and lo-Z 1/4" inputs
a MIDI port
2 headphone outs
2 XLR outputs
ADAT/SPDIF in & out
The Babyface Pro's controls are very intuitive - there are function buttons, a scroll wheel, and a SELECT button, and between those if you have a simple setup you can do a lot without ever having to touch any software.
For more complex routing and recording, RME's TotalMix software mixer is powerful and easy to use. The RME Babyface Pro's drivers are extremely stable on Windows, and it works seamlessly on iOS & macOS.
The beauty of the RME Babyface Pro is that it would suit a traveling singer/songwriter or music producer (it's USB bus powered), as well as make a nice centerpiece to a more complex studio.
It's a well-designed interface with a great build quality, and RME's converters sound amazing. We've used a rackmount RME interface for many years and can attest to the fact that their preamps and converters are pristine. In this price range you'd be hard pressed to find another interface of this quality that's this portable yet full-featured.
Note: The Apogee Element series is only compatible with Mac and iOS devices.
We love the concept behind the Apogee Element series; to bring the performance of Apogee's flagship Ensemble and Symphony interfaces into a much more project studio-friendly budget range.
The Element interfaces are unique in that they are simply input/output boxes - no buttons or knobs here. All the settings are done via the Element Control software on macOS and iOS. Once you've hooked everything up you can hide this box since there are no controls on the unit.
Both the Element 24 and Element 46 feature 2 rear-panel XLR outputs, word clock I/O, and optical I/O (which via ADAT can expand your inputs & outputs by 8). The inputs vary depending on which version you get (covered shortly).
Controlling everything via software is a pleasure with the Element Control software. It's a very nicely designed mixer software that fits right in with Apple's design principles. You can view the entire complex routing, or just a thin strip called the Essentials View for the mic inputs, headphone & main outs.
You can even control the element with your iOS device. Imagine having to step away from your computer to talk to the musicians you're recording, and having your iPad in hand to make level and routing changes on the fly.
If instead you prefer a more hands-on experience with hardware, you can buy the optional Apogee Control remote to keep on your desktop.
And of course we have to mention the quality of Apogee's preamps and converters. Apogee have built quite the reputation on their pristine sound quality, and the Element has essentially the same preamps you would get on the much pricier Ensemble.
Apogee Element 24
The Element 24 is a 10-in/12-out audio interface, but the actual front panel has 2 mic/line combo inputs. There is also a single 1/4" headphone output.
Aside the steep price of the Element 46, there's little we dislike about the Apogee Element series. You get most of the polish and power of Apogee's flagship interfaces in a more affordable package. Depending on your goals, you can choose your flavor of inputs between the Element 24 and 46 (there's also the Element 88, but its price is beyond what we would consider mid-range).
With low latency Thunderbolt connectivity, stellar software, and Apogee's reputation for quality, the Element series decidedly gets our recommendation.
The RME Fireface line brings their top of the line converters & preamps and driver reliability into the world of high-end audio interfaces. The three models differ slightly in terms of connectivity, and with each one you get more features, more I/O, and a higher price tag.
Taking advantage of the rack mount format, these interfaces have a lot of analog I/O on board, as well as digital I/O.
The software component, the TotalMix FX mixer, is powerful and flexible, and even has its own DSP-driven effects. Because of the DSP you can track with extremely low latency. There's even a TotalMix FX iPad app which lets you remotely control the Fireface's mixer and DSP effects.
RME Fireface 802
The RME Fireface 802 is a 30-in/30-out audio interface, and you can connect to your computer via USB or FireWire. In terms of analog I/O you've got a generous 8 ins and 8 outs on the rear panel. Add to that 4 mic pres and 2 headphone outs on the front. Between dual ADAT (16 channels) and AES/EBU (2 channels) you get 18 more channels of digital I/O (hence 30-in/30-out).
The level of the 4 mic pres on the front can be controlled with dedicated knobs. To control everything else, you'll need to use the TotalMix FX software.
The UFX II has the similar analog and digital I/O to the Fireface 802, but two of the rear panel outputs have gone from being 1/4" to XLR.
