TechBottom’s Guide to the Best USB Audio Interfaces
There are dozens upon dozens of audio interfaces available on the market today. But which is the best audio interface for you? That depends on the amount of inputs and outputs you need, MIDI capabilities, and the type of connector needed to connect the interface to your computer. In this guide, we will solely be looking at audio interfaces that use USB connections. While not as fast as Thunderbolt or PCIE connections, USB audio interfaces are more affordable and still perform very well for any home studio. Our review will cover both desktop interfaces (smaller, 2-6 channels) and rack-mounted interfaces (larger, 8+ channels). Before making a purchase, make sure your computer supports the drivers necessary to connect the USB interface – although the ones we have reviewed here rate very well in terms of versatility among different PC setups.
Best Desktop USB Audio Interfaces
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a fantastic USB audio interface for small home studios or podcasters on a budget. It features four analog inputs, two mic preamps, and two instrument inputs , and a single headphone output with gain control. The Scarlett 2i2 boasts super-low latency that lets musicians record with software effects and monitor in real time. It's size also makes it very portable, simply bring it with you and connect with USB, plug in your mics or guitars, and record away.
Another great thing about the Scarlett 2i2 is everything else Focusrite gives you in the box. Included with the interface
- USB cable
- XLN Audio Addictive Key: the first of four keyboard instrument programs by XLN audio
- Ableton® - Live Lite: Lite-version of Ableton, a leading music-making software
- Avid® Pro Tools - First Focusrite Creative Pack: Lite-version of Pro Tools, a leading music-making software
- Loopmasters: A 2GB library of royalty-free samples
- Focusrite Red Plug-in Suite: Efficient, easy-to-use equalizer and compressor
- Softube: four world-class effect plug-ins by Softube including a reverb, delay, mastering and distortion
- Focusrite Plug-in Collective: exclusive offers, tutorial content and more from an array of plug-in developers
If you need an audio interface that can run up to two mics at a time, the Scarlett 2i2 is an absolute steal for the price and build quality. For those that need more than two mics, we suggest looking at the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 (which we review below in rack-mounted section).
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PreSonus AudioBox 96
The PreSound AudioBox 96 USB audio interface is another great choice for studios that only need a few inputs. If you don't already have a DAW, the AudioBox USB 96 comes with a free license for PreSonus’ Studio One. The interface also works with nearly all Mac and Windows audio-recording software. We have read some reviews that stated the direct guitar and bass run a tad hot on some setups. Although we did not have any problems, it may be something you run into if you plan on recording direct. We suggest buying from a place with a nice return policy like Amazon, just in case.
Overall, we have no problem recommending the PreSonus AudioBox to podcasters and musicians who want to start experimenting with a home studio. We do prefer the Scarlett 2i2, but both are serviceable if all you need is a one or two microphone setup.
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Best Mounted USB Audio Interfaces
Focusrite Scarlett 18i20
For a complete studio, the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 gives you exactly what you need from a USB audio interface. It features eight mic preamps with plenty of gain, very minimal distortion, two instrument inputs, and super low-latency. Some features you may want to read through include:
- Class-leading conversion and sample rates up to 192kHz / 24 bit; super-low latency for using your plug-ins in real time without the need for DSP (measured at 2.74ms, working at 96kHz with a 32 samples buffer)
- 10 1/4-inch balanced jack outputs, including a dedicated stereo pair with anti-thimp circuitry; two discrete headphones output with dedicated gain controls; MIDI I/O; S/PDIF in and out; ADAT I/O (expand up to eight additional inputs and outputs)
- Includes Pro Tools | First Focusrite Creative Pack and Ableton Live Lite, Focusrite Control, Softube Time and Tone Bundle, Focusrite's Red Plug-in Suite, 2GB of Loopmasters samples
- Focusrite iOS Control now available - download the free Focusrite iOS Control app and adjust cue mixes remotely from an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch
If you need an audio interface that can handle just about anything your band or studio can throw at it, look no further. It's got a beautiful finish, oodles of inputs, great sound quality, separate stereo headphone mixes, extensive expansion options, and round-trip latency as low as 2.74ms.
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If you are on a bit of a budget but still need a great, multiple input interface system - we recommend the Tascam US-16x08. The TASCAM does an excellent job of providing your mix with a clear sound quality and advanced features to manage big sessions. Included features:
- Captures 16 mic and line inputs to your computer with clear sound quality and advanced features to manage big sessions
- Eight Ultra-HDDA microphone preamps deliver the cleanest and quietest operation in their class while delivering up to 56dB of gain
- An additional eight line inputs are provided, two of them switchable to instrument level for direct guitar or bass recording
- Eight balanced line outputs are also available, two with a level control on the front panel for monitoring
- Built in is a DSP Mixer for low-latency digital mixing, and each channel has four-band EQ and compression for polished-sounding monitor mixes
- In addition to interface mode, the US-16x08 can be used as a standalone mic preamp
- The first two channels switch to direct guitar inputs ideal for direct recording electric and acoustic guitar and bass without a preamp
All in all, the US-16x08 includes enough I/O for almost any music recording application. It's easy to setup, and it works great. While we prefer using the Scarlett in our studio, you really can't go wrong with either choice.