Last Updated on September 18, 2020 by Ryan Harrell
If there is one essential in any home studio, it’s a good low latency audio interface. The interface acts as a medium between your hardware and software. Buying the best low latency audio interface is crucial for getting the most out of your studio. We’ll look at the best audio interfaces in 2020 available right now. We’ll also share some critical tips for buying the right interface for your needs.
UA Apollo Twin Solo
- Great preamps
- Excellent build quality
- Virtually zero-latency
- Small and portable
- Affordably priced
- Distortion-free recording
Antelope Zen Tour
- FPGA powered
- Tons of virtual preamps
- Zero latency
You buy an audio interface for a lot of reasons.
You want to connect multiple instruments to your computer. You want multiple output options. And you want quick access to volume, gain, and basic EQ settings.
But the biggest reason to buy an audio interface is latency.
Latency is the music producer’s kryptonite. Anyone who has ever tried producing a track on their computer’s built-in sound drivers knows how even the smallest of lags can make production impossible. Press a key and if the sound isn’t produced immediately (or what feels like ‘immediately’) and you’ll have a bad time.
Which is where audio interfaces come into the picture.
The best low latency audio interfaces provide a faster, higher bandwidth I/O channel to your computer. They also use better drivers (usually ASIO) which radically improves latency compared to most computers’ built-in sound cards (Macs fare better than Windows in this regard).
While we’ve talked about audio interfaces for Ableton and USB audio interfaces in the past, but in this guide, we’ll look only at the fastest and the best low latency audio interface across categories.
But first, let’s define what qualifies as “low latency”.
Understanding Latency and “Low Latency”
There are few terms more misused in the audio world than “low latency”. Manufacturer after manufacturer plasters this term in their advertising with complete disregard for their actual latency.
First, let’s understand what “latency” is.
In computing, latency is defined as:
“Latency is the delay before the transfer of data begins following an instruction of its transfer”.
In other words, latency is the gap between pressing a key and hearing a sound.
We tend to think of computers as instantaneous, but they’re not. When you press a key, an instruction must physically transfer to the computer (via wires), have it processed, and have it sent back to you via a different channel (such as a studio monitor). All of this takes time, which contributes to the latency.
Essentially, latency is a combination of three things:
- Your computer’s hardware specs, i.e. its processing power, RAM, etc.
- The current software state, i.e. your hardware drivers, how many applications are currently running, etc.
- Your input/output (I/O) channels, i.e. whether you’re using USB 2.0 or Thunderbolt or MIDI input/output, etc.
Because these conditions can change from computer to computer and time to time (you might have 21 different Chrome tabs open simultaneously while using Ableton), your latency can also vary.
What is “Low Latency”?
When we talk about “low latency”, we essentially mean “latency that is perceived to be instantaneous”.
This is a function of our biological limits. Just like a computer, there is a gap between the time we see or hear something and the time it takes for our brains to process it.
When this gap is more than the gap between a computer’s I/O, we feel that the action is “instantaneous” or “low latency”.
Physically, human beings have an average reaction time of 250ms. That is, most of us take 250ms to react to an action (such as a ball thrown at our face).
Our other senses, especially sight and hearing, are much faster. The fastest we can process visual or auditory information is 13ms. Some highly trained or genetically gifted people might be able to process it faster, but in general, 13ms is the amount of time taken to process an input.
As you guessed it, 13ms is also the limited for what usually qualifies as “low latency”. Any system – video or audio – that processes an input and produces an output within 13 seconds will feel lag-free to human beings.
If you go beyond this limit, performance issues start to creep in. At 21ms, the trained among you will start feeling that something is off. At 35ms, it will feel definitely off. At 50ms, the gap between input and output will be so large that you won’t be able to work.
Make 13ms your latency limit. Any audio interface you buy should, given the ideal conditions, offer a 13ms latency. This can go up, especially if your computer is under heavy load, but in perfect production conditions, it should not go beyond 13ms.
Thus, when we talk about “low latency”, we essentially mean a latency of 13ms.
All the audio interfaces we’ve mentioned below fit into this criteria.
On that note, let’s look at the best low latency audio interfaces available in the market right now.
Universal Audio’s range of audio interfaces aren’t cheap. In fact, they sit at the very top end of the home studio interface market. While you might not find one in a pro studio (mostly due to a lack of I/O options), any serious home producer will likely have a UA audio interface sitting on his/her desk.
The Apollo MKII Solo has all the hallmarks of UA’s high end audio interfaces, including:
- Best-in-class build quality – this thing will last you for decades, not years
- Excellent Thunderbolt support
- Dual Unison-enabled mic preamps
- A/D and D/A conversion borrowed from Apollo’s flagship $2k Apollo 8 interface
- Near-zero latency performance
Think of this as a condensed version of the Apollo 8. You don’t get as many I/O options, but you get the same A/D conversion and preamps. If you’re looking for a zero latency audio interface, this one comes close under the $1k mark.
