To find the Best Audio Interface requires a bit of searching around. But without one, we can not link our instruments to the computer for recording, so they are definitely a necessity.
Today there are plenty around, but that was not the case in the early days. They weren’t needed. We have had computers for some time now, but in the early days, no one gave much thought to sound. They certainly never considered musical possibilities.
The Commodore 64 paved the way for sound in computers, really, without even knowing it. They had a form of integrated sound. The 60s also saw IBM’s range of personal computers take up residence in people’s homes. The emphasis was very much on game sounds software.
It was capable of playing back digitized samples using a Yamaha designed chip. Soundblaster had a port meant for joysticks, but which would also take a MIDI connection. For the first time, we had a connection. Creative Labs who were the inventors concentrated on the gaming market. Other clever little chappies saw the possibilities with music and digitally recorded audio.
Companies like Steinberg took up the challenge to explore what could really be done. From there, things moved fast, and where are we now? Anyone can have a functioning studio at home: linking instruments, voices, and anything else to their computer via an Audio Interface.
There are now over 50 different manufacturers providing USB audio interfaces. The choice is varied, but which is the best?
Let’s look closer look and find the perfect audio interface for you…
Top 8 Best Audio Interface In 2021 Reviews
1 Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 USB Audio Interface Bundle
This is a good place to start our search, as we know quite a bit about these. There is a lot that goes into making a good interface. A/D and D/A converters, filters, and preamps will produce a good or weak sound.
It is, therefore, best to look at companies that have a long-established track record. Focusrite has such a record with experience going back to the mid-1980s, including creating one of the legendary all-time preamps, the ISA.
The Scarlett 214 from Focusrite has two XLR/TRS inputs (both will accept either microphone or instruments) and four outputs. Built-in are two of Focusrite’s preamps offering phantom power. There are also 10dB pads. It is USB powered and has a tough metal chassis and casing.
On the front of the unit is a monitor volume and two gain controls, one for each input. There are push-buttons for Phantom power and stereo and mono selection. The ¼” jack socket for headphones is also conveniently placed on the front with a headphone gain control.
Are the MIDI out and in for connecting synthesizers and other MIDI modules and four RCA outputs. Balanced outputs are provided for studio monitor connection with ¼” sockets. You can also monitor the sound directly to avoid any potential latency. The gain control knobs have colored halos to give you information on input levels.
This is a very impressive interface from an impressive manufacturer. Yes, it is basic, and some may want more features. But, it is a simple to use piece of kit, and for the money, it must be considered as one of the best value audio interfaces currently available. It has a tough build, so it will also serve you well away from your home studio if you fancy doing some location recording.
- Simple to operate design with good features.
- Produces great results at an affordable cost.
- Some will want more features.
2 Apogee ELEMENT 46
The Apogee Element 46 is an interface designed to work with Apple computers. It features a 12 in, 14 out Thunderbolt interface that includes some of the best features that Apogee can offer. But takes all those features and puts them all into a compact unit that measures 1.5 inches by 5.5 by 1.8 inches.
It is a unit that looks very basic in its design and certainly doesn’t contain anything visually that sets it apart. On the front are four mic or instrument combination inputs and two sockets for headphones. On the rear optical and thunderbolt connections. And two XLR outputs.
Built-in are four mic preamps, each with phantom power for your condenser mics as required.
The preamps are so set to be able to record a wide range of instruments. The preamp architecture works across a 1-75dB range to give low distortion within a wide bandwidth. The preamps are suitable to record drums, orchestra, vocals, guitar, basically anything really. They produce a good result using the full range of their capabilities.
There are also optical connections, if needed.
In terms of resolution, there is up to 24-bit/192kHz analog to digital and digital to analog conversion for recording.
It produces good results, but at the price point, that is the minimum you might expect. However, it is likely to be appreciated in a certain environment, but for many studios, it might not suit. It is a decent interface but is quite expensive for what it is. There are better choices at a lower price, as we will find out.
- Simplistic design and layout.
- Preamps work well.
- Expensive for what it is.
- More efficient interfaces available at lower prices.
3 Tascam US-2×2 USB Audio/MIDI Interface
We move on to Tascam, who knows a thing or two about audio and recording. This is a compact little unit measuring just 8.5 inches by 12.4 by 4.1 inches. Very much a cheaper range model.
