Best Audio Interface for 2018 [Guide]

Best Audio InterfaceDo you need to record into your computer?

But you don’t know exactly what you need to get the job done…

Here’s what I advise:

Don’t buy what you don’t need!!

Although an high-end audio interface boast impressive capabilities,

it doesn’t mean that your sound will be equally impressive.

I’m just going to be writing about the best ten of them.

Any of these audio units have their own charm, and all of them are of high quality sound and analogue circuitry.



1

What is an audio interface?

First of all…

What’s the difference between a sound card and an audio interface?

Well, a sound card is only used on onboard computer chips and internal cards can be connected for example to a PCI-slot.

When talking about external sound cards it’s usually referring to audio interfaces.

Besides your computer and DAW the audio interface functions at the heart of your home recording studio.

It’s primary function is to translate analog signals to digital signals.

Thus the quality of your recording is heavily depended upon the quality of the chips within the interface.

2

Types of Connections

It comes down to what you are going to use it for.

To record a signal, you need an input.

And if you want to record a microphone, you will need an input with a preamp.

To record instruments, you will need a dedicated instrument input.

However..

You can choose an audio interface with only line signal inputs (line-in and line-out) but then you will have to invest in an external preamp and/or a direct input box.

If your working with MIDI you would probably want to have MIDI-I/O.

Most of the interfaces today offer these already.

It’s good to know that most MIDI-controllers can be connected through USB.

When you have determined how much inputs and outputs you need it’s time to look at another factor, mainly the converters.

The converters manage the quality of the recordings.

Converters are electronic components that are responsible of converting analog audio to digital signals (AD-DA circuits).

There are 3 ways a computer can be connected to an audio interface:

  1. Internal sound card trough PCI(e)
  2. A Firewire Interface (external) and a…
  3. USB interface (external)

3

Price, Quality and Quantity

“Should It Be Cheap Or Should It Be Expensive?”

High-end interfaces often have more ins and outs then low-budget interfaces.

Usually these high end products also have better microphone preamps and dedicated internal routing capabilities.

When you’re a mobile recorder/producer you will probably won’t have the need for all those inputs and outputs.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a high-end product that specifies your needs.

These specifications are the ones to look at when you’re deciding to buy your audio interface:

analog I/O
digital I/O (ADAT 8: Channel digital audio & S/PDIF: Digital Stereo )
instrument inputs with High-Z
microphone inputs with phantom power (48+ volt)
MIDI I/O
USB, firewire, thunderbolt connections
headphone monitor outputs
wordclock I/O
Windows or Mac (depending on the unit)
Compatibility with your DAW (again, this is very important)
Let’s have a breakdown of what you’re missing out when you buy a cheap one:

a great interface build (possibly loose inputs, knobs. Plastic chassis, poor ergonomic design, portability)
no independent DSP (for VSTi use. Essential for bedroom producers) which would kill your CPU if it’s weak as soon as possible.
More clutter at home (expensive AI’s are huge and occupy more space)
Expandability (limited channels)
 But if you’re buying something expensive, you also miss out on:

Paying less (for what you really need especially if you couldn’t maximize your equipment)
portability (some large rack interfaces are not for the frequently-traveling audio engineer)
low maintenance (you’ve got tubes to take care of. Clean your interface regularly.)
Poor quality sound (you will always record at 24bit rates and you’ll feel your CPU run hot, but you get a decent sound!)

4

DAW Compatibility

Now you’ve got a great audio interface.

You immediately bought that little Focusrite interface and you couldn’t stop shaking.

Then you load your DAW and everything seems to load fine.

But you couldn’t find the right driver to make your interface work for you.

That’s a big problem. But that can be fixed with a little research.

However, the point is, if your DAW does not agree with your audio interface, you could see that your audio interface is a huge waste of money.

Always make sure that your DAW can work with your Audio Interface.

I repeat, make sure that it’s as compatible as food to your mouth when you buy that audio interface.

Especially if you’re buying expensive equipment because you don’t want to regret making a poor investment and having a difficult time reselling incompatible equipment.

