best cheap audio interface

The Best Cheap Audio Interfaces Under $200

Put the word “cheap” in front of anything and it automatically makes it sound like a low-quality thing. And often, that’s true. But not here, not in this guide.

I’ve put together a concise list of the best audio interfaces under $200. These are perfect options for home Producers (like myself) of any experience level.

Our picks for the best cheap audio interfaces:

  1. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
  2. PreSonus AudioBox
  3. M-Audio M-Track 2X2
  4. Audient iD4
  5. Mackie Onyx Producer 2.2
  6. Steinberg UR242

What Does an Audio Interface Do?

An audio interface is that little box you often see on a home Producer’s desk. The microphones and instruments plug into it and it connects to your computer (usually via USB). This allows you to record sound into your digital audio workstation.

Trying to make music without an audio interface is very difficult. Why?

Well, the sound card in your computer is technically an audio interface, but it’s not enough. It’s what they call “consumer-level sound,” so it’s not the quality you need. Plus, the microphones on computers are usually pretty bad, not to mention there’s no way to connect an instrument cable.

Even though people have recorded entire songs on an iPhone, you can’t rely on just your phone or computer to record high-quality songs. You need non-delayed live monitoring, playback, and preamps, which increase the loudness and quality of your recording before it hits your DAW.

Fortunately, the world has plenty of budget audio interfaces you can choose from.

What to Look For in a Budget Audio Interface

Obviously, you shouldn’t just buy any audio interface under a certain price point. If you do a little research (starting with this article), you can find a very good audio interface that will allow you to record pro-level music.

So here’s what you should consider when buying a budget audio interface.

DAW Compatibility

Before you buy an interface, you’ll need to make sure it is compatible with your DAW. Most interfaces can work with most DAWs, but it’s good just to be sure. A lot of times, interfaces come with a free download of a DAW.

Inputs and Channels

First, it’s important to look at how many channels an interface has. I’d suggest getting one with at least two channels because you can record, say, vocals and guitar at the same time. But you can work with one-input interfaces.

You’ll also want to see what type of inputs they are. Most interfaces nowadays have combo inputs, meaning they accept either an XLR cable or a ¼” inputs.

Instrument Level vs. Line Level

This is an important difference to understand. Many beginners don’t and it affects their recordings. Your interface may have a switch labeled “Instrument” and “Line.”[1]

Instrument level is for high-impedance sources, like guitars, vocals, and basses. Line level is for low-impedance sources, like keyboards, plugins, and other electronic sounds.

Microphone Preamps

The benefit of having an audio interface is that it will have built-in preamps. Not only do they allow you to capture louder sounds, but they are meant to help you get as accurate a sound as possible. Some interfaces have preamps that slightly color the sound while others don’t.

Phantom Power

When you record with a condenser microphone, you’ll need something called phantom power[2]. These mics require anywhere between 11V and 48V of phantom power to run, so your interface has to have the option to turn on phantom power. Fortunately, most of them do.

Bit Rate and Sample Rate

Bit rate and sample rate[3] tell us how quickly your recordings are converted into digital info. The faster the rate, the higher the audio quality — for the most part. The interface’s preamp(s) has a much bigger effect on the audio quality.

The industry-standard settings are 24-bit rate and between 44.1kHz and 96kHz sample rate.

The Audient iD4 is a compact little guy, but with power that you shouldn’t underestimate. With a solid build and easy-to-understand face, it’s yet another great option for the home Producer.

Included Software and Drivers

Lastly, you’ll want to note what software comes with your audio interface. If you don’t have a preferred DAW, usually one will come with your device. Many of them, however, are demo versions or are not the best options out there. But they’ll at least get you started.

Now let’s dive into the best audio interfaces currently on the market that are $200 or below. These all have phantom power, so you’ll be able to use a condenser microphone with any of them.

Best Audio Interfaces Under $200

*Prices shown below may have changed since writing

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2


Street Price: 159.99 (at time of writing)

This is the interface I currently own, and it’s surprisingly great for its small size and price. Focusrite is a very reliable name in the recording world, and the 2i2 lives up to that name.

It has 2i2 in the name because it has two inputs that each accept either XLR or ¼” inputs. You’ll also see that it has an Instrument-Line switch as well as an On-Off button for phantom power.

