The best audio interfaces get your gear and creativity in sync

© Billy Cadden Best audio interfaces for recording music at home or in a studio.

You’ve got the microphones, guitars, and keyboards. You’ve got the computer. Now you just need to get them talking. That’s where the best audio interfaces come in. As the conduit between the analog and digital worlds, your audio interface is one of the most important pieces of equipment in the chain of content creation. Whether you’re recording or livestreaming, your interface determines the signal quality you capture and amount of creative flexibility you have. Conversion rates, inputs and outputs, and portability/expandability are just some of the considerations when picking an interface. But you don’t have to scroll through specs trying to make sense of it all. We’ve surveyed the market and picked some of the best audio interfaces to meet your needs no matter the scale of your projects or budget.

Best professional audio interface: Apogee Element 88Best audio interface for livestreaming: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2Best audio interface for home studio: PreSonus Quantum 2626Best audio interface for guitar: IK Multimedia iRig HD 2Best budget audio interface: PreSonus AudioBox USB

Audio interfaces come in a vast array of configurations and we selected models based upon the most common needs of content creators, musicians, livestreamers, and podcasters. Many of our selections are outfitted with super-versatile combo inputs that accommodate XLR and 1/4-inch connections that are compatible with most microphones, instruments, and line-level devices like keyboards. Connectivity is also an important factor in determining the usefulness and system-compatibility of audio interfaces; we selected a variety of units that use either USB, Thunderbolt, Lightning, or some combination thereof. Interfaces with fewer inputs are naturally smaller and better suited to portable use, while interfaces with more inputs are ideal for large-scale studio use and usually have designs that reflect this. This list represents the whole spectrum, with the most portable single-input interface at one end and the most expandable 26-input, 26-output interface at the other. Finally, high analog-to-digital conversion bitrate and recording quality are essential features to look for when selecting the best audio interface for professional use. If you intend to use audio recorded through your interface for any production-level application, be it streaming, film scoring, or podcasting, industry standards favor using the highest-available quality of audio, which is generally a depth of 24 bits and sample rates of either 96 kHz or 192 kHz.

© Apogee The best audio interfaces get your gear and creativity in sync

Why it made the cut: This compact interface from Apogee offers high-headroom microphone preamps with switchable phantom power and high-fidelity analog-to-digital conversion in a design that’s outwardly minimalist yet highly expandable.

Specs:

Inputs:4 x Microphone/Line/Instrument combo4 x Microphone2 x ADAT opticalWord clockOutputs:2 x Stereo out2 x Headphone out2 x ADAT opticalWord clockConnection Type: ThunderboltAD/DA Conversion Rate: Up to 24-bit/192 kHz

© Focusrite The best audio interfaces get your gear and creativity in sync

Pros:Cons:Highly expandablePriceyFully software-controlledThunderbolt onlyCompact, minimalist designNo daisy-chaining supportFlexible preamp design

The Element 88 — the flagship model in Apogee’s most affordable line of sub-$2,000 pro studio interfaces — is our pick for the best professional audio interface. It comes with a number of appealing design features to help users work with speed and flexibility. Most importantly, its minimalist front and back panels are free of switches, knobs, and other tactile elements, with all level control and switching occurring in Apogee’s control software on the computer itself. This feature allows users to focus on the screen without the need to pivot to adjusting real hardware, which can be cumbersome and distracting in creative settings.

The Element 88 is perfect for simultaneous recording of large groups with a variety of configurations like drums, keyboards, guitars, vocals, and more. It houses eight built-in switchable analog preamps, each with their own phantom power and four that automatically accommodate high-impedance signals such as those from electric guitars and basses and line-level signals such as those from keyboards and synths. They’re all easily accessible from the front panel of the interface, making setup quick and easy. The interface also includes pro features like BNC word clock in and out for synchronization with other compatible digital gear.

