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: May 27, 2021
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Did you know that thanks to the reduced manufacturing costs and technological evolutions, you can now pick a quality and straightforward audio interface at a very affordable price? On the downside, the numerous options and range of features can make selecting the best budget audio interface quite baffling.
Being on a budget, every feature must be valuable. As such, it’s paramount to first consider your music-making goals, or rather, what you want to achieve. Then you can narrow the field to the desired sound resolution, DAW compatibility, included software bundle, interface dimensions, among other features.
To ease your process, we have reviewed some of the best budget audio interfaces and provided detailed buyers guide to help you make an informed decision.
"A mobile device with durable steel chassis and overall quality build and a Studio Magic Plug-In Suite included.24-bit/96 kHz audio resolution.20Hz to 20kHz frequency response.Class A mic preamplifiers."
"An audio interface that not only has excellent build quality and is easy to set up, but also comes with a full software package.24-bit/192kHz audio resolution.Hi-Speed USB / USB-C circuitry.Low latency."
Focusrite Scarlett Solo (3rd Gen) is the best budget USB audio interface for recording a single instrument or the human voice. It’s easy to use, boasts excellent build quality, and lets you get quality audio from different microphones into your computer. (You’ll need a preamp with dynamic mics though, due to their low output.) Its suitable air Mode gives your recordings a more open sound while the two hum-free outputs yield clean audio playback. The audio quality is further enhanced by its high-performance converters that let you mix and record at up to 24-bit and 192kHz.
What’s more? The solo 3rd Gen is a fantastic upgrade. Compared to the previous versions, this model has better microphone inputs, variable line inputs, fixed-line inputs, instrument inputs, and line and monitor outputs. To paint a picture, the 3rd Gen has a dynamic range of 111dB and a gain range of 56dB (mic input) compared to 106dB and 50dB in the 2nd Gen Bus-Powered counterpart. When it comes to line & monitor, the 3rd Gen has a dynamic range of 108Bb and a maximum output level of 15.5dBu compared to 106dB and 10dBu in the 2nd Gen Bus-powered counterpart. That explains the high-quality audio. The quality sound coupled with the included Pro Tools and quick start tool makes the solo 3rd Gen a force to reckon with.
What we liked:
We liked the solo 3rd Gen’s compact design, which makes it portable and easy to store. Its sleek look boosts your studio’s aesthetics while the quick start tool gets you up and learning, with ease. We particularly loved the series of tutorials Focusrite has created to guide new buyers. The tutorials take you through the logistics of recording your music, getting set with your DAW, and more; without any confusion or intimidation. As a result, you get set up, plugged in, and jamming (to your tune) in no time.
What could be better:
In our opinion, however, the solo 3rd Gen can use a better USB connection. Currently, the model switches to a USB C connector with lightning, which needs a separate driver. To deliver the said driver, the Solo 3rd Gen shows as a USB with the installation media. As such, the system does not boot if the device is plugged in. Also, Focusrite gets you to register the interface and drivers on their site before the connection can be made. That can be painstaking, especially considering the new driver drops connections after an extended period of use.
PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 2×2 has two high-quality Class-A mic preamps for connecting XLR microphones. The preamps double as line preamps for connecting instruments, thanks to the included Amphenol XLR tips. The result is a clear sound with low floor noise. Added to the preamps is MIDI I/O for connecting to your favorite MIDI controller (synth). The studio-grade converters let you mix and record music at up to 24-bit/96kHz. (You can access the zero-latency monitoring if you buy an adapter for 3.5mm headphones.) The build quality is commendable, with the aluminum chassis and metal accents giving a premium-kind-of feeling.
Besides being simple, reliable, and portable, the PreSonus AudioBox boasts a DAW recording software and a Studio Magic Plug-In Suite (with over $1,000 of computer-based recording software plug-ins). That makes it ideal for podcasters, producers, and musicians on a tight budget. It’s also ideal for guitar or guitar-bass collaborations. Being portable and 2.0 bus-powered, this audio interface makes recording easy for both home and away studios.
