Review: 5 Home Studio Production Soundcards Under $1000

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Soundcards – for electronic music producers, they’re the central hub of input and output to a digital audio workstation in a home studio. Today we’ve got a massive roundup of five soundcards under $1000 for producers who demand quality while still remaining within a budget. Read on to see how offerings from RME, Apogee, Propellerhead, Akai, and Alva stack up!

The pictured soundcards in the above image are the Balance, EIE (not the Pro model), and Nanoface.  

SOUNDS GOOD!

When it comes to choosing a sound card for modern electronic music production setups, there are no shortages of affordable, capable options. With the advent of computer-based digital audio workstations, it’s now possible to record, mix, and master everything ‘in the box,’ eliminating the need for a plethora of outboard gear.

Consequently, a new class of ultra-portable audio interfaces have emerged that despite having a limited number of inputs and outputs, are jam-packed with all the features you need to create computer-based music.  In this roundup, we’re featuring five of these sound cards that span a range of prices and features to help you determine which one is perfect for you.

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RME Babyface | Apogee Duet 2 | Propellerhead Balance | Alva Nanoface | Akai EIE Pro

  • Price: $799 MSRP, available here for $716
  • Included: Sound Card, Breakout Cable + Extension Cable, Carrying Bag, USB Cable
  • Weight: 1.1 lbs
  • Connectivity: USB, 2x XLR Inputs, 2x XLR Outputs, 2x ADAT/SPDIF Optical I/O, 2x ¼ Headphone Outputs, 1x ¼ Hi-Z Instrument Input, Power Supply (Optional)
  • Recording Resolution: Up to 24 bit, 192khz

First is the RME Babyface, a card that sports both a comprehensive feature set and a relatively high price tag. RME has an excellent reputation in the pro audio world for crafting high-quality interfaces with innovative features and solid drivers. The Babyface is no exception and includes many features found on RME’s higher end interfaces.

For most project studio users looking to purchase a high-end two-channel interface in the price range of the Babyface, the chief concerns would be sound quality of the A/D converters & mic pre-amps, latency performance, and ease of use. RME’s custom M- series converters sound crisp, accurate, and among the best of the units tested. The Babyface’s converters will definitely not be the weak link in your monitoring chain, and with its large wheel to control the output, input, and headphone volume, the Babyface doubles as a monitor controller quite handily. While playing back a relatively quiet, un-mastered recording, I was able to set a comfortable listening level using only about a third of the Babyface’s available output gain. The mic pre-amps also performed well, providing an accurate recording of vocal, guitar, and piano tracks. The Babyface delivers up to 60dB of input gain, which is enough for recording even demanding phantom-powered ribbon microphones. The sound of the preamps and converters did not color the sound in any way but lent itself quite well to post-recording effects processing.

An often-overlooked quality in sound cards are the drivers. Some manufacturers invest all their time and money in crafting stellar pieces of hardware then write sub-par drivers for their devices, often as an afterthought. On OS X, the Balance and Duet 2 both use the Core Audio driver built into the operating system which provides easy setup and integration with on OS X and iOS, but delivers less than optimal latency performance. RME crafts its own custom drivers, which ensures optimal functionality and latency performance. I was to run a fairly demanding control project full of third party VST instruments and effects in Ableton Live 9 at just 32 samples (2.15 milliseconds of latency) at a sampling rate of 44.1 khz with the RME Babyface, making it by far the best choice out of any of the sound cards listed for driver stability and latency performance.

The Babyface is, for the most part, exceptionally easy to use. Weighing just 1.1 lbs, it is light enough to be easily portable, but is heavy enough to ensure durability and quality craftsmanship. Connectivity is provided via a breakout cable (pictured at left).

The only thing that isn’t so user-friendly is RME’s TotalMix FX software control panel. Although it’s clearly a powerful piece of software that promises to help you route, affect, and monitor all the audio coming into and going out of the Babyface, its interface is more than a little daunting and prevented me from fully coming to grips with it. Admittedly I’ve had little need for the bulk of its features, aimed at live sound and conventional studio engineers who must manage the monitoring of multiple musicians. These features have far less relevance for electronic musicians generating all their sounds in the computer. Still, TotalMix FX provides you with features like Dim, Talkback, Direct Monitoring, and extensive routing options usually found on high end recording consoles to confidently handle any recording situation.

Summary: the RME Babyface is an excellent choice for project studio musicians. The top-notch sound quality of its converters and preamps, exceptional drivers, and robust construction make it a pleasure to work with as long as you can reconcile yourself with the relatively high price tag. It is also worth noting that many of the features found in TotalMix FX that surely contribute to the Babyface’s higher price tag aren’t particularly relevant to electronic music producers operating exclusively in the computer, so if you’re after a simple, no frills two-channel sound card with superb sound quality, you may want to consider the Apogee Duet 2 or look elsewhere to save some money.

