Best Audio Interfaces – Premium Models (2017)
What constitutes a premium audio interface? Is it to do with the quality of the converters, the range of connectivity or the design of the form factor? Or is it simply tied up in the price? I’d suggest it’s a combination of these things. But perhaps there’s also a sense of not aiming for the lowest bottom line, of building an audio interface that’s not afraid to choose quality over value. In this roundup we’re not talking about rack mounted, multiple channel, professional recording interfaces — they have a different, more “utility” feel. Instead, a premium audio interface sits impressively on the desktop, offering up easily accessible controls and professional connections to the Sound Engineer, Producer, and musician.
Typically, you’ll be shopping with more than $500 in your pocket, so if this gives you cause to pause then check out our previous article on decent quality budget audio interfaces. If not, let’s unearth a handful of gems that’ll give your high-quality recording environment a bit of a shine.
Our 2017 Picks
RME Babyface Pro
We begin with the interface that kick-started the genre. It is a truly awful name; we can’t escape it so it’s best to accept it and move onto the good stuff. RME pretty much invented the premium style desktop audio interface with the one big knob with the 2011 release of the original Babyface. It offered a surprising amount of inputs and outputs, in a cute form factor and a very fingerable, multi-function knob. However, it was a little lightweight and its trailing loom of cables would be in constant danger of pulling the plastic box off the desk. Fast forward to 2017 and RME have released the Babyface Pro bringing the original premium interface bang up to date and dealing with some of those original problems.
This time around it’s milled from a solid block of aluminum. It has a heft to it that feels assuringly solid and some really grippy rubber feet to stop it from going anywhere under the weight of cables. The I/O count is 12 inputs and 12 outputs comprising of 2 balanced XLR mic/line inputs, 2 jack instrument/line inputs, 2 balanced XLR outputs, twin independent headphone outputs plus an ADAT port for the remaining 8 channels. The Babyface Pro is resolutely powered and connected over USB. RME make some of the best drivers in the world, with latencies and performance that match even the latest Thunderbolt interfaces from other manufacturers.
The two mic preamps are digitally controlled, with phantom power and 76dB of gain. The headphone sockets have individual driver stages to match high or low impedance headphones. The optical input can handle sample rates up to 192kHz when switched to S/PDIF mode.
And then the icing on the cake is the immensely powerful TotalMix FX DSP software mixing console. It provides CPU free mixing and routing of every input and output, from hardware to DAW and back again. A 3-band EQ is available on every input and output and there’s a reverb and echo processor available on an auxiliary bus.
The RME Babyface Pro renews the standard by which all other interfaces should be measured.
Moving beyond the Antelope and Universal Audio rivalry what does the Zen Tour have to offer? Connectivity is where this interface really shines.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Quad Thunderbolt – $1299 (at time of writing)
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo Thunderbolt – $899 (at time of writing)
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Solo Thunderbolt – $699 (at time of writing)
Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo USB – $899 (at time of writing)
Universal Audio Apollo Twin Solo Thunderbolt – $559 (at time of writing)
One company that has taken the idea of the premium desktop interface and run with it is Universal Audio. When they decided to take their PCI-based DSP effects platform outside the computer, building it into an awesome audio interface made a whole lot of sense. They also understand the ever-changing nature of computers and connectivity and so there are a few different versions depending on whether you need USB or Thunderbolt and how much DSP you need. Beyond that, the feature sets are the same.
It’s a thing of beauty. The silver knob, surrounded by a fan of metering and underlined by parameter buttons, has a totally professional feel and a style evoking the look of vintage analog gear. It looks fabulous on your desk. It’s surprisingly thick though and seems very chunky when compared to the sleek profile of the RME Babyface Pro. That’ll be because it has a big fat DSP chip inside for running the effect models.
The connections on the Apollo Twin are slightly more modest. 2 mic/line XLR inputs, a separate hi-z guitar input, stereo monitor outputs, 2 line outputs, a headphone and an optical port for ADAT or S/PDIF input. But the Apollo’s unique selling point is in the DSP effects. Universal Audio have been in the game of modeling classic hardware audio processors for a very long time. The quality and realism of their virtual effects are considered some of the best in the world. Their latest groundbreaking feature is called Unison and this takes the genuine sound of some classic real-world mic preamps and straps them to the Apollo’s inputs. There are models of Neve, Manley, SSL and API, both tube and solid state you will not find anywhere outside the original hardware. It can bring a distinction to your sound you would only otherwise get in professional studios. And it’s not done yet: once inside your DAW you have access to the huge range of UAD powered plug-ins.
