Whether you’re recording rock bands, or doing in-the-box production, we’re willing to bet you need an audio interface.
If you have monitors, you need an audio interface, same goes for professional mixing headphones. If you want to do any recording and need mic preamps, it’s safe to say, a good audio interface is a necessary part of your music production kit. With an over-saturated market, the options for USB audio interfaces are seemingly endless.
To narrow down the search, we’ve compiled a list of what we think are the best audio interfaces on the market today. Whether you’re just beginning and need your first, or you want an upgrade to something more fancy, there is an audio interface here for you. So let’s look at what we think are the best audio interfaces.
Also on a related note: be sure to check out our best studio headphones guide.
Here’s is the complete list of the best audio interfaces available for music & recording:
- Audient Evo 4
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
- Motu M2
- Presonus Studio 26c
- Focusrite Scarlett 18i20
- Audient iD44
- Presonus Studio 1824c
- UAD Apollo Twin
- Motu 8 PRE-ES
- Antelope Audio Zen Tour
- RME Fireface UFX II
- Apogee Quartet
Audient Evo 4
Audient have made their name with top of the line mixing desks, which have found their way into many high-end recording studios. More recently they have been gaining a great reputation for their small-to-medium sized interfaces – the ID range.
The EVO range of Audient interfaces are not designed to replace already solid ID range of products, rather, it’s an all new and compact solution to your interface needs.
Audient have asked the question, “is the Evo 4 the worlds smallest audio interface”. While It may be larger than some mobile interfacing solutions, for an audio interface of its functionality, we’d say that this is correct.
There are two combi mic/line inputs on the back of the EVO 4, as well as one instrument level input on the front of the EVO 4. You also get two speaker outs around the back, to hook up your monitors to.
The most eye catching feature of the EVO 4 is a central main dial which controls the level of your output. The Main Knob can also be assigned to other levels, by pressing the buttons on the top panel. These buttons are marked 1 and 2, which control the indput and output levels respectively.
You don’t get a separate headphone level, so whenever you use the headphone socket, the main dial gets overriden, and starts controlling the headphone levels.
Why did we choose the Evo 4 to be on this list, rather than the already extremely popular ID4? It mainly comes down to value for money. At the budget price range, utility is more important than outright world-class sound quality.
While the ID4 sounds great, compared to it’s peers, it’s hard to look past the fact that it only has a single XLR/Line input.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
I don’t think anybody expected to not see the Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface on this list. With a masse of producers utilizing this incredible budget interface, it’s place as one of the most popular audio interfaces has been solidified.
The Scarlett range is vast and expansive, going from packages for the small home studio, to rack mounted professional recording beasts. The great thing about Focusrite is that, the quality of these units is consistent across the whole line.
The 2i2 in particular, is arguably one of the best value interfaces on the market.
The Scarlett 2i2 has 2 1/4 inch balanced TRS connectrs. This means you can easily connect your studio monitors, without experiencing any drop in audio quality.
The Scarlett 2i2 allows for 24-bit recording, with a sample size of up to 96kHz.
While the difference between 48 and 96 kHz is negligible for most producers, it can be great to have the option available.
A universal issue with most audio interfaces at this price point are pre-amps. Low quality pre-amps mean that you can start to experience a bit of hiss and noise when you turn the gain up. This is not the case with the Scarlett 2i2, which is not entirely surprising. Focusrite are known in the industry for having some of the best quality mic pre-amps.
The pre-amps you get in the most budget option of the Scarlett line, are the exact same ones that you’ll get in their top-of-the-line over $1000 interfaces.
This pre-amp quality has steadily made the Scarlett 2i2 one of the most popular interfaces for producers, over the past 10 years. While the 2i2 is not going to blow your mind, it won’t stand in your way either.
With a generation of bedroom producers choosing the 2i2 over literally anything else, the reasoning for why it’s on this list, should be clear by now.
MOTU are not known for entry-level audio interfaces. In fact, the Motu M2, is more of a niche product, than the broad appeal of the 2i2. Where it sets out to accomplish the same basic functions as a Scarlett 2i2 would, the M2 is made with electronic musicians in mind.
If you have any modular or semi-modular gear, the M2 is for you. The jack outputs of the Motu M2 are DC coupled, which means that you can run gate, note or midi signals straight to your outboard equipment.
The audio resolution the M2 offers, goes up to 192kHz. It’s also quoted as having a 120dB dynamic range at the output, which are remarkable figures at this price.
