Quality costs. And if you’ve decided to spend over USD$1000 on an audio interface, you’ve decided that when it comes to music you’re serious about quality. By making this decision, you have left a lot of compromises behind: just about any audio interface over $1000 will be at least 24bit/96KHz, have a generous number of inputs, and have good quality audio to digital converters. And there are very few USB interfaces over $1000 - almost all have low-latency Firewire or PCI interfaces.
But budget will still be a consideration. $1000 is just the starting point, and the prices go up quite a long way from there. What are you hoping to gain in return for all of that money? Lots of inputs? High quality and better reliability? Additional features? Some combination of these?
This buyers guide is here to help you - but it can do with your help too. I haven’t personally tried all of these devices, so we’d love to hear about your experiences, disasters, opinions and corrections in the comments. Your input makes the guide more valuable, and we’ll we’ll amend the article from time to time based on your feedback.
If these devices are a bit rich for you, you might want to have a look at our previous buyers guide: 36 Audio Interfaces Under $1000.
Some Questions to Ask
Here are some questions you should ask when buying a pro audio interface:
- Do I prefer a Firewire or PCI interface? There are very few USB interfaces over $1000, so your choice basically comes down to these. If you are using a laptop, your only choice is Firewire - but make sure you have a Firewire port. These days, most computers have at least one. If you are using a desktop computer, you have a choice - though be aware that installing a PCI card requires you to open the computer’s case. PCI can handle more data, so consider that if you are recording many tracks at once. Otherwise either will be suitable.
- How many inputs do I need? A major reason to buy a more expensive audio interface is to gain the additional inputs they come with. How many do you need? As a rule of thumb, this will be the number of inputs you plan on recording simultaneously. If you are planning to mic a drum kit or record a band live, this is an important question to get right. It’s easy to overestimate the number of inputs you need, but dangerous to underestimate!
- What computer am I planning to use? If you’re going to use a high-end audio interface with an old clunker of a computer, you’re wasting your time and won’t be happy with the results. If you want quality, make sure you have a fast, up-to-date Mac or PC with a Firewire interface and plenty of RAM and disk space. In fact, it’s a good excuse to buy a new computer!
- Does my audio interface need a preamp, or will I be using an external one? A good external preamp will generally be of higher quality than those that come with an audio interface. If you have one, you can save some money on your interface. If not, then the number and quality of the interface’s preamps becomes an important part of your decision.
- Do I need support for Pro Tools LE or HD? If so, you’ll have to buy a Digidesign interface that comes with the right software. If you want to use Pro Tools HD like the pro studios, make sure you buy the correct interface.
- What other features do I need? Do you need digital inputs and outputs? Do you need ADAT inputs and outputs? Do I need DSP? Do I need a mixer?
Are there any other questions that need to be asked? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll add them.
If you’re spending this much money, you’ll want to be careful with your decision. You may want to check out other audio interface buyers guides:
- Tweakheadz Lab: The “Best” Audio Interface for Your Home Studio, which includes a helpful comparison chart
- Sweetwater: Audio Interfaces Buying Guide
- About.com: How To Select an Audio Recording Interface
- Gigasonic: Audio Interfaces Buying Guide
- Dolphin Music: Soundcard / Audio Interface Buying Guide
- Audio Interface Review: Audio Interface: Buying Guide
Brands and Models
Apogee’s Ensemble and Rosetta series devices offer Firewire audio interfaces for between USD$1800 and $2300.
Apogee’s description of Ensemble: “Ensemble features 36 channels of simultaneous audio, including 8 channels of Apogee’s legendary A/D and D/A conversion, 4 transparent, digitally controlled 75db mic preamps, 8 channels of ADAT I/O, 2 channels of S/PDIF coax and optical I/O, and FireWire connectivity to and from the computer. Ensemble also includes premium Apogee technologies such as ‘SoftLimit’, ‘UV22HR’, and ‘Intelliclock’. These technologies combined with Apogee’s legendary conversion, make Ensemble an ideal choice for professionals seeking a high-definition, integrated solution that’s incredibly easy to use.”
Apogee’s description of Rosetta: “The Rosetta Series gives you two channels or eight channels of superior AD/DA conversion at sample rates of up to 192k, Apogee’s “SoftLimit”, “UV22HR”, and our advanced “Intelliclock”. The result is a premium digital recording solution that is built for the professional recording facility yet economical enough for the project studio. The most crucial process in the digital recording environment is high-quality analog to digital conversion and the most trusted and desirable converters are made by Apogee. With up to 192k standard sample rates, the Rosetta Series combines Apogee’s legendary conversion quality with flexibility that complements any digital audio workstation.” Rosetta comes with an X-Series expansion card for connecting with Pro Tools HD.
- Apogee Rosetta 200 2-Channel AD/DA Converter 24-bit/192kHz (around USD$1800)
- Apogee Ensemble FireWire Digital Interface, MAC (around USD$1950)
- Apogee Ensemble Mobile Multi-Channel Audio Interface with DC Power (around USD$2250)
Learn more from Apogee’s music creation page.
Digidesign offer a range of 003 Family Firewire interfaces for use with Pro Tools LE, and a range of PCI devices which work with the more advanced Pro Tools HD. The HD products can be very expensive.
