When choosing a small portable audio interface, it is important to first understand what exactly you are trying to do. If you’re traveling and just planning on editing, then you don’t really care much for I/O. Maybe just a mic and a headphone, or a singular instrument plugged in at most would get the job done.
On the other hand, if you are looking to record multiple tracks, have multiple instruments (recording a live band/orchestra), and are also looking for something somewhat portable at the same time then the use case totally changes here. You’re going to need a lot more than a solo interface in this case, and more I/O means the interface is going to be a bit larger in size, however there are still plenty smaller options for you to choose from.
When recording or editing in different situations, you may not have access to monitors everywhere. To avoid any monitoring issues, you want to look for an interface that has at least one headphone output. Similarly, if you’re hooking up a condenser mic then Phantom Power also becomes important.
While a smaller size and portability are number one priority, at the same time you want something that also delivers high quality audio. Both of these can sometimes be inversely proportional, however, there are a lot of modern interfaces that are built smaller without impacting sound quality. Whatever you do, do not sacrifice on the final output. Get an interface with good converters and preamps so your tracks get recorded properly and the end result is worth your time.
You also want to keep your budget in mind. The higher the better. These days you can find something that will give you good results within a ‘not so high’ budget. Modern interfaces have come a long way and even cheaper ones are engineered to give a decent output. Depending on what you are planning on doing with the interface, even a cheap $100 to $200 interface may get the job done.
In terms of connectivity, when you’re on the go, generally you want to avoid any fancy (Thunderbolt) or outdated ports. USB ports are universal and can be found on every machine. If you’re not carrying your laptop everywhere then this becomes a huge factor in your final selection.
Finally, an important feature that you may consider is how the interface is powered. If you’re out and about and don’t have access to a power supply then an interface that can run on batteries would be nice. However, most interfaces do not run on batteries and if you try to find alternate ways to power them with batteries, you may not get the best output. A great way to combat the power situation is to use a USB power bank, that will easily get you through a recording session without struggling to find ways to power your interface. You also have interfaces that are bus powered that do not require a power supply and can be powered with a connection to a laptop or a tablet.
Best Portable Audio Interface Reviews
Apogee Duet 3
When it comes to portable audio interfaces, the Apogee Duet 3 should have a major share of the conversation. It is a powerful USB-C audio interface that features 4 inputs and 2 outputs. It is also an extremely light and compact interface which has an elegant tablet form. The whole unit weighs about 2 lbs., which is perfect if you’re a traveling artist.
The inputs and outputs on the Duet 3 don’t have their own corresponding sockets on the interface. Instead, you’ll have to access them through the breakout cable. With this cable, you get access to two ¼’’ line inputs, two ¼’’ XLR inputs, and two balanced line outputs. The Duet 3 does, however, feature a ¼’’ headphone output socket along with a USB-C socket. It also conveniently doesn’t require an external power supply, instead, it is bus-powered through the USB-C connection.
The unit’s front panel is made of Gorilla glass enclosed in an aluminum casing. This same panel features some LEDs that indicate the state of your Inputs and your output levels. However, you don’t really get a lot of physical controls with the Duet 3. Instead you get a large multi-purpose knob which you can use for almost anything from adjusting your input gain, controlling headphone levels, and toggling between your I/Os, among other uses. You can control its function using the Apogee Control 2 software which also allows you to monitor your I/O levels, toggle phantom power, etc.
The Duet 3 features a 192kHz sample rate and a 24-bit depth. This can be in part attributed to its incredibly powerful AD and DA converters. The unit also contains 2 of Apogee’s best in class preamps which provide 65 dB of gain and a crystal clear output. Additionally, the Duet 3 has a powerful built-in DSP which lets you run several plug-ins simultaneously with no noticeable delay. This is an incredible add on because this makes it comparable to the Apollo units from UA (for powering FX plugins).
With regards to sound quality, the Duet 3 is an absolute beast! We ran several tests on it and tried maxing out all of its parameters and features. It just kept on reliably pumping amazing audio regardless of what we threw at it! We even tried running several plug-ins to see if it can handle it. And it did so seamlessly! The best part is that we put almost no effort setting it up, we just plugged it in and started jamming without having to install any mandatory drivers. Also, the native ECS channel strip that comes with the Duet 3 is incredibly useful!
Compared to the Duet 2(its predecessor), the Duet 3 is on a completely different level! This is definitely expected considering that the Duet 2 was released more than a decade ago! You really can’t compare both unit’s components, the Duet 3 simply outclasses the Duet 2 in every single aspect. Especially its sound quality which is a huge step-up from the Duet 2. Additionally, the Duet 3’s breakout cable features 2 XLR and 2 LIne inputs unlike the Duet 2 which only offered 2 combo XLR/Line inputs. The Duet 3 also upgraded to a more progressive ¼’’ headphone output compared to Duet 2’s outdated ⅛’’ headphone output. Most importantly, you’ll appreciate the new slim and futuristic design of the Duet 3 as opposed to Duet 2’s mundane brick like form. Finally, the unit features an awesome onboard DSP which really elevates it from its predecessor.
