By Jason Snell
April 26, 2016 9:24 AM PT
Low-cost USB audio interfaces review
If you’re podcasting or recording voiceovers for video, you need a good microphone. Fortunately, there are good options to be found even if you’re on a tight budget. Unfortunately, there are so many options that it can be dizzying. I reviewed five low-cost USB audio interfaces in a search to find the best of the many options.
The USB/XLR choice
For most podcasters on a budget, the right microphone is almost certainly a USB microphone. They’re easy to use and convenient—just plug it in to your computer and start recording.
I’ve recommended the Blue Microphones Yeti for years after using one myself for several years, and it’s still a great balance of quality and price.
But as Marco Arment points out in his microphone mega-review, there are a lot of other good options. Right now the Audio-Technica ATR-2100-USB (sold in Europe as the Samson Q2U) seems to be the best buy; for a lot less money than the Yeti, you can get a USB microphone that doubles as an XLR microphone for more complex set-ups, with a built-in headphone jack. If you’re usually recording in an echoey room, this noise-killing dynamic microphone is a great choice.
However, there are reasons to choose XLR microphones over USB models. XLR microphones, differentiated by the large three-pinned XLR connector that’s been in use for ages and has plugged into many an analog sound board, come in many shapes and sizes, including some remarkably good-sounding microphones that are available for astonishingly low prices.
Unfortunately, XLR microphones won’t work with a computer or other audio recorder unless you can connect them to an interface that, in turn, connects to your computer via USB. If you’re planning on recording more than one microphone at a time, XLR interfaces are also handy, because you can connect many microphones to an interface box and then record it all on your computer.
They’re also flexible; I can connect my XLR microphones to anyone’s interface box or mixer, and on more than one occasion I’ve been a microphone short and been able to borrow one from a friend. I also own a Zoom H6 recorder that allows me to connect up to six microphones via XLR cables in a portable setting.
There are a lot of uses, but also a lot of parts—but if you take the XLR plunge, you’ll need not only the microphone, but the interface and (of course) XLR cables to connect them all.
Finding a good interface
If your budget is large and you only need to record one or two microphones, you’re in luck. Just go buy the $880 Sound Devices USBPre 2, the interface that I use. It costs a lot of money but it’s built like a tank, with physical controls and blinky lights, and it sounds great.
If you do a lot of portable recording, seriously consider the $160 Zoom H4N. It will record up to two XLR microphones on battery power or via AC power, so it’s great for recording on the road, plus it’ll plug into your computer and function as a two-track USB interface. The interface is clunky, so it doesn’t really allow for the “set it and forget it” functionality of the five USB interfaces I looked at, but if you’re willing to deal with the setup and plan on also recording audio away from your computer, it’s a good buy. I used one of these for a couple of years and it produced excellent output.
Recently I graduated from the Zoom H4N to the $400 Zoom H6, mostly because I wanted the ability to record four to six microphones, not just two. The H6 also has the ability to act as a USB interface, but as with the H4N, it’s not the device’s primary function. Still, if you are doing a lot of remote recording, letting a Zoom recorder double as your USB interface will save you a lot of money.
However, if these prices make you blanch, there’s hope! I looked at five interface boxes for $175 or less. I tried them all with test recordings on my iMac (and a few on a MacBook Air, too), using three microphones: the $349 Shure SM7B I use every day, a $150 Shure Beta 58A, and a $20 Pyle PDMIC58.
The Pyle microphone is a knock-off of the 58A for $130 less, a find that Marco Arment made—as soon as he mentioned it, I bought two of them to augment my two Beta 58As, giving me four good microphones for travel recordings. Under ideal circumstances, the $20 Pyle microphones sound just as good as the $150 Shure Betas—but I found them to be quite susceptible to interference from nearby radiation sources, including computers and USB cables. While you could build a low-cost podcast studio on the backs of one of the Pyle microphones, you risk buzzing and other interference sounds if you’re not very careful. Alas, it seems you do still get what you pay for.
When I tested the five low-cost interfaces, I considered audio quality first—I was especially listening for hiss and interference. I also considered ergonomics. All the photos of these products are with a microphone, headphones, and USB cord plugged into them—in other words, they appear as they would when you were using them. Some of them are more attractive than others, and some are superior when it comes to port placement. It all matters when you’re going to be staring at one of these every day.
I also should provide one word about software: I didn’t use any. One of the great things about the Mac is that you can plug a USB device into it and it should just work, unadorned. Almost every audio interface I’ve used—even the over-engineered $600 Apogee Duet—worked better without any custom software getting in the way. All of the interfaces were capable of being powered via USB from my iMac.