UA’s Duo and Solo interfaces are industry favorites and it’s easy to see why. Besides the impeccable build quality, what truly sets this unit apart is the pristine “roominess” of the stock preamps. It’s tough to describe it if you’ve only used cheap audio interfaces like Focusrite’s entry-level offerings. But plug in the Apollo Solo and you suddenly find that you have a lot more fidelity in your recordings.
Muddy audio sounds clearer. The dynamic range is wider. Even entry-level mics sound like $400 Rode heavyweights.
But what sets the Solo truly apart is the plugin support. UA has its own software for controling the interface that’s separate from your DAW. You can load up a bunch of plugins into this software to emulate some of the world’s favorite compressors, preamps, and channel strips. Currently, the UAD library has over 100 plugins. Some are free, some are paid.
If you hope to emulate true professionals, this software ecosystem is a must-have. It will completely transform how you record. It will also open up whole new avenues for experimentation. Want the signature crunch of a 1955 Fender Tweed amp? Just load up the right plugin and you’re all set. Want a 1176LN compressor? UA’s library got you covered.
Since this Console 2.0 software exists independently of your DAW, you can use it by itself – great if you’re using the Apollo Solo for a live performance. Emulation is also resource intensive, so taking it outside your DAW can free up some CPU cores.
Of course, this also ticks all the other boxes – you get excellent Thunderbolt connectivity, making it one of the best audio interfaces for Mac. There is a giant knob on the front of the interface to control gain. And there is a built-in talk back function for studio recording.
You also get a bunch of plugins for free, including the LA-2A and 1176LN compressors, 610-B Tube Preamp, among others.
What we don’t like: The Console 2.0 application is hard to master, especially for novices. Installing new plugins isn’t intuitive, nor is it easy to get the software itself to work seamlessly without understanding some basic technical details. If you’ve never fiddled around with any modeling or emulation, you might find this slightly tough to get started with.
Cheapest Low Latency Audio Interface: Audient iD4 USB
- All-metal design
- Flexible metering
- Discrete JFET DI input
- Monitor Control
- 24-bit/98 kHz
The Audient iD4 is a step up from the popular Focusrite 2i2 (one of our favorite audio interfaces) and offers just about everything a serious beginner would need without burning a big hole in your pocket. It is one of the smallest audio interfaces on the market and sits comfortably on the tiniest of desks. But despite the small size, it packs in a punch, featuring the same Class-A mic pre found in all of Audient’s high-end audio interfaces.
It also has two inputs and two outs – great for a solo musician looking to record an instrument and mic simultaneously.
Let’s look at the performance in more detail.
The Audient is a portable powerhouse. If you are looking for an audio interface at a cheap price and want great performance, this is one of the best low latency audio interfaces around, especially considering the price.
Although it is a USB-powered device, it is also compatible with Mac OS devices. In fact, in our experience, the iD4 performs substantially better on Mac than it does on Windows (more on this below).
The Class-A mic pre is smooth and roomy. There is little to no hiss even when the gain is pumped all the way up. In our tests with the Shure SM57 and Rode NT1 mics, we found minimal distortion and a low noise floor.
A great addition (which the Focusrite Scarletts don’t have) is the JFET D.I. input. This line input mimics the input stage of a valve amplifier. The result is a richer, warmer sound right out of the box.
The iD4 does not have the sheer amount of features that more expensive audio interfaces have. For instance, it does not have the polarity inversion, high-pass filter and pad features of some of the high-end audio interfaces on our list. But you at least get 48V phantom power.
The specs list the range as 115dB but we did detect some distortion at the very top end of this range. However, I expect few, if any of you will push the iD4 to this limit.
A nifty feature is the iD button on the front of the device. This button activates the ScrollControl function which allows you to use the rotary knob to scroll through settings, parameters, and even iTunes playlists. Think of it as a large physical scroll button that sits on your desk and frees you from the mouse or trackpad. We found ScrollControl to be particularly useful for controlling faders, compressor thresholds, and EQ.
What we don’t like
Besides the lack of I/O options – we would have liked more than 1 mic preamp – our biggest gripes were with the software. The bundled ASIO drivers are wonky, especially on Windows. The bundled software is also quirky and cumbersome. Minor nags such as right-clicking on the app icon to access settings (clicking the icon does nothing) make it annoying to use.
Best Audio Interface With Multiple Outputs: Mackie BIG KNOB Studio Plus
- Integrated USB 2.0 audio interface
- 24-bit/192 kHz sampling rate
- Supports three pairs of monitors
- Two Onyx mic pres
- Built-in talk box
If you’ve ever been around a pro studio – or even a serious home studio, you couldn’t have missed the ubiquitous “BIG KNOB”. This was one of Mackie’s biggest hits – a large passive volume control knob.
