Does an Audio Interface Improve Sound Quality?


An audio interface will significantly improve your computer’s sound quality. An interface is a type of external audio device that is much more powerful than a soundcard, which, in most cases, is built into your computer’s motherboard. Stock soundcards are aimed towards consumers and lack proper filtering. They are not designed to produce a detailed output for music production. An audio interface on the other hand, provides a much more granular and reliable output, ideal for music production.

Almost all audio interfaces feature built-in preamplifiers. The amplified sound signals offer extreme clarity. In addition to amplification, audio interfaces also add more gain; allowing you to calibrate input signals, giving you a much well defined sound.

Other than efficient drivers, modern audio interfaces also have excellent analog to digital conversion ability. Furthermore, the diverse amplification possibilities, for example making use of a headphone jack vs. plugging something into balanced line outputs, really give audio interfaces a huge advantage. Soundcards for the most part, are not only poor at conversion, they’re also built with cheaper components. An audio interface will always improve sound quality, 100% of the time!

How does an Audio Interface Improve Sound Quality?

You get Reduced Latency

Most computers available in the market are produced in bulk and aren’t intended for professional use. This is reflected in the pc’s poor build quality, inadequate internal parts and software drivers, among other things. For example, A MacBook Pro which is considered to be a high-end computer, has decent audio quality compared to other mass-produced devices, but its design still won’t allow for high-fidelity sound and the device lacks proper low latency performance. An audio interface, however, has excellent software drivers that outperform any stock soundcard.

A computer’s latency is usually attributed to the digital-to-analog conversion process. Whenever your computer is processing a digital sound frequency, it has to convert it to analog, therefore the output will be delayed depending on your processor’s speed. On the other hand, an audio interface has it’s own signal processor which eliminates the need for your computer to process sound. Even if you are using a High-end CPU, the delay imposed will still be evident. Therefore, using an audio interface will significantly reduce the audio delay.

 Higher Sample Rates

The sample rate is the number of measurements of sound taken per second. The higher the sample rate, the more detailed the sound wave, which results in a higher quality audio.

The sample rate is analogous to the amount of pixels in a digital photo. Similar to digital images which consist of pixels, digital sounds are made of tiny pieces called samples which constitute the quality of sound. Sample rates are usually expressed in KiloHertz (kHz). For example, a sample rate of 44.1kHz (which is the standard for a CD) means that 44,100 samples are recorded each second. Unlike digital photos, a drop in samples will not cause a distortion or loss of information, the sound will mainly just get duller.

In most cases, a basic IC (integrated Circuit) on the pc’s motherboard will handle the soundcard’s job. However, laptops won’t house a separate sound card since space is limited. But even with sufficient space, a desktop PC’s sound quality might not be up to your music standards.

The most common Audio Interfaces on the market support a range of 44.1 to 192 kHz. Having a High sample rate will always prove beneficial even if you intend to release at lower resolutions. For example, A digital signal processor (DSP) processes data in chunks called sample windows. This window will ultimately truncate the data, so by having a larger sample pool, you will further prevent digital degradation. Furthermore, a 44.1kHz sample rate is only the standard for cd players and digital music. However, the sample rate could reach 48 in a standard digital video and as much as 96 in Blu-ray audio.

Additionally, having a higher sampling rate will ultimately decrease the processor’s latency, because an audio interface doesn’t run on a fixed time, but on a fixed number of samples. For instance, processing a 512 sample at 44.1kHz will take roughly 11ms to buffer, However, this same sample will take almost half the amount of time to buffer at a Sample rate of 96kHz (5.3ms), which is a huge difference in terms of processing speed!

Higher Bit Depth

A sample rate indicates the number of pieces that constitute a recording. However, a bit depth defines how many different pieces there are in a recording. In essence, the bit depth is the number of bits of information recorded for each sample.

Fundamentally, Audio quality is dependent on bit depth, so having a very low bit depth will cause your audio quality to suffer. In other words, low bit depth will cause a fair amount of quiet sounds to be lost. On the other hand, high bit depth audio files will have a much more accurate playback, considering that bit depth controls the dynamic range aspect of sound; which is the ratio between the part with the loudest and the part with the quietest sound of an audio. Bit depth is expressed as 8-bit,16-bit,24-bit and 32-bit in an increasing order of dynamic range availability. Essentially, bit depth describes the data contained per sample of an audio file.

Old PCs had sound cards of 8-bit depth, yet the majority of today’s PCs have built 16-bit sound cards. In professional environments, however, the standard bit depth is 24-on which is also what audio interfaces use. Sound is recreated more accurately at higher bit depths since more data is captured. On the contrary, a low bit depth will result in a bad quality audio output due to the loss of information. For instance, a sample recorded using a 16-bit depth could contain any of 65,536 unique values (216). On the other hand, with a 24- bit depth, you can obtain around 16,777,216 unique values (224), an immense difference indeed!

Better Output

DACs (digital to analog converter) and headphone amplifiers are components of audio interfaces. These components are also present in any modern phone or computer, however, since the primary use of these components is Digital conversion and headphone powering, you shouldn’t expect astounding performance. Aside from that, they will still outperform a regular laptop in terms of sound quality; This is most noticeable if your headphones have really high impedance.

If you switch your headphone output to an audio interface, you will notice that it is an understatement to assume that there is only a minor difference. The perks of having a physical volume knob and an overall higher volume limit are definitely worth getting an audio interface.

If you do not need a mic, then instead of purchasing an audio interface, it may be a better idea to get a DAC along with a headphone amp. A combination of the two will result in an overall better sound quality than your computer’s stock sound card

Less System Noise

Audio interfaces provide extensive noise reduction for any audio input compared to a computer’s noise filtering IC. This is attributed to the well designed filtering circuit of the Audio interface and its high-end audio processing ability. Noise in any audio system could be attributed to various sources, even then, the noise created by audio interfaces is very perceptible!

Different audio interfaces have different ICs,Components, and configurations, as a result, they have different qualities. A well designed high-end audio interface will generally have a smaller impact on noise generation compared to a low-end audio interface. Hence, the choice of audio interface will vastly impact how much noise it will contribute to your audio system.

To determine whether your audio interface will produce more overall noise compared to not using one, you should first find out what your audio system defaults to. In most cases, the computer system will rely on its built in capabilities or stock soundcard to process any digital audio data. Given that assumption, it is safe to assume that an audio interface will produce much less noise compared to the built-in soundcard.

Final words

If you are assuming that you aren’t missing out on much just relying on your PC’s default sound system, then you are mistaken. You’re compromising improved audio quality and most probably have to deal with higher delays depending on your RME performance. In most cases, you could hear distorting audio when listening to music, this is because stock soundcards are not made for music production. A proper Audio interface will always improve your audio quality by allowing you to run more plugins with small delays. You could think of buying an Audio interface to be the equivalent of upgrading to a high-end processor; that is when it comes to music quality.

Different audio interfaces will vary in efficiency depending on the product itself, even though they all aim to improve audio processing efficiency. This difference is mostly due to the interface drivers; For instance, You may at times not be able to run a demo project written using a laptop’s built-in soundcard drivers, however, using an interface will effectively resolve this issue.

We have noticed a drop in efficiency when switching to a Firestudio project from a Presonus Firebox on a PC. using a Presonus Firebox allowed us to run more plugins longer than a Firestudio, it also allowed for lower latencies much easily.

It will be challenging to process audio at 2ms or lower without an Audio Interface. In other words, you should definitely have something dedicated for audio , even if you don’t plan on recording!