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What is the Best Audio Interface for under $500?

Updated on June 29, 2013

Me, My Studio and My Audio Interfaces


When I started to plan my home recording studio, I knew I wanted to use a PC at the heart of it. In order to do this, I needed an Audio Interface.

I quickly found that Audio Interfaces come in a wide range of prices and an even wider variety of specifications and features.

Unsure of which DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) Software I wanted to use, I started off with a Tascam US122MKIIw a very affordable 'four in four out' USB Audio Interface.



After about six months I had settled happily into using Cubase Artist and I decided to upgrade my Audio Interface to a Steinberg Yamaha 816X : a Firewire interface and offers, I would say, seamless integration with Cubase.

Along the way, I did a lot of research into Audio Interfaces across the various price ranges. This lens is based on that research and I hope it will help you to find the right Audio Interface.

The lens is begins with a personal selection of my stand out Audio Interfaces and then is arranged into five price ranges : under $50, under $100, under $200 and under $500. I then review the number one Audio Interface in each price range, with product description, Customer Feedback, Video Demonstrations and a 'Quick View' Pros and Cons List.

I also added my own tips, definitions, explanations and advice for people buying an Audio Interface : I explain technical features such as the difference between USB and Firewire.

If you have any suggestions or anything else you'd like to see on this lens, let me know in the Feedback Section.

*USB Soundblaster Soundcard Image by Wookie

A Selection of Top Audio Interfaces - A Personal Tour of my Stand Out Audio Interfaces

BEHRINGER U-CONTROL UCA202
BEHRINGER U-CONTROL UCA202

If you're looking for a 'cheap as chips' Audio Interface, this is the one for you. Nothing fancy here, just a straight shooting USB based connection. Great for fast demos and 'just getting that track down'.

 
Tascam US122MKII USB Audio/Midi Interface
Tascam US122MKII USB Audio/Midi Interface

Ah memories... this was my first Audio Interface. The US122MKII is a great, little box of tricks! If you're looking for an introduction into the world of Audio Interfaces, this could be the one for you. It comes with basic versions of most of the usual features : phantom power, midi, analogue / digital out etc. The USB connection is easy to set up. The '2 in 2 out' makes the Tascam ideal for Singer Songwriters looking to record singing and playing at the same time.

 
Steinberg Advanced Integration DSP Studio Firewire Interface 1 DSP
Steinberg Advanced Integration DSP Studio Firewire Interface 1 DSP

A little on the pricey side, this is my current Audio Interface and I love it! If, like me, you use Cubase, this is a first rate Audio Interface. Built by Yamaha and Steinberg specifically with Cubase in mind, the compatibility is faultless (though not 'idiot proof', as I've found out on at least one occasion). The firewire interface is a little tricky to set up. It took me some time to find exactly the right firewire card and chip combination to match my PC's needs, Cubase's needs and the needs of the Interface. Once set up though, the system performs without error (one year and counting). The Steinberg comes like high quality Analogue to Digital Conversion and eight super clean Preamps (if a little peaky) - plus every type of digital connection you can think of. The lack of midi ports has not given me any grief so far. I am 100% satisfied with my Steinberg Interface.

 

USB Vs Firewire : What's the Difference?

The Basics


An Audio Interface can connect to a Computer via one of two types of connection : USB or Firewire. This distinction is probably the clearest defining characteristic of an Audio Interface. It is also the topic that gets talked about the most in Internet Forums dedicated to Home Recording and the like. Rather than getting lost in endless technical comparisons that will mean little to all of us, let's take a look at the tangible 'real world' differences between USB and Firewire.

USB vs Firewire : Standard Vs Custom


First off, USB is standard on all computers. If you are using a Desktop or Laptop right now, the chances are you have a fair few USB ports on your kit. At the time of writing this lens (mid 2012), there are three generations of USB currently on, or have been on, the market : 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. Unless your system is old enough for Indiana Jones to come searching for it, you probably don't have USB 1.0*.

*If you do have USB 1.0 and are planning to buy a USB Audio Interface, you are going to find it very difficult to locate a compatible device (if at all). An entire new system may not be necessary, but you should do some research into USB 2.0 PCi boards. There may be boards that are compatible with your motherboard. Now that USB 3.0 is on the Market, 2.0 PCi Boards will also be 'cheap as chips!'.

