The Best Audio Interfaces in 2021 | For Every Budget

Best Audio Interfaces

If you want to record music in your home, or studio, you’re going to need to get audio into your computer. How do you do that? With an audio interface. But which type do you need? It can be incredibly overwhelming looking at the enormous amount of options on the market… In fact, it’s damn right confusing… 

Confused Stick Figure

On top of that, there is often technical vocabulary that you are not familiar with. So, you have to spend even more time looking at definitions, and comprehending all of the terminology. Despite my knowledge, and many years of experience, I still get overwhelmed when looking for new gear…

Choosing an audio interface is one of the most confusing pieces of gear to purchase, but don’t stress, I’m here to help you. In this buying guide, I will list my top audio interface picks, the best audio interfaces in 2021. All ordered by price, whilst breaking down all the important information that you need to know. This list took a long time to put together, and I guarantee you won’t find it written as clearly anywhere else. Under each product, you will see everything you need to know in one place, visually organised, and easy to find. If you want to know in detail about audio interfaces and how they work, then check out my article ‘What is an Audio Interface?‘ before proceeding Interface?’.


Best Audio Device Under $100 / £100

PreSonus AudioBox

PreSonus AudioBox Audio Interface
Pros  
+Robustly built
+Easily transportable
+Excellent value for money
Cons
Nothing to complain about for this price point
Price: $99 / £72
Cheapest Place to Buy: Amazon
My Rating: 4.6 out of 5.0 stars
Compatibility: Mac/Windows
DAW(s) inc: Studio One
Software inc: Studio Magic

Connection Type: USB
Microphone Ins: 2
Line/Instrument Ins: 2
Headphone Outs: 1
Line/Monitor Outs: 2
MIDI In/Out: Yes
Line Inputs: No
SPDIF/Optical/ADAT: No

The PreSonus AudioBox is a simple, sleek and easy to use audio interface that is perfect for a podcaster, solo musician, or producer on a tight budget, who still requires high quality audio. It’s robustly built and small in size, so it’ll be your little travel companion if you like to be a creator on the move.  

Two mic/line inputs give you some flexibility for recording two sound sources at the same time. You also have a MIDI I/O, monitor outputs, and a crystal-clear headphone output. The AudioBox is Powered by USB connection, making it compatible for any computer, laptop, or even a tablet.  

A big bonus of the AudioBox is that it comes with Studio One Artist, an incredibly powerful DAW made by PreSonus. With Studio One Artist at your fingertips, you can easily compose, record, produce, mix and master your music. Purchasing a PreSonus interface also gives you access to Studio Magic Plug-in Suite, featuring an array of plug-ins, virtual instruments, and effects. 

This audio interface bundle really is all you need to get started, and for the price point, you get a lot for your money! The only reason this interface won’t be for you, is if you want more input/output options.

 

Best Audio Device Under $200 / £200

Focusrite Scarlett 4i4

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Audio Interface
Pros  
+Well made
+Added ‘air’ feature for versatility
+Brilliant value for money
Cons
Not compatible with a tablet

Price: $159 / £174
Cheapest Place to Buy: Amazon
My Rating: 4.8 out of 5.0 stars
Compatibility: Mac/Windows
DAW(s) inc: Ableton, Pro Tools
Software inc: Various plug-in suites
Connection Type: USB
Microphone Ins: 2
Line/Instrument Ins: 2
Headphone Outs: 1
Line/Monitor Outs: 4
MIDI In/Outs: Yes
Line Inputs: 2
SPDIF/Optical/ADAT: No

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is another USB budget friendly interface, suited for podcasters, solo musicians and producers with minimum needs. The stylish red metal encasing the interface has started to become an iconic site, in both home and professional studios across the world. That’s because Focusrite have really grown and expanded their company, becoming a renowned developer of pro audio equipment worldwide.

