Table of Contents
- What Does A USB Audio Interface Do?
- Best USB Audio Interfaces – Comparison Table
- Best USB Audio Interfaces in 2021
- 1. Best Under $1,000 – Antelope Audio Discrete 4 Synergy Core Audio Interface
- 2. Best Price/Quality Ratio – Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd GEN
- 3. Best Budget USB Audio Interface – BEHRINGER UM2
- 4. Best USB Audio Interface Under $100 – PreSonus AudioBox USB 96
- 5. Most Versatile Under $500 – Focusrite Scarlett 18i8
- 6. Most Compact – Audient EVO 4
Looking for a USB audio interface for your recording studio? You’ve come to the right place. Our article about 6 best USB audio interfaces in 2021 is here to give you some guidelines and help you find the perfect audio interface for your studio setup.
The purpose of this article is not only to present to you our selection of interfaces but also to give you some info about different types of interfaces, explain the most important features you should be looking for when buying an audio interface and, of course, discuss the prices. Hopefully, you will find it helpful.
What Does A USB Audio Interface Do?
An audio interface is a sort of a middleman in a recording setup. Since your PC/Mac doesn’t have the number and type of connections necessary to hook up instruments and professional microphones, you need this middleman. It allows you to connect all the external gear that you want to record (microphones, guitars, keyboards, drums, etc.), and then sends all the received audio signals to your computer via a single USB, Thunderbolt, or Firewire cable (in this review, we will be dealing only with those using USB connection).
An audio interface receives analog signals from all your gear, converts them to digital (A/D conversion), and sends them to your PC/Mac where you can record them and apply effects in your DAW. Furthermore, an audio interface receives the digital signal sent from a computer, converts it (D/A conversion), and sends it to your studio monitors or headphones, allowing you to monitor your mixes.
Different audio interfaces come equipped with different inputs and outputs. This is probably the first thing to pay attention to when looking for one. You need a device that can cover all your needs – the one with enough inputs and outputs (and with the right type of inputs/outputs) to connect all the gear you have. They also come with different software bundles and the basic rule is that more expensive ones come with more tools and with better-quality tools. Finally, different audio interfaces support different conversion rates, have different latencies, and different overall performance. Again, the rule is simple – more expensive audio interfaces will deliver better performance. The good news is that you don’t always have to break the bank to get impressive performance. Our selection of 6 best USB audio interfaces in 2021 is here to prove that. Here’s our list.
Best USB Audio Interfaces – Comparison Table
|USB Audio Interfaces||Rating||Price||Review|
|Antelope Audio Discrete 4||4.3||Check Amazon|
|Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd GEN||4.7||Check Amazon|
|BEHRINGER UM2||4.3||Check Amazon|
|PreSonus AudioBox USB 96||4.4||Check Amazon|
|Focusrite Scarlett 18i8||4.7||Check Amazon|
|Audient EVO 4||4.5||Check Amazon||Read Review|
Like always, we explored the market, found the highest-rated and most popular USB audio interfaces, put them to test, compared them, and finally picked out our favorites. They are not all extremely expensive – our list is a mixture of cheap/affordable but great-performing and top-of-the-line professional interfaces so, whether you’re looking for your first interface, for a budget-oriented solution, or for a very capable interface, you should be able to find the perfect one for your setup. The following devices are, in our opinion, 6 best USB audio interfaces in 2021.
Best USB Audio Interfaces in 2021
1. Best Under $1,000 – Antelope Audio Discrete 4 Synergy Core Audio Interface
Antelope Audio is one of the most reputable names when it comes to recording equipment. Discrete 4 Synergy Core is a fairly small and portable but also very capable high-end audio interface offering great connectivity and impressive audio quality. The only real downside is the price.
Things we like
Discrete 4 Synergy Core comes with a USB Type-B to Type-A cable, manual, and a warranty card. Before you start using it, you have to register the product and after that, you will be allowed to download the software bundle including 36 real-time plugins. You can buy more FX effects and all kinds of emulators from Antelope’s web store.
The unit is very compact but still hefty. It has a nice-looking black aluminum housing with a silver front panel.
Discrete 4 Synergy Core has two combo XLR/6.35mm analog inputs on the front and two combo inputs on the back. All four inputs can be switched from mic preamp input to line input. Two front combo inputs can also switch to Hi-Z instrument inputs (guitar, bass).
The front panel also houses a tiny display that shows the VU meters for all four channels. It’s also used when you have to access the menu, check the update process, etc. On the right end of the front panel, there are 4 headphone outputs, three function buttons, and a large volume wheel (controls the volume of your monitors and your headphones, controls the gain for all four inputs).
