In addition to being a private violin teacher, Alecia started writing music-related articles 3 years ago and has been enjoying this experience greatly. Loves quilting and scrapbooking in her free time.
Marcus has a vast experience in digital audio and sound design. Thanks to his knowledge, he actively helps musicians with technical problems, improving their audio quality and even promoting their tracks so that thousands of listeners could enjoy some really good music.
Last updated: January 13, 2021
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The Thunderbolt audio interface is the central interface for recording and playing audio signals in and out of your computer. More precisely, audio signals are converted from analog to digital for recording or in the opposite direction for listening. This audio interface replaces the internal sound card of the PC or notebook and offers high sound quality and ease of connection. An audio interface is indispensable, especially if high-quality recordings are to be made on the computer. Thunderbolt is especially important in connection with Apple devices. If you are using a Mac, you should opt for a Thunderbolt interface.
In the ultimate product comparison review, we’ll show you 5 of the best thunderbolt audio interfaces from Apollo to Presonus to Motu and explain step by step what is behind the individual features. Our review will show differences between the individual audio interfaces: for example, the number of recording channels, the operating system compatibility, sync sources, storage requirements, I/O channels, mic preamps, form factor, and more.
OK, so the Apollo Twin X turns out our overall best thunderbolt audio interface. But it’s not an easy undertaking. For some, it is the ultimate audio interface. For others, it is a piece of completely overpriced equipment that could have been built much cheaper. Controversial, powerful, legendary. This is how you can describe the new desktop model from Universal Audio.
Despite all the criticism of the high price, the device is really of high quality. Metal housing, high-quality buttons, clear displays, and a smoothly running master volume potentiometer. The external power supply unit is protected against accidental disconnection by a locking mechanism: insert the plug and turn it to the right – everything is in place!
On the front, there is one Hi-Z instrument input and one headphone jacks (6.3 mm jack). The interfaces have two Kensington lock openings (left and right) and are completely provided with perforated metal on the underside.
Inside, the Apollo is very noble. Compared to its predecessors (the MK II versions without “X”), this has been significantly upgraded and you are in the top league of modern audio technology when it comes to D/A converters.
There is a reason why the Apollo interfaces are represented in many well-known studios around the world. The sound is very good not only in relation to the price but also in absolute terms. So now we come back to the point where the readership is divided. Some people want a comprehensive sound assessment, which then inevitably goes hand in hand with a language that tends to be flowery. The other person wants it sober.
If you only compare features when buying an audio interface, then you will inevitably end up with other manufacturers. If you are looking for a very well equipped interface with very practical features and great workmanship, which is in the “top of the line” range in terms of sound, then the Apollo Twin X is the first choice.
What we liked: Thunderbolt 3 interface, duo or quad DSPs, and high-quality preamps, together with good software support and high-quality universal audio plugins, offer you a package that we can only recommend with the best rating.
What could be better: For some, it is the ultimate audio interface. For others, it is completely overpriced equipment that could have been built much cheaper.
The Presonus Quantum 2626 is one of the latest 24 bit/192 kHz Thunderbolt 3 audio interfaces of the Quantum family and offers plenty of connection options.
The packaging, which is made entirely of cardboard, contains the Quantum 2626, the associated power supply, an ultra-quick guide, and a license for the Studio Magic plug-in suite, which you can get when you register the device with a free Presonus customer account on the company’s website.
2626 offers eight analog inputs and eight outputs. The inputs on the front are designed as XLR combo sockets. Microphones and line-level devices can be connected here. Phantom power can be switched on by pressing a button on the inputs in the two groups 1 to 4 and 5 to 8. High-impedance instruments can only be connected directly to the first two inputs.
The Quantum 2626 offers two SMUX-capable ADAT ports on digital audio interfaces. Like the S/PDIF pair, these only work up to 96 kHz. With sample frequencies above this, only the analog sockets are available.
A MIDI and a word clock pair complete the picture. The word clock with 70 ps jitter resistance is not the best on the market, but the presence of this professional function in this price range is simply a big plus! So there is still something to be done about the signal quality. The Thunderbolt 3 port is compatible with Thunderbolt 2 with the bidirectional Apple Thunderbolt 2/3 adapter.
What we liked: With Quantum 2626, Presonus delivers an interface that is very adequate in terms of sound and features for this price range. It has good overall musicality and very good signal stability.
What could be better: A Thunderbolt 3 cable is not included, which costs around $30.
