The 5 Best Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces in 2021 [Buyer’s Guide]

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If you’re a music producer or recording engineer, the best way to get the highest quality audio out of your equipment is with an audio interface. We all know how essential this piece of gear is in the studio. In this guide, I want to delve into the best Thunderbolt audio interfaces specifically for a number of reasons. Let’s get into that…

Thunderbolt connections have gained a lot of popularity over recent years due to their speed and simplicity.

Most audio interfaces feature numerous connectors like USB, Fireware, or PCIE.

First, USB typically offers the slowest data transfer out of the bunch.

Secondly, Fireware is much less common nowadays, but it has a very fast data transfer rate.

Lastly, PCIE is the standard connection for professional interfaces that boasts additional processing power, and extremely fast data transfer.

The reason I want to focus on an audio interface that feature a Thunderbolt connection is because of its universally practical applications. It’s a great middle-ground between all of the connection types.

Thunderbolt connection is faster than USB or Fireware while still staying in the semi-pro category of interfaces.

Simply put, you won’t break the bank and still have a reliable, near zero latency device at your fingertips. Next, I want to dive into what to look for when searching for the right Thunderbolt audio interface for your needs.

Quick Picks

Top Pick

Feature 1

Universal Audio Apollo Twin mKII X DUO

– Ultra low latency
– Compact design
– Great selection of Universal Audio plugins

Feature 1

PreSonus Quantum 2626

– <1 ms round-trip latency
– Solid Build Quality
– Up to 26in/26out I/O with daisy chain

Feature 1

Apogee ELEMENT 88

– 16×16 I/O count
– Element Control software is great
– Very high-quality components


What to consider when looking at Thunderbolt audio interfaces

There are plenty of factors to consider on this topic. To better understand them, we should start with the origins of Thunderbolt and why it’s gained such notoriety in the audio and audio interface field.

History of Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt is a digital interface developed by Intel and Apple, unsurprisingly. It allows the connection of external components to a computer, like a Thunderbolt audio interface for instance.

It was originally intended to be an optical interface, but inevitably became an electrical interface. In 2011, the Thunderbolt 1 (called Light Peak at the time) was released to the public.

Being an optical interface at its inception, Intel added copper to the mix, making things cheaper without sacrificing speed. Enter the Thunderbolt 2 with a data rate of 20 Gbit/s in total.

From there, Intel really perfected it’s interface by the time the Thunderbolt 3 was introduced. At a data transfer rate of 40 Gbit/s, it’s among the fastest and cheapest interfaces you can find. T-3 shares USB-C connectors with USB, making it even more versatile.

In conclusion, Thunderbolt connection is reliable and greatly reduces latency in sound reproduction. You can expect latency as low as 1-2ms in an audio interface, if not lower, which is just unparalleled.

Input/Output Count

A key factor to keep in mind is exactly how many Inputs and Outputs you need. This count can range from 1-2 on your basic audio interface, to 20 or more on a high-end, professional unit. Depending on your needs, this has a huge impact in the studio.

If you’re recording yourself or a solo musician, you’ll only need maybe 4 Ins and Outs (I/O). But, if you’re a full on recording engineer you’ll need as many as you can get. 

Honestly, this topic is pretty straightforward. Simply think about what you plan on doing with your recordings in the near future. As you expand, you can always invest in a Thunderbolt audio interface with a higher I/O count.

If you’re looking for a good baseline to start out with, I’d say 6 to 8 inputs and outputs is a good ratio to start out with.

Although, feel free to go crazy right at the start if you’re already ready to take on some big projects.

Input Types

Most audio interfaces will have the 3 basic input channel types which are microphone, line and optical. Most folks don’t realize the fact that they need more than these channels. DI (guitars/bass) and MIDI (keyboards/controllers) inputs are very welcome features.

Keep in mind as well that mic line inputs require an outboard mic preamp to be used as a mic channel. Also, optical inputs require both a mic preamp and a digital convertor to be used as a mic channel. This means you might have less freedom with your I/O count in an audio interface than you think.

