Buying the best audio interface is going to help solidify both the power and overall capabilities of your studio, regardless if you’re a professional, semi-pro or even beginner starting to build your new home recording studio. For continued readers of our website, we’ve been able to help many when it comes to choosing which microphones are best; however, we have frequently mentioned the importance and necessity of phantom power and audio interfaces in our studio — not only for recording vocals with our mics but various instruments as well. Due to this, we wanted to create a guide to help those looking to power up their beloved music gear and instruments and get that sound quality we’ve always wanted. Cue in the best audio interfaces, and today we compiled some of our favorites to recommend you.
What is an audio interface?
An audio interface is a device that’s meant to provide power, processing, effects (some, at least), and organization of your many recording devices into one. They act as an ‘external sound card’ if you will, since they’re a lot more powerful, higher in quality, and merely overall better than the sound cards built-in to your computers, regardless if you’re on a PC or Mac. Depending on how you listen to your audio, whether it be studio monitor speakers or studio headphones, most also have outputs to handle this gear in order for you to track and monitor your recordings. Some even provide MIDI ins and outs to allow your keyboards and other controllers to run more smoothly in the recording process (and keep it all organized, too).
In our opinion, one of the biggest and most important parts of an audio interface is the help with the issue of latency. If you’ve ever attempted to record before, whether vocals, guitar or other instruments while going straight into your computer, we’re sure you’ve noticed a slight ‘delay’ — which is one of the most annoying parts of recording and making music, in our opinion. How are we supposed to get that work flow going if we have to try to ‘guess’ when to start playing our gear? Since audio interfaces have are more advanced internal circuitry and overall build than computer sound cards, they can get greatly reduce this ‘lag’ or merely eliminate it altogether.
Selecting the best audio interface
Now that we’ve covered what they are, let’s look into how to buy the best audio interface for you. Since audio interfaces come in many different shapes, sizes and price-points, it’s going to depend on the reader’s needs which we have listed below.
- Think of what exactly you’re looking to record and hook up to your audio interface. Not only as of today while you read this, but in the future as well. Do you only have one mic, a guitar and a MIDI keyboard? Sticking to a 2-in and 2-out with an XLR input for a condenser mic and MIDI in\out will be quite feasible. Are you going to be recording entire bands? Look for more than 2\2. Perhaps a 6\6 will be best, or even a 4\4. Maybe you’re recording multiple microphones at once (the “at once” here is crucial — if it’s separately, you can always get away with just replacing the XLR with different mics as you go)? Look for more than one XLR input in your audio interface. Of course, these examples are subjective, and you may land somewhere in the middle, which we’ll leave up to you to see which is best.
- What type of connectivity do you want? We have many, and a majority of audio interfaces, providing USB connection. Others (and more towards the expensive and advanced spectrum) can give us Thunderbolt (for Mac only, of course), and even some with FireWire if you want to go heavy. Your computer’s operating system and type will also dictate this decision as well, considering the ports are at times only compatible with the OS. USB of course will span in all directions, and will be best for uses such as in home studios.
- How much are you willing to spend? The range of audio interfaces is huge, spanning from $100 to $,1000+. This will decide not only how many ins and outs you’ll be getting, but also the overall sound quality you’ll be able to possess for your recordings. For home studios, sample rates up to 24 Bit / 192 kHz will be fine and we wouldn’t recommend going any lower. The $1,000 models start to get into not only higher sample rates but more advanced internal processors, which are usually a concern for professional studios.
The top 10 best audio interfaces
Up first we look at one our favorite models as the best audio interface, the Zoom TAC-2. The Zoom is a 2-in/2-out thunderbolt audio interface that is fairly easy-to-use – all features are controlled by one knob. It comes with a pair of XLR/TRS combo jacks in the back to hook up your mics, instruments, or line signals to the input, while also coming with a front input jack so you can add a guitar or bass without unplugging anything else. While you’re playing, the TAC-2 not only records, but it also has a neat feature that performs four times upsampling of your signal during the analog-to-digital and the digital-to-analog conversion – this means you get minimal aliasing noise and higher clarity.
The TAC-2 features Apple’s thunderbolt connectivity — 5 times faster than USB 3.0 and up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0 – which is why it is considered one of the best audio interfaces in the market today. If you need something that is fast, relatively stable, and bus-powered, then the Zoom TAC-2 is your best bet.