Compared to the PreSonus AudioBox, you get the same mic/instrument, MIDI, monitor, and headphone inputs/outputs, plus two extra line inputs and outputs. This gives you more options to connect external audio gear if you desire. The Scarlett also comes with a huge range of software, sounds, and plug-ins suites, as well as Ableton, Pro Tools, and a three-month Splice Sounds subscription.

Another interesting feature is the ‘air’ button at the front. By pressing this button, you instantly boost the higher frequencies of the sound source you’re recording, creating more presence and a crisp tone. This added feature emulates Focusrites’ ISA preamps, and it sounds superb, giving you instant access to professional sounding recordings.

With companies like PreSonus and Focusrite offering such comprehensive packs, it’s unbelievably easy for you to start creating professional sounding music on a budget. Having used Focusrites’ product before, I’m certain you’ll be ecstatic with this audio interface. The Scarlett also comes in two smaller sizes with less features, and three larger sizes with more features. Giving you plenty of choices according to your budget. 


Best Audio Devices Under $500 / £500

Steinberg UR44

Steinberg UR44 Audio Interface
Pros  
+Ruggedly built
+Excellent sounding preamps
+Brilliant value for the price
Cons
No connectivity options for another interface
Price: $222 / £229
Cheapest Place to Buy: Amazon
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0 stars
Compatibility: Mac/Windows
DAW(s) inc: Cubase
Software inc: dspMixFx

Connection Type: USB
Microphone Ins: 4
Line/Instrument Ins: 4
Headphone Outs: 2
Line/Monitor Outs: 6
MIDI In/Outs: Yes
Line Inputs: 2
SPDIF/Optical/ADAT: No

Do you an audio interface with more than 2 mic/line inputs, excellent sound quality and within budget? Look no further than the Steinburg UR44. This simple and rugged device is cased in black aluminium case, built to withstand any knocks or bumps that may occur in your studio.

In addition to the standard ins and outs, you have two headphone outputs, ideal if you need to record two musicians together. There are also plenty of line in and out options for connecting external gear such as effect units. The Yamaha made Class-A D PRE preamps are exceptionally high quality for this price range, and will be perfectly adequate to produce professional sounding music of any genre.

Cubase is also included with the UR44, a brilliant DAW to get you up and running. Also included is dspMixFx, a software which works like a highly functional mixer at your fingertips, giving you access to easy monitoring and an array of effects. The dspMixFx software is also compatible with an iPad and iPhone, if you like to take your work with you.

This is a great all-in-one audio interface, with first-class components, rugged build quality. If you need more inputs and an audio interface that won’t let you down, then I’m sure you’ll love this one.

 

Focusrite Scarlett 18i20

Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 Audio Interface
Pros  
+Sleek & well made
+Lots of I/O
+Versatile
+Great price
Cons
No line inputs

Price: $500 / £379
Cheapest Place to Buy: Amazon
My Rating: 4.6 out of 5.0 stars
Compatibility: Mac/Windows
DAW(s) inc: Ableton, Pro Tools
Software inc: Various plug-in suites

Connection Type: USB
Microphone Ins: 8
Line/Instrument Ins: 8
Headphone Outs: 2
Line/Monitor Outs: 10
MIDI In/Outs: No
Line Inputs: No
SPDIF/Optical/ADAT: Yes (SPDIF, Optical)

That’s right, another product from Focusrite, this time it’s a rackmount interface from their Scarlett series, offering a lot of versatility. The 18i20 is the best model in the series, giving you 8 mic/line inputs, a whopping 10 line outputs, plus MIDI, optical, and SPDIF I/O configuration. With this configuration you can connect a lot of external sound processors, and expand your inputs/outputs by connecting the 18i20 to another interface, which can be synced together via the world clock output.

The ‘air’ option is also featured, plus a talk back mic back, alongside two headphone outputs. The LED meters on the front make monitoring quick and easy. The preamps sound clean and natural, perfect for any home studio or professional on a budget. Like all of the Scarlett series, included is Ableton, Pro Tools, a three-month Splice Sounds subscription, and a large collection of sounds, virtual instruments, and plug-ins.