Say you have over 20 input channels, but only a few mic inputs, you need to make room for those pesky mic preamps. These things add up quickly, and you don’t want to mess yourself up here.

It’s wise to double check that you have enough channels for your needs prior to pulling the trigger on a Thunderbolt audio interface.

Related: Studio Microphones Guide

Size and Form Factor

There are generally two different types of audio interfaces: desktop and rack mounted. The “form factor” (size and shape) of your interface should suit your needs based on those two different styles.

If you’re a beginner, or just someone with a more modest studio, I would say you’d be fine starting out with a desktop interface. They are smaller in size, and can fit comfortably wherever you need it. This option will have less I/O’s obviously.

Rack mounted interfaces are regularly used in more professional studios. They have a lot more I/O’s and are more flexible. Again, this is simply based on your studio on what exactly you’re looking for.

The Importance Of High Quality Microphone Preamps

It goes without saying that if you plan on recording vocals of any sort, you need a good microphone preamplifier. In this case, instead of purchasing a separate, dedicated, high quality microphone preamps, we’re looking for one that’s built-in to an audio interface.

Essentially, a preamp has one main job: to boost the signal of a microphone to a level that’s suitable for recording. This is often referred to as “line level” among engineers.

Now it’s a known fact that preamps found in interfaces are usually not quite to the same standard as a standalone one. This is one of those issues that’s up to you and what you need.

If you’re planning on doing some massive recording jobs with your Thunderbolt audio interface and you need the most out of a vocal mic, you might consider dropping the cash on a rack mounted preamp to meet the right line level.

In short, external preamps will give you a more vintage sound quality with some add color. Generally speaking, you don’t want a lot of coloring from your preamps, but those higher-end preamps do it in a desirable way.

That being said, most audio interface mic preamps have the ability to handle a lot more than you think. Moreover, this all also depends on the microphone itself.

Nowadays, companies are packing some good stuff in their built-in preamps in audio interfaces. Take Focusrite for instance. Their 3rd Generation Scarlett line of interfaces have new, updated preamps that are fantastic for the price.

Lastly, some microphones require phantom power to even use them. That’s where a interface comes in handy.

My overall point here is that audio interfaces are a two-birds-with-one-stone type of utility. If you find one with good microphone preamps, then you’re set.

I’ve done my best to include interfaces with, at minimum, decent mic preamps out of the box for adequate line level.

PC vs. Mac Compatibility

Thunderbolt audio interface software will differ depending on the device. Take the Apogee Element as an example. It’s only compatible with Mac, therefore if you’re a Logic user this won’t be an issue.

It’s fair to point out that most of these audio interfaces are compatible with both Windows and MacOS, but be sure to check before making your final decision. You won’t be able to use your interface without the software being fully integrated with your OS.

Word Clock & Sync Sources

Word clock is a topic that’s highly technical, so I’ll try and keep us out of the weeds here. Basically, every single digital device has it.

Word clock is a set of synchronized pulses that determine a sample rate. This value is commonly measured in kilohertz (kHz). This is then used by the digital device receiving end to lock that incoming signal.

Certain types of sync sources use word clock as the main method of processing and clocking audio samples. This is a simple way of explaining exactly what an audio interface is meant to do: to synchronize your devices.

Understanding all of these clocking process can help you know which audio interfaces and what sync source you’d prefer. Let’s take a look at the three most common types of sync sources:

S/PDIF

This signal is typically transmitted via coax, RCA, or optical TOSLINK. Commonly seen in surround sound home theater systems, this source is great for transmitting audio over relatively short distances. With an average bit depth at 24 bits at a maximum of 192kHz, this the middle of the road form of audio transmission.

ADAT

This is one of the most old school ways of clocking audio. Originally announced in 1991, this format used a magnetic tape to record up to 8 digital audio tracks. Nowadays, ADAT has had some overhauls to make them more digital. That being said, they have a ceiling of only 24 bits at 48kHz.

