Useful Stuff to Know » article » The 5 Best USB Audio Interfaces Under $200 » Dec 29, 01:01 AM

The 5 Best USB Audio Interfaces Under $200

Good audio interfaces are essential to getting a good recording. Why use an audio interface and not your computer’s sound card? Because they are specialized for recording and therefore give much better results.

Audio interfaces are secondary external sound cards that plug in via USB (or Firewire / Thunderbolt) and have higher quality microphone preamps and analog-to-digital conversion chips, for a more pristine sound with far less noise.

Here are the top five interfaces under $200. To make this list, these had to have decent build and sound quality, be USB bus powered, have 48V phantom power for condenser microphones, and also a hi-z instrument input. Compared to interfaces above $200, these might be missing certain features or capabilities you need — so be sure to follow the Amazon links to read reviews and the description to get the full details.

1. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 ($149 @ Amazon)

2. Mackie Onyx Blackjack ($149 @ Amazon)

3. Roland Tri Capture ($129 @ Amazon)

4. TC Konnekt 6 ($180 @ Amazon)

5. Steinberg CI2 ($115 @ Amazon)

Questions you should ask yourself when evaluating interfaces:

  • How many mic inputs do I need? – One is enough if you’ll just be singing, recording a guitar amp or acoustic. Two will let you record in stereo, or sing and play acoustic at the same time. For recording drums, you will need at least 4 to 6 mic inputs, and no quality interfaces under $200 exist that have that many preamps.
  • Do the mic preamps have enough gain for my mic? – If you have a condenser mic, all these interfaces should be fine. If you have a dynamic, beware that the SM57 needs 35-45dB for vocal and room-volume guitar applications, while the SM7B needs 55-70dB. Some cheaper interfaces only go up to 35dB.
  • Can it handle my guitar without clipping? – While all these interfaces have an instrument input, not all can handle the hot signal of high output humbuckers or active pickups, even with the interface input volume turned down all the way. It will cause unwanted distortion as the internal preamp runs out of headroom. If that ever happens to you, you can use a DI box, which connects your guitar to the mic input instead of the limited hi-z input. Or get a different interface that can handle it, such as the more expensive (beyond $200) Roland Quad Capture or one of the Line 6 Studio GX guitar interfaces.
  • Do I need monitor speaker outputs on my interface? – Not all interfaces have additional outputs for connecting studio monitors. They all have headphone outputs though. If you get serious about recording, you will need studio monitors. I recommend the Equator D5 Studio Monitor Speakers because they sound incredible for the price.
  • How does the headphone/monitor output sound? – Some interfaces left off this list scrimped on the headphone outs. One of them couldn’t handle low-impedance headphones and had the bass totally drop out when listening. These ones below are fine, but one thing you get with higher quality
  • What’s the maximum bit depth and sample rate? – For most modern recording, you really don’t need more than 24 bit 48kHz recording. Cheaper interfaces might max out at 44.1khz and 16 bit, which is alright for demos but 24 bit is really the way to go, you get more dynamics and headroom and a lower noise floor.