7 Best Cheap Audio Interfaces For Beginners Reviewed [2020]

best cheap audio interfaces reviewed

When it comes to basics, you only need three pieces of gear to get started with music production in your home studio:

  1. A production-ready computer
  2. A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software of your choice
  3. And a decent audio interface (also called a soundcard)

In this article, we’ve listed the 7 best cheap audio interfaces for beginners that we believe will give you solid results without breaking the bank.

Ready? Let’s get started…

7 Best Cheap Beginner Audio Interfaces For Home Studio Reviewed

1. Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2 -- Best Overall

Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2 Two-Channel Audio Interface

The Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2 has features that work well for electronic music producers, musicians, and performers. It gives you room to plug in outboard synths and effects, microphones, a DJ mixer, or whatever you need, thanks to the 2 combo XLR/Jack inputs. 

For instrumentalists, this soundcard lets you record without a DI box with a full frequency signal. The 1/4” jack input also has a Hi-Z (instrument level) option that lets you plug an electric, acoustic or bass guitar directly into the soundcard.

Komplete Audio 2 has zero-latency direct monitoring, which allows you to record with no audible delay. It’s a handy feature to have if you also want to record an instrument through the soundcard.

The audio interface comes bundled with software goodies from the NI family, including MASCHINE Essentials, MONARK, and a package of premium NI effects. You also get Ableton Live Lite if you purchase the soundcard.

Overall, Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2 is our top pick for new producers to get their production game up and running. 

Pros:

  • Bundled software
  • Good I/O (input and output) options

Cons:

  • Direct-monitoring through headphones only
  • VU meter location
  • Plastic construction

Specs:

  • Inputs: 2 x combo-XLR (mic) / 1/4” jack (line/Hi-Z)
  • Outputs: 2 x 1/4″ TRS
  • Sample/Bit resolution: Up to 192kHz/24-bit
  • OS Requirements: macOS 10.12 or later, Windows 10 (latest Service Pack)
  • Connectivity: USB 2.0 (type B)
  • Power Supply: Bus Powered
  • Includes: MASCHINE Essentials, Ableton Live Lite, MONARK, and some NI effects
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2 - Review and Demonstration

2. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen: Premium Pick

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) USB Audio Interface with Pro Tools | First

Focusrite is an industry leader in pro audio equipment, and they’re usually our go-to brand for audio interfaces specifically. Because even in their budget gear, you’ll get some of the tech that Focusrite is known for in their higher-end gear.

This soundcard has all the features you’ll need as a beginner, regardless of your production requirements. The two biggest advantages Focusrite Scarlett are: 

Premium build quality, as the interface comes in a rugged metal case, so you don’t have to worry about banging it around. The metal case also gives this interface a more “premium” feel -- it feels and looks better than plastic. 

Focusrite’s premium microphone pre-amps. The “Air” button on the pre-amps makes them sound like Focusrite’s classic high-end pre-amps, which is something that you don’t get on other budget-class audio interfaces.

Finally, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface also comes with a nice software bundle just like the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2 above (check the specs below for details).

Pros:

  • Quality of pre-amps
  • Rugged design
  • Bundled software

Cons:

  • Smaller USB socket
  • No power button

Specs:

  • Inputs: 2 x combo-XLR (mic) / 1/4” jack (line/Hi-Z)
  • Outputs: 2 x 1/4″ TRS
  • Sample/Bit resolution: Up to 192kHz/24-bit
  • OS Requirements: macOS 10.12 or later, Windows 7 SP1 or later (Scarlett), Windows 10 v1809 or later (Pro Tools First)
  • Connectivity: USB 2.0 (type C)
  • Power Supply: Bus Powered
  • Includes: Pro Tools | First Focusrite Creative Pack, Ableton Live Lite, Softube Time and Tone Bundle, Focusrite’s Red Plug-in Suite, 3-month Splice subscription, and your choice of one free XLN Addictive Keys virtual instrument, all available via download upon purchase and registration.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) USB Audio Interface Review / Explained

3. Mackie Onyx Artist 1.2 -- Best Value For Money

Mackie Audio Interface, 1 Mic Pre (Onyx Artist 1-2)

Mackie is another brand famous for the quality of their mic pre-amps. This audio interface offers a more “boutique” set of features and a smaller price tag.