AES/EBU

Probably the most flexible standard. This source sees use in both BNC and XLR TRS inputs. This is also the most common alternative to the S/PDIF standard due to the fact that many microphones use XLR as their main source of connectivity.

The sync source/word clock factor has a big part to play in terms of jitter and sound quality. Simply put, the manner in which an interface clocks audio dictates disruptions in the signal. To be fair, most modern audio interfaces does a pretty good job at keeping jitter out of the mix.

What Does All Of This Mean?

Combining all of these factors should get you to a pretty good place on your quest. A Thunderbolt audio interface is a must have in most home studio setups, and with such an important piece of equipment comes quite a bit of research.

  • Deduce what your I/O count should be.
  • Figure out if you want a rack mounted or desktop interface.
  • Fine-tune your sync source knowledge.
  • Lastly, find that device that has at least one high quality mic preamp that’s up to par.

Check all of those boxes and you’re off to the races. Now it’s time to dive into my list…


Best Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces List


Top Pick

Universal Audio Apollo Twin mKII X DUO

The Universal Audio Apollo Twin X Duo audio interface is an unbeatable value for all it has it it’s disposal.

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Pros
  • Ultra low latency
  • Compact design
  • Great selection of Universal Audio plugins
Cons
  • Requires external power supply
  • Software can have issues with OS (both Win and Mac)

Tech Specs:

  • Computer Connectivity: Thunderbolt 3  
  • Form Factor: Desktop  
  • Simultaneous I/O: 10 x 6  
  • Audio Resolution: 24-bit/192 kHz  
  • Built In DSP/FX: UAD-2 Duo Core Processing, Realtime UAD Powered Plug-ins  
  • Number of Preamps: 2 x mic, 1 x instrument  
  • Phantom Power: Yes  
  • Analog Inputs: 2 x XLR TRS inputs-1/4″ combo (mic/line), 1 x 1/4″ (Hi-Z)  
  • Analog Outputs: 2 x 1/4″ (monitor), 2 x 1/4″ (line outputs)  
  • Digital Inputs: 1 x Optical Toslink (ADAT,S/PDIF)  
  • Headphone Outputs: 1 x 1/4″ TRS  
  • Thunderbolt: 1 x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3)  
  • Software: UAD Realtime Analog Classics plug-ins (VST, AU, AAX 64), 5 Heritage Edition plug-ins  
  • OS Requirements – Mac: macOS 10.12 or later, Quad Core i7 Processor or higher  
  • OS Requirements – PC: Windows 10 Anniversary update or later, Quad Core i7 Processor or higher  
  • Power Supply: 12V DC (included)  
  • Height: 2.60″  
  • Width: 6.31″  
  • Depth: 6.20″  
  • Weight: 2.35 lbs. 

The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII X Duo is a handy little desktop Thunderbolt audio interface that sports 2 inputs and 6 outputs. There are 2x mic line inputs, and Optical or S/PIDF inputs. Also, there are 2x line outputs, 2 monitor outputs, and 2 mic preamp outputs. All I/O’s are balanced between the front panel and back panel.

It is compatible with Mac and Windows. The Apollo Twin MKII X comes in three variations, Solo, Duo, and Quad referring to the number of DSP power cores it has to process software plugins.

The included UA plugin bundle is fantastic and plentiful.

The plugins mainly consist of analog emulations of all sorts of compressors and classic amps, to name a few. It’s an awesome addition and the plugins are great quality. There is also the LUNA recording software, but this is exclusive to macOS.

The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII X Duo audio interface is a compact little device allowing for portability and a small footprint on your desk. Between the DSP cores and T-3 compatibility, the ultra low latency is a plus. That’s the main reason I’ve included the Duo version.

It’s the happy medium between the other two alternatives. If you’re thinking you’re going to keep the workload smaller on this thing, then I’d opt for the Solo.

Conversely, if you’re going to hammer it with plugins, DAW integration, or whatever else, then I’d go for the Quad.

The Universal Audio Apollo Twin X Duo audio interfaces get the job done comfortably in most cases though, and it simply has a good sound quality to it.

