I always say that declaring a product or another to be the best of its kind is misleading. There is no such thing as a general best. The best audio interface is the one that best suits your needs and setup. However, to make this an objective evaluation we will be looking for i/o format and flexibility, A/D D/A conversion, preamp quality, connectivity and integration. I believe these qualities factor in the most in telling how good a certain product is.
The Best Audio Interface Under $1000
There are a lot of audio interfaces out there today. It is quite hard to sift the pile and just pick the golden apples. We tried to do this for you with this shortlist of amazing products:
This compact unit is a high end desk-sized design that empowers any home studio owner with amazing sound an quality without ocuppying all that precious desk space. It only has 2 mic/line combo inputs but the preamps are incredible and you get an extra high impedance line input and a total of 4 line outputs (+ 1 headphone output). It converts to digital and back at 24 bit, 192 kHz with 118 dB of dynamic range on the preamp. The big attraction is that it uses DSP cards to take the load of the CPU and do all the processing in the device itself for all the included plug-ins. S/PDIF / ADAT is also included so you can extend the number of inputs if necessary. It integrates smoothly with DAW’s and a USB version is also available on the market.
This audio interface is the thunderbolt relative of the 18i20. The i/o is similar between the two but the Clarett has the upper hand. It also features 8 inputs but instead of mic/line combo inputs you have distinct line and XLR inputs. While the 18i20 has one set of ADAT i/o the Clarett has 2 ADAT i/o ports allowing for 16 extra channels of A/D conversion. Otherwise the i/o is pretty much identical with the exception that the 18i20 does not have clocking input and output. Conversion is done at 24 bit, 192 kHz samplinf frequency. The dynamic range on the input is 116 dB. The preamps are of fantastic quality. The 8 Clarett preamps model the classic ISA sound. It integrates smoothly with DAW’s but as you do not get thunderbold on PC, you can only use this with Apple products.
The Scarlett series from Focusrite is quite amazing. So much quality for so little money – it really shows how democratized music making has become. The build quality and the components are what you would expect to see in something that’s tagged as “professional”. All the products in the series feature 8 pristine and neutral mic preamps and up to 24 bit, 192kHz, 106 dB dynamic range digital conversion make sure that your recordings will sound off the hook. Midi, S/PDIF and ADAT i/o (8 in/ 8 out) are big pluses for this interface. It has a total of 12 outputs. (8 general + 2 headphone outputs + 2 main outputs). It integrates seamleassly with any DAW setup and it comes bundled with a whole bunch of quality plug-ins. While the first generation did not offer AAX support for the bundled plug-ins, this has changed for the second generation so Pro Tools 11+ users can take into consideration the valuable bundled plug-ins when considering a buy.
The UR 824 is a very respectable player in the audio interface arena. It is equipped with very neutral and low noise Yamaha D-Pre mic preamps and can convert to and from digital audio at 24 bit, 192 kHz with 105 dB of dynamic range . It comes standard with 8 analog inputs and 8 outputs but you can extend that to 24 by 24 if you connect external mic preamp modules via the two pairs of ADAT i/o. On top of that it features clocking i/o and S/PDIF (via ADAT).
Based on the number of i/o and the routing flexibility, the quality of the preamps, the A/D D/A conversion process, the connectivity and the ease of integration I consider the Focusrite Clarett 8PreX to be one of the best products available today. It is just amazing value for the money. Adding this to your studio automatically transforms your setup into a highly professional one. With so many inputs and outputs and the ability to add even more with ADAT connections this can work perfectly even in big studios that usually record large sessions. Add to that the super fast Thunderbolt connection and you get a little monster. What I love about Focusrite is that they don’t compromise on design when making great audio products. It’s a beauty to look and is rack-mountable, occupying 2 rack units.
The runner-up would be the Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo – but it has a big drawback: the number of inputs! While it is more than suitable for a home studio, you cannot record any large session without an external mic preamp which is quite disappointing. So, second place goes to its close relative, the Scarlett 18i20. In terms of sound the UR44 and the 18i20 are fairly equal but the 18i20 wins this comparison because of its extended i/o and connectivity.
The above mentioned audio interfaces are all great options. The trick is finding out which one works best with your setup. If you have a tiny home studio you probably do not want a 2U interface eating up all your space and the UAD Apollo Twin Duo will be a far better match. Or, for example, maybe your system does not have a Thunderbolt port. It is factoring in all the details of your system and you needs which contributes the most to making the right decision.