Audio Interface with Best Preamps [2022 Reviewed]

Introduction

When choosing an audio interface based on the quality of its preamps, the primary factor in your evaluation should be transparency. Most modern interfaces these days have fairly transparent and high quality preamps (free from any external color or additions). However, they differ from each other and some are a lot more true than the rest.

While you don’t want an interface that colors your sound, you should know that preamps are just one part of the equation. They only affect your inputs. Anything you record with a mic or an instrument goes through your preamps. The other side is when the sound is played back to you (output) via converters (DACs). You need both of these to be high quality so that your overall experience is worth it, however, preamps have a much higher impact than DACs do on your final sound.

Audio Interfaces feature internal preamps, some of these are built so well that they can compete with external ones such as a Neve 1073,API 512 or even a Trident 80B. But just because they are comparable, doesn’t make them the same. A good analogy for this would be, if external preamps are like a paintbrush, then internals are more like paint rollers. They have the same purpose but they both accomplish it in different ways.

Preamps and DACs are not the only factors that impact your sound. If you are getting enough gain through your preamps and they’re fairly transparent without any noise, then looking for better preamps may have diminishing returns. In this case your money is probably better spent on improving other aspects of your studio which can include better cables, mics and your studio space itself.

In some cases, preamps may even have a less of a contribution in terms of sound quality than a good microphone, so don’t make any compromises there. Your physical space also has a huge impact on your sound. It is a good idea to invest in some room treatment to combat reverberant surfaces in your studio.

Some interfaces have a lot of features packed into one and because of that the manufacturer ends up sacrificing on sound quality. You really want to avoid these! A good interface is one that sounds good and gives you the right input and output configuration for your purposes. Anything else is a good to have, but not necessary.

More expensive interfaces with good preamps, while cost a bit upfront, are so much better than cheaper ones that you wouldn’t want to plug in your gear into anything else. They even make cheaper gear sound a lot better! If you have a limited budget, save on other things such as using plugins instead of an expensive EQ, or using monster cables instead of purchasing the more expensive kind (they are virtually the same). The idea is to get one piece of good equipment at a time and substitute what you can for the rest. Over time you can slowly acquire the good stuff and eventually you’ll have a powerful setup that will stand the test of time.

An Audio interface is the heart of any studio. You should not make any compromises here at all! Judge other equipment one by one and see where you can save money.  Sometimes cheap interfaces can sound awesome, even as good as more expensive ones, but not all cheap interfaces are made equal. For the purpose of this article, we have reviewed 3 different interfaces at 3 different price points. Check them out because they all sound awesome!

Audio Interfaces with Best Preamps Reviews

Universal Audio Apollo Twin X DUO Heritage Edition

8.7Average Score
Apollo Twin X DUO Heritage Edition
Price to Performance
7
Input/Output
7.5
Sound Quality
10
Connectivity
10
Additional Features
9

The Apollo Twin X DUO Heritage Edition is a 10×6 high-end TB3 USB audio interface that contains one of the best preamps. It features a maximum sample rate of 192kHz and a 24 bit depth.

The Twin X DUO is a very small unit. You’ll find most of its sockets on its back panel which include 2 XLR/TRS combo mic inputs, 4 line outputs, an ADAT input connector, a TB3 port, a 12V power socket, and a power switch. You’ll also find a dedicated instrument input along with a headphone output on its front panel.

Most of the DUO’s controls are on its main panel. You’re immediately presented with a large multi-purpose knob that you can use to alter different parameters. Below it you’ll find a set of buttons that perform different functions. Most notably are the 48V, talkback, preamp, monitor, alt and mute buttons. UA has also incorporated a very slick and extremely detailed metering display on this panel which gives you a clear indication of both your I/O levels along with the overall volume level.

As for sound quality, we had exceedingly high expectations for the DUO considering the hype surrounding it and the price tag. So, we had to perform our own tests. Right off the bat, we were thunderstruck by its audio quality. The unit has incredibly detailed and immaculate audio without us even altering the gain settings or adding any effects/plugins. Instead, this was purely the doing of its powerful converters which provide a whopping 127 dB of dynamic range and extremely accurate conversion!

The 2 UNISON preamps on the DUO are one of the most powerful we’ve ever tested. They’re incredibly transparent and add zero noise even at very high gain levels. At some point, we even cranked the knob all the way up and the audio still didn’t distort. The preamps on the Twin X are also capable of emulating some of the most renowned external pres such as the Helios, Neve, Manley, etc. The unit physically reconfigures its own circuitry to capture the exact impedance used by those preamps. It was nice to try out the different emulations which are all exceptionally useful.