Unfortunately, a 12V external power supply is required for all Twin X audio interface variations to operate. It would’ve been nice for this device to rely on power from a computer given it’s smaller size. It’s not a huge deal though.

It’s very necessary to point out that the included software for the Twin X from UA can have issues with operating systems of both Mac and Windows. On Mac you sometimes have to install a kernel extension, which is not ideal.

On Windows, the drivers have a tendency to crash and the software can have compatibility issues with 32bit applications. These aren’t super common issues, but they have happened. 

The Universal Audio Apollo Twin X Duo audio interface is an unbeatable value for all it has it it’s disposal. The plugin bundle, the surprising the I/O count for such a small device, the powerful DSP cores. It’s easy for me to recommend this interface as one of the best for all potential uses.


Runner-Up

PreSonus Quantum 2626

“It’s hard to find negatives for this interface. It’s a killer device with PreSonus being a prominent name in audio.”

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Pros
  • Solid Build Quality
  • Up to 26in/26out I/O with daisy chain
Cons
  • External power supply
  • No DSP Capabilities

Tech Specs:

  • Computer Connectivity: Thunderbolt 3  
  • Form Factor: Rackmount  
  • Simultaneous I/O: 26 x 26  
  • Audio Resolution: Up to 24-bit/192 kHz  
  • Number of Preamps: 8 x mic, 2 x instrument  
  • Phantom Power: Channels 1-4, 5-8  
  • Analog Inputs: 2 x XLR TRS inputs-1/4″ combo (mic/Hi-Z), 6 x XLR-1/4″ combo (mic/line), 2 x 1/4″ (return)  
  • Analog Outputs: 8 x 1/4″ TRS (DC coupled), 2 x 1/4″ (main L/R), 2 x 1/4″ (preamp out)  
  • Digital Inputs: 2 x Optical Toslink (ADAT/SMUX), 1 x Coax (S/PDIF)  
  • Digital Outputs: 2 x Optical Toslink (ADAT/SMUX), 1 x Coax (S/PDIF)  
  • Headphone Outputs: 2 x 1/4″  
  • Thunderbolt: 1 x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3)  
  • MIDI I/O: In/Out  
  • Clock I/O: In/Out  
  • Software: Studio One Artist, Studio Magic Plug-in Suite  
  • OS Requirements – Mac: OS X 10.11.6 or later, 64-bit  
  • OS Requirements – PC: Windows 10 or later, 64-bit  
  • Rack Spaces: 1U 

The PreSonus Quantum 26×26 Thunderbolt audio interface is a rack mounted interface. It’s the youngest brother in the Quantum series. It’s siblings are the 26×32 and the 48×48. Most of the inputs reside on the front panel.

These numbers refer to the I/O count when expanded via dual ADAT Optical. When daisy chained together by this method, you get an unprecedented I/O count seldom found in other audio interfaces at this price point. 

It’s worth stating that the other two Quantum series versions are Thunderbolt 2. The 26×26 is the only one that’s T-3. 

There are plenty of other inputs and outputs onboard including 8 line outputs, MIDI in/outs, and SPDIF ins/outs just to name a few.

There are two high quality plugin suites included as well. These are the Studio One Artist bundle and the Studio Magic plug-in bundle. These plugins are bountiful and fun to use.  

PreSonus markets the Quantum line as their fastest audio interfaces. This is done without onboard DSP capabilities intentionally. The lack of DSP might be a downfall to some. They’ve done everything they give this interface near zero latency, and it’s worked.

Latency measurements of this interface are in the sub-milliseconds, which is very impressive. The build quality is excellent too with an all-metal chassis and metal knobs.


Upgrade Pick

Apogee ELEMENT 88

This Apogee audio interface is a premium-quality device with a vast amount of capabilities.


