Best Budget Audio Interfaces for 2017
Looking for this year’s list? Be sure to read Best Audio Interfaces 2019.
When it comes to getting sound into and out of your DAW or music making software the mini-jack connections on a PC, Mac or laptop simply don’t cut it. They may be great for listening to music, movies, and playing games but for recording vocals, creating tunes and mixing your music you are going to need an audio interface.
Audio interfaces provide you with two essential music production elements. First, they give you the physical connections for microphones, guitars, synthesizers and other sources along with control over their levels. Secondly, they provide high performance, low latency drivers so that you can monitor audio and use virtual instruments without any noticeable lag. It’s these two things that transform your computer into a real-life music studio. They often have other cool things as well, like headphone outputs, big volume knobs, flashing level LEDs and go-faster stripes. And they usually come with a small but handy bundle of recording software to get you making music.
For the purposes of this round-up, I’m looking at interfaces under $200. There are one or two under $100 but if you go too low they start getting really bad, really quick. So these are budget, entry-level interfaces, usually offering two inputs and two outputs and they will connect over USB. The type and speed of the USB connection are not something to worry about. Regular USB 1.1 will easily cope with two channels of audio. USB 2, 3, and 3.1 can handle more data, and so more simultaneous tracks, but at this level, they are not going to offer any significant gains and so the type of USB is largely irrelevant. Just make sure your computer has the right port.
When looking for the best audio interface the most important question to ask yourself is: “what connections do I need?” Are you plugging in guitars, are you recording voices or acoustic instruments? Maybe you just need to plug in some turntables, or the output from a synth or drum machine. Maybe you’re doing everything in the box and just need good quality outputs. It’s all down to those connections. The other factor is to do with the quality of the drivers. This may seem odd but the drivers affect your ability to play virtual instruments in real-time. With poor drivers you’ll start to feel a delay between striking a key and hearing the sound – we call this latency. All the audio interfaces in this list will come with half decent ASIO drivers. ASIO is a protocol that ensures low latency performance in Windows. If your audio interface only comes with regular Windows audio drivers then the performance may not be up to scratch. On Apple Mac the audio driver architecture is different and low latency is built into their Core Audio protocol.
In any case, the little boxes I’ve got in this list are the perfect way to build a mini recording studio.
When looking for the best audio interface the most important question to ask yourself is: “what connections do I need?” Are you plugging in guitars, are you recording voices or acoustic instruments? Maybe you just need to plug in some turntables, or the output from a synth or drum machine.
Our 2017 Picks
Focusrite Scarlett Solo and 2i2
Kicking off with the well-known, trusted and professional brand name of Focusrite, they have a long history of making audio interfaces and the second generation Scarlett range is the best yet. It starts with the Solo and goes all the way up to the multi-channel 18i20 rack-mounted interface. At the budget end, the Solo and 2i2 offer a neat, high-quality solution in their trademark red.
The Scarlett Solo is designed for the singer-songwriter. There’s a connection on the front for a microphone and a guitar giving you two channel recording directly into your computer. There are a nice big volume knob and a headphone socket and you’re all set up for making your lonely recordings in your bedroom. Focusrite preamps are renowned for their quality and so you know you’re going to get a decent sound on the track. The gain knobs have a really nice glowing ring behind them that show green when receiving a signal and red when the input’s too hot.
If you do find yourself with a friend to play with then the Scarlett 2i2 gives you a second microphone input which doubles up as guitar inputs. So now you can jam together and record it all into the computer. Focusrite says it’s the best-selling audio interface on the planet. The 2i2 also boasts a separate volume control over the outputs and the headphone and jack outputs rather than the RCA Phonos on the Solo.
Both come with a rather stunning range of bundled software including Pro Tools First and Ableton Live Lite. So if you’re into straight recording or loop-based live performance then it’s got you covered. There’s also a decent number of useful plug-ins and virtual instruments in the box. It’s a great pack. Focusrite also offers these interfaces as part of a Studio Pack that comes with a condenser microphone, closed back headphones and cabling. Everything your budget studio needs to start making music.
PreSonus AudioBox USB and Studio 26
So why would anyone look any further than the Scarletts? Well, Focusrite are not the only manufacturers with a decent reputation. PreSonus are also renowned for the quality of their audio processors and interfaces. In fact, PreSonus and Focusrite interfaces have often matched each other in terms of features and even, until recently, used the same drivers. But there are some differences that might tip you one way or the other.
The AudioBox USB is an older interface, it’s been around a while, but it has quite a full set of features for a sub-$100 interface. The combo sockets on the front can take microphone or guitar inputs. They have individual gain knobs, with peak LEDs. The main output and headphone have their own volume controls, although the headphone socket is annoyingly on the back. Otherwise, the feature set is much more like the more expensive 2i2 than the Solo. But in addition, the AudioBox has a built-in MIDI interface for a MIDI keyboard or synthesizer. This could make it that bit more versatile.
The Studio 26 is the entry to the latest range of PreSonus interfaces. This one features XMAX-L solid state preamps on the inputs with some awesome four segment LED monitoring on the front panel. Along with the main output and headphone output (still annoyingly on the back) you’ve got an additional pair of line outputs for monitor mixing or speaker switching. And you’ve still got the MIDI ports for your keyboard. It may push our budget to the limit but it’s the evolution of the AudioBox 2×2 and I believe it’s worth the extra.
