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Daniel Varghese is a Wirecutter associate staff writer who covers the AV and smart-home categories. He has been using USB audio interfaces since high school, when he used to record his school band, and he continues to use them as a musician and podcast producer.
Daniel solicited the help of Will Marshall, a Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist with his own studio space, to test the interfaces for this update.
Who should get this
If you've just started recording or producing music, you might not need an audio interface. Using free software like Apple's GarageBand, an inexpensive USB microphone that plugs directly into a computer, and maybe a MIDI controller, you can make music that's good enough to share with close friends and family.
When you're ready to get a bit more serious about your recordings, however, you'll start to see the shortcomings of that simple setup. Not only are you restricted to using USB microphones (which tend to have trouble recording instruments and vocals clearly), but you're limited to capturing one track at a time. If you wanted to record yourself singing and playing the guitar at the same time, which might result in a more natural-sounding recording, you'd be unable to edit each source independently. If you accidentally strum the wrong chord, you'll have to re-sing that part of the song, too.
A USB audio interface gives you the flexibility to record multiple tracks at once using practically any microphone available. You'll also be able to record instruments that use ¼-inch inputs, like electric guitars, by plugging them directly into the interface—rather than placing a USB microphone in front of an amp. Yes, I have done this, and yes, it sounded terrible.
How we picked
USB audio interfaces are available in a variety of configurations, with some models capable of recording 16 or more inputs at once. For this guide, we focused on interfaces that allow you to record two separate inputs simultaneously, sometimes referred to as 2x2 interfaces. These interfaces are ideal for the beginner: They are small and easily portable, and they don't require power beyond what's provided by the USB connection on your computer.
Based on our research and previous experience, we decided that most beginners would want a USB interface with at least two XLR inputs that support both microphones (with the ability to provide phantom power so you can use condenser mics) and line/instrument sources. Once we assembled a list of the available interfaces that had these features (using Amazon, Sweetwater, and Musician's Friend), we used the following criteria to decide which interfaces to call in and how to design our tests.
- Ease of use: The most important quality of a USB audio interface is usability—you shouldn't have to dig through the manual just to connect the interface to your computer. It should be easy to plug in a microphone or instrument, adjust gain levels, and monitor the signal level. We paid extra attention to the placement of clipping indicator lights and phantom power buttons.
- iOS support: All audio interfaces should support macOS and Windows, but iPads have become a popular tool to capture performances and recordings without having to lug around a laptop, so we considered iOS support to be a valuable feature. Using a USB audio interface with any iPad will require the purchase of extra adapters. If you're just going to use the audio interface with a computer in your home studio, this feature is less important.
- Portability: If you'd like to use your interface outside of the home studio, you'll have to make space for it in your backpack or luggage. We prioritized models that were lighter than two pounds and easy to transport in their original box so that you don't have to search for a special carrying case.
- Included software: Most audio interfaces include some type of digital audio workstation software—usually, it's less-powerful "lite" versions of the recording packages used by professionals, such as Ableton, ProTools, or StudioOne. We appreciated the inclusion of this software, as well as free instrument plugins and software patches, but we didn't consider them too strongly while making our recommendations. We assume that anyone looking at USB interfaces will already have recording software that they like.
- Sound quality: Our tests consistently show that sound quality isn't a major distinguishing factor between interfaces. Most interfaces available today are capable of accurate, noise-free recording at 24-bit depth with a 96 kHz sampling rate, so we considered that a minimum requirement, as it allows these interfaces to theoretically record audio at a wider range of frequencies with more detail than the human ear can actually perceive.
- MIDI I/O support: If you have an instrument with a MIDI output and don't have an adapter that allows you to plug it directly into your computer, you'll want an audio interface that supports that specific style of five-pin input. Most new MIDI controllers and instruments plug in directly with USB, so if you're just starting to build out your studio with new gear, you don't need to worry about this. As such, we didn't feel that MIDI support was a must-have feature.
We found nine interfaces that met our criteria, including the Tascam 2 x 2 (our previous pick), the PreSonus AudioBox iTwo (our previous runner-up), the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96, the Focusrite 2i2, the Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD, the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6, and the Zoom U-24. We also tested the Tascam 4 x 4 and the Focusrite 6i6, but ultimately we decided that these comprise a separate category of interfaces that we will consider testing further at a later date.
All the interfaces we tested have a standard USB Type-B connection, and the package includes a cable with Type-B on one end and the common computer-style Type-A on the other. We did not test any interfaces that connect via Thunderbolt or USB-C ports.
How we tested
I enlisted Will Marshall, a Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist, to help me evaluate the design and sound quality of each interface in his personal studio. We recorded two audio samples on each interface. The first was Will playing the viola, which we recorded using a Studio Projects B-1 condenser microphone, which requires phantom power. The second recording was Will playing the electric bass, which we plugged directly into the interface using a standard ¼-inch instrument cable. Unboxing, connecting, and adjusting each interface in succession made me hyper-aware of the small design differences between the models.