The BIG KNOB STUDIO PLUS combines the same large knobby ease of use with an audio interface.
While the STUDIO PLUS won’t blow out any of the others on this list in either performance or fidelity, it offers tank-like build quality, ease of use, and most importantly, a ton of I/O options at a relatively affordable price tag.
Let’s take a closer look at its performance.
The Mackie STUDIO PLUS features two Onyx preamps with switchable 48v phantom power. These sound good enough for most home studios with robust clarity and definition. There is an audible hiss once you crank up the gain, however, making it unsuitable for recording particularly sharp instruments like snares.
The I/O options are fantastic – you can hook up three pairs of monitors and four input sources at the back, including the aforementioned Onyx preamps. The front features two 1/4″ headphone outs and a very useful 1/8″ out for hooking up your earphones (which any self-respecting producer would test his mixes on). You also get a dedicated talk back footswitch port.
The big feature is, of course, the big knob. This knobby goodness gets you complete control over the entire unit, letting you select inputs and control gain right from the front of the device.
With an interface that has sampling rates of 192 kHz and a depth of 24-bit, you can rest assured your recordings will turn out great.
What we don’t like
During use, the temperature rises, and it feels almost hot to touch. The knob can also feel a bit loose to some users and makes fine control difficult. There is a faint but audible hiss when you crank up the gain past the halfway mark.
Best Audio Interface for Mac OS: Apogee Duet
- USB Support
- Mac OS compatible
- 24-bit and 192 kHz sample rate
One of the first things people notice about the Apogee Duet is how tiny it is. Even though it packs in studio-quality preamps, it is barely larger than a large smartphone.
The second thing people notice is how good it looks. With its brushed silver aluminum housing and glass panel, it looks likes something Apple would design.
But the Apogee Duet isn’t just the best portable audio interface around – it also packs in punchy performance.
It helps prevent digital clipping by rounding off transient peaks before they hit the analog-to-digital converter. The result is an analog-like warmth without the harsh peaks so common in lower-end digital recordings.
The Apogee Duet also features the ESS Sabre32 DAC. This is a step up from the 24-bit DACs found in most low and mid-range interfaces. The result is clearer audio that preserves the soundstage of the original recording.
A standout feature for me is native iOS compatibility. Simply plug this into your iPhone/iPad with a 30-pin to lightning cable (sold separately) and you have a powerful audio interface for recording on the go. This might not be for everyone, but if you’ve ever been on the road and wanted to record something on Garageband, you’ll love this feature.
Integration with Mac OS is excetionally smooth otherwise as well. It also integrates seamlessly with Logic Pro X. In fact, you can plug it in and start controling hardware parameters right from the Logic Pro mixer – even starting/stopping phantom power.
On the whole, we feel this is not only the best portable audio interface, but also the best audio interface for Mac OS.
What we don’t like
Macs with external GPUs don’t seem to like the Duet. If you have one, you might experience choppy sound. Integration with Reaper and Cubase is also shoddy (though Ableton works fine). We also wouldn’t recommend this for Windows users – the drivers are too wonky.
Best Professional Zero Latency Audio Interface: Antelope Zen Tour Thunderbolt
- Compatible with all major DAWs
- Thunderbolt and USB Connectivity
- FPGA architecture
- Zero latency
- afx2daw FPGA FX workflows
- 4 mic preamps, 5 line ins
- 8 analog outs, 2 headphone outs
Antelope Audio calls the Zen Tour a “king among audio interfaces”. Whether its performance fits the moniker can be debated (though not much), it is certainly priced at a king’s ransom. This is no hobbyist audio interface – if you’re buying it, you are a serious producer looking for pro studio-grade performance at home.
Let’s see whether it truly holds the crown.
Without getting into technicalities (which, honestly only computer scientists truly understand), the Zen Tour uses an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) architecture. This is different from the DSP (Digital Signal Processor) architecture found in most audio interface.
FPGA essentially acts as a series of “logic gates”. This allows the FPGA to emulate any digital circuit you can think of – incluing a DSP. This flexibility makes it possible for the Zen Tour to emulate countless vintage amps and FX units.
FPGA is usually only found in ultra high-end audio interfaces, but the Zen Tour makes it available in this (relatively) affordable unit. The result is that you get access to a whole range of vintage hardware emulators, all based on the FPGA architecture.
FPGA architecture also makes it possible to record music at virtually zero latency (since true zero latency is physically impossible). The performance is something to behold – instantaneous playback, even with multiple instruments connected. As long as your hardware can support it, the Zen Tour’s performance is truly unmatched.