With the TAC-8 (“Thunderbolt Audio Converter”), we are talking about a great audio interface from the Japanese manufacturer Zoom. The front flatters with its aluminum look and feel. The TAC is silver. Also, a chrome strip adorns the upper side of the recessed output regulator, provided with product and interface names.
A look at the front reveals the eight inputs of the preamps with up to 60 dB gain, all of which have XLR/TRS combo sockets. Above each input, we find a gain potentiometer and the level LED. Inputs 1 and 2 also have a Hi-Z button, which adjusts the input impedance of the preamplifier accordingly for electric guitar and bass. The phantom power can in turn be switched on separately with two small pressure switches for the preamps 1-4 and 5-8.
The preamps are equipped with combo sockets. Gain can be set both on the device and in the software. The preamps are followed on the right by four vertically arranged LEDs that visualize the clock source status (ADAT, S/PDIF, WORD-CLOCK, and INTERNAL). The output controller is located in a small recess next to it. On the far right, both zoom interfaces each offer two headphone connections with their volume controls, but they do not have separate converters. The headphone output 1 receives the same signal as the main out, the second headphone output, on the other hand, can optionally pick up the input from the analog outputs 1/2 to 9/10 via MixEFX software.
On the right side, there are two headphone outputs and the main-out volume control. On the display, the TAC-8 does not go away empty-handed: Instead of the CLASS COMPLIANT MODE, a STANDALONE MODE is possible here, which is also activated by a switch. In standalone mode, the TAC-8 then functions as an autonomous eight-channel mic preamp and ADAT converter – even without a computer on the line. Configurations can be made in advance in the TAC-8 MixEfx software and are then available accordingly after switching off.
In the manufacturer’s download section you will find – in addition to the drivers – also the MixEfx software. With their help, simple mixing processes and effect settings for what is known as DSP-based direct monitoring can be carried out – to create a latency-free monitor mix.
What we liked: The Zoom TAC-8 has extensive DSP routing software and plenty of connection options. We also like its transducer sound and DSP reverb. It’s one of the best thunderbolt audio interfaces for Mac.
What could be better: There is no internal power supply.
The AVB family is growing! MOTU has always had many different interfaces on offer. But the last diversification has produced an almost unmanageable range. Network-compatible interfaces, i.e. with AVB support, are now part of the MOTU standard so that nothing stands in the way of uncomplicated setup expansion.
The MOTU 624 AVB is an audio interface of the AVB series from the American manufacturer MOTU. It is an audio interface with USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2 connection, which has a resolution of up to 24 bits and 192 kHz. It is backward compatible with USB 2 as well as Thunderbolt 1 and 3. In this case, you only have to accept corresponding restrictions with regard to the maximum number of channels.
This is important if you want to add further interfaces or cascade them via AVB. AVB is translated with audio-video bridging and brings together various standards for the transmission of audio and video data over networks. This means that many channels can be transmitted via a simple network socket or Cat-5 cable. Instead of using a USB or Thunderbolt, you can also connect the 624 directly with a network cable and the computer. The first advantage would be cables up to 100 m in length!
What we liked: Contrary to the industry standard, the preamps are provided with XLR sockets instead of combo sockets, which is not a problem, as two additional front-ins for DI signals are planned. Thanks to this configuration, cables do not have to be reconnected.
What could be better: The fact that the Thunderbolt cable is missing is not surprising. Because of the high license costs, no manufacturer includes that. But they could have included a short CAT5 cable. Also, effects in graphic mode cannot be fully operated with the mouse.
I/O channels: Analog – 2 x Mic / Line Inputs, 2 x Mic / Line / Hi-Z Inputs / 1 x Monitor Out on TRS 1/4 Jacks, +20 dBu max, 4 x Line Outs on TRS, +20 dBu max (DC coupled), 4 x Stereo Headphone Outputs, Digital – 1 x ADAT (up to 16CH), 1 x S/PDIF/ 1 x ADAT (up to 16CH), 1 x S/PDIF
Antelope Audio, known among other things for its Goliath and Orion interfaces, has two audio interfaces on the market with their two Discrete devices, Antelope Audio Discrete 4 and Antelope Audio Discrete 8, which stand out due to their specialty. Both have FPGA chips on board, with which you can simply put plug-ins into these chips.
While the front panel of the Audio Discrete is made of brushed aluminum, the rest of the housing of the Discrete 4 is content with curved black sheet metal. All connections are extremely tight in the case. So, there should not be any noticeable effects on stability even after hundreds of plugging operations.