Another stand-out feature of the M2, is it’s LCD display. On most interfaces you might get a peak light or a few LEDs, but with the M2’s full-color display you have the kind of metering that can actually help you gauge levels with a degree of accuracy. You don’t get a precise measurement scale, but it’s way more useful than just being able to know if you’re clipping or not.
We have heard anecdotal evidence of there being defects with some M2 interfaces, leading to an unwanted hiss. While we can’t approve or disprove this, it might be a thing to do your own research on before taking the plunge.
Aside from that, the M2, in our opinion, is the best audio interface for producers on a budget.
PreSonus Studio 26c
The PreSonus Studio 26C is an absolute workhorse. If you want something cheap, versatile and sturdy, the Studio 26c deserves your attention.
The Studio 26c is a compact and well-built interface for small studios and mobile-recording scenarios. The recording quality exceptional compared with some of the top range interfaces, making it a great interface for a beginner, but also giving a pro sound.
Just like the M2, the Studio 26c also has DC coupled jack outputs to incorporate your modular gear quickly and easily. Another commonality between these is the 192 kHz sample rate.
However, the Studio 26c stands out from its peers with software. Along with your audio interface, you’ll also get the PreSonus Studio One Artist DAW package. Unlike most “free” versions of popular DAW’s, the one that’s bundles with most of PreSonus’ gear, is a fully featured and usable DAW.
It’s cheaper than the Motu M2 as well (by nearly $50 in fact). While on the surface, both are quite similar in terms of features, we’d still choose the M2. This is mostly due to it’s stunning audio quality and incredible build and precision.
If you’re looking for versatility however, the Studio 26c is a much safer bet for you.
If you’re just starting out in music production, and want to get the most bang for your buck, the Studio 26c won’t disappoint.
Focusrite Scarlett 18i20
Which unit in the Scarlett line-up is best for you? Well that entirely depends on your needs and budget, but at this price, the 18i20 will have you set for a long time without breaking the bank.
The 18i20 is one of the best audio interfaces, if you’re recording bands or live audio.
In addition to the 18 inputs, you get enough outputs (20) to drive two sets of stereo speakers and a 5.1 surround array, and after that, you’ll have some outputs to spare. The front panel offers dual headphone outputs with individual volume control, a speaker switcher, dimmer and a talkback button!
While the 18i20 is built for use in a rack (it’s 1RU), you can choose to not connect the supplied rack ears and use the 18i20 as a desktop interface.
Just like the rest of the Scarlett line of audio interfaces, the 18i20 features Focusrite’s incredible pre-amps.
In terms of I/O, you get a total of eight pre-amps, consisting of two combi jacks on the front that double as an instrument level in, plus six additional combi jacks on the back. If you’re planning on rack mounting, having those two front-facing inputs available for quick access can be a life-safer.
In addition to these, on the rear you’ll find ADAT connectors, to add a further eight additional optical inputs.
Add it all up and you’ve got 18 inputs and 20 outputs simultaneously, with 24-bit, 192 kHz capability, with preamps that deliver a gain range of 56 dB and a dynamic range of 111 dB.
For a great-quality interface, that will get you on the way to leading full studio sessions, without busting the wallet, look no further than the Scarlett /18i20
The ID44 is well-suited to being the centrepiece of a home or project studio.
Its compact form factor and excellent mic amps and DIs, together with its ADAT-format connectivity make it very attractive to studio rats, as well as musicians on the move.
This 20-in/24-out, 24‑bit/96kHz, USB 2 0 audio interface with its companion iD Mixer application, is a great package for both intermediate and advanced producers. The analogue input noise floor is impressively low, and stays that way right up until the gain pots reach the final few degrees of their +60dB rotation.
Each of the four inputs has quality rotaries to adjust the +60dB gain, plus switches for phantom power, -10dB pad, polarity and bass roll-off. A large central knob handles the monitor volume and other functions.
There are two other rotaries for the headphone outputs as well as three further switches that are customizable. You can for example assign them to control speaker switching or cue mix monitoring.
The only major drawback of the iD44 for us, is the lack of a proper monitoring screen. While the LED strip is helpful to make sure you’re not clipping, you won’t be doing much precision work on it.
This is somehow negated by the accompanying iD Mixer application, however, a better harware solution, like the 18i20’s LED screen, would have been preferable.