'Ah, but what about USB 3.0?!', I hear you cry. There is no doubt that in the future USB 3.0 will be used for Audio Interfaces, however at the moment - to my knowledge - there are none on the Market. So... Whenever I talk about USB, I am referring to USB 2.0.

USB is a standard on all computers, Firewire is not. Most desktops and almost all (if not all) laptops do not come with a Firewire Card already installed. The exceptions to this rule would be systems designed specifically for working with Media and custom builds. This means that at the very least, in addition to the cost of your Audio Interface, if you're buying a Firewire Audio Interface, you're also going to have to buy a Firewire Card.

Quick Tips : Inputs

The EssentialsXLR (Mic)TRS (Guitar)Very UsefulHi-ZPhantom PowerGood to HaveMidi

USB vs Firewire : Generic Vs Specialized


USB 2.0 is a generic 'one size fits all' (mini connectors not withstanding - lol) connection. In order to ensure your Audio Interface is compatible with your system (in terms of connection), you need only check for the 2.0 logo. Firewire is not as simple as this. There are different makes and types of Firewire Chip. Before you buy a Firewire Card, you need to make sure its chip set is compatible with your Audio Interface, DAW Software (Recording Software), Motherboard / PCi Slots and Operating System.

What is the Best Audio Interface for under $50?

Behringer UCA202 : Customer Reviews - The Number One Audio Interface for under $50


Let's take a look at the Number One Highest Rated Audio Interface for under $50 : the Behringer UCA202.

I always like to read reviews by actual customers who have bought and then used the kit. After reading through the reviews posted on Amazon, these quotes stood out to me as being the most informative. I hope you find them useful :


BEHRINGER U-CONTROL UCA202
BEHRINGER U-CONTROL UCA202

Postive Reviews"I use it to record music and spoken word in stereo and have been very impressed with the quality and quietness. The headphone jack on the side with volume control is very handy during recording too."...from 5 Star Review by Amazon Customer N. Webb."I can now copy my Cassettes over to my computer and edit them and put them on my MP3 player. No hiss or noise, works great!"...from 5 Star Review by Amazon Customer Brian P. Mayhew.Negative Reviews"...Well repeated attempts have failed completely with this little (plastic, BTW) box. XP recognises it, but only as an output device."...from 1 Star Review by Amazon Customer FLAtRich."Loud buzzing accompanies every recording."...from 1 Star Review by Amazon Customer quitequieter.

 

Quick Tips : Outputs

The EssentialsHeadphonesRCA SteroVery UsefulDigital OutGood to HaveMidi

Behringer UCA202 : Video Demos

Behringer UCA202

Good for :Domestic AudioHobby GuitaristsOK for :Cheap DemosBad for :Clean DemosPro Sounds

USB Vs Firewire : USB Powered

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

USB Audio Interfaces are often USB Powered. This is both good and bad ..and can be a little ugly :

The Good : Having an Audio Interface that is USB Powered saves on electrical sockets and cuts down on the number of cables / wires to get tangled up, trip you up and provide endless entertainment for your cat.

The Bad : Audio Interfaces use a lot more power than the typical USB Powered devices (Keyboards, portable Hard Drives etc.). You computer may not be able to power your Audio Inteface and all the other devices on your system at the same time. This can cause the other devices to fail - for example : I had to switch my keyboard to a external USB hub (with its own power supply), when I was working with my USB Powered Audio Interface. The keyboard would fail sporadically, when the Audio Interface was 'under strain', taking the attached Mouse with it. It is difficult to control a computer without a keyboard or mouse. I found yelling at the computer made almost no difference at all.

The Ugly : Worse still is if your computer can not provide enough power for your Audio Interface via the USB cable, regardless of how many of the other USB Powered devices you remove from the network. In this case, you may find yourself with only limited functionality. The more power thirsty features of your Audio Interface, such as Phantom Power for Mircophones, may not be available to you.

One possible solution is to root your Audio Interface via an external USB Hub, complete with its own power source. This is however a troublesome solution in my mind, as it increases the number of cables and equipment between your Audio source and your Recording destination. To add to the frustation many USB Powered Audio Interfaces do not give you the option of buying an additional Power Pack in order to run the Interface of the mains.