Verdict: 4.5/5
Pros: Rock solid drivers & latency performance, very clear & detailed sound quality, clean & loud pre-amps, very flexible DSP, expandable
Cons: Expensive, confusing control panel software, DSP features are overkill for most project studios

  • Price: $595 (MSRP)
  • Included: breakout cable, USB cable, power supply
  • Weight: 1.1 lbs
  • Connectivity: USB, 2x XLR/TRS Inputs, 2x TRS Output, 1x Stereo Headphone Output, Optional Power Supply
  • Recording Resolution: up to 24 bit, 192khz

Apogee’s Duet 2 sound card is a follow up to their acclaimed original Duet FireWire interface and supports the Mac OS X operating system exclusively. Not surprisingly, the Duet 2’s brushed aluminum chassis and the Maestro control panel software looks and feels very much like an Apple product. At $599, its feature set emphasizes sound quality and solid construction whilst relying on a breakout cable for connectivity, much like the RME Babyface. Unlike the Babyface, the Duet 2 forgoes extra features such as a carrying case, digital I/O and onboard DSP in favor of retailing at a lower price point.

Using the Duet 2 is quite simple and straightforward. Simply plug in the device via the included breakout cable (or optional breakout box), download the driver from Apogee’s website, restart your computer, and you’re off and running. Despite having some previous driver issues when awaking from sleep, Apogee updated the drivers to address this issue. During testing, the drivers performed quite well, managing latencies as low as 96 samples (around 5 miliseconds) on a CPU intensive Ableton control session running at a 44.1 khz sample rate.

The large silver knob on the top of the Duet 2 acts as both a monitor controller for the two main outputs and headphone output, while also controlling the input level of either one of the Duet 2’s two XLR/TRS inputs. The bright, colorful OLED display above the encoder provides excellent visual feedback on the levels of all inputs and outputs. Like the RME Babyface, selecting which input or output you’d like to control is as simple as pushing the silver encoder. The Duet 2 also includes the novel feature of assignable touchpads located directly below the monitor encoder, enabling you to assign a function such as output mute, dim, or sum to mono from the Maestro control panel. The control panel’s straightforward interface provided a welcome relief from the bewildering complexity of RME’s TotalMix FX software, but at the cost of considerable functionality. Here you can access I/O levels and settings, engage phantom power, enable soft limit to avoid clipping while recording, and much more.

Out of all the interfaces tested, I found the Duet 2 to be the most pleasing to the ears. The sound was smooth, detailed, and wide open while containing incredible detail during both playback and recording using all available sample rates. I was able to achieve a comfortable listening volume using only a third of the Duet 2’s available mains output, and the 75db of input pre-amp gain proved more than enough for capturing impressively loud recordings from microphones. The headphone amp also proved to be quite powerful, requiring only about a quarter of the available level.

Summary: The Apogee Duet 2 is a great-sounding, capable audio interface for modern recording applications. Despite being available exclusively for Macintosh computers and not very expandable due to a lack of digital I/O, the Apogee Duet 2 will most likely handle any 2 channel recording situation you can throw at it. Although the lack of onboard DSP and extensive routing options that can be found on its main competitor, the RME Babyface, make the Duet 2 less expandable and more limiting, the card is perfect for those who just want high quality playback and recording without all the bells and whistles.

Verdict: 4/5
Pros: Superb converter & pre-amp sound quality, OLED display provides instant visual feedback, Maestro software is simple and easy to navigate
Cons: History of driver connectivity issues, latency not as low as RME Babyface, expensive 

  • Price: $399 (MSRP)
  • Included: USB Cable, Reason Essentials, Reason 6.5 Upgrade
  • Weight: 1.3 lbs
  • Connectivity: USB, 2x TRS Outputs, 1x Stereo Headphone Output, 4x TRS Inputs, 2x TRS Instrument Input, 2x XLR Inputs (only 2 Inputs can be used simultaneously)
  • Recording Resolution: Up to 24 Bit, 96khz

Propellerhead, the Swedish company known for their software DAW Reason, makes their first foray into the crowded market of desktop audio interfaces with Balance, a 2-in/2-out ergonomically shaped device that doubles as a monitor controller. Priced at $399, the card is targeted at budget producers who want hands-on control of their music and the ability to easily record multiple microphones and instruments. Balance delivers all that and then some, with a few innovative extras thrown in for good measure.

Out of the box, you’ll find the Balance, a USB cable, and a copy of Reason Essentials to get you making music right away. Connectivity options include 2 XLR microphone inputs with phantom power, 2 ¼” guitar inputs with gain boost (pad), 4 TRS inputs, and 2 TRS outputs. Despite the extensive connectivity, only 2 inputs and 2 outputs are available for simultaneous use, meaning you’ll need to select them from the onboard controls. Despite this limitation, having the ability to connect multiple input sources means less time unplugging and re-plugging cables, making the Balance similar to a mini patch bay. The matte black colored interface is sleek and boxy, but its angled design is both a blessing and a curse: its large volume control knobs are easy to use while planted on your desktop but the device is rather awkward to travel with. The lack of a collapsible design is lamentable, but it can hardly be considered a serious design flaw for a product that’s destined to spend most of its time on your desktop.