PreSonus Studio 1824C
The PreSonus Studio 1824c is the bigger, rack mounted brother to the Studio 26c.
The Studio 1824c I/O has up to 18 inputs and 20 outputs. 8 channels of ADAT Optical (4 channels at 96 kHz, True +48V phantom power for condenser microphones, and 18×8 onboard DSP monitor mixer.
A thing to keep in mind is that, the 1824C can’t apply phantom power to individual channels. Once you turn it on, it’s on across all 8. While this may not be an issue for most modern microphones, nobody wants to accidentally fry an expensive Coles ribbon mic.
The build quality of the 1824c is great. A display that allows you to monitor 8 inputs simultaneously, is always a welcome sight. Even though it’s not accurate enough for leveling, when monitoring 8 separate channels, you’re more worried about clipping than gain.
Just like the Studio 26c, along with your audio interface, you’re also getting the PreSonus Studio One Artist DAW package. In addition to this you also get the Magic Plugin Bundle, which also includes Ableton Live Lite.
While not for everyone, the usability and versatility of the 1824c earns it’s spot on our list. And at just under $500, there aren’t many audio interfaces, that are as much bang for your buck, as the 1824.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII DUO
The Apollo Twin MKII DUO is seen as an industry standard for desktop audio interfaces, and there’s a good reason for it.
A more accessible alternative to Universal Audio’s flagship Apollo 8 and 16, the original Apollo Twin has been giving us mortals access to the now mythical UAD range of plugins.
If you have the budget for it, the Apollo Twin MKII is one of the best audio interfaces on the market.
The Apollo Twin comes built-in with superior converters, components, and pre-amps, with up to 24-bit/192kHz audio recording and playback. There are 2 high-quality microphone and line pre-amps, with 2 line outputs for your studio monitors. You can expand the number of inputs with the ADAT connection.
The main draw and appeal of the Apollo Twin is certainly it’s DSP capabilities. As well as recording through the interface, you can also use the unit as an external DSP processing system, relieving strain from your computer’s CPU, and running plug-ins exclusive to the UAD platform.
What sets it apart even further is the Unison technology, which creates a hybrid between the analogue front end and Unison-driven plugins on the UAD platform.
The Unison plugins enable the modelling of a range of preamps, guitar amps and effects, pairing impedance switching and gain staging on the analogue end with component-level circuit modelling in software.
This all boils down to the most accurate software emulations of classic hardware devices on the market. Anything from classic british Neve channel EQ’s, to legendary tube compressors and more, UAD has a vast range of devices to utilize with your Apollo Twin.
Whether you’re getting it for your home studio, or a high-end recording studio, this is one of the best audio interfaces you can get.
Professional Studio Interfaces
Motu 8 PRE-ES
The big daddy of the MOTU line, the Motu 8 PRE-ES is one of the best audio interfaces, made for the professional studio.
With the Motu 8 PRE-ES you’ll get 24 inputs and 28 outputs, that will allow you to connect all your studio gear, synths, keyboards and outboard effect processors.
Eight transparent mic preamps deliver superb 118 dB dynamic range. Each mic channel also has individual pre-amp gain, -10 dB pad, 48V phantom power and digital remote control.
With the Motu 8, you also get a built-in talkback mic and front-panel talk button. You can also connect two sets of speakers and check your mixes instantly with front-panel A/B speaker select buttons.
How the Motu 8 PRE-ES stands out is in terms of software. It comes bundled with it’s own DSP software, that includes a 48 input mixer, as well as a host of rack emulations. The most interesting part about this interface however, is the included software.
The software that you use to control the interface doesn’t reside on your hard drive. Instead, it’s a web app served from the hardware itself. This means you can control the 8pre-es on-board DSP, mixing, device settings, and network audio routing from your favourite web browser on a laptop, tablet or smartphone connected by wire, or Wi-Fi to your local area network.
The accompanying “Touch Console” app, is also designed with touch-screen use in mind. This all adds up to the Motu 8 PRE-ES being one of the best interfaces for live sound, as well as big studios. The ability to change routing, DSP settings, or gain levels from anywhere in your studio is amazing.
For a professional engineer looking to kit out his studio with something that’s extremely versatile, the Motu 8 PRE-ES is a great option.
Antelope Audio Zen Tour
A rather niche name in the audio interface market, Antelope Audio have been steadily making some of the best audio interfaces available.