Apogee’s products are found in professional studios everywhere and they’re known for their clear, open, and transparent sound, as well as their ability to record at qualities up to 24-bit/192 kHz, so if you want a futureproof pro-level interface, the Element 88 is a great option. Be aware that while this interface is expandable to 16 inputs via an ADAT optical connection, it only has one Thunderbolt port, which prevents daisy-chaining of multiple Thunderbolt devices. This isn’t an issue if you’re using a different model interface for expansion, but if you want to use multiple Apogee Element units, your computer needs two Thunderbolt ports. Bear in mind as well that Thunderbolt ports are far more common natively on Macs (though can be added to Windows computers through PCIe expansion cards) and newer Macs use USB-C ports for connecting Thunderbolt devices.

© PreSonus The best audio interfaces get your gear and creativity in sync

Why it made the cut: The compact Scarlett 2i2 from Focusrite sports an intuitive layout and two versatile input preamps that make it ideal for running a basic recording or livestreaming setup.

© IK Multimedia The best audio interfaces get your gear and creativity in sync

Specs:

Inputs:2 x Microphone/Line/Instrument comboOutputs:Stereo outHeadphone outConnection Type: USBAD/DA Conversion Rate: Up to 24-bit/192 kHz

Pros:Cons:Small and portableNot expandableHigh-quality convertersOnly two inputs and one headphone outputSimple, easy-to-use designUSB bus-powered; no wall wart requiredAccommodates every type of audio signal

Even the most minimalist recording setups require gear that’s robust enough to deliver high-quality audio. The Scarlett 2i2 is a compact USB-powered workhorse that offers pro features like combo inputs, 48-volt phantom power for condenser microphones, and 24-bit/192kHz analog-to-digital conversion at an affordable price point, making it an excellent option for streamers, mobile recordists, voiceover artists, and more.

© PreSonus The best audio interfaces get your gear and creativity in sync

Most basic livestreaming and podcasting setups require one or two microphones at most for voice capture, so the two-input capacity of the Scarlett 2i2 makes it a lean and fitting choice for such a context. This stripped-down design allows it to draw all its power off of USB, which makes it more compact than some of its competitors that require an external power supply. Its minimal capacity also makes it a solid option for use as a stereo output when using software synths, samplers, and other line-level computer-based sources.

While the Scarlett 2i2’s small-but-mighty design is one of its main strengths, it doesn’t have the capacity nor the expandability of larger audio interfaces. Other competing items like the Audient iD14 are just as small but include ADAT inputs for adding eight more preamps to your setup should the need arise. If you’re looking to record more than three sources simultaneously, whether they’re microphones or instruments, you might opt for one of these ADAT-compatible interfaces or grab one like the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 which includes eight of its own.

Why it made the cut: This rack-mountable interface from PreSonus offers capacity, expandability, and a feature set rivaling that of interfaces twice its price, making it an appealing choice for small and home studios.

Specs:

Inputs:2 x Microphone/Instrument combo6 x Microphone/Line combo2 x ADAT optical2 x Line returnS/PDIFMIDIWord clockOutputs:Stereo out2 x Preamp out8 x Line out2 x ADAT opticalS/PDIFMIDIWord clockConnection Type: ThunderboltAD/DA Conversion Rate: Up to 24-bit/192 kHz

Pros:Cons:Great value for a pro-level feature setOnly two instrument inputsExpandable via ADAT to 26 inputs and 26 outputsThunderbolt cable not includedLine returns for integration with outboard gearExtremely low latencyIncludes DAW software

PreSonus has a way with engineering pro-quality gear and making it available at a reasonable price point and the company’s Quantum 2626 may be the best example yet. Rack-mountable and decked out with BNC word clock, ADAT, Thunderbolt, 48-volt phantom power, 24-bit/192 kHz AD/DA conversion, and a host of analog I/O, this is one of the best audio interfaces for home recording due to its sheer ability to integrate with other audio gear and expand along with the changing needs of most studios.

