Audio Interface Preamp Comparison Essay

Best Audio Interfaces of 2018 - Buying Guide and Reviews

So, you want to record music. Sure, you could just simply get an adapter for your guitar/mic cable and plug your instrument straight into the audio card of your computer.

However, the sound quality will be mediocre at best, there will most definitely be some lag, and the overall experience will be pretty tedious.

That’s where an audio interface steps in.

So, whether you’re an absolute beginner looking for a budget/value model, a more advanced audio engineer, or a professional looking for the best interface on the market, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we will go over the basics, the most important features you should look for, as well as review some of the best audio interfaces money can buy.

Sit back, relax, and let’s get right into it!

If you know which type of audio interface you want, jump straight to our picks. Or, if you don’t know where to start, jump to our audio interface buying guide section.

Best Audio Interfaces 2018

Now that we’ve covered all of the important factors, specs, and features, let’s take a look at the actual models that I’ve chosen as the best ones in different categories.

Best Overall

Model Name

Focusrite Scarlett 18i20

PreSonus Studio 192

Connection

USB

USB

Inputs/Outputs

18/20

26/32

Bit depth/Sample rate

24/192

24/192

DAW/ Additional software

Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and much more

Studio One 3/ 6GB of other resources

Price Range

$$

$$$$

Best Budget

Model Name

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

Behringer U-Phoria

Connection

USB

USB

Inputs/Outputs

2/2

2/2

Bit depth/Sample rate

24/96

24/192

DAW/ Additional software

Ableton Live Lite/ Focusrite plug-in suite

Recording/editing and podcasting software

Price Range

$

$

Best Professional

Model Name

Apogee Ensemble

Focusrite Clarett 8PreX

Connection

Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt

Inputs/Outputs

30/34

26/28

Bit depth/Sample rate

24/192

24/192

DAW/ Additional software

Not included

No DAW/ a bunch of other software packs and plugins

Price Range

$$$$$

$$

Best USB

Model Name

PreSonus Audiobox 1818VSL

RME Fireface UCX

Connection

USB

USB/Firewire

Inputs/Outputs

18/18

18/18

Bit depth/Sample rate

24/96

24/192

DAW/ Additional software

Studio One 3/6GB of other resources

Totalmix FX, Fireface UFX DSP

Price Range

$

$$$

Best Thunderbolt

Model Name

Universal audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo

Focusrite Clarett

Connection

Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt

Inputs/Outputs

11/4

10/4

Bit depth/Sample rate

24/192

24/192

DAW/ Additional software

Plugins, effects, and preamps

No DAW/ a bunch of other software packs and plugins

Price Range

$$

$

Best Budget Audio Interfaces

1. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

Focusrite is a brand that is well known for their high-quality studio equipment, with models ranging from entry level to professional. Their Scarlett 2i2 audio interface offers an easy and straightforward approach to recording audio for everyone looking to make their own home studio.

Being on a relatively tight budget doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality and productivity, and the Scarlett 2i2 clearly shows that with its specs and features.

Starting with the compact form factor and small footprint, you can fit the Scarlett pretty much anywhere. Although it’s small, it definitely can pack quite a punch.

The front panel hosts 2 combined TRS/XLR inputs, which is more than enough for recording 2 instruments, or a vocal and an instrument simultaneously. Each of the inputs has a separate switch for toggling between mic/instrument mode, as well as a gain knob for on the fly adjustments.

Besides that, there is a switch for turning direct monitor on and off, a big monitor level knob, as well as a headphone output with its dedicated level control.

The back of the device is as simple as it can get. A USB connection in the middle and stereo outputs on the right, for connecting the device to your speakers.

It’s pretty obvious that the Scarlett 2i2 focuses on home studio use and musicians/audio engineers who really don’t need much more than a compact and reliable audio interface. However, don’t think that you’ll be missing out on the quality and overall user experience.

This interface offers 24bit/96kHz recordings, which, when mixed properly, sound pretty darn amazing. Sure, comparing the performance of this device to models that are much more expensive yields in a noticeable difference in audio quality, but when it comes to the budget price range, the Scarlett 2i2 is a clear winner.

So, who is the Scarlett 2i2 for, and should you get it?

You’ll be getting a pretty solid audio interface. It sounds great, feels solid and durable, and most importantly, it’s very easy and straightforward to use. Whether you’re an aspiring audio engineer, a musician who wants to record songs, or even a more advanced studio tech that needs a small device that’s travel-ready, definitely check the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 out.