The rear of the Balance - click for full screen.

Configuring Balance to work with your computer couldn’t be easier on Mac OS X thanks to the Propellerhead’s use of Apple’s Core Audio drivers – plug and play. On Windows, things are slightly more complicated, requiring a driver download from the Propellerheads website and a quick reboot. Getting up and running with Reason Essentials is quick and easy thanks to the software license that’s stored directly on the device via an embedded flash drive.  This is a nifty feature but too bad you can’t write any files to this drive. Once you’re setup with the DAW of your choice, you’re able to access the essential functions of the interface such as setting input and output levels, enabling phantom power, and selecting inputs directly from the device itself. This is a great design decision that makes interacting with the Balance quicker and easier than navigating software control panels and is more akin to working with traditional recording hardware.

Once I loaded up my test session in Ableton, using the Balance was quite straightforward. I was able to get a nice loud signal using only about a third of the available output. The Texas Instruments microphone pre-amplifiers performed quite well, requiring only about half of the available gain on the stepped input knobs to capture decently lively recordings of guitar, piano, and vocal tracks. And just in case your input levels get too hot while recording, you can enable to “clip-safe” mode to automatically reduce the input level and prevent digital distortion. The Balance uses Cirrus-Logic converters that sound decently punchy and accurate and are the same as those used in the Audio 6/10 series of Native Instruments Traktor sound cards. However I did notice a slight bit of noise that was faintly audible even when the main out and headphone out knobs were turned all the way down. For the price, the Balance delivers totally respectable sonic performance. The drivers also performed fairly well as I was able to run the same demanding Ableton control project file I used to test the rest of the sound cards in this review at 128 samples (around 7 milliseconds) of latency.

Summary: I found the sound card to be a very well-rounded and feature-packed interface that delivers a great value for not just Reason users, but anyone looking to make music with their computer. At $399, a Balance isn’t cheap and it won’t blow your socks off with sound quality or options for expandability as your studio grows. But it will provide excellent integration with Reason and won’t hold you back from making great computer based music. If you’re in the market for an affordable, no-frills sound card with some nifty extras, the Balance may just be perfect for you.

Verdict: 3.5/5
Pros: Innovative features like integrated patch bay, nice design, easy integration with Reason
Cons: Comparatively expensive, no digital I/O, no custom drivers, latency could be lower

  • Price: $289 (MSRP), available for $200.95 here
  • Included: breakout cable
  • Weight: 0.5 lbs
  • Connectivity: USB, 2x XLR Inputs, 2x Analog RCA Outputs, 2x S/PDIF I/O (RCA), 2x S/PDIF I/O (Optical), 1x MIDI In, 2x MIDI Out, 1x Instrument ¼”
  • Recording Resolution: Up to 24 bit, 96khz

At first glance, the Nanoface seems to be identical to the Babyface: exact same chassis, very similar breakout cable, and the same configuration of ports. In fact, the two interfaces appear so identical that surely there must be a lawsuit involved, right? Quite to the contrary, Alva has produced the Nanoface with RME’s blessing after working closely with the German company to develop the breakout cables and other accessories for the RME Babyface. So given the disparity in price between the two (the Nanoface retails for $289 and the Babyface for $749) what exactly are the differences between these two? And is the considerably steeper price of the RME Babyface justified? The answer depends on what you value in an audio interface, but both are worthy contenders for different markets.

The Nanoface shares nearly every facet of its appearance with the RME Babyface except for the omission of the ‘Select’ and ‘Recall’ buttons below the silver wheel on the front of the chassis and the lack of a power supply port on the rear of the unit. The Nanoface is also considerably more lightweight and sports a slightly different configuration of function indicator LEDs on the top of the unit. Physical operation is much the same, plug in the breakout and USB cables, select your desired input/output via depressing the large wheel, and control the volume of the signal by rotating it. Unlike the Babyface, the Nanoface doesn’t feature balanced outputs, opting instead for unbalanced RCA phono jacks. This makes the Nanoface a considerably less professional solution than competitors, given that many studio monitors do not have RCA inputs and runs of RCA cables over long distances can introduce noise to the signal. Thankfully, the Nanoface has balanced XLR inputs for microphone connections. Digital connections include 2x MIDI outputs, 1 x MIDI input, and 2x S/PDIF in and 2x S/PDIF out (phono and optical jacks). Other analog connections include a single ¼” instrument jack, and a ¼” stereo headphone output jack.

