Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface Choices in 2019

An audio interface allows for communication between your DAW, which inhabits the digital world, and your studio monitors, headphones, and condenser microphones, which inhabit the analog world. Modern audio interfaces have several digital I/O interface types. Most commonly, you will see the USB interface, but manufacturers also use FireWire and Thunderbolt interfaces. In this buying guide, you’ll learn about Thunderbolt audio interface choices and some of their advantages, and then we’ll go through the list of the best Thunderbolt audio interfaces in 2019, located much further down.

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Budget: Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII

The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII takes the prize for the budget category of the best Thunderbolt audio interfaces. This small but powerful piece of hardware is great for a solo musician who doesn’t have the room or the cash for loads of analog gear. Its Unison mic pres are capable of emulating the analog sounds of the popular pieces of studio gear that many budding producers yearn for. The Apollo Twin is also capable of sub-2ms latency times, making it well suited to handle live instrument and vocal recording without the need to ever use direct monitoring.

Mid range: MOTU 16A or PreSonus Quantum

2nd place in the middle category of the best Thunderbolt audio interfaces is a tie between the PreSonus Quantum series and MOTU 16A interfaces. These two are specialized for different needs and provide great value for those who need what they can offer.

The Quantum is the king of low latency in this category. PreSonus scrapped the DSP on this interface to provide wickedly fast latency times, which can be under 1 ms in some cases. Latencies this low will usually require a bigger budget. If you’re after ultra-low latency and don’t care too much about DSP, then be sure to consider this one.

The MOTU 16A is the king of analog connectivity, with 16 quarter inch cable I/Os. This interface would be great for someone with loads of analog gear. On top of that, the 16A also has a significant digital I/O offering along with Ethernet networking capability.

High-end: RME Fireface UFX+

In the high end-category, the RME Fireface UFX+ takes the cake. Apart from an insane amount of I/O flexibility, excellent latency figures, and other nice features such as direct recording and remote control, the UFX+ has been praised for its drivers. Driver compatibility and stability are an important consideration for Windows users wishing to use a Thunderbolt interface.



What is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt is a digital interface developed by Intel in conjunction with Apple. It was originally intended to be an optical interface called Light Peak, but eventually evolved into an electrical interface. It became available to consumers in early 2011. Like USB, Thunderbolt also supplies DC power to the audio interface. A single Thunderbolt port can support up to 6 devices.

Since its release in 2011, the Thunderbolt interface has gone through three iterations, outlined below:

  • Thunderbolt 1 – originally called Light Peak and intended to be an optical interface. Eventually, Intel decided to use solely copper instead, because it ended up being just as fast, and way cheaper.
  • Thunderbolt 2 – the 2nd generation debuted in 2013 and had a data rate of 20 Gbits/s by combining the two 10 Gbit/s channels of the previous generation.
  • Thunderbolt 3 – the most recent 3rd generation has a maximum data transfer rate of 40 Gbit/s. Thunderbolt 3 shares USB-C connectors with USB, and no longer used the Mini DisplayPort connector of previous generations.

Why Use a Thunderbolt Audio Interface?

Thunderbolts very wide bandwidth greatly reduces latency. This is good news for people who want to record vocals or instruments live. There will be little to no delay between your guitar or mic and the signal being reproduced by your speakers. Latency as low as 1-2 ms, and some even under 1 ms, can be achieved with the best Thunderbolt audio interfaces.

Sound quality is generally enhanced when compared to USB. This is because Thunderbolt uses higher voltage, current, and power supply levels, topping off at 15 W. This is greater than the 10 W bus-power standard, meaning audio interface manufacturers using Thunderbolt can use higher-quality components in their audio interfaces.

Thunderbolt 3 has faster data transfer rates. Of the three most common types of digital I/O interfaces you will find in digital audio (USB, FireWire, Thunderbolt), Thunderbolt 3 is by far the fastest at 40 Gbit/s. Thunderbolt 3 also allows the user to daisy chain devices together.

best thunderbolt audio interface

Thunderbolt 3 connectors are the same as USB-C connectors.