It’s a USB interface with super-low latency, which means live monitoring is a breeze and its signal conversion is at the same level as some of Focusrite’s better, more expensive models. So you can have what many of the pros use for under $200.

When you buy this audio interface new, you’ll also get Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and other great starter plugins.

PreSonus AudioBox

Street Price: $99.95 (at time of writing)

The AudioBox is perfect for a lot of entry-level Producers. The fact that it’s so affordable and still good quality speaks to the attention the company gave to its creation.

They built it with a solid body, so you won’t have to worry about cheap parts breaking off. It has two inputs each accepting XLR or ¼” cables and simple knobs. The headphone jack doesn’t allow as much playback volume as other AIs, but it’s still usable.

With this interface, you get Studio One Artist (a DAW), and the device can integrate with an iPad, just in case you’d like to work with music-making apps.

M-Audio M-Track 2X2

Street Price: $99.99 to $199.99 (at time of writing)

M-Audio is another trusted name in the audio recording world. Their M-Track 2X2 USB interface has one combo input (XLR/quarter-inch) and one instrument-only input. It doesn’t have a MIDI in/out, but that’s not necessary for basic music production.

All of the controls are on top of the slightly angled face, so that makes it easy to adjust your settings. The 2X2’s forte is simplicity, which is good news for any bedroom Producer.

Audient iD4

Street Price: $199 (at time of writing)

The Audient iD4 is a compact little guy, but with power that you shouldn’t underestimate. With a solid build and easy-to-understand face, it’s yet another great option for the home Producer.

It’s a high-performing USB interface with two inputs — one combo input and one instrument-only input. And it’s compatible with Windows, Mac, and even iOS, although the latter requires a camera adapter as well as a USB hub.

Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD

Street Price: $100 or less (at time of writing)

This two-channel USB interface offers everything you need for basic recordings. It has two combo inputs, a MIDI in/out, and it comes with Tracktion (a DAW) and 150 plugins.

Even though it’s under $200, some users say it’s a bit overpriced. However, with the clear and quality sound it delivers (according to reviewers), the price point may be just right.

Although it’s a solid option for beginners, there are some reports of driver and software problems. But these issues are often corrected by updating the software.

You can trust the name Steinberg, and the UR242 is their best beginner-friendly audio interface.

Mackie Onyx Producer 2.2

Street Price: $179.99 (at time of writing)

Although the Mackie Onyx Producer looks like a basic USB interface, it’s one that performs at a high level.

It has two combo inputs, a right and left line output, a MIDI in/out, and simple front-facing controls. On top of the included Tracktion T7 DAW, a super convenient thing is that it doesn’t require you to install drivers. You just plug it in and hit record.

One small downside is that the controls for the Input/DAW Mix knob adjust both the monitor output and the headphones, which can be annoying as you may need a different balance for each if you’re recording a musician but want your own mix in your studio monitors. But if you’re just recording by yourself, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Steinberg UR242

Street Price: $199.99 (at time of writing)

You can trust the name Steinberg, and the UR242 is their best beginner-friendly audio interface. This USB interface has two combo inputs, two MIDI ports, and two line inputs and two line outputs.

Using this device is easy to use, especially if you use the included Cubase AI DAW and the multitouch sequencer for your iPad, Cubasis LE. Even though there are more knobs and buttons than a lot of the devices on this list, it’s yet another good option for newer to intermediate Producers.

How We Came Up With This List

There are a ton of budget audio interfaces out there. So how in the world did I narrow it down to a handful of the best?

Well, first, I compiled reviews — from both users and recording-gear experts — of the best audio interfaces under $200. Then, using an organized spreadsheet, I found the interfaces with the most mentions and best ratings. Once I did my research on each AI, I hunkered down and presented the most compelling factors of each.

The goal here was to help you decide what budget audio interface is best for you and your home studio. I hope it helped!

References

    1. Boller, Justin (13 December 2016). “What’s the Difference Between Line and Mic Levels?” Shure. Retrieved 30 October 2019.
    2. “What Is Phantom Power?” Shure (10 September 2019). Retrieved 30 October 2019.
    3. MicroPyramid (30 March 2017). “Understanding Audio Quality: Bit Rate, Sample Rate.” Medium. Retrieved 30 October 2019.

    Image via Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

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