We did find some drawbacks with the Duet 3. For example, while we do consider the breakout cable to be extremely helpful for managing I/O, we do feel that it introduces a bit of clutter and disorderliness. However, Apogee offers an optional dock that enables you to directly connect your I/O to your interface which is a good way to combat the situation, but then you have to spend more money.
Additionally, we do think that Apogee might have taken the simplistic design a bit too far. The single knob design might seem compelling in theory, but practically speaking, we really dislike having to press the same button to cycle through features, or otherwise completely depending on the Control software. It’s more a matter of preference and a lot of people do seem to really like this design.
Finally, the Duet 3 has been reported as being unstable on Windows. Some people have reported random noise and audio dropouts using their Windows system. However, we cannot really speak to that since we tested it on a mac and didn’t face any issues of that sort.
Overall, the Duet 3 is an incredibly powerful high-end audio interface. From exceptionally efficient components to a great compact design, the Duet 3 seems to have everything you would want from a portable interface. If you want to guarantee getting high quality recordings and a lot of pizazz then go for the Duet 3.
Apogee Duet 3 Benefits
The Duet 3 contains incredibly powerful converters and 2 of the best preamps in the market.
It has a powerful built-in DSP that enables you to run several plug-ins with almost zero latency.
Its slick and incredibly compact design makes it perfect for traveling purposes.
You can conveniently control all your parameters using the Apogees Control 2 software
Apogee Duet 3 Drawbacks
The breakout cable might be annoying for some people. However, you can buy the optional dock to avoid this issue.
While the 1 knob design seems interesting, it’s very far from being efficient in practical situations.
The Duet 3 is a bit unstable on Windows systems. Apogee still has some patching to do to improve Windows usability.
Universal Audio Volt 176
The Volt 176 is one of the more budget-friendly and powerful audio interfaces in UA’s Volt series. It is an extremely compact and light unit that is geared towards on-the-go users. The whole thing weighs about 1.5 lbs. making it one of the lightest interfaces in the market. It is also exceptionally well built and has a terrific design.
The 176 features a single XLR/TRS combo input and 2 line outputs. This input directly feeds to a powerful mic preamp that also features a vintage mode. You can also toggle phantom power (48V) and INST mode (used for high impedance inputs) for this input using 2 separate buttons. On the rear panel, you’ll find your 2 monitor outputs, MIDI I/O, a USB-C socket, and a 5V DC input. The 5V external power is optional since the 176 is USB bus-powered. This means that you can opt for either power sources which is extremely helpful if you’re traveling.
The 176 also features a ¼’’ headphone output that has its own volume encoder knob. On its main panel, you’ll find 2 knobs: one for controlling your input gain and another for adjusting your monitor output levels. This same panel features a vintage mode toggle and a “76 compressor” button that activates your 176’s built-in compressor. This compressor is based on the UA 1176 which works especially well with vocals and bass. You can also monitor your I/O levels using 5-level LED meters on the top right corner. Plus, there is a direct monitoring switch that allows you to listen to your input signals with zero-latency.
With regards to sound quality, the UA volt contains extremely powerful AD/DA converters that provide you with a 192kHz sample rate and a 24 Bit depth. When we finally had our hands on the Volt 176, we immediately wanted to test out the 76 compressor. Since It’s particularly uncommon for an audio interface in this price range to contain a built-in compressor, we expected very basic effects. However, the effects it produced kind pof blew us away. They worked incredibly well, especially with vocals. We were able to push the sound quality a step further when we activated both the Vintage preamp mode and the 76 compressor concurrently. At that point, we were just pumping out professional level recordings.
The 176 also works really well with an iPad. We only had to connect it to our interface and everything worked seamlessly. The power button on the Volt series is also an admirable addition. We really think that having a power switch should be normalized on all audio interfaces.
When UA announced their Volt series, they simultaneously introduced 5 different models. They dropped 2 regular models and 3 “76” models that mainly differ in number of I/O. There are some common features between all models like the MIDI I/O, monitor outputs, vintage mode, etc. However, you’ll find some major differences between the 76 and regular models. Primarily, 76 models feature an amazing built-in compressor emulator unlike the regular models. Additionally, you‘ll see that both models are designed completely differently where the 76 model has a more pleasant design and it features most of its inputs on its top panels for more accessibility. The 76 models also have much better LED meters compared to the regular models.
