USB vs Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces: How To Choose The Best Type

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When comparing USB vs Thunderbolt audio interfaces, the main difference is speed. Nowadays, data transfer speeds and high-quality audio recordings are the name of the game.

Does that mean you absolutely need a Thunderbolt interface?

Not necessarily.

In this article, we’ll talk about the differences between these two types of audio interfaces so you can make an educated decision about your next recording device.

At A Glance

Thunderbolt is a high-speed interface technology developed by Intel and Apple that allows for the transfer of large amounts of data at very high speeds. This makes it ideal for audio applications, where large amounts of data need to be transferred quickly and efficiently. 

Thunderbolt audio interfaces typically offer more features and higher quality than their USB counterparts. For professional users who need the best possible audio quality and performance, Thunderbolt is the way to go.

That said, USB interfaces are still a solid option for entry-level or intermediate producers.

Let’s break down each type of interface and dive a little deeper.

Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces: The New Standard

A Thunderbolt audio interface is a high-end audio interface that uses Thunderbolt technology to connect to a computer. Thunderbolt is a high-speed data transfer protocol that offers low latency and high data transfer speeds. 

Thunderbolt interfaces typically have high-end converters and preamps, and offer a wide range of input and output options.

Are Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces Worth It?

Thunderbolt audio interfaces are definitely worth it for many reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that Thunderbolt offers much faster data transfer speeds than USB. This is extremely important in terms of low-latency recording and audio playback.

Additionally, Thunderbolt connectivity offers more reliable connectivity than USB, which is important if you are recording professional audio in a studio environment. 

The downside to Thunderbolt interfaces is that they are usually more expensive than USB interfaces. However, the increased performance is definitely worth the extra cost for many producers and recording engineers.

Active Vs. Passive Thunderbolt Cables

Thunderbolt cables are available in two different versions: active and passive. 

Active Thunderbolt cables are able to transmit data at a higher rate than passive Thunderbolt cables, and they are also able to support longer cable lengths. 

Passive Thunderbolt cables are less expensive than active Thunderbolt cables, but they have a shorter maximum cable length and a lower data transfer rate.

What does this mean for your audio interface?

Well, if you want to get the most out of your device, you should use an active Thunderbolt cable. Sure they’re more expensive, but there’s no logic in investing in such a capable interface if you’re just going to limit its data transfer speeds with a passive cable.

In short, make sure you’re using an active cable. Check and make sure that the interface you’re interested in comes with one. If not, then purchase one separately.

Advantages & Disadvantages Of Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces

Advantages
  • They offer near-zero latency.
  • They tend to be very reliable and offer professional-grade audio quality.
  • Thunderbolt interfaces offer a lot of flexibility in terms of connectivity and expandability.
  • They are usually very easy to set up and use.
  • They’re usually equipped with the top-notch microphone preamps for high-quality audio recordings.
Disadvantages
  • They are more pricey than most other types of interfaces
  • They’re usually not compatible with older computers.
  • They require specific ports and cables to properly connect and use them.

USB Audio Interfaces: The Popular Choice

A USB interface is a device that connects to a computer via the USB port and allows the user to record and playback audio. These types of interfaces are typically more of an intermediate-level device meant for beginner to semi-pro home studio environments.

The interface typically consists of a microphone input, a line input, and a headphone output. Some USB interfaces also include a MIDI input and output, a headphone amplifier and high-quality microphone preamps.

Why Are USB Audio Interfaces So Popular?

Well, the main reason USB interfaces is because they are very easy to use. All you need to do is plug the interface into your computer and you are ready to go. USB audio interfaces also offer good enough sound quality for most scenarios and they are very affordable.

On top of that, USB interfaces are typically universally compatible with most DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) and other audio software programs on the market.

Advantages & Disadvantages Of USB Audio Interfaces

Advantages
  • They offer reduced latency.
  • They are typically very affordable and extremely accessible.
  • They offer an increased level of compatibility with most DAWs and other software programs.
  • They’re usually smaller than other types of audio interfaces, making them super portable.
  • They are super easy to use and simple to set up.
Disadvantages
  • They have slower data transfer speeds than their
  • Thunderbolt counterparts.
  • Software compatibility can be an issue depending on certain devices.
  • They can sometimes be less durable than their more expensive counterparts.

USB-C & Thunderbolt Compatibility

Many audio interfaces nowadays offer USB-C connectivity. This has introduced quite a bit of confusion among producers, especially when it comes to its compatibility with Thunderbolt 3.

We’re talking about the connection speeds between your audio interface and your computer here, so this is an extremely important topic to understand.

Let’s get into the technical nitty gritty.

Is USB-C Compatible With Thunderbolt?

Yes, USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are compatible. Thunderbolt 3 is a high-speed interface that uses the same connector as USB-C. Thunderbolt 3 also supports USB 3.1 Gen 2 which can be used to connect to displays and other devices.