5

Interface Connectors

Apple has Thunderbolt, a 30-pin connector that is the equivalent of USB.

Meanwhile, Windows will always have USB.

Apple said it is limited to the 5-pin that micro USBs (the same size as Thunderbolt) have and find larger USB plugs to be quite bulky for its taste.

Thunderbolt was specifically designed to carry “audio and transmit and receive”, meaning it intends to cut all latency introduced by the universal Serial Bus plugs because they have to go through so much information before they can process it.

The ability of audio interfaces to use DSP technology as well as sync VSTi recordings through a line-in instrument effectively is due to TB, which is why plenty of AI manufacturers try to go for a Macintosh approach to things.

TB allows transmission of video signals, not just charge and synchronize, which the USB 2.0 is capable of.

While Windows DAW’s have delay compensation and latency modes.

But these aren’t enough to resolve the bigger issue at hand.

6

Outputs Explained

Cheaper audio interfaces may only have four inputs and about two outputs, which usually go straight to your monitors.

Meanwhile, expensive audio interfaces can have multiple input/output for simultaneous recording.

Expensive interfaces, usually found in bigger studios where a single-shot recording is often likely, will have more features.

It would often have its own DSP for audio processing even before the audio reaches the DAW.

These input/output may be limited in number because they may have their own tube preamps, which are not cheap to manufacture.

Hi-Z stands for high impedance and refers to a max signal of 500 ohms.

Which is good for electric guitars and bass guitars.

Phantom Power is used for regular XLR cables which delivers 48+volt to for example a condenser microphone.

Some interfaces offer phantom power that can be switched on and off different input channels.

Your choice of audio interfaces will depend on what you need to record, which simultaneous recordings you need so that you know how many input/output you will need.

7

What about the Form Factor

I won’t be a hypocrite.

The size of the audio interface I need depends on what need I have for it.

For example, a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is useful for me when I’m traveling with my laptop.

I’d say people who love traveling and are creating pod casts would benefit from using a Focusrite interface rather than going with an eight-channel DSP rich interface.

Form factor is important for me as it will indicate portability.

The heavier the device is for me, the more I dislike it if I’m going out.

In my home recording studio, however, the heavier the better.

Part of the form factor for audio interfaces include the connectors and where they are located.

For example, I’d hate it when the master volume settings are located behind the unit when all inputs and outputs are out front for smaller units.

8

What Professional Interfaces Have To Offer

You’ve probably come across famous videos of audio interfaces claiming that they’re the best. Immediately, we ogle towards the screen.

Well, I remember myself doing that when I saw trials on the i-net of some artists using the Avid Fast Track One.

It was simply amazing, the way they make it look easy to operate an interface.

Well, not that it’s difficult, but it’s not all the time that the latency will work for you, or the audio is thoroughly ‘clean’ with its signal or that your guitar won’t have noise when you run it through an amp VST.

You’ll be facing these troubles. But first.

9

There’s No Best Audio Interface

“You wanted to see the professional way of audio production and what professional audio interfaces could do for you”

Contrary to popular opinion, there’s no single “best” audio interface, not even for professional-level audio interfaces.

There are only ones that fail their purpose either by having some jitters or they have workflow troubles.

People often rate down certain audio interfaces in the market because they did not spend enough time to learn about its architecture.

If one spent much time reading the manual and experimenting, they would do a fine job with almost any audio interface.

For example, you might have been using FireWire, but maybe your interface works better with less and thus low latency when connected through a USB while you have delay compensation turned on.

Small tweaks like these guarantee there’s no best audio interface.

You’ll find glitches here and there, but you’ll find your own solution anyway.

10

Jitters And Little Noise Problems

Jitters and noise problems are probably the first things you’d notice with poorly-made audio interfaces, or at least ones that are cheaper, have very poor clocking.

This is when it syncs with your CPU. The more jitters, the more latency problems.

Sometimes, it causes pitch problems.

Even professional audio interfaces suffer from these troubles.

You could lose some small details in a reverb when you have heavy jitters.

Of course, these can be difficult to hear through a normal room setting where there is lots of bounce going on.