2. Behringer U-Phoria UMC202HD

Best Budget Audio Interface Runner-up

​Behringer U-Phoria UMC202HD

Cheapest audio interface that is worth spending money on.​​​

At half the price of the 2i2, the Behringer will give the beginner everything they need to get started. Keep in mind that you will need to upgrade pretty quickly if you are serious.

The U-Phoria by Behringer is a great alternative to the previously mentioned Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. For half the price, you’ll be getting that well known Behringer quality, both in terms of build and the actual audio.

While the price difference is relatively big, I will still try to compare it to the Scarlett 2i2, as there are not many other audio interfaces this cheap are worth mentioning and comparing to.

This device is slightly smaller than the Scarlett, making it a perfect choice for anyone with an already crammed desk. You can even take the U-Phoria with you when you travel, as it’s completely powered through the USB connection, and is very well built.

The front interface offers a similar experience to the one you’d get with the Scarlett 2i2. Two combined TRS/XLR inputs on the left alongside separate line/instrument and pad toggle buttons, as well as gain controls. What’s really neat is that there are two LEDs for each channel as well, letting you know if the channel is active or not and whether they’re clipping.

The right-hand side of the panel sports output and headphone level knobs, as well as a toggle button for controlling the direct monitor feature.

The back of the U-Phoria is pretty minimalistic, with stereo outputs, USB connection, and a toggle for the +48V for using the device with condenser microphones.

So, what’s the difference between the U-Phoria and the Scarlett 2i2?

The main difference is in the actual audio quality of the recordings. The U-Phoria utilizes 2 Midas microphone preamps, one for each channel, giving this interface a noticeable advantage.

The specs sheet also makes the difference pretty clear. You’re getting 24bit/192kHz recordings, which is not only noticeable on paper, but in use as well.

So, is the U-Phoria worth getting?

At this price point, definitely. The audio quality is above average, and the user experience is straightforward and simple. Whether you need an audio interface for everyday use, or just want to be able to record some tunes from time to time, the U-Phoria by Behringer is a safe bet.

Best Overall Audio Interfaces

1. Focusrite Scarlett 18i20

Best Overall Audio Interface

​Focusrite Scarlett 18i20

Perfect for most studios and advanced recording needs.

8 inputs and top quality engineering make the Scarlett 18i20 our top pick. If you don't need the top of the line,  but have a large array of instruments, this interface is perfect.

We’ve seen that the good folks at Focusrite know how to cater the needs of a beginner audio engineer with a tight budget. The Scarlett 18i20, with its numerous inputs and outputs, and overall amazing performance, focuses on more advanced studio needs.

As it’s pretty clear when you look at the picture, this model is what is called a rack interface. Though it’s pretty short, the width makes it kind of impractical for desk use, so consider getting an actual rack to mount it on.

The front panel, while pretty long, is extensive, yet simple enough so you don’t get lost in the buttons and knobs. Only 2 of the 8 combined analog inputs are on the front, while the rest are tucked away in the back.

The controls cover level for all of the analog channels, with separate 48V boost for either the first or last 4 channels, when they are used with condenser microphones.

On the right-hand side of the front panel, there is a neat LED visualizer, letting you know the levels of the individual channels in dB, so you can easily tell if any one of them is clipping or not, without having to actually look at your computer screen.

The rest of the controls include dim and mute buttons, a monitor level knob, as well as 2 headphone outputs, each with its own level control.

The real fun, however, starts in the back!

Besides the 3-8 channel inputs, there are 10 line outputs, as well as MIDI in and out. The optical connection allows you to connect a device with up to 8 individual channels, and with S/PDIF, you basically have the option of connecting a total of 18 devices!

As you would probably expect, the sound quality doesn’t fall behind. With 24bit/192kHz and super low latency, the 18i20 easily manages all the input devices you throw at it at super high resolution and studio quality.

Whether you run an audio studio, or simply need a mean device to record your band in high-quality audio, the Scarlett 18i20 with its MIDI, optical, and analog input capabilities and very useful software pack will make those recording sessions a walk in the park!

2. PreSonus Studio 192

Best Overall Audio Interface Runner-up

After reading about Focusrite Scarlett 18i20, you’d think that there’s hardly a better option than it, at least in that or the neighboring price range. However, the Studio 192 by PreSonus offers a slightly different approach which will definitely appeal to at least a portion of the reading audience.