While it’s true that USB-C is compatible with Thunderbolt 3, that doesn’t mean you’re getting the same data transfer speeds. With that, a USB-C to USB-C connection isn’t nearly as fast as a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 3 connection.

Let’s make this even easier to understand.

The data transfer speeds of various USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 configurations are as follows: 

USB-C to USB-C:10 Gbit/s
USB-C to Thunderbolt 3:40 Gbit/s
Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 3:40 Gbit/s

Here are the data transfer speeds of the various USB protocols on their own:

USB 1.0:1.5 Mbit/s (low speed)
USB 2.0:480 Mbit/s (high speed)
USB 3.0:5 Gbit/s (super speed)
USB 3.1:10 Gbit/s (super speed+ / 5 Gbit/s (gen 1) / 2.5 Gbit/s (gen 2)

Here are the data transfer speeds of different Thunderbolt protocols:

Thunderbolt 1: 10 Gbit/s 
Thunderbolt 2:20 Gbit/s 
Thunderbolt 3:40 Gbit/s
Thunderbolt 4:40 Gbit/s bidirectional bandwidth

To summarize, USB-C is compatible with Thunderbolt, but depending on your configuration, you might be giving yourself differing data transfer speeds. Read your specifications thoroughly and make sure you’re setting everything up in the exact way you want.

If you want the fastest possible data transfer speeds, go for either Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C to Thunderbolt 3.

Firewire Audio Interfaces: Yesterday’s News

A Firewire audio interface is a device that allows you to connect your Firewire-equipped computer to an external audio source. This can be used to connect to a mixer, recorder, or other audio device.

The truth is, Firewire connectivity on an audio interface is pretty much obsolete at this point. There are a few reasons for this. 

Firstly, Firewire is a proprietary technology developed by Apple, so it is not as widely adopted as other interface standards like USB. 

Secondly, Firewire is not as fast as newer interface standards like Thunderbolt, so it can’t keep up with the demands of high-resolution audio. 

Finally, Firewire interfaces tend to be more expensive than other types of interfaces, so there aren’t as many options available on the market. Generally, they used to be in the same ballpark as Thunderbolt devices, which is a better all around option anyway.

With that said, you’d do well to stick to either a USB or Thunderbolt audio interface. Simply put, it will save you a lot of trouble.

USB vs Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces: Which One Is Best For You?

The answer to this question depends on a few factors. 

First, you need to determine what type of computer you’re using. If you’re using a PC, you’ll likely need to choose a USB audio interface. That said, there are more and more PC’s nowadays that offer either Thunderbolt or USB-C ports.

If you’re using a Mac, you need to choose either a Thunderbolt or USB-C audio interface. Check out my separate article for a roundup of the best audio interfaces for Mac computers.

Second, you’ll need to decide what level of audio quality you’ll need for your recordings and playback. If you’re looking to record and playback the higher-quality audio with near-zero audio latency, a Thunderbolt audio interface is the option to go for.

Alternatively, if you’re a beginner or you’re on a budget and you still want to record good quality audio, then a USB audio interface is still a great choice.

Just like with all of the equipment in your studio, you’re sure to level-up your setup down the road. A USB audio interface is a perfect starting point when it comes to recording audio.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Thunderbolt Interfaces Better Than USB?

Thunderbolt interfaces aren’t necessarily better than USB, but they are faster. We’re talking an average of 2X the data transfer speed of USB. This speed increases the accuracy of your recordings as well as your capabilities to monitor and edit audio in real-time. Thunderbolt interfaces simply give you more freedom and flexibility in the studio when compared to USB devices.

Can You Use A Thunderbolt Audio Interface With USB?

No, a Thunderbolt audio interface cannot be used with standard USB ports. Thunderbolt uses a different connector than USB 3.0, 2.0 or 1.0 and is not compatible with USB devices. That said, you can connect your Thunderbolt audio interface with USB-C using either a Thunderbolt cable or USB-C cable connected to either a Thunderbolt or USB-C port.

Do I Need A Thunderbolt Interface?

A Thunderbolt interface is not required, but it is recommended if you want to record the highest-quality audio possible with near-zero latency. Otherwise, a USB audio interface will suffice for many recording scenarios.

Do Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces Improve Sound Quality?

There is no simple answer to this question as it depends on a number of factors, including the quality of the interface itself and the equipment it is used with. In general, however, a Thunderbolt audio interface will offer better sound quality than a non-Thunderbolt interface, due to the increased speed and bandwidth of the Thunderbolt connection.

Conclusion

Audio quality is important to every producer or sound engineer, whether they are recording music or monitoring it. With this guide, you should be well on your way to making the right choice on your first (or your next) recording device.

Keep in mind that you can really go wrong with either device. At the end of the day, it comes down to your experience level and your budget. 

Once you know what you’re looking for, then you’ll be ready to record and release your next creation.

Author
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.

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