What we liked:
We liked the mobile nature of this unit. Its heavy-duty steel chassis ensures it remains completely reliable even after taking a serious pounding. At the same time, it’s USB 2.0 bus-powered so we used it to record from anywhere we could place a laptop. We also loved that the AudioBox USB 96 works with Windows and Mac audio-recording software. Its PreSonus Studio One Artist DAW also proved to have a short learning curve than most audio-recording software. Better still, it was easy to use and record without distractions from the tools.
What could be better:
On the flip side, the zero-latency monitoring feature comes at the expense of some popping and annoying white noise in the headphones. The noise can at times make it difficult to monitor the audio. Also, only one ear cup can receive the sound from the recordings produced by the AudioBox 96 interface. And while the unit is compatible with most third-party products, you must purchase a key code to gain “compatibility”.
With M-Audio AIR 192|4, you get to create flawless 24-bit/192kHz high-quality masterpieces with an easy-to-use and intuitive audio interface. The interface has an all-new ¼” instrument input and XLR+¼” balanced combo input, allowing you to create two channels simultaneously. The ¼” instrument input has a well-designed impedance and gains stage to provide accurate bass or guitar representation. Better still, the interface comes equipped with a software package that contains everything required to get you started. Think of Pro Tools (First Edition), Ableton Live Lite, the Avid Effect Collection, Eleven Lite, and more. M-Audio AIR 192/4 is by all standards one of the best budget audio interface USB 3.0.
The device best resonates with people who love alternative pop or rock or classic rock. It’s also for you if you love Iron Maiden, Foo Fighters, and The Who. (If you want to use the interface on AMD, power it on a power brick and use the ¼” output to input into your motherboard sound card.)
What we liked:
We liked that M-Audio AIR 24 has an excellent build quality, it’s easy to set up and produces clear sounds. Our guitar sounded better with distortion effects, without any unwanted noise. Also, our recordings (on the laptop) sounded extraordinarily clear – all thanks to a 24-bit/192kHz at a budget price. We also appreciated its lightweight and compact design that made it easy to fit into a laptop bag and carry to a location of choice.
What could be better:
While the device works great with high-speed USB, there’re noticeable audio crackles and pops when using USB (type C). To make it worse, the troubleshooting available barely corrects the crackles. (The directions include setting the main volume to 80% (in Windows) and adjusting the direct/USB knob – all of which barely help.) M-Audio Air 24 also has compatibility issues with AMD processors, which results in buffer underruns, audio issues, loss of audio, and occasional blue screen.
Native Instruments Komplete Audio boasts 2 (2x Combi-XLR/jack) inputs with phantom power for flexible recording. Its ¼’’stereo outputs are ideal for use on stage, at home, or in the studio. The host/input mix provides the option of hearing playback as you record. Moreover, the interface record in 24-bit resolution at up to 192kHz – which is impressive for its price and compact design. It also features direct monitoring with simple LED level readouts. Added to that are a VU meter for adjusting levels accurately and a big volume knob for adjusting output levels easily.
The Komplete Audio 2 is a great upgrade. Unlike Audio 1, Audio 2 can work in stereo. It also features two combo jacks for more flexibility and two jack outputs suited to studio connections. That’s a far cry from the consumer-oriented RCAs of Komplete Audio. Better still, the Audio 2 has line/mic switches for both inputs, making it suitable for connecting instruments. Overall, Komplete Audio 2 is made for easy stereo recording. As such, it’s ideal for performers, beatmakers, and musicians who want to play out, produce or capture ideas with high-quality audio.
What we liked:
We liked the ultra-lightweight and compact design of this unit. Its build quality is commendable – especially because it’s made from plastics and not expensive metals, like in older models. We also loved the solid preamps with a commendable gain range. We recorded without prominent latency, and the recordings were extraordinarily clear and clean. Its 5-segment LED signal indicators are excellent for direct monitoring while the main output knob is fun to turn.
What could be better:
But while we were impressed by what Komplete Audio 2 has to offer, it cannot switch between monitoring outputs (½ – ¾) as in the original version. Also, only the 1/2’’ is recognized by Foobar or Windows 10. At the same time, the software bundle is somewhat hard to locate and download. You must use Native Instruments’ license app or stand-alone installer. Unfortunately, there are no clear instructions about it on their software. The customer support could also use some improvement.
