Are you shopping around for a new audio interface? The good news is that the market is literally teeming with options throughout the price scale. From budget models that offer basic features to higher-end models that deliver pro-level performances, audio interfaces nowadays cover a vast and varied range.
The question is, should you go for an expensive audio interface or should you pinch your pennies and settle for a budget model? Does the price even matter when choosing an audio interface?
Well…it does, and it doesn’t. Although there are many advantages to buying a costlier audio interface, some of the benefits may not matter very much to you as a home recordist. Some would even argue that even the cheapest audio interface on the market will be more than sufficient for typical home recording tasks.
Before we go into the differences between expensive and low cost audio interfaces, we encourage you to check out our guides on the 10 Best Audio Interfaces For Home And Project Studios and the 9 Great Audio Interfaces That Cost Less Than $200. You might find the ideal model for you based on the discussion presented here.
Why are higher-end audio interfaces more expensive?
Higher-priced audio interfaces are expensive for a reason. Although the brand definitely contributes to the price, most of them also have better features and increased capabilities that justify the added cost.
Here are the main reasons why higher-end audio interfaces are more expensive than budget models:
- More input and output options
- More modern connectivity options (future-proof)
- Better build quality
- Higher quality components
- Better sounding preamps
- Higher sampling rates and more bit depth
Whether or not these factors will matter to you depends on your needs. Although most home recording engineers can do pretty much whatever they need to do with a budget interface, there are situations wherein a higher-priced unit might be the better option.
Inputs and outputs
One of the most significant factors that determine the price of an audio interface is the number of inputs and outputs. Generally speaking, the more I/Os a device has, the more expensive it will be.
The number of inputs determines how many audio sources you can record simultaneously. Most budget interfaces only come with a single pair of inputs, limiting you to two audio sources.
The number of outputs will determine how many audio streams you can route from your interface simultaneously. Again, many budget interfaces only come with a single set of stereo outs, which typically route audio to your studio monitors.
More outputs generally give you more routing options. If you have two sets of monitor speakers, for example, you can route your audio to both simultaneously. This lets you compare your mix as it would sound on two different speaker systems and route audio to external signal processors or amplifiers for more mixing and sound design options.
This is another area where costlier audio interfaces have a clear advantage over budget models. In most cases, the components used are of higher quality, which often translates to lower noise and better fidelity.
Whether or not these superior components will enable you to make higher-quality recordings is up for debate. Even the lowest-priced audio interfaces have decent signal-to-noise ratios nowadays, so you probably won’t hear a significant difference between your current entry-level audio interface and a higher-priced model.
Some higher-end interfaces also boast better preamps, some of which are well respected in the audio industry. Companies such as Universal Audio, Focusrite, and even Behringer have made their mark with preamps that deliver crisper and clearer sound than the competition.
This is another area where expensive audio interfaces have the advantage over cheaper models. Companies such as Native Instruments, Tascam, and Presonus are known for their rugged and durable models that will withstand rigorous use on the road.
Of course, more and more companies are building more durable products across the board. Therefore, you will find audio interfaces on the lower end of the price scale that deliver the same build quality as higher-priced models. It also has to be said that durability is less of an issue for devices you will exclusively use at home versus those you will take out on the road.
Sound quality is perhaps the most subjective criterion when choosing between a higher-end audio interface and a budget-priced model. While some users insist that a more expensive interface will sound better and capture audio at a higher quality, there are just as many who claim that the differences are marginal at best.
Although the higher quality components used in expensive audio interfaces may have lower signal-to-noise ratios, even lower-priced interfaces deliver acceptable quality. In most cases, differences in perceived audio quality would be more dependent on other devices in your signal chain, including your mics, cables, and speakers.
If there is a compelling argument for going with a higher-priced audio interface, it would be their future-proof capabilities. With the addition of features such as USB 3 support and USB-C and Thunderbolt ports, higher-end interfaces will remain compatible with newer devices.
Although USB 2 will likely remain the standard for a long time to come, there will be a point when newer devices no longer support it. When that happens, devices with the newer ports and data transfer protocols will still be viable.
Is it worth buying an expensive audio interface?
Expensive audio interfaces do serve a purpose, and not just in high-end recording facilities. If you are planning on recording several singers or instruments simultaneously, for example, cheaper interfaces probably won’t have enough inputs for your needs. Therefore, you would have to invest in a higher-end audio interface with a sufficient number of inputs.
You may also want to switch between two sets of monitor speakers. This is a common practice for more accurate monitoring, allowing you to take advantage of the characteristics of different speakers. With a more expensive audio interface that has two or more output pairs, you could easily switch between your monitors without having to rewire or unplug anything.
Multiple outputs will also come in handy if you want to mix out of your computer into a hardware mixing console for recording into another computer or hardware recorder. You will also find multiple outputs useful for routing audio from your DAW into external effects or amplifiers for reamping.
Another scenario in which a higher-end audio interface would be useful is recording live acoustic performances. For jazz and classical music, for example, a unit with higher bit depths and sample rates is usually preferable.
Finally, consider getting a newer, more expensive audio interface if you would rather not have to upgrade any time soon. More recent units will have built-in support for newer protocols such as USB-C and will work with other audio equipment released on the market in the coming years.
Higher-priced audio interfaces are nice to have, and you might have a reason to upgrade to one eventually, depending on the type of work you will do in the future. But if you are a home recording engineer with fairly modest needs, you can certainly make do with a lower-priced model for now.
If you need an audio interface right now and money is a bit tight, our suggestion would be to go for any of the excellent budget-priced models on the market. Any of the devices listed in our ***LINK***9 Great Audio Interfaces That Cost Less Than $200***LINK*** guide will let you get started on producing quality recordings and tide you over until you need to upgrade.
How do expensive audio interfaces differ from cheaper models?
The more expensive an audio interface is, the more likely it is to have more than a single set of inputs and outputs. Higher-end models also usually offer better build quality and durability, which could affect the unit’s longevity. The higher cost may also equate to better converters, higher sampling rates, and increased bit rates, all of which could have some bearing on the quality of your recorded audio.
When should you go for an expensive audio interface?
The most compelling reason to go for a higher-end audio interface is if you need more inputs and outputs than an entry-level model provides. You might also prefer the preamps of a costlier unit, or you require higher sampling rates and more bit depth.
Another reason to go for a higher-priced unit is if you record or produce on the road a lot. Mobile applications typically subject equipment to a lot of wear and tear, so the durability and rugged build of a more expensive audio interface might be worth the added cost.
Do you need a high-end audio interface when recording at home?
In general, no. Provided it has enough inputs to accommodate however many sound sources you plan to record simultaneously, even entry-level audio interfaces will let you get the job done. Of course, if you need more inputs and outputs, higher sampling rates, and more bit depth, you may need to go for a slightly higher-priced model.