As for the UA plugins, the DUO comes with its own native set with the option to purchase more. So after doing the basic tests, we started running some of the plugins like the 610-B tube preamp and the 1176LN. We did enjoy using these plugins and eventually had around 8 plugins running simultaneously granted that we’ve already had previous experience using UA units. However, what sets the Twin X DUO apart is its built-in DSP cores. The unit contains 2 Sharc chips which means that we could run several plugins with zero latency. Albeit, we did get some delay when we exceeded 10 simultaneous plugins.

While we did enjoy the Twin X DUO, we did pick up on some of its flaws. For example, when we hooked up our unit to a Windows PC, we had to spend hours trying to figure out how to get the interface to work. It isn’t the most easy to setup interface with Windows systems even if it’s marketed as such. However, once we had it all setup working with it was no different than on a mac where the setup is a lot easier, pretty much hassle free.

Additionally, after using the DUO for a couple of hours, we found out that it can get VERY hot, occasionally more than 100° F. The unit is built like a heat sink. Even without running any plugins the Apollo would overheat and adding plugins would just make things worse. So you’ll most definitely have to install an external cooling system especially if you’re planning to do heavy work on your unit.

When UA planned to release the Twin X DUO, they simultaneously dropped both the Solo and the QUAD versions. As the names suggest, those models mainly differ in their I/O and size. They also have different amounts of DSP Sharc chips with the QUAD having 4 Sharc chips compared to the DUO’s 2 Sharc chips. Otherwise, most of their features/components remain relatively the same. However, this doesn’t mean that UA hasn’t had any previous experience creating audio interfaces. In fact, they’ve had great success with their Apollo X series of high-end units. While a bit more pricey than the TWIN series, the X units feature a lot more I/Os and some extra features like word sync clock, dual TB 3, etc.

Overall, the Twin X DUO is one of the best units we’ve ever tested in terms of sound quality. It is extremely well built, contains a plethora of features, and pumps out professional grade audio. So If you truly want to step up your music skills, you should definitely go for the Twin X DUO.

Apollo Twin X DUO Benefits

You get amazing sound quality

You won’t notice any delay due to its built-in DSP.

The Twin DUO can run UAD plugins.

The unit has incredible build quality.

It contains 2 extremely powerful UNISON preamps which let you emulate famous preamps.

Apollo Twin X DUO Drawbacks

The DUO isn’t very compatible with Windows.

The unit can overheat very quickly.

Audient ID44

8.3Average Score
Audient ID44
Price to Performance
9
Input/Output
9.5
Sound Quality
8.5
Connectivity
6.5
Additional Features
8

The iD44 is a robust USB 2.0 audio interface that features 20 inputs and 24 outputs. It is a powerful unit that is packed with terrific components and a lot of features.

On its backside, you’ll find 4 channels of TRS/XLR combo mic inputs 2 of which have their own send and return sockets. You’ll also find 4 line outputs, a world clock, the USB-C port, a 12V power socket, and dual optical I/O sockets. The front panel contains two ¼’’ headphone outs and 2 dedicated instrument inputs.

The main panel of the iD44 contains 4 gain knobs for the 4 XLR/TRS inputs each with its own 48V, pad, and HPF switches. You’ll also notice a large iD knob which acts as a monitor knob by default but has several different functions including a virtual scroll wheel. Below it you’ll find 4 buttons which are: iD, Dim, Talkback, Cut along with 3 separate F buttons which can be reprogrammed to perform different functions. The same panel features 2 volume encoders for your headphone outputs and an 8 level LED meter.

Physically speaking, the iD44 is extremely well-designed. It is fully enclosed in metal so it can be pretty durable. The knobs and buttons are also extremely satisfying to use, especially the iD knob which is an integral part in the fine-tuning process.

With regards to sound quality, the iD44 contains 4 of Audient’s class A preamps which we think are one of the best in this price range. They provide a terrific 60dB of gain and are extremely transparent. To test them out, we were using our Rode NT1 mic while monitoring through Technica ath-m50x headphones. Off the bat, we didn’t run into any configuration issues even though we did have to crank up the headphones volume to get decent audio levels. Otherwise, the mic pres were pumping very clean audio even at very high gain levels. Additionally, we had a very pleasant experience recording acoustics on the iD44. In fact, we’ve used it to record a couple of guitar performances through its DI which provides a subtle bass boost and a slight harmonic boost to the low-end.

Moreover, the unit’s DA and AD converters are stellar. They capture audio with impeccable detail and extreme precision. We also noticed that they make our audio much more fuller with a deeper and wider soundstage. Plus, they maintain extreme clarity in mid to high-end frequencies and produce very little smear if any.

As for latency, we didn’t notice any delays while recording with the iD44. This can be mainly attributed to the unit’s low-latency DSP mixer which processes audio at very high speeds. Additionally, the iD44 features a HI-speed USB 2.0 port. While it is inferior to USB 3.0 or TB technology, it’s definitely a step-up from the traditional USB 2.0 plus we can’t tell the difference.