The Steinberg UR12 is a 2 input and 2 output USB interface, boasting a single D- PRE Class-A mic preamps (from Yamaha), with +48V phantom power. The D-PRE is specially designed to capture all the expressiveness and subtleties of any audio source. (As such, the mic preamps sound stunning, which is to be expected as D-PRE is a culmination of years of development by skilled engineers at Yamaha corporation.) The interface is housed in a rugged yet compact chassis to boost its durability. And its 24-bit/192kHz converters provide commendable dynamics and details. Its ultra-stable drivers for Windows and Mac OS X make sit compatible with the major audio recording software applications.
Being crafted and engineered to meet the most exacting needs, the UR12 is ideal for any home recording enthusiast. Just be sure to get the drivers first, before plugging it in. If you hear screeching noises during setup, it means your OS is installing older drivers. As such, don’t use a CD to install the drivers. Instead, get up-to-date drivers from Steinburg or Yamaha website. Once you have installed the drivers, you can turn on the interface and plug it in.
What we liked:
We liked that the D-PRE mic preamp has a wide frequency range, enough to handle any music source without overly amplifying any components of the signal. The mic is tuned to capture the true essence and expression of an audio source or a given performance, all while leaving room for later editing. We also appreciated the interface’s cross-platform compatibility with iPad, OS X, and Windows.
What could be better:
On the flip side, the UR12 lacks a MIDI input or output, which means you cannot connect it directly to your favorite synth (MIDI controller). It’s also relatively heavier than other audio interfaces on our list. And while that does not affect its mobility, it sure can affect the number of things you can carry at a go.
EVO 4 amplifies and converts an analog signal to digital. It boasts a JFET instrument input, 2 XLR input channels, and both stereo and mono loopback channels for recording your audio output. (Note, the unit creates an input selection, which mixes the 2 channels into 1 if that’s your preference. You can also mute either channel by long-pressing the numbered buttons.) The JFET input only t channel 1. It takes priority over XLR input, and as such; it automatically mutes the XLR signal when in use. Its Smartgain feature gets your sound levels set up fast during sound monitoring; while eliminating the possibility of clippings.
The unit is suitable for anyone who needs to record instruments or vocals for their cover song or original music. Think of songwriters or producers. It’s also great for recording a couple of mics for podcasts.
What we liked:
We liked that Audient EVO 4 provides access to the Cubasis (iOS) LE 2, the compact DAWs Cubase, and some VST synthesizers when you register your unit on their site. The bundled software is an impressive set of freebies for aspiring producers and songwriters. We were also impressed by the Smartgain feature that gets your sound levels set up fast during sound checking. The feature helps reduce clippings that can occur when you set the gain too high.
What could be better:
In our opinion, however, it’d be better if you can turn the LED indicators off when you connect EVO 4 to a PC. There should also be dB labels next to the LED indicators. Currently, you must look down on the interface to see all the LED lights, which is inconvenient. Also, the unit should be upgraded to allow the use of headphones and speakers for monitoring simultaneously. Currently, plugging in the speakers will automatically mute the headphones’ output channels.
BEHRINGER U-Phoria UM2 audio interface bridges the gap between your fans and your creativity. The unit is 2.0 USB powered making it blazingly fast. It has you recording your cover songs in minutes, thanks to the included connectivity necessary for your guitars, keyboards, microphones, and MIDI devices. Its 4 world-class MIDAS-designed mic preamps include +48V phantom power for condenser mics, and pass through studio-grade 24-bit/192kHz to produce high-quality sound.
Whether you’re a producer on the go, a songwriter, or running backing tracks at a gig; UM2 will make you shine in the audio recording domain. The 4 XLR/TRS inputs provide ultimate flexibility while recording while the ability to communicate with MIDI devices adds the benefits of control to your studio workflow. Better still, UM2 allows zero-latency monitoring which means you can experience your performance clearly – without delay, resulting in a better recording and performance.
What we liked:
We particularly liked Tracktion, one of the world’s easiest and fastest DAW for composing, recording, mixing, editing, and sharing your masterpieces with the world. The DAW features unlimited track count, dynamic automation, MIDI recording, support for AU and VST plug-ins. Besides the DAW, we loved the interface’s small footprint. Its mobility is further enhanced by its ability to power from the USB bus.