Noise is easier to detect. Equipment noise is likely caused by poor circuitry.

It might be a defect. Make sure that when you run either low budget or an high end interface with 60 channels, you look for that noise floor. Or else you make a bad investment.

Yes, even the professional interface can fall victim to this little problem.

11

Top Interfaces

Apogee Ensemble

Apogee Ensemble

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General

So, what makes the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt so special?

Apogee is arguably one of the high-end manufacturers of first-class converters designed for the modern age.

Ensemble Thunderbold

Capable of adapting to every advancement in Apple computers, it sports a matte black shade that’s incorporated with buttons to give you more physical control.

The eight XLR inputs with mic preamps are an improvement of the Firewire Ensemble which used independent sockets.

It features two rotary controllers for input and output levels with bright LEDs on each.

If you think I’m exaggerating, let’s take a closer look at the details.

Features
Features

Apogee Ensemble Product

For starters, the egornomic interface gives you two Thunderbolt ports, a BNC word clock and S/PDIF connectors for Coaxial connections.

The SMUX and ADAX signals are carried via optical connectors. The logical audio interface is engineered for simplicity in operations.

The two headphone jacks on the front panel are completely independent.

The output encoder lets you adjust the main output or one of the headphone’s outputs.

Ensemble Front

And you know what?

You can mute the Main output and the headphone output by long pressing the output encoder.

The interface features two quarter-inch monitor outputs, two pairs optical outputs and outputs capable of handling 16 channels of ADAT signals with up to 48 kHz and eight channels of S/MUX signals up to 96 kHz.

Ensemble & Element

To efficiently control the Ensemble Thunderbolt, you need Apogees Maestro 2 software.

It’s free and allows you to configure all the settings and hardware inputs.

Nevertheless, the front panel gives you access to all the basic functions with an OLED display

You can use the level indicators together with the Output and Input knobs for adjusting, switching or parameter selection.

Pros & Cons
Pros & Cons

If you think you’ve heard it all, there are more interesting facts:

  • High-quality converters
  • Low latency
  • Independent headphone outputs
  • Works seamlessly
  • High-quality sound
  • Speaker switching capabilities
  • Generous I/O
  • Unbelievable guitar DI inputs Cons
  • Only used on Mac
  • Lacks MIDI connectivity
  • D-sub breakout cable not included
Conclusion
Conclusion

2 Ensembles & Push Moog MacBookPro

How can you resist this top-of-the-range converter?

The Ensemble Thunderbolt tremendous preamps ensure top-level sounds for audiophile enthusiasts.

This interface is easy to use and integrates the best audio components with flexible routing via the Maestro software.

No one else combines price and quality features better than Apogee.

So, go ahead and make the switch today.

RME Fireface UFX II

RME Fireface UFX II

Product Review
General

RME Fireface UFX II audio interface offers good monitoring of sound.

It has low impedance (a measure of the resistance in audio interfaces).

It makes for a stronger signal.

Fireface UFX II RME

Consumer reviews rank this audio interface as high.

Its longevity of 20 years makes it known.

Its ease of use does not keep it from producing a high quality digital sound.

It allows those musicians early in their careers to create high quality recordings.

For commercial audio production, a good basic piece of equipment for studios.

Features
Features

ARC-USB Advanced Remote Control

For the price, the RME Fireface UFX II gives a high level of features with a high level of usability.

Its extensive connectivity gives flexibility in recordings.

Features include:

  • Transfers digital audio data and audio direct to the computer from most sources
  • 60 audio channels divided into 30 input and 30 output channels
  • USB2 connectivity
  • Can integrate with an ARC USB Advanced Remote Control 
  • ADAT, AES, and SPDIF standard for recording mixing and monitoring
  • TOTALMIX FX gives unlimited routing and mixing
  • 18 output/input channels
Pros & Cons
Pros & Cons
  • Crystal clear sound
  • Super clean recordings
  • Flexibility
  • Consumers are not pleased with the warranty. If something does go wrong, each distributor of the product implements the warranty.
Conclusion
Conclusion

Fireface UFX II Close-Up

RME Fireface UFC II has become a global product, so it needs a worldwide warranty.

