Best Budget Audio Interface Choices in 2019

An audio interface is an electrical device that allows your computer and DAW to talk to your studio monitors, headphones, microphone, and other analog instruments. They convert the zeros and ones of digital audio into an analog electrical waveform that your monitors can understand. They also work in reverse, meaning they turn an analog input signal into a digital audio signal. In this buying guide, you’ll learn what to look for when shopping for an audio interface, and then we’ll go through the list of the best budget audio interfaces in 2019.

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Top Pick: Audient iD4

The iD4 from Audient wins top spot in our list of the best budget audio interfaces in 2019. This interface has loads of features that set it apart from the rest, plus all of the things we’d want if we’re going for a professional sound like 24-bit resolution, balanced inputs and outputs, and up to 96 kHz sample rate. The interface also uses one of their well-regarded Audient mic pres, which buyers say sound better than our runner up, the Scarlett 2i2. This interface will be great for an advanced musician who wants to record an instrument and vocals simultaneously.

Runner-up: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3nd Gen)

2nd place belongs to the popular best seller, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. Like the iD4, this interface also offers the best when it comes to technical superiority in the budget audio interface market. With 24-bit resolution, up to 192 kHz sample rate, and two Scarlett mic pres, this interface will work and has worked well for many who want to record from two mics simultaneously while achieving a professional degree of quality. If you’re on an even tighter budget, take a look at the Scarlett Solo below. Check it out!

Also Great: Behringer U-Phoria UM2

A list of budget audio interfaces would not be complete without the Behringer U-Phoria UM2. This thing is the definition of wallet-friendly, and offers some of the quality features we’re looking for including up to 48 kHz sample rate. It does fall short in two areas though: 1) it’s outputs are unbalanced and 2) it’s max bit depth is 16 bits. These may be deal breakers for many who want a more professional interface. That being said, the UM2 is a good choice for someone who is just getting their feet wet in this space.


The Makings of the Best Budget Audio Interface

In the pro audio world, audio interfaces are used by producers, musicians, recordists, artists, and engineers to increase the sound quality of audio signals coming from and going to their DAW. Most PCs have their own internal interfaces and digital-to-analog converters, but for pro audio work, they just won’t cut it. And the reality is that the “best” budget audio interface will be slightly different for everyone, since we all have different needs as artists and musicians.

That being said, there are technical advantages that you will find across the board even in low-cost audio interfaces. In comparison to your computer’s stock DAC, audio interfaces allow for additional inputs and outputs (and the right kind, of inputs and outputs), adding to the flexibility and utility of your setup. Basically, if you’re interested in digital audio production, these are an absolute must-have item. Lets discuss the things you should look out for before you purchase the best budget audio interface out there.

Sample Rate

During the conversion from analog to digital, for example when recording vocals through a microphone, the A/D converter in your audio interface performs a process called sampling. Sampling takes the continuous analog waveform from an instrument or mic and chops it into tiny discrete pieces of data many thousands of times per second. Each piece of data contains estimated information about the analog waveform amplitude at the time the sample was taken.

The sampling rate is the metric that tells us how many samples the audio interface can capture in 1 second. Higher sampling rates can capture higher frequencies and will convert analog audio to digital audio in greater detail. For a deeper understanding, take a look at the video below by iZotope.

Like they mentioned, some common sample rates are 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, and 192 kHz. The best budget audio interfaces will have a sampling rate of at least 44.1 kHz.

There is much debate on whether or not higher sampling rates actually make a difference. Some people argue that it actually causes signal distortion. There really is no consensus.

Either way, sampling at 44.1 kHz will allow us to fully handle all audio within the spectrum of human hearing due to the Nyquist Theorem – sample rate must be twice the maximum sampled frequency, in this case Fmax = 20 kHz since humans can’t hear anything beyond that.

Bit Depth

Another important metric to look for when shopping for audio interfaces is bit depth. Bit depth is directly related to the dynamic range of the audio you’ll be able to process and also ties into the accuracy of the signal conversion.

When an analog signal is sampled, each sample gets assigned a point in time and an amplitude that consists of some combination of 0’s and 1’s that your computer can understand. The bit depth is what determines the accuracy of the digital signal’s amplitude when compared to the sampled analog signal.

16-bit quantization allows for 65,536 possible numerical values for the waveform amplitude, and 24-bit quantization allows for 16,777,216 possible values. More possible values means that the spacing of the amplitude grid that the samples get rounded to is tighter, which ultimately reduces quantization error. This is the error that occurs due to rounding the analog amplitude to the nearest bit.