The Antelope Audio Zen Tour features High-quality preamps, solid clocking system & pristine AD/DA conversion at 24 bit, up to 192kHz. No portable audio interface has this many features packed into a small box. It is literally a studio in a box ready for all your traveling needs.
Where usually an audio interface of this size has to choose whether to focus on a good amount of I/O, or a good quality DSP feature – surprisingly, the Zen Tour manages to do both.
The interface has 4 physical inputs and 8 analog outputs which are expandable via ADAT to 16 inputs and outputs, for bigger recording scenarios. The built-in DSP chip means you’ll also get zero-latency recording, with the onboard modelling effects.
The interface even has 2 Re-amp outputs, especially for sending your guitar DI through an amp. This is something that appeals to the guitarists especially. There’s also a talkback microphone for use in your studio.
Quite rare for an audio interface, the Zen Tour has two connection options – Thunderbolt & USB. This means you really don’t have an issue with using the Zen Tour with different computer systems that might have different connection ports.
All of this combined makes the Zen Tour one of the best portable interfaces on the market.
The Zen Tour also features a great touch-screen with amazing metering. Additionally all of Zen Tour’s features are controllable via this high-resolution touch screen.
The audio interface can be also managed via the Antelope Audio’s Software Control Panel or via Android and iOS mobile apps for smartphones and tablets. So both the producer, and the recording artists, can control Zen Tour at the same time.
All of this adds up to one thing: the Zen Tour is arguably the most versatile, portable audio interface about.
If you feel like you like what the Zen Tour offers, give it a chance, you won’t be disappointed.
RME Fireface UFX II
The RME Fireface UFX II is a real studio workhorse. Designed to be expanded, you get a potential of 60 I/O channels.
You’re also able to add additional I/O through the ADAT connection. This makes the RME Fireface UFX II one of the most versatile interfaces, not only in the studio space, but also on the road.
The UFX II is one of the most versatile and best audio interfaces on the market today. It has been designed to function not only as a very flexible audio interface, with expansive I/O and great DSP, but also as a monitor controller and headphone amp.
It even has talkback switching facilities built in. In total you get 30 Inputs and 30 Outputs, of which 12 are analog and 18 are digital
It has four digitally controlled mic preamps as well as a high‑quality Analog to Digital converter, which provides a sample rate of up to 192kHz.
The Fireface UFX II also features TWO separate low-impedance headphone amps, for use when mixing with headphones.
Interestingly enough, for an interface of this caliber and premium, the Fireface has a USB connector, in addition to Firewire. This means that no matter what, you’ll be able to get the Fireface UFX II working on any machine you want (as long as it supports USB 2/3.0)
It needs to be mentioned however, that you should probably use the cables included with the audio interface. In the manual, RME admits that using low-quality USB cables can lead to general issues and audio drop-outs with your interface. It would be great if RME provided a cable, longer than 1.5m, this would be less of an issue. Since they don’t, and quite a lot of people might want to use a longer cable, this had to be mentioned.
All in all, an RME Fireface UFX II is not an interface you’ll buy as a beginner, nor is it one you’ll get for your home studio.
If you choose RME, you do so for high performance and long-term support.
The Apogee Quartet interface is an extremely attractive and well-designed “wedge” and features four, premium quality XLR inputs, made my Apogee themselves.
The Apogee Quartet also provides a very solid 24-bit 192kHz output.
When recording, Apogee’s pre-amps can accept mic input sources, as well as Line level input sources, which bypass the preamps entirely.
The pre-amps can be configured through Apogee’s own Maestro software package. Which means you can utilize any out-board pre-amps with your microphones, without having the Quartet adding it’s own sonic colour.
That being said, you might want to use the Quartet’s preamps, since they have a very clean and warm sound quality, which can offer a great and desirable sound to your recordings.
As for outputs, the Apogee Quartet offers six analog TRS sockets, which can support a 5.1 surround setup. Additionally, an independent side-mounted headphone output means that a headphone mix can be set up entirely separate from your monitor mix.
Since Apogee are the sole providers of audio interfaces to Apple, it’s no surprise that the iOS compatibility of the Quartet, is the best we’ve ever seen.
The incredibly easy routing and setup with the Maestro app, makes recording using your iPhone or iPad ridiculously awesome. If you find you’re running out of battery on your iPad, don’t worry. When connected, the Quartet will even charge your device.
If you’re looking for something smaller, but enjoy the features of the Quartet, Apogee’s most popular interface – the Duet, is also a great piece of kit.