Getting setup on the software side requires a driver download from the Alva website and a reboot for both Mac and PC configurations. Once I had the Nanoface set up, I was eager to see how well it compared to the RME Babyface’s exceptional sound quality and low-latency drivers. I was able to manage about 256 samples of latency (around 11 milliseconds) using my control Ableton project, but I did notice some CPU spikes not present when running the same project using the RME Babyface and Apogee Duet 2. Alva doesn’t offer up any specifics regarding the Nanoface’s converters, but I found the overall sound quality and especially the top end to be surprisingly detailed and crisp for a budget interface. While playing back an un-mastered track in Ableton, I was able to reach a solid listening level using about half of Nanoface’s available output gain for the main outputs. However, the headphone amp needed to be turned up to around 80% to achieve a good level.

The microphone pre-amps performed decently, requiring quite a bit of gain to achieve a good level. The sound quality and detail of the recordings produced was ok, but nothing stellar compared to the Duet 2 or RME Babyface. Unfortunately I was not able to test the software control panel because I’m not running 10.8 Mountain Lion. This limitation made the task of enabling phantom power for the microphone inputs somewhat puzzling and required a read through the manual, which wasn’t the most user-friendly experience.

Summary: Despite the lack of a software control panel for older versions of Mac OS X, comparatively weak pre-amp gain, and limited use of the unbalanced main outputs, I was pleasantly surprised with the Alva Nanoface. For $289 the Alva Nanoface is a solid choice for a hobbyist/consumer level sound card, but I wouldn’t say that it should be considered in lieu of an RME Babyface (unless you’re ok with the compromised features mentioned above). I wouldn’t recommend taking it on tour or recording anything too critical with it, but for a budget-conscious project studio requiring only the bare essentials plus the added bonus of some expandability it should work just fine.

Pros: Great value for the money, surprisingly good converter quality, expandable via digital I/O, generous MIDI I/O
Cons: Feels light and rather cheap, unbalanced RCA outputs, no software control panel for Lion & Snow Leopard, weak microphone pre-amp and headphone amplifier, drivers could be better
Verdict: 3/5


  • Price: $249 (MSRP), available for $213 here
  • Included: External Power Supply, USB Cable, Pro Tools Express
  • Weight: 2.9 lbs
  • Connectivity: USB, 4x ¼” TS Mic/Line/Instrument Inputs, 4x ¼ TRS Outputs, 1x ¼” Stereo Headphone Output, 2x MIDI I/O, 3x USB Hub Input
  • Recording Resolution: Up to 24 bit, 96 khz
EIE Pro front and rear (click for full screen)

Akai’s EIE Pro is the least expensive interface mentioned in this round up, but definitely the most feature-packed in terms of connectivity.

Sporting a 4in/4out 24bit 96-khz capable sound card, 2x MIDI I/O, a 3 port powered USB hub, a pair of analog VU meters, and plenty of retro-looking knobs and switches to control it all, the EIE Pro is a solidly-built beast. It’s also quite chunky and weighs in at just under 3 pounds (without the necessary power supply), making it less ideal for the mobile producer. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find this much connectivity at such a low price point, making the unit well worth a look for the budget-conscious producer looking to use external gear and record both instruments and microphones.

On the front of the unit are 4 Neutrik inputs that accept either XLR or TRS connections. Above each input are two switches: one for selecting the input type (mic/line or guitar) and one for enabling phantom power. Above these switches are four knobs for setting the input gain. On the right hand side of the interface are LED backlit VU meters, providing a nice retro touch to this unit that’s both slick and useful. Below the VU meters are switches for linking the meters to various inputs and outputs as well as a headphone jack + volume knob and master/monitor level controls. It’s great to have instant, tactile access to commonly used settings to speed up your work flow instead of software. Around the back you’ll find 4 outputs in the form of TRS jacks as well as 4 inserts for patching in outboard gear such as EQs and compressors. Near the top of the unit, you’ll find a three port powered USB hub and two 5-Pin MIDI I/O jacks. Of course, this many connectivity options requires use of the included 9v power supply.

On the software side, EIE Pro requires a driver download from Akai, regardless of your operating system. The software control panel includes no on-board DSP or routing options and provides only basic information like connectivity status and sampling rate/bit depth selected.

With my control project file in Ableton, I was able to get the latency down to about 128 samples (approximately 7 milliseconds) with all inputs and outputs enabled. I recorded and played back audio using all four input and output channels simultaneously without issue. The monitor blend switch made it easy to directly monitor inputs, again with no need for a software control panel.

Both the VU meters and headphone output can be assigned to either of the two pairs of TRS outputs on the back of the unit, making the EIE Pro ideal for dual monitor setups. The microphone pre-amps required about 70% of the available level to produce an adequately loud recording. The switches on the front panel made selecting different input types and activating phantom power simple and easy. I found the audio inserts to be a very welcome addition to this interface and made patching in my Kaoss Pad and outboard EQ very simple and easy.

The sound quality of the pre-amps was acceptable for recording basic things like home-made percussion but guitar and piano recordings captured by the EIE Pro lacked the depth and clarity found in similar recordings made by the RME Babyface and Apogee Duet 2. The quality of the converters was also passable, but again, lacked the focus and width of higher end sound cards.