Next, we have the Apogee ONE, which is one of the best audio interfaces on the go gigs or smaller home studios on a budget. The Apogee ONE is an all-in-one 2-in/2-out portable, USB interface that provides you with everything you need to record – simply connect a microphone, guitar or use ONE’s built-in omnidirectional microphone to capture your music (definitely don’t rely on it for major recordings — you should have a condenser for that). The ONE 2-in/2-out configurations also let you record with a microphone (built-in or external) and a guitar at the same time.
It also uses its AD/DA conversion and mic preamp technology to produce solid music, podcast, or voice-over recordings while also still giving you studio quality sound to your headphones for accurate mixing and/or hi-fi listening. The Apogee ONE is compatible with GarageBand, Logic Pro X or any core audio application (Mac or iOS). It comes in two models: ONE for Mac or ONE for iPad or MAC – choose whichever you please.
Focusrite Scarlett 6i6
Here we feel the Focusrite Scarlett 6i6, one of the best audio interfaces for multi-instrumentalist, producers, and small bands. The Scarlett 6i6 is a 6-in/6-out USB audio interface that features 4 analogue inputs with 2 built-in Scarlett mic preamps, 4 analogue outputs and 2 separate headphone outputs – there is no shortage of ins and outs with the Focusrite. The 6i6 model spits out sample rates up to 192 kHz with their solid converters – you will have studio-grade sound you can take anywhere. With MIDI I/O as well as two channels of S/PDIF I/O on top of it all, the Scarlett 6i6 is an ideal foundation for home or project studios that may need to expand in the future, giving us a great curve for growth. For build, it has a rugged metal unibody design that is relatively good for recording on the go or lasting a long time sitting snug in your studio.
The Scarlett 6i6 comes bundled with “Pro Tools First Focusrite Creative Pack,” as well as “Albeton Live” lite recording software and a suite of software and samples so you can start recording right away. The Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 is also compatible with all major DAWs on MAC and PC. Just keep in mind there are many interfaces available in the Scarlett series — 2i2, 4i4, and more, all tailored depending on your needs. The 6 ins and outs may be overkill for your use, so you can save some money by buying a lesser interface in their series and be just fine.
Next we will look at the Steinberg UR12 – a 2-in/2-out USB 2.0 model that is considered to be the best audio interface due to a combination of sound quality, portability, and a fairly low price compared to others in this guide. The phantom-powered UR12 is built with a convenient loopback function which is specifically designed for home studio recording, podcasting and other internet streaming applications. The UR12 also features a “Class A D-Pre” microphone preamp with inverted Darlington circuits which provide relatively smooth and detailed performance.
The interface features a single microphone preamp with XLR input and a TRS line input, so you can track line-level with your headphones. In terms of quality, this audio interface supplies a 24-bit/192kHz A/D resolution – you won’t have to compromise sound with this bad boy. It also has line level RCA outputs for you to hook up your studio monitors. The Steinberg UR12 is one of our more economically priced audio interfaces, and if you’re a budget shopper, then this might be your best option.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII
At the middle point of our guide, we have one of our high-end audio interfaces, the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII. The MKII is a highly rated, 10-in/6-out thunderbolt interface for Mac, with two analog inputs, four analog outputs, and eight channels of ADAT input – each of them serve their own specific purpose when it comes to connectivity. The Universal MKII features an AD/DA conversion for fairly good sound, and 4 built-in UAD “SHARC” processors for giving you a true representation for tracking or mix-down. The thunderbolt configuration of the interface provides you with low latency and huge bandwidth for higher sample rates (24-bit/192kHz) and track counts.
The compact design of the MKII make it pretty versatile, as it suitable for mobile recording, mixing outside of your studio, and performing live. The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII sits on the higher price-point of our guide, and serves as a great pick as the best audio interface for people with a larger budget looking for a thunderbolt-based model that will really up the ante when it comes to your recordings and quality of music.
Up next we have another one of our favorite picks as the best audio interface for people searching for a model with multiple types of connectors. The MK3 features both USB 2.0 and FireWire connectivity – when you use FireWire, your UltraLife will get all the it needs from your computer, and when you’re connected via USB, you can use the included power adapter for full functionality. The MOTU features 24-bit /192 kHz rate with a number of inputs and outputs: two microphone preamps plus 6 line-level 1/4” (TRS) inputs and 10 analog TRS outputs – so in total, you have a 10-in/14-out interface. It also comes with a stereo S/PDIF digital I/O, a stereo headphone output, and a MIDI I/O for a controller or other equipment.
The MK3 also comes with built-in effects and DSP routing, in which you can dial in your headphone mixes without draining your computer. It can also serve as a pretty steady standalone mixer due to the DSP mixer and onboard effects – in case you ever want to just jam out without taking your laptop. The Motu UltraLite-MK3 also sits on the higher price-point, but with the features and sound it provides, it is great for the price.
RME Fireface UC
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The RME Fireface UC is another high-end model, which has 2 digitally controlled microphone preamps, ADAT, and S/PDIF, and a whopping total of 18 input/output channels plus MIDI I/O – making this one of the best audio interface options for a small to medium-sized band or semi-pro studios. The Fireface UC has a solid cross-platform performance, which means that it works well on both Windows and Mac operating systems. It has a built-in “RME Hammerfall” core that provides relatively low latency, even with multiple channels. The unit’s operating mode can be switched to “Win” or “Mac” at any time if need be.
The Fireface UC features RME analog and digital circuitry that provides active jitter suspension, stand-alone functionality and utter control from the front panel, flexible I/Os, and a very solid 648-channel matrix router. The digital ADAT I/O gives you digital connection to mixers and converters which is important if you want to track correctly. The RME Fireface UC is our priciest model, but in this case, with price comes unmatched quality. It’s definitely the best audio interface if you know what you’re doing.
Apogee ELEMENT 24
Here we have another Apogee model, the ELEMENT 24. The Apogee ELEMENT 24 is one of the best audio interfaces if you record on Mac with one or two inputs a time. It is a thunderbolt 10-in/12-out audio interface that is rather cost-effective when comparing it to other thunderbolt models on the market. The ELEMENT 24 features 2 front-panel mic/line/instrument inputs on combi connectors, 2 rear-panel balanced XLR outputs, a 1/4” stereo headphone out, and word clock I/O. It also comes with 2 Apogee on-board mic preamps with selectable phantom power. For even more flexibility, the ELEMENT 24 has an optical I/O with ADAT (8×8), SMU (4×4), and SPDIF (2×2) compatibility.
The thunderbolt drivers deliver a relatively low-latency performance (1.41 ms), along with solid stability. The driver also draws less CPU power ranks which lets you run more plug-ins and monitor through your DAW at lower buffer settings. Lastly, the “Element Control” software of the Apogee ELEMENT 24 provides you with remote control of your hardware on your Mac or iPhone/iPad, giving this one a well deserved nod as the best audio interface. There are also a few more options available, such as the ELEMENT 46 or even 88 if you needed more plug-ins.
M-Audio M-Track II
Towards the end of our guide, we will look at M-Audio’s M-Track II, which is a low-profile interface that delivers simple plug-and-play connection. The M-Track II is known to be one of the best audio interfaces for people who prefer something cheaper without many bells and whistles. The M-Audio is pretty flexible, as it offers the right connections for any instrument, from electric guitar to a phantom-powered condenser microphone. It equipped with a number of inputs: each channel offers a combined XLR and balanced 1/4” input – each of which attempt to give you the best result from any audio source.
The M-Track has pretty solid zero-latency inline monitoring, in which the monitor mix knob adjusts the balance between the direct inputs and the playback from your computer software. It also comes with a nifty LED metering feature – multi-colored LED metering gives you instant feedback of your input levels. The solid metal chassis and low-profile design of the M-Audio M-Track II also make this a roadworthy model.
Last but not least, we have our most simple, price-friendly and final pick as the best audio interface, the Lexicon Alpha. The Alpha is a USB 2-in/2-out interface that combines an inexpensive price with portability to make it one of the best audio interfaces on the market. The Lexicon is a bus-powered interface that features 1 XLR microphone input, 2 TRS line inputs and 2 TRS & RCA line outs – the front panel has a high-z ¼” instrument input for direct to computer recording and a 1/8” high-powered headphone output for your headphones. The Lexicon Alpha can stream 2 channels of 44.1 or 48 kHz audio at either 16 or 24-bit resolution on both PC and Mac.
It also comes with mono/stereo monitoring, as well as zero-latency direct/playback monitoring for delay-free overdubs while recording. The Alpha is also equipped with a “Lexicon Pantheon VST Reverb” plug-in which will give your recordings a very good sound for the price you are paying. If you’re looking for something low-cost, the Lexicon Alpha may be your option as the best audio interface.