Without an audio interface, you simply can’t record optimally. Your gear is essentially missing half of its power and capabilities without one of these in your studio. The best audio interfaces help us with sound quality, phantom power and amplification, more overall control of our gear, organization of all of our inputs\outputs into one device, and lastly make the pesky concept of latency disappear. Today we highlight our top 10 audio interface picks available in the market and give you some info to help ease your shopping adventures.
What is an Audio Interface?
So you’re looking to solidify your home recording studio with the best audio interface? To us, this is one of the most important parts of making music and we consider it to be the star on top of the Christmas tree. An audio interface is a device which connects your various audio equipment to your computer (microphones, MIDI keyboards, studio monitor speakers, etc). Some have even called them “external sound cards” since the components built into computers can’t make the cut (for good reason — they’re typically too expensive or aren’t big enough).
In terms of capabilities (and it really depends on which model you go with), they can provide phantom power to amplify your microphones, hook up any instrument or controller you’ve got via MIDI in\out, and use XLR ports for microphones. Audio interfaces convert the analog information into digital signals for your production computer or music laptop to recognize and lay down into your songs.
Ultimately, it helps get you that studio-quality sound that helps separate you from the newbies. Relying on consumer-grade sound cards in your PC or Mac isn’t ideal as it often gives us interference and delays in sounds — and to their credit, merely can’t fit powerful interfaces inside their computers. Audio interfaces are the standard sound card for any type of studio. Once I hooked up my audio interface to my setup, the headache immediately went away because I was not only more organized (rid a lot of cable clutter) but was able to record in a quicker, versatile and realistic manner.
When producing music, my workload decreased, my songs sounded better and my overall creativity shot through the roof since my process was more efficient. Lastly and most importantly, the quality of my recording tracks increased dramatically – microphones were more clear, guitars crisp, and the overall sound I heard was better for mixing and mastering later on in my DAW.
How to Choose Your Audio Interface
When it comes to the best audio interface, it really depends on a few factors. We’d love to give you a straight answer, but it is too dependent on a lot of elements you must take into consideration when shopping for the device. It depends on what you need.
- What is your budget? Most of these are relatively affordable, but you can always go higher for some powerful features. We’ve seen audio interfaces go within price ranges from $30 to $2,000. We tried to grab a few from each price-point to give you options in your search.
- What type of connectivity? You can either go the more popular USB route, FireWire or even advanced Thunderbolt. The more advanced you go away from USB, typically the more money you’ll have to drop; however, it may be worth the investment if you have the cash.
- How many inputs and outputs will you need? This is something to really take into consideration not only for now but the future as well. A lot of musicians who record multiple instruments at once such as with a band need numerous inputs and outputs to handle all of the equipment. Of course in my position, i’m a one-man band, so i’m fine with fewer ins since I record everything separately. Do you need a few microphone inputs? Additional USB ports? MIDI connectivity? Try to look at the gear around you and plan what you envision hooking up to your audio interface. If you do plan on buying more gear in the future, buy an interface you can foresee needing a few extra connections for your future studio.
- Is there a software bundle you need? Some of these come with virtual instruments, effects, and even digital audio workstations. Is that important to you?
Our Picks for Top 10 Best Audio Interfaces
The following is our list of top 10 best audio interfaces for both Mac and PC. Do some sifting through as we provide the retail price for your budget, the compatibility in terms of connectivity, how many inputs and outputs, as well as overall features for comparing. We tried to cover all ranges, all connectivity as well as I/O options. Let us know which one you ended up going with/already have!
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII
Up next, we have a mac only interface and this thing is extremely powerful. It’s a 2 x 6 thunderbolt connection and the audio conversion is quite telling at 24-bit/192 kHz for some of the clearest, zero-latency sound possible right now. It’s got real-time UAD processing so the tracking with compressors, EQ’s, and amps for various instruments is the real deal. It’s only compatible with Mac but it’s one of the best out there — Universal Audio brings us quality builds that’ll last you a very long time, so this is an investment.
