Table of Contents
Before we get to our list of the best audio interfaces we think an intro to why you really need one and what to look for in an audio interface is important. If you would rather skip this then scroll down directly to the list!
What’s an audio interface, and why do I need one anyway?
A frequently asked question, especially from beginners & musicians new to computer-based recording is “What’s an audio interface, and why do I need one?”
It’s a great question! Say you’ve been strumming a few chords on your new guitar and you’ve even learned a few of your favourite songs. There’s an idea bouncing around in your head and you’d like to record it and make a fully realized song, but you’ve no idea how to get the sound out of your guitar and into your computer.
That’s where an audio interface comes in. These handy devices let you connect your guitar, amplifier, or vocal mics to your computer. With this functionality, you can get beautifully clear signals from an instrument that can be recorded and mixed into a polished track.
But why would you need an external audio interface for this? Can’t you use the sound card built directly into your laptop or computer? That is an audio interface of sorts, right? Well, kind of.
The sound card built into your computer is indeed an audio interface built to handle light applications, such as casual listening and internet meetings. For any sort of serious music production or recording, though, this type of interface is far from satisfactory. The pre-amplifiers, connectors, latency, and overall quality of consumer-grade sound cards are just not built to deliver the best recording and monitoring experience for musicians.
Additionally, the number of inputs and outputs offered are usually lacking, to say the least. There might be a line-in input and a stereo 3.5mm headphone jack output. That’s it.
For example, if you’re a singer-songwriter crooning away with an electric guitar à la John Mayer, you’ll need at least two inputs, both of which you won’t find on a sound card.
• A balanced XLR input for your microphone
• A “Hi-Z” line input for your electric
You’ll also need a good quality monitoring output that allows you to listen back to what you’re recording with minimal latency and a clear audio signal. The best audio interfaces are built to provide a high-quality experience all-around. The connectors, circuit design, and the components used here are all designed to minimize latency, reduce cross-talk and curtail noise.
How do I shop for a good audio interface?
So, you’ve set aside a nice chunk of change for a recording setup so you can turn your musical ideas into the next big hit. What should you actually look for in an audio interface that makes it ideal for you?
Firstly, your needs are probably pretty basic. There’s no need to splurge on a 24-input interface when two inputs will do just fine. You have to ask yourself what your needs are. Do you have a basic acoustic guitar? You’re going to need a microphone, XLR cable, and an XLR input on your interface to record that. It’s a similar situation for vocals. If you’re recording electric guitar, bass, or a similar instrument with pickups, then you’ll need a Hi-Z line input.
The Z here refers to impedance of the instrument, and to put it simply, connecting your electric guitar to this type of an input ensures that you get a faithful representation of your sound into your digital audio workstation (DAW) of choice. Plug your guitar in and riff away!
Working with microphones to capture the sound of an amplifier, acoustic guitar, or your own vocals? You’ll likely need an XLR input and a similar XLR cable, which is a fancy way of saying that your microphone input won’t be noisy. A single XLR input is useful enough; two inputs, however, open up a world of versatility. Mic up an acoustic guitar or a drum kit in stereo for a wide sound, hook up two different microphones to an amplifier and dial in the perfect tone, or record yourself playing guitar and singing at the same time. Many interfaces come with a combo jack that combines an XLR and a line input.
If you got yourself a condenser microphone, your interface will need to provide phantom power, too. That’s what the little switch labelled “48v” is for.
If you find yourself wishing to process audio from your computer out to outboard gear, like pedals, samplers, and effects processor units, then you’ll need line-out and line-in jacks.
Ideally, you should make a list of gear that you plan to get. Look up the connections they support, decide which gear you want to leave permanently or simultaneously plugged in and then match everything up to the interface you’re looking at. If you can afford to throw down some extra cash, then it might be a good idea to buy an interface with some more connectivity than you need right now. This allows for future expansion in gear.
ADAT and S/PDIF are technologies that allow for further expansion of an audio interface. These connectors aren’t usually present on interfaces with fewer than 4 I/O ports.
What kind of sound quality do I need?
The amount of cash you spend generally reflects the quality of audio that you can record. That being said, the bang-for-buck factor of cheap audio interfaces these days is astonishing.
Here’s an explanation of commonly quoted key specs to help you demystify what they mean, and how the quality of audio recorded will be affected by them. The best budget audio interfaces will aim to strike a balance between performance and quality.
Bit depth: This refers to the smallest “step” of audio level variation a codec can handle. In simpler terms, the dynamic range of audio can be loosely defined using this term. The standard 16-bit depth offers a dynamic range of 96 dB. While this is an acceptable spec, noise and artifacts produced by digital processing will be evident, especially during the quiet segments.