Windows & PC Users Beware!

Thunderbolt interfaces are notoriously finicky with Windows PCs. This has to do with the drivers that the interface manufacturers provide to the end user. If you have a Windows machine, make sure you do your due diligence on the drivers of your interface of choice. No one wants to have their four-figure interface in hand only to find out that the drivers aren’t stable with Windows.

That being said, those of us with newer Macs and Apple hardware may be better off with Thunderbolt interfaces. It seems like Apple has taken the lead on Thunderbolt integration into their newer machines.

Now that we know some of the ins and outs of Thunderbolt, let’s look at some of the best Thunderbolt audio interfaces out there.


10 of the Best Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces in 2019

Apogee Element 24

Apogee Element 24
Apogee ELEMENT 24
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Up first is the Apogee Element 24. This smaller, simpler, and cheaper interface has received excellent ratings from users on the web, and is in direct competition with the UA Apollo Twin for the best budget Thunderbolt interface. The front panel of the Element 24 screams simplicity, with a single 1/4″ TRS headphone output, two XLR/TRS combo mic/line inputs, and a single green power LED. That’s it! No additional knobs, buttons, or indicators of any kind. The rear panel is only slightly more involved, with two XLR main outputs, a single set of optical ADAT, SMUX, or S/PDIF I/O, a single set of BNC word clock I/O, and, of course our beloved Thunderbolt port.

While the Element 24 is lacking in I/O connectivity and DSP compatibility, it crushes the competition at its price point with its hardware components. Apogee stuffed the Element with its world-class converters, mic pres, and headphone amps. Like the PreSonus Quantum, Apogee went light on the DSP for the Element, which contributes to its lower overall sub-2ms latency for interfaces in this price range. For more I/O options, be sure to get a good look at the Element 46 and Element 88.

Features

♦ 10 × total inputs, 12 × total outputs
♦ 2 × combination XLR/TRS inputs
♦ 1 × 1/4″ TRS stereo headphone output
♦ 2 × XLR main outputs
♦ 1 × BNC word clock I/o
♦ 1 × optical ADAT/SMUX/SPDIF I/O
♦ Excellent mic pres, headphone amps, and AD/DA converters

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Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII (Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface – Budget)

Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo (APLTWDII)
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Next up in our list is the Apollo Twin from Universal Audio. This second-generation 2×6 interface has two Unison-enabled mic preamps. These pres use onboard DSP to emulate the signature tube and solid state sound from popular mic pres and other gear by Neve, SSL, API, and Manley. The Apollo Twin also has a large selection of DSP plugins that can emulate analog hardware like compressors, EQ, and tape recorders, all without any additional outboard gear.

One downside to the Twin is its need for an external power supply. It cannot be powered off the bus power supplied by Thunderbolt alone. Other than that, this interface is one of the best out there and can provide studio-grade recording capability in a small package.

Features

♦ up to 192 kHz sample rate
♦ 24-bit resolution
♦ 2 Unison mic/line pres
♦ Onboard DSP & emulation
♦ Optical TOSLink for up to 8 additional digital inputs
♦ Front panel has headphone output and Hi-Z instrument input

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PreSonus Quantum (Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface – Mid range)

PreSonus Quantum
Presonus Quantum 26x32 Thunderbolt 2 Low-Latency Audio Interface, 26x32-8 Mic Pres
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Up next from PreSonus is the Quantum series of Thunderbolt interfaces. This Thunderbolt 2 interface comes in several flavors with varying numbers of I/O connections. The base models front panel has two mic inputs (1 & 2) and a headphone output. The back side is the business end, with two additional mic inputs (3 & 4), four quarter inch line outputs (1 – 4), S/PDIF in and out, MIDI in and out, dual ADAT optical I/O, and BNC word clock I/O. And we can’t forget the two Thunderbolt 2 ports.

