Studio Gear 101: The Best Audio Interface Under $500

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Few things will have as big an impact on the quality of your production as your audio interface. This guide looks at the best audio interface under $500 you can buy right now to build your perfect home studio.

Our Top Pick
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2: Seamless, fuss-free performance at an affordable price
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If you’ve been a regular to this website, you know that I consider many so-called “recommended” purchases frivolous for a home studio. Fancy control surfaces, bulky DAW controllers, monitors that cost $1000+ – these are all nice to have, but you don’t really need them to produce music.

An audio interface, however, remains a must-have. While you technically can make music without it, the poor latency on virtually every onboard soundcard will kill the performance, and along with it, your enthusiasm.

An audio interface offers a way for analog devices to communicate with your computer. From input devices – mics and MIDI instruments – to output devices (headphones and monitors), it acts as an interface for your DAW. And along the way, it offers better latency, faster performance, and better audio quality than anything a computer ships with (doesn’t matter whether it is mac or PC).

So before you buying any other studio gear, consider an audio interface to be a must-have. It is usually the biggest performance bottleneck on most home studio setups. Get this part right and your studio can compete with professional-grade studios in terms of performance.

The question remains: what’s the best audio interface under $500 you can buy right now?

I’ll share some answers below.

Best Overall

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen)

Thousands of producers around the world – yours truly included – cut their teeth on Focusrite’s Scarlett range of audio interfaces. These friendly red boxes can be found in virtually every second home studio, and for good reason. With a fantastic mix of performance and price, they offer a great way for home producers to get seriously low latency performance for cheap.

The latest 3rd gen of the ever-popular Scarlett 2i2 improves the performance even further with USB-C compatibility and upgraded drivers. It is a truly plug-and-play device that has just the right number of I/O options to keep every home producer happy. A top pick for anyone looking to build their studio on the cheap.

Focusrite has updated the Scarlett range of audio interfaces, and for less than $500, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is our top pick for the best audio interface under $500.

The Focusrite 2i2 provides more ins and outs than its predecessors with a 2 x 2 interface. The design is quite sturdy and promises to last for quite some time. It is a rectangular shaped powerhouse made of metal and other durable material to ensure it lasts. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 has properly labeled controllers.

On the front panel of the audio interface, you have 2 Hybrid XLR ¼” TRS jack inputs. The rear panel has two balanced monitor outputs. Overall, the design of the audio interface looks more expensive than it actually is. Classy, modern, and eye-catching design I am sure many folks will appreciate.

One problem I faced when testing different audio interfaces is the issue of latency. I am pleased to inform you that while testing this audio interface, I did not experience any latency issues. The Phantom Power that the device uses is a welcome addition.

The performance of the 2i2 is quite stunning. It easily rivals that on more expensive models. The onboard preamps are just great. Where other audio interfaces sound drab and bad, the 2i2 produces rich, warm, and impressive sounds.

The 2i2 features gain control that allows you to set your gain levels. The AI on this audio interface notifies you whenever the gain is too high. If you are learning how to use audio interfaces and even if you are a long-time user, this feature comes in really useful.

The audio interface is Windows and MAC OS compatible. However, when pairing with a windows device, you will have to install drivers before using it. With MAC OS, however, it is touch and go since the 2i2 already uses Apple class-compliant drivers.

It is also very compatible with quite a number of DAWs. Logic is especially great with this audio interface. There are no popping sounds or dropouts.

What we don’t like

Although the device is great in most aspects, I had issues with the lack of MIDI I/O. And the 3rd generation Focusrite Scarlett lacks the ability to record from multiple audio sources simultaneously.

Recommended for: This is arguably the best audio interface you can get for less than $500. If you want an audio interface that delivers great performance, has low latency, and is relatively cheap, look no further than this bad boy.

Pros

  • The build is sleek, classy, durable, and appealing
  • The amps are very impressive
  • Relatively cheap and deliver excellent value

Cons

  • It is impossible to record more than 2 audio sources simultaneously
  • Has a reputation of failing after 2-3 years of use

Best Rack Mounted: Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 (3rd Gen)

Key features:

  • 8 analog inputs
  • 10 ¼” line output channels
  • MIDI I/O routing
  • 8 ADAT digital I/O channels

Focusrite nails the budget audio interface space once again with the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20. The 2i2 above might be a bestseller audio interface for certain reasons, but it seems the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 flew under the radar considering that not many people know the amazing performance it delivers.

It is the top-range of the new 3rd generation audio interfaces from Focusrite. While the Focusrite 2i2 has a 2 x 2 I/O USB interface, this bad boy comes with 18 inputs and 20 outputs! Impressive! And you know what is even crazier? It comes at less than $500. When I saw this audio interface with the number of I/Os I felt it was simply too good to be true.

It comes with 8 Scarlett microphone outputs and 10 channels of digital input. It also adds AIR circuitry and USB type C connections.

On the front panel of the audio interface, there are 2 microphone preamps, XLR/jack. These preamps are all with pad and AIR. They are also switchable to instrument outputs.

The controls on the front panel are easy to use.

I love this audio interface for a couple of reasons. For one, it is very easy to use. It is compatible with almost every digital audio workstation.