Antelope Audio Zen Tour
The Zen Tours opening tag line suggests we “forget about buying expensive DSP plugins. Zen Tour offers something better.” That must, most surely, be aimed at the Apollo Twin. So, what is it Antelope are doing better with their Zen Tour interface? Well, their effects are FPGA based, which, like with the Apollo’s DSP effects, are run on hardware inside the box. The differences are the custom-made FPGA hardware are acting as hardware effects whereas DSP hardware is hosting virtual software versions of effects. Antelope believes this makes their built-in effects more authentic sounding and usable. But probably the more relevant factor is with the Zen Tour you get all of the effects included in the box whereas, with the Apollo, any effects outside the small starter pack are chargeable and remarkably expensive. (The caveat being the Zen Tour is over twice the price of the Apollo Twin.)
Moving beyond the Antelope and Universal Audio rivalry what does the Zen Tour have to offer? Connectivity is where this interface really shines. You’ve got 4 full sized XLR mic and line preamps on the back. You have 4 Hi-Z and line inputs on the front. On the side, there are two lots of ADAT giving another 16 channels of I/O as well as RCA S/PDIF. There’s also a D-Sub 25 pin audio connector for another 8 outputs. Alongside the two headphone outputs, there are two ReAmp outputs. These are rarely found on audio interfaces and allow the guitarist to route dry guitar signal out of the box and through hardware pre-amps and amplifiers for monitoring. And the icing on the connectivity cake is the presence of both a USB 2.0 port and a Thunderbolt port so it’ll connect to everything, now and in the future.
The front panel is also different to most other interfaces. Instead of lots of knobs, they’ve gone for the one, big, classy knob plus a high-resolution touch screen. The screen shows level metering and gives access to all the internal functionality of the Zen Tour. This can also be accessed via an app for Android and iOS or through the desktop software. The software includes a comprehensive routing matrix, metering, effects and mixing for all signals going through the box.
The RME Babyface Pro renews the standard by which all other interfaces should be measured.
The AudioFuse has been in development for a very long time. Arturia wanted to ensure it would live up to their promises and it’s finally now ready after being first announced in 2015. The idea behind this box is to offer the user access to every single controllable parameter on the front panel. No menu diving or hidden features; it’s all there at your fingertips. Combine this with classy and quirky French design and you’ve got quite an interesting box sitting on your desktop.
The connectivity follows a familiar vein to the others in this roundup with a couple of unique features. The first 2 mic preamped inputs also double up for line level and guitar. The second pair of inputs come on RCA phono inputs and have built-in RIAA phono preamps for the direct connection of a turntable. The inputs also have 2 analog inserts for connecting external compressors and other hardware. On the output side, there are 4 analog outputs, setup as two sets of speaker outputs. The I/O can be expanded via the single set of ADAT ports and there’s also S/PDIF. There’s word clock in/out and MIDI in/out and the obligatory pair of headphone outputs. Slightly more unusual is the 3 port USB hub which is perfect for plugging in your software iLok or dongle, or a MIDI controller. Every audio interface should have a USB hub in my opinion — so very useful.
The design of the box is compact with a stylish console ramp to the front panel. The big fat knob gives you level control with metering around it. Otherwise, the controls are split to serve the two main input channels. You’ve got good knob control over gain and button access to all the features and options. They are really pushing a hands-on approach to the workflow, which is really where this interface succeeds.
There are no hardware based effects or anything of that nature. There is a comprehensive software application which gives further control and access to the digital input/output routing and mixing. For everything else, it’s all on the front panel.
The great thing about this style of audio interfaces is they all feature amazing quality converters. This makes for sweet and professional sounding recordings. If none of the above match up to the feature sets you need then here’s some more that didn’t quite make our top four but would definitely be worth checking out:
Street Price: MOTU Track 16 – $549 (at time of writing)
Street Price: Steinberg UR 28M – $349 (at time of writing)
Street Price: Audient ID22 – $599 (at time of writing)
Street Price: Apogee Quartet – $1395 (at time of writing)
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