Like the Apollo mentioned above, the Quantum requires an external 12V power supply. The Quantum series does not include onboard DSP like some of the others on this list, however. PreSonus intentionally did this – lack of DSP makes the Quantum the fastest interface out there in terms of latency, with sub-millisecond times being reported. 24-bit resolution and up to 192 kHz sample rate are pretty much standard at this tier, and the Quantum delivers both. If daisy chained together, the Quantum 48×48  can become a monstrous 192×192 system for a serious studio build. Overall, the Quantum is top-notch and a great value for its price.

Features

♦ up to 192 kHz sample rate
♦ 24-bit resolution
♦ down to sub-millisecond latencies
♦ XMAX Class A mic pres
♦ up to 192×192 I/O if daisy chained
♦ simple setup and operation

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Focusrite Clarett 8PreX

Focusrite Clarett 8PreX
Focusrite Clarett 8PreX
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Focurite is a well known company in pro audio for their excellent entry-level interfaces, such as the Scarlett Solo and Scarlett 2i2. The Clarett 8PreX is one of their top-of-the-line interfaces, and found its place in the mid-range category of the best Thunderbolt audio interfaces around. As the name suggests, this 26-in, 28-out interface has 8 mic preamps which can be tapped into on the rear panel via separate 1/4″ line inputs or female 3-pin XLR connectors. There are also ten 1/4″ line outputs on the back, one BNC word clock I/O, a pair of optical I/Os, one MIDI I/O, and one S/PDIF I/O.

On the front panel, we have controls for each mic pre, which include gain knobs, high-pass filters, phase inversion, and phantom power. The high-pass filters cut -3 dB at 80 Hz with a slope of 12 dB/octave. The mic pres have a feature called “AIR” which modifies the frequecy response slightly in order to emulate Focusrites classic ISA preamps. The display panel gives us level information for each mic pre. Overall, this is a very good and well rounded interface from a reputable company. Check out the full specs below.

Features

♦ 26 × total inputs, 28 × total outputs
♦ 8 × mic pres (XLR or 1/4″ TRS inputs)
♦ 10 × 1/4″ TRS outputs
♦ 1 × MIDI I/O
♦ 1 × BNC word clock I/o
♦ 2 × optical ADAT I/O
♦ 1 × S/PDIF I/O
♦ 2 × 1/4″ instrument inputs
♦ 2 × 1/4″ headphone outputs
♦ HPF, phase inversion, on each mic preamp

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MOTU 1248 32×34

MOTU 1248 32x34
MOTU 1248 32x34 Thunderbolt USB 2.0 Audio Interface with AVB
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Next from MOTU is the 1248 32×34 interface. This one is one of the best Thunderbolt audio interfaces out there. On the front panel, we have two 1/4″ headphone outputs, two 1/4″ high impedance instrument inputs, and gain knobs for the main outputs. The front also has gain knobs, 48 V phantom power and pad switches for the 1248s four mic preamps, and a large blue LCD readout giving an overview of all of your I/Os.

On the rear, we have two pairs of monitor main outputs, and eight pairs of 1/4″ analog I/O. The four XLR female mic inputs are also located on the rear panel. There are two pairs of optical ADAT I/Os, a BNC word clock I/O, and one RCA S/PDIF I/O totaling in at 32 in and 34 out. For digital interfacing, you have the best of all worlds with USB 2.0, AVB Ethernet, and Thunderbolt 2. Like the 16A, though, the 1248 does not have MIDI I/O which may be a deal breaker for some. An extensive DSP suite on top of it all makes the MOTU 1248 a versatile contender in our list.

Features

♦ 32 inputs/34 outputs total
♦ 8 × 1/4″ TRS analog I/Os
♦ 4 × digitally controlled mic pres
♦ 2 × ADAT optical I/O
♦ 1 × BNC word clock
♦ 2 × 1/4″ headphone outputs
♦ 2 × 1/4″ hi-Z guitar inputs
♦ 2 × 1/4″ mains I/O
♦ 1 × USB 2.0, AVB Ethernet, & Thunderbolt 2.0

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MOTU 16A (Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface – Mid range)

MOTU 16A
MOTU 16A 32x32 Thunderbolt USB 2.0 Audio Interface with AVB
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

The MOTU 16As name comes from its 16 analog TRS inputs and 16 analog TRS outputs, great for studios with a lot of outboard analog gear. This really sets it apart from others on this list. It also has two optical sets of I/O which can be switched to either TOSLink or ADAT in the included software for a total of 32 I/Os at a single sample rate. Sample rates are supported at 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192 kHz, a range which should be expected from an interface of this caliber. Aside from Thunderbolt and USB, the MOTU 16A also has an AVB Ethernet port with 16 I/Os at all sample rates up to 96 kHz, and 8 I/Os at 176.4 and 192 kHz. For channel synchronization, it has one set of BNC I/O.