Professional audio equipment offers 24-bit recording with 144 dB of dynamic range, removing virtually the whole noise floor and offering a huge amount of dynamic range. This allows for the capture of extremely quiet or loud parts without any loss of information.
Sample rate: The sample rate refers to how often a data point of sound is captured by an audio format. The commonly used 44.1kHz polls 44,100 data points in a single second. This number also effectively defines the upper limit of frequency captured by equipment. For 44.1kHz, this means up to 22.05kHz, right up to the range of human hearing. It’s not that simple, though.
Pro-level equipment offers up to 192kHz recording. Working with 192kHz audio might seem like a waste of data and processing power, but any signal processing made by your DAW affects this sound in a different way. Here’s a detailed explanation for nerds like us.
Working with 16-bit, 44.1kHz based audio processing is perfectly okay for home use, but any commercial releases will always use 24-bit, 192kHz audio.
DAC quality: Converting digital ones and zeroes to analog sound signals and vice-versa is handled by the Digital Audio Converter (DAC). The quality of these components is as important as anything else in this list. Quality components here ensure that the audio coming in and out of your computer is faithfully represented in your monitors.
Additional inputs and outputs on your interface will enable you to record multiple devices at once, convenient for recording live performances and entire bands. We’ve kept this list limited to one or two input interfaces, because the price climbs higher and higher as more inputs get added.
Most of the interfaces listed below come bundled with some software, either for recording or providing useful effects like delays, distortions, amplifier models, and reverbs. Very handy, indeed.
You should know what you need at this point, so let’s just jump right in.
The Best Audio Interfaces
Here's the short version
- The Focusrite Scarlett Solo is the best audio interface for beginners. It’s an excellent interface that also packs in good build quality. It’s the best-selling audio interface the world over, with good reason. Get the 2i2 model if you want slightly better connectivity.
- The Behringer UM2 is the best budget-oriented interface. It’s a cheap audio interface with build quality that matches the price. You’ll also have to be careful with your gain settings, but it works and the audio you get from it is totally usable, which is all you really need.
- For those with a larger budget, The Solid State Logic SSL2+ Audio Interface combines a legendary brand name and high quality
Our Top Audio Interfaces
1. Scarlett Focusrite Solo
- Fantastic build and audio quality
- Sleek, small chassis
- Great bang for buck
- USB-C support
- The Air button really does shine up recordings
- Could use a bit more connectivity: See the Scarlett 2i2 if you want to keep your options open for future expansion.
- ASIO drivers can be frustratingly glitchy sometimes
The Scarlett Solo Gen 3 might just be the best-selling audio interface right now, and it earns the spot. It checks all the right boxes; An XLR, a Hi-Z instrument input, phantom power, direct monitoring output, a stereo line out at the back, and 24-bit 192kHz recording support. It even comes with a switchable “Air” mode, which emulates the legendary ISA preamps that Focusrite are known for.
The driver support often leaves a bit to be desired, though. ASIO drivers sometimes don’t play well, resulting in crackles and pops that require a soft reset to clear, or a lowering of sample rate. These are few and far in between, however, and the Gen 3 claims improved stability.
It comes bundled in with Focusrite plugins and a simplified version of ProTools to get you started right away. The slick looks and rugged metal build don’t hurt it either. Focusrite have a real winner on their hands here, if you can ignore the occasional glitches.
2. Steinberg UR12
- Great audio quality, almost on par with the Scarlett Solo
- Slightly cheaper than its Focusrite competitor
- Metal chassis and great feeling knobs
- USB-C support
- Great compatibility with ASIO drivers
- A similar lack of connectivity to the Solo
Steinberg knows what they’re doing when it comes to professional digital audio solutions. They’ve developed the VST standard, ASIO drivers, and Cubase. Owned by Yamaha, the company has some serious audio engineering pedigree up its sleeve.
It’s no wonder then, that the audio interface they’ve made sounds great, is built well, and uses ASIO drivers efficiently to remove every bit of latency out of your system. Bundled along with the UR12 is a copy of Cubase and some other neat digital effects.
The knobs especially feel really smooth and the quality of the recordings is almost as good as the Scarlett Solo. Go for this if you want to shave a bit off the price tag of the Solo.
If you’re looking for more connectivity, the upscaled UR22 features not only two combo jacks, but MIDI In/Out as well.
3. Behringer U-PHORIA UM2
- It works, and it delivers usable audio
- Really, really cheap
- The audio quality is far from satisfactory
- The background noise is very noticeable
- The jacks and quality of components is kind of suspect
Well, at least it works. The UM2 from Behringer, contrary to the claims on the box, is not audiophile grade equipment. If you’re on the lookout for a cheap audio interface, there’s really no other option on the market at this price range. The audio recorded from this interface sounds a bit muddy and unclear, and the noise floor is quite noticeable if the gain is turned up. The same noise floor can also become a problem later down the line where it’ll plague your mix. Adding compression, distortion, limiting, and other effects will just exacerbate the noise problems in the mixdown.
