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An external sound card is a peripheral that you can connect to your computer with a simple cable. These devices are very comfortable and practical since they can be connected to the PC and installed without having to face specific configurations. A computer inside already has an integrated sound card, which allows you to listen to music, record or connect instruments: however, it has pre-installed components and a decidedly low quality; therefore it is advisable to have an external peripheral that increases performance and can allow you to use it more suited to your needs. An external sound card allows you to record an instrument and store audio files on a computer; it is also useful for activities such as recording or mixing. We will now try to summarize the main characteristics of an external sound card.
There are two external sound card formats: desk format and rackmount format. Desk sound cards are remarkably small in size, are portable, and are ideal for first-time users, since they are typically less expensive. They have the advantage of being placed comfortably on the desk or on the work surface. The rackmount interface sound cards, on the other hand, are larger and, unlike the desk type ones, are fixed. They have a considerably higher sound quality than desk ones, take up more space and are more suitable for professional users. Rackmount sound cards are more expensive and offer far more input and output configurations than desk ones. Because of the greater amount of input and output sources available, upgrading from a desk interface to a rackmount becomes necessary when using additional instruments, microphones or speakers to your production environment.
External sound cards have the advantage of not having to be mounted inside the PC, but can be safely connected to the USB port. A tip, however, is to check the compatibility of the sound card with your operating system before purchasing. External sound cards differ from each other based on the connection: USB, FireWire (this press is going to disappear) or Thunderbolt.
Depending on the price, external sound cards will have different construction materials. The main models have a plastic or metal shell. It is useful to buy a model built with durable materials, since small bumps may be enough to damage the external sound card.
On the market there are many models of external sound cards with prices that can vary considerably: an entry level sound card can cost a few tens of euros, a mid-range model can have a price between 200 and 1000 euros, while sound cards professionals can easily exceed 1000 euros. The audio quality of an external sound card determines its performance and selling price.
Below we analyze the main models on the market, divided by price range.
The 15 best external sound cards of 2019:
Entry level models:
Behringer U-Phoria UM2 – See price or buy
This external sound card model belongs to a low price range. It is an amateur product, but it allows you to record voice and instrument with good results. It has a very simple configuration, which allows the input of a microphone, an instrument and headphones. The connectivity of the device is USB and it is a desk format, portable sound card. It is a good beginner product with satisfactory sound quality for this price range.
Behringer U-Control UCA202 – See price or buy
This entry level external sound card guarantees good sound quality despite being one of the cheapest models on the market. It has USB connectivity and is compatible with almost any DAW. What is special about this brand is that they offer free software on their website for recording and editing. The stereo headphone output with dedicated level control allows you to monitor both the input and the output. It is a portable desk format interface, suitable for an amateur user.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo – See price or buy
This inexpensive external sound card model comes in desk format and is portable. It is a small interface, easy to use even for beginners. You don’t need a power supply, just connect the product with a USB cable and start recording. Despite belonging to a very low price range, it records voice and sound perfectly, faithful to the original and without the slightest background noise. This model has a good design and is red in color, adding a touch of class to any studio setup.
Presonus Audiobox USB 2X2 – See price or buy
This entry level interface is in desk format and is portable. It has two inputs for microphone and instruments with 48V phantom power and 48 tracks to better record your music. It is compatible with most DAWs and you just need to connect this model to your PC with a USB cable. This model offers two Mic and Instrument inputs and a Midi input for maximum recording capabilities. It is an affordable model with a quality software and hardware solution, which is also recommended for Windows users interested in using Studio One Daw.
Audient ID4 – See price or buy
This inexpensive model of external sound card is in portable desk format, is small in size, but allows you to record guitar and vocals at the same time. It is a USB audio interface with 2 inputs and 2 outputs for headphones. A special feature of this external sound card is the Monitor Pan, which allows you to mute the speakers without having to physically turn them off. It is compatible with most DAWs.
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 – See price or buy
This model is considered mid-range, but the price remains absolutely within everyone’s reach. It is an interface that has all the features you need to best record, play and perform music. Aesthetically it is a very attractive model and is built with a very sturdy metal. Despite a not too high price, this external sound card offers a wide range of connectivity with 4 inputs and 4 outputs, which will allow you to connect studio monitors and subwoofers without problems. The format of this interface is desk and it is portable. Very useful sound card for novice producers who want to improve the quality of their production.