The front panel while a bit more simple, definitely still gives you full control over the many inputs and outputs this device can handle.

As expected, there are 2 easy to reach combined inputs on the left, followed by a small screen which gives you more info about the currently selected channel or preset.

Going further to the right side, there is an array of LEDs that show you the exact level of each individual channel, and whether they’re clipping or not.

A big yet very precise dial is used for setting the main level, and the smaller two knobs are used for adjusting the individual headphone levels for each of the 2 outputs.

As it’s common for rack-mounted audio interfaces, most of the inputs and outputs are located on the back of the device.

You’ve got 6 more combined analog inputs, 8 analog outputs, as well as a pair of optical inputs and outputs as well. Other connections are covered via S/PDIF as well as a USB 3.0 connection that goes to your computer (Windows or Mac).

With that many inputs and outputs, you can basically record anything you’d want, except for MIDI devices, which are, sadly, not supported by the Studio 192.

What really makes this device stand out are 8 XMAX preamps which are remotely controllable, and feature PreSonus AI Fat Channel Processing. This not only gives the Studio 192 very high audio quality but allows you to enable effects for monitoring as well.

The included DAW and software packs make using this audio interface a very pleasant experience, whether it’s with the included DAW or any other that you prefer.

So, if you need a powerful and capable audio interface for your studio, no matter how many channels you need, the Studio 192 by PreSonus will most likely meet the most of your expectations.

Best Professional Audio Interfaces

1. PreSonus Studio 192

Best Professional Audio Interface

​PreSonus Studio 192

Top of the line for professionals and advanced amateurs

Everything you could possible need in terms of technology, inputs, and ease of use. You can't go wrong with the PreSonus Studio 192.

When it comes to professional audio gear, you’re basically looking for a couple of things. Great audio and build quality, reliability, and a constant and pleasant workflow. Let’s see how exactly the Ensemble from Apogee ticks all of those boxes!

As with most Apple-centered devices, do have in mind that the price is going to be pretty high. For a few grand, you’re definitely getting a high-quality device. The interface feels very well built, it’s sturdy and all of the buttons and knobs feel premium and precise.

The front of the Ensemble hosts 2 direct instrument inputs, with their own dedicated outputs below them. This means you can easily route the signal through the interface, while simultaneously sending it through the outputs to an amp.

Selecting the actual input is done via 2 rows of buttons on the right of the 2 inputs, with handy OLED visualizers for both the input and output level. The levels are adjusted on the fly with 2 large knobs.

The rest of the front panel is made simple, with only 4 assignable buttons, as well as 2 separate headphone outputs and level control for each of them.

The Ensemble, while definitely a rack interface, is pretty petite but manages to house a myriad of extra connections. You basically have 10 digital inputs, and 20 mic preamps, with a combination of either mic only or combined instrument/mic inputs at your disposal.

While all of the mentioned specs and features are pretty commonly found in other models, especially in this price range, it’s the integration with the Apple operating system and software packs that make the Ensemble stand out as a very reliable and overall professional audio engineering tool.

If you already own an Apple computer, the high price tag of the Apogee Ensemble shouldn’t be too big of a problem, as it really gives you a professional environment for recording audio of any kind.

2. Focusrite Clarett 8PreX

Best Professional Audio Interface Runner-up

​Focusrite Clarett 8PreX

Larger form factor for an easier workflow

Slightly more affordable than the Presonus, the Focusrite has everything you need to upgrade your amateur studio or replace your old interface.

We’ve already seen how Focusrite focuses

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

Best Audio Interface for the budget conscious.

With a capacity of up to two instruments from a top-quality brand, it is the perfect choice for a beginner or small home studio.

Pros:

  • Simple to set up and use
  • Includes a DAW as well as additional plugins
  • Can run alongside pretty much any computer
  • Direct monitoring and phantom power are featured

Cons:

  • No option for using it with MIDI devices
  • Relatively limited connectivity

Pros:

  • Compact
  • Great for beginners
  • High-quality audio
  • Pretty inexpensive

Cons:

  • No DAW included
  • Some compatibility issues with Windows 10
  • Limited compatibility with DAWs

Pros:

  • Very low latency
  • You’ll hardly run out of inputs
  • Can be controlled via iOS devices
  • A great DAW/software pack included
  • Good value for the money

Pros:

  • Multiple channel handling is very good
  • Convenient front panel controls
  • Built-in mic for communicating with the performers
  • 24bit/192kHz
  • Comes with a lot of useful software packs

Cons:

  • No MIDI
  • Latency could be lower
  • The USB 3.0 feature doesn’t bring anything new

Pros:

  • 24bit/192kHz crisp audio
  • Extensive input/output options
  • Guitar re-amping feature
  • Talkback mic
  • Integration with Apple software

Whether you’re starting a new home studio, or improving an existing one…

There’s no single purchase more confusing than the audio interface.