Summary: the Akai EIE Pro represents an excellent value for project studio musicians looking to get a lot of connectivity and functionality for an affordable price.  The flexibility and expandability of the EIE Pro are definitely its strong points, making it a worthy addition to any budget-conscious project studio.

Pros: Tremendous value for the money, very flexible & expandable, lots of knobs and switches so no need for a software control panel, solid drivers
Cons: Bulky, not portable, requires external power supply
Verdict: 4/5

None of the sound cards mentioned in this article (nor any sound card) will hold you back from making great music with your computer. Which one is right for you is completely dependent on your personal needs as a producer. If you’ve got some cash to spend and want fantastic sound quality and as many features as possible from a compact interface, the RME Babyface is probably your best bet.

If you like the sound quality of the Babyface but don’t need all the extra features and you’re on the Mac operating system, the Apogee Duet 2 is a safe choice. If you’d like a simple and affordable two-channel interface and monitor controller with a few extras, the Propellerheads Balance or the Alva Nanoface are both excellent options. Lastly, the Akai EIE Pro is a great choice for producers who’d like to patch in their outboard gear, record multiple instruments, and don’t need a mobile interface. Whichever interface you choose, you’ll have some serious tools at your disposable for making great music.

Author’s note: the soundcards were all tested on a 2011 MacBook, 2.3 ghz i7 Quad Core with 16gb RAM.

  • I’ve been running the RME Babyface for almost 2 years now and I have to say its an amazing card! Build quality is rock solid, drivers are some of the best you can get. Very low latency and extremely high quality output! Sure it’s pricey, but it will last you for many years! It’s also small and light enough to travel with for on the road sessions! Stay away from the Focusrite Forte card. We have 5 of them at work and have so much problem with them. Constant crashes, blue-screens, drop outs etc…

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  • Sin8a

    the babyface dac sound harsh.. change your ears before doing reviews..

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  • Bangbang

    I’ve got a question concerning the Babyface. I recently purchased it and use it on OSX. I installed the latest driver, however when I use it in Ableton I can only chose from “No Audio” or “Core Audio” in the driver selection. Shouldn’t there be an option for an RME driver then? Thanks!

  • Mitchel Wolos

    How big of a difference was there in sound quality from the Alva to the Apogee? I really don’t need any inputs. Just want a good quality two maybe four channels out?

  • Travis So-Gnar Crum

    can you expand on how you used your EIE Pro with a KAOSS Pad sometime? I would love that

  • Kutmaster TeeOh

    The Focusrite Scarlett and Pro series interfaces should be here above the Akai, Alva, and Propellerhead ones.

  • DJ KNIX

    Great article about SOUNDCARDS, You guys should visit SIX STAR DJ they have all the latest gears.

    • Kutmaster TeeOh

      Guitar Center is cheaper and they have a great ADH plan. No one else does that.

  • Johnny Zana

    Great review by the way guys

  • Johnny Zana

    I’ve researched a lot of cards many of them are in this article and the one I ended up going with was the Focusrite Forte. It’s converters are spot on, Rednet preamps sound amazing, latency is almost non existent, & it’s easy to configure from the software mixer or right on the unit itself with the OLED menus. Highly recommend this unit. Quality inside the box and out.

    • Kutmaster TeeOh

      Yep, the focusrite series should be on this list. The Pro series is awesome. The scarlett interfaces definitely out-shine others in the sub $400 range.

  • Benji

    I own the EIE Pro. My biggest gripe is that Akai drivers are not so good. Nearly every time I start up a new VST the sound just turns to garbage. I have to power off the unit just to get it back. The times it doesn’t, I have to reset it because of a large latency spike.

  • Ekoud

    What about Focusrite Forte?

    • Kutmaster TeeOh

      It should be on here. It’s a beast. Competes with the Apogee series interfaces.

  • Tim Rice

    I have to say DONT GET THE AKAI EIE PRO. Maybe it works better on PCs but the drivers are a nightmare on my mac. I cant even use it with VLC. I have to switch from 44.1k to 48k constantly in my preferences because it automatically switches at the wrong time (like listening to itunes) and won’t switch when i need it (for after effects). It either up-samples or down-samples and often will just glitch out on me. The customer service was extremely unhelpful. I usually trust akai products, since i own 3 of their midi controllers, but this is not built like an MPC, MPD, or APC. BBW!

    • Brian

      i agree, i laughed when i saw a pro of the akai was its solid drivers. their drivers are terrible and you may think ah it doesn’t matter, well it does and it actually affects your recording. At times a constant horribly awful sounding static will occur during playback, making it impossible to listen to. This happens all the time with the most current drivers so I downloaded the older driver, still happens but not nearly as much. Regardless there are much better options than the aka eie pro so go with a focusrite or steinberg at that price point

  • JonOnNaRun

    Really disappointed there is no Focusrite Scarlett thrown in the mix here, especially considering the price points of the 18i6, 8i6, 6i6, and so on…

    • JonOnNaRun

      Ooops, just noticed this has already been noted. LOL Oh well.