If you only need to record one thing at a time, this soundcard has what you need. If you’re a podcaster, singer-songwriter, or just have a limited amount of external equipment -- the one mic-pre and one line/Hi-Z input will work just fine.

Onyx Artist also features direct-monitoring with zero latency.

If you need a portable interface that doesn’t always need to be plugged in, the bus-powered feature will come in handy. The other soundcards here are similarly powered -- but this one draws less power from your laptop, thanks to the reduced feature set.

To summarize -- despite its limited input options, Mackie Onyx Artist 1.2 gets the job done and is built like a tank. Its small size is also great if your production location changes a lot.

Pros: 

  • Small
  • High-quality pre-amp

Cons:

  • Limited input options
  • Less software goodies

Specs:

  • Inputs: 1 x XLR (mic), 1 x 1/4″ (line/Hi-Z)
  • Outputs: 2 x 1/4″ TRS
  • Sample/Bit resolution: Up to 192kHz/24-bit
  • OS Requirements: macOS 10.8 or later, Windows 7 SP1 or later
  • Connectivity: USB 2.0 (type B)
  • Power Supply: Bus Powered
  • Includes: Tracktion music production software
Mackie Onyx Artist 1•2 Review

4. Tascam US-1x2: Best Under $100

Tascam US-1x2 USB Audio/MIDI Interface with Microphone Preamps and iOS Compatibility

The Tacsam US- 1x2 is another cheap audio interface that’s good for beginners. Tascam’s R&D is put to good use here with the quality of the ultra HD low noise pre-amp.

While it’s similar to Mackie’s Onyx Artist 1.2, this soundcard has a few extra tricks up its sleeve and is slightly cheaper.

The independent volume control for main and headphone out gives you more flexibility in recording and playback.

On the back, you’ll see that the main out is a line-level stereo RCA connection. It also has an RCA stereo input that allows you to connect cassette decks, DJ mixers, CD players, and other semi-pro gear. 

If you’re a Mac user, this soundcard is built to support iPads and other iOS devices. You can see that from the rear panel that has a power supply socket that fits iOS devices -- so if you’re using phantom-powered mics, it doesn’t have to drain your iPad’s power.

Tascam’s additional inputs and iOS connectivity put it ahead of the similar soundcard from Mackie, the Onyx Artist 1.2.

The RCA line-level inputs and outputs are on the semi-pro side, so it’s a nice bonus since most beginner gear won’t have that. They are a bit more difficult to use, but once you get used to them it’s a breeze. 

Pros:

  • iOS connectivity
  • High-quality pre-amp

Cons:

  • RCA output only
  • One mic pre-amp

Specs:

  • Inputs: 1 x XLR (mic), 1 x 1/4″ (line), Stereo Line Input RCA (L / R)
  • Outputs: Stereo Line Output RCA (L / R)
  • Sample/Bit resolution: Up to 96kHz/24-bit
  • OS Requirements: macOS 10.10 or later, Windows 7 SP1 or later
  • Connectivity: USB 2.0 (type B), USB Audio Compliance 2.0 for connecting to iOS devices
  • Power Supply: Bus Powered
  • Includes: Steinberg Cubase LE and Cubasis LE
  • Optional: AC adaptor available for use with iOS devices
TASCAM US-1x2 USB Audio Interface Overview | Full Compass

5. Behringer U-Phoria UMC202HD: Top Pick Runner-Up

BEHRINGER U-PHORIA UMC202HD, 2-Channel

Behringer’s U-Phoria audio interface comes with the quality pre-amps you need to capture vocals or acoustic instruments and make them shine. The combo inputs also allow you to connect your line-level/Hi-Z equipment, giving you more flexibility in what you record.