Because among the dozens of options…

Each one is designed to meet the demands of a specific “type” of studio.

For example…

At one extreme, a small $100 interface might be perfect in a simple bedroom studio…

If all you need is a single pair of outputs for your studio monitors.

At the opposite extreme, a pro studio that requires dozens of INs/OUTs might need several interfaces, each costing $4000 or more.

Needless to say, matching the right interface with the right studio is tricky even for the experienced.  And for beginners, its 10x worse.

Which is why for today’s post, I’ve created an in-depth guide to help you find the perfect option for your studio.

So let’s get started.  First off…

The 5 Key Features to Look For

Because of the fact that audio interfaces have so many features, it’s difficult to know which ones matter, and which ones don’t.

So let’s talk about that now.  In particular, these are the 5 key specs to focus on:

  1. DAW Compatibility
  2. Interface Connectors
  3. Input/Output (I/O) Count
  4. Input Channel Types
  5. Form Factor

And here’s why:

1. DAW Compatibility

In general, most DAW’s work with most interfaces…but not always.

If you don’t yet have a particular DAW that you are loyal to, then you need not worry here.

Because 90% of the top DAW’s will be compatible with any interface you choose.

However if you alreadyhave a DAW you want to continue using, be sure to verify compatibility on the company’s website.  And just to warn you, this info is often hard to find.

You would think they would just post DAW compatibility in the interface’s product description, right?  But it rarely happens.  Usually it’s buried somewhere within an FAQ page.

While it’s not clear why this is done, my best guess is that these companies prefer not to advertise their current DAW compatibility, because they have no guarantees of future compatibility.

A particular interface might be compatible with your DAW today, but it may not be in a future release.  And while that’s not likely to happen, it’s always possible.

Which is why personally, I prefer to use a DAW/interface combo made by the same company.  Later in this post I will give you some good examples of these.

However, since there are only a few companies that make both, the downside to this solution is that it severely limits your options.

Up next…

2. Interface Connectors

When connecting an audio interface to a computer…

There are 4 cable options commonly used:

  1. USB– which is typically seen on cheaper home studio interfaces, and offers the slowest data transfer rate.
  2. Firewire– which is used on more expensive home studio interfaces, and offers a significantly faster transfer rate (nowadays these are becoming less common).
  3. Thunderbolt– which has recently become popular with newer semi-pro interfaces, and is way faster than either USB or Firewire.
  4. PCIE– which has long been the standard connection for professional interfaces, because it offers additional processing power and extremely fast data-transfer.

While USB is by far the slowest of all 4 options, it is still more than fast enough to get the job done for the vast majority of home studios.

So if you’re on a budget, USB is what I recommend.

But whichever type you choose, remember to double-check that your computer has the appropriate connection.

3. Input/Output (I/O) Count

On a typical interface, I/O counts can range anywhere between:

  • 1-2 on a simple interface, to…
  • 20+ on a professional one.

And the number you need for your studio depends mainly on the number of tracks you plan to record/monitor at once.

For example:

  • Solo musicians – may need only 2-4.
  • Songwriting teams – who work in small groups, want at least 4-8.
  • Engineers who record bands – should have as many as possible (16 at least).

Also…electronic drum kits alone can sometimes require 8 inputs if they offer separate channels for each part of the kit.  So take that into consideration if you plan on using one.

4. Input Channel Types

One thing recording newbies often fail to realize is…

When counting the input channels of an audio interface, manufacturers could be referring to any number of different input types.

However in almost all cases, it includes some combination of these 3:

  1. Mic Input – which allows you to connect a mic directly to the interface.
  2. Line Input – which requires the addition of an outboard mic preamp to be used as a mic channel.
  3. Optical Input – which is a type of “digital” input that requires the addition of BOTH an outboard mic preamp, and digital converter w/ “optical out” to be used as a mic channel.