What could be better:
On the downside, UM2 has a single +48V phantom power switch for all channels. That means that the 4 channels are either on or off. This can be hectic in cases of mixed sources – think acoustic guitar pickups, ribbon mics, and more. Also, the unit lacks usable internal effects during the zero-latency direct monitoring.
Things to Consider
So far, you’ve narrowed the vast options in the current market to seven possibilities. Now it’s time to narrow it down further – from seven to one. To do so, ask yourself: what will I be recording? Or better still: what do I need to plug into my audio interface? Also, do you have synthesizers, instruments, or “friends” that can make noise when recording? In short, it’s not all about setting the budget here. After all, we’re discussing the best budget audio interfaces. You must understand your needs. For you see, the best audio interface for recording a live band may be different from that of a musician creating electronica.
What can you expect from a budget audio interface?
When it comes to expectations from a budget audio interface, flexibility should be at the top of the list. The reason being, budget audio interfaces are not bought in isolation. You’ll need headphones, microphones, and other musical instruments.
And while the budget is not synonymous with cheap products, be sure that cheapness is not reflected on your interface’s functionality, sound quality, and build quality.
Besides quality, budget interfaces must come with the proper drivers for your PC’s operating system. Think ASIO drivers for Window users that provide little to no latency connection between the recording software and the interface.
Features to consider when buying an audio interface on a budget
When looking to purchase an audio interface on a budget, it’s in your best interest to consider the following features:
Bitrate and audio resolution
While the sample rate gets bandied about as a huge selling point, the truth is, for a beginner, it’s not a major issue. It’s like the TV set. Each few years TV manufacturers produce more advanced resolutions: 4K, 8K, and more. But at the end of the day, such figures matter little to viewers.
But as technology evolves, manufacturers are putting effort into squeezing commendable preamps into little boxes at an affordable price. Whether it’s the JFET input on Audient EVO 4, Class-A preamps in PreSonus AudioBox 96, or ‘Crystal’ preamps on M-Audio Air 192/4; they all provide decent sound quality.
The published specs are often impressive, as manufacturers compete over who will provide better low noise floors and better dynamic ranges. And while most budget audio interfaces have similar specs, you can notice a difference in the amount of gain available on their mic preamps. As such, select the gain that best suits your needs. For example, you’ll need plenty of clean gains to record vocals as opposed to recording drums and guitar amps.
While the value of sample rates is datable, you should record at 24 bitrates. Luckily, all the audio interfaces in our list record at 24-bit at up to varying levels of sound resolution.
Inputs, outputs, and connectivity
The type and number of inputs in an interface will depend on your music goals. If you plan to play bass guitar/electric guitar/acoustic guitar; for instance, you’ll need 1XLR input and 1TRS or Jack input. Most modern models combine the two inputs as one. The XLR forms the 3 pins while the TRS forms the middle for your combo (jack) input. Combo inputs are very useful as they can accept lead inputs. They also feature control for switching between instruments and mic levels.
The outputs typically have one set of stereo lines out and monitor out, on board. If looking to DJ, look for an interface with a double stereo line out – one set for private uses and one for the house.
Lastly, if your microphone requires phantom power to work, select an interface with phantom power capabilities. DJs should go a step further to look out for RCA connectivity that hooks up DJ turntables and mixers.
DAW and device compatibility
Every audio interface in our list is compatible with Windows and Mac setups. Some like the Steinberg UR12 can be used with Apple mobile devices too. Any interface described as “class-compliant” means it’s compatible with iPhone or iPad. Of those, some come equipped with appropriate ‘Lightning’ connectors, while some require Apple’s USB-to-Lightning Camera Connection Kit adapter.
The units are also compatible with all the top-end DAW recording software while others boast their own. (For example, PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 boasts a DAW recording software and a Studio Magic Plug-In Suite (with over $1,000 of computer-based recording software plug-ins).) Be sure to check the product reviews and feedback in case of any doubt.
The audio interfaces on our list come equipped with a variety of software bundles to sweeten the deal. The offerings range from limited, entry-level ‘LE’ versions of key applications to full versions of major synths and effects.
Some units like the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 bundle in a DAW (digital audio workstation), which is helpful if you haven’t already committed to such a platform.
