An audio interface is a crucial component of any recording setup, but yet it tends not to get the attention it needs from those new to the recording world.
Why is an audio interface important? And what should I look for in one?
Simply put, audio interfaces exist to allow you to record audio with your computer. Without an interface, you’d probably have a difficult (or impossible!) time plugging your microphone or instrument into your computer to begin recording.
Interfaces are designed to streamline this process while also maintaining the best sound quality possible.
Shopping for an interface (especially on a budget) can be a daunting task. There are seemingly so many similar options, all with very technical features.
In this article, we hope to ease that shopping process for you by providing you with reviews of the top 5 audio interfaces for under $200.
Core Feature Overview
For anyone looking to buy an audio interface in the under sub $200 price range, there are several standard features that you should expect from any product you look at.
To simplify things, here is a list we compiled of those core features, available in nearly all of the interfaces we review later:
- 2 input channels. These inputs generally feature a combo design, allowing you to plug in either microphones or instruments into the same jack.
- 24-bit/192kHz recording quality. Interfaces work by converting the analog signal of your audio to a digital signal that can be understood by your computer. It is crucial that this conversion happens in a way that is lossless and preserves all of the sound quality of your audio. Consequently, top-of-the-line interfaces feature 24-bit resolution with 192-kHz sampling rate.
- Headphone and line-out outputs.When recording it’s important to hear what you are playing in the moment, so interfaces feature headphone and line-out outputs for you to monitor in real-time.
- Bus-powered. This feature means that you can power your interface simply by connecting it via USB to your computer. This is useful because it eliminates the need for an extra power cable and makes your interface more portable for recording on-the-go.
- Input preamplifiers, individual channel gains, and clipping monitors. Preamplifiers work to bring up the signal of your microphone or instrument to a level that is best suited for recording on your computer. This level can be adjusted by the gain knobs, which are available separately for each channel. In case the level is accidentally too high, a clipping monitor is also present to let you know you need to turn down the gain.
- Phantom power (aka 48v). If you are recording with a condenser microphone, you will need phantom power to operate that microphone. Interfaces make this feature available as a switch or button that can be easily toggled on and off.
- MIDI connectivity. If you need to connect a MIDI instrument or controller to your computer, an interface will allow you to do that with MIDI input and output jacks.
Our Favorite Audio Interfaces for Under $200
In 2016 Focusrite released a new generation of their Scarlett interfaces and these include many cutting-edge features that stand out from the crowd.
The most notable is their super-low latency technology, which allows you to listen to your computer playback as you record, including any plugins you’re running in your DAW. This is unlike other interfaces which generally require that you bypass the playback of your computer, or at least blend the playback with the direct output of your interface.
This interface also features redesigned gain knobs, which allow smooth changes of the input level all the way from minimum to maximum, and surge protection to both the inputs and outputs.
Included with the purchase of this interface is a software package with stripped-down versions of Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and more. Perfect for the audio engineer just starting off!
The one feature lacking on the Scarlett 2i2 is that it does not include MIDI connectivity – in fact, it is the only one on this list without MIDI! If you were hoping to use this interface to connect your MIDI instrument or controller to your computer, you’d be out of luck.
Bottom Line: The Scarlett 2i2 is a particularly innovative and well-made interface. The latency technology on this interface stands out in the crowd and the included surge protectors also offer peace of mind. Additionally, this interface comes with a 2-year manufacturer’s warranty.
The lack of MIDI connectivity is genuinely disappointing, especially since this interface seems to have everything else. As long as you don’t need MIDI connectivity, this interface is probably the best option out there.
Mackie claims their products are “built-like-a-tank” and, according to user opinions online, it seems that the Onyx Producer 2x2 interface lives up to that claim!
This interface offers a monitoring system where you can blend how much of the computer’s playback you hear in comparison to the direct signal coming into the interface. This is useful to deal with latency issues because if you turn the knob all the way to direct signal, you can monitor with zero latency.
Included with the purchase of this interface is the Tracktion recording software, enabling you to start recording right away even if you didn’t have any software previously. However, it is somewhat disappointing that the industry-standard ProTools is not included instead.
Bottom line: The Onyx Producer 2x2 is an excellent interface that will get the job done! The “built-like-a-tank” design means this interface can go on the road and see some heavy usage and still be depended on. ProTools would have been a preferred choice for the included software package.
This interface from M-Audio stands out from the others due to its unique design. All of the controls are on top (akin to a classic mixing console) and it features large, brushed metal knobs.
It also features more elaborate decibel readings for each channel, including indicators for -20db, -6db, -3db, and clipping. This stands in contrast to the other interfaces on this list which only include signal/clipping indicators.
This interface uses a blending monitoring system where you can combine the direct signal of your audio with your computer’s playback to minimize latency. This interface also comes with a stripped-down version of ProTools, in addition to other recording software.
The one downside to this interface is that even though it has two input channels, only one of them is an XLR (microphone) jack. Therefore, it is not possible to record from two XLR lines at once – only one XLR and one ¼”, or two ¼” lines at a time.
Bottom line: This interface stands out for aesthetic value but is limited by only having one microphone input. The design is very stylish and seems more comfortable to use than the other interfaces. Being limited to only one XLR (mic) input is a big drawback.
This interface from Behringer is noteworthy for a particularly extensive feature-set. It includes pad buttons for each channel, allowing you to fine-tune the input level, and features RCA outputs in addition to the standard ¼” outputs. Also included in this interface are preamps designed by MIDAS, a company renowned for their mixing consoles.
Like most of the other interfaces on this list, it uses a monitoring system where you can blend the direct signal of your audio with your computer’s playback to reduce latency. It also comes with Tracktion recording software (though unfortunately the industry-standard ProTools is not included).
Bottom line: With a few extra features only available on this interface, the U-Phoria UMC204HD can do it all! The option to output to RCA opens up new monitoring possibilities not available otherwise. This is also one of the least expensive interfaces on this list. ProTools would have been a preferred choice for the included software package.
Finally, we look at this interface from PreSonus, also one of the lesser expensive options on this list. Similar to many of the other interfaces, it features a monitoring system where you can blend playback of your computer with the direct signal of audio for minimal latency. It comes packaged with PreSonus’ own recording software (though unfortunately this is included instead of the industry-standard ProTools).
The design of this interface is a bit minimal, so instead of combo signal/clip indicators, there are only indicators for clipping.
Additionally, this is the only interface on this list where the sampling rate maxes out at 96 kHz instead of 192 kHz. It is arguable whether or not that makes a difference for the average user, but keep in mind that this interface’s sound quality is still limited.
Bottom line: the AudioBox 96 is an excellent choice for a budget interface being one of the lesser expensive options available. This Audiobox can only record up to 96 kHz, instead of 192 kHz like every other interface on this list. We would’ve also preferred if ProTools had been the bundled software.
In the end, with a budget of less than $200, you can’t go wrong with any one of the five interfaces we featured in this article.
However, if we were to pick just one to recommend, it would have to be the Mackie Onyx Producer 2-2 2x2. It has all the features you need from an interface and is built with a durable design that is meant to last.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a close runner-up, particularly with its unique super-low latency technology, but without the inclusion of MIDI, it is lacking in a core feature that may be important for many users.