Why do you need an audio interface?
Do you still not know if you need an audio interface? To put it simply, if you want to record any digital audio, an audio interface with quality preamps is a necessity.
While you already have a sound card that’s built into your computer, there are quite a few reasons why you might necessitate an audio interface. While, technically speaking, they perform the same function, a sound card has limited recording and output quality, which makes it sub-optimal for recording.
With consumer-grade inputs and outputs, interference and latency can be a real issue, which can in-turn affect your audio in a negative way.
You’re also not going to be recording a drum kit with your sound card any time soon.
While sound cards are great for just hooking up a set of speakers or headphones, if you do any sort of producing or recording, you need an audio interface.
Inputs and outputs
THe main criteria, when purchasing an audio interface, is I/O. Namely, how many inputs and outputs and what type, you require
If you’re a solo producer who only wants to plug in one microphone or instrument at a time, just one or two inputs will be enough. If you’re recording a band, or drum set however, you’ll need a lot more.
Multiple outputs are also helpful for running multiple headphone mixes. Say you’re recording a band, and each musician wants t heir own instrument above the rest of the mix, multiple outputs can be a godsend.
Usually however, if you’re only interested in monitoring, a quality set of xlr/line outputs and a headphone preamp, is plenty.
Some audio interfaces like the PreSonus Studio series or anything from Motu, also offer DC-coupled outputs. This is extremely helpful if you have any modular or semi-modular synthesizers.
Using Ableton’s CV tools, or any other CV generator, allows you to control your modular gear, with your computer. Anything from running midi sequences, to sending gates, and clocking, can be done with a DC-coupled interface.
In terms of inputs, most audio interfaces typically feature both XLR and TRS line inputs, often combined into combi connectors so that you can plug anything you need into the same input. Many interfaces also offer a phantom power option, which is necessary for use with most active condenser microphones.
Some audio interfaces also have a MIDI input and output. Most modern midi controllers are bus-powered however, so you’re better off plugging it in with USB. MIDI inputs are great if you have synths, that can double as midi controllers, giving you a whole new world of possibilities.
The usual connections you get with audio interfaces are either USB or Thunderbolt, with Firewire being an option for some interfaces as well. Before you purchase an interface, make sure that it’ll be compatible with the connections you have on your computer. Additionally, USB-C audio interfaces are becoming more popular by the day.
While most professional interfaces are class-compliant, meaning, you need to plug them in before using, most budget options as well as a lot of mid-range interfaces feature bus-power capabilities.
Bus powered interfaces usually require less electricity than audio interfaces, with only a mains adapter. This in turn means that bus powered interfaces are usually closer to the budget and mid-range options.
Some audio interfaces, like the Apogee line of products also offer iOS compatibility. This might be interesting for you, if recording on your iPhone or iPad is something you like to do.
Low latency recording
While nowadays, most audio interfaces tend to offer low or zero-latency recording, some interfaces also provide DSP processing, to be able to use plugins on your inputs, in real time with your recording.
Most high-end audio interfaces include some kind of built in DSP processing for low latency utilization of effects plugins and hardware emulations.
The kings of DSP are undoubtedly Universal Audio. They’ve long been regarded for their incredibly high-quality emulations of classic studio gear, from mic preamps, to compressors and channel EQ’s. UAD emulations are quite certainly at the pinnacle of software modelling.
If UAD’s products are in your price range, you can be sure it’s going to be to the best new audio interface you can get. Combine it with their incredible emulation plug ins, and you have a really high quality audio interface.
Most modern audio interfaces offer zero latency. Usually, if you’re getting latency, it’s more a question of setup, rather than your gear
In the end, the best audio interface for you will at least partly come down to price, so you’ll be pleased to know that our list of recommendations in this guide covers a broad range from beginner to pro.
Here’s is the essential list of the best audio interfaces available for music & recording (updated for 2021):
- Audient Evo 4
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
- Motu M2
- Presonus Studio 26c
- Focusrite Scarlett 18i20
- Audient iD44
- Presonus Studio 1824c
- UAD Apollo Twin
- Motu 8 PRE-ES
- Antelope Audio Zen Tour
- RME Fireface UFX II
- Apogee Quartet
Whether you’re looking to get your first audio interface for your home studios, or are looking to upgrade to an interface with better mic preamps, there is a product that’s perfect for you.
Hopefully this list has helped you to figure out which audio interface is the best for you.