Ten of the best Thunderbolt and USB-C audio interfaces

Technology changes fast and keeping up with it is a moving target, so in order to help engineers and producers with their computer setups we have searched our database to find ten of the finest Thunderbolt and USB-C audio interfaces to keep studios and mobile rigs as future-proof as is possible. In no particular order:

 DISCRETE 8

Antelope Audio DISCRETE 8

Supports: Thunderbolt on Mac and Windows (beta).
Ins and Outs: 26x32 on 8 mic/line inputs, stereo monitor outputs, 2 headphone outputs, 8 analog outputs on D-SUB, reamp I/O, 2x ADAT I/O, SPDIF I/O, 2x WC I/O and footswitch.
What it is: Aimed primarily at recording use and labelled by Antelope as a “microphone preamp interface”, the District 8 is an almost audacious product and a great showing of the company’s breakthroughs into the microphone modelling world, achieved through the combination of a pristine signal path, special modelling mics (in their Verge LDC and Edge SDCs), and FPGA-powered effects. The Discrete also takes full advantage of the Thunderbolt spec to deliver extremely low latency, making it a very attractive interface if recording is your main focus.



 Ensemble Thunderbolt

Apogee Electronics Ensemble Thunderbolt

Supports: Thunderbolt on Mac
Ins and Outs: 30x34 on 4 mic/line inputs (2 with inserts), 4 mic inputs, 2 Inst. DIs, stereo monitor outputs, two headphone outputs, 8 analog outputs on D-SUB, reamp I/O, 2x ADAT I/O, SPDIF I/O, WC I/O and two Thunderbolt 2 ports.
What it is: The Ensemble is one of Apogee’s most impressive interfaces, which says a lot coming from this renowned company that has a long history of great interfaces and converters such as the Symphony and the Rosetta series. Super low latency, eight preamps, renowned Apogee AD-DA conversion, remote control, DSP-powered EQ/Dynamics and a generous amount of connectivity make the Ensemble a fine candidate for a do-all studio centerpiece.



 iD44

Audient iD44

Supports: USB-C and USB 2 or 3 on Mac and Windows.
Ins and Outs: 20x24 on 2 mic/line inputs with inserts, 2 mic inputs, 4 analog outputs, 2 Inst. DIs, 2x ADAT I/O, WC I/O, two headphone outputs.
What it is: A forward-thinking interface that implements the latest USB-C technology while still supporting legacy USB formats, which is done by offering two different cables for both USB-C and USB 2.0 (& 3) ports - and also some very clever driver-coding of course! The iD44 follows the highly successful trail set by its smaller siblings (the iD22 and iD14) combining a plethora of features into a desktop-friendly format, but this time Audient doubles down on almost everything, with more preamps, connectivity and better AD/DA specs than ever.



 HD Native Thunderbolt Core

Avid HD Native Thunderbolt Core

Supports: Thunderbolt on Mac and Windows.
Ins and Outs: See below.
What it is: The Avid HD Native Thunderbolt Core is a small box that allows users to run a full-blown Pro Tools HD Native rig with up to 64 channels at 96kHz. Users can edit and mix 'on the go' thanks to its headphone output, which means you can finally run (what used to be known as) Pro Tools HD on a plane or at your nearest cafe! This little box comes with Pro Tools Ultimate software and works with select Avid interfaces such as the HD Omni, or certified interfaces from other manufacturers (additional license required). Regardless of the interface you end up with, this is a very powerful and effective package if Pro Tools Ultimate is your DAW of choice.



 Red 16Line

Focusrite Red 16Line

Supports: USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) on Mac.
Ins and Outs: 64x64 on 2 mic inputs, 16 analog line inputs and 16 outputs on D-SUB, 2 Inst. DIs, stereo monitor outputs, 2 headphone outputs, 2x ADAT I/O, SPDIF I/O, WC I/O, Loop Sync I/O, 2 Ethernet ports and 2 USB-C ports.
What it is: This is a very impressive interface from Focusrite, with up to 128 channels of I/O on a huge number of connectors, Pro Tools HD/Ultimate compatibility, scalability with Ethernet audio (via Dante format), premium converters and a lot more. Need preamps? Focusrite has it covered with the RED 8PRE or RED 4PRE, which share the same technical infrastructure as the RED 16Line with all its benefits, while replacing some of the line inputs to make room for more mic preamps.