In all fairness, there were some things we didn’t like about the UA Volt 176. For example, while it does produce extremely fancy sounds, you don’t get a lot of I/O. A single XLR/TRS combo input can be awfully limiting when it comes to recording. The same goes for its 2 monitor outputs. Additionally, while the Vintage preamps and 76 compressor modes seem like solid additions, we do think that it can be a bit too much, or even a bit harsh on high frequencies. Also, the phantom power seems to reset whenever you power off the interface. This can certainly be a bit irritating. However, it shouldn’t be much of an issue if you don’t frequently Power OFF/ON your unit.
Overall, we think that the Volt 176 is one of the best budget friendly and portable audio interfaces in the market. It is incredibly compact, powerful, and well-designed. It also has a lot of additional commendable features that we really can’t get enough of. If portability is your most important criteria, then the Volt 176 should definitely be your go to!
UA Volt 176 Benefits
The unit contains incredibly powerful AD and DA converters that provide excellent sound quality.
You get access to vintage mode and a built-in 76 compressor emulator which sounds very pleasant.
You can use the Volt 176 with your iPad device without any issues.
It is extremely compact and light. You can easily take it anywhere and its dual power option serves this purpose perfectly well.
UA Volt 176 Drawbacks
You don’t get access to a lot of I/Os. Having a single input and only two outputs can be terribly limiting.
The phantom power option resets whenever you turn OFF your interface. So you’ll have to re-toggle it every time that happens.
The vintage mode can be a bit harsh for high frequency audio. Yet, it still does a great job with vocals.
The Zoom U-44 is an extremely small and portable USB audio interface that features a 96kHz sample rate and a 24-bit depth. It has a unique handheld form that is perfect for on-the-go purposes. It is also one of the lightest audio interfaces in the market, weighing a nominal 285g. The unit also has quite a distinct design almost mimicking old handheld transceivers.
As the name suggests, the U-44 has 4 inputs and 4 outputs. On its main panel, you’ll find 2 TRS/XLR combo inputs each with its own gain knob and a common phantom power(48V) toggle. Input 1 also features a HI-Z toggle which is used for high impedance inputs. You’ll also find 2 TRS outputs, 2 unbalanced RCA line outputs, and a headphone output which has its own output level controller. The same panel features a main output level knob, a direct monitoring switch, and 2 separate mute buttons for channels A and B (RCA channels).
Everything we just mentioned can be found on the top panel. However, you’ll find a lot of controls on the side panels as well. For example, you can access the U-44’s 10 pin Zoom connector through a detachable compartment on the bottom side panel. This connector allows you to attach any of 6 different capsules each with a specific use-case.
The U-44’s left side panel also features SPDIF expansion either through Coaxial I/O or ADAT I/O. You’ll also find 3 separate switches on the same side that let you: choose your power source, select your SPDIF input, and choose your interface’s operation mode (default mode or as a standalone A/D D/A). The top side panel features your MIDI I/O, a 5V DC socket, and a USB-B port. Finally, you’ll find a battery compartment on the back panel of the interface that can hold 2 AA type batteries.
The U-44 is more than equipped when it comes to power access. You can operate your U-44 using a 5V DC source, a direct USB connection, or with AA batteries. Having this variety is extremely useful for traveling purposes, especially the AA batteries which guarantee that you’ll always have a backup plan. Specifically, in the case where you don’t have access to either a laptop or an electric outlet.
When we started testing the unit, we were very impressed by how light the thing is. We could easily hold it with one hand and not feel its weight at all. The preamps and converters on this thing, while not the best, produce a reliable audio output. You will appreciate how many I/Os it has considering how small it is. Unlike the U-44, most interfaces of this size usually feature a maximum of 2-4 I/O and might not include MIDI and SPDIF expansion capabilities. Additionally, we wanted to test if our iPad can operate well with the U-44. As expected, the U-44 worked smoothly with our iPad and we didn’t have to install any mandatory drivers, all we had to do was connect both units via USB.
The U-44 was released alongside 2 other cheaper models that mainly feature less I/O (the U-22 and U-24). However, these models weren’t Zoom’s first attempt at creating rather inexpensive audio interfaces, they had already released the UAC-2 a year prior. While both the U-44 and UAC-2 cost almost the same, they have a lot of major differences. In essence, the U-44 is more tailored towards portability and adaptability. So, you get a broad range of I/Os, additional power features, and a rather compact device. On the other hand, the UAC-2 focuses on providing you the best sound quality. It has a tabletop form and features 2 less I/Os than the U-44 and no SPDIF expansion capabilities. You also won’t be able to power your UAC-2 with batteries only unlike the U-44. However, the UAC-2 has a much more user-friendly design and can produce much better audio than the U-44.
When it comes to downsides, we can’t begin to highlight how unattractive the design is. The U-44 is built like something out of the 90s. However, while it lacks aesthetics, it gets the job done. We also had some trouble finding our way around the U-44, this could be a concern if you’re just starting out. The unit is not user friendly, so you may have to watch tutorials online or read the manual extensively to figure things out.