If you like the look of the Scarlett series, have a bigger budget, need more I/O, plus more connectivity options, then this Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 is perfect for you. With the included DAWs, plug-ins, sounds and instruments, you won’t have to buy anything else for a long time.

Best Audio Device Under $1,000 / £1,000

Focusrite Clarett 4 Pre

Focusrite Clarett 4 Pre Audio Interface
Pros  
+High quality preamps
+Added ‘air’ feature for versatility
+More connectivity options
Cons
Pricier than the Scarlett series
No Splice subscription included
Price: $599 / £449
Cheapest Place to Buy: Amazon
My Rating: 4.8 out of 5.0 stars
Compatibility: Mac/Windows
DAW(s) inc: Ableton, Pro Tools
Software inc: Various plug-in suites
Connection Type: USB
Microphone Ins: 4
Line/Instrument Ins: 4
Headphone Outs: 2
Line/Monitor Outs: 4
MIDI In/Outs: Yes
Line Inputs: 2
SPDIF/Optical/ADAT: Yes (SPDIF, Optical)

The Focusrite Clarett 4 Pre is almost identical to the Scarlett 18i8; the big brother of the Scarlett 2i2 that you read about earlier. Both have 4 mic/instrument inputs, 2 headphone outputs, 4 line inputs, 4 line outputs, MIDI, optical, and SPDIF I/O. The Clarett also comes with exactly the same large range of plug-ins, emulations, instruments, and DAWs to keep you busy in the studio. Both also feature the added ‘air’ mode, giving you the diversity of two preamp sonics in one audio interface.

So, what’s the difference? Well, it’s all in the components and preamps. The Clarett has superior ones which bring out more high-end detail and colour with minimal distortion. You also get increased headroom, better noise handling, and superior latency management. So, if you’re recording a lot of instruments at once, you’re less likely to experience any time issues.

So, is it really worth the extra money? If you really want better quality audio, then yes. That’s not to say the Scarlett sounds bad in any way, shape or form; but with the Clarett you just get that little bit extra. You get a richer, detailed sound, with more colour and character. If you can push your budget that bit further, it’s definitely worth investing in an interface from the Clarett series, over the Scarlett series.

PreSonus 192 

PreSonus 192 Audio Interface
Pros  
+Sleek & well made
+Lots of I/O
+Versatile
+Great price
Cons
Quite expensive
No line inputs for external gear

Price: $900 / £678
Cheapest Place to Buy: Amazon
My Rating: 4.8 out of 5.0 stars
Compatibility: Mac/Windows
DAW(s) inc: Studio One
Software inc: Studio Magic
Connection Type: USB
Microphone Ins: 8
Line/Instrument Ins: 8
Headphone Outs: 2
Line/Monitor Outs: 10
MIDI In/Outs: No
Line Inputs: No
SPDIF/Optical/ADAT: Yes (SPDIF, Optical)

The PreSonus 192 is another USB rackmount audio interface, with excellent audio quality and flexible connectivity options. The 192 features a talkback mic, enabling you to communicate effectively with your musicians, plus a dim/mute, and mono button, allowing you to control your mix effortlessly.

With 8 line/mic inputs you have enough inputs to record a group of musicians together, but the amount of outputs this interface has gives you a tonne of connectivity options. 8 line outputs allow you to connect an abundance of sound processors, plus the SPDIF and ADAT I/O configuration give you the ability to connect more audio interfaces, increasing your I/O capacity. The 192 also features two headphone outputs for monitoring during recording, and playback.

The superb preamps deliver deep lows, smooth highs, detail, and rich sound. Like the PreSonus AudioBox mentioned earlier, the 192 also comes with Studio One, PreSonus’s own DAW, and their Studio One Magic Plug-in Suite. Also featured with the 192 is UC Surface, a monitor-mixing application which runs wireless on an iPad or Android tablet. This provides you with an additional screen to control your recording/mixing session, a command centre at your fingertips!

