It almost goes without saying that if you want to achieve the best possible computer recording and playback quality, you're going to have to spend a significant amount of money on your audio interface.
However, it's equally true to say that you can also get pretty good results without shelling out anywhere near as much: a reasonable quality interface can now be yours for well under £200/$250.
You'll find evidence of this on the following list. For this kind of money you can expect at least a couple of inputs and outputs (perhaps even more) and 24-bit quality. MIDI I/O is another feature to look for if you're planning on hooking up a controller or external synth.
Before you buy an interface, make sure that it has the input and output types that you require. All of our recommendations operate over USB and are Mac/PC compatible - some will work with your iOS device, too.
Here, then, is a selection of the best budget audio interfaces on the market in 2015. We've quoted the approximate street prices at the time of writing to give you an idea of what you can expect to pay for each model.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Scarlett in name and appearance, this is a nicely-styled, well-built interface with - as its name suggests - two inputs and two outputs. Each of the inputs comes with a mic preamp to help you capture a good strong signal and lets you record vocals, guitars and other instruments.
Other features include gain controls for each input, a headphone amp and a large Monitor dial for adjusting the volume. Round the back you’ll find the USB 2.0 connector and stereo outputs, while the package also features a set of Mac and PC effects plug-ins for polishing your sound.
At this price, you’ll struggle to find better.
PreSonus AudioBox 22VSL
The AudioBox 22VSL from PreSonus is a simple two input/output USB 2.0 interface with MIDI I/O and the promise of ultra-low latency if you use it with the supplied Studio One Artist DAW.
The two mic/instrument inputs each have their own level controls, while you also get main and headphone output controls. A further dial can be used to blend the input and computer output signals when you’re recording.
With an impressively focused stereo image and quiet preamps, the AudioBox 22VSL is a fine buy.
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6
The Komplete Audio 6 is an entry-level to mid-range interface that gives you four analogue inputs/outputs, digital I/O and MIDI In and Out.
The KA6 can record both mics and instruments and feels like it’s built to last. If you’re planning to take your music making setup on the road, this is a good option. We like the look of the thing, too - particularly the big volume knob on the top.
This being an NI product, it’s no surprise that it ships with a great software bundle. This comprises Komplete Elements, which gives you 3GB worth of instruments and effects; the Cubase LE 6 DAW; and - for DJs - Traktor LE 2.
Akai EIE Pro
Looking desirably ‘vintage’, this 4-in/4-out interface feels solid and also sports four inserts so that you can add hardware effects to the signal path.
Other useful features include three bonus USB ports - meaning that this interface can also serve as a hub - and MIDI I/O. Rocker switches enable you to change input types between Mic/Line and Guitar sources, while phantom power can be switched on in pairs.
The analogue VU meters are both useful and nice to look at, while the sound is open and bright. If you’re looking for a couple more inputs but don’t want to spend a whole lot more cash, the EIE Pro could be the answer.
Mackie Onyx Blackjack
‘Rugged’ is the word that springs to mind when describing the 2-in/2-out Blackjack - it’s got a sturdy metal chassis and feels like a proper piece of studio gear. Given that it comes from Mackie - a company with quite a reputation in the music technology market - this is no great surprise.
Mackie’s experience has also been brought to bear on the two high-quality preamps. You can plug in mics and instruments, and a handy monitoring dial means that you can record with zero-latency by sending the signal straight to your speakers.
What’s more, the USB-powered Blackjack is a joy to use: it sits nicely on your desk and angles its controls towards you.
This isn’t the cheapest interface in its class, but it sure is a quality product.
Roland Duo Capture EX UA-22
Roland's 2-in/2-out offering features two VS preamps, which are the same those installed in Roland's more expensive Quad-Capture and Octa-Capture interfaces. Its inputs, meanwhile, accommodate both XLR and 1/4-inch jack connections, with phantom power available via the XLRs and a Hi-Z setting on Input 1 for directly connecting a guitar or bass.
Around the back there are balanced 1/4-inch jack outputs and MIDI in and out ports. There's also a front panel headphone output, with independent volume control.
Offering decent build and sound quality, the UA-22 can be powered by USB, an AC adapter (not included) or batteries. All told, it does its job pretty well.
If you like the look of Focusrite's 2i2 but could do with more connectivity options, the 6i6 could be a contender.
