8 of the best budget USB audio interfaces
8th Feb 2013 | 14:30
It almost goes without saying that if you want to achieve the best possible computer recording and playback quality, you’re going to have to spend a significant amount of money on your audio interface.
However, it’s equally true to say that you can also get pretty good results without shelling out anywhere near as much: a reasonable quality interface can now be yours for well under £200/$250.
You’ll find evidence of this on the following list. For this kind of money you can expect at least a couple of inputs and outputs (perhaps even more) and 24-bit quality. MIDI I/O is another feature to look for if you’re planning on hooking up an external synth or two.
Before you buy an interface, make sure that it has the input and output types that you require. All of our recommendations operate over USB and are Mac/PC compatible - some will work with your iOS device, too.
Also bear in mind that there are plenty of new interfaces on the way in 2013. The likes of Steinberg, M-Audio, Alesis, and Tascam have all announced new products: we’ll have reviews of these in due course.
For now, though, here - in no particular order - is a selection of the best budget audio interfaces that we’ve tested.
NEXT: Focusrite 2i2
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Scarlett in name and appearance, this is a nicely-styled, well-built interface with - as its name suggests - two inputs and two outputs. Each of the inputs comes with a mic preamp to help you capture a good strong signal and lets you record vocals, guitars and other instruments.
Other features include gain controls for each input, a headphone amp and a large Monitor dial for adjusting the volume. Round the back you’ll find the USB 2.0 connector and stereo outputs, while the package also features a set of Mac and PC effects plug-ins for polishing your sound.
At this price, you’ll struggle to find better.
With many of us now recording on both computer and iOS device, an interface that connects directly to both seems like a good idea. Step forward Tascam’s iU2.
You get a dedicated guitar input plus a stereo mic/line input via a pair of jacks or the included XLR conversion cables. On top of that there are headphone and line outputs for monitoring, an S/PDIF digital output and even MIDI I/O.
Operation is simple and audio quality is more than adequate, making the iU2 a very appealing and affordable all-rounder.
PreSonus AudioBox 22VSL
The AudioBox 22VSL from PreSonus is a simple two input/output USB 2.0 interface with MIDI I/O and the promise of ultra-low latency if you use it with the supplied Studio One Artist DAW.
The two mic/instrument inputs each have their own level controls, while you also get main and headphone output controls. A further dial can be used to blend the input and computer output signals when you’re recording.
With an impressively focused stereo image and quiet preamps, the AudioBox 22VSL is a fine buy.
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6
The Komplete Audio 6 is an entry-level to mid-range interface that gives you four analogue inputs/outputs, digital I/O and MIDI In and Out.
The KA6 can record both mics and instruments and feels like it’s built to last. If you’re planning to take your music making setup on the road, this is a good option. We like the look of the thing, too - particularly the big volume knob on the top.
This being an NI product, it’s no surprise that it ships with a great software bundle. This comprises Komplete Elements, which gives you 3GB worth of instruments and effects; the Cubase LE 6 DAW; and - for DJs - Traktor LE 2.
Akai EIE Pro
Looking desirably ‘vintage’, this 4-in/4-out interface feels solid and also sports four inserts so that you can add hardware effects to the signal path.
Other useful features include three bonus USB ports - meaning that this interface can also serve as a hub - and MIDI I/O. Rocker switches enable you to change input types between Mic/Line and Guitar sources, while phantom power can be switched on in pairs.
The analogue VU meters are both useful and nice to look at, while the sound is open and bright. If you’re looking for a couple more inputs but don’t want to spend a whole lot more cash, the EIE Pro could be the answer.
USB audio interfaces come in all shapes and forms, but Peavey's aim with the Xport was to create something that's easily portable and specifically for guitars.
Very light and about the size of an iPod, the unit sports a single 6.4-mm jack input, connection to your computer via an included USB cable, and two mini-jack stereo outputs (one for headphones and the other a line output to be used as you wish).
If all you want to do is get a decent guitar signal into your computer, this does the job.
Prodipe Studio 22 Pro
Solid and quite heavy, this angular metal box feels like it could survive a nuclear war.
The Studio 22 Pro's two XLR/jack combo inputs and two 1/4-inch jack outputs are supplemented by two pairs of phonos, with outs mirroring the outputs and ins mixed with the inputs. The box also features MIDI I/O with activity monitor indicators, 48V phantom power and buttons to switch between instrument and line level signals.
It might not be the most seductive-looking interface on the market, but the Prodipe 22 Pro offers impressive sound quality for the price.
Mackie Onyx Blackjack
‘Rugged’ is the word that springs to mind when describing the 2-in/2-out Blackjack - it’s got a sturdy metal chassis and feels like a proper piece of studio gear. Given that it comes from Mackie - a company with quite a reputation in the music technology market - this is no great surprise.
Mackie’s experience has also been brought to bear on the two high-quality preamps. You can plug in mics and instruments, and a handy monitoring dial means that you can record with zero-latency by sending the signal straight to your speakers.
What’s more, the USB-powered Blackjack is a joy to use: it sits nicely on your desk and angles its controls towards you.
This isn’t the cheapest interface in its class, but it sure is a quality product.