The PreSonus 192 is a very powerful, flexible, and expandable rackmount audio interface. The added SPDIF and ADAT I/O configuration allow you to expand your studio later, plus the included software bundles give you all you need to produce highly professional sounding music.

Universal Audio Apollo Twin

Universal Audio Apollo Twin Audio Interface
Pros  
+Sleek and stylish
+Supreme audio quality
+Touch-based interface, great for a faster workflow
Cons
Thunderbolt only connection
Quite expensive

Price: $799 / £720
Cheapest Place to Buy: Amazon
My Rating: 4.7 out of 5.0 stars
Compatibility: Mac/Windows
DAW(s) inc: LUNA
Software inc: UAD plug-in suites
Connection Type: Thunderbolt
Microphone Ins: 2
Line/Instrument Ins: 2
Headphone Outs: 1
Line/Monitor Outs: 4
MIDI In/Outs: No
Line Inputs: No
SPDIF/Optical/ADAT: Yes (Optical)

Universal Audio are a very reputable, established company with a solid line of audio recording products. Their Audio Apollo is a very user friendly and time saving interface, as it has a number of touch controls, giving it the feel of an analogue device. The buttons have a variety of functions and shortcuts, for quicker workflow in your studio, and the convenient large knob in the middle controls monitor and preamp levels.

The Apollo Twin features standard ins/outs, plus an optical in, allowing you to expand your recording ability to 64 channels, by connecting to other audio interfaces. Perfect if you want to develop your studio later on. The colourful and vibrant LEDs are used for monitoring gain levels and volume, making it convenient for you to visually see what you’re hearing.

Another justification for the higher price, is the supreme audio quality. The Unison preamps deliver excellent dynamic range with minimum distortion. The preamps also can be used in conjunction with the enormous range of award-winning UAD plug-ins that are included with the interface. The library has a selection of vintage EQs, compressors, amps, reverbs and tape machines, from massive companies such as Neve, Studer, Manley, API, Ampex, Lexicon, Fender and more.

The combo of these preamps, and the vintage UAD plug-ins, allow you to bring your music forward into a rich, sonically complex analogue sound. Yes, it’s a little more expensive, but if you’re looking for a lush sound, sleek style with expansion possibilities, then this is the perfect interface for you. UA also offers the Apollo Solo with less inputs for a lower price tag if you’re on a budget.

 


Best Audio Interfaces over $1,000 / £1,000

Apogee Quartet

Apogee Quartet Audio Interface
Pros  
+Elegant & Stylish
+Flawless audio quality
+Touch-based interface, great for smooth workflow
Cons
Expensive
No DAW(s) or software included
Price: $1,759 / £1,199
Cheapest Place to Buy: Amazon
My Rating: 4.6 out of 5.0 stars
Compatibility: Mac/Windows
DAW(s) inc: None
Software inc: None

Connection Type: USB
Microphone Ins: 4
Line/Instrument Ins: 4
Headphone Outs: 1
Line/Monitor Outs: 6
MIDI In/Outs: No
Line Inputs: No
SPDIF/Optical/ADAT: Yes (Optical)

If you’re a Mac user and want something sleek, programable, with a touch-based interface, look no further than the Apogee Quartet. This elegant, aluminium audio interface is incredibly stylish and works effortlessly with Mac devices, including iPads and iPhones.Windows users, don’t stress though, the Apogee One, Duet, & Quartet are now compatible with Windows 10.

The Apogee Quartet features attractive OLED screens that display levels, meters and pertinent information, speeding up your workflow. The touch buttons give you an audio interface that you can interact with, allowing for quick hands control for functions such as select, dim, gain, volume, or you create custom shortcuts with the ABC buttons.  

Ok, so it looks fancy and has some nice features, but why else the high price tag? Well, underneath the elegant aluminium are some killer preamps and components. Offering flawless audio quality, that is clean, crisp, detailed and warm. You won’t find that kind of audio quality on cheaper devices.