While Behringer is not well-known for their mic pre-amps, the pre-amps in this soundcard are designed by Midas, who are an industry leader in pro audio gear. These will perform great in any home studio. 

The pre-amps feature pad switches, which help to minimize distortion from loud sources such as guitar amps. It’s a sweet bonus, because pad switches aren’t often included in soundcards at this price range.

If you take a closer look at the specs of this device, you’ll see they stack up well against those of similar souncards. The sound quality is excellent, especially when utilizing the pre-amps, and the construction is solid.

Pros:

  • Quality pre-amps
  • Pad switches

Cons:

  • No power button
  • Single Phantom power-switch

Specs:

  • Inputs: 2 x combo-XLR (mic) / 1/4” jack (line/Hi-Z)
  • Outputs: 2 x 1/4″ TRS
  • Sample/Bit resolution: Up to 192kHz/24-bit
  • OS Requirements: macOS 10.10 or later, Windows 7 SP1 or later
  • Connectivity: USB 2.0 (type B)
  • Power Supply: Bus Powered
  • Includes: Tracktion music production software
Behringer UMC202HD review (with noise measurement)

6. Presonus AudioBox USB 96

PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 2x2 USB Audio Interface

One feature that sets the Presonus AudioBox USB 96 apart from other budget audio interfaces is its old-school MIDI controller: the traditional 5-pin MIDI in and out.

While a lot of MIDI controllers now communicate with your computer using USB, many musicians and producers still have the need for dedicated MIDI in and out ports.

All the soundcards discussed so far do not have MIDI I/O, so you would have to buy extra equipment to get this feature with them. 

The combo inputs allow for mic and instrument level (Hi-Z) only. Plugging line-level devices such as a synth, effects unit or mixing desk into the ¼” jack input could result in you damaging the unit.

The construction is rugged, if not the slickest, so this works well if you’ll be taking it on the road.

Pros: 

  • Solid construction
  • MIDI I/O

Cons:

  • No line-level input
  • One phantom power switch for both pre-amps

Specs:

  • Inputs: 2 x combo-XLR (mic) / 1/4” jack (Hi-Z only)
  • Outputs: 2 x 1/4″ TRS
  • Sample/Bit resolution: Up to 96kHz/24-bit
  • OS Requirements: macOS 10.8.5 or later, Windows 7 SP1 or later
  • Connectivity: USB 2.0 (type B)
  • Power Supply: Bus Powered
  • Includes: Studio One Artist DAW software and 6+ GB of third-party resources
PreSonus AudioBox USB 2x2 Review / Test / Explained

7. Zoom U-22: Best Portable Audio Interface

Zoom U-22 Handy Audio Interface

We’ll finish off this list with an audio interface that’s a bit different. Zoom are known for their portable recording devices, but this particular model can also be used as an audio interface.

The Zoom U-22’s top priority is mobility. It doesn’t have any built-in mics like other Zoom recorders, but you can record from another portable device with the stereo mini-jack input.

Featuring a combo input with a high-quality pre-amp, you can record vocals, instruments, synths, and sound effects just about anywhere. It interfaces with both computers and iOS devices

Its full name is the U-22 Handy Audio Interface, and it really does fit in your hand or even your pocket. So, if you need a portable recording solution without compromising sound quality, this is a good option.