Some will argue that 16-bit is enough, and it is for consumer audio. But for musicians and producers, 24-bit quantization is optimal. Not only is it much more accurate, but it also allows for a higher dynamic range (96 dB for 16-bit to 144 dB for 24-bit). This ultimately allows for more headroom in your mix and makes mistakes in gain settings less of a problem. For this reason, we should shoot for at least a 24-bit bit depth capability in our audio interface.

Latency & Buffer Size

The digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and analog-to-digital converter (ADC) in your audio interface are the microprocessors that do the actual signal conversion. These play a big role in the quality and price of your audio interface.

cirrus logic cs4272

Cirrus Logic CS4272 used in the Focusrite Scarlett 6i6

The latency, or the time it takes for the signal to be processed by the audio interface, will depend on your A/D and D/A converters, drivers, and buffer settings. It also depends to some degree on your digitial I/O interface – meaning the type of hardware your computer uses to connect to your audio interface.

Some common choices are USB 2.0, USB 3.0, FireWire, Thunderbolt, and PCI or PCIe. USB is the slowest but also the cheapest and most common. Thunderbolt 3 is about 8 times faster then USB 3.0 The latency time is usually expressed in milliseconds, and the lower latency is better, especially for recording.

Phantom Power

Phantom power is DC electrical power used to polarize the capsules of professional-grade condenser mics. The best budget audio interface for someone who needs to do recording work will have phantom power circuitry and switches built into the device. Usually, if the audio interface has an input dedicated specifically to microphone use (an XLR input), then it will also include phantom power. Audio interfaces with phantom power on board will remove the need for additional gear, which takes up your precious desk space and money, too.

48 V phantom power switch and LED indicator on the M-Audio M-Track Plus

Balanced Input/Output Connections

Ideally, the best budget audio interfaces will have audio I/O connection types that utilize signal balancing. Balancing is a way to eliminate radio frequency noise that gets introduced to the audio signal from the surrounding environment. For pro audio applications, we’re looking mainly for balanced 3-pin XLR cable sockets and 1/4″ TRS jacks.

mogami xlr trs cable

Mogami cable with Neutrik XLR and 1/4″ TRS male connectors

Some audio interfaces only have accommodations for unbalanced S/PDIF, RCA, and TS inputs and outputs, which is not recommended for anything that you want to sound professional. However, you will still see some interfaces in the list below that lack balanced outputs. When it comes to features, balancing seems to be the first to get the axe in order to cut costs. The main takeaway here is that balanced I/O will ultimately result in a cleaner audio signal.

On the subject of I/O, it’s important to also think about how many inputs and outputs you’ll need. This is going to be different for everyone and there is no “best” number, just a number that will best suit your own needs. Additional I/O requirements will increase the amount of money you’re going to need to spend, and very well may push you out of the budget/entry-level range in terms of price. If you want to record your five-man band during a live session, you’ll need more. If you want to record a single vocalist and nothing more, maybe a single XLR input will do.

Line Level vs. Instrument Level vs. Mic Level Signals

It’s important to differentiate between the different signal voltage levels you’ll encounter and then determine if the audio interface you choose can handle what you need it to. Typically, mic level signals are the lowest and require amplification by a preamp to bring up to line level, which is the signal voltage level being fed into your monitors. Instrument level signals are found somewhere in between line level and mic level.

Some audio interfaces have switches that can change their preamp output between different signal levels. The more features the better, but it can add to the price. If it ends up costing more, get only what you need for the job at hand.

best budget audio interface lone vs instrument

Switches change between MIC/LINE (line level) and GUITAR (instrument level) on M-Audio M-Track Plus

Recap & Other Buying Considerations

Here are the common things to look for in your search for the best budget audio interface for you:

  • Sample rate should be at least 44.1 kHz
  • Low latency – lower is better
  • Bit depth at 24 bit or higher will allow for a higher dynamic range and higher signal-to-noise ratio (SNR)
  • Look for balanced XLR or 1/4″ TRS inputs and outputs – add to price, but worth it!
  • Look for +48 V phantom power switch if you’ll be using a condenser mic for recording

Let’s look at some of the questions you should be asking yourself when shopping for the best budget audio interface:

  • We touched on this earlier, but what type of inputs and outputs, and how many of each, will you need for what you want to do?
  • Does it need to have a headphone jack? Will you be mixing or recording with headphones? How many?
  • What mix of audio quality and utility will you need to balance in your decision? For example, let’s say you need 8 inputs. You may have to sacrifice higher sampling rate settings to remain within budget.
  • What type of digital I/O will you need? USB is the slowest, but also the most budget-friendly. Others include FireWire, PCIe, and Thunderbolt connections.

All of these factors along with the prices were taken into consideration while formulating this list of the best budget audio interfaces available in 2019. Without further latency, let’s take a look.