 16A

MOTU 16A

Supports: Thunderbolt on Mac and USB 2 on Mac or Windows.
Ins and Outs: 32x32 on 16 analog outputs, 16 analog line inputs, ADAT I/O, WC I/O, Ethernet port.
What it is: MOTU takes full advantage of current tech on the 16A by adopting Thunderbolt and AVB but it doesn’t forget the past and offers class-compliant USB 2 support as well. This elegant-looking interface gives the user plenty of options with 32 channels of analog I/O, DSP-powered digital mixer with iOS remote control, an informative front panel with metering and scaling capabilities through Ethernet (AVB). All of that plus the quality and reliability that makes MOTU one of the top names when it comes to audio interfaces - it's hard to argue against it.



 Quantum

PreSonus Quantum

Supports: Thunderbolt on Mac and Windows.
Ins and Outs: 26x32 on 8 mic/line inputs, stereo monitor outputs, 2 headphone outputs, 8 analog outputs, 2x ADAT I/O, SPDIF I/O, WC I/O, MIDI I/O, 2 Thunderbolt ports.
What it is: PreSonus steps up its game with the imposing Quantum, an interface that shows improvements in every area, including eight Class-A mic pres, new converters and superb performance thanks to Thunderbolt. It’s also worth mentioning that up to four Quantums (Ed: Quanta?) - can be stacked for a huge system with over a hundred inputs and outputs, but if you don't need to record an entire symphony orchestra and a smaller package is what you want be sure to check out the Quantum 2, which cuts down the I/O count but keeps the great specs and super low latency.



 Fireface UFX+

RME Fireface UFX+

Supports: Thunderbolt and USB 3 on Mac or Windows.
Ins and Outs: 94x94 on 4 mic/line inputs, 8 analog line inputs, 8 analog outputs, 2 headphone outputs, AES/EBU I/O, MADI I/O, 2x ADAT I/O, SPDIF I/O, WC I/O, 2x MIDI I/O, USB-A port for direct recording.
What it is: The UFX+ is the most comprehensive interface RME has ever built and it still features the bulletproof performance that the company is known for. TotalMix FX software gives you truly flexible routing and setup, extensive digital format support including MADI and AES/EBU allows for superb flexibility and an onboard recorder means that DAW-free operation is possible in a recording environment. An iPad control app and digital mixer with onboard DSP is the cherry on the cake. RME is not leaving anyone behind either, and in addition to offering cross-platform support for Thunderbolt it is also compatible USB 3, although the former will likely outperform the latter on the latency figures.



 Arrow

Universal Audio Arrow

Supports: USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) on Mac and Windows.
Ins and Outs: 2x4 on 2 mic/line inputs, instrument input, stereo main outputs and headphone output.
What it is: The Arrow is Universal Audio’s foray into USB-C interfaces and also their smallest interface to date, but don’t underestimate it as this nifty little unit packs Unison preamps with UA’s flagship analog modelling technology, DSP for near zero latency tracking and mixing with plug-ins and great sounding conversion into its comparatively tiny frame. The Arrow runs solely on bus power and works on Mac or Windows, which makes it widely compatible and a perfect solution if you want a portable interface with studio-grade quality.



 TAC-8

ZOOM TAC-8

Supports: Thunderbolt on Mac
Ins and Outs: 18x20 on 8 mic/line inputs, stereo main outputs, 8 analog outputs, 2 headphone outputs, ADAT I/O, SPDIF I/O, WC I/O, MIDI I/O.
What it is: Zoom is a veteran of our industry and although the company is a bit of a newcomer on the audio interface scene they have been doing some fine work lately as shown on their TAC-8 Thunderbolt audio interface. This cost-effective 19” rack unit delivers eight mic preamps, plentiful I/O, a standalone mode for computer-less operation and super low latency with a very enticing price tag that certainly puts this interface amongst the best options for the Mac when it comes to bang for your buck.


A few notes:

* The number of Thunderbolt and USB-C interfaces is on the rise, so honourable mentions go to the recently released Lynx Aurora N series, Apogee’s Symphony and Element series and to the Universal Audio Apollo line. It’s also worth mentioning the promising prospects shaping up at Metric Halo and Slate Digital in the form of the 3d Card and VRS8 respectively.

* It’s important to note that Windows computers are still lagging behind Macs when it comes to USB-C. Laptops and desktops equipped with such connectors are still harder to find and they’re far from being everywhere, unlike Macs where they are now standard tech. Even if you can physically connect a box to a PC, the availability of drivers is also a crucial element to consider, as some manufacturers are still Mac-only for all Thunderbolt and USB-C matters. On the bright side, we can notice a significant improvement and since Microsoft has announced Thunderbolt 3 support for Windows 10 things should only get better from now on.

* For more discussion and info on audio interfaces please visit our Music Computers forum.