Pros:

  • Portable
  • Flexible input options for its size
  • iOS compatibility

Cons:

  • Quiet headphone output
  • Not suitable for high impedance headphones
  • Limited I/O

Specs:

  • Inputs: 1 x combo-XLR (mic) / 1/4” jack (line/Hi-Z), 1 x Stereo mini-jack
  • Outputs: Stereo Line Output RCA (L / R)
  • Sample/Bit resolution: Up to 96kHz/24-bit
  • OS Requirements: macOS 10.9.5 or later, iOS 7.1 or later (iPad/Lightning adapters not included), Windows 7 SP1 or later
  • Connectivity: 1 x USB 2.0 (type B), 1 x USB (type Micro-B)
  • Power Supply: USB bus power (Type B)
, Zoom AD-17 (Micro-B), DC 5V power supply (Micro-B)
, 2 x AA batteries 
  • Includes: Ableton Live 9 Lite software download code

Best Cheap Audio Interfaces For Beginners Buyer’s Guide

What to consider when buying a cheap audio interface for your home studio.

If you’re a beginner music producer, it can be difficult to know where to start with tech -- but getting a proper audio interface is your first step. And, if you choose a soundcard that comes with software, you can be producing as soon as it’s out of the box and plugged in.

To make your choice, think about (1) what gear you already have, or will get in the near future, and (2) what sources you want to record. This will make your search easier.

I/O Options 

What inputs and outputs are you going to need in your productions? How many and what type of connections will they need to be? Depending on the equipment you have and the type of sources you want to record, you’ll probably want at least one mic/XLR input and one ¼”  line/instrument input.

If you are a DJ or podcaster, you might have different needs, such as RCA inputs. How many sources do you need to record at once? A lot of soundcards have combo inputs, but if you only have one, that means one source at a time.

Nearly all the soundcards we listed are entry-level models. If you like a model here but need an extra input, there will always be a model up from it with additional inputs -- but for a higher price.

In the beginning, output options are less of a concern. All you need to check is that the soundcard will connect to your amplifier, or speakers, if you are using powered monitors. In most cases you can get a cable with different connections on either end.

If you have outboard effects units that you want to incorporate into your setup, more output options might be a requirement.

Connectivity

How are you going to connect your soundcard to your computer? USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt

Most budget soundcards are USB only, and for basic setups there’s no real difference. Some have a type B (standard) connection others have type C (mini). Type C disconnects more easily, but if you’ll just use it in a studio and not move around much, that’s not an issue.

If you are looking to connect your soundcard to an iPad/iPod, your options are even more limited. There are options that connect directly, but most require extra adapters and connectors.

Interfaces with limited I/O are usually bus powered. This means they draw power from your computer. It is worth noting that the different USB ports on your computer are sometimes different in terms of power. You need to check that they provide enough voltage to power the soundcard.

Some soundcards that work with iOS devices, like the Tascam US-1x2, come with their own power supply, so you don’t have to worry about power with those.

There’s one other connection type to consider. Budget soundcards hardly ever have MIDI I/O. If you absolutely need this and don’t want to buy an additional device, your options are limited.

Specs and Extras

On basic devices, you don’t need to know much about device specifications. Minimum sample/bit resolution should be 44.1kHz/24 bit. All the devices listed here go beyond that, but there are still some cheaper options on the market whose bit resolution only goes up to 16bit. Avoid those.

If a soundcard has 2 pre-amps and only one phantom power switch, this can be an issue. Some non-condenser mics don’t like phantom power, so look into it if you have a selection of mics you wish to use.

Some soundcards come bundled with additional software. This can help you save money and get creating if you’re just starting to build your recording setup.

Conclusion & Takeaway

The best cheap audio interface for beginners is Behringer’s U-Phoria UMC202HD. The most important part of any audio device is the circuitry, and the Midas tech onboard this option is reliable and high-quality.

Those looking for something a bit extra should check out Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen. This model has been around for a long time, and this 3rd generation version is a rugged little powerhouse and with fantastic pre-amps. The build quality is also solid.

For those on a tight budget, we recommend Tascam’s US-1x2. Although it only has one mic/XLR input, it’s a quality one. That’s adequate for many producers, and with iOS connectivity as the standard, this option is even more versatile.

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