Rating the interfaces, best to worst
1: TASCAM US-2 × 2, $119
This interface looks like it’s a refugee from an equipment rack, black and solid with silver legs on the side that tilt it slightly upward. Two XLR ports are on the front, each with a gain control knob right next to them. A separate knob lets you set the mixture between computer and input audio. The headphone jack is on the front, just below the headphone volume knob, which I appreciate.
I found the sound out of the TASCAM 2 × 2 to be excellent; I heard no buzzing and very little hiss. The only downside of the TASCAM 2 × 2 is that a few of its minor features are configurable only through software; if you want to change your monitor mode between stereo and mono, you have to do it via the included TASCAM configuration app.
2: Presonus AudioBox 22VSL, $175
An unassuming and unpretentious little box, the AudioBox has two XLR ports in the front and a headphone jack in the back, which seems exactly backward to me. It sounded good, though, even with the cheap Pyle microphones. A mixer knob lets you set the mixture between audio coming from your computer and audio from your inputs. I found the Presonus AudioBox 22VSL more attractive than the TASCAM US-2 × 2, but prefer the headphone-jack placement on the TASCAM, and as I write this the TASCAM’s quite a bit cheaper than the Presonus.
3: Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2 × 2, $100
The most inspired design of this group, the Blackjack is taller in back than in front, with the controls on the “top” surface and XLR plugs and line out ports on the back. On the front are gain controls for both inputs, a headphone jack, a physical toggle between stereo and mono monitoring, and controls for the line-out volume and input mixture. (Unfortunately, the Mackie’s input-mixture knob always includes computer audio at 100% volume, just allowing you to adjust the level of your inputs into that mixture. If the computer audio’s too loud, you’ll need to fix it on the computer. The TASCAM and Presonus boxes both let you adjust the balance between 100% inputs and 100% computer audio.)
If I were planning to set my mixer on a desk, this would be my first choice, since it’s got the controls and headphone jack in front and the XLR ports in the back where I don’t have to see them. (I keep my USBPre 2 velcroed to the underside of my desk, an arrangement that would work with all of the interfaces I tested except the Mackie Onyx Blackjack.)
Unfortunately, while I admire this interface’s design, it seemed noisier and more prone to interference than the Presonus or Tascam models. I frequently heard a buzz in the background when I recorded, which is not good. (I’m told that sometimes the buzz can be cured but unplugging and replugging the USB cable, which is a nice workaround, but it’s hard to recommend a product that requires that sort of troubleshooting.)
4: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, $130
With red anodized aluminum cases, the Focusrite Scarlett products are the most attractive ones I tested. The Scarlett 2i2 features two XLR ports in front, right next to gain controls. There’s a large monitor knob to control the two line-out plugs on the back (useless to most podcasters), next to a smaller headphone control right above the headphone jack.
Unfortunately, the Scarlett 2i2 (and its cousin, the Scarlett Solo) reacted badly when I plugged in the cheaper Pyle microphone, picking up far more interference than the other interfaces. When I attached the Shure Beta and SM7B to the 2i2, it sounded a lot better—on par with the Onyx Blackjack, perhaps. But it’s difficult to recommend a product that reacted so badly to one of my three test microphones.
5: Focusrite Scarlett Solo, $85
My hopes were high when I spotted this low-cost, single-microphone interface, which seems perfect for podcasting. It’s got a single XLR plug on the front, next to a volume control, and a second instrument input next door. There’s a single large monitor volume knob that controls the RCA line output off the back of the case (useless to podcasters) and the headphone jack on the front. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the Scarlett Solo. It was noisy and hissy at times and freaked out when I plugged in the Pyle microphone, generating a cascade of noise and interference that was shocking in its volume and intensity.
The bottom line
Right now, if you’re looking for a low-cost XLR interface for podcasting, I’d recommend the TASCAM 2 × 2. If you’re willing to take a $20 flyer, try the Pyle PDMIC58 microphone and see if it makes a pleasant sound. If that fails, look at Marco’s list. I think my $150 Shure Beta 58A sounds great, even if Marco doesn’t. And seriously consider the Audio-Technica ATR-2100-USB, which is a USB microphone that doubles as an XLR microphone.
[If you appreciate articles like this one, help us continue doing Six Colors (and get some fun benefits) by becoming a Six Colors subscriber.]
[Don't miss all our podcasting articles.]