7 Best Low Latency Audio Interfaces [2021] with Buyer’s Guide

Whether you are a music producer,  recording artist, or songwriter, an audio interface is the beating heart of your workflow. But a thriving rig entails navigating the most overcrowded audio gear segment to find the right piece for your recording/mixing workflow.

The second challenge is to reconcile the abstract quest of the “best audio interface” with the wide-ranging use cases. From tracking a live band to making song demos, from vocal/instrument overdubs to heavy signal processing, there are varying needs among studio setups.

We’ve organized a handy roundup of the best PC/Mac low-latency audio interfaces for your consideration. My selection is based on price and performance, especially in the area of processing and latency.

Although most of them are near-zero latency, they still don’t possess a Quad or Octo, so there will be use cases when you run out of DSP. That’s just something you’ll have to reconcile with unless you go the premium route with an interface like UA Apollo 8 or AVID HD I/O.

Either way, this post has all the exemplary options for you to mull over. Any of these can be the neat one-box solution that you are looking for. That said, let’s look at our top picks and dive into the individual reviews.

Our Top Three Picks

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, our Top Pick, is a long-standing no-brainer in the under $300 price bracket. It enjoys unrivaled popularity among small studio owners and bedroom producers. They give it glowing reviews. It attracts more users, and the cycle continues. However, it isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy. The phenomenon rests on the laurels of its natural-sounding preamps, ease of use, and massive software/plug-in bundled with the interface.

Mackie’s Producer and Artist interfaces walk a fine line between ultra-cheap options like Behringer and more expensive counterparts like MOTU. It’s perfect for song demos, podcasts, content creators or anyone who doesn’t need the bells and whistles of more capable (and higher-priced) interfaces. Overall, it’s an excellent starter interface, especially for the price. And, it carries the Mackie pedigree, which is always reassuring

The SSL2/2+ delivers forty years of audio gear expertise into a desktop-format interface and spit shines it with the lure of SSL heritage.  It’s near-zero latency with exceptional mic pres and rugged construction. All that, at an incredulous price. Plus, the 4k button gives it an analog SSL-flavor, which completely outmaneuvers the Focusrite ‘Air’. For those reasons, we honor it with the KGR Editor’s Choice.


Focusrite Scarlett Series (3rd Generation) – Our Top Pick

Super low-latency, high headroom, optimized gain, and killer preamps!

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) USB Audio Interface plus Waves Musicians 2 and iZotope Mobius Filter Bundle

Product Highlights:

  • USB 2.0 bus-powered audio interface
  • 24-bit/192kHz audio
  • Focusrite 3rd gen preamps
  • Air Mode to emulate ISA pres
  • MAC/PC Compatibility
  • Massive software and VST bundled

The 3rd gen is not just a dolled-up version of the previous line. There are tangible improvements in dynamic range, max input level, and gain range. The 3rd gen also uses Type-C connections with updated drivers/software and significantly better headphone amp performance.

Focusrite’s iron grip (in this segment) relies heavily on their generous software bundles and superior preamps. The AD/DA converters, preamp gain structure, and mic preamps are top notch.

Ah, did I mention that the 3rd offers a mono and stereo summing control-switch and Air Button? The ‘Air mode’ triggers an ISA mic preamp emulation, which makes your recordings sound bright/open. It’s a good addition to the spec-list, but it feels a tad gimmicky.

Focusrite’s software bundle offers the no-frills version of Pro Tools First and Abelton Live Lite. They’ll be handy if you are a rank beginner, but they aren’t comparable to a full-featured DAW. I think the Mackie Onyx edges out the 2i2 in this regard (more on that later). 

Nevertheless, Focusrite’s bundled content is the most bountiful collection of plug-ins and loops compared to what the competition offers. They’ve also thrown in a Plugin Collective monthly giveaway subscription. It adds heaps of value to an already reasonably-priced interface.

Verdict: It’s hard to go wrong with a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or the more intermediate 4i4 interface. The 3rd gen improvements have made a good thing better. Once you spend some time with it, it’s easy to see why it’s the world’s best-selling audio interface. 


Mackie Onyx Series – Best Budget Option

Onyx preamps, zero-latency direct monitoring at a cut-throat price.

