Whether you make music, podcast, stream or simply enjoy listening to any of these things, a good audio interface is going to make all the difference. Your Mac or PC’s built-in sound will be just fine for most pedestrian tasks, but for creators it’s likely going to fall short of what you need.
The good news is there’s a wealth of options tailored to a variety of specific needs and use cases. The less-good news is that it can be a bit overwhelming trying to decide which one is the best for you. Which is why we’ve cooked up this guide, in which we highlight the best options whether you simply want to record a guitar, or go live to an audience of thousands (or to at least sound good while you work on that number).
And don’t worry about being overwhelmed with jargon, we’ll focus on the task in hand over the kHz and decibels so that you know which is best for the results you want without feeling like you’ve just come out of a math class.
Best for those on a budget
Audio interfaces aren’t just for creators. Maybe you work from home and want to be able to use a high-quality XLR microphone for work calls. Or perhaps you prefer to have physical controls for your headphones and mic? Or maybe you just appreciate the superior audio quality from a dedicated device to the one that came with your PC. If so, you likely don’t need to spend too much money – here are three options that won’t break the bank.
M-Audio M-Track Solo
It’s certainly not the prettiest device on this list, but what the M-Track Solo ($49) lacks in aesthetics, it more than makes up for in functionality for the price. If you’re just looking for something to plug a microphone or guitar into – or both at the same time – the M-Track Solo is hard to beat.
For beginners or would-be podcasters, there’s also the M-Track Duo ($70) which adds a second XLR microphone connection so you can invite guests over and record them on their own channel making editing a lot easier – and you won’t need to get intimate with them as you share a microphone. There’s not a lot in terms of frills here, like MIDI or effects, but for the price it’s a solid choice.
Presonos AudioBox iOne
Unlike other PC components, like graphics cards, digital sound has natural limits meaning that older devices can still be relevant today – and often at a better price. Presonos’ AudioBox iOne ($70) is one such example. It’s primarily intended for creators that work with music software, but it’s a great all-around audio interface with all the essential connectivity for a now-reduced price.
As a bonus, the AudioBox iOne works well with iPads, too – not a guarantee at this price point. Though some might find the headphone amplification on the low side, in case that’s a feature important to you.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo
There’s a reason why Focusrite’s Scarlett series of interfaces appear on so many recommendation lists – including two spots on this one: They offer a great balance of performance, reliability and price. At around $130, the Solo is not the absolute cheapest you can find, but it will get you started in streaming, podcasting and beyond just fine. In fact, if you just want a port for an XLR mic, improved headphone amplification and easy connections for speakers, the Solo could be the only interface you ever need that won’t feel underpowered or even as your needs evolve.
Best for streamers
Perhaps not surprisingly, the streaming category is one of the busiest when it comes to audio interfaces. That’s partly because most Twitchers and YouTubers have several different audio feeds to manage in unison. As such, products in this category come with a software component that lets you pipe your microphone, your group chat and your game audio to different places. Thankfully, this isn’t as confusing as it sounds – not with one of the following devices at least.
Roland Bridge Cast
Roland might be best known for its musical equipment, but the company does a sideline in streaming gear and the Bridge Cast ($299) is one of the strongest in this category. There are four hardware volume dials so you can adjust the mix of your mic, chat and game etc. in real time, and you can even control separate “submixes” for you and your audience in real time.
On top of the mix controls, there are some voice effects, microphone EQ and dedicated mute buttons for everything – these can also be used to trigger samples, too. With the option to pipe in phone audio via an aux port, Roland has made a strong case for the Bridge Cast as the streamer’s interface of choice.
TC Helicon GoXLR Mini
The original GoXLR was one of the first audio interfaces that really focused on what streamers wanted. The Mini was released a year later and was a hit in its own right, and remains popular today, long after its initial release. The physical faders give you tactile control over each part of your stream and the connectivity includes a 3.5mm microphone port next to the headphone port – perfect for gaming headsets that use a splitter.
Additional touches include a !@#$?* button to spare your audience when you get a bit spicy with your language and an optical port so your game console audio sounds pristine. Of course, there’s RGB lighting on the faders which is almost as important as the connectivity, right?
Elgato Wave XLR
If you don’t have the budget or, let’s face it, the desk space for a full-sized mixer to control your streams, Elgato’s Wave XLR is the minimalist’s choice. Not only is it discreet, it manages to eke out a lot of functionality from just one clickable knob and a capacitive mute button.
Despite the simplicity, the Wave XLR still delivers crisp, clear audio. Where it really comes into its own, though, is its modular integration with other Elgato products. When used in concert with the Stream Deck and the Wave Link app, for example, the experience opens up to include the ability to run audio plugins and create custom shortcuts to control the audio on your stream.
Beacn Mix Create
If you already have an audio interface you’re happy with but want the convenience of a mixer for your streams then the Mix Create by Beacn is exactly that. The lightweight USB mixer comes with a screen, but the brains of the operation is the software that creates separate audio feeds for your mic, game, browser and so on.
For streamers, it means hands on controls and the flexibility of a submix (i.e. the mix you hear and the mix listeners here can be different). Not only is this an elegant solution for those who already have a hardware interface, it means you can enjoy dedicated volume controls for things like YouTube and Spotify when you’re not going live.
