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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.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo
- Easy to use
- Compatible with all DAWs
- Great mic preamps
- Affordably priced
- Distortion-free recording
- Highly affordable
- Decent build quality
- Good support & integration
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.[img]
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.
Best Entry-Level: Audient iD4 USB
- All-metal design
- Flexible metering
- Discrete JFET DI input
- Monitor Control
- 24-bit/98 kHz
The Audient iD4 is an audio interface that packs a lot of great features in a compact size. It is an all-metal audio interface that packs a single microphone preamp, a DI, and double headphone outputs into a great looking body.
It features a rotary encoder that takes up quite a bit of room on the device. The rotary encoder also serves a primary monitor volume, and it can also be used as a software controller. This nifty part serves quite a lot of functions.
The interior of the device houses an AP8024-HE Class A preamp circuit.
The body is very attractive, and you are sure to whip it out with pride at both how great it looks and how well it performs.
The Audient is a portable powerhouse. If you are looking for an audio interface at a cheap price and want great performance, this is literally one of the best audio interfaces, if not the very best you can get for this price.
It is a USB-powered device, and it is also compatible with Mac OS devices.
The device does not have the sheer amount of features that more expensive audio interfaces have, for example, it does not have the polarity inversion, high-pass filter and pad features these have, but it has a 48V Phantom Power option.
While this is a bummer, it is great to know you can replace any of these features using software.
It has a range of 112dB which is really great for capturing any instrument sounds, no matter how nuanced it might be.
The resulting sounds from recordings are quite crisp. Vocals are easy to hear, without any muddling.
The iD button on the device is a nifty button that we found extremely useful. It comes in handy in many cases. iD button activates the ScrollControl function and allows us to use the rotary encoder for different things. The beauty of the scroll wheel is that it acts depending on the type of software being used.
Some of the things we discover we can use it for include controlling faders, compressor thresholds, and EQ.
What we don’t like
The lack of more than 1 microphone preamp is rather disappointing.
Best for Amateur Producers: Mackie BIG KNOB Studio Plus
- Integrated USB 2.0 audio interface
- 24-bit/192 kHz sampling rate
- 6 inputs
This audio interface is the top of the line offering from Mackie. As a result, the design and build are the best in the line of the new Big Knob monitor controllers.
The device looks really good, and even at the + $300 price tag, it looks better than its worth. It is built like a tank yet has very responsive buttons and knob.
The Onyx preamps sound great and offer clarity and definition. They are very transparent and make everything your record sound great.
The controls are easy to use. The standout feature is, as the name indicates, the big knob in the center of the console.
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.
Best for Fidelity: Apogee Duet
- USB Support
- Mac OS compatible
- 24-bit and 192 kHz sample rate
The audio interface comes in the same beautiful design that Apogee devices are renowned for. The box comes in textured silver aluminum housing and has the USB 2.0 connections that make the very first Apogee Duet.
The black glass front panel contains a large knob that carries out different functions. It can be used as an encoder and as a select switch. Aside from this prominent feature, the front panel also has a touch-screen and an OLED screen.
The screen displays clear information about the various metrics of the audio interface. Part of the information displayed on the screen is input selection and the unit’s metering.
The performance is where the audio interface really shines. The sound quality is quite impressive as befits the design and the brand it comes from. You can use the device as a headphone amp and be awed by the brilliance of the sound.
The microphone preamps also give a pleasant performance and can even be used in professional applications.
As for power, the device has a power management system that will adjust headphone levels so that if there is an excessive draw of current, the phantom power supply is shielded.
All the control functions of the device can be accessed and controlled by the Maestro 2 software. This software is easy to install and use.
What we don’t like
While testing, we observed that the Apogee suffers from connection issues. For example, we notice that for unknown reasons, it suddenly shuts off or the screen reverts to a locked “A” logo screen.