Both come with PreSonus’ own DAW software called Studio One. And this is not some cut-down, feature disabled, throw away copy, this is a full license of Studio One Artist that usually retails for $99. Like Focusrite, PreSonus also offers a bundle pack of microphone and headphones with the AudioBox Studio.
The Studio 26 offers more features than Focusrite’s “best-selling audio interface” in a similar price range, with better software. That gives you something to think about.
Steinberg UR22MkII and UR242
Taking a slightly different angle, Steinberg’s reputation is built in software rather than hardware. However, with the UR range of audio interfaces, they have combined their expertise in DAW technology with hardware from Yamaha, their parent company. This results in excellent latency and DAW integration coupled with well-regarded Class-A D-PRE preamps. The UR22 MkII offers a now familiar feature set of twin mic/line inputs, headphones, and a stereo output. But in this case only input 2 can also be a guitar input, so this is more like the Solo than the 2i2 or Studio 26, but it does have the MIDI ports.
The UR22 does have a couple of tricks up its sleeve. The first is a “Loopback” function in the software which allows you to mix an input with playback from music software directly into another application. This is ideal for streaming performances onto the internet, or podcasting, Facebook Live, Twitch TV etc. The UR22 is also the only interface in our list to support iOS. It can connect to an iPhone or iPad via a compatible Apple camera adapter and use an optional USB power supply. It even comes with a code to unlock Cubasis LE for iPad.
Talking of special features the UR242 takes this further. With connectivity the UR242 ups the number of inputs to four, meaning you can have mic, guitar and the output from a synth all being recorded at once. But the super power comes in the form of the “dspMixFx” software. This is a latency free mixer and plug-in bundle that brings a Sweet Spot Morphing channel strip, Yamaha Rev-X reverb and classic guitar amp models to your sound. But not only that: when combined with Cubase, the UR242 integrates directly into the input section of the DAW and provides access to the dspMixFx features within the Cubase mixer. And one more thing! Steinberg has released an iOS app that gives full touch-control over the dspMixFx. So you can control the monitoring setup, levels, or effects from the other side of the room. That’s pretty awesome. The only downside of the UR242 is it requires external power. This is common with audio interfaces that have some DSP on-board — power from the USB port is just not quite enough.
Both the UR22 and the UR242 come with a simple but decent version of Cubase AI to get you started. And if you need more inputs and outputs then there are more models further up the chain and outside our budget. The driver performance on the UR range is one of the best and the DAW integration and iOS versatility make them a serious contender for your $200.
The interfaces in this list all come with decent performing drivers, reliable connections, and usable software bundles. Their feature sets are very similar and so for the singer-songwriter, with maybe a friend to jam with, or an electronic musician looking for superior quality output and control, then any of these will do the job for you.
M-Audio M-Track 2×2 and 2x2m
Personally, I tend to find the knobs and controls on audio interfaces to be small and fiddly. The shape of interfaces has tended to follow the form of the 1U rack unit. Maybe it’s pretending to look more professional, maybe it sits well on the top of a tower PC — who knows. Anyway, thankfully some manufacturers have been exploring the desktop form factor, giving us more space for the controls and connections and, for me, a more attractive aesthetic feel. This is most often found in premium interfaces but M-Audio has brought it to the budget end of the market with their M-Track 2×2 and 2x2m.
M-Audio has a long history of making excellent audio interfaces. But the M-Tracks are the first since they were bought by InMusic and for me look like a return to form after a few years of not very much action. The 2×2 and 2x2m are so similar that I don’t really know why the 2×2 exists. I guess it hits that sub-$100 price point, but really the 2x2m is the better box. The 2×2 has a single mic/line combo input with a single guitar input and a headphone output. The 2x2m doubles up on the mic and instrument inputs and adds MIDI ports. Otherwise, they are identical. But what sets them apart is the wonderfully clear layout with large, friendly knobs and metering. It sits there on your desktop, giving you access to all the controls without having to fiddle around with a tiny 1U front panel.
Of all the interfaces in this list, the M-Track is the only one to offer a USB-C connection. It comes with two cables in the box, one for regular USB 2.0 and another for USB 3.1 on the USB-C type port. Is that significant? No, not really, but at least it will connect directly to your new MacBook Pro without an adapter.
The software bundle includes a slightly lower version of Cubase LE than the Steinberg interfaces but makes up for it with a large bundle of plug-ins and instruments including the Xpand!2 virtual instrument workstation from Air.
So which one is best for you?
There’s always a danger of being tempted by cheap audio interfaces. Once you get under that $100 you have to be cautious. Although there are plenty of good names on cheap interfaces, such as Alesis, Lexicon, and Behringer, the drivers tend to be poor, which will result in not being able to get the best out of your system. The interfaces in this list all come with decent performing drivers, reliable connections, and usable software bundles. Their feature sets are very similar and so for the singer-songwriter, with maybe a friend to jam with, or an electronic musician looking for superior quality output and control, then any of these will do the job for you. How to choose between them depends on, firstly, the inputs and outputs you need and then the other features that appeal to you. For me, the desktop form factor is a big feature, but for you, it might be the software bundle or the reputation of the preamps. However, at this budget level, they are all going to offer great quality sound at good value for the money.
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