It's easy to think that all audio interfaces are much of a muchness because, to a certain extent, they are. They get audio in and out of your computer, and that's about it. You had one job, etc.
There are differences, though, not only in sound quality, but also in operability, reliability, build quality and features. And, let's face it - some audio interfaces just look a lot nicer than others, too.
We drew up a shortlist of the best new audio interfaces of 2021 and asked you - yes, you - to vote for your favourite. And now, in time-honoured fashion, we can bring you the results.
1. Winner 2021: Universal Audio Volt 76
Universal Audio’s Apollo audio interfaces have become a byword for quality, but for a lot of producers, their relatively high prices put them out of reach. That all changed this year with the introduction of the Volt range - a new line-up of affordable USB audio interfaces that promise “classic studio sound”.
There are no DSP-powered plugin effects here, but all five of the Volts (they offer varying amounts of I/O) include a Vintage Mic Preamp mode. This is inspired by the mic/line preamp in UA’s 610 tube console; the tube emulation circuitry is designed to let you dial in a “rich, full sound on vocals and instruments”.
If you’re willing to pay a bit more, you can choose one of the Volt 76 models, which add an analogue circuit based on UA’s 1176 compressor. With this engaged, you can choose from presets that add clarity and punch to vocals, guitar and other input sources.
Easy to use and with an appealing retro aesthetic, the Volts have stylishly brought UA recording hardware to a whole new audience.
Clarett is Focusrite’s premium studio-grade USB interface range and, with only three devices to choose from, offers a more focused product line than the company's entry-level Scarlett line-up.
The + range builds on the success of the previous generation by offering “professional-quality mic preamps” that deliver high headroom, low distortion and ultra-low noise (and, in turn, improved recording quality).
You can also switch in the all-analogue Air feature; this emulates the sound of the ISA 110 mic preamp from the Focusrite Studio Console, and is designed to add clarity and presence.
There’s improved ‘high-dynamic-range’ AD and DA conversion, too, so your mixes should sound clearer and more detailed. The quality of the headphone outputs has also been improved.
The improvements might be subtle rather than revolutionary, but that doesn't make the Clarett+ 2Pre any less impressive.
The iD audio interfaces from Audient are highly regarded. Offering a more audiophile experience than the company's compact EVO designs, 2021 saw the iD14 and its smaller sibling (iD4) being given a MkII upgrade
For the iD14, this means better dynamic range, improved signal-to-noise ratio, more connectivity and an improved headphone output. Also, rather significantly, the iD14 has become exclusively bus powered (its predecessor used an external PSU).
All told, the iD14 MkII is a worthy upgrade and a better unit all round than its predecessor. At £200, it’s fair value but it’s also only £60 more expensive than the iD4. Given the extra features included, if you can spring the extra £60, the iD14 is definitely the one to have.
Having tried its hand at creating mid-to-high-end audio interfaces with the AudioFuse range, Arturia is now offering something more affordable with its new MiniFuse line-up.
This comprises three products: MiniFuse 1, 2 and 4. These offer 1-in/2-out, 2-in-2-out and 4-in/4-out connectivity respectively.
Feature highlights include not only sound quality - you get 110db of dynamic range and a -129dB equivalent input noise level - but also the design and build. These interfaces are compact, portable and feel rugged, and come with a USB hub on the rear.
There are cheaper options out there, but the MiniFuses are feature-rich devices with some subtle yet handy options that you don’t always get at this level. Factor in 192kHz operation, an impressive software bundle, a generous five-year warranty and a choice of colours and you have an excellent package for the money. Bravo.
Black Lion Audio made its name customising and upgrading other makers’ hardware interfaces. Over the years it's also designed and built various hardware devices including mic preamps, compressors, converters and external clock units.
Throughout, the vision has always been to squeeze the maximum sonic performance from the available components. Its latest venture, Revolution 2x2, incorporates this circuit design experience into a 2-in/2-out, 24-bit/192kHz USB-C audio interface.
The Revolution 2x2 looks unassuming, but it's solidly built, easy to set up, surprisingly portable and brings crystal clear audio. In fact, it runs rings round many far more expensive devices.