Pros
  • 16×16 I/O count
  • Element Control software is great
  • Very high-quality components
Cons
  • No MIDI I/O
  • Only compatible with Mac

Tech Specs:

  • Computer Connectivity: Thunderbolt  
  • Form Factor: Desktop, Rackmount  
  • Simultaneous I/O: 16 x 16  
  • Audio Resolution: 24-bit/192kHz  
  • Number of Preamps: 8  
  • Phantom Power: 8 channels  
  • Analog Ins: 4 x XLR TRS inputs-1/4″ combo, 4 x XLR  
  • Analog Outputs: 2 x XLR (main out), 2 x 1/4″ (alt out)  
  • Digital Inputs: 2 x Optical (ADAT, SMUX, S/PDIF)  
  • Digital Outputs: 2 x Optical (ADAT, SMUX, S/PDIF)  
  • Headphone Outputs: 2 x 1/4″  
  • Thunderbolt: 1 x Thunderbolt 2  
  • Clock I/O: In/Out  
  • OS Requirements – Mac: OS X 10.10 or later (Element Control Software), iOS compatible (Element Control App)  
  • Rack Spaces: 1U (with provided rack ears)  
  • Height: 1.75″  
  • Width: 13.5″  
  • Depth: 5.5″  
  • Weight: 3.5 lbs. 

Apogee is a very renowned company in the audio world. Some folks regard them as the “Apple” of interfaces. They put out awesome gear that’s ultra high end and attractive. The Element 88 Thunderbolt audio interface is no exception.

There are multiple versions of this interface as well. The Apogee Element 24 is an example. The Element 24 and other options simply have different I/O counts

It’s a 16×16 I/O count interface with 8 inputs (mostly on the front panel) with high quality mic preamps built-in.

There are also 2 balanced L/R XLR TRS outputs, 2 ¼” outputs, 2 ¼” stereo headphone outputs, Optical ADAT I/O, and more! Element audio interfaces are bursting at the seams with features put together in a sleek chassis. The Element series is only compatible with Mac and integrates seamlessly with Logic Pro.

The Element Control Software is fantastic giving you full virtual control parallel to your DAW. Interestingly, there’s a Control app for mobile as well which is perfect for drummers.

All of the circuitry and preamps in the Element 88 are top-notch. You’d be hard pressed to find a sound quality of this level in other devices. You should have no issues with line level here.

I know, the Mac only compatibility is a downside to some of you. Luckily, Apogee has plenty of Windows compatible interfaces that just didn’t quite make the cut on this list. One gripe I do have with the Element 88 is the lack of MIDI I/O.

It’s not the end of the world considering how well this audio interface integrates with your DAW. Nonetheless, it would have been nice to have.

There are some people out there who might frown upon the Thunderbolt 2 connection. At the end of the day, it’s still Thunderbolt connection. It will still be fast and the low latency on the Element 88 measures at around 1.41ms round-trip.

This Apogee audio interface is a premium-quality device with a vast amount of capabilities. It can handle 8 channels of XLR TRS simultaneously, with 4 of those channels being TRS. It’s a professional grade interface for those avid engineers and musicians.

It doesn’t come with all of this without a hefty price tag. However, the Element 88 is a stand out option for a number of users depending on your needs.


DSP Capable

MOTU 624

“The MOTU 624 is a feature-rich little audio interface with some unique characteristics.”


Pros
  • DSP mixing capabilities
  • Low latency
  • Internal DAC
Cons
  • No MIDI I/O
  • Only Thunderbolt 1 or 2

Tech Specs:

  • Computer Connectivity: Thunderbolt and USB 3, AVB Ethernet  
  • Form Factor: Half Rack / Desktop  
  • Simultaneous I/O: 16 x 16  
  • Audio Resolution: 24-bit/192kHz  
  • Number of Preamps: 2 x mic, 2 x instrument  
  • Phantom Power: 2 channels  
  • Analog Ins: 2 x 1/4″ (Hi-Z instrument), 4 x 1/4″ (line inputs), 2 x XLR TRS  
  • Analog Outputs: 4 x 1/4″ (line out), 2 x 1/4″ (main out)  
  • Digital Inputs: 1 x Optical Toslink (ADAT, SMUX, S/PDIF)  
  • Digital Outputs: 1 x Optical Toslink (ADAT, SMUX, S/PDIF)  
  • Headphone Outs: 1 x 1/4″  
  • USB: 1 x Type B 3.0  
  • Thunderbolt: 1 x Thunderbolt 2  
  • Data I/O: Thunderbolt 2, AVB Ethernet  
  • Software: MOTU Discovery App (included), AudioDesk 4.0 (download)  
  • OS Requirements – Mac: OS X 10.8 or later, iOS  
  • OS Requirements – PC: Windows 7 or later, Android  
  • Rack Spaces: 0.5U Half Rack  
  • Power Supply: 12-18V DC  
  • Height: 1.75″  
  • Width: 8.6″  
  • Depth: 7″  
  • Weight: 2.2 lbs. 

The MOTU 624 is a 16×16 inputs and outputs desktop Thunderbolt audio interface. It offers 8 inputs, 2 of them being mic inputs, 2 Hi-Z, and 4 balanced/unbalanced line inputs on the front panel and back panel. There are also 8 digital ADAT inputs, 4 of which being at high sample rates.

The 624 audio interfaces have 6 balanced/unbalanced analog line outputs, a stereo headphone feed, and 8 ADAT outputs. That’s a great I/O count for a little desktop interface like this.

The 624 also has DSP mixing capabilities in conjunction with Ethernet AVB/TSN (Time-Sensitive Networking).

This gives you the ability to perform large console style mixing with 48 channels, 12 stereo busses, and 32-bit floating-point effects processing. This feature is incredibly powerful and makes the 624 applicable in real-world uses.

There is an internal DAC in this unit as well! Although it’s not quite what you’d expect from most state-of-the-art DACs, it still gets the job done. Additionally, the MOTU 624 software is a breeze to work with and offers a user friendly interface.

It’s a shame that this audio interface is missing a MIDI I/O. This is especially true with how many features are packed into this little thing.

Just like the previous device on this list, the 624 isn’t Thunderbolt 3 compatible. It’s only Thunderbolt 1 or 2. The low latency is still adequate sitting at 1.6ms round-trip.

The MOTU 624 is a feature-rich little audio interface with some unique characteristics. The DSP mixing on 48 channels of audio and up to 64 extra inputs is a game-changer. This feature occurring via AVB Ethernet instead of ADAT is very neat.


High-End Pick

Focusrite Red 8Pre

“If you’re looking for an interface that pretty much does it all, then the 8Pre will be a worthy companion.”


Pros
  • Red Evolution mic preamps are wonderful
  • Total I/O of 58in and 64out
  • Dante compatible
Cons
  • Pricey
  • No MIDI I/O

Tech Specs:

  • Computer Connectivity: Thunderbolt 2  
  • Form Factor: Rackmount  
  • Simultaneous I/O: 64 x 64 (includes all I/O)  
  • Audio Resolution: 24-bit/192kHz  
  • Number of Preamps: 8 x mic, 2 x instrument  
  • Phantom Power: Yes  
  • Analog Ins: 2 x 1/4″ (instrument), 1 x DB-25 (mic 8 ch), 2 x DB-25 (line 16 ch)  
  • Analog Outputs: 2 x DB-25 (line 16 ch), 2 x 1/4″ (monitor out)  
  • Digital Inputs: 2 x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3), 2 x DigiLink, 2 x Optical (ADAT), 1 x Coax (S/PDIF)  
  • Digital Outputs: 2 x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3), 2 x DigiLink, 2 x Optical (ADAT), 1 x Coax (S/PDIF)  
  • Headphone Outs: 2 x 1/4″  
  • Data I/O: 2 x Ethernet (Dante)  
  • Clock I/O: In/Out (word clock), In/Out (loop sync)  
  • Software: Focusrite Control, Red plugin suite, Softube Time and Tone plug-ins  
  • OS Requirements – Mac: OS X 10.9 or later  
  • Rack Spaces: 1U  
  • Height: 1.73″  
  • Width: 19″  
  • Depth: 13.39″ (chassis only)  
  • Weight: 11.3 lbs. 