Quick Tips : What is Phantom Power?

The Essentials :Condenser Mics use itPowers Mic via XLR cableThe Good :Stronger Mic SignalThe Bad :Standard Mics Damaged by itBe Careful!

USB vs Firewire : Power


Firewire Audio Interfaces do not suffer from these problems, as they are mains powered devices. This is less convenient than a USB Powered Audio Interface and for many buyers, having the need for a mains supply may not be practical.

The massive advantaged of a USB Powered Interface is, if you're computer has power, it'll will power (at least in theory). This makes for a far more portable solution and makes USB a great choice for light weight Live Recording and Home Recording for people who do not want to dedicate a room to the techno-clutter of a Recording Studio.

What is the Best Audio Interface for under $100?

Tascam US-100 USB 2.0 : Customer Reviews - Number One Highest Rated Audio Interface for under $100


Let's take a look at the Number One Highest Rated Audio Interface for under $100 : the Tascam US-100 USB 2.0.

I always like to read reviews by actual customers who have bought and then used the kit. After reading through the reviews posted on Amazon, these quotes stood out to me as being the most informative. I hope you find them useful :


Quick Tips : What is Hi-Z?

The Essentials :Used for 'direct in' GuitarsImproves Sound QualityThe Good :Ideal for Home RecordingThe Bad :Best of bad solutionsNot Pro Sound

Do You Use Hi-Z?

When recording, do you use Hi-Z?

See results

Tascam US-100 USB 2.0 : Video Demos

Mixed bag of video demos here : a quick user demo, a promo from Tascam, song recorded using a US-100 and a Bassline recorded through a US-100.

Tascam US-100 USB 2.0

Good For :Domestic AudioSolid DemosOK for :Live WorkBad for :Pro Sound

USB vs Firewire : Recording & Playback

Introduction :


The technical reasons for the differences between USB and Firewire Audio Interface recording and playback are plentiful and headache inducing, let's keep it simple by looking at how they affect the actual reality of using the two types of Interface :

Both USB 2.0 and Firewire Audio Interfaces can record and playback high quality audio, with an equal level of reliablity and success. The difference lays in the details of how many tracks they can handle at the same time, when recording / playing back audio, and how robust that recording / playback data stream is, when working within a USB or Firewire network :

USB Recording and Playback


In much the same way that USB is simpler to set up than Firewire, USB Audio Interfaces provide an affordable, high quality solution for simple audio recording and playback on light weight systems. If you are only working with a small number of tracks and software based effects, USB will do a great job for you without the additional complications and expense of a Firewire based network.

However once you start to increase the number of tracks and / or virtual plug ins, your USB based Recording / Playback will start to stutter and fail. When this will happen varies from system to system, but it will happen.

USB works on a Hub Based network. This means all the devices have to communicate via the central hub of the network (your computer). This is potentially a lot of data traffic and is made more problematic, by the fact that all the devices on a USB network have equal priority. If one device 'has a lot to say', the data transfer of any other device simply queues behind this large volume of traffic. These queues tend to be quite short (less than a couple of seconds most of the time), and make no real difference to almost all forms of data transfer. Most data is not 'time based'. It does not matter if you get your Word Document now or in 1 seconds time (if it does matter, you need to talk someone).

However with Audio (and Video) recording and playback, it really does matter. Even a fraction of a second delay in data transfer when your Audio Interface is recording, will cause what is called a 'drop out'. A drop out is a tiny slither of silence that can take an otherwise Pro-Sounding recording and consign it to the dustbin of amateur hour audio takes. It is for this reason, I talk about USB being great on light weight systems. You may actually have to unplug other USB devices from system, when using your Audio Interface.

Quick Tips : KHz

The Essentials :Input at Output RateCDS = 44.1KHzDVDs = 48KHz

Firewire Recording and Playback


As I have already mentioned, whereas USB set up is relatively straight forward, Firwire set up can be quite problematic. It's very important that you check with both your DAW and Audio Interface websites to make sure you buy a compatible Firewire Card. It is, therefore, of great advantage to know in advance which DAW software you intend to use and buy an Audio Interface that is designed to work with it. This will avoid the nightmare situation of having an Audio Interface this is compatible with one type of Firewire Card, and a DAW that is compatible with another.