Best for musicians
Whether you pluck strings or drop DJ-bombs, you’re going to want pro tools that provide you all the right ports while delivering rich, bit-perfect sound for your home studio. Unlike streamers that will want to be able to work with audio from a variety of digital sources, musicians and songwriters also want to record (and listen to) physical instruments in real time – so all of our selections have a focus on clean sound quality with good connectivity.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Focusrite’s second showing on this list is a little red box that, once you’re aware of it, you’ll start seeing everywhere from live streams to YouTube guitar tutorials. The popularity of the Scarlett 2i2 is for more than its dashing red looks. The preamps – the part that turns your voice or instruments into usable sound – are widely regarded as some of the cleanest for music production at this price range.
With two combi-ports (there’s no MIDI here) the connectivity is fairly standard, but guitarists, singers and voice actors in particular will appreciate the “Air” feature that gently adds a sense of space to vocals – a trademark of Focusrite products.
Universal Audio Volt 276
When Engadget’s Managing Editor, Terrence O’Brien, reviewed the Volt 2/76 from Universal Audio he described it as “bringing something special to the table.” It’s a reference to the built-in compressor that emulates the company’s classic 1176 Limiting Amplifier hardware. All you need to know is it’s another tool to make your instrument or vocals sit better in the mix.
In a world awash with generic audio interfaces, genuinely useful features like this are what makes the Volt series stand out. Alongside the compressor, the Volt 276 has a pair of 5-pin MIDI connector ports and a button for “vintage” mode. The latter emulates the company’s popular Audio 610 preamp which, according to Universal Audio, was used by Van Halen and Ray Charles. Not bad company to be keeping! At $299, it’s a little on the spendier side, but it’s a comprehensive choice for anyone who works with instruments, vocals and outboard MIDI gear.
If you need more connectivity than the standard 2 or 4 inputs, MOTU’s M6 has you covered. As the name suggests, there are up to six instrument inputs – four of which can be microphones – and a pair of 5-pin MIDI ports for synths. The M6 can even output CV signals to control even older music gear. The M6 also has dedicated buttons on each input channel for phantom power (for condenser microphones) and real-time headphone monitoring. If all that flexibility wasn’t enough, a small display for volume levels means you have a quick visual reference to make sure you keep your precious recordings out of the red.
Best for Podcasters
Whether you’re operating from a sound-treated studio or recording under a duvet in the back office, most podcasters have a few needs in common. First and foremost is the option to connect more than one high quality microphone. Second would be the ability to record remote guests easily whether they are using Zoom or calling in on a phone – which requires something called “mix minus” and isn’t a standard feature on most interfaces.
Lastly, many shows will want to be able to play music or audio from other sources in real time. All of the picks in this section exceed those basic compatibility requirements, which one is best for you will be determined by budget or specific needs.
Focusrite Vocaster Two
From the same company as the acclaimed Scarlett series, the Vocaster Two takes all the audio knowledge from its sister series and packages it into a more podcast-friendly format. Not only are there dual XLR mic or line inputs, there are two headphone ports, each with their own volume control so you and a live guest can podcast together in the same room.
Thanks to both a 3.5mm and Bluetooth inputs you have multiple options for including “call in guests”. There’s even a 3.5mm output for those who want to make a video-version of their podcast for YouTube – simply plug the Vocaster right into your camera for perfect audio as you record it. What’s more, the “auto gain” and “enhance” features will make sure you and your local guest will sound tippity top without having to apply any external effects.
Rodecaster Pro II
If you see yourself taking your podcasting to the next level, then the Rodecaster Pro II from Rode is hard to ignore. With four XLR combi ports, it’s perfect for multi-guest in-person shows, especially as it has physical faders for each channel along with easily accessible mute and solo buttons.
The Rodecasater Pro II also includes both a 3.5mm/aux port and Bluetooth for plugging in a phone plus dual USB ports that make it easy to feed in audio, like a Zoom call, from a PC or a tablet. Each microphone port has a wealth of effects available to enhance the audio, and the eight rubber pads let you fire off sound effects and intro/outro music at will. The pads can also trigger automated actions like musical fade-ins. In short, the Rodecaster II is quite a powerhouse, but obviously a fair amount more expensive than most interfaces on this list.
Best for music listening
What we call an audio interface today, we might well have once called a “sound card.” While today’s interfaces also serve up a host of connectivity options, the thing we need them for the most is often just good old fashioned listening to music. While everything on this list will reproduce music to a high standard, Hi-Fi heads might prefer something that will let them interface with more exotic audio formats, audio gear and high-end headphones.
With phono, coaxial, optical and USB inputs, the K7 from Fiio is able to handle music and audio from almost any high fidelity source. Most traditional audio interfaces support playback of up to 48 kHz, the K7 can handle files all the way up to 384 kHz at 32-bit – perfect for the demanding audiophile.
On the front you’ll find two inputs: a 1/4″ jack and a 4.4mm balanced headphone port along with a big ol’ volume dial.While its Hi-Fi aesthetic might not be the most razzle-dazzle, it does have an RGB LED around the dial to give it a pop of color (it also changes color depending on the “quality” of your audio source).
Don’t let the unusual design fool you, the Q7 from Fiio is an absolute audio powerhouse. It has the same digital inputs as the K7 but supports files with up to twice the maximum sampling rate (for those who absolutely must have 768kHz/32bit support).
More practically the Q7 can decode Tidal’s top-tier MQA files and there’s Bluetooth for connecting to your phone along with a built-in battery, too making this a portable high-end audio experience that won’t drain your laptop. Naturally, for the music listener that wants it all, there are jacks for every size of headphone, including 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced sets.