After our session, I exported the recordings from each interface as WAV files and sent them to a group of Wirecutter AV staffers to evaluate their overall sound quality. The group included senior writers Lauren Dragan and Chris Heinonen, editors Adrienne Maxwell and Geoff Morrison, and contributor Brent Butterworth. With no knowledge of which recordings came from which interface, they ranked the recordings based on their overall quality. When examining the results, we found no consistently identifiable differences in the quality of each recording.
To verify our subjective impressions, Brent and I ran a quick spectrum analysis with pink noise on every model. Each measured flat, corroborating our assertion that there were no obvious sonic differences between the different interfaces.
Lastly, I connected each interface to an iPad (6th-generation) using a USB-C hub to make sure it was compatible with iOS. I also made sure that each interface would function with an older iPad, provided you purchase the correct adapters. You can either use this adapter with a powered USB hub or this one with any USB power adapter you have around.
Our pick: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is our favorite USB audio interface for musicians who are starting to get serious about recording their work. With its logically arranged inputs and adjustment knobs and its intuitive clip lighting, the 2i2 is easy to set up and use to record vocals, acoustic instruments, or electric instruments, no matter which digital audio workstation you choose to use with it. The built-in microphone preamps provide power for condenser mics, and the software interface is compatible with macOS, Windows, and iOS.
The arrangement of inputs and knobs on the Scarlett 2i2 is simple and intuitive. Each input is directly next to its corresponding gain knob, which means you'll never make the mistake of turning up the signal on the wrong input and ruining a take. The small slider at the front switches between recording with a microphone or with an instrument input. The phantom power button is conveniently placed on the front, so you don't need to go searching every time you want to use a condenser mic.
Most importantly, each of the 2i2's clip lights is shaped as a ring around its corresponding gain knob. This means you'll always be able to see whether the signal from an input is being distorted (the light turns orange, then red) without worrying that the knob (or your hand) will obscure the view. This was one of the best implementations of the vital clip light of all the interfaces we tested, where in other devices the light was small or hard to see.
The Scarlett 2i2 is lighter than all but one interface we tested for this update (less than a pound and a half), so it's easy to carry on location, if you want to record somewhere outside your home studio. Since its box is pretty small and easy to pack, you probably won't need to get a separate carrying case.
If you don't already have a digital audio workstation that you like, the Scarlett 2i2 comes with slightly downgraded versions of two very powerful DAWs: Ableton Live Lite (which limits you to recording only up to eight tracks) and ProTools First (which only lets you record up to 16 tracks). The package also includes a few instrument and effect plug-ins, which are pretty fun to mess around with while working on a project. Focusrite doesn't make its own specific iOS software, but we found that the 2i2 worked with any basic software we tested, including the mobile version of GarageBand. As long as you have the right adapters, it'll be easy to mate the 2i2 with an iPad.
In our blind listening tests, sound quality did not prove to be a distinguishing characteristic of any of the USB audio interfaces. There was no consistent agreement among our panelists as to which interface recording sounded the best, and our pink-noise tests corroborated the lack of difference between interfaces. The 2i2's 24-bit/96-kHz recordings sounded as expected, with no added noise or distortion.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is an excellent audio interface, but there is one slightly annoying omission. Unlike many other two-channel interfaces we tested, the 2i2 doesn't have five-pin MIDI input and output ports. Most new MIDI controllers, including all of the ones we recommend, plug in via USB. But if you have an older MIDI instrument that connects through five-pin connectors, you'll have to get an adapter. If you have a large collection of older MIDI instruments, consider the PreSonus AudioBox iTwo.
Runner-up: PreSonus AudioBox iTwo
If the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is unavailable, or if you need something with a built-in MIDI interface, the PreSonus AudioBox iTwo is a great alternative. It has the same iOS, macOS, and Windows functionality and portability as the 2i2, and its preamps have enough power to support condenser mics. The AudioBox iTwo adds a five-pin MIDI input and output, which makes it compatible with older gear. However, its front-panel layout isn't quite as intuitive as that of the Focusrite 2i2, and its clip lights are smaller and harder to see.
Overall, the AudioBox iTwo is pretty easy to use. The inputs and adjustment knobs are clearly labeled; you can easily tell which gain knob adjusts input 1 versus input 2. To switch between recording a line instrument and a microphone on each input, you just push the button labeled with an electric guitar. However, these buttons are placed near the bottom of the unit's front panel, making them somewhat difficult to access, and the clipping light is also smaller and harder to see than we'd prefer. None of these things should get in the way of a successful recording session, though. And we appreciated how, like the Focusrite 2i2, the AudioBox iTwo places its phantom power button prominently on the front of the interface.
Portability is not an issue with the AudioBox iTwo; it weighs just under a pound and a half, about the same weight as the 2i2. PreSonus has designed its two mobile digital audio workstation apps for the iPad. CaptureDuo is free, but it limits you to recording up to two tracks in each project. Capture for iPad costs $10, but it allows you to record up to 32 tracks. With either, you can send projects to the version of PreSonus's desktop software that comes with the Audiobox iTwo: StudioOne Artist. This offers you a lot of flexibility in how you want to use the interface with an iPad, as long as you have the right adapters.