Now here’s what this means for you:

If you want to use your interface “as-is” without adding a multi-channel mic preamp, you might have less available inputs than you think.

Because as you’ll notice, interfaces often have 16 or more total input channels, but only 2-8 mic inputs.

So without any additional gear, the “real” number of inputs on your audio interface is the mic preamp count, NOT the same as the  input count.

Now that you know…make sure you actually have enough channels for your purposes.  Otherwise you will be sorely disappointed.

NOTE: Two other input types that you should also look for are DI inputs (if you play guitar/bass), and MIDI inputs (if you use any type of keyboards/MIDI controllers).  

5. Form Factor

A fancy jargon term used by computer geeks…

Form factor” simply refers to the physical size and shape interface.

The two form factor options are:

  1. Desktop Interfaces – which are smaller, and sit on your desk next to your computer.
  2. Rackmounted Interfaces– which are larger, and mount in a standard size rack unit.

For beginners, I recommend starting with a desktop interface, because they’re cheap, easy-to-use, and require no special mounting or peripheral devices.  You just plug them in and start recording.

With intermediate/advanced studios, rackmounted interfaces are typically better, as they tend to offer more I/O’s, as well as greater flexibility with signal routing and organization.

Now that you know what to look for, let’s check out some specific models.

Starting with…

Best Desktop Interfaces

For the vast majority of people reading this article, who only want a cheap interface that will allow them to record their music at home…

I recommend a 2-6 channel USB desktop interface, which normally costs between $100-$300 on the low-end, and $500-1500 on the high-end.

Currently, the top brands for these “types” of interfaces are PresonusFocusrite, AvidUniversal Audio.

Here are the models I recommend from each brand:

Presonus AudioBox (USB connection)

(includes Presonus Studio One Artist DAW)

Who do I recommend these for?  – Beginner studios on a tight budget who want a bundled interface/DAW combo.

Focusrite Scarlett (USB connection)

Who do I recommend these for?

Beginner studios on a tight budget who already have a 3rd party DAW they prefer.

Focusrite Clarett (Thunderbolt connection)

Who do I recommend these for?

Studios of ALL levels that don’t need a lot of I/O’s and can afford the price tag.

Apogee (USB connection)

Who do I recommend these for?

Intermediate studios that don’t need a lot of I/O’s, or beginner studios that can afford the price tag.

Avid (USB connection)

(Bundled with Pro Tools 12 DAW)

Who do I recommend these for?

All Beginner/Intermediate studios who want to use the industry standard Pro Tools DAW.

NOTE: While the Apogee Duet and Quartet are “Mac Only” interfaces, the newer Pro Tools Duet and Quartet are compatible with both Mac and PC.

Universal Audio (Thunderbolt connection)

Who do I recommend these for?

Intermediate/advanced studios who want pro studio quality, in a home-studio-sized package.

More Options?

If for some reason of the previous options aren’t to your liking…

Here are 2 more great budget desktop interfaces to check out:

And here is 1 more great high-end desktop option:

Up next…

Best Rackmounted Interfaces

For the purposes of this article, let’s define an “intermediate” studio as a home setup that requires a higher I/O count to meet the demands of some of the more complex recording tasks.

If that’s the type of studio you need, I recommend an 8+ channel rackmounted interface.

Again…the best interfaces in this category are made by Presonus, Focusrite, ApogeeUniversal Audio, and Antelope Audio:

Here are the top models I recommend:

Presonus

Focusrite

Apogee

Universal Audio

Antelope Audio

And finally…

“Professional” Interfaces

While any of the interfaces we’ve covered so far are more than capably of producing “professional” results…

There’s higher class of audio interfaces that we have yet to cover.

Normally only seen in high-end pro studios, these multi-thousand dollar interfaces typically connect to a separate PCIE card which can only be installed on a desktop computer.

The typical reason studios acquire this type of interface is to upgrade to Pro Tools HD, which is the standard system used by the majority of pro studios in the world.

In terms of performance, they offer many premium advantages, including:

  • Ultra-Low latency
  • High I/O counts
  • Premium Digital Conversion
  • Multiple Connection Options

And while these interfaces would almost certainly be overkill for the average home studio…

It’s still good to know about them, just in case the day comes when you decide your studio needs one.

Some examples of popular interfaces in this category are:

Now one last thing…

Assuming you chose a rackmounted interface, you’ll obviously need a rack to store it in, right?

So if you don’t have one yet, check out this article:

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