Digidesign’s description of the 003 Family: “If you’re looking to attain the same high audio production quality as commercial facilities in your own personal or project studio, the Digidesign® 003™ family enables you to do just that with truly professional results. With an extensive range of audio and MIDI I/O, high-definition audio resolution, industry-standard Pro Tools® software, FireWire connectivity, and an unprecedented bundle of powerful software, the 003 family provides everything you need to compose, perform, record, sequence, edit, mix, and master your creations.”
Digidesign’s description of their HD interfaces: “Incorporating the latest advances in audio, synchronization, and MIDI technology, Pro Tools|HD® I/O interfaces work together with your Core system to deliver unparalleled sonic quality and functionality. Custom-configure your system by choosing from a wide range of interfaces, which deliver high-resolution audio with built-in sample rate conversion; flexible analog and digital I/O in the most popular formats; pristine, remote-controllable preamplification; sample-accurate MIDI; and versatile synchronization capabilities.”
Pro Tools LE compatible:
- Digidesign 003 Rack FireWire Audio Interface with Pro Tools LE (around USD$1400)
- Digidesign 003 Factory FireWire Audio Interface with Pro Tools LE (around USD$1900)
- Digidesign 9900-38030-00 003 Factory (around USD$2000)
- Digidesign Digi 003 Factory Complete (around $3500)
Pro Tools HD compatible:
- Digidesign 192 IO for Pro Tools HD (around USD$4000)
- Digidesign Control 24 Pro Tools Control Surface (around USD$13000)
Lynx offer the Aurora range of digital audio converters.
Lynx’s description of the Aurora converters: “The Aurora™ line of digital audio converters from Lynx Studio Technology offers unprecedented audio quality and control in single-rack space eight and sixteen channel models. The Aurora 8™ and Aurora 16™ feature 192 kHz analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion with front panel control of all routing and sample rate options. Extended functions in Aurora are accessible via computer with the Lynx AES16 or by infrared using compatible laptops and handheld Pocket PCs. The rear panel has Clock, MIDI I/O for SysEx control, and an LSlot bay for use with LStream and LSlot expansion options.”
- Aurora 16 (around USD$3000)
Learn more from Lynx Studio Technology’s products page.
MOTU have two PCI interfaces at the upper end of the market: the 24I/O and HD192.
MOTU’s description of the 24I/O: “The MOTU Audio 24I/O interface fulfills the promise of host-based hard disk recording: to record, edit, mix process, and master multitrack recording projects entirely inside the computer. It provides 24 high quality, 24-bit/96kHz analog inputs and outputs in a cost effective, single rack space package, allowing you to connect and record from 24 simultaneous analog sources.”
MOTU’s description of the HD192: “Equipped with the latest generation 24-bit, enhanced multi-bit 128x oversampling 192-kHz converters, the HD192 achieves a remarkable A-weighted signal-to-noise ratio of 120 dB with balanced XLR connectors throughout. Ideal for surround applications, the HD192’s 12 inputs and 12 outputs can support two simultaneous 5.1 mixes. And the HD192 is full of advanced features, like AES/EBU I/O with sample rate conversion both in and out.”
Learn more from MOTU’s products page.
RME offers the Fireface range of Firewire devices.
RME’s description of their Firewire products: “It’s no surprise customers and testers respect RME Fireface interfaces as the reference for Firewire audio, with first class sound, minimal latencies, stability and as first choice for mobile recording. RME is the only manufacturer not to use a third party FireWire audio technology, but an own, self-developed Firewire Audio Core with an outstanding performance and uncompromising pro audio features. We´ve revolutioned and combined the technic with the unique RME features. TotalMix, ultra-low latencies down to one millisecond, including on-the-fly latency changes, support of multiple devices, samplerates up to 192 kHz and much more.”
- RME Fireface 400 FireWire Audio Interface (around USD$1300)
- RME Fireface 800 FireWire Computer Recording Interface (around USD$1700)
Learn more from RME’s products page.
Steinberg offers one audio interface for over $1000, the MR816 CSX.
Steinberg’s description of the MR816 CSX: “Functioning far beyond the envelope of traditional audio devices, MR816 CSX fuses a fully featured FireWire interface and inbuilt DSP FX power with next-generation integrative technologies into one breathtakingly powerful production environment. Developed by Steinberg and Yamaha, this Advanced Integration DSP Studio is the hardware centerpiece of a latency-free recording and monitoring environment that fully exploits the flexibility and power of Steinberg’s renowned Cubase Music Production System.”
- Steinberg MR816 CSX (around USD$1300)
Learn more from Steinberg’s hardware page.
TC Electronic also offers one audio interface for over $1000, the Digital Konnekt X32.
TC Electronic’s description of the Digital Konnekt X32: “Digital Konnekt x32 is every studio’s missing link, integrating digital equipment with computer-based recording setups. Digital Konnekt x32 is the utility product fitting the needs of project studios and other digital setups in need of a ‘Swiss army knife” in digital signal handling. It features FireWire connection to and from your DAW and it allows efficient routing and conversion between multiple digital formats and sample rates, as well as providing extra features such as analog outputs, scene recall, convenient monitoring and front panel lock.”
- TC Electronic Digital Konnekt x32 Digital Patchbay, Format Converter and 16×16 Firewire Audio Interface (around USD$1500)
Learn more from TC Electronic’s audio interfaces page.
Well, there’s an outline of the raw facts - now it’s up to you to paint in the details. Let us know about your experiences and preferences in the comments.