The following inputs and outputs are available. Four analog inputs as XLR-jack combo, two of them on the front: four symmetrical line outputs and two symmetrical monitor outputs. On the front, there are also the four (!) Headphone outputs, which have enough steam.
The most striking feature of the Antelope Audio Discrete 4 is the square OLED display with a screen diagonal of approx. 4 cm, which shows two colors and a resolution of 128 x 128 pixels. Using the buttons, you can adjust various parameters immediately on the device using a richly grating encoder: the gain settings for the four mic preamps and the volume settings for the four headphone outputs as well as the monitor and line outputs. The individual sections can be reached by pressing the corresponding button several times. Level control facilitates the gain setting of the preamps. The middle button switches through various overviews: the input levels of all preamps, the gain settings and modes of the preamps (Hi-Z, Mic, and Line), and an overview of the clock synchronization.
The overall package is simply an absolutely fine and thoroughly professional thing. The main annoyance – the control panel quitting the service when the Internet connection is interrupted – has already been removed. Either way, everyone has to decide for themselves how much IoT they approve of in their studio – or not.
What we liked: The advantage is obvious: firstly, the FPGAs can be reconfigured through updates and thus expanded, and secondly, the plug-ins do not put a strain on the host hardware.
What could be better: There is a lengthy registration and activation procedure. The module cannot be used without prior internet activation. PreAmp modes cannot be set on the device itself. Finally, the HD panel generates a respectable RAM overhead of 700 MB.
Things to Consider
With the top thunderbolt audio interfaces we have selected, you can convert analog sounds into digital music. But here, we will follow up the product recommendations with in-depth purchase information that will clear up all your doubts about getting a Thunderbolt audio interface.
What is Thunderbolt and why to choose it?
An important point that you should pay attention to before buying a suitable audio interface is first of all its compatibility with the operating system of the device with which you want to use it. In other words: does the selected audio interface model even match the operating system of your computer?
In 2011, the Thunderbolt format, developed jointly by Apple and Intel, followed, which was able to offer an enormous increase in performance to 10 Gbit/s.
Thunderbolt offers the fastest connection of all interfaces. It allows a transfer rate between 10 and 40 Gb per second depending on the version (1, 2, or 3), (against 400 to 800Mb per second for Firewire and USB 2.0). Ideal for its low latency and stability, this type of interface is only present on Apple computers since 2012 and a few rare PCs.
Thunderbolt is of course good, but mostly only found or supported on Apple computers – and they are significantly more expensive to purchase, just like the Thunderbolt interfaces themselves. The cables alone are expensive, from the Thunderbolt 2 to 3 adapters that may be required (USB-C) and the other way around quite apart from that. This quickly adds up to $30 to 100 or more for cables alone, which in the middle class should be better plugged into the interface itself than into the peripherals.
Thunderbolt also has real advantages. It is closer to the hardware and creates significantly higher bandwidths and also a slightly better latency, but this in turn only becomes noticeable with interfaces with many channels and you won’t find them in this category. Thunderbolt is also bitter when it comes to hot plugging, so it can happen now and then that you have to restart the computer if the computer has lost the connection – rather uncool on stage. But there is also a great advantage: Thunderbolt can transmit significantly more current. And thus high-quality, small interfaces do not require an additional power supply. And that’s cool, not just when you’re on the road a lot. The best example here is the Thunderbolt version of the Universal Audio Apollo Twin X.
What to look for when buying Thunderbolt audio interfaces
After we have received an overview of everything worth knowing about all the individual components of Thunderbolt audio interfaces and their functionality, we come next to the topic of equipment, quality, and price differences in an in-depth review of criteria to watch out for.
The housing material of audio interfaces for most devices is made of aluminum, steel, or metal. Few devices are made of plastic. What you prefer in this case is a matter of taste or depends on the manufacturer.
These devices are generally designed to be placed on a rackmount (for example, the MOTU 624) or used as a desktop as you can find with the Antelope Audio Discrete 4. It all depends on your needs.
Inputs and outputs
After the form factor, has been clarified, the next question arises as to your effective need for simultaneously usable inputs and outputs. If you are, for example, a dance and pop music producer or a singer-songwriter on the road, the lion’s share of sounds comes from the computer.
The only sound sources that can be recorded by a microphone are first and foremost vocals, followed by acoustic or electric guitar, piano and hardware synthesizers, or the like.
In other words: Accordingly, in these fields of activity, you usually need a maximum of two channels at the same time including microphone preamps for recording in mono or stereo – depending on the instrument.