In addition to the DAW sofware and Audio Interface, you also have to ensure your Firewire Card is compatible with your Motherboard and PCi slots : PCi slots have different grades of speed and even physical interface size. Your computer may well have a variety of different PCi slots and you need to make sure, you're not already using all of the ones you'd need for your Firewire Card (with Graphic Cards etc).

Your Operating System also has to be compatible with your Firewire Chip. I've set up a fair few computer systems from domestic to Avid Video Editing. Buying the right Firewire Card for my system, proved to be the most research having piece of 'compatibility buying' I've done so far.

*It is important to note that there are degrees of compatiblity. At the extremes there is, of course, doesn't work at all and works perfectly, but between the two, there's a whole host of grey. Cut corners on your Firewire research and you'll pay for it time and time again with seemingly unexplainable glitches and headaches.

The good news is, once set up, Firewire will provide you with a robust and sophisticated system capable of multi-track recording and playback. Date flow between Firewire Devices on a network is much more flexible and comprehensive than that on a USB Network. For starters Firewire Networks are 'peer to peer' networks. This allows each individual Firewire Device on the Network to talk to each other device, independently of the computer - for example :

If you have a Firewire Mixer and a Fire Audio Interface, they can work quite happily with each other and never bother the computer or its resources. It is also possible to prioritise a particular device on a Firewire Network, so its data gets 'first dibs'. Firewire Audio Interfaces are not prone to the performance interference, drops outs and glitches of USB Audio Interfaces.

What is the Best Audio Interface for under $200?

How many KHz do You Record at?

What Sample Rate do you use?

See results

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 : Customer Reviews - Number One Highest Rated Audio Interface for under $200


Let's take a look at the Number One Highest Rated Audio Interface for under $200 : the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2.

I always like to read reviews by actual customers who have bought and then used the kit. After reading through the reviews posted on Amazon, these quotes stood out to me as being the most informative. I hope you find them useful :


Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (1st GENERATION) USB Recording Audio Interface
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (1st GENERATION) USB Recording Audio Interface

Postive Reviews"The 2i2 is a massive step up from recording with a cheap PC microphone through your onboard sound chip. The latency is far improved, the D/A conversion is superior to a soundcard not specifically designed for recording, and the whole thing is reasonably transparent."...from 5 Star Review by Amazon Customer Dr. Avery."I just wanted a simple interface for my Mac at home. I bought this last week and am quite impressed with the build quality and sound. The unit has very low noise from the preamps..."...from 5 Star Review by Amazon Customer Pat LambertNegative Reviews"It clips like crazy when using a guitar on the instrument setting. Active and passive pickups both clip even with the input volume all the way down."...from 3 Star Review by Amazon Customer Matt."1. Powered only via USB....2. I am not a huge fan of the included Ableton SW..."...from 5 Star Review by Pat Lambert.

 

Quick Tips : Bits

The Essentials :Use 24 Bit16 is okLess is not

How Many Bits do You Record at?

What Sample Depth do you record at?

See results

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 : Video Demos

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

Good For :Simple Home StudioQuality DemosOK for :Multi Track WorkBad for :Pro Sound

USB vs Firewire : Conclusion


USB provides you with an affordable, easy to set up (relative to Firewire) Audio Interface which will serve you extremely as part of a simple, light weight Recording Set Up. The difficulties of USB surround not the Set Up, but the running of a more complicated system. This may well require 'day to day' management of devices and system resources, in order to get the best from your Audio Interface.

In stark contrast to this, all most all (if not all) of the headaches associated with Firewire are set up headaches. Once the system is set up correctly, Firewire gives you a top notch Recording and Playback performance - limited only by the resources around it.

In conclusion, USB is for people who want to keep things simple and have some fun. Firewire is the domain of the tech-head and the professional / would-be professional.

Do You Use a USB or Firewire Audio Interface?

What type of Audio Interface do your use USB or Firewire?

See results

What is the Best Audio Interface for under $500?

Tech Tips : Impedance

Impedance is the amount of resistance a piece of equipment has to an electrical signal traveling through it.A high impedance cable is like running through mud, a low cable like running on a track : the mud takes a lot more energy than the track.The same is true with high Vs low impedance cables : the higher the cable, the more audio signal / quality is lost ; the lower the cable, the more audio signal / quality is preserved.High = Bad / Low = Good

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 : Customer Reviews - Number One Highest Rated Audio Interface for under $500


Let's take a look at the Number One Highest Rated Audio Interface for under $500 : the Focusrite Saffire Pro 24.