      • Kutmaster TeeOh

        Ooops, I missed it too. lol

  • Definitely going for the akai EIE. i need just those extra usb ports. for my maschine, my midifighter 3d and my livid cntrlr

  • feffen

    Damn would have loved to see the MOTU Microbook II included in this review.

  • REGEND

    No MOTU products?

  • genjutsushi

    Great to see reviews with a particular purpose in mind – that of the home DJ producer. But a massive shame youve missed some great options from MOTU, Focusrite and MAudio. I have an 828 mk3 and use it for a range of recording and production. Sound quality is superb, drivers fast and stable, and the software (mixer) is brilliant. It also remembers your software mixer settings and retains them, so i can set up a mix on the computer, then if i dont want to turn the computer on to jam a track out on my grooveboxes / keyboard, i dont need to as the MOTU will act as a mixer complete with compression EQ and reverb.

  • Traktor Maschine syncer

    Will any of these products and their drivers enable you to MIDI sync between two windows computers? We all know syncing devices through MIDI with windows blows. Are any of the drivers smart enough to get things tight?

  • lokey

    no motu?

  • ive been debating getting the EIE pro for a while now to replace my personus audiobox. 3 usb hub and floating VU meters?! yes please.

    • Kutmaster TeeOh

      don’t….save your money and time. Get a Focusrite Pro 14 or 24. Or even the Scarlett series.

  • Dalton Conner

    I have a Focusrite Saffire 6 USB I use for studio work. Works great. Lots of inputs and not to mention it’s cheap.

  • psy/OPs

    Curious – how were the converters on these sound cards tested?
    Did you try anything like a multiple pass loopback recording to analyse the inherent noise and colour of the DACS?

    • Max George

      To test the mic pre amps I played a series of 44.1/24 bit wav samples of piano, vocal, and guitar tracks out through my Digidesign RM2 studio monitors then back into a a Shure SM57 mic into the pre-amps. Everything was gain matched and the differences were pretty apparent. To test the converters I listened to the same CPU intensive Ableton project containing organic and synthetic instruments with high quality plugins to try and approximate what most people would be playing out of these cards. I also played several tracks that I know very well for reference. I didn’t do a loopback test, although it might’ve been a good idea. I’m more of the school of thought that if something sounds good it is good and that the math behind it is more important when you’re designing something than using it. Every time a new plugin or piece of hardware is announced over at gearslutz.com or kvraudio.com there’s people testing the crap out of it, arguing over aliasing, noise-floor, etc. It becomes such a debate people forget this stuff is for making music. Some of the supposedly worst offenders end up becoming great studio tools that people make great music with everyday. And compared to where we were 20 or even 10 years ago, there are so many more affordable, high quality components available that I think the whole debate is kinda silly. If it sounds good, it is good, as I said in the article none of these cards will hold you back from making great sounding music.

  • Anonymous

    I like how you actually mention driver reliability. Many reviews don’t talk about it at all and it’s crucial, especially for live work or just studio reliability. I’m currently having driver issues with my echo audiofire that relies on core audio drivers. What is the history of problems with the apogee you mention? Is RME a symbol of rock solid driver reliability?

    • Max George

      Thanks! Yeah I’ve had the same experience with sound cards and was frustrated how the reviews never mention driver reliability. If you do some googling there’s quite a bit of info on the Duet 2’s problems, mainly this thread at gearslutz.com: http://www.gearslutz.com/board/music-computers/671270-apogee-duet-2-drivers-bad-bad-bad.html

      RME was able to attain the lowest usable latency and lived up to its reputation of providing rock solid drivers. There’s plenty of engineers that can attest to this, a quick google search will also yield plenty of testimonials.

      • Anonymous

        It’s terrible isn’t it – you spend all this money on a dedicated piece of gear that has one very important job and many seem to not put enough effort into making them reliable.

        What’s the RME made out of btw – looks quite cheap and plastic which I don’t like compared the the unparalleled beauty of the Apogee – but then it’s only aesthetics.

        Although nothing to do with the mini souncards article, one interface that I was looking at recently was the focusrite saffire pro 40. Any thoughts on the audio quality and drivers of that?

  • Leslie Jones

    You might want to check our TC Electronics soundcards as wel. Unknown gem if you’d ask me. 😉

  • ivanleterrible

    Many thanks for the article as my presonus Firebox has just decided to stop working with Mountain Lion after 5 years of service… Therefore, I’m about to buy a new soundcard and I found the recent Focusrite Forte to be a rather good candidate (compared to Duet for instance)… I would have found it interesting for the Forte to be included in your comparative test… anytime in near future ?