If you don’t need as many inputs as 4, but still want this highly functional and stylish interface, Apogee offer two smaller models. Apogee One features 1 mic and 1 instrument input, and Apogee Duet features 2 mic and 2 instrument inputs. They are all expensive interfaces, but well worth it if you’re looking for something unique and sophisticated that speeds up your workflow.

Apogee Ensemble

Apogee Ensemble Audio Interface
Pros  
+Attractive design
+Lots of I/O options
+Plenty of buttons & knobs
Cons
Expensive
No cable supplied
Less line inputs
No DAW(s) or software included
Price: $2,500 / £1,880
Cheapest Place to Buy: Amazon
My Rating: 4.3 out of 5.0 stars
Compatibility: Mac
DAW(s) inc: None
Software inc: None
Connection Type: Thunderbolt
Microphone Ins: 8
Line/Instrument Ins: 6
Headphone Outs: 2
Line/Monitor Outs: 10
MIDI In/Outs: No
Line Inputs: 4
SPDIF/Optical/ADAT: Yes (SPDIF, Optical)

Unlike the Apogee One, Duet, & Quartet, the Apogee Ensemble is unfortunately not currently compatible with Windows. Sadly, Windows users will have to give this one a miss. This doesn’t stop this interface from being an absolute beast though! For Mac users this is the ultimate choice but only if you can afford it, because it certainly isn’t cheap.

So, what does the Apogee Ensemble bring to the table, that makes it so expensive? 6 line inputs, 8 mic inputs, 2 dedicated guitar inputs/outputs, 2 headphone outputs, monitor outputs, analog sends/returns, 2 optical inputs/outputs, an SPDIF and world clock I/O configuration. They have also included a built-in talkback mic, input/assignable buttons, and controller knobs for volume.

Phew… that was a lot to write. Needless to say, you have an enormous amount of options and flexibility with this interface. You have two thunderbolt connections, one to connect to your computer, and the other can be connected to another Apollo Ensemble, or Element device. The thunderbolt connectivity gives you the lowest latency of any audio device, according to their website.

At this price the sound quality is flawless. The preamps feature Apogee’s Advance Stepped Gain Architecture, which optimise superior bandwidth, ultra-low noise, and non-existent distortion. You also get Apogee FX Rack plug-ins featuring EQs, compressors, limiters, effects and more.

This is THE interface for pros working with Mac devices. Once you’ve bought this interface, you won’t need another one unless you want to expand your I/O capabilities massively. It’s pricey, but your studio will thank you for the long-term investment. It does however lose some points as no DAW(s) or software is included. It would also be nice if Apogee made it compatible for Windows.  

Universal Audio Apollo 8

Universal Audio Apollo 8 Audio Interface
Pros  
+Sleek design
+Versatile
+Plenty of knobs & buttons
Cons
Expensive
No cable supplied

Price: $3,200 / £2,399
Cheapest Place to Buy: Amazon
My Rating: 4.8 out of 5.0 stars
Compatibility: Mac/Windows
DAW(s) inc: LUNA
Software inc: UAD plug-in suites
Connection Type: Thunderbolt
Microphone Ins: 8
Line/Instrument Ins: 8
Headphone Outs: 2
Line/Monitor Outs: 10
MIDI In/Outs: No
Line Inputs: 4
SPDIF/Optical/ADAT: Yes (SPDIF, ADAT)

The Universal Audio Apollo 8 is certainly not cheap, but if you have the budget, and really want to have one of the best quality audio interfaces, this may be the one for you. The Unison preamps give this digital audio interface a classic analog sound, by emulating sought-after tube and solid-state preamps, true to the sonic characteristic of the original hardware.

This is achieved by using Apollo’s Console software, simply add a plug-in on your input channel, and you have instant access to the world’s most recorded preamps from Neve, SSl, Manley and more. You also get access to a lot of EQ units, compressors, vintage amps, reverbs and tape machines. 