I always like to read reviews by actual customers who have bought and then used the kit. After reading through the reviews posted on Amazon, these quotes stood out to me as being the most informative. I hope you find them useful :


Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 Firewire Audio Interface
Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 Firewire Audio Interface

Postive Reviews"I got the Saffire pro 24 and was amazed when I saw that it had solid performance at 5ms RTL... ...I also purchased a SIGII Firewire PICe firewire card (TI chipset) from amazon. Maybe this card is contributing to the low latency..."...from 5 Star Review by Amazon Customer Jxm."I was able to install the drivers and software and have the unit up and running in less than 10 minutes and the sound quality is great! The preamps are far beyond what I expected for the price and the audio output is the cleanest I ever heard."...from 5 Star Review by Amazon Customer D. Carter.Negative Reviews"The drivers in Windows 7 x64 are HORRIBLE, on 256 buffers size have plenty of drops and pops..."...from 1 Star Review by Amazon Customer R.S. Quintana."I just received my Saffire Pro 24. It doesn't work. I'm running on a 3.33GHz 6-core Mac with OS10.6.8. Firewire shows up in the branch, powers the SaffirePro24, but won't communicate with the computer."...from 1 Star Review by Amazon Customer Hypotenus Love Triangle.

 

Tech Tips : Latency

Latency refers to the delay experienced by an audio signal, between input and output, through a specific deviceIt can be caused by a number of factors : equipment impedance, signal conversion (analogue to digital etc) and processing (effects etc)Latency can also be 'set' (Buffering) to help your PC record audio smoothly.Low Latency is better, but can cause recording drop outs and distortionsIncreasing Latency can solve some recording problems

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 : Video Demos

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24

Good For :Multi Track WorkHigh Quality SoundOK for :Stable SystemBad for :Set Up TimeCompatibility

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    • tobydavis profile image
      Author

      tobydavis 3 years ago

      @guitaristguild: Thanks for stopping by!

    • guitaristguild profile image

      guitaristguild 3 years ago

      Nice lens, very informative. Thanks for sharing.

    • tobydavis profile image
      Author

      tobydavis 4 years ago

      @anonymous: That's cool Interface with a bunch of goodies for a nice price - excellent pick!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      steinberg ur28

    • tobydavis profile image
      Author

      tobydavis 4 years ago

      @theothertim lm: That's a great tip! They have some interesting looking kit for under $500 - oddly they don't seem to pop up too much on customer reviews and buyer's guides etc - perhaps they're the 'best kept secret' of the audio interface world.

    • theothertim lm profile image

      theothertim lm 4 years ago

      What about the Echo devices. They're definitely amazing for the price (under $500)

    • tobydavis profile image
      Author

      tobydavis 4 years ago

      @WriterJanis2: Thank you so much for your comment. I really hope you're right - that's exactly what I was trying to do :-)

    • BikePro profile image

      BikePro 4 years ago

      Nice lens! I have an M-Audio Fast Track that I'm pretty happy with, it's a great audio interface and well under $500. These other ones look good too.

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 4 years ago

      It's a joy to read your lenses, even though I really know nothing about the recording industry. Perhaps some poll options for folks just learning? Many thanks :)

    • lshields lm profile image

      lshields lm 4 years ago

      Great info lens. I will have to bookmark this for my husband

    • SQuidMonster profile image

      SQuidMonster 4 years ago

      very good collections of audio devices

    • madmike1 lm profile image

      madmike1 lm 4 years ago

      LOL !!! Phantom !!! Nice lens, I've been looking for a small portable interface for travel, and I like the Scarlett 2i2....Nice sound, and comes with a bundle of software effects !!

    • rawwwwwws lm profile image

      rawwwwwws lm 4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing!

    • Ardyn25 profile image

      Ardyn25 4 years ago

      Wow...lots of good info. Very interesting.

    • Ardyn25 profile image

      Ardyn25 4 years ago

      Wow...lots of good info. Very interesting.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      You've really provided a lot of great info to help people choose the right one.