    • Max George

      The Forte looks interesting and I’d also be curious to hear how it stacks up against the Duet 2. Hopefully we can work in a review down the line. This is one of the first really in depth round-ups for production related gear DJTT has done so thanks for the feedback. If this kind of stuff resonates and we get more postitive feedback then hopefully we can do some more soon. Cheers 🙂

  • Prof_Strangeman

    So are we just going to skip the Focusrite Scarlett 18i6 then?

  • LAMEBOT

    I’m actually NOT SURPRISED you left out the sound card I currently use in my live setup. The MOTU UltrLite MK3 Hybrid. It retails under $600, has 10 ins and outs, is both USB and FireWrie and can be used with or with a computer. its built like a tank and has onboard DSP which saves my CPU and it has two phantom powered mic inputs. The mix software is pretty straight forward, but i honestly never use since my sound is generally treated in Abelton anyway. Everyone else, you can check it here: http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/UltraLite3Hy

    • Dan White

      I’m NOT SURPRISED you’re sharing your soundcard with us! Thanks for sharing, we’ll write about it in a future roundup if possible.

      • LAMEBOT

        haha its not a very well known card but its pretty robust 🙂

        • DJ Al B Bad

          Oh but it is, from those in the know 😉 I use it as well and love it!

  • rafiq

    Having talked about the Duet, I would have expected a discussion on the newer Duet 2 iPad with midi and iOS capabilities not found on the older version here. It would have been nice to hear some thoughts on those features since they’re fairly unique to that interface.

    • Max George

      I would’ve liked to go into iPad connectivity in this article but didn’t feel I had the real estate to go into it given the scope of this article. Perhaps a seperate article on sound cards that work with iOS is on order, the RME Babyface also sports this feature as well. Thanks for the feedback!

  • Mihaly

    interesting review…although some NI soundcards could of been included also…like the Audio 6 which I use…its a tank and is very versatile, more so than some of the ones mentioned here

    • Max George

      The point of this article was to focus on sound cards that are ideal for production. The audio 6 doesn’t have a monitor control knob, mic preamps, or balanced comnectivity so it’s not really ideal for that.

      • Max George

        Unless you’re talking about the komplete audio 6? NI nomenclature can be confusing 😉

      • psy/OPs

        Well – the Nanoface interface reviewed here does not have balanced output either.

        What in your opinion separates something like that from the Traktor Audio 10?

        • Max George

          True the Nanoface doesn’t have balanced outputs but the rest of these do. You can get by without balanced outputs, but its tough to get by without mic pre amps or a monitor controller. The audio 6/10 are designed for digital DJ’ing, although the 10 is a bit more suited for production due to its inclusion of midi ports. But you also get what you pay for, a card with only 2 ins and outs will have better converters than a card with 6 or 10 ins and outs thats around the same price.

  • Shawnyd

    Hey DJTT, are there any Firewire soundcards you recommend? Also, Have you heard any talk about a possible thunderbolt port audio interface?

    • corporation

      Check out the PreSonus FireStudio Mobile for a portable F/W interface.
      I also hear good things about the Focusrite Saffire boxes.

      • Shawnyd

        Thanks for the reply! I will look into that.

        • Max George

          The new USB 2.0 spec allows for lower latency than FireWire 400 so you’ll find that most high end portable sound cards are USB nowadays. It’s only when you need to run lots of I/O simultaneously that the benefits of FireWire (notably FW800) are compelling. However the headache of driver issues inherent with the multitude of FireWire chipsets found in computers and comparatively higher licensing fee of FireWire makes choosing USB 2.0 a no brainer for most manufacturers nowadays.

          • Shawnyd

            Thanks for the reply Max! I wasn’t even think about the driver headache with firewire interfaces. I really appreciate it.

  • Eric Louis

    Big Fan of the Motu Traveler, the numerous ins and outs allow you to record your sound modules or send audio out to an efx unit and back in. I’ve brought it out to DJ with and in my studio

  • Nolej

    While I don’t currently own a sound card (so thank for the article 🙂 ), I’m kind of surprised you didn’t include/test any of the Focusrite Scarlett cards. From what I’ve heard, they are great budget cards with awesome preamps.

    • MellonHead

      i have the scarlett 2i4, it’s pretty great for dj and production use and only $200! their stuff is pretty durable too, i still have the sapphire pro 40 that i used onstage with a band for 2 years.

    • Dan White

      Great suggestion! We’ll make sure we look at a Scarlett card in a future article.

      • Lucian B?bu?

        You should check out Focusrite Forte! Its a great contender for the duet!

        • I would seriously stay away from the Forte! We have 5 of them at work and they all act up, the drivers crash all the time, causing blue-screens in windows on a regular basis, we regret buying them!

      • tomByrer

        Add to that the MOTU Ultralite Mk3 please; $550 for 10 in, 14 out, built-in DSP (eg effects on the device, off the CPU). It is older, but MOTU still updated the BIOS & or drivers every 6 months or so.

        Might be better to have 2 articles: $1-$500, 2nd article $501-1000?