Other than the layout, the main difference between the iTwo and the 2i2 is the iTwo's MIDI interface. If you have a lot of instruments that plug-in via five-pin MIDI connections and don't already have a MIDI-to-USB interface, this is a necessary feature.
Upgrade pick: Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6
The Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 has all the features we like on the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, including clear clipping lights, macOS, Windows, iOS support, and powerful microphone preamps, but it adds a built-in MIDI interface and two extra balanced line inputs and outputs. It also has a unique design that places all of its monitor lights on top, making it a little easier to see all the information you need to adjust the interface than it is with other interfaces. These extra features make it heavier than we'd like, but if you plan to mostly use it in your home studio, that's an acceptable trade-off for the easier-to-use design. We don't think the added features and cost are necessary for most people, but if money is no object, it's a great upgrade.
Unlike every other interface we tested, the Komplete Audio 6 separates the lights from all their related knobs. This may sound unintuitive, but we found that it made the interface easier to set up and adjust on the fly. Instead of requiring you to be in front of the interface to see whether something is clipping, you can basically see it from any angle.
Unlike our other picks, the Komplete Audio 6 includes latching XLR input jacks, which require you to push a small tab on the jack to release the mic cable. Latching XLR jacks are the standard in professional audio gear because the latch prevents the cable from accidentally being pulled loose. The Focusrite 2i2 and PreSonus AudioBox iTwo and all other interfaces we tested this round use non-latching jacks, which allow the cable to be pulled loose with a moderately strong tug. We also like that the latching jacks let you detach a cable with one hand, while non-latching jacks usually require you to push down on the interface with one hand while you detach the cable with the other.
The Komplete Audio 6 is not without flaws, however. We don't love that the button to activate phantom power is on the back of interface, where it's slightly harder to find. That said, at least it's located toward the top and all the way to one side—several interfaces we tested required you to feel around the back for a small slider somewhere in the middle.
At almost two pounds, the entire console weighs a little bit more than the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or the PreSonus Audio Box iTwo. That's probably fine if you're packing the Komplete Audio 6 in a suitcase, but it might make the interface unappealing to anyone who will have to frequently transport it back and forth between your home studio and separate recording space.
The Komplete Audio 6 doesn't include any digital audio workstation mobile apps for iPad, although we found that it worked with GarageBand without issue. It also includes less software than some competitors: You get several instrument plugins, as well as Cubase LE 9 (which you can also download free directly from Steinberg) and Trackor LE 3 (the lite version of the company's DJ software). It would be nice if this interface came with something more universally used, like "lite" versions of ProTools or Ableton, but this wasn't a dealbreaker for us.
What to look forward to
Native Instruments announced two interfaces during the NAMM 2019 trade show: the Komplete Audio 1 and Komplete Audio 2. The Komplete Audio 1 doesn't offer the flexibility we think someone getting starting out needs—if you want to record two things at once, one input must use a microphone and the other must use a line source. The Komplete Audio 2, however, looks promising. It places much of its visual information on the top of the interface, which we found made the similarly designed Komplete Audio 6 easier to set up and use than other interfaces we've considered. We plan to test the Komplete Audio 2 soon.
For this update, we tested and decided not to recommend the following interfaces:
The Tascam 2 x 2 was our previous top pick. It's still a perfectly functional audio interface, especially if you never plan to use it outside of your home studio. However, since it weighs almost two and a half pounds and comes in a box that couldn't easily fit in a backpack or suitcase, it's harder to travel with than the Focusrite 2i2 or PreSonus AudioBox iTwo. We also don't love that Windows users will need to install separate drivers to actually use the interface with their setup.
The PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 has several design flaws that make it more difficult to use. The adjustment knobs are arranged in an odd order: The knob to adjust input 1 is to the right of the knob to adjust input 2. On several occasions I found myself adjusting the wrong knob. Also, the headphone jack is on the back, which might mean you'll need a longer headphone cable to use the interface comfortably.
The Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD features a crowded design filled with inputs, knobs, buttons, and small text that took us a bit more time to figure out how to actually use. The important things, like the tiny clipping indicator and the phantom power slider (hidden somewhere on the back of the console), are hard to find. We also couldn't get the interface to work with GarageBand on our test iPad—the tabet would recognize the interface but couldn't tell when audio was coming through.
The Zoom U-24 is hard to set up and adjust because of its design, which places everything other than the power slider on the top of the interface. You have stand over the interface and maneuver around the microphone/instrument cords to actually access the knobs. Plus, the knobs function backwards—instead of turning them clockwise to increase gain, you turn them counterclockwise. This design might make sense when used with the recorders that Zoom makes, but we found it a little frustrating.
We tested and dismissed the following interfaces for previous versions of this guide:
The Steinberg UR22mkII supports sampling rates up to 192 kHz, but the bunched-up control knobs on the unit's face and a phantom power switch tucked away on the back panel made it more difficult to use.
Priced lower than $50, the Behringer U-Phoria UM2 seemed an almost-too-good-to-be-true budget option, providing both mic and instrument inputs. However, its build quality is poor.
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