On the back, you have a pair of monitor outputs, 4 additional line outputs, ADAT IN/OUT ports (for digital expandability and ADAT chaining), S/PDIF IN/OUT ports, and two word clock inputs, which is important when connecting different converters and want them to be in perfect sync.
All the mic preamps are Class-A and provide a super-clean signal thanks to the use of a discrete transistor design. The max mic preamp gain is 65dB. The converters are the best in the class providing you with an amazing dynamic range of 121dB (A/D conversion). The latency is extremely low, especially when using the Thunderbolt 2 connection, but it’s also very low via USB. The unit supports 24bit/192kHz conversion.
Discrete 4 Synergy Core utilizes two DSP and one FPGA chip. These chips enable incredible computation capabilities allowing you to load up to 32 plugins at the same time. All that processing is done by the unit itself with minimal latency.
Things we don’t like
Even though it’s quite expensive, Discrete 4 Synergy Core comes only with a USB cable (Thunderbolt 2 cable is not included).
Antelope’s AFX2DAW works only when using a Thunderbolt connection.
2. Best Price/Quality Ratio – Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd GEN
Focusrite’s Scarlett line is our top choice when it comes to reasonably priced and great-performing interfaces. Focusrite Scarlett Solo is great for small home recording studios. If you are looking for something compact and portable that will allow you to record just your voice and an instrument, Scarlett Solo is a great option.
Things we like
Scarlett Solo comes with a USB-C to USB Type-A cable, manual, and a warranty. All the Scarlett audio interfaces come with the same software bundle including Ableton Live Lite and a bunch of emulators and limited subscriptions for some recording tools.
Like all the other Scarlett interfaces, Solo has a strong aluminum housing with a red finish and very user-friendly control scheme.
On the front side, you have one combo XLR mic-preamp input and one line-level input (that can switch to Hi-Z guitar input by pressing the INST button). Each input has a dedicated gain dial with a circular LED clipping indicator. Next to the mic input, there’s a 48V button for phantom power in case you are using a condenser mic and AIR button for Focusrite ISA mic preamp simulation.
The front panel also houses a large volume dial (for controlling the monitor volume and headphone volume), headphone input, and direct monitoring button (zero-latency monitoring).
On the back, there’s just a pair of line outputs and a USB-C port for connecting your computer.
The unit has a decent dynamic range of 111dB. The max mic preamp gain is 56dB. Solo supports 24bit/192kHz conversion.
Things we don’t like
Like all the other 3rd gen Scarlet audio interfaces, Solo has a USB-C port but actually utilizes USB 2.0 (not 3.0 or 3.1) protocol. This has a certain effect on latency (it increases it a little bit).
3. Best Budget USB Audio Interface – BEHRINGER UM2
Behringer is one of our top choices when it comes to budget-friendly audio equipment. UM2 is the simplest and cheapest interface from the Behringer’s UPHORIA line. Like the previous Focusrite Solo, it’s great for small projects. If you’re a beginner looking for a cheap recording device that would allow you to record just your voice and one instrument, UM2 is your best option.
Things we like
The packaging contains your UM2 unit, a USB cable, and a set of software tools (drivers, emulators, effects). The software is not on a CD – you have to download it from the manufacturer’s website.
UM2 is a very compact, simple-looking, and easy-to-use device. On the front, it has two inputs – one combo mic preamp/line-level input and one Hi-Z input for connecting your guitar. You can control the gain for each input with a dedicated knob located on the top. Each input also has two LED indicators (SIGNAL/CLIP) showing you the gain level. The front panel also houses a headphone output, direct monitoring button, and two LED indicators (power and 48V).
On the back, there’s a USB port for connecting your computer, a pair of monitor outputs, and a phantom power switch (48V) that will provide you an extra push when using a condenser mic. To control the volume of the monitors and headphones, you can use the volume dial on the top.
UM2 is not as capable as other audio interfaces on the list, but it still provides good performance, especially if you’re just a beginner and are not looking for top-quality audio. It supports 48kHz conversion.
Things we don’t like
The interface is not very versatile but, to be honest, you can’t expect multiple mic inputs or additional digital or midi inputs at this price point.
4. Best USB Audio Interface Under $100 – PreSonus AudioBox USB 96
PreSonus is another brand known for reasonably priced and good-performing audio interfaces. USB 96 is a simple 2×2 interface. It’s one of the most versatile options under $100 and one of the rare in this price range with MIDI support.
Things we like
Along with AudioBox USB96, you will get a USB cable, manual, warranty card, and a software bundle including some of the PreSonus’s proprietary tools like Studio One Artist and Studio One Magic. You will also get a few emulators and plugins.