The Apollo 8 really looks the part, with its sleek, stylish appearance, and robust build quality. In fact, you may even get distracted by admiring it in your studio, as it catches your glance. The bright LEDs on the front of the interface also make for effortless monitoring, that is pleasing to the eye.

All of the Apollo devices can be synced together, so if you already own an Apollo Twin, 8, 8p, or 16, you can combine them adding more I/O options. This a highly professional level audio interface for those with a bigger budget, and if you want access to a sublime collection of classic analog hardware, emulated by the UAD plug-ins.


Don’t Overthink it!

Choosing an audio interface is not easy, but I hope that this guide on the best audio interfaces has given you a clear idea. Ultimately, one of the most important factors for you is likely to be price.

Studio gear can eat into your budget pretty quickly, but it is easier and cheaper than ever before to build your own studio without breaking the bank. As most of the audio interfaces listed above come with bundle packs, you will be in a great position from the get-go to record and mix your music on a pro level.

Don’t overthink too much which one to purchase. They all serve the same basic function of getting audio in your computer. All of the products in this list have a renowned reputation for longevity, reliability, and quality. So, whichever you choose will serve you well.

New to audio production and what to know what other equipment you need? Check out my article here.

I hope you found this guide helpful. If you have any comments, or questions, feel free to write them below.

Chris

chrissoundlab.com

6 thoughts on “The Best Audio Interfaces in 2021 | For Every Budget”

  1. This guide is super useful and timely me  considering the fact that I’ve recently considering setting up a private studio in my home. Thanks for putting it together, you’ve been me some great options to think about.

    Reply
    • No problem, glad it as helpful. What do you want to use your private studio for may I ask? The answer to that question should help you to pick the right audio interface for you.

      Reply
  2. Thank you so much for being inclusive with this article. Seriously, I have not found an article that actually goes into inputs and outputs with such detail. I lost my job recently due to COVID so my budget is quite small. I’m thinking of starting up a podcast with an aim to develop an online business.

    Reply
    • I’m so sorry to hear about your job. This has been a tough year for everybody, and lots of people are trying to make money online as an alternative. I think starting up a podcast is an excellent idea, you just need minimal equipment for that. I’m glad the article was helpful and I wish you all the best with your business venture. If you have any questions please feel free to ask me 🙂

      Reply
  3. Hey Chris!

    Man, your videos really got me thinking and I was hoping you could shed some clarity. Basically I am Building a live show in mainstage. 4 to 5 backing stems (drums, bass, guitar, etc) that could all be muted if a drummer wanted to play or a guitar player. But most of the time it will be me singing and playing a midi keyboard (utilizing the virtual instruments in mainstage/logic). I had everything setup and ready and decided to add the Noss RC 505 loop station in the mix. Since adding that I have no idea how to hook it all up and feel that maybe the interface is the issue. I have an apogee duet.

    What I would like to know is if my interface would work to achieve what I am going for or if I need more connectivity.

    In a perfect world, I would send all the backing tracks (4 or 5) to the sound guy on their own channel. I would be able to plug the mic into the looper and use the onboard effects. Then I would be able to use the midi keyboard and the mainstage/logic sounds to play into the looper. (For example. Not beat box and just play some drums through the DAW or write a synth bass line and not sing it into the looper.) Lastly, I don’t want the whole mainstage/logic song going into the looper at once. I want to tell it “hey ignore all the backing tracks and just play this keyboard part and vocals.”

    Make sense? You’re video has me thinking I don’t know enough about sending and receiving audio that is mostly all digital (either pre-recorded backing tracks or midi keyboard virtual instruments) with the exception of a vocal mic. But even considered just plugging a vocal mic into the snake and letting the sound guy mix the vocals with the main audio I send him.

    Can you let me know if I can utilize the apogee duet along with maybe the rc505 or even the built ins to achieve what I am going for or if the interface is what is holding me up. If so, what would you recommend.

    Thanks man!

    Reply

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