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The best sound cards of 2020
In our guide, we will discover the best sound cards of 2020 for PC / Mac Thunderbolt and USB, very useful for music producers, guitarists, composers and more.
If you play music on a PC or Mac, the sound card is practically essential. In short, the best sound cards for music production allow you to get high quality audio in and out of your computer and connect some essential studio tools during your production session.
Once you’ve got your hands on a sound card, you’ll be able to plug in microphones, electric guitars, synthesizers, and other instruments, and plug in a pair of studio monitors and headphones.
So how to choose the best sound card for your needs? Read our guide which will tell you everything you need to know, what we recommend are among the best sound cards right now.
What is the best sound card around?
If you want a great sound card but on a tight budget, you can’t go wrong with Audient iD4, a 2-input, 2-output USB device. It allows you to connect microphones and instruments and offers great value for money. A truly excellent product.
Highly recommended is Focsurite’s Scarlett 4i4, a USB-C sound card that gives you double the number of inputs and outputs and sounds really great.
This year in our ranking could certainly not