AudioBox USB96 is a compact and portable USB-powered unit offering pretty great versatility and sound quality.
Most of the controls and inputs/outputs are on the front. From left to right, you have two combo inputs (mic preamp XLR input and INST Hi-Z input). There’s a gain knob with a clip LED for each input. Also, there’s the 48V button that provides phantom power for condenser microphones. The front panel also houses two separate volume control dials (for headphones and monitors) as well as a mixer dial for mixing the input signal with a stream coming from your computer (allows direct monitoring).
On the rear panel, there’s a pair of monitor outputs, headphone output, and MIDI input and output ports. Finally, you have a USB Type-B port. MIDI ports allow you to connect your MIDI controller or a MIDI-enabled synth.
Those combo inputs on the front feature Class-A preamps and deliver a very clean and distortion-free signal. The max supported sampling rate is 96kHz.
Things we don’t like
Unlike some more advanced USB audio interfaces, this one doesn’t have combo inputs with a dedicated MIC/INST switch. Instead, the unit recognizes every source connected via XLR as a mic and every source connected via 6.35mm jack as an instrument and adjusts its performance and amplification accordingly. As a result, USB96 doesn’t have the same kind of headroom as more expensive audio interfaces.
5. Most Versatile Under $500 – Focusrite Scarlett 18i8
This is already the second Focusrite interface on our list of 6 best USB audio interfaces in 2021, but we can’t help it – they simply offer such a great performance and versatility for the price. Scarlett 18i8 is part of the 3rd GEN of Scarlet interfaces, just like the previous Solo. It is an incredibly versatile interface perfect for smaller bands.
Things we like
Like the Solo, 18i8 comes with a USB-C cable and a set of software tools that you can download once you register the product. Unlike Solo, this unit is not USB-powered and comes with a 12V DC power adapter.
18i8 features the same kind of design and build quality as the Solo. It’s just larger, heavier, and much more versatile.
On the front side of the unit, you have four combo XLR/6.35mm inputs, two of which are Hi-Z (high-headroom) inputs for connecting guitars or bass. These inputs have the INST LED. Each of these inputs has a dedicated gain dial with a circular LED gain/clip indicator. Above the first two inputs you have three LED indicators marked as INST (should be active when a guitar is plugged in), AIR (simulates Focusrite ISA mic preamp), and PAD (lowers the mic signal by 10dBs). To activate any of these settings, you must use the included Control software.
Aside from 4 inputs, the front panel also houses two headphone outputs with dedicated volume controls for each output, a large volume dial for controlling the volume of the monitors, and some LED status indicators.
The rear panel is also very crowded. You have four additional line-level inputs, four line-level outputs, 5-pin MIDI input/output ports, optical ADAT input (for adding 8 additional channels), S/PDIF input/output, USB-C port, and a power socket.
As you can see, 18i8 allows you to connect quite a few sources (mics, drum machines, keyboard, guitars, etc.). The whole band can record simultaneously and you can monitor the recording with minimal latency. 18i8 supports 24bit/192kHz conversion. The dynamic range is 111dB and the max gain is 56dB.
Things we don’t like
First of all, Scarlett is not USB-powered which makes it less portable. Second, the unit has a USB-C port but uses USB 2.0 (not 3.0 or 3.1) protocol to communicate with your computer.
6. Most Compact – Audient EVO 4
Audient EVO 4 is one of the most compact and most portable 2×2 units on the market. It’s our top choice for on-the-go use. It can fit any bag or backpack and it doesn’t require an external power supply (it’s USB-powered). EVO is also quite affordable (under $150) and it delivers pretty great performance.
Things we like
EVO 4 comes with a USB (Type-A to Type-C) cable, user manual, and a warranty card. You will also get the instructions for downloading and installing drivers and additional software. Some of the included tools are the EVO Control app and EVO Loop-back mixer.
The unit is super-compact, probably one of the most compact interfaces on the market. It has a strong aluminum chassis with a simple input/output scheme and a very intuitive UI.
On the front panel, you have one instrument Hi-Z input for connecting your guitar or bass, and one headphone output. On the rear panel, you have two combo mic preamp/line-level inputs, one pair of balanced monitor outputs, and a USB-C port.
All the controls are located on the top panel and are very easy to master. You have a single knob in the middle and some buttons on the left and right end. The knob is used for both gain and volume adjustments but you have to select the thing you want to adjust first. For example, if you want to adjust the gain for the mic 1, you have to press the button on the left marked as 1, and then use the knob to set the gain. LED indicators around the knob will tell you the gain level and warn you about clipping. To adjust the volume of the monitors or headphones, you have to press the output volume button on the right, and then use the knob to set the volume.