You’ll need a thunderbolt cable for this, but it’s worth it if you’re going the full 9 — you won’t be let down by the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII if you have the cash. It’s one of the best, pretty famous and will be for quite some time.
Compatible with: Mac only
- 24-bit/192 kHz audio conversion
- Headphone and guitar input on front
- Preamp/monitor switches
- Dedicated master volume knob
- 2 XLR/TSR mic ins
- Realtime UAD Processing
- Comes with plug-in bundle (analog classics)
- Two mic/line pre-amps
- Thunderbolt connection
Solid State Logic SSL2
We’ve had a chance to use this audio interface since it first came out and have been extremely happy with the overall quality it brings to the table in such a lower price-range. SSL of course is synonymous with higher-end consoles and other pro-grade analog music equipment, but when they entered the interface game with a price-point competitive for home studios, we were all ears.
The SSL 2 has 2 ins and 2 outs (both mic/line/instru pres), is USB bus-powered, has a decent software bundle Avid, Ableton, Native Instrument stuff, Loopcloud 1.5GB of samples, and some other vox FX like De-esser, EQ and more), and a feature called ‘4K Legacy Mode’. This legacy mode is a neat little button available for both channels you can press that provides some nice little shine to your recording, specifically implementing characteristics of their legendary 4000 series signals. It’s a bit of a higher-end EQ boost to give it some shine. The Solid State Logic SSL2 is here to stay.
Compatible with: Mac and Windows
- Audio quality: 24-bit / 192 kHz (AKM converters)
- Front panel with monitoring and read meter control
- 4K legacy mode (4000 series sound)
- Heavy-duty chassis
- Neutrik connectors
- Alps pots
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
This is in our opinion one of the best budget-friendly audio interfaces out there by a mile. This interface by Focusrite is best for home and semi-pro studios (I have two friends who make music full-time that use this). The Scarlet 2i2 gives us a great quality microphone pre-amp, a very rugged build for stability as well as portability, and quite a few selections for ins and outs. The ‘2i2’ name basically means that it has two inputs and two outputs, as well as two pre-amps built-in (their other models you’ll see have similar names which relate to the connectivity options). Highly talked about this is the amp quality, compared to mechanisms found in a lot of condenser and ribbon mics and more expensive interfaces. It’s ultimately just a simple interface for a great cost — one of the most popular choices out there if you read the user reviews.
Another huge plus with this one is that it comes with Ableton Live Lite, a very popular digital audio workstation among music heads. This is especially perfect if you’re looking for some software to start recording with or merely want to make the change over to one of the most popular pieces of software today — Ableton coming along with the package makes this a must. USB powered here, although it doesn’t have any MID ins or outs which bums me out but there are ways around that.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is the best audio interface we’ve recommended to our readers numerous times for a reason — just make sure that it will cover your future needs in terms of connectivity if you plan on expanding later.
You can also check out the Focusrite Saffire Pro interface which is a step up (has some MIDI ins\outs and FireWire connectivity) but costs a bit more. There’s also a ton of other Scarlett models that pertain to ins and outs as stated previously — for only a few more bucks check out their Scarlett Studio Audio Bundle (comes with a mic, headphones, and the interface and it made first in our recording studio bundles guide).
Compatible with: Mac, PC, all hardware
- USB connectivity
- A/D resolution: 24-bit/96kHz
- Inputs: Two XLR/TRS combo
- Direct monitor control on front panel (switch between headphones and speakers easily)
- Comes with Ableton Live Lite and Scarlett bundle (processors, effects)
Mackie equipment is more tailored to DJ’s, but this audio interface is very solid for the price, giving us two high-quality Onyx mic pre-amps that are very powerful. Gives us some distortion protection due to its high-headroom design. Great zero-latency recording but what stands out to us is the amp gain control: great for electric guitars and dynamic microphones. You can crank each line in (1 and 2) up to 60 dB, turn up the phantom power to max on the monitor or phones, as well as have even more controls on the front.