The Top 7 Best Budget Audio Interfaces in 2019

Behringer U-Phoria UM2 ($)

Behringer U-Phoria UM2

best budget audio interface behringer u-phoria um2

First up in our list is the Behringer U-Phoria UM2. This is the epitome of the bare minimum when it comes to budget-friendly audio interfaces. If all you need are a single mic input, a single 1/4″ instrument input, and a single headphone output, and you’re willing to sacrifice balanced monitor outputs in lieu of unbalanced RCA, this is the audio interface for you.

This interface is great for a complete beginner who doesn’t know whether or not digital audio production is their thing yet, or someone who doesn’t want to invest heavily in gear they may only use for a short period of time. Lets look at the features and specs.

Features

♦ 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz sample rate
♦ 16-bit resolution (confirmed by Sweetwater)
♦ +48 V phantom power
♦ Direct monitoring capability – bypass your DAW
♦ 2 inputs, 2 outputs (headphones and L&R RCA)
♦ 3-year warranty

Remember, the outputs are UNBALANCED. This means it’s very likely you’ll pick up noise from external RF sources. Also, our bit depth for this one is capped at 16 bits, and some users report difficulties with driver compatibility. I would definitely not be eager to reach for this if you plan on building a serious recording studio. That being said, this is a list of budget audio interfaces, and the price is hard to argue with. Check out additional specs on the UM2 here.

View & Check Price!

Focusrite Scarlett Solo (3rd Gen) ($)

Focusrite Scarlett Solo (3rd Gen)

focusrite scarlett solo 3rd gen

 

Next up is the first of the immensely popular Scarlett audio interfaces from Focusrite. The 3rd iteration of the Scarlett Solo is comparable to the UM2 mentioned above in that it really is geared towards simplicity and minimalism. It has one XLR mic input and one 1/4″ instrument input with a LINE/INST level switch. It also has a new “AIR” switch that adds brightness to your vocal recordings.

This interface does offer 24-bit resolution and up to 196 kHz sample rate, and thankfully they have added balanced outputs, which are an upgrade from the 2nd gen Solo. The 3rd gen interface is one of the least-expensive of the least-expensive and great for beginners or someone with an ultra-low budget.

Features

♦ 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, or 192 kHz sample rates
♦ 24-bit resolution
♦ Balanced outputs
♦ +48 V phantom power
♦ Direct monitoring capability – bypass your DAW for latency-free monitoring
♦ 2 inputs, 2 outputs (headphones and L&R RCA)
♦ 2-year warranty

View & Check Price!

Audient iD4 ($$)

Audient iD4

best budget audio interface audient iD4

The iD4 from Audient is their latest addition to their new branch of audio interfaces. This interface is the younger sibling to the iD14 and iD22 and it’s loaded to the brim with some very interesting features. This interface has is the ability to use the main volume knob to control a virtual knob in your DAW using the iD button.

This interface also has one of Audient’s Class A mic preamps. Class A mic pres have a more linear gain when compared to other amplifier classes and due to the nature of their operation, some argue they sound better. This is one of those “tech vs. human subjectivity” arguments similar to the higher sample rate debate. Either way, many users are very happy with this product. This would be great for someone who’s starting to get serious with recording and digital audio.

Features

♦ 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, & 96 kHz sample rates
♦ 24-bit resolution
♦ +48 V phantom power
♦ Monitor mixing for zero latency from analog devices
♦ 1/8″ & 1/4″ headphone outputs, 1/4″ balanced L&R TRS outputs
♦ 1/4″ TRS instrument input, XLR mic input
♦ USB 2.0 (bus powered)
♦ DAW round trip latency: 5.91 ms @ 44.1 kHz, 4.55 ms @ 96 kHz

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PreSonus Studio 24c ($$)

PreSonus Studio 24c

PreSonus makes a wide variety of pro audio gear from mixing consoles, to studio monitors, to preamps, and they even have their own DAW software called Studio One. The PreSonus Studio 24c is a quality audio interface with a sample rate that extends all the way to 192 kHz and 24-bit resolution that is standard for music production and pro audio.

This interface uses USB-C as it’s digital I/O and would be ideal for someone with a Mac or PC who needs that type of compatibility. If you’re looking for USB 2.0 as your digital I/O, take a look at the PreSonus Studio 24. Both of these interfaces also comes with PreSonus Studio One Artist, in case you’re also looking for a DAW. It has a nice clean look and features ladder-style LED level indicators for input and output levels. On top of that, it also has dedicated MIDI in and out, adding to it’s versatility.