During testing, I connected the 18i20 to a Windows PC. I installed the PreSonus Studio One 3 on the laptop. Well, the audio interface smoothly connected with the device. My laptop almost immediately recognized the audio interface and in a short period was ready to use.

If you use the Focusrite Control app, you receive even more support and functionality. Setting up the audio device in the DAW software was very easy, and if you do not find it as easy as I did, there is plenty of help online.

The sound produced from this audio interface was pleasing. I tested it with synths, effects, and microphones. The quality all round was very good. There were no popping sounds, and generally, noise levels were extremely low.

This audio interface can be used as a standalone mixer.

What we don’t like

There is no 80 Hz or even 75 Hz high pass filter. I also did not like that I couldn’t preset the Dim level.

Recommended for: If you are into surround sound mixing, you will find the audio interface ideal. The 20 channel of outputs provides near-limitless possibilities.

Pros

  • Excellent sound quality
  • Preamps are impressive
  • Tons of I/O options

Cons

  • Dim level cannot be preset
  • Build quality is a tad scruffy for the price tag

Best Budget Performance: Audient iD14

Key features:

  • 8-channel ADAT Input
  • Burr-Brown Converters
  • All-metal design
  • Discrete JFET DI input

Just because you are buying an entry-level product, it doesn’t mean that you must compromise audio quality. Audient is a manufacturer that keeps this close to heart. Known for the high quality of their products, they leave me wowed once again with the ID14. Although it is not as feature-heavy as more expensive audio interfaces or controllers on the market, it boasts of the same ASP8024 Class A mic preamp circuit used in high-quality Audient products.

It has a compact size that might fool you into thinking it cannot accomplish much. The all-metal casing of the audio interface comes with a microphone preamp, a DI, and double headphone outputs.

The noticeable physical feature on the body is the rotary encoder. This rather large knob serves as a primary monitor volume and as a software controller amidst a host of other functions.

The performance of the Audient is very impressive. At under $500, you will be hard-pressed to find another audio interface that delivers performance as good as that of this device.

It is a USB-powered device as it is also compatible with MAC OS. It has a 48V Phantom Power option, although it doesn’t have as many features as other more expensive options. For example, it lacks polarity inversion, high-pass filter, and other features.

Despite the absence of these other features, by using software, I was able to replicate most of them.

The audio interface has a range of 112 dB.

As for your recordings and vocals, they sound crisp and clear on this audio interface. There are no muddled sounds here. One feature I found really nifty is the iD button. This button activates the ScrollControl function. The rotary encoder controls this function. You can use it to make your work easier. Furthermore, the rotary encoder can serve other functions depending on the type of software you’re using. I used the scroll to control faders, compressor thresholds, and equalizer.

What we don’t like

It has just 1 microphone preamp. I did not like this at all and found it very disappointing. It also lacks a built-in talkback microphone.

Recommended for: As a budget option, it comes with features that are quite surprisingly good. Hence, if you are in the market for a budget audio interface, this will serve your needs.

Pros

  • The preamps sound excellent
  • The build is durable
  • iD Button offers many functions

Cons

  • 1 microphone preamp
  • No built-in talkback microphone

Best for Home Studios: PreSonus Studio 68

Key features:

  • 2 microphone/instruments/line inputs
  • A pair of ¼” TRS main outputs
  • 6 I/O at 192 kHz

The PreSonus Studio 6/8 or 68 is an audio interface that comes at a relatively friendly budget price and contains features that make it impressive.

On the front panel of the audio interface, you will find a pair of XLR ¼” combo inputs. These versatile inputs can be used for mic/line/instruments level sources. On the right side of the front panel, you will also see the responsive gain level knobs and the main level knob.

The level meters are located smack in the middle of the front panel. The rear panel has the pair of XLR ¼” inputs, the headphone output, outputs 3 + 4, the power button, MIDI and SPDIF connections, and the power input.

The audio quality on this interface is satisfactory. It didn’t exactly blow me out of the water, and frankly, it doesn’t sound much better than other audio interfaces that go at half the price.

What we don’t like

Sound quality is not as impressive as some other options within this range.

Recommended for: If you are looking for an attractive audio interface that allows you carry out audio monitoring more effectively, then this is ideal.

Pros

  • It comes with Studio One Artist
  • Beautiful design and build

Cons

  • Mediocre sound quality

Best Sound Quality: RME Digiface USB

Key features:

  • 4 optical I/Os
  • 6.3 mm TRS jack
  • Plug and Play technology
  • TotalMix FX mixer

The RME Digiface USB is very easy to use audio interface with nice features.

It comes in a pretty small size and is USB powered. It comes with 1 USB cable, 4 I/O, and a headphone output.

During testing, the low latency I observed was good for my needs, and it was very easy to set up and use.

What we don’t like

I know it is quite small, but it would have been nice to have a headphone control knob on the audio interface.

Recommended for: If you are looking to merge the outputs from more than 2 devices together, then this will be a good choice.

Pros

  • Simple to set up and easy to use
  • Small, compact design
  • Nice overall performance

Cons

  • Lacks a headphone control knob

Over to You

That wraps up our roundup of the best audio interface under $500 you can buy right now. While there are plenty of other options on the market – the audio interface category is a crowded one – these options should be enough for nearly every use case.

For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.

Also read:

References:

Changelog
  • October 30, 2019: Article published with 5 reviewed audio interfaces.