Best Audio Interface (2020)
When you're in the market for a new audio interface the choices can be dazzling.
The best way to narrow it down is to ask yourself what are you going to be recording. If it’s just you and virtual synths then the number of ins and outs is not going to matter but if you’re recording a band or a couple of singers then you’ll need an interface that has the right connections. So start there and then consider your budget. With more money comes better recording quality and more features but don’t worry, even at the budget end things are pretty awesome these days.
I’ve put together a list of what I think are some of the best audio interfaces on the market in 2020. I’ll try to cover everything from budget end to project studio and you should find what you need right here with the most up-to-date products and latest technology.
The best audio interfaces available in 2020 are:
- MOTU M2 and M4
- Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1 and Audio 2
- Audient Sono
- IK Multimedia AXE I/O
- UAD Apollo Twin X
- Arturia AudioFuse Studio
- Steinberg AXR4
- RME Audio Fireface UFX II
MOTU M2 and M4
Usually known for their high-end audio interface, MOTU has pulled some of the key features and their expertise across to a pair of budget audio interfaces that raise the bar on what home studios should expect from their gear.
They are a good size, made of metal with the usual ins and outs you find on a 2 in/out and 4 in/out budget interface. But there are a few added features that make all the difference.
First of all, that display is gorgeous. On most interfaces, you’re lucky to get a clip light, whereas here you can actually see the level coming in and going out and use it to properly adjust the gain. Both mic preamps have individual +48v phantom power switches which are unusual on interfaces at this level. So you can power a condenser mic on one input and use an unpowered dynamic on the other. They also have individual monitoring buttons so you can mix and match between direct and software monitoring — direct on your voice while your guitar goes through a software amplifier.
The sound quality, headroom, and dynamic range are excellent up to 192kHz. The latency is also very low and performs brilliantly. There’s an extra feature in the driver which creates a virtual loopback function where you can record the output of your software straight back in again. This is perfect for podcasters and video streaming. And to round it all off the outputs are DC coupled so you can route CV out to modular synthesizers.
The M2 and M4 are very capable interfaces with a great feature set that beats most other interfaces on the market. Highly recommended.
Street prices at time of writing:
MOTU M2 – $168
MOTU M4 – $219
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1 and Audio 2
Up next are two fabulously simple audio interfaces from Native Instruments. They are two-channel USB boxes that will fit easily in your laptop bag and do the job of providing you with high-quality audio in and out.
Audio 1 is ideal for the solo singer-songwriter. It has a single microphone input and a second input for guitar or the output of a keyboard or synthesizer. The outputs on the back are on RCA phono connectors which are great for plugging into your hi-fi or speakers.
Audio 2 makes the inputs more versatile by offering two channels that can both be microphones, guitars or line level for synths and keyboards. The outputs are upgraded to 1/4″ jack outputs.
Both boxes have a single headphone output with volume control, gain control over the inputs, 5 segment LED monitoring and that sweet big volume dial on the top. There’s a knob on the front to let you mix between playback from your computer and the direct input signal which lets you do some direct monitoring. They also come with an impressive bundle of virtual instruments, sounds, effects and recording software Ableton Live Lite and the Maschine groovebox sequencer.
Priced at $109 and $139 respectively, the Audio 2 is just a bit more expensive but worth it for the input versatility because even when making music on your own you never know when you might need two microphones.
Street prices at time of writing:
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1 – $109
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2 – $139
Guitar Oriented Interfaces
A slightly more niche audio interface has started to emerge that pays particular attention to the needs of the guitarist.
The Sono is a 2 input, 4 output audio interface with award-winning Audient console preamp technology and a 12AX7 tube built right into the input stage. Inside the box is some DSP hardware that runs speaker cabinet simulations from Two Notes. This is combined with a 3-band tone control right there on the front panel, making the Sono essentially a tube drive amp and speaker combo for your guitar.
The tube is going to give your guitar a classic analog tone shaped by the analog EQ before routing through the Two Note technology which lets you emulate the sound of miking a guitar or bass cabinet in a professional recording studio. There are emulations of classic cabs from Marshall, Fender, Ampeg and many more, all accessible through the onscreen control software. Once you’ve designed your guitar sound you can save up to 3 presets into Sono itself so you can take the sound out to a gig without needing to take the computer.
Meanwhile, it does all the mic recording and monitoring, has headphone outputs and a 5 segment LED monitor and all the controls arranged nicely on this desktop-style audio interface. And if you need more inputs for when the band turns up then it has an ADAT digital input so you could add an 8-channel mic-preamp box.
Along with the Two Note software you also get recording software from Steinberg, plugins from Waldorf and a load of loops.
Street price at time of writing: $449
IK Multimedia AXE I/O
IK Multimedia has one of the most well-regarded software guitar amp systems available in AmpliTube. They have decided to combine that software technology with a new premium audio interface packed full of guitarist-friendly features. It’s called the AXE I/O — well, of course, it is!
AXE I/O is a 2 input, 5 output audio interface in a ruggedized rack style box. On the input, there’s a “Z-Tone” impedance adapting circuit that matches up to your pickups and is switchable between passive and active. The fully discrete input circuit has a choice of Pure or Class A JFET and takes you from transparent to tube-like at the throw of a switch. The unexpected 5th output is an “Amp Out” designed to go straight to a guitar amplifier so that you can process your recordings through external gear rather than committing them to your project.