Standard ins and outs with two XLR and TSR. A step up from a lot of audio interfaces due to its high-quality amps. One of the best audio interfaces in the lower price-point in our opinion. We recommend the Mackie Onyx for those who need powerful amplification at an affordable price.
Compatible with: Mac and PC
- Two Onyx mic pre-amps
- Amps go up to 60 dB
- High-headroom design
- USB powered
- Separate studio monitor/headphone outputs
- Comes with Tracktion 3 production software
Here’s another one of the best audio interfaces for the money. This is a very solid model in terms of build and overall supply of necessary ins and outs, as M-Audio gear usually brings to the table. It’s USB powered and offers great phantom power for microphones and guitars, has insert jacks on each channel, and lastly comes with Avid Pro Tools Express and Ignite creation software by AIR. If you’re looking for a good software combo this is great, otherwise it’s still a solid audio interface as it offers us the essentials: 2 XLR, 2 TSR and MIDI ins/outs…what else do you need?
Unless you’re using and recording multiple instruments at a time, anything else is rather unnecessary. The M-Audio AIR is a solid audio interface for those looking for only a few ins and outs and some clear audio quality on top of it all. It’s pretty affordable and rivals the Scarlett model we previously recommended in terms of price.
Compatible with: Mac and PC
- 24-bit / 48 kHz digital audio processor
- Very little latency when monitoring
- Solid aluminum build
- 2 XLR inputs, 2 balanced 1/4″, MIDI in and out
- Selectable phantom power
- Headphone out on front
- Comes with Pro Tools and Ignite by AIR
Another 2 x 2 to check out here, and this one is a more simple and budget-friendly audio interface than many others. PreSonus gear has a very positive reputation around the equipment world and the AudioBox is a favorite interface among many. You get two very high quality pre-amps built-in, a nice small steel build, as well as two MIDI int/outs on the front. The back has your TSR ins, a USB port for power and connectivity as well as a left and right stereo inputs. Lastly, a headphone jack (on the back) although I usually like these on the front, but oh well. As it’s more budget-friendly, it isn’t recommended for those with instruments that need more than around 35 decibel of gain or headphones above 100 in impedance. Keep this in mind as the power is great for a lower price-point audio interface but it isn’t jam-packed either.
This is great for those on a budget and need the standard capabilities of an interface, and even though it doesn’t have any fancy digital conversion (like the Apollo Twin), you’re getting what you pay for. The PreSonus AudioBox is considered to be another one of the best audio interface picks if you wanted a simple solution and also need some software alongside your setup (it comes with their Studio One digital audio workstation which isn’t necessarily a heavy-hitter in the software community, but can get the job done if you need something simple and don’t have a DAW yet).
Check out our reviews on their latest models, the AudioBox iOne and AudioBox iTwo if you’re looking for some different alternatives.
Compatible with: PC and Mac
- Rugged steel build
- Combo XLR mic/balanced 1/4″ input
- 48 volts of phantom power
- 24-bit resolution and 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96 kHz sampling rate
- MIDI in\out
- USB 2.0 port
- Comes with Studio One software
Apogee electronics brings us one of the best audio interfaces for Mac. It’s rather simplistic in terms of connectivity, but the reason it’s at such a high cost is because of the amp. It goes up to 63 dB which is pretty high for its size. Another plus is the 48 volt phantom power but it also has a built-in condenser microphone if you think you’ll be using it for that. You can merely mount it and use it as a mic while having an audio interface at hand at the same time. It doesn’t have any MIDI ins or outs or even XLR ports but it does give us a 1/8″ for headphones. What most people do is use a converter cable which can be plugged in to an external microphone, MIDI keyboard or controller, etc.
Check this one out as it gives us a bit of a different spin to audio interfaces. Don’t let the small size of the Apogee ONE make you assume it isn’t powerful — it’ll up the quality of your music like no other (if you’re on Mac, that is).
Although it’s two times the price, also check out the Apogee Duet audio interface for some power if you’ve got the dough. We review their new Avid Pro Tools Duet by Apogee as well, which is a new interface out that’s been paired up by both companies for a new spin on the interface.