Best High-End Interface: Antelope Zen Tour Thunderbolt
- Compatible with all major DAWs
- USB 2.0 Connectivity
- Rack mounted
- Compatible with Mac OS and Windows
This audio interface is meant for your desktop, and the dimensions reflect this. It has a width of 10 inches and a depth of 6 inches.
The front panel of the Antelope Zen Tour has different outputs. These include 4 balanced instruments inputs, 2 re-amp outputs and 2 stereo headphone outputs.
At the rear, there are 4 line inputs and 2 output pairs.
On top of the panel, there is a button to enable the talkback microphone, a knob for making changes, and a Gain button.
The panel also features a 2.75 x 2” touchscreen.
This device produces quite exceptional audio. Since it is actually meant for professionals on the go, the resultant performance is absolutely top-notch.
Latency is non-existent even on computers with poor specs (not that any producer who can afford this would have a poorly specced computer). The fidelity is incredible and stands right up there with what you’ll find in million dollar studios.
Of course, the price matches the performance too. Even if you go with a used one (which can be a fantastic alternative to buying new audio gear, especially if you go professional grade), you can expect to shell out a grand at the very minimum.
What we don’t like
The price. It’s all but out of reach of most musicians.
Best USB-C Interface: Focusrite Clarett 2Pre
- Air enabled preamps
- 119Db dynamic range
- Comes with different software
- 24-bit/192 kHz conversion
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 better connectivity options (including Thunderbolt) and improved performance.
The Clarett Pre2 fits into this category.
The device is a rectangular powerhouse that is made of strong and sturdy materials to give it an air of permanence. The controls are responsive and well labeled.
The wine-colored front-facing part of the device houses the controls. At the back of the device, there are several ports including the MIDI IN, the Line Outputs, and so on. The device definitely looks good.
The device is very easy to set up. Plug into the USB 2.0 port of your laptop, connect the PSU that comes with the device, and you are ready to go.
During use, this device shines brightly. It delivers great sound while eliminating noise.
The distortion is pretty low, and the sound we get from this audio interface is as crisp as you can want.
When the piano was ramped up to the maximum, however, there was some noise.
What we don’t like
As pointed out, the ramping of the piano volume to the maximum caused noise.
Best Firewire Interface: MOTU UltraLite-MK3 Hybrid
- DSP Mixer
- Compression effects on Mac OS and Windows
- USB 2.0 Connectivity
Firewire might be an outdated protocol, replaced by Thunderbolt, but it is still popular among producers and studios. If you have Firewire compatible hardware, this is the perfect audio interface for you.
This audio interface has an assortment of ports on the panel. On the front panel, there is just 1 XLR/ Instrument input. However, the rear has 1 XLR/Instrument input and 6 more line inputs.
Aside from these, there are 8 other line inputs, with each one featuring its own phantom supply of power.
This device is designed to carry out so many functions and make it easy to live mix and studio mix.
We love the impressive effects that come with the onboard CueMix FX digital mixer. The flexible input and output, coupled with the onboard effects, allow this device to be used as a live mixer.
What we don’t like
The CueMix software is difficult to master and can be confusing.
Best Thunderbolt Interface: RME Babyface Pro
The RME audio interface is a beautiful device that sports a metallic design. The housing of the device is actually plastic, but it feels firm and sturdy.
Like the Audient iD4, this device is quite portable while retaining important functions. The RME device feels smooth to the touch and offers a strong grip.
The onboard metering is very efficient, and the whole design provides an unforgettable user experience.
The sound quality produced by the RME is great.
It might be relatively cheap, but it can hold its own against more popular and expensive audio interfaces.
Higher frequencies on this device sound very great and crisp. Even the lower frequencies contribute to an overall great sound.
We observe that great care has been taken to ensure that self-noise that is common to audio interfaces is reduced to a minimum.
What we don’t like
You need to connect to an external preamplifier to add some character to the sound the microphone produces.
The buttons are also hard to press.
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