Other than that, a good reliable product with many features that gives more than expected for its price range.

Features listed here describe just a short summary of RME Fireface UFX II capabilities.

Antelope Discrete 8

Antelope Discrete 4 & 8

General

Picture this.

An audio interface with a rich sound filling your studio, integrated with remote control options and real-time effects.

It has an expensive feel and the chrome knobs just draw you in.

That’s what you get with the Antelope Discrete 8.

Discrete 8 Back & Front

The vintage design infused with 26 outputs and 32 outputs is sure to hit a cord in any musicians heart.

As the name suggests, it comes with 8 console mic discreet preamps with classic gear from Lang, Gyraf Audio among others.

Features

Thanks to the FPGA technology, latency levels are almost NIL.

The front panel conveniently, allows you to control recordings and monitor levels as you perform.

With the ability to handle a dynamic range of 121 dB, the built-in FPGA FX engine will blow your mind away with stunning effects.

Antelope Discrete 8 Full Image

And the best part?

It comes with over 50 real-time effects.

The AFX collection powers the Accusonic microphone, tube FX, and guitar amp, to name just but a few.

Did I mention the Acoustically Focused Clocking?

Now get this: it’s a 64-bit, 4th generation technology applied in world-class products like Orion, Zen, and Goliath.

The world clock lets you distribute external clock signals to other digital gear connected either through S/PDIF or ADAX.

This keeps all your gear in sync.

Discreet 8 allows expert monitoring that can be expanded up to four separate mixes with talkback mic.

This allows the engineer to customize mixes for each band member.

Sounds impressive, right?

Set up presets in seconds with the volume knobs and knobs assigned for individual headphone outputs.

Pros & Cons
  • Legendary Antelope Clocking
  • 4 mixers to create individual headphone mixes
  • Has remote control feature for easy navigation
  • Comes with three world clock outputs that sync all your digital gear
  • Discrete design with 8 console transistor preamps
  • 50+ real-time effects
  • Comes with Thunderbolt and USB audio interface for use both on Mac and PC
  • Lacks proper manual
  • The power cord looks out of place
Conclusion

To sum up, the Discreet 8’s versatile monitoring and effects during mixing will surpass your expectations.

This is, hands down, an upgraded equipment that is sure to surprise any musician or engineer, considering its price range.

Steinberg UR-RT2 & UR-RT4

Steinberg UR-RT

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General

Steinberg could not get enough of it, so they added two more audio-interfaces to their collection.

We have tested the most extensive one; the UR-RT4.

Steinberg UR-RT4

What makes this interface so unique?

4 Rupert Neve transformer switches are attached to the front.

How wonderful is that!

When big names (Steinberg & audio legend Rupert Neve) join forces.

On the backside, we come across 2 line-inputs, and 4 line-inputs to create an external effects loop or to connect an extra headphone amplifier.

All rear panel connections are displayed on the top of the interface, so you don’t have to search for them.

With the UR-RT2 you only get two mic inputs and one headphone connection.

But the real magic of these interfaces are the Rupert-Neve transformers.

As soon as you press the transformer switches, they provide a natural saturation and harmonic enrichment (don’t activate them if you want a clean recording).

Features
  • Includes Cubase AI & Cubasis LE for I-pad
  • 4 Rupert Neve design transformers
  • 4 analog xlr combo-inputs: 2 mic/line & 2 mic/hi-Z
  • 2 headphone monitor outputs
  • MIDI-in/out
Pros & Cons
  • Rupert Neve Transformers
  • preamp sound quality
  • No-latency on internal effects
  • Phantom power (+48V) switches are located on the backside
Conclusion

The UR-R14 is a well built, very complete and good-sounding audio interface.

Are the 4 Rupert Neve transformers worth the price?

As far as I am concerned, Absolutely!

For home or project studios, the characteristic sound of a Neve console suddenly comes within reach, and now you can afford to have this quality within hands-reach.

Apogee Symphony I/O MK II

Apogee Symphony I/O MK II

General

Admittedly, Apogee Electronics has decided to give us a taste of the future with the re-designed Symphony MK II.