It is packed with good features and might be considered the best affordable audio interface. It is a 2 in 2 out interface that features powerful mic and line preamps giving up to 57dB gain. This provided a minimum of distortion and unwanted noise. It has built-in drivers to allow operation with OS and iOS computers and devices. It also has ASIO Windows compatibility.
Drum machines and synthesizers can be connected directly via MIDI in/outs. The analog inputs are either XLR or TS that accept line signals and balanced microphones.
You have a choice of two DAW application software options included for free, Ableton Lite 9 or Cakewalk Sonar X3, but you can obviously use it with any DAW of your choice.
On the front panel, it has controls for phantom power so you can use your condenser microphones. There are also gain controls for both channels and switches for mic or line input. There is also a jack socket for a headphone connection for monitoring with separate volume control.
Recording features are well-thought-out. For example, you can use both inputs at the same time, and these can be recorded as two separate mono tracks or one stereo track.
For what is essentially a budget range interface, it does an excellent job at a great price point. This makes it an excellent choice for a starter interface for a new home studio. It does lack some higher-level features, but for the price is good value.
- Easy to use, well-built, and compact unit.
- Nice sounds with some good features at an affordable price.
- Some will want more advanced features.
4 Focusrite Clarett 2
Back we go to Focusrite for another outstanding audio interface produced at a very affordable price. And another contender for the Best High Quality Audio Interface. This Clarett model has ten inputs and four outputs and two of Focusrite’s quality low-noise preamps.
These can be used for microphones, guitars, bass, keyboards, or just anything else, really. Each channel has a gain control and controls for 48v phantom power, which allows you to use your condenser mics if you wish. The dials have halo lighting to make setting levels easier.
The Clarett offers the ‘Air’ option, which recreates a model of a 30-year-old analog transformer. It combines with the modern preamp for a unique sound. Also located on the front of the unit is a headphone socket with volume control.
One of the critical areas to get a great sound is the analog conversion to digital audio. The Clarett has 24-bit/192kHz conversion rates, which are impressive. The sound going into your DAW is therefore clean (if you want it to be, that is?). It also features a low distortion ratio and a dynamic range of up to 119dB.
On top of all that, it includes amp simulators and numerous effect plug-ins. And with the ADAT optical connection, it will allow you to expand to a further 8 input channels, that is, if you have a separate ADAT compatible set of preamps.
It is PC and Mac compatible and connects via a standard USB or USB type C cable. Of course, on the rear of the unit is a MIDI on/out.
It is built in typical Focusrite fashion with a steel chassis and body, and is compact and measures just 6.34 inches by 8.27 by 2.17 inches; it will, therefore, take a few knocks.
A very good audio interface at a great price.
- Great little interface packed with good features.
- Affordable price for a growing studio.
- Nothing we can think of given the price point.
5 PreSonus Studio 24c USB-C Audio Interface
If you are just starting to set up your first home studio, you will need to think about an audio interface. However, you won’t want to spend too much too early, but you will need something that still performs well. This does, and it is enclosed in a well-built unit measuring 4 inches by 9 by 14 inches.
The PreSonus Studio 24 is a good cost-effective option that might be the best audio interface on a budget. It is a 2 in/2 out interface that uses USB-C, and USB-C to USB-C and USB-C to USB-A cables are included. It has two solid-state XMAX-L preamps for microphones and can produce high-grade resolutions up to 24bit/192kHz.
When you are monitoring, many people prefer ‘ladder-style’ metering. The PreSonus is equipped with that so you can easily see performance levels. And on the front panel are two combi sockets for mics, and instruments both with gain controls. An indicator light to show if you are using the 48v Phantom power built-in. Also, a master gain and headphone volume control.
In the rear, there is a MIDI in and out for connection to synthesizers and other MIDI equipment. Along with the two main outputs, and also a headphone socket.
The package includes DAW software for use with Mac or Windows PC’s and there is even a plug-n suite included.
An easy to use interface and an ideal first step in creating your home studio. The operation is basic and doesn’t have too many bells and whistles. But at the price point, it makes excellent value.
- Nicely designed and easy to use.
- Affordable cost for a basic audio interface.
- Some will want more features.