Features

♦ 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, & 192 kHz sampling rates
♦ 24-bit resolution
♦ +48 V phantom power
♦ Monitor mixing for zero latency from analog devices
♦ 1/4″ headphone output, 1/4″ balanced L&R TRS outputs
♦ 2 1/4″ TRS/XLR combo instrument & mic inputs
♦ USB-C (bus powered)
♦ Compatible with macOS
♦ Headphone amp for high-impedance headphones

View & Check Price!

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) ($$)

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen)

fousrite scarlett 2i2 3rd gen

 

Up next on our list is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. This budget audio interface, like the Solo, is one of the most popular out there for several reasons. It offers two Scarlett mic preamps, balanced input and output, monitor mixing, a wide range of sample rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz, and much-needed 24-bit resolution for those of us who will be producing and editing digital audio.

Aside from having all of the features we’d want in the best budget audio interfaces, the 2i2 also has a reputation for having two wonderful-sounding mic pres. It also includes a load of plugins, software, and samples from Loopmasters upon product registration. The 2nd mic pre makes this a good interface for recording vocals and miked instruments like a guitar cab or acoustic guitar simultaneously. Check compatibility with your OS on the Focusrite’s compatibility checker.

Features

♦ 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, & 192 kHz sampling rates
♦ 24-bit resolution
♦ +48 V phantom power
♦ Monitor mixing for zero latency from analog devices
♦ 1/4″ headphone output, 1/4″ balanced L&R TRS outputs
♦ 2 1/4″ TRS/XLR combo mic inputs
♦ USB digital I/O (bus powered)

View & Check Price!

Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2 ($$)

Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2

Native Instruments is well known for their software, and they recently ventured into the harware market with their line of audio interfaces. Up next on our list is the Komplete Audio 2. This interface features two 1/4″ TRS/XLR combo inputs, a 1/4″ TRS headphone output, 48 V phantom power, line/instrument switches for each input, 1/4″ TRS outputs, and USB 2.0 for digital interfacing with your computer. Under the hood, we have 24-bit resolution at up to 192 kHz.

The main asset this audio interface has over others on this list is it’s included software package. The Komplete Audio 2 comes with Komplete Start, Ableton Live 10 Lite, and several other plugins, making this interface well worth the price for the software alone. On the negative side, some users report difficulty with customer support and downloading drivers for the interface, which could cause issues for some buyers.

Features

♦ 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, & 192 kHz sampling rates
♦ 24-bit resolution
♦ +48 V phantom power
♦ Monitor mixing for zero latency from analog devices
♦ 1/4″ headphone output, 1/4″ balanced TRS outputs
♦ 2 1/4″ TRS/XLR combo mic inputs
♦ USB 2.0 digital I/O (bus powered)
♦ Extensive software package included

View & Check Price!

Steinberg UR22 MKII ($$)

Steinberg UR22 MKII

best budget audio interface steinberg UR22 mkII

Last on our list is the UR22 MkII from Steinberg. This 2×2 interface covers all of the requirements mentioned above for the best budget audio interfaces. It also uses two Neutrik combo TRS/XLR input jacks. The UR22 also has a rugged all metal casing, ideal for someone who may use this on the road. The D-PRE mic preamps developed by Yamaha and used in the UR22 have received praise in forums and reviews for their clarity.

This audio interface, like many others, comes bundled with software – Steinberg Cubase AI 7 and Cubase LE, lite versions of the well-regarded DAW in the industry. Aside from aesthetics, there isn’t much wrong with this interface. A few users have reported that their unit simply fails after a given period of time.

Features

♦ 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, & 192 kHz sampling rates
♦ 24-bit resolution
♦ +48 V phantom power
♦ Monitor mixing for zero latency from analog devices
♦ 1/4″ headphone output, 1/4″ balanced TRS outputs
♦ MIDI input & output
♦ 2 1/4″ TRS/XLR Neutrik combo mic inputs
♦ USB 2.0 digital I/O

View & Check Price!

Best Budget Audio Interface: Concluding Remarks

Ultimately, your decision here should be based off the specific use and application for your audio interface. You’ll need to determine how many inputs and outputs you’ll need, what type of OS, DAW, and digital interface compatibility you’ll need, and how much you can afford, and then choose an audio interface that will best satisfy those needs.

There are a few on the above list that are cheaper than most budget audio interfaces, but lack some essentials. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to afford the minimum needed to produce and edit digital audio and achieve a professional sound, but that’s not always possible. If you can, try to make sure your budget audio interface has the following:

  • Balanced XLR or quarter inch TRS cable inputs and outputs
  • Bit depth/resolution of at least 24-bits
  • Sample rate of at least 44.1 kHz
  • As low-latency as possible

Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps you make a great choice for your budget audio interface purchase!

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