Mackie Audio Interface, Onyx Artist 1X2 USB Audio Interface (Onyx Artist 1-2)

Product Highlights:

  • USB 2.0 bus-powered audio interface
  • 24-bit/192kHz audio
  • Onyx preamps
  • MAC/PC Compatibility
  • Bundled with Tracktion T7 & FX plug-ins

If you are privy to the mixing console grapevine, you might have heard a good deal of praise of Mackie and Onyx preamps. Mackie has now taken a swing at the small-sized desktop interfaces with their Onyx Artist and Producer models.

The Mackie Onyx Artist is a bus-powered audio interface with 24-bit/192kHz high-resolution audio. It connects over USB 2.0 and is compatible with both macOS and PC/Windows. It’s the no-frills version. You’ll get a mic/instrument combo input, +48V phantom power, headphone outputs, L/R line out, and a Hi-Z switch.

The audio quality and features are excellent if you need an inexpensive interface for recording instruments and voice. They haven’t skimped on quality to keep the price low. The potentiometers are built to last, the all-metal casing is rugged, and the sleek black styling has an industrial appeal to it.

I’d only recommended moving upstream to the Producer version if you want MIDI I/O for controllers or synths. Both versions include a software and VST bundle feature the Tracktion T7 DAW and 15+ FX plugin-ins.

Verdict: The Mackie Artist 1-2 packs a punch with its great-sounding preamps, zero-latency monitoring, a huge bundle of VST & software add-ons, and a world-class analog circuit. It won’t shatter the glass ceiling, but it’s a feature-rich product at a cutthroat price.


Solid State Logic SSL2+ – KGR Editor’s Choice

The most affordable way to add an SSL to your recording workflow.

SSL SSL2+ 2-In/4-Out USB-C Audio Interface

Product Highlights:

  • USB 2.0 bus-powered audio interface
  • 24-bit/192kHz audio
  • Legacy 4k analog color button
  • Neutrik XLR/Jack connections
  • MAC/PC Compatibility

After having conquered the world of large mixing boards, SSL enters the digital production fray with a long-awaited and highly talked about desktop interface.

The SSL2+ format is unique because the I/Os are on the back panel and the controls + metering on the top panel. They feature Neutrik combo connectors that act as a mic/line/hi-Z input with independent +48V power. They also have MIDI In/Out, a five-pin DIN port, and a five-step LED ladder meter to track input levels.

The proprietary “Legacy 4k” circuit brightens up the sound, or as SSL puts it “color enhancement inspired by a 4000-series console”. The improvement in tone is similar to the Focusrite ‘Air’ but more useable, at least to my ears.

The software bundle includes the SSL production pack, SSL Native Vocalstrip2, Drumstip plugins, and a 6-month free subscription to other SSL Native plugin-ins. It also includes Pro Tools First and 23+ production plugins and 1.5GB of samples from Loopcloud.

Overall, the SSL2+ poses a formidable challenge to MOTU 2, Focusrite 2i2 and Audient EVO, and other segment leaders. It’s ergonomic, easy to use, and ticks all the well-established expectations from SSL hardware.

Verdict: We can only be thankful to Audiotronix for giving home studio owners a shot at the SSL heritage. SSL2+ (and SSL2, the no-frills cousin) are excellent choices in the project-studio market.  It retains the SSL pedigree with well-thought-out features, high-quality performance at a competitive price. Plus, they ship with C-to-C and C-to-A cables (you hear that MOTU?).


Presonus Studio 24C

Rugged construction and fantastic AD/DA converters at an affordable price.

PreSonus Studio 24c 2x2, 192 kHz, USB Audio Interface with Studio One Artist and Ableton Live Lite DAW Recording Software

Product Highlights:

  • Bus-Powered USB-C Audio Interface
  • 2-in / 2-out + MIDI I/O
  • 24-bit/192kHz audio & XMAX-L preamps
  • Mac & PC Compatible
  • Zero-latency monitoring
  • Bundled with Pro Tools & other plugins

The Presonus 24c is a bus-powered audio interface that connects over a USB-C to PC and MAC laptop/computers. Plus, it’s compatible with every major DAW. Construction-wise, it’s a rugged unit with a black center chassis laid with blue side panels.

The front panel features LED indications for the Input and Main, five knobs for parameter changes, and a +48V phantom power toggle button. It also hosts the two mic/instrument/line inputs that are a combination of XLR and TRS inputs.

With 24-bit recording, and an up to 192 Hz sample rate, it offers pristine audio. The XMAX-L preamps sound sharp and can handle a hot input with good headroom. They boast of an ultra-low roundtrip latency of 3ms, which is effectively zero latency.