6 RME Audio Interface (FIREFACE UFX II)
With RME’s Fireface audio interface, we move up a gear. This is a step up from the kind of interface you might consider if you are setting up at home. Its impressive connectivity options mean it will cope with just about anything you require. It has the capacity to be able to handle sixty channels. Thirty in and Thirty out. These include twelve analog, ADAT on sixteen channels, and AES on two.
You will get an input level of +18dB and 75dB of gain from four microphone circuits. Importantly, powerful headphone outputs to ensure you have enough volume for quality monitoring. The analog presence in this interface is impressive, and it uses high-quality AD/DA converters to deliver clear and defined audio.
The controls located on the front of the interface include four combi inputs and a MIDI in/out. Also, a clear color screen for monitoring performance. Placed on the front is a DURec port that gives you playback and direct recording to an external drive.
This is really an asset in so many ways, that we haven’t got the space here to itemize all of its many functions.
A brief sample though, is that it offers EQ, reverb delay, and dynamics control. Access to unlimited input and output routing and the splitting of signals to multiple outputs. Also, peak metering to ensure you can take care of the levels of lots of tracks. The app will give you total remote control over the UFX and all its DSP effects.
Well, it certainly could be looked at in that way. This is a pro-level interface, and as such, it carries a multitude of options and capabilities. However, it does come at a price – you cannot get this quality level on the cheap. As mentioned, this might be a little too high-powered and expensive for a starter.
But if you are looking to upgrade to a higher level of interface than what you are currently using, this is worth looking at.
- Packed with features and options.
- Access to the TotalMix FX mixer app, which brings an extra level of control.
- Going to be expensive for some.
7 Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1 Two-Channel Audio Interface
Native Instruments might be a new name to some but is a rapidly growing designer of audio and recording software equipment for music production. They were founded in Germany in 1996. They now have offices in the US and the UK, in Germany, China, Japan, and France.
This is an audio interface that is what you might call a budget level offering. But don’t be fooled by the price point. This could easily be considered as the best budget audio interface currently available.
It is a well-built compact unit measuring just 6 inches by 5 by 2 inches and weighing only twelve and a half ounces. It is a very basic unit that hides its capability of being an excellent starter level audio interface.
On the front of the unit are two inputs. There is an XLR for a microphone with a 48v Phantom power button. Also a standard jack socket for an instrument. They both have individual gain controls.
It is all laid out very simply and has a headphone socket with volume control and line/instrument switch. There is a control for input and host. This allows you to hear playback while you are recording.
Interestingly, the design includes a large volume control on the top along with metering for output levels. Having this control so large and positioned where it is, gives a high level of control. On the rear are stereo RCA outputs. Audio quality is good at 24-bit/192kHz, and it is USB powered.
It reads just like most other budget level interfaces until you get to its software connection options. It carries links to the companies legendary drum synthesizer, Maschine, and to Ableton Live Lite.
Perhaps the most impressive though, is the link to Monark. This is considered by some as the holy grail of analog sound modeling. Studio level samples, instruments, and effects complement what you are doing.
The effect of this on your recordings can be stunning. This is not just an audio interface. It goes a bit further than that which puts it very firmly in contention as the best one-channel audio interface around. Some people flip through product options quite quickly, basing their initial judgment on the price point. Those that pass this by are missing a little diamond.
- Excellent little interface with simple and easy to use controls.
- Links to some excellent software and hardware.
- Absolutely none.
8 AXE I/O 2 – Channel Audio Interface
The Axe is a 2 channel audio interface from IK multimedia. IK was founded in Italy in 1998 and has developed a wide range of products for the audio and digital recording world. One of their better-known products is the iRig, an interface for connecting a guitar to a computer.
The Axe is a 2 in/5 out compact interface, measuring 9.3 inches by 2 by 7.8 inches. It features two Class A preamps with +48v phantom power for your condenser microphones. While its 24-bit/192kHz performance is an ideal quality level.
If you are using guitar or bass, there is an active or passive selector for the type of pickup you are using. There is also an impedance control, as well as a built-in tuner.
One of the big assets this interface has over many of its contemporaries is the extras that are built-in. Ableton Live Lite is included, but so is AmpliTube 4 deluxe.
Now, this is worth having a look at. It includes a wealth of extras, including well over 140 different guitars and bass guitar models. Cabinets, amps, speakers, and various microphones are also included. As well as 15 rack effects and 33 stompbox options. It is a very impressive array of functions.