The interface also has the ability to daisy chain to other MOTU interfaces as well as those from other manufacturers using the AVB Ethernet port. MOTU claims the 16A can achieve a round trip latency of 1.4 ms, making this more than adequate for live recordings. There aren’t many bad things to say about this interface. Many users confirm that this is a very good sounding interface built with high-quality components. You’re simply sacrificing digital connectivity for additional analog firepower, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just not suitable for all situations and setups.

Features

♦ 32 inputs/32 outputs
♦ 16 × analog TRS line I/Os
♦ 1 × AVB Ethernet, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 2
♦ 2 × ADAT I/O
♦ 1 × BNC word clock
♦ 48 channel digital mixer
♦ Built-in DSP (compression, EQ, amps)

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Apogee Ensemble

Apogee Ensemble
Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt 2 Audio Interface
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

The second interface from Apogee on this list is the Ensemble. The Ensemble is an impressive piece of hardware among high-end Thunderbolt interfaces. This 30-in, 34-out masterpiece has a total of eight mic preamps, four utilizing combination inputs and four utilizing XLR inputs. It also has a pair of optical I/O, 25-pin analog AES/EBU output, one S/PDIF I/O, one BNC word clock I/O, two headphone outputs, and two pair of 1/4″ high-impedance guitar I/O which can be used to re amplify the guitar signal.

Like the Element 24, the Ensemble has an excellent hardware lineup. It also includes a built in omnidirectional mic on the front panel that is great for use as a talkback mic. There are four macro buttons which can be programmed to do various things from summing to mono, to mute, to talkback control.

Features

♦ 4 × combi mic/line/inst inputs
♦ 2 × 1/4″ analog inserts
♦ 4 × XLR mic/line inputs
♦ 2 × 1/4″ hi-Z guitar/instrument inputs
♦ 1 × 25-pin DSUB (8 outputs)
♦ 1 × BNC word clock I/O
♦ 2 × ADAT/SMUX I/O
♦ 2 × 1/4″ stereo headphone outputs
♦ 2 × Thunderbolt 2

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Steinberg AXR4T

Steinberg AXR4T
Steinberg AXR4T Matrix Thunderbolt Audio Interface
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Another one of the best thunderbolt audio interfaces is the Steinberg AXR4T. This one is a professional grade heavy-hitter, with the loads of connectivity you would expect for this price range. It has four XLR/TRS combo inputs, each with one a digitally controlled mic preamp. The pres have circuitry approved by Rupert Neve himself, which seeks to emulate Neves 80 Series console modules. Pres have two settings: Red and Blue, and a texture knob that modifies harmonics of the signal until you achieve that perfect sound.

The AXR4T also has a bit depth of up to 32 bits and sample rates all the way up to 384 kHz, which may be a bit of overkill depending on who you talk to. Steinberg teamed up with Yamaha to deliver the DSP chip on this one, which can hash a variety of plugins from reverb to compressors, to EQ. Check out the additional features and connectivity below.