It’s not common to have MIDI input/output at this price point, so the 24c scores on features and value there. The interface teams up with a generous software bundle that includes the Studio One Artist (limited-version DAW) + Studio Magic suite (Ableton Live Lite included). VST (fx and instrument) freebies contain some high-end choices for your production projects.

Verdict: The PreSonus Studio 24c is worthy of any home studio or desktop-format music production rig. The headroom, gain, and clear metering speaks well of the XMAX-L preamp’s capabilities. If you’re shopping for a high-performance 2 x 2 interface, Presonus offers an all-in-one solution bundled with some world-class recording software.


Audient iD14

A streamlined interface with ADAT expandability and excellent I/O.  

Audient iD14 High Performance USB Audio Interface

Product Highlights:

  • USB-C bus-powered audio interface
  • 10-in / 16-out
  • 24-bit/192kHz
  • 2 Audient Mic Preamps
  • 1 discrete JFET instrument input
  • 1 ADAT Input
  • Bundles with Cubase LE + VST plugin-ins

Audient’s iD-Series interfaces enjoy the status of the most popular budget-friendly units. In January ’21, Audient announced the mkII with updated features and performance markers to continue their reign of popularity in the segment. We’ll focus on the iD14 with occasional references to iD4, its modest predecessor.

The interface looks and feels premium, with ample heft when you hold it and a sturdy all-metal chassis. The gun-metal finish and sleek design are reminiscent of Apple’s space gray finishes. It’s a 10-in/6-out plug n’ play unit with low distortion and serious clarity.

Guitar players will cherish the JFET instrument inputs that replicate classic valve amps. Plus, the unit has ADAT expandability and mic preamps inspired by Audient’s ASP8024-HE Console. The preamps sound very clean with a hint of analog warmth.

Both mkII (iD4 and iD14) interfaces have a wider dynamic range (126dB), improved audio drivers, and USB3.0 connectivity. There are also improvements in output quality and recording capabilities. Plus, the iD14 mkII now has two line outputs and two headphone outputs. Luckily, they still retail for the same price.

The interface is bundled with a DAW (Cubase LE) and a bag full of VST effects and instrument plug-ins.

Verdict: Our pick is the Audient iD14 mkII, but the iD4 can be an equally viable addition to a home recording studio. They are compact, capable, and affordable. If your needs and budget allow it, the high-end Audient iD44 is also an excellent choice. Conversely, if you want a starter-bundle, you must check out the Audient EVO 4 bundle.


MOTU M2/M4

The MOTU performance and high input functionalities at an affordable price.

MOTU M4 4x4 USB-C Audio Interface

Product Highlights:

  • 24-bit/192kHz audio
  • +48V and gain on both inputs
  • MIDI In/Out and Power on/off
  • Stellar low-noise preamps

MOTU has a stranglehold on the premium multichannel audio equipment. They took their sweet time to drop entry-level models in an overcrowded market. Do they offer the same pizazz to the lower-line USB-C models?

MOTU M2 (2 in/out) and MOTU M4 (4 in/out) deliver top-notch performance up to 192kHZ with a 120db dynamic range. Both versions are USB-C bus-powered soundcards that are compatible with Mac and PC. They are low latency units with an all-black, all-metal casing with just the right amount of weight.

The front panel sits two XLR/TRS combo jacks (Hi-Z included), with dedicated gain knobs and +48V phantom power for each input. The unusual LCD screen on the front panel looks gorgeous, especially if you are a content creator, and also delivers convenient visual metering.

It also sports Midi In/Out on the back panel, RCA phono sockets, and a power on/off switch to turn off the interface without having to unplug it (now that’s a breath of fresh air). Oddly enough, they also are a rarity that doesn’t ship with a USB cable in the box.

The sound quality (or should I say clarity) of the Motu units rests on the shoulders of the ESS Sabre32 Ultra DAC technology. The audio quality is clean and there is heaps of headroom when you record guitars or vocals. Motu has given podcasters a shout-out with a handy built-in loopback function.

Verdict: MOTU M2 and M4 are fantastic choices in the entry-level segment. Low noise, low latency, DC-coupled outputs, RCA outputs, per channel monitoring and +48V power, and the loopback driver. They may be priced on the higher end of the entry-level range, but they also offer the most feature-rich interfaces.


Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB Interface – Best Premium Option

The Windows version of the highly acclaimed Thunderbolt-only processing beast.

Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII Heritage Edition

Product Highlights:

  • USB 3.0 bus-powered audio interface
  • 2-in/6-out
  • 24-bit/192kHz audio
  • UAD DUO DSP Processing
  • Flagship Apollo circuitry & Console Software
  • MAC/PC Compatibility

As is customary, we’ll end our roundup with a premium option. It’s always good to have something to GAS over. UA’s Apollo Twin is the big cheese in the $500 to $1000 segment. It is, after all, celebrated for its ultra-low latency, real time plugin-in processing, and bags of dynamic processing.

This 2-in/6-out compact interface is housed in a sturdy perforated steel and aluminum chassis. It’s a USB-3 interface with 2mic/line/Hi-Z inputs and 2 line outs. It also features digitally controlled monitor outputs with an analog attenuator to make the most out of your bit depth.

The best part is that all the I/Os are built-in.  There is no chance of cable fallout. The top panel handles the visual metering LCD, multi-function rotary knob, and associated buttons. The UAD-2 DUO DSP processing unit and Console software offer a lot of flexibility while using the controls.

It has the same circuitry as the flagship Apollo and the uncompromising preamps yield the best-in-class quality. You can track through ‘preamp emulation’ thanks to the Unison-enabled plug-ins. The interface is bundled with Classic UAD plug-ins such as Lexicon 224, Oxford EQ, AMS RMX16, and 1176LN. Some of them may be outmoded versions, but there’s a lot of classic sounds at your perusal.

Verdict: Universal Audio Apollo Twin USB is the interface to beat. Other than a potentially prohibitive cost, it’s hard to fault the interface. It’s one of the best-sounding options for Windows with the cleanest audio and near zero-latency performance. The addition of Unison technology and UA plugins make it a triple whammy for studio owners.


What to look for in an audio interface when you buy one?

I/O: (Input / Output)

It’s important to identify your needs and buy an interface with the right amount of inputs and outputs. The ‘right amount’ is at the discretion of the user – how and what you plan to record. If you want to make Instagram videos, you can get away with a Focusrite solo.

A songwriter may need two inputs to record an instrument and vocals simultaneously. Similarly, you need a minimum of four (ideally 8) inputs if you intend to track drums and/or record a band or ensemble.

As for outputs, two is the bare minimum requirement to connect studio monitors. More than 2 outputs are only useful if you use an extra pair of monitors or outboard gear as a part of your workflow.

Format:

Most lower-line audio interfaces are available in desktop format. You’ll start noticing rack mount interfaces once you breach the mid-market segment.  Rackmounts are preferred in pro studios, but they need to be screwed in. The desktop format is ideal for home studios.

Connectivity:

The main options are USB (Mac/PC), Thunderbolt (Mac), Firewire (old Macs), or PCIe. Firewire is dated and inferior to Thunderbolt, so USB 2.0 and/or 3.0 connectors are ideal, which is why they are the most common option. We’ll steer clear of PCIe as they connect to a computer chipset and cost significantly more.

Price:

Price is always a deciding factor, and for good reason. There are many components to your recording/mixing workflow that need a judicious allocation of funds. I always recommend starting with a well-thought-out spending limit to narrow down your choices.

Other features:

Preamps play a crucial role in the performance and price of an audio interface. Luckily, even the most inexpensive audio interface has a good baseline quality nowadays. Tone color, however, is a horse of a different color.

MIDI in/out will allow you to interface with older keyboards with 5-pin MIDI connectors or other hardware like arpeggiators that run with a MIDI clock out to sync tempo.

DSP or Digital Signal Processing refers to the onboard DSP. It can be non-essential for a songwriter who wants to compose/arrange and it can be non-negotiable for a mixing engineer’s latency-free monitoring mixes.

Final Thoughts

From tracking a live band to simple song demos, from vocal/instrument overdubs to heavy signal processing, there are vast and varying needs when it comes to audio gear. The real challenge is to reconcile the abstract quest of the “best audio interface” with the wide-ranging use cases.

We’ve addressed performance and latency as it seems like the most relevant consideration while choosing an interface. This post has all the exemplary options for you to mull over. They all do a great job at balancing performance and price, and any of these can be the neat one-box solution that you are looking for.

Martin Holland

Growing up in rural Australia, there wasn't much to do but play guitar and stare at the red dirt. When things broke, the only person to fix them was fifty miles away, and eventually fixing gave way to building, giving me my career as a luthier. I wouldn't have it any other way.