It does away with FireWire and only provides USB 2.0 connectivity. It also does away with gain knobs on the front, and instead has a tiny screen with buttons and a scroll wheel, acting like a miniature version of the TotalMix FX mixer software and enabling standalone operation.
These RME interfaces are monsters in terms of performance, I/O, software, and a general sense of polish you get when using an RME product. Mac and Windows driver stability is second to none. No studio job is too big to handle for the RME Fireface series.
The AXR4T is Steinberg's flagship audio interface. You would expect an interface of this caliber to be insanely flexible - and it is - but what makes it special are features like the hybrid analog/digital Rupert Neve mic preamps.
The 4 XLR/TRS combo inputs on the front have Rupert Neve Designs Silk circuits. It's an emulation of a 1970s Rupert Neve design, and you can choose between RED (affects the highs) and BLUE (affects the lows), and dial in the amount of coloration with a dial. As you might expect, it sounds amazing and will breathe new life into your recordings.
2 of the 4 front panel inputs accept hi-impedance signals for your electric guitar and bass. On the back you have 8 analog ins & 8 analog outs, MIDI, AES/EBU, and together with the digital I/O this is a 28-in/24-out audio interface.
The Steinberg AXR4T connects via Thunderbolt and is compatible with any DAW on Mac or PC. Everything can be controlled with the DspMixFX software, but you can do quite a bit using the small screen on the front of the unit as well.
Being that Steinberg makes the Cubase DAW, if you're a Cubase user (Cubase AI is included with this interface) you can use some DSP effects, which is nice since they are fully handled by the AXR4T without latency or taxing your computer. The plugins are pretty awesome - a channel strip, reverb, compressor, and EQ.
At this price point you certainly have some options when choosing an audio interface. To us, reasons to go with the Steinberg AXR4T are the beautiful sounding Rupert Neve preamps, as well as the 32-bit/384kHz audio resolution. If you're a Cubase user it's a no brainer, since you get some amazing DSP-powered effect plugins.
Universal Audio interfaces are special because of their internal processors which run their impressive line of UAD plugins without using up your computer's resources. You can read more about that in our rundown of the Apollo Twin MKII.
The entire lineup of the Universal Audio Apollo x interfaces have 6 DSPs, so no matter how intensive your plugin usage is, they'll be able to handle it. And speaking of UAD plugins, a substantial number of them are included with these interfaces.
The sound quality in these units is amazing. The Unison technology in the preamps essentially lets you model vintage preamps by manipulating the preamp circuitry.
Advanced users will appreciate things like Dual Crystal clocking, surround sound monitoring, selectable +24dBu operation, and a built-in talkback mic.
The way to choose with Apollo x model is right for you comes down to the I/O.
Universal Audio Apollo x6
In the X6 you get 2 mic pres, 6 line ins and 6 line outs. This is designed for someone who doesn't need a ton of I/O, but works heavily in the box and demands the DSP power of the 6 cores. This would be an ideal high-end audio interface for an EDM, hip hop, or pop music producer.
Despite not having the most analog I/O for the price, the primary reason to outfit your studio with the Universal Audio Apollo X6 or X8 is to get into the UAD line of plugins. And that's a great reason, since they're widely considered the highest quality plugins around and the best emulations of classic hardware.
Thunderbolt 3 connectivity lets you run complex DAW projects with very low latency.
Best Audio Interfaces Under $500
$500 is an interesting budget for an audio interface, since it puts virtually every compact/desktop/beginner interface firmly within your reach with some cash left over, but it's not quite enough to get into all the mid-range interfaces.
One of the best audio interfaces under $500 is the Audient iD14. It's got a DI and two mic preamps which are a significant step up in quality compared to budget interfaces from Focusrite, Native Instruments, and PreSonus. If you need more inputs it's expandable thanks to its 8-channel ADAT input.
If you look on the used market, you might be able to score a Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII SOLO, or an Apogee Element 24.
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.
Michael bought his first guitar, a Fender California Series Stratocaster in Candy Apple Red, in 1998. He likes rock of all types, from classic to punk to metal. Michael co-founded Equipboard to satisfy his curiosity around what gear his guitar heroes use. Read more