Features

♦ Up to 384 kHz sample rate
♦ 32-bit resolution
♦ 28 inputs/24 outputs total
♦ 8 × 1/4″ analog inputs, 8 × 1/4″ analog outputs
♦ 2 × Optical Toslink (ADAT) I/O
♦ 1 × AES/EBU I/O
♦ 2 × 1/4″ headphone outputs
♦ 1 × MIDI I/O
♦ 1 × BNC word clock I/O
♦ 2 × Thunderbolt 2

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RME Fireface UFX+ (Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface – High-end)

RME Fireface UFX+
RME UFX+ Fireface USB & Thunderbolt Audio Interface
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Next up is the Fireface UFX+ from RME. While perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing to look at, this interface is an absolute monster when it comes to functionality. Connectivity-wise, we have 94 input/94 output channels, 12 analog I/O with 4 of those having digitally controlled mic pres, 1 AES/EBU I/O, a pair of optical ADAT I/Os, a BNC wordclock connection which can be swapped to MADI coaxial, 2 MIDI I/Os, 1 MADI optical I/O, 2 headphone outputs, and both Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3.0 connectivity. This interface is also capable of sub-ms latency times and direct recording via USB thumb drive, meaning a PC is not required to record audio.

Apart from a load of connectivity features, another one of the main selling points of this interface is its drivers. Many users report that RMEs drivers work well on Windows PCs, which has proven to be an issue with other Thunderbolt audio interfaces. Also internal to the UFX+ is its DSP suite, which includes reverb, delay, compression, EQ, and a digital mixer with an impressive 4096 channels. For an advanced recordist or producer, this piece of hardware will be tough to beat.

Features

♦ 94 inputs/94 outputs
♦ 12 × analog I/Os, 4 digitally controlled mic pres
♦ 1 × AES/EBU I/O
♦ 2 × ADAT I/O
♦ 1 × BNC word clock/MADI coaxial
♦ 2 × MIDI I/O
♦ DURec USB direct recording capability

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Lynx Aurora (n) 8-TB 

Lynx Aurora (n) 8-TB
Lynx Studio Technology Aurora (n) 8 TB
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

The Lynx Aurora (n) combines high-end conversion in a beautiful package. In comparison to the previous interfaces, these are geared more towards pure conversion from analog-to-digital and vice versa. Rather than a one-size fits all I/O philosophy, the Aurora (n) can be customized to the specific needs of the buyer by using the LSlot expansion bays. This also helps combat obsolescence in a rapidly changing tech industry. The Aurora (n) series has Lynx’s Hilo Converter Technology, which is also featured in their Hilo interfaces and is known for outstanding clarity and accuracy in AD/DA conversion.

On the front panel, we have two headphone outputs and a MicroSD card slot for 32 channels of standalone direct recording, along with several other controls and buttons. On the rear panel, we have the a single analog 25-pin AES/EBU I/O, and a 1-in 3-out BNC word clock arrangement. There are also two Thunderbolt 2 ports, and screws to open up the expansion bays. DSP-wise, the Aurora (n) includes a 32-channel digital mixer. If you’re after pure and uncolored conversion with the ability to customize your own I/O, the Aurora (n) series would be a great consideration.

Features

♦ Lynx Hilo converters
♦ 2 × 1/4″ TRS headphone outputs
♦ 1 × AES/EBU I/O
♦ 1 × 1-in 3-out BNC word clock I/O
♦ LSlot™ expansion bays for added connectivity
♦ 32-channel MicroSD direct recording

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Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface Choices: Concluding Remarks

As we can see, the best of the best Thunderbolt audio interfaces vary widely in cost. If you’re putting together a serious recording studio and looking for an audio interface that has all the connectivity you’ll ever need, you’re going to have to drop some serious cash. If you’re a solo bedroom producer who’s on a budget, there is a Thunderbolt interface out there for you, too.

Here are some other things to consider on your search:

  • Do you want an extensive DSP suite at the potential cost of added latency?
  • Inputs/Outputs – are you looking for an interface to connect all of your outboard analog gear? Will you need digital I/O to complement your analog I/O? How many of each?
  • Do you want your interface to be bus powered and more portable? Or can your interface have a separate power supply? How much room do you have for an additional PS?
  • Is latency a big factor for you? Will you be doing a lot of live recording with many inputs?
  • How much do the signature sounds of high-end internal components matter to you? (preamps, converters, headphone amplifiers, etc.)

That’s all for this guide. Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps you make a great choice for your Thunderbolt audio interface purchase!

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