Focusrite markets the Red 8Pre as the “pinnacle of their audio interface range” and they might be right. It’s an ultra high-end device that sports one of the highest onboard I/O counts I’ve seen (64 in and 64 out) on the front panel and back panel.

Focusrite’s Red Series Thunderbolt audio interface is easily confused with the Focusrite Clarett series. The main difference is Dante. The Focusrite Clarett series is not compatible with the powerful controller. Speaking of which…

64 of those inputs and outputs are achievable through Dante controller, which is just insane. Dante is Ethernet-based networking which is a simple, single connection carrying both audio and built-in clocking. It’s an awesome method of expansion and it’s quite intuitive. It’s a wonderful addition to these already powerful audio interfaces.

The Red Evolution Air-enabled high quality microphone preamp is one of the best in existence. They deliver honest audio performance with -129dB EIN, 63dB of gain and near zero latency. This gives you plenty of room on this Thunderbolt interface to bring your own sound to life with your choice of external processing.

On top of that, the Focusrite Control software is straightforward and user friendly. Simply put, every aspect of this interface is of the utmost quality.

That quality comes with a high price point. But, if you’re looking for a Thunderbolt audio interface that pretty much does it all, then the 8Pre will be a worthy companion.

Yet again, there’s no MIDI I/O on this guy. Not a deal breaker, but definitely a bit of a bummer

I could go on for hours about all of the things the 8Pre audio interface does, but you get the idea. This is up there with the best that Focusrite has to offer. This interface is for the serious engineer looking for endless freedom. If that sounds like you, then this is an option worth looking at. 


Updated Picks for 2021:

Well-Rounded

Focusrite Scarlett 4i4

“You’re getting Focusrite’s famously reliable drivers, their neutral sonic signature, and their solid build quality all at a respectable price range.”


Pros
  • MIDI I/O Capable
  • Updated Preamps
  • Small Footprint
Cons
  • Some Gimmicky Features

Tech Specs:

  • Computer Connectivity: USB 2.0  
  • Form Factor: Desktop  
  • Simultaneous I/O: 4 x 4  
  • Number of Preamps: 2  
  • Phantom Power: Yes  
  • Audio Resolution: Up to 24-bit/192kHz  
  • Analog Inputs: 2 x XLR TRS inputs-1/4″ combo (mic/Hi-Z), 2 x 1/4″ (line)  
  • Analog Outputs: 4 x 1/4″ (line outputs)  
  • Headphone Outs: 1 x 1/4″  
  • MIDI I/O: In/Out  
  • USB: 1 x Type USB-C  
  • Software: Ableton Live Lite, Focusrite Red Plug-in Suite, Pro Tools First Creative Pack (PT First does not support 3rd party plug-ins)  
  • OS Requirements – Mac: macOS 10.12 or later  
  • OS Requirements – PC: Windows 7 SP1 or later (Scarlett), Windows 10 v1809 or later (Pro Tools First)  
  • Bus Powered: Yes  
  • Power Supply: USB bus powered  
  • Height: 1.87″  
  • Width: 7.28″  
  • Depth: 4.71″  
  • Weight: 1.3 lbs. 

This is the newest generation of the popular Scarlett Series interfaces by Focusrite. It boasts a wider dynamic range, improved high quality mic preamps, and better overall input options. Also, they will ship out with updated USB C connectivity.

This is the only option I’ve included without Thunderbolt connectivity, but it’s just too good of a device not to mention. Plus, this is a more budget-friendly option than the Focusrite Clarett Series.

I’ve decided to update this list and include this audio interface for 2021 because it’s simply a great value. The 4i4 is not the only option in this series though.

The 2i2 and the 8i6 round out the other versions. As you probably have guessed, the model name indicates the I/O count of that particular device.