        • DJ Al B Bad

          +1 on Motu Hybrid Ultralite MK3 – I use this for my iRadio shows all the time – its sounds f’n awesome! I’ve also seen a lot of Ableton DJ’s use it for LIVE performances.

        • jonjon

          MOTU starts with the MicroBookII – 4-input, 6-output USB 2.0 audio interface with Microphone Preamp, Guitar Input, and Stereo Line-level Analog Input – Mac/PC. no experience with te specific product. but theyre products are usualy pretty much pro audio not prosumer grade

      • Anonymous

        and the saffires, i have a saffire 6 and its baws 😀 i have spilt countless drinks on mine and recorded show after show and it still functions like new

      • Kutmaster TeeOh

        Hey Dan, already written a review of the whole Scarlett line and the Focusrite Pro series too. I’m a Producer and Professional Audio rep for Guitar Center. They definitely should have included those interfaces in this review. Check em out if you get the time.

  • Dimo P

    Motu microbook,motu 828 mk3…etc…great budget soundcards…probably most studios around the globe uses Marc of the Unicorn…i do over a decade now..:) never let me down, and helped me in numerous releases…

  • Jeroen Krieger

    What about the Niative Instruments Komplete Audio 6? You will have all the in and outputs you need for in a homestudio. And it goes for only 220,- euro’s…

    • tbh, i only have problems with it. crackling all around without any obvious reason… (mac)

      • Jeroen Krieger

        Mine is working just fine, i’m using it with a macbook pro 2012 and ableton. Got a mic, a guitar and a midi keyboard connectied to it…

      • Joseph Crenshaw

        Sounds like USB 3 issue that was prevailent. Did you firmware upgrade?

      • Anonymous

        Igor, I had the same problem, i tried about 10 different tricks to fix this, none of them worked… its not the usb cable as some suggest.. to fix this, all you need to do is download and install the latest firmware. not the driver, there is no driver, but there are firmware updates available. this fixed it for me. after 1 year of crackling, since the firmware, ive never had a problem with it again.

        • did that already, but maybe there’s a new software that came, like, yesterday.

      • thx for replies. thats not the usb3, cause the mac has usb 2.0

        i am crazy about updating things. everything is up to date, and I have removed drivers and reinstalled them several times…bad luck I guess. what is funny, I had AK1 before which was working fine with mac and crackled with PC. karma?

        • Jeroen Krieger

          DId you contacted NI with this problem? I think they can determen what’s going on if you give them the specs of your setup.

          • tbh I didnt. I hate contacting any support, cause they treat people like idiots.

            If that’s a hardware issue, I seriously doubt that it can be resolved. And on the software side…

            “yes, I’ve updated everything i could. yes, i’ve turned of wifi. yes, i’ve reinstalled all the drivers. yes, i’ve turned my computer on…”

          • Jeroen Krieger

            Well my experience with those guys at NI are pretty good! They’ve helped me with several problems during the years.

          • just to let ya know, I’ve received reply from support.

            they told me to make screenshot of non-existent (sic!) windows in macOS (ever seen a “battery settings” and “power supply settings” under preferences?) and to repair permissions, which is one of the very few things man can do to fix anything software-wise on Mac…

            just as I predicted.

      • Jimmy Burn

        download the latest driver I had problems with mine but its fine now, or check your latency settings

        • Ii dont think drivers and latency should matter when using iTunes 😉

          • Jimmy Burn

            why would you need a soundcard for itunes? lol

          • … it’s just an example.

            no audio player should stress a professional soundcard. yet it does.

    • Auzy

      As others have mentioned, there is definitely a Windows driver issue with the Audio6 (even on the latest driver 3.1.0/ Firmware 45). The crackling does NOT seem to affect ASIO (at least in my case). but any non-asio app (anything not a music production app) eventually runs into problems. And, its quite easy to differentiate reviews written by an experienced user, and someone who read the press release.

      I am 100% sure its the drivers, because, my DDJ-SX and Saffire 2i2 works great, and I’ve tried different USB hubs on my system, have low latency, etc.

      Even if you don’t think you’ll be incorporating Windows into your workflow in the near future, there are plenty of interfaces that work well in both Windows, OSX and Linux without issues.

      I’ve got a 2i2 and its ok (although, I actually miss having a volume knob on the top instead of the front face). However, I want multiple output’s (this card only has 1 stereo), so I am seriously going for the 6i6 as an upgrade.

      –Auzy

  • I’m afraid that your link for the Akai’s EIE Pro, bring you to the amazon page of the Akai EIE 16-bit, and not the pro 24-bit version which is in your review.

    Am I right ?

    • Dan White

      You’re right! The Pro isn’t on Amazon – corrected with a Juno link instead : )

  • ChaZ

    Akai EIE Pro seems affordable at a price of $179 and packed with abundant features.
    Would not mind feeding it with external power supply.
    Thanks DJTT for putting some light onto the budget oriented sound cards.