Don’t be fooled by its size.

The solid chassis houses the greatest AD/DA technology out there.

Mk II Pro Studio Close Up

This is a flagship audio-interface for professional engineers, songwriter, and producers.

The superior modules and the dynamic temperature control ensure nonstop marvelous sound without the fear of overheating.

Achieve connectivity through three interface platforms namely Pro Tools or Waves SoundGrid or built-in Thunderbolt.

So, what makes Symphony I/O MK II so special?

Features

Here’s the kicker.

The front panel features an intuitive touchscreen where you can access all the settings including headphone output levels, clock, and configuration settings.

Touchscreen MK II

You can virtually control every parameter or calibration via specific gestures.

The only physical buttons you can expect are the power button and a large rotary encoder placed at the center.

The Symphony MK II offers you four base configurations – 2×6, 8×8, 16×16, and 8×8 with 8 mic pre-amps that’s easy to expand to meet the needs of your studio.

And another thing, latency is at a super low 1.35mS. Combined with the flexibility of the I/O configurations, each unit can comfortably expand up to 32 channels, concurrently.

This means less rack gear with a single Symphony MK II.

The preamps use differential op-amps to control noise and distortion.

High pass filters, polarity, and phantom power allow an 85dB gain range with 1dB adjustable increments from the Maestro software.

Pros & Cons
  • It comes with AD/DA standalone converter that can be used to expand other digital gear
  • DAC technology maintains low distortion to connected headphones while producing massive amplification
  • An optimized circuit for superior bandwidth
  • Digital control allows easy access
  • 1.35mS latency
  • User-friendly touchscreen front panel
  • Setup can be expanded to suit your studio needs
  • Comes with a built-in Thunderbolt connectivity
  • Temperature controls to keep the system cool
  • Supports S/PDIF, ADAX, and SMUX
  • A high price tag
  • Only used on Mac
Conclusion

So what does this all mean?

The decision to include the touchscreen in the design was a superb idea.

The LCD panel is easy to read and the headphone amplifiers will blow you away.

The Symphony MK II combines luxury and unmatched performance to deliver clarity and astounding sound quality.

Do you think you can handle such an elegant audio interface?

I can.

Focusrite Clarett 8Pre USB

General

What if you could get an audio interface capable of a powerful performance at an affordable price?

Focusrite Clarett USB

The Focusrite Clarett 8Pre not only delivers a rich sound at a low cost but also comes with a sleek design sporting a red front panel.

And, get this: there are 8 gain control pots placed dominantly at the front panel for easy adjustments.

You also get two headphone outputs, a monitor volume, and two headphone volumes.

You are probably wondering why this audio interface is so popular.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Features

Focusrite Clarett 8Pre USB

It turns out, Focusrite considered both Mac and PC users.

The Clarett 8Pre comes with standard USB and USB-C cables.

Users looking for 8 top-notch mic preamps in a single rack won’t be disappointed.

The Input Signal Amplifier (ISA) is integrated into this piece of magical sound.

Combined with Clarett’s signature Air effect, the result is pristine vocals and guitars.

The clarity of your recordings with Clarett 8Pre USB leaves a silky air impression.

So, what’s the secret behind Clarett’s superior digital audio dominance?

It is conversion.

Clarett 8pre rear

And, if Focusrite’s 24-bit/192kHz conversion is anything to go by, you can expect the cleanest recording in and out of your DAW.

The Clarett 8Pre comes with 18 inputs and 20 audio outputs.

The rear panel supports up to 8 channel audio transfer via stereo coaxial SP/DIF and ADAT connections.

Add Word Clock input and MIDI I/O and your connectivity is covered.

Pros & Cons
  • Air feature is impressive
  • Easy to set up
  • Generous I/O giving low latency on a USB connection
  • Low distortion
  • Available for Mac and PC users
  • Mute and dim monitor controls
  • ISA concept ensures ultra-low noise
  • Comes with XLN Audio, Loopmasters, Softube, Ableton, and Focusrite software
  • It should’ve been released much sooner!
Conclusion

Clarett 8 pre

Evidently, the Clarett 8Pre’s focus was on elegance and unrivaled performance.