Now, the reason why the Scarlett Series audio interfaces have gained such a prominent following in the industry is due to their excellent flexibility at such an affordable price. They really are a perfect middle-of-the-road option for any sort of use.

The Focusrite Control app is included with all versions of the 3rd Gen Scarlett units and it’s a fantastic inclusion. Certain features are only accessible via this software. Some of those features, like the new Air option, are a bit gimmicky and I don’t see much in terms of real world use on these audio interfaces.

That being said, other features like low latency monitoring are really useful.

All in all, this new Scarlett generation is very much worth taking a look at. You’re getting Focusrite’s famously reliable drivers, their neutral sonic signature, their solid build quality, and neutral sound quality all at a respectable price range.

Again, if you’re looking for a version with even more features, the Focusrite Clarett audio interface is virtually the same thing.

The Focusrite Clarett Series Alternative

Similar to the Scarlett Series, the Focusrite Clarett Series is the slightly higher-end cousin. Check them out here.


Budget Pick

Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2

What’s especially interesting about these interfaces is how they implement headphone level monitoring.


Pros
  • Very Small Footprint
  • Stylish Design
  • Easy To Use
Cons
  • Limited Features

Tech Specs:

  • Computer Connectivity: USB 2.0  
  • Form Factor: Desktop  
  • Simultaneous I/O: 2 x 2  
  • Number of Preamps: 2  
  • Phantom Power: Yes  
  • Audio Resolution: 24-bit/192kHz  
  • Analog Inputs: 2 x XLR TRS inputs-1/4″ combo (mic/line/Hi-Z)  
  • Analog Outputs: 2 x 1/4″ TRS  
  • Headphone Outputs: 1 x 1/4″  
  • USB: 1 x Type B  
  • Software: Ableton Live 10 Lite, Maschine Essentials, Komplete Start  
  • OS Requirements – Mac: MacOS 10.12 or later, Intel Core i5 or higher  
  • OS Requirements – PC: Windows 10 or later, Intel Core i5 Equivalent or higher  
  • Bus Powered: Yes  
  • Height: 2.04″  
  • Width: 4.41″  
  • Depth: 5.51″  
  • Weight: 0.79 lbs. 

The next updated pick on this list is the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2. Don’t worry, they do offer a 6×6 I/O count option, but I decided to include the 2 I/O version for those on a budget. 2 mic inputs is a decent starting amount.

I know, no Thunderbolt connectivity on this one either, but USB interfaces seem to be main style that companies are releasing so far this year and late last year. I’ll keep updating this article when I find some Thunderbolt audio interfaces that catch my eye.

In the mean time, let’s dive a little deeper on this cool little interface.

If you’re just looking to record your own vocals, or you’re a podcaster, then this little guy should be more than good enough.

This is a USB 2.0 bus powered audio interface that has a sleek outer case. What’s especially interesting about these interfaces is how they implement headphone level monitoring. Everything is virtually independent of each other which adds a unique level of functionality.

On top of that, the overall design is streamlined and well thought out. It has all of the basic knobs you could need and they’re easy to find.

There is a 48v Phantom Power switch as well.

Although there aren’t many extra features, these little audio interfaces does the job it sets out to do very well.

Native Instruments was clearly catering to those who are more minimalist with this device. Again, it has all the basics you could possibly need from a well-respected company.


Conclusion

In my opinion, the Universal Audio Apollo Twin X DUO is the clear favorite on this list of audio interfaces. This is mainly due to it’s versatility for all sorts of uses, whether you’re a beginner or avid engineer. The included plugin bundle gives it the edge as well.

That being said, all of the audio interfaces on this list are worth a look. They each have their own personalities, and can offer many different capabilities depending on what you need.

I hope this guide has proven helpful, and I hope it will help you find the right Thunderbolt audio interface for your studio.

Also, don’t forget to reach out to me with any questions or comments you might have. Good luck on your hunt!

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Jeremy Bongiorno
I have been a musician and producer for over 15 years. My goal is to provide reliable, honest information and hopefully help to improve the quality of life in your studio.