Importantly, the Quantum 2626 comes bundled with digital audio workstation software including Ableton Live Lite and PreSonus’s own Studio One Artist, making this an ideal option for jumpstarting a new recording setup. It features a total of eight microphone preamps, two of which are compatible with instruments and six of which are compatible with line-level signals. Its ADAT and S/PDIF inputs allow users to expand to a whopping total of 26 inputs and 26 outputs, making this an easy and cost-effective choice if you have aspirations to grow your studio down the line. The unit also includes its own dedicated line returns for inline interfacing with outboard gear line compressors and equalizers.

While this unit does connect via the latest and snappiest version of Thunderbolt, it doesn’t include a Thunderbolt cable, which must be purchased separately and aren’t inexpensive. This may turn off some users, but the Quantum 2626 is still much more affordable than many of its direct competitors by several hundred dollars. Its limit of two instrument inputs also affects its usefulness as a guitar or bass preamp, but this can be circumvented by using a direct injection (DI) box like the Whirlwind Imp 2, which allows 1/4-inch connections to be converted into XLR form for use with any microphone preamp.

Why it made the cut: This pocket-sized interface comes bundled with amplifier simulation software and includes a dedicated amplifier output, making it perfect for recording to Mac, iPad, and iPhone while integrating with existing rigs.

Specs:

InputsInstrumentOutputsAmp outputHeadphone outConnection Type: USB, LightningAD/DA Conversion Rate: Up to 24-bit/96 kHz

Pros:Cons:Smaller than a smartphoneInstrument only; no line-level or microphone sourcesIncludes amplifier simulation softwarePrevents device charging while in useOnboard quick-adjust volume and signal controlsHeadphone output for easy monitoring

If you’re looking for the best audio interface for guitar, the iRig HD 2 is a robust quick-start option that’s small enough to fit on any desk or slip into a gig bag. Though minimal in its design, it sports thoughtful features like onboard level controls, a built-in headphone output, and an optional amp throughput for sending signal to a computer and an amplifier simultaneously. It’s compatible with Mac and PC and connects using either Lightning or USB (cables included).

Besides its portable shape and its ability to capture high-quality 24-bit/96 kHz audio, one of the iRig HD 2’s most significant features is its bundled amplifier simulation software, Amplitube. The program includes a host of virtual pedal effects and amplifier cabinets for creating realistic, studio-quality electric guitar recordings without an amplifier or external FX rig. Not only does the software eliminate the need for bulky recording equipment, but it allows users to record loud electric guitar tones in near-complete silence, making this a good option for recording at night, in shared spaces, and on the go.

The iRig HD 2 is undoubtedly a great choice for mobile recording, minimalist setups, and guitar demo use, but it can only accommodate a single 1/4-inch instrument input, so it’s not compatible with microphones or multi-instrument setups. Additionally, when used with an iPad or an iPhone, this interface occupies the device’s Lightning port and eliminates the ability to charge during use. If you’ll be recording for long periods on an iOS device, be sure to bring along a charger or a battery pack to juice up between takes.

Why it made the cut: This simple interface packs two combo inputs, speaker and headphone outputs, and high-quality 24-bit/96 kHz analog-to-digital conversion into an affordable bus-powered unit.

Specs:

Inputs2 x Microphone/Instrument comboMIDIOutputsStereo outHeadphone outMIDIConnection Type: USBAD/DA Conversion Rate: Up to 24-bit/96 kHz

Pros:Cons:Powered via USBLimited to two inputsStudio-quality analog-to-digital conversionPhantom power affects both channels at onceCombo inputs for microphones and instrumentsIncludes recording software

If you need a simple, portable audio interface for powering a small podcasting setup or barebones recording studio on a budget, the two-channel PreSonus AudioBox is worth a look. Its two combo inputs accommodate XLR microphones, as well as 1/4-inch instrument inputs, and it has simple stereo outputs for a set of speakers as well as a single headphone output for monitoring. A knob on the front panel allows users to adjust the mix between their prerecorded audio and their live signal, eliminating the common latency and delay issues that are typical of digital recording.