Compatible with: Mac only (and iPad)
- A/D and D/A conversion: 44.1/48 kHz 24-bit
- Single input channel
- Internal condenser microphone
- XLR microphone pre-amp
- Encoder knob (gain control, output level control)
- Maestro software included
Avid MBox + Pro Tools Express
If you want Pro Tools and one of the biggest industry standards out there, we recommend going with this. Avid‘s bundle is a bit more expensive than the budget-friendly audio interfaces we’ve listed thus far but it’s very worth your money if you’re interested in investing in a DAW software that many call it the best — the golden Pro Tools (Express is not the full version, keep in mind). The Mbox is a very solid interface not just because it is Pro Tools’ sidekick — it comes with 4 x 4 channels of ins and outs (two XLR mic/line combos, two 1/4″ inputs and outputs, as well as a headphone out and MIDI ins/outs).
You have phantom power of the standard 48 volts for your condenser microphone, has a nice soft-clip limiter and if you play the guitar, it’s got a built-in tuner with some on-board effects. A nice package if you’re looking for a big punch. The Avid Mbox is great for semi-pro and even some professional studios.
Compatible with: Mainly built for Mac, but can with Windows 10
- Two XLR mic/line combo inputs
- Two 1/4″ DI inputs
- Stereo S/P/DIF digital in and out
- MIDI in and out (1×1)
- Monitor control
- Dedicated volume knob
- Built-in guitar tuner
- Comes with Pro Tools Express
Sleek and stable. This interface by Lexicon Pro has a lot of positive reviews and for good reason. At a super low retail price, it’s got one XLR mic, two TRS and one Hi-Z input. The only thing we’re missing here is the lack of phantom power as well as MIDI in and out, but if you don’t need these the price of this is a steal, especially for the audio quality for under $100. What’s highlighted with this is the low latency giving you no delays with recording, pretty much the benchmark of an interface so if that wasn’t possible we wouldn’t even list it here. This is basically a solid audio interface for recording instruments that don’t need phantom power as well as hooking up some studio monitors to your rig.
The Lexicon Alpha is perfect if you’re OK with switching cables to different equipment when recording, such as between a guitar and a keyboard. There is also some pretty decent software included as well with Cubase LE 4 and their Lexicon Pantheon VST reverb plug-in.
Compatible with: Mac and PC
- 44.1kHz to 48kHz sample rates
- Record up to two tracks at once
- Inputs: One (1) XLR, Two (2) TRS, One (1) Hi-Z
- Two TRS & RCA outs
- USB powered
- Headphone output on back
- Low-noise mic pre-amp
- Comes with Cuba LE4 and their Pantheon reverb VST
Native Instruments Komplete Audio
We’re huge fans of Native Instruments equipment and software, and this is a competitor to the Avid bundle we’ve listed previously. They were a top pick in our best VST plug-in guide for a reason. The Komplete Audio package here is very powerful, not only due to the solid build that will help with longevity but because of the software that it comes with — Cubase LE 6 (a solid DAW), Traktor LE 2 and Komplete Elements, giving you over 1k VST’s and effects. As far as connectivity goes, you’ve got some decent plugs — 2 balanced XLR’s, 2 balanced 1/4″ TRS, four balanced outputs, a MIDI in/out, and it’s USB powered for hassle-free hook ups with a dedicated volume knob up to for convenience.
This is an all around great package to look at if you’ve got the dough, especially if you’re looking to add some instruments and effects to your arsenal as well. The sound quality is very clear and reliable in terms of latency reduction. The Native Instruments Komplete Audio is little cheaper than Avid’s bundle but you get Cubase instead of Pro Tools.
Compatible with: Windows and Mac
- 24-bit/96 kHz processor
- MIDI in and out
- 2 balanced mic/line/instrument XLR
- 2 balanced line 1/4″ TRS
- 4 balanced analog outputs 1/4″ TRS
- Two mic inputs\ headphone output
- 48 volts of phantom power
- Direct monitoring with mono input switch
- LED status lights
- USB powered