Speaking of hardware, the Zen Tour has plenty of I/O options to record entire bands. You get 4 mic pres, 5 line/hi-z ins, 8 analog outs, and 2 headphone outs. This isn’t even counting the digital I/O capabilities. The I/O options alone make it a notch above the others on this list.
What we don’t like
Windows 10 integration is poor. The drivers are unstable and not as seamless as on the Mac. The performance on older Macs is also dodgy – on a test 2011 Macbook Air, the device couldn’t be connected via Thunderbolt at all. The software routing also has a learning curve – if you’re new to recording music, you’ll have a hard time.
Best Audio Interface for Windows: Focusrite Clarett 2Pre
- Air enabled preamps
- 119Db dynamic range
- Comes with different software
- 24-bit/192 kHz conversion
- Clarett preamps
Focusrite absolutely dominates the low-end of the audio interface market. It’s nearly impossible to walk into any beginner studio and not find that familiar red box – Focusrite Scarlett – sitting somewhere on the desk.
But Focusrite also make extremely competent higher-tier audio interfaces with its Clarett lineup. These are more expensive but also feature the significantly better Clarett mic preamps.
While we’ll dive into the performance in more detail soon, the Clarett doesn’t disappoint at first glance either. It’s rectangular powerhouse is made of strong and sturdy materials that give it an air of permanence. The controls are responsive and well labeled. The large knobs feel good to touch and the wine-colored front face is unmistakable on any studio desk. There are two mic preamps on the front face and two line outs, plus MIDI I/O ports on the back..
Like most Focusrite devices, the Clarett, too, is supremely easy to use. Plug it in and you can start using it instantly on Macs as well as Windows. In fact, of all the audio interfaces we’ve tested, Focusrite’s range performs the best on Windows.
Connection is via a USB-C port, so if you’re still using an older computer with USB-A ports, you will need an adapter.
The standout feature is the Clarett preamp. The Clarett is substantially roomier when compared to the Scarlett and has a class-leading 119dB of range. A new “Air” model allows the unit to emulate the transformer-based mic pre on Focusrite’s ISA ONE analog range. This adds a whole lot of warmth and analog color to your recordings.
The noise on this unit is negligible, even when the gain is set above 75%. Another nifty feature is ADAT compatibility which allows you to hook it up to a rackmounted interface (like the Focusrite OctoPre) to connect multiple devices and route the signal to the Clarett.
What we don’t like
The Clarett suffers from some hardware reliability issues. Several users report issues with one or more ports not working intermittently. On the software end, you might encounter some issues on very old Mac devices as well as the latest Mac OS Catalina release. In general, the Clarett seems to perform better on Windows than on Mac – a rare first in this category.
Best Thunderbolt Interface: RME Babyface Pro FS
The RME audio interface is a beautiful device that sports a metallic design (the housing of the device is actually plastic – not metal, but it feels firm and sturdy).
Like the Audient iD4, this device is quite portable while retaining important functions. The large knob is smooth to touch and offers great “clickability”
There is a nifty little screen with onboard metering, which is great for keeping track of key metrics on the fly.
The sound quality produced by the RME is great. Higher frequencies on this device sound very great and crisp. Even the lower frequencies contribute to an overall great sound.
You get tons of I/O options – 2 XLR/Mic lines, 2 phones output, 1 ADAT I/O, 1 MIDI I/O, and 4 Analog I/Os. This is good enough to record a small band at the same time.
A new improvement in the Babyface Pro FS is the implementation of SteadyClock FS. Without being technical, the clock frequency in digital audio creates the correlation between audio bits and time references. The more accurate this correlation, the more “pristine” a digital audio clip sounds.
The Babyface Pro FS features a new SteadyClock FS circuit that has better, more accurate tracking with lower jitter. This helps reducing noise and minimizes digital degradation so common in cheaper audio interfaces.
Another nifty feature is the TotalMix FX digital mixer bundled with the hardware. Using this software, you can easily route and mix input/playback channels to different physical outputs without resorting to any external plugins or fiddling with DAW settings.
What we don’t like
As with most great hardware companies, the software on the Babyface Pro is complicated and clunky. While we didn’t experience any reliability issues, figuring out how everything works has a learning curve. It’s not a dealbreaker but it is something that isn’t you’d appreciate at this price range.
We’re also not huge fans of the I/O options located on the side of the devices. You end up with a weird situation where you have wires jutting out from all four edges of the unit.
A minor annoyance is the hard to press buttons.
Over to You
Low latency is a must-have in any audio interface. For truly instantaneous, real-time performance, choose from any of the interfaces I’ve listed above.
For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Use Ableton? Here’s our pick of the best Ableton audio interface
- USB users, you’ll want to read our top USB audio interface list