If, on the other hand, you want to record complete bands including drums at the same time, there should be at least eight or more inputs on the audio interface. The drums alone tend to devour at least four or more input channels, which is why even large audio interfaces with ten inputs reach their limits depending on the size of the formation.
If, for example, with even larger ensembles such as orchestras, big bands, etc., more inputs are needed, the whole thing must be expanded accordingly.
On the one hand, this can be done via the usually existing ADAT interface using an additional converter, and it’s usually eight additional inputs.
On the other hand, the vast majority of devices offer the option of expansion by connecting a second, third, or even fourth audio interface and thus using so-called cascading, i.e. a series connection of several compatible devices to achieve the required number of channels.
It looks the same on the outputs side if several signals are to be played out of the DAW at the same time. This can, for example, be for summing in an analog mixer, or an extra summing mixer for a fatter sound, or many independent headphones mixes at the same time.
Depending on the size of your recordings in terms of inputs and outputs, you always have to factor in enough inputs and outputs as well as any expansion options in your budget.
The more the interface should have in store and the higher the quality should be, the higher the price that can be expected, of course. Therefore, it makes sense, before buying, to think carefully and intensively how many inputs and outputs you really need and in any case for what purpose.
Whenever you want to record with microphones, you automatically need a microphone preamp.
That’s why you need at least one preamp as a home recorder. The electrical signal emitted by the microphone is initially much too quiet and too weak to be sufficient for great-sounding recordings.
Therefore, a microphone preamplifier is always needed. First, it amplifies the microphone signal sufficiently and brings it to what is known as the working line level.
For the microphone preamplifier built into an audio interface, the basic requirement is that they should work tonally as neutrally as possible, or without discoloration and noise.
This means that the audio interface can be used universally in terms of sound. If additional preamp sound coloring is desired, external preamplifiers can first be used – in a classic way.
However, this also costs a lot of money. Alternatively, some audio interfaces, such as the Apollo Twin X QUAD from Universal Audio with its patented Unison preamp technology, also offer built-in sound coloring options.
If you want to have a “fat” vintage sound rich in overtones, we recommend external microphone preamps in particular. This can be integrated into your audio software in combination with an AD / DA converter.
On phantom power, 48 volts is an extra supply voltage that condenser microphones need to function at all. Therefore: If a condenser microphone is connected to a microphone preamplifier, the 48-volt phantom power must be activated so that the microphone emits a signal.
A little digression: In principle, there are two different types of microphones, namely dynamic microphones and condenser microphones. The easiest way to explain how it all works is by using dynamic microphones. These work on the moving coil or ribbon principle, similar to a bicycle dynamo.
So when the sound waves hit the microphone membrane, it moves an induction coil, and that in turn generates a very small alternating voltage. Therefore, an extra microphone preamplifier is needed to provide the very high amplification power, especially with ribbon mics, that is required to bring the weak output signal to an adequate working level.
In contrast to this, capacitor mics deliver somewhat louder output signals than dynamic mics, not least thanks to their different construction principles. However, a microphone preamplifier is also required here, not only to achieve the line-level necessary for usable recordings but also to provide the operating voltage required for condenser mics.
A microphone preamp therefore always has a switch for said supply voltage, which runs at a standardized 48 volts and is referred to as what is known as phantom voltage. The name derives from the fact that this supply current is generally not used to operate additional built-in amplifier circuits, but only to function the microphone capsule built in the form of a capacitor.
With the interfaces we have selected in this article, you shouldn’t have a problem with sound performance. If you’re looking at other models, keep an eye out for reviews complaining about sound quality issues, including preamp hiss. Indeed, non-professional interfaces sometimes have average quality preamps. If they are pushed a little hard to compensate for a weak audio signal, they may “blow” – that is, produce unwanted interference.
Of course, a thunderbolt audio interface must be compatible with your computer, regardless of whether it is an Apple or Mac computer. Most of the devices in our audio interface review are compatible with both iOS and macOS. But pay attention to the age of the operating system: Many models are not compatible with older versions.
The audio interface software supplied varies from device to device. While some audio interface models come with around three programs and tools, particularly versatile products have a significantly larger range of programs, tools, and samples. So compare, for example, the products of Universal Audio and other brands and find the best device for you.
When it comes to sync sources, you have, for example, Word Clock, with the PreSonus Quantum 2626 and the Zoom TAC-8. But the Apollo Twin X QUAD combines sync sources such as ADAT, Internal, S/PDIF. But, DAT, Internal, S/PDIF, and Word Clock, what are they?