On the left end of the control panel – you have buttons 1 and 2 (mic 1 and mic 2), 48V phantom power button, and a green mic button called the ‘smart gain’. When you press the ‘smart gain’ button, the gain levels for both microphones will be automatically adjusted. The mic buttons are also used to mute the inputs (press and hold).
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On the right end of the control panel, you have two buttons – the mixer button and the output volume button. The mixer button allows you to blend the input and output signals. To change the mix balance, you have to press the mixer button and then use the knob in the middle. The volume button is used for adjusting the volume of both – your headphones and your monitors. If you have your monitors plugged in and you connect the headphones, the monitors will be muted automatically.
EVO control app (gets installed with the drivers) allows you to control all the above-mentioned features with your computer without having to press the actual buttons. EVO 4 allows you to record both microphones and your computer audio simultaneously, which makes it perfect for live streaming and podcasting. This feature is called loop-back.
The unit has quite a powerful hardware built inside. It uses JFET instrument input and AKM converters that enable 96kHZ A/D conversion. The dynamic range is 113dB and the gain range is 58dB.
Things we don’t like
The unit features a USB-C port but uses USB 2.0 protocol (not USB 3.0 or 3.1) to communicate with your computer.
This is the end of our list of 6 best USB audio interfaces in 2021. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what you need and what to look for. If you are interested in some additional info, read the FAQ section. Feel free to leave us a comment if you have a question for us or if you want to share your experience with audio interfaces.
Q: Does an audio interface affect sound quality?
A: Yes, the quality of internal components inside an audio interface, especially the quality of preamps, can have a huge effect on the audio quality of the recording. A good interface with good preamps should amplify the signal coming from the mic without introducing unwanted noise or artificial sounds.
Q: What is the best-sounding USB audio interface?
A: It’s really hard to select just one device or one brand since there’re so many great-sounding audio interfaces on the market. Some of our favorite brands are Antelope Audio, Universal Audio, RME, and Apogee.
Q: Can you use a USB mic with an audio interface?
A: No, you can’t. And why would you? Audio interfaces don’t have USB inputs for USB mics. They are designed for professional microphones (dynamic and condenser) using the XLR connection. USB microphone can be connected directly to your PC/Mac since all computers have USB ports.
Q: What is the best USB audio interface in 2021?
A: It’s practically impossible to give a single answer to this kind of question. Since people are looking for different things and have different budgets, there’s more than one answer. You can find some great suggestions for different budgets and different needs on our list of 6 best USB audio interfaces in 2021. Just go through our reviews and find the interface that meets your requirements.
Q: What is the best cheap audio interface?
A: Most audio interfaces, even the simplest ones are priced over $100. Some of the rare that are priced under $100 and offer satisfying performance are some less versatile (2IN/2OUT) PreSonus and Behringer interfaces. However, we recommend to invest a little bit more (if possible) and get an affordable (but not the cheapest) audio interfaces. Focusrite, Steinberg, and Audient are our go-to brands when it comes to price/quality ratio (especially when looking for the best possible performance at the lowest possible price).
Q: Can I use a mixer as an audio interface?
A: If there’s an audio interface built inside the mixer, then yeah. However, you should be aware that some mixers don’t allow you to record multiple tracks, even though they have multiple inputs. Instead, these mixers will mix all the channels into a stereo signal and will send that stereo signal to your computer. So, if you want to be able to do multi-track recording, make sure that you’re buying a mixer that supports it. Some relatively affordable mixers with multi-track support are Zoom LiveTrak L-12, Zoom R16, Behringer X32, Soundcraft Signature MTK, etc.
Hello, my name is James Longman.
I’m a writer and editor at AudioReputation. I disassembled my first portable AM/FM radio when I was only 8. At the age of 11, I burned the circuit board on my old boombox cassette player. I’m not going to explain how but it was reckless and stupid.
Since then, I have become much more careful around radios, boomboxes, and other audio devices (at least, I like to think so) but I have never lost the passion for audio equipment. Throughout 20 years of my professional career, I’ve been working for various audio equipment manufacturers and even started building speakers on my own in my little workshop.
I love the work we do here at AudioReputation. Testing, comparing, and evaluating all kinds of audio devices (speakers, soundbars, headphones, home theater systems, etc.) is something I truly enjoy. I try to be unbiased and give you my honest opinion on every piece of equipment I test. Still, you should take my reviews with a pinch of salt and always be just a little bit skeptical. The fact that I liked some speaker or soundbar doesn’t mean that you are going to love it. If you have the opportunity, you should test it/hear it before buying it.