Ableton Live Lite seems to be issued free with every audio interface. You’ll also find Cubasis or Cubase AI free with Steinberg UR12, Avid’s Pro Tools free with M-Audio AIR interface, and the artist version of Studio One with PreSonus AudioBox. Some audio interfaces on our list sweeten the deal with VST instruments or additional effect pug-ins. Focusrite, for example, includes a range of plug-ins.
Dimensions and weight
The size and weight of an audio interface affect its storage and portability. Luckily, the interfaces on our list on the compact side of the spectrum. BEHRINGER U-Phoria UM2, for instance, measures 5.04” x 4.65”x 1.47”and weighs just 0.6 pounds, making it the lightest on our list. The Steinberg UR12 measures 9.21”x 8.07” x 4.13” and weighs 2.9 pounds, making it the bulkiest on our list.
Basically, you want a budget interface to fit into your laptop bag, and the reviewed interfaces will do just that.
Since we’re talking of the best budget audio interfaces, you may be tempted to ignore their warranty – but don’t. Even when the price is on a lower end, you still need some guarantee from the manufacturer to be at ease. You’re no in the business of wasting your hard-earned cash, now are you?
As such, settle for an interface with at least 1-year of warranty – that’s any audio interface on our list by the way.
In case of limited warranty, check whether it can be extended – especially if the manufacturer’s support system is a bit wanting.
With audio interfaces, you can always get more for your buck. For instance, EVO 4 boasts the recent development in the name of the ‘Loopback’ facility that allows the output of one software to reappear as input recording in another software. The Loopback feature is ideal for live streaming or podcasting. You just your DAW’s output into your streaming software on YouTube or Twitch.
Other features worth your while are the Smartgain in Audient EVO 4 and the 4-segment metering on the PreSonus AudioBox. It’s good to pore through the interface description to check whether there’s a killer feature that would ease or revolutionize your workflow.
First of all, budget is a relative term but for the sake of answering the question, we’re talking simple, entry-level, and USB-powered. (Yes Thunderbolt and budget never go together.) A budget audio interface does not cost a dime higher than the cost of a decent unit. (Think of USB-powered interfaces that are priced under $200. However, the $200 threshold is being continually challenged, as more and more companies strive to take over the beginner’s market. Recently, the M-Audio M-Track interface ticks the ‘decent’ box at under $50. Familiar brands such as Focusrite, Native Instruments, PreSonus, BEHRINGER, Steinberg, and more have sub $150 interfaces that would tick the ‘decent’ box. As such, we can term a budget audio interface as one ranging from $50 to $200.
Well, yes. But to understand this, let’s first walk you through how sound works inside a computer. Any computer-generated sound is in the form of a digital signal that’s then converted into an analog signal by the in-built sound card. Such a conversion reduces the quality of the sound due to electromagnetic interference. The effects are more prominent when the volume is cranked up. An audio interface serves to reproduce the sound signal much more accurately. It results in better clarity than the onboard sound card. At high volumes, the interface results in a better playback experience without any floor, white, or (you name it) noise.
Generally, yes, if your interface has a headphone output. If you’re not recording or just want to drive high-end headphones, it’s best to consider a dedicated headphone amp. But if you need an audio interface for your recording needs and are wondering if the interface doubles as a headphone amp, the answer is probably yes. Audio interfaces with dedicated headphones outputs are crafted with professional headphones in mind. So, you can give them a go and who knows, you may be pleased with the results.
Getting the best budget audio interface is a great step for a home recording enthusiast. And since we have exhausted all we had to say about these devices, our vote goes to the Focusrite solo (3rd Gen). The reason being its solo mic preamps, super low-latency, innovative halo indicators, compact design, and more. We particularly loved the series of tutorials Focusrite has created to guide new buyers. The tutorials take you through the logistics of recording your music, getting set with your DAW, and more; without any confusion or intimidation. As a result, you get set up, plugged in, and jamming (to your tune) in no time.
For best value, go for the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96. The interface boasts a DAW recording software and a Studio Magic Plug-In Suite (with over $1,000 of computer-based recording software plug-ins). If looking for Hi-Speed USB / USB-C circuitry and low latency and an extensive software bundle, opt for the M-Audio AIR 192/4.