Getting through all the options available is going to take some time. Most things you will ever need are included within this little box. As with most units like this, the effects and options are quite basic. Don’t go expecting high-level studio-quality reverbs, delays, and EQ, but they are more than adequate.
With all these excellent features, we would place this unit at the top end of the starter studio market. Plenty of options, good performance, and at a reasonable price point, it ticks most of the boxes for a new studio development. Just allow yourself a bit of time to learn how to use it.
- Packed with features, options, and additional software.
- Lots of variables for sound modeling at an affordable price.
- Some might think there is just too much included for an audio interface.
Best Audio Interface Buyer’s Guide
With some of the items you need for your studio, you have a choice of whether to buy them or not. However, a quality audio interface is one of those products where you do not have a choice if you’re recording using a computer. You have to have one.
That can seem a bit scary. And since EVERYTHING you record will go through it, it has to be up to the job. Plus, there are so many options in terms of the configurations of inputs and outputs, connections, formats. It can all be quite daunting.
The range of interfaces we’ve reviewed includes just about every configuration that you will ever need. From two-channels to a lot more than that depending on what other equipment you own. If it is just you, you can get away with two channels, but in some cases – full drum kit, live band recordings, etc., you are going to need more.
How Do You Connect To Your Computer & DAW?
Well, there is an expression in computing that says new products are obsolete before they are released. There is a certain truth in that. Technology moves fast.
But the connections used are fairly standard, USB being possibly the most common. Most computers have USB connections. There are others, of course, Firewire, Thunderbolt, where the transfer of data is faster, but you will find USB just about everywhere.
You will come across technical expressions like Bit depth and Bit rate. Do they matter? Well, yes, they do, and they will have a big effect on the sound you record and reproduce. Without getting too technical, 24-bit is ideal and preferable, 16-bit is acceptable.
These are a little more subjective. Again without going into too much detail, a sample rate of 44.1kHz is enough to capture and reproduce just about any sound you can hear. In fact, it is CD quality, and that is at 16 bits, and if you’re old enough to remember how much everyone was amazed by CD’s when they first appeared, that gives you a good example.
If you’re recording at 44.1kHZ at 24 bit, you are recording at quite a bit higher fidelity than good old much loved CD’s.
However, at professional levels, the sample rates go a lot higher than that. Most modern professional studios might work at 96kHz. But to do that, you need much faster computers and far bigger storage because each file is more than double in size; therefore, a 100 track song can be a nightmare to load and play if your hardware isn’t up to it.
For audiophile jazz and classical recordings, you might even find 176.4 or 192kHz. But these normally contain a lot fewer tracks than a commercial pop or rock song, so the increased resolution puts a lot less pressure on the computer.
All that said, for a home studio, 44.1kHz or 48 kHz is more than fine. And a number of massive hits over the years have been recorded and mixed at those sample rates.
There Are Some Other Considerations
Do you want an interface that includes DSP or integrated software controls for mixing? There is a growing trend for audio interfaces to include lots of bells and whistles. It is a common thing these days, but quite often they just go too far. You need to decide whether you want the extra facilities, and of course, the extra cost they may come at.
We have looked at some very good interfaces at all price ranges and with a variety of features. But, you need to decide what is best for you, not only for now, but also for your expansion plans in the future.
Need Something To Go With Your Interface?
There is no point having a fantastic new interface if you’ve got nothing to plug into it, so check out our reviews of the Best Vocal Mics, the Best Kick Drum Mic, the Best Dynamic Microphones, the Best Microphones for Recording Rap Vocals, the Best Microphones Recording Electric Guitar, and the Best Wireless Microphones currently available.
You may also be interested in our reviews of the Best Microphone Preamp on the market. These can be used to add higher-quality preamps to your interface, and the ones that include ADAT optical connections can expand quite a few of the interfaces we’ve reviewed by 8 additional channels. Well worth a look!
So, What Is The Best Audio Interface?
We would be looking to choose an interface for a new setup. That means we would not be looking for a pro machine, even though there were a few great interfaces for professional use that we reviewed.
We want something at a reasonable price that does the basic things well. We have, therefore, chosen an interface that not does the basics well but also gives quite a bit more. Not too much so that it all becomes overwhelming, but just enough to offer a few options when they are needed.
Our choice of the very best of the audio interfaces reviewed is the…
A great interface at a great price and offering some great options. What more could you want? Highly recommended!