Steinberg UR44 – See price or buy
This external sound card in desk format, but larger in size than the entry level models, allows you to record multiple instruments and microphones at the same time and is ideal for vocal groups and small bands. This interface has 2 line inputs and 4 XLR mic preamps and 4 output channels. It is compatible with iPhone and iPad and with the main recording software, although the most recommended is Cubase.
Presonus Audiobox 1818VSL – See price or buy
This model of external sound card has a different format than the previous ones: it has larger dimensions and is of rackmount format. The most important feature of this interface is that it doesn’t need any hardware other than the computer and speakers, but it has everything built in. The Presonus Audiobox 1818VSL is a great model for mid-tier producers who want to create their own home studio for advanced recording opportunities with high sound quality. It has 8 inputs and 8 outputs and is compatible with all major recording software.
Focusrite Scarlett 18I20 – See price or buy
This external sound card is in rackmount format and manages to guarantee the same functionality and sound quality as the higher priced rackmount models. It is compatible with all major DAWs on Windows and Mac systems and has 8 inputs with microphone preamps, 2 instrument inputs and 10 balanced analog outputs. The model is recommended for mid-level manufacturers who already have experience in this field.
Motu Ultralite AVB – See price or buy
This desk format, portable interface is a real gem despite its small size. It is compatible with all major DAWs on operating systems Mac OS, iOS and Windows. It has 2 microphone inputs, 2 guitar inputs, 6 line inputs and 8 line outputs. This sound card has the incredible ability to connect multiple interfaces together. The Ultralite also boasts extraordinary sound quality, perfect for any setting from studio to live environments. This interface is incredibly powerful and will be great for mid to advanced level producers who need access to a wide range of inputs and outputs.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin Mkii Solo – See price or buy
This model is in portable desk format and is compatible with all major DAWs on Mac OS and Windows operating systems. This external sound card is Thunderbolt connection, unlike all the other USB connection we have seen so far. It has 8 input channels and 2 microphone preamps. As for the outputs, there are 2 line outputs, 2 analog monitor outputs and a headphone output. It is a very high quality interface, which guarantees a sound quality far above the standards of the models in this price range.
Studio Antelope Audio Zen – See price or buy
This rackmount format interface is one of the most powerful and qualitatively valid models on the market. The cost is very high and we recommend the purchase of this sound card only for professional users. It has 12 Mic / Line inputs, 2 ADAT inputs and a stereo input. It has 8 analog outputs and stereo headphone and monitor outputs. The peculiarity of this model is that, despite the maximum functionality and quality, it is also a portable interface.
Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt 2 – See price or buy
This external sound card is one of the most popular professional sound models in the world. The connectivity of the device is Thunderbolt 2 and it is a rackmount format model. The main feature, which differentiates it from the rest of the external sound cards, is the incredible amount of inputs and outputs: there are 30 analog inputs and 32 analog outputs. It is compatible with all major DAWs on Mac OS and Windows operating systems. The cost is obviously very high, but this professional external sound card is one of the best on the market.
Universal Audio Apollo 8 Thunderbolt – See price or buy
It is a professional external sound card model in formal rackmount. It is compatible with all major DAWs on Mac OS and Windows operating systems. The connectivity of the device it’s Thunderbolt 2. This model achieves a high quality level of sound on any recording: the reproduced sound appears precise, powerful and absolutely clear. It has 4 in-line microphone inputs and 4 XLRs; moreover, it has 2 dedicated monitor outputs and 8 line outputs. Model suitable for professional users.
Avid HD I / O 16×16 – See price or buy
This model is very expensive, but it is the perfect choice to have a large amount of analog inputs and outputs for music and post-production, with the subsequent possibility of further expanding the inputs and outputs thanks to 3 expandable modular configurations. In total there are 16 outputs and 16 analog inputs and the model is compatible with Pro Tools HD. The quality is truly amazing and manages to perfectly highlight the sonic nuances of each recording. The purchase is recommended for professional users only.
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