Audient’s iD series have been poking a stick at other budget-friendly audio interfaces for a while now. While the iD44 is the most expensive in the series, Audient did release other cheaper models prior to the iD44. Most notably is the iD4 which also happens to be the iD44’s immediate predecessor. The iD44 has a lot more I/Os than the iD4 which only features 2 inputs and 2 outputs. The iD4 also features a USB 3.0 and a physical monitor knob which you won’t find on the iD44. However, both units produce a fairly similar audio output mostly because they’re equipped with the same preamps and converters.

As for drawbacks, the iD44 has some minor imperfections that we should mention. For instance, while you can certainly do anything with 20 inputs and 24 outputs, you won’t find a MIDI port on the iD44. We would’ve preferred if the iD44 allowed for MIDI I/O since some of our old keyboards only support MIDI connection. Additionally, even though the iD44 works great with acoustic instruments and vocals, it really doesn’t hold up well with rock tracks. We tried recording a rock track with the iD44 but it simply couldn’t handle it. It constantly smoothes out the signal and causes it to sound more airy and spacious which isn’t something you typically need when recording rock music. Most importantly, the unit’s headphone amps are a bit underwhelming. As mentioned, we had to max out the output volume just to get adequate audio levels.

Overall, we really believe that the iD44 is one of the most well-rounded budget friendly audio interfaces. It pumps out great audio, features a ton of I/Os, and is extremely simple to use. It’s definitely an option worth considering if you want great sound quality for a relatively inexpensive price.

Audient ID44 Benefits

It features 20 inputs and 24 outputs.

You get amazing sound quality.

The unit is extremely well-built and durable.

You get a ton of features like the iD scroll wheel and the function buttons.

The iD44 is great for recording instruments and vocals.

Audient ID44 Drawbacks

The iD44 doesn’t support MIDI connections.

You will have to max out the headphone volume knob to get decent audio levels.

The unit isn’t great for handling rock music.

Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 3rd Gen

7Average Score
Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 3rd Gen
Price to Performance
9
Input/Output
6
Sound Quality
7.5
Connectivity
5.5
Additional Features
7

The Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 is one of the first interfaces that comes to mind when choosing an interface with awesome sounding preamps for the price. It is a compact 4×4 USB 2.0 audio interface that is one of the most popular in the market. It is also one of the few budget interfaces that feature a maximum sample rate of 192kHz and a 24 bit depth.

On its front side, you’ll find 2 XLR/Line inputs that each has its own gain knob and LED indicators. You can also toggle 48V (phantom power) for both of these inputs through a unified push button which sits next to the monitor control. Other than that, you’ll find a ¼’’ phones output which has its own volume controller on the rightmost part of this panel.

The backside of the 4i4 is pretty minimalistic. You’ll only find 2 TRS input sockets, 4 line outputs, and an MIDI I/O socket. It also contains the USB-C port which doubles as the unit’s sole power source.

Design wise, the Scarlett 4i4 is fully enclosed in a bright red (Scarlett) metal hence the naming. It is a relatively small unit which makes it perfect for your on-the-go purposes. The controls and I/O sockets are also evenly spaced so as to not negatively impact the tuning process.

When it comes to sound quality, we can attest that the 4i4 has one of the best preamps for a budget interface. We tested our 4i4 by hooking up a TLM 103 to one of its XLR inputs with active phantom power. Off the bat, the 4i4 was producing vibrant and pristine audio even with default settings. However, we did have to install Focusrite control software prior to that since a lot of the 4i4’s controls can be accessed exclusively through it.

Nevertheless, we started increasing the gain while monitoring through headphones. The 4i4 was reliably pumping transparent and noise-free audio even as we edged towards the higher-end of the gain levels. It really never distorted or produced any unwanted artifacts during the process. Albeit, our audio started clipping after we exceeded around 40 dB of gain, but we still managed to detect it through the gain halo LEDs.

As for the unit’s converters, they’re fairly powerful and are capable of retaining a lot of details. For that matter, we tried sampling audio at 44.1kHz all the way up to 192kHz. While we did have a pleasant experience using lower sample rates, we can’t vouch for the unit’s stability if you were to exceed the 96kHz rate. Because once we were using the 192kHz rate, we started getting random pops and cracks and occasionally some audio dropouts. Still, we rarely ever exceed the 96kHz sample rates which we have no qualms about.

Compared to its predecessor, the 3rd gen 4i4 underwent minor audio improvements. For instance, the 3rd gen had a 5 dB, 6 dB, and 5 dB increase in mic inputs dynamic range, gain range, and max input level respectively. The 2nd gen also has more physical controls like pad, inst and a direct monitoring knob which are features that can only be accessed through the Focusrite control software in the 3rd gen. Otherwise, both units have the same design and build plus they feature the same amount of inputs and outputs.