All the guitar amp and cabinet modeling are done in the included AmpliTube 4 Deluxe, with over 140 ultra-accurate models of guitar and bass amps, cabs, pedals, mics and more. You can dial in what you need via the front preset knob. On the back are two pedal inputs for expressive control that can be mapped directly to the software. They’ve even integrated a guitar tuner directly on the front panel.
And, like the Sono, it will do all the microphone recording and monitoring, as well — but the AXE I/O also has a handy MIDI In and Out port for connecting keyboards or floorboard controllers.
Along with the full-blown version of AmpliTube 4 you also get Ableton Live Lite to get you started with recording. Priced at $349 it’s a super package for the recording guitarist.
Street price at time of writing: $349
UAD Apollo Twin X
UAD is all about their DSP hardware and proprietary plug-ins which are some of the best sounding audio processors around. But the audio interfaces that house their DSP engine are really quite exquisite. And with the potential of UAD’s Luna DAW that integrates perfectly with the whole system, the Apollo Twin X is much more than just some I/O for your computer.
The dual preamps in the Apollo Twin X are designed to be as transparent as possible because then you can choose which DSP based preamp emulation you’d like it to be. Do you want that Neve sound? Or maybe you prefer Manley preamps or Helios? You also have Hi-z inputs, and a headphone output, plus ADAT and S/PDIF for digital expansion and an additional 8 inputs.
You have great monitoring and control on the very nice looking desktop unit. It also has a Talkback function for communicating with your singer through their headphones. It’s a very classy unit.
The plugin power of the Apollo series is unmatched. There are so many great pieces of emulated gear in here from EQ to compressors, effects, and amplifiers, all of them classics that will add an outboard feel to your music. And lastly, there’s Luna, their forthcoming recording system (Mac only) that will integrate both the hardware and the plug-ins into a complete recording studio.
The Apollo Twin X is a Thunderbolt interface and you can cascade up to 4 Apollo units if you need more in/out or DSP power.
Street price at time of writing: $899
Arturia AudioFuse Studio
If you’d like something a bit more versatile on your desktop then check out the AudioFuse Studio from Arturia. Following on from their excellent AudioFuse audio interface, this pushes the I/O further and offers more hands-on control.
It has 4 world-class microphone preamps and a phono preamp for sampling vinyl. It has Bluetooth audio streaming to your monitors or into your DAW. It’s on USB-C connectivity and also has ADAT expandability along with MIDI I/O and Wordclock to give up to 18 inputs and 20 outputs. There are two monitor outputs and a hardware button to switch between speakers. There’s a dedicated re-amping output so you can record your guitar and then tweak the sound through your amplifier later. There’s even a USB hub built in for your dongles or MIDI controllers.
The design is hand and finger-friendly and completely intuitive. There’s also a versatile software mixer that mirrors the hardware and lets you save configurations. It comes with a great bundle of software effects and virtual instruments. At $999, it’s at the higher end of the mid-range but it’s a very versatile device for a project studio.
Street price at time of writing: $999
From the makers of Cubase comes a premium sound quality audio interface that uses the Thunderbolt interface found on Apple computers and high-end PCs but is for MacOS only. The AXR4 (Audio Xcellence Redefined) is designed for serious studio use and aims to set a new standard in quality.
The Thunderbolt connection ensures super-low latency and high performance for all 28 inputs and 24 outputs. Recording and playback can be done at 32-bit integer and up to 384kHz. The four mic preamps on the front feature “Rupert Neve Designs Silk” technology, giving them a natural sound and unparalleled versatility. These can also be line and Hi-Z guitar inputs. The Silk Texture control introduces lush analog textures to the sound, using Neve-approved Red or Blue console emulations. There’s jitter reduction technology, a full matrix mixer for routing and a powerful DSP mixer with a custom Yamaha DSP chip running some vintage compression and studio effects. And it has a useful OLED display on the front for metering.
It’s a phenomenal interface that will provide pristine quality and characterful recordings in any kind of studio. It does come with Cubase AI in the box but honestly, you’re going to be running a full version of Cubase or another DAW. However, Cubase 10 does have some deeper integration with the AXR4 that’s worth considering. Oh, and you can chain 3 together for loads more inputs and outputs.
Street price at time of writing: $2,799.99
RME Audio Fireface UFX II
Not a new interface for 2020 but it’s one of the most reliable and fully featured interfaces on the market and runs on good old USB so that there’s no trouble running it on Windows or MacOS. It’s quite striking how Steinberg has reflected the look of the UFX II in the AXR4.
The Fireface UFX II has 30 ins and 30 outs with 4 digitally controlled mic preamps on the front, another 8 analog on the back and the rest in ADAT, AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital. The latency and performance of RME’s USB technology are second to none and supports audio resolutions up to 192kHz. Along with the excellent monitoring screen, MIDI I/O and wordclock features, you can also plug in a USB stick in the front and record directly to it. Imagine taking an instant mix from a recording session or live show. The internal TotalMix FX software gives full routing access and hardware mixing with DSP effects.
Street price at time of writing: $2,299
Photo via Native Instruments
Nobody has asked any questions...Want to be the first?