While the U-44 is probably the best audio interface when it comes to portability, if you choose to go with this unit you are compromising on sound quality. You can certainly get much better sounding interfaces for the same price. However, you won’t find anything that offers as much flexibility as the U-44 in terms of all the features, but you’ll notice a significant improvement in audio output if you go with other interfaces.
Overall, we really believe that the U-44 is one of the best audio interfaces in the market for traveling. You get a great amount of I/Os, many power options, and a lot of controls all packed into a single compact device. You really should determine if portability is your most important criterion, because if that’s the case, then you should unquestionably go for the U-44. At the end of the day, you are getting a lot for your money so there really shouldn’t be any complaints for the shortcomings of this unit.
Zoom U-44 Benefits
You get a great amount of inputs and outputs considering its rather inexpensive price tag.
You have 3 separate power options including a battery option that can be life saving if you’re traveling.
The U-44 is incredibly small and light. You can easily take it anywhere without much hassle.
The unit works perfectly with iPad devices. It’s also class-compliant so you won’t have to install extra drivers.
You can operate the device as a standalone A/D or D/A.
Zoom U-44 Drawbacks
The U-44 has a very unpleasant design. Its handheld form looks like a 90s handheld transceiver.
You might have some trouble figuring it out. Its controls can be a bit overwhelming if you’re just starting out.
The unit doesn’t provide the best audio output. For example, you can only get a maximum 96kHz sample rate.
Based on our scoring model, you can see that there are large variances in all individual categories except for connectivity. The U-44 scores the highest in the I/O and Price to performance category but has the lowest scores in all other categories. On the other hand, the Duet 3 seems to excel in the same categories that the U-44 fails in, while the Volt 176’s scores remain relatively stable throughout all categories.
According to the chart, you can see that the Duet 3 has the best sound quality, the finest connectivity, and a great deal of additional features. However, we would like to point out that the Duet 3 costs almost 3 times more than the Volt 176 and the U-44. So if you consider this interface, you should be ready to shell out extra cash. In our opinion, the price is justified considering the higher quality. This is a decision you will have to make depending on your budget.
The Volt 176 and the U-44 are also interesting choices, and each of them have their own upside. Both compete head to head with average scores of 8 and 7.9 respectively. While the 0.1 variance is negligible, you’ll find that both units have unique selling points. The U-44 scores 10 in the I/O category as opposed to the U-44’s score of 6.5 and on the other hand, the Volt 176 has the upper hand in terms of sound quality. Based on our testing, we infer that the U-44 is better suited for portability purposes (more I/O and power options) and provides a better cost to quality ratio. However, this isn’t to take away from the Volt 176 which sounds much better than the U-44.
While the main competition in this case was between the Volt and the U-44, the Apogee Duet 3 is undoubtedly the best of all 3 units, and that too, by a huge margin! With the Duet 3, you get amazing preamps, incredible converters, and a fair amount of I/O. You can also run multiple plugins on this thing with zero latency because of its powerful built-in DSP. Additionally, you’ll immediately notice the effort Apogee has put towards keeping the Duet 3’s form factor to a minimum while also creating a very appealing device. All of this makes the Duet 3 one of the best portable audio interfaces in the market. You genuinely can’t go wrong with the Duet 3. Even if the purchase costs more upfront, you are getting a lot of value for your dollar.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will a Portable Audio Interface impact Sound Quality?
Modern interfaces have come a long way! While smaller interfaces tend to not have the best sound output, but that’s not always the case. There are certainly interfaces that are compact and at the same time have great preamps and converters. However, if you want to go for high quality you will need to spend a bit more money. There are plenty of interfaces with a smaller form factor that sound excellent! The only thing you almost always make a compromise on is the I/O configuration. You will have fewer channels with portable interfaces.
What sort of I/O configuration should I consider for a Portable Audio Interface?
This really depends on your use case. What is it that you are trying to do? If you are looking to mic a drumset or record a live band then you want at least 8 inputs. If you’re just editing on the go then even a solo interface will do just fine! On the other hand, a 2 or 3 input interface will probably be the most efficient since it will allow you more functionality without sacrificing on the portability aspect.
What connectivity is best for a Portable Audio Interface?
In terms of connectivity, USB-C interfaces are probably your best bet. Modern interfaces are built really well, and there really isn’t much different b/w Thunderbolt and USB interfaces in terms of latency. It’s more about build quality. With a USB interface you are much safer since you won’t run into connectivity issues on the go with different devices (everything has a USB port).
What are other beneficial features/addons for a Portable Audio Interface?
A few features to consider would be headphone monitoring, an interface that you can power with batteries, and maybe even a USB bank that you can use to power your interface if you find yourself in a situation without direct access to power.