As for drawbacks, there were some shortcomings that we picked up on during our testing. For example, even though the Focusrite Control software is extremely easy to use and navigate, we would’ve preferred if the 3rd gen had more physical toggles so it can double down as a standalone unit especially since input channels 3 and 4 can only be controlled through software. Additionally, when using the 4i4 we would frequently get random noise on our inputs that persist until we reset the device. We think that this is in part due to the unit being bus-powered which we believe is a hardware flaw. To follow through, it would’ve been helpful if the 4i4 had a power switch so that we don’t have to constantly unplug the USB adapter.

Overall, the Scarlett 4i4 is one of the most well established audio interfaces in the market and rightfully so. It’s extremely inexpensive, contains powerful preamps, and is extremely easy to use. We seriously recommend the 4i4 if you’re looking for a cheap but powerful audio interface to get you going. 

Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 3rd Gen Benefits

It features a maximum sample rate of 192kHz.

The 4i4 3rd gen has one of the best preamps for a budget audio interface.

The unit is compact, rigid, and extremely simple to use.

Its AD and DA converters are capable of retaining a lot of details.

You can detect audio clipping through the gain knobs halo indicator.

Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 3rd Gen Drawbacks

Most of the 4i4 3rd gen’s features can be exclusively accessed through the Focusrite Control software which can be a bit annoying.

The unit occasionally produces random noise and has to be reset.

You might get random pops and cracks if you set your sample rate to 192kHz.

Verdict

According to our scoring model, you’ll see a significant amount of variance (1.7) between the lowest and highest scoring units. If you analyze the charts further, you’ll find that this is also the case in all individual categories with the highest variance being in the Input/Output, Price to performance, and connectivity categories. You can see that the Audient iD44 beats both units in the input/output and price to performance categories. However, the Twin seems to take the lead when it comes to connectivity beating the other 2 units by a huge margin.

In fact, the Twin X DUO scores the highest in 3 out of 5 categories (sound quality, additional features, and connectivity). This puts the unit at a clear advantage if you value performance above anything else. It also has an incredibly low latency compared to the other 2 units because of its built-in DSP and TB3 connectivity. However, it scores relatively low in the I/O and price to performance categories, but that’s more so because it is sort of a premium interface and the individual category scores aren’t that bad if you look at it. You can get the QUAD version with better I/O but that costs more, with this unit you still get the amazing preamps at a much lower cost.

We would also like to mention that the iD44 is also an awfully powerful unit that certainly rivals the Twin X DUO. As you can see, the variance between both interfaces’ overall scores is only 0.4 which isn’t a notable difference. In fact, if Audient had installed the same connectivity technology used by the Twin X DUO in its iD44, the iD44 would have come on top leading with an overall score of 9. Albeit the unit is very competitive as it is. With such a small score difference, it’s really a matter of choosing what audio interface can fulfill your needs whether it is price efficiency, sound quality, etc.

However, if we had to declare an unequivocal winner for the audio interface best preamps title, then the Twin X DUO takes it home. Leading with an overall average score of 8.7, the Twin X DUO emerges as the most well rounded unit of the bunch. It has incredible converters, a ton of features, and remarkably powerful preamps which are all packed into a compact device. You’re also bound to have a pleasant experience using the Twin X DUO especially because of the UA plugins. If you’re looking for an audio interface to take your production game to the next level, look no further than the Twin X DUO! It is highly recommended.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most important factor when choosing an Audio Interface with the best Preamps?

The most important factor when evaluating an Audio Interface for sound quality is to see how transparent the preamps are. Your interface should take your input signal without adding any color or modification unless you yourself add any effects. This is what you want with all your studio equipment, you want it to be true!

Other than Preamps, what other components of an Audio Interface are important in terms of Sound Quality?

Among other things that impact sound quality are your converters (DAC), where preamps take the input signal the converters play it back to you. They play less of a role than preamps but still contribute quite a bit to your overall sound. always use updated drivers to avoid latency and any other technical issues. Most modern interfaces come with specific drivers, always install those.

Will a cheaper Audio Interface have low quality Preamps?

Not always, some cheaper interfaces such as Focusrite Scarlett series are known for having quality preamps for the price. However, not all interfaces are made the same. More expensive interfaces will almost always have better preamps that will outperform ones on the cheaper interfaces.

Other than an Audio Interface, what else impacts Sound Quality?

Other than your interface, you want to make sure that your room is well treated. Any monitors you are using are flat, because only then will you be able to mix your tracks properly which will result in high quality audio that sounds good on any device. Finally, make sure to use high quality mics if you record vocals or any acoustic instruments.