It has the same styling, but boasts two preamp-equipped front panel mic/ line/instrument inputs, and two rear-mounted balanced TRS line level inputs. There are four rear-mounted balanced TRS outputs, and the six in/out spec is completed by rear-mounted stereo S/PDIF in/out.
The front panel phantom power switch activates power for both mic preamps, and the 6i6's main monitor knob controls the level at outputs 1 and 2. There are two headphone outputs with individual level controls. These are shared with outputs 1 to 4, but with a separate output pair for each headphone output.
With plenty of gain on the preamps and the ability to make highly detailed recordings, the 6i6 gives you a lot for your money.
IK Multimedia iRig HD
Yes, it's an iOS device - one that comes with both 30-pin and Lightning cables in the box - but iRig HD also operates as a Mac USB audio interface.
Robust and portable, the iRig HD takes it power from your device and features a single jack socket for guitar. You set your input gain with an inset knob while monitoring the sound through headphones or monitors connected to your device or computer.
With 24-bit audio quality, the iRig HD translates your guitar sound well, sending a clean, dynamic signal. If you have simple connectivity requirements, it could be all you need.
Created in collaboration with Steinberg's parent company Yamaha, the UR22 is a rugged-looking 2-in/2-out interface that operates over USB 2.0 and offers up to 24-bit/192 kHz performance.
It comes with a pair of preamps with +48v phantom power, while inputs are of the XLR/TRS combo variety, with Input 2 having a Hi-Z switch that you can engage when you're recording guitar. The two outputs are on TRS jacks, while additional connectivity includes MIDI I/O and a headphones output with its own level control. Zero-latency monitoring can be achieved by using the Mix Balance knob.
With a metal chassis and a copy of Cubase AI in the box, the UR22 is a high-value option, and would make an excellent first interface. You might also consider the new UR12, which is cut from similar cloth but has just a single preamp.
Novation Audiohub 2x4
Novation's singular audio interface carves its own niche with the inclusion of a three-port USB 2 hub, thus boosting the number of ports on the host computer by two (it requires one for itself, of course, hooked up with the included high-vis green cable).
The reason for such modernist connectivity is that it's squarely aimed at 'electronic' musicians, rather than instrumentalists, a fact made even clearer by its two phono inputs - you won't be plugging your guitar or mic into this one without an intermediary device of some sort.
At the other end of the signal flow are four phono outputs (1/2, 3/4), two balanced 1/4" outs (1/2) and a 1/4" headphone socket with cue switching between outputs 1/2 and 3/4.
The Audiohub 2x4's combination of ease-of-use, clear usage proposition, USB hubbery and stellar audio quality make it a great bet if its I/O configuration suits your requirements.
Tascam US-2x2 and US-4x4
If you want your interface to look rugged and utilitarian, either the US-2x2 or US-4x4 could fit the bill. These are 2-in/2-out and 2-in/4-out options respectively; both models have aluminium cases and comes with removable side panels that angle the controls towards you.
The US-2x2 sports a couple of mic preamps, while the US-4x4 adds two more preamps, plus two extra line outs.
PreSonus AudioBox iOne and iTwo
PreSonus's AudioBox iSeries features two interfaces, both of which are compatible with PC, Mac and iPad.
The iOne is the entry-level model, offering one instrument input and one mic input. The iTwo ups with ante with two combo mic and switchable line/instrument inputs. Both feature Class A mic preamplifiers with phantom power and 24-bit, up to 96 kHz converters with 105 dB of dynamic range.
Round the back there are 1/4-inch line-level outputs, while the headphone output has an independent level control. The AudioBox iTwo also includes MIDI In and Out. Each interface has an internal analogue mixer with zero-latency monitoring.
Focusrite iTrack Solo
The new Focusrite iTrack Solo is a 2-in/2-out audio interface for use with an iPad via the dock connector, but also fully compatible with a PC or Mac.
It features a guitar input, plus a phantom powered XLR mic input, each with its own input gain knob that's surrounded by an ingeniously useful 'Halo', which shows green when the signal is at a good level, and red if it's clipping.
A monitoring knob controls the output from a standard jack headphone output plus L and R line RCA phono outputs, while a direct monitoring switch lets you hear the input audio latency-free.
Dead easy to use, and with quality sound, the iTrack Solo could be your ideal choice.