It’ll still produce perfectly usable sounds, mind you. You’re just going to have to be more careful with your gain staging, and the usage of your effects.
Get this if you’re looking for the best budget audio interface and just need to get your ideas down into the computer.
4. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
- It’s a Scarlett, and comes with all the same features that the Solo had
- Now featuring two XLR/Line In combo jacks
- Not much
We’re big fans of the Scarlett range of gear from Focusrite. The 2i2 improves upon the Solo by offering two combo jacks for way more versatility with your gear setup. The rest of the features are similar to the solo, and offer identical levels of performance. You really can’t go wrong with this.
5. Audient EVO 4
- Damn, that’s a nice-looking piece of gear. Very pretty LED lights and the best knob in this entire list
- SmartGain functionality simplifies your workflow
- Slick and easy to use UI
- Great audio quality
- Build quality is just about acceptable. The plastics bend and creak when pressure is applied to them.
- Would’ve been way more ergonomic to operate if it was tilted towards the user
Audient is another legendary company, known for its high-end equipment. Their foray into slightly more budget-oriented interfaces has still made quite a splash. Sticking to the same crisp, excellent audio quality they’re known for, Audient set out to build an interface that was simple to use but had all the excellence and capabilities of their high-end equipment.
The big knob in the center acts as the control for everything, and is assigned to different functions when the corresponding buttons on the interface are pressed. The big green button on the side activates the SmartGain functionality. This little feature automagically sets the input gain for whatever input is selected and makes sure that your signals don’t clip.
6. NI Komplete Audio 2
- Sounds great, which is to be expected from any Native Instruments product
- The knob on top feels smooth and satisfying to turn
- Comes with Ableton Live Lite plus a bunch of NI freebies
- Two combo jacks mean a nice amount of versatility
- Sleek looks and a great UI komplete the package (ha!)
- Glossy plastic attracts dust, fingerprints & scratches. Won’t look too pretty in a few years’ time
- The host/input blend knob only affects the front headphone output, not the back monitor output. No direct monitoring option either, which you do get in the Focusrite
This small, sleek package from Native Instruments is an outstanding audio interface at an even better price. Built out of reassuringly sturdy yet surprisingly light plastic, the Komplete Audio 2 is an attractive looking interface that’s good enough for anything you can reasonably throw at it.
Our only gripe with it is the puzzling absence of a switchable direct monitoring solution, and the fact that the input/host blend knob only affects the front headphone jack output. These weird omissions keep this interface from coming out on top of the others, but if they don’t bother you, then you can’t really go wrong with it.
7. Solid State Logic SSL2+
- SSL pedigree
- Amazing build quality
- Great connectivity; MIDI I/O is good to have
- Best sound quality in this list, bar none
- 4k button really makes instruments sparkle
- Software bundle includes a ton of resources
- Buttons can be slightly scratchy
Solid State Logic have quite literally invented the modern mixing desk, and they aim to bring a little magic from their 4000 series mixers down into your studio with the SSL2+ interface. The 4k button adds a bit of high-end analog sparkle to the inputs and can really make your mix shine. You get what you pay for here, and the build quality and audio output speaks for itself. Really high-quality components used in here. This is probably the best audio interface in this list, in terms of raw sound quality.
The bundled software is powerful as well, and sets up a nice little environment for you to play around in.
If you have some spare cash burning a hole in your pocket, go for this.
8. Audient iD4
- Audient’s tried and tested Class A pre-amps have stellar sound quality
- Great build quality
- Not much else to boast about. Some extra little features at the price would’ve been nice to have.
Featuring a two jack I/O interface, the Audient iD4 includes class A mic preamps from the company’s high-end consoles, and high-performance DACs too, in a metal casing that’ll dent the floor if dropped.
There’s iOS recording included to boot, and dual headphone monitor outputs to share with another musician friend.
The rest of the feature set may be a little lack-luster for the price. Audient really has gone all-in on making a simple, robust and good sounding interface, and it has succeeded here.
Go for this if you have some budget to spare but the SSL2+ is just a little too rich for your blood.
At the end of the day, my advice to you would be to get an audio interface and just start making music. All the tools we use serve only that end-goal, so you should pick an interface that won’t limit you and get on with the creativity.
Think of how long your interface will last you before you make the investment. Make sure it’ll serve your production requirements for at least a few years.
A good audio interface can be an invaluable tool to have in your studio, so choose carefully!