Our pick for the best budget audio interface, this unit is bundled with a significant amount of recording software including Ableton Live Lite and Studio One Artist Edition, which makes it a good option for users who are starting from square one. It also has high-quality converters capable of recording at fidelity up to 24-bit/96 kHz, and it includes MIDI inputs and outputs for connecting keyboards and other devices.

The bare-minimum design of the AudioBox comes with some perks as well as some drawbacks. For example, it’s powered via a single USB connection and doesn’t require a separate wall wart, so it’s perfect for remote laptop recording away from electricity. At the same time, it can’t provide independent phantom power to each input, so you can’t use a powered condenser microphone and a sensitive ribbon microphone at the same time. Its single headphone output also requires users to bring their own splitter or headphone amp if they’re working with others. Still, if you’re able to work within its limits, the AudioBox is a great value.

Audio interfaces come in a broad range of input numbers, so it’s important to select a unit that fits the type of content you’re creating. Single- or double-channel audio interfaces should be sufficient for basic streaming and podcasting work, but musicians should opt for four or more inputs to avoid being painted into a corner creatively. An eight-input interface is the best place to start in terms of flexibility, but keep in mind that those units aren’t as portable as a two-input design.

Most of the units on this list include specially-shaped combo inputs that can accommodate both XLR and 1/4-inch TRS connectors, allowing a variety of microphones and instruments to be used and which will provide the most flexibility in working environments. Compare the type of audio equipment you’re looking to capture with an audio interface’s inputs can save a lot of headache down the line; for example, the iRig HD 2 is a convenient single-input interface, but it’s not compatible with microphones.

The most portable audio interfaces tend to have a maximum of two inputs, with some models offering expansion via their ports. To maximize the portability factor, choose an audio interface that’s powered via its own connection to the computer. This type of design limits the need for extra electrical wiring, and it also allows you to record remotely using only the battery of a laptop.

If you’re aiming to build a studio or expand your production in the future, choose an audio interface with ADAT optical inputs like the PreSonus Quantum 2626. A single ADAT port generally allows interfaces to accept an additional eight channels of audio from another compatible dedicated unit over a simple optical cable, effectively doubling or even tripling the capacity of a base model eight-input interface.

Q: Are expensive audio interfaces worth it? The more you spend on an audio interface, the more likely it is to have high-quality analog-to-digital conversion, efficient design, and expandable I/O. That said, you don’t have to break the bank to achieve good results. The relatively affordable Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, for example, has the ability to record at a very high 24-bit/192 kHz quality (a resolution that satisfies the expectations of mastering engineers and lossless streaming services like Apple Music, etc.). Still, it’s limited to only two inputs. Whether a more expensive audio interface is worth it to you comes down to whether you value capacity, expandability, and futureproof design. Q: What makes one audio interface better than another? Audio interfaces combine many critical components in a single unit including analog-to-digital conversion and preamplifiers. The best audio interfaces tend to be the most flexible and can accommodate a range of input types from condenser microphones to keyboards. The more expensive an audio interface is, the more options for expandability it should offer. Q: How long does an audio interface last? There’s no real limit on the lifespan of an audio interface beyond the deprecation of its connector type. For example, Apple recently stopped designing computers with FireWire ports, which used to be commonly found on audio interfaces for the better part of a decade. These devices can still be used with an adapter, but if you’re looking for an interface with staying power, pick one with a newer connector like Thunderbolt or USB-C.

Whether you’re livestreaming, podcasting, making music, or recording voiceovers, an audio interface is an essential piece of gear for connecting analog audio equipment with your computer. When shopping for the best audio interface for your needs, keep in mind the number of simultaneous inputs you’ll require: a two-input unit like the PreSonus AudioBox USB may be sufficient for a streaming, vocal, or podcasting setup, while an eight-input interface like the PreSonus Quantum 2626 is better suited for recording a full band. Mobile recordists may also prefer a bus-powered audio interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, which allows you to record on the go without the need for an external power supply. Regardless of your end goal, it’s important to pick an audio interface that matches the scale of your studio and accommodates your needs for portability, expandability, and audio quality.

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