With a compact face, Air circuit, and a simpler routing, what more could you ask for?

Trust me, the dynamic range boost of 10dB from previous versions and ultra-low latency is sure to give other audio-interface manufacturers a run for their money.

Avid HD Omni

The Omni is a compact producer solution for protools HD and MAC.

This new HD line of Avid has a great quality of sound that translates to your digital audio workstation .

The converters on any of these HD units are next gen and far better then the old Line of Avid.

They sound super clear and have a perfect quality image in stereo.

Having two premium mic inputs really help out, they are superb in their own right.

There is just not much that can go wrong with this Omni.

This is one the best digital interfaces to work with.

It’s design and use is easy and the converters on this unit are up to date and of high end quality.

It’s just an awesome piece of audio equipment.

Prism Sound Titan

Prism is beast when we are talking about interfaces and you just can’t go wrong with any of their USB line.

It is the 2nd of three in this line, but they all share the same specs.

The microphone preamps are superb as they sound very cripsy clean and also have alot of gain and transparency.

The converters on this line are about the best in the market, Prism is known for their excellent quality and you just can’t doubt that.

It runs on Apple mac or a PC and because of it’s design it’s a good size to take along for a ride.

The USB 3 option makes sure you get the fastest connect possible.

8 inputs and outputs as well as 4 microphone inserts any many more conductibility makes this anything you could wish for, unless you want bigger and more connects.

Antelope Audio Orion 32

Hello baby, you twenty-six channel ins and out with a very stable clock good looking running on 192khz on all channels you!

Madi connection, adat and SPDIF makes you real rounded versatile piece of beauty.

Many people thought that they wouldn’t cut it to put all of this audio and AD/DA in a 1U rack type of situation.

Keep in mind that power needed for this type of work could never fit in a unit five years ago.

And all of this connecting your pc or mac with USB2.

They sure as hell made a fine piece of audio gear here.

If you look at the price and what you get out of it your looking at something that becomes quite affordable.

Some might even exchange their existing setup of five units with one of these with high end sample rates (hahahah).

Universal Audio Apollo 16

The 16 inputs and outputs version of the Apollo sound card is a very nice unit that comes with a stable build in clock as well as Mady connectivity.

The Apollo comes with UAD2 Card that can run a lot of plugins from UA.

They can even be used while tracking and recording on any input on the Box.

Those plugins can also be used in your digital workspace for mixing and mastering your tracks.

The Quality of the Analog to digital is just outstanding!

They sound super great and casscading two units together you can 32 ins and outs which is more then a home studio will ever need.

SPL Madison

SPL is a great Producer of DA/AD processors and they have launched their Madison 16 in and out Gear box.

This nice piece of gear is simple but perfect to take along to any gig or fit in any type of situation.

A super stable clock, one of the best converters, simple to use and can be expanded easily.

Just 1 unit Rack that gives you 16 ins and outputs.

A very nice unit with good converting inputs and outputs, to use as a base for your projects.

Metric Halo ULN2+DSP

A Mac opperating system Audio interface unit with DSPto process plugins.

The Unti works with firwire and has integrated analog stages within the box.

The converters are also excellent sounding, while this unit is still highly mobile.

The only downside of this unit is the inputs and outputs.

It has two combo inputs for line and mic signals, two Digital ins/outs, 8 adat channels, optical i/o and two balanced outputs to connect to your main monitors.

It also has two headphone outputs.

You can also find mod versions of this unit on the web to buy with Jensen transformers , which is cool by itself if you ask me. Analog and Digital in one box unit.

Final Thoughts

The creme “de la creme” is what I call these audio cards/boxes.

I am so stoked writing about these beautiful beasts. These prices are not for the faint of heart and should only be purchased if they get a special spot within your heart and life.

Unless you have endless amounts of money and you want a super toy to junk around with be my guest.

I will come and visit you! Also check out: (Top 10 best USB audio interface LOW BUDGET)

I hope you’ve got a good taste of these high-end products, and if you like it you can share or comment.