ADAT is still cheaper for the time being than an extension via an additional interface instance – albeit with a slight catch. The audio resolution is limited due to the format. That means: If all eight available ADAT input and output paths are to be used simultaneously, a maximum resolution of 48 kHz/ 24 bit is only possible. There is a small consolation, however, because nowadays ADAT interfaces have an additional data transmission extension called S/MUX, which also enables higher sample rates – but only when the number of available channels is reduced. In S/MUX mode, you can choose between a maximum of four channels at a time at a sample rate of 96 kHz or just two channels at a time at 192 kHz.
If, on the other hand, you want to record consistently in the highest resolution on all available channels at the same time, you cannot avoid cascading with additional audio interfaces. This usually costs more money than an ADAT converter. In terms of recording quality and convenience, however, the unrestricted, full channel power of the entire interface network is available. Apart from the cost-effective system expansion, another advantage of the ADAT interface is the loss-free, digital data transmission via optical fiber optic cable.
The highlight: The data stream from and to the connected peripheral device does not have to be converted again into an analog and then back into a digital signal, which could result in sound changes. Instead, everything remains in a completely digital form of zeros and ones, something which the optical fiber optic cable shipment does not change.
The S/PDIF interface also works completely digitally, but at this point mostly via chinch or RCA cable. This comes from the consumer or home cinema area, where data is usually transmitted via optical TOSLINK transmission. This transmits a stereo signal, i.e. two channels at the same time, like ADAT in S/MUX mode with a maximum of 192 kHz and 24-bit word length. The difference to ADAT is that only two channels are transmitted, but in high quality per se, and the data transmission, as already mentioned, is usually not done optically but via a cinch or RCA cable connection. Possible areas of application are high-quality mono or stereo recordings, such as stereo recordings from a digital mixer or the use of a high-end AD/DA converter as well as completely digital signal forwarding to S/PDIF-capable studio monitors. So if you want to prefer the specially tailored converters in your studio speakers with S / PDIF interface to AD / DA converters in your audio interface, you can use the lossless digital data transmission.
BNC (World Clock)
After ADAT and S/PDIF, last but not least, we come to the third digital interface in the form of word clock inputs and output. If available on the respective audio interface model, they are available in the form of so-called BNC sockets. This time, however, these do not transmit audio signals. But they transmit to a global clock signal, the so-called word clock, for synchronizing the digital sampling rate in a network of several digital devices.
The storage requirements for thunderbolt audio interfaces differ. While the MOTU 624 requires a 500-gigabyte storage requirement, the Antelope Audio Discrete 4 requires only 10 gigabytes. In any case, 8 gigabytes is a sweet spot. However, 4 gigabytes can also run your software smoothly with no lags and without overworking the computer. But you’ll need a drive space.
Naturally, the higher your budget, the more diversified your choice will be. However, to start in the world of the home studio, nothing prevents you from choosing an entry-level model. However, be sure to choose models from reliable and recognized brands (Focusrite, Steinberg, Behringer, Universal Audio, RME, etc.). Thus, you will have more chances to have a quality tool. If you want a top quality thunderbolt audio interface like the Apollo Twin X QUAD, be ready for a budget of around $1,300 to $1,500 in all. However, a budget pick like the Zoom TAC-8 can be acquired for half that price range.
Thunderbolt audio interfaces are generally designed for Apple and Mac operating systems. However, if you need a Linux compatible audio interface, look at models such as the Behringer Xenyx Audio Interface, Yamaha AG03 3- Audio Interface, Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen), Tascam US-4×4, or the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 Mk2
Asides from Thunderbolt, some existing alternatives which are equally great are USB 2.0, USB 3.0, Firewire 800, and Firewire 400.
Our Editor’s Choice among the best thunderbolt audio interfaces is the Apollo Twin X QUAD. What we like about it are the metal housing, high-quality buttons, clear displays, and a smoothly running master volume potentiometer.
The PreSonus Quantum 2626 offers the best value out of our 5 picks. It is one of the latest 24 bit/192 kHz Thunderbolt 3 audio interfaces of the Quantum family and offers plenty of connection options. It comes with a license for the Studio Magic plug-in suite.
Our Budget Pick is the Zoom TAC-8. It has extensive DSP routing software and plenty of connection options. We also like its transducer sound and DSP reverb. The front has eight inputs of the preamps with up to 60 dB gain, all of which have XLR/TRS combo sockets.