An audio interface sits at the heart of every music or audio production studio, connecting the instruments, microphones and control surfaces with a computer digital audio workstation. Choosing the ideal brand and model for music production can be a daunting task. Of course, reliability and high audio quality are extremely important, but there is always a trade-off between more features and your budget.
Finding that sweet spot can seem unbelievably complicated. Fortunately, we can help you choose the one best for you, without it costing you a fortune.
The eight audio interface models reviewed here all come from well-known manufacturers with a long history in the music business. They cover the range of options, from a simple stereo interface with a minimum of extra features, to a full-blown professional studio interface with plenty of bells and whistles. Best of all, they’re all available to buy now. So let’s get started…
Fortunately, this review of the best audio interfaces currently available will help you to choose the perfect one for you, without draining your pocket.
So let’s get started and find the best audio interface for your needs…
- Common Features
- Top 8 Best Audio Interface You Should Buy 2021 Reviews
- Best Audio Interface Buyers Guide
- So What’s The Best Audio Interface?
But before we get to the in-depth reviews, all of the audio interfaces reviewed share several common features. Some of these might sound technical, but don’t worry – we’ll explain it all in our helpful Buyers Guide section near the end of this review.
- At least two microphone/instrument/line inputs for voice, guitar, synthesizer, or other audio sources, and at least one high-quality microphone preamplifier with power for condenser mics.
- Professional digital audio quality, capable of 24-bit resolution at up to 192 kHz.
- Two or more audio outputs, plus at least one separate headphone output with its own volume control.
Now, let’s look at what sets these best audio interfaces apart from each other…
Top 8 Best Audio Interface You Should Buy 2021 Reviews
1 Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1
This is the least expensive of the audio interfaces we looked at, with the most basic feature set. Designed for solo musicians who need a minimum of inputs, as well as podcasters, vloggers and other content creators who want to capture and edit speech. But it still boasts a number of features that might make it the best audio interface for you.
The Komplete Audio 1 provides one mic preamp, a separate line/instrument input, and a pair of RCA jacks for output to a stereo or powered speakers, and a headphone output. Unlike the other models reviewed, it does not include MIDI input or output connectors. A very nice feature is the large master volume control on the top of the unit.
It also features a small footprint – only 5 x 6 inches, so sits well on the desktop of even the most cramped recording spaces.
An attractive software collection is included, featuring versions of Native Instruments flagship products MASCHINE and MONARK, several of their best-selling effects, and Ableton Live Lite.
- Low cost.
- Small footprint.
- Big volume knob on the top is easy to grab.
- Nice collection of Native Instruments software included.
- Only one preamp.
- No MIDI In/Out.
- Unbalanced outputs with less-robust RCA jacks.
2 Focusrite Scarlett 2i4
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 is an entry-level USB interface from renowned UK audio company Focusrite. Super-low latency monitoring makes this one ideal for anyone needing a cue mix for recording or live performance. Two mic or line inputs feature two of Focusrite’s Scarlett warm mic preamps. Four unbalanced and two balanced outputs are available, of which four are available simultaneously. Also included as a MIDI In and Out.
Compatible with Macintosh or Windows, the Scarlett 2i4 comes with a handy software package. Included is Avid Pro Tools | First and Ableton Live Lite recording software. As well as Focusrite’s Creative Pack, a suite of plugins and samples to help you get started on the creative path right away.
- Focusrite name-brand microphone preamps.
- Super low-latency monitoring.
- Very attractive price.
- The unbalanced outputs use less-sturdy RCA jacks.
3 PreSonus Studio 24c
The PreSonus Studio 24c audio interface is also very attractively priced. It draws its power from the USB cable (included), so no power adapter is required.
The interface includes two microphone/instrument/line inputs, two excellent PreSonus XMAX-L solid-state mic preamps, MIDI In and Out and a pair of balanced 1/4” TRS outputs. And a four-segment ladder-style LED level meter will help you easily manage input or output levels. A mixer knob lets you blend analog input and computer playback for low-latency direct monitoring.
Included is PreSonus Studio One Artist music production software for Macintosh or Windows, plus the Studio Magic plug-in suite. Sub-c to USB-C, and USB-C to USB-A cables are included to guarantee compatibility with most computers.
- Nice LED meters for input and output monitoring.
- Low-latency monitoring
- Only two outputs.
4 Tascam US-2×2
The Tascam US-2×2 interface combines professional audio quality with a very ergonomic design. Ultra-modern molded side panels that tilt the front of the case upwards slightly toward the user make this the sexiest-looking of the interfaces we reviewed.
Two balanced 1/4-inch TRS inputs include two TASCAM Ultra-HDDA mic/line preamps that can provide up to 57 dB of gain. High-quality components, including NE5532 op-amps, provided a clean, uncolored sound. MIDI In and Out connectors make it possible to connect to synthesizers, drum machines or control surfaces.
But it’s the versatility of the outputs that really caught our attention…
Two balanced 1/4-inch outputs can be found in the usual position on the back panel, where your monitor speakers are normally connected. But what’s unique about the Tascam US-2×2 is that this same signal is available via a front panel stereo connector with a separate volume control. This is in addition to the normal headphone output and volume.
Included are two leading Digital Audio Workstation applications: Cakewalk SONAR X3 LE and Ableton Live Lite 9. And here’s a bonus: Unique among all the interfaces reviewed, the Tascam US-2×2 also includes drivers for iOS, so it can be used with an iPad.
- Ergonomic design.
- Balanced inputs and outputs with 1/4-inch TRS jacks.
- Top-quality electronic components and excellent preamps.
- Two headphone outputs with individual volume controls.
- iOS support.
- Good price
- Only two outputs.
- Smaller software bundle.
5 IK Multimedia AXE I/O
The AXE I/O includes a number of special features that are especially attractive to a guitarist looking for an interface for live performance. The two balanced mic/instrument/line inputs include several enhancements not found on the other interfaces we examined:
- An ACTIVE – PASSIVE pick-up selector to matches your guitar pickups to achieve ideal gain levels;
- PURE – JFET instrument selector to keep the sound totally clean or add subtle saturation;
- A unique Z-TONE control to vary the input impedance from 2.2 k to 1M ohms to radically change your instrument tone;
Five-segment ladder-style LED meters make monitoring input or output levels a breeze. And the monitor outputs can be varied from the input to the output, or anywhere in between.
In addition to four balanced line outputs with 1/4-inch TRS jack, there is a separate “Amp Out” with its own volume control. After you record a track, you can output the clean signal directly to your amp or any best guitar pedal boards, then mic it up and input it in the AXE I/O’s mic preamps.
This best audio interface also features a built-in guitar tuner is included right on the front panel. And footswitch/pedal jacks let you control functions of your AXE I/O remotely.
The included software bundle, tailored especially toward guitarists, is quite impressive. It includes Ableton Live 10 Lite, AmpliTube 4 Deluxe amplifier modeling software, AXE I/O control software.
It also includes a suite of ten IK Multimedia special effects plugins: Vintage Compressor/Limiter Model 670, EQP-1A Vintage Tube Program Equalizer, White 2A Leveling Amplifier, Black 76 Limiting Amplifier, White Channel, Mic Room, Tape Echo, De-Esser, CSR Room and ONE.
- Adjustable impedance, pickup selector, and saturation control are ideal for guitarists.
- The software package provides substantial control over guitar tone.
- Large five-stage LED meters are easy to read.
- Higher price for guitar-focused features may not be relevant for music producers in general.
6 Focusrite Clarett 2Pre
Focusrite’s Clarett 2Pre is a big brother to the Scarlett 2i4, with more features as well as a heftier, though still reasonable price tag.
For one, it has more inputs. Not only are there two balanced analog mic/instrument/line ins and four balanced output, but it includes an ADAT light-pipe connection that provides eight additional optical inputs and outputs.
The mic preamps are special, too. Designed especially for the Clarett range, they can deliver ample gain with low noise and distortion. In addition, they include an “Air” switch that turns on an analog model of the classic Focusrite ISA transformer-based preamps.
Of course, the Clarett 2Pre also provides MIDI In and Out, and a headphone output with a dedicated volume control. And then there’s the impressive collection of included software…
First of all, there’s Focusrite Control, a brand-new software mixer for easy configuration of your monitoring and routing setups. With its traditional mixer layout, it gives immediate access to internal hardware functions.
Also included is an outstanding collection of world-class Time and Tone Bundle plug-in bundle from Softube, with TSAR-1R Reverb, Tube Delay, and Saturation Knob.
And if that isn’t enough, with this Best Audio Interface you also get the Red 2 and Red 3 Plug-in Suite. These accurately model Focusrite’s classic Red range of hardware equalizers and compressors. They’re available in AAX, AU and VST formats, so they work with every popular Digital Audio Workstation.
And rounding off this amazing bundle is Ableton Live Lite, 2 gigabytes of Loopmasters samples, and your choice of one XLN Addictive Keys virtual instrument.
- Sweet-sounding Focusrite preamps.
- Optical input and output.
- Amazing software bundle.
- Relatively expensive for only two analog inputs.
7 Apogee Element 46
The Apogee brand has for years been well-known to audio professionals, and their audio interfaces are found in many of the world’s best recording studios. The Apogee Element 46 audio interface takes the best features of the company’s high-end products and puts them into a simple enclosure, delivering ultimate recording quality and performance at a remarkably affordable price.
All the other audio interfaces reviewed here connect to your host computer through a USB interface. But the Element 46 utilizes Macintosh’s high-speed Thunderbolt interface instead. Thunderbolt offers rock-solid stability and amazing low-latency performance, as low as 1.41 milliseconds round trip.
Used with Logic Pro X digital software, Element 46 hardware input parameters can be adjusted directly within the Mixer view.
Element 46 provides four analog inputs with world-class preamps, plus 8 plus 8 ADAT optical inputs. Front-panel input connectors accept either standard 1/4-inch or professional XLR plugs. Also provided are dual headphone outputs.
Word clock inputs and output can synchronize the clock that controls the D-to-A and A-to-D converters to all other devices in a system. In a professional setup, an extremely stable master clock is often used to sync all the digital devices together for greater accuracy.
Included is Element control software for Macintosh, providing control of hardware parameters including analog input gain, output level, and low latency monitoring.
- Extremely accurate digital-to-analog (DA) and AD conversion.
- Outstanding mic preamps.
- Word clock for professional synchronization.
- Very low latency.
- Only two analog outputs.
- Higher cost.
8 RME Fireface UFX II
Rounding out this comparison for the best audio interface is the RME Fireface UFX II. The flagship of RME’s audio interface line, this one has everything: 12 analog inputs including four world-class preamps, 16 channels of ADAT optical I/O, stereo AES EBU digital I/O, not one but two MIDI In/Out channels, and two switchable headphone outputs.
The front panel features a high-resolution LED display of selectable inputs or outputs, while a series of “state” lights keep you informed as to which devices are active. And a DUREC (Direct USB Recording) connector enables backup of up 76 audio channels simultaneously to your USB Flash Drive.
Meanwhile, word clock input and output connectors on the back make it possible to synchronize the Fireface with a master clock.
Fireface UFX II comes with an impressive suite of professional software. TotalMix FX is an incredibly flexible mixer application for Macintosh or iOS. TotalMix Remote enables network control of the interface. Also included is DIGICheck, which is an outstanding test, measurement, and analysis tool.
- Lots of I/O.
- Word clock.
- Two MIDI channels.
- Excellent suite of utility software.
Best Audio Interface Buyers Guide
A Little Tech Talk to Help You Decide
If you’re new to digital audio production, some of the technical terms can seem daunting. Never fear, they are explained here:
Several different kinds of devices can be plugged into an audio interface’s inputs. Microphones (mics) have a very low-level signal and must be amplified with a high-quality preamplifier, or preamp before being digitized. The fidelity of the preamps is very important for getting good recordings.
An important measurement of preamp quality is the amount of total amplification, or gain, measured in decibels (dB), with the more, the better. Another is signal to noise ratio, also measured in dB, with a quiet preamp measuring 110 dB or greater.
High-fidelity condenser microphones also require a power source, usually 48 volts. Most mic preamps provide this power through the mic cable.
An instrument input like an electric guitar is also low level, but different from a microphone. Line inputs are higher-level signals from a synthesizer, the best audio mixers or other devices. Front-panel analog input usually has push-button switches to select the correct input type.
Different connectors are possible. Professional applications use 3-pin locking XLR connectors. More common but less physically robust are 1/4-inch TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) plugs with three electrically isolated regions. Both of these provide a balanced connection which cancels any hum picked up from nearby transformers. Also in use are consumer-grade RCA connectors, which are smaller and provide unbalanced connections with potentially more hum.
There are also several formats for digital signals. However, the details aren’t too important here, but some of the significant formats are AES/EBU and S/PDIF, which use standard wire cables and connectors. And also ADAT Lightpipe, which carries up to 8 channels along a fiber optic cable.
In case you didn’t know, MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It’s used to connect, synthesizers, drum machines, mixing controllers and similar devices together or to a host computer.
Audio Quality: Bits, Samples, And Clocks
The quality of audio recording and playback is determined primarily by three factors.
The first is the sample rate, which is how often a digital snapshot of the audio level is made. Commercial CDs use a sample rate of 44,100 samples per second (44.1 kilohertz, or kHz), which for various complicated reasons is enough to give accurate audio reproduction up to 20,000 hertz, the very upper limit of human hearing.
But professional audio is often recorded at faster sample rates so special effects like pitch-shifting can be applied without causing distortion. All audio interfaces reviewed can sample as high as 192 kHz.
The second variable is bit depth, a measure of the resolution of each sample. CD’s have 16-bit samples, but 24 bits provides a more accurate snapshot and is better for professional audio work.
Finally, the stability of the master clock is important. All of the audio interfaces we reviewed have good, stable clocks. However, in professional studios, there is usually an extremely stable (and expensive) separate master clock module that controls and synchronizes all the other digital modules, using a word clock connection.
Latency and Interface Speed
Another important consideration is latency. This is the time it takes for an input to be digitized, the samples placed in a temporary storage space called a buffer of 32 up to several thousand samples, then reconverted to an analog signal. However, if it is too long, the delay can be frustrating.
Faster interfaces between the audio interface and the host computer, higher sample rates, and smaller buffers all help to minimize latency. However, most of the audio interfaces reviewed connect to the host computer using USB 2.0, which can transfer 480 million bits per second (Mbps). But Apple’s Thunderbolt interface can handle 20 billion bits per second (Gbps), 40 times faster than USB 2.0.
So What’s The Best Audio Interface?
To be clear, every one of the products reviewed here is excellent, offering professional-quality audio, compatibility with popular audio editing applications and attractive selections of free software. Therefore you really can’t go wrong with any of them. And if one has exactly the features you need, at the right price, go for it!
Before we announce our choice for the best all-around audio interface, we also have a couple of honorable mentions:
First off, you should definitely consider the…
…if you’re a guitarist looking to expand your live rig or to record your instrument in the studio. Special features and an outstanding software bundle take most of the guesswork out of recording the perfect guitar track.
Secondly, it’s hard to beat the…
…for professional studio work. With analog and multiple digital input and output formats, four pro-level mic preamps, word clock for syncing to video and dual headphone monitoring outputs, this interface can do it all. Therefore, it’s a great choice if you have the budget.
And for all of you looking for an audio interface with the best combination of performance and cost, we have a winner! It’s the…
It delivers the most bang for the buck for general use in music and audio production, when 2-channel stereo in and out is enough. Plus, it looks good on the desktop, the preamps sound great, the connectors are sturdy, and it includes two popular audio applications.
Best of all, the price is very reasonable. Tascam has a very long and successful history in the pro audio business. This is because they consistently deliver excellent products for pros and semi-pros on a budget. For all these reasons, we believe the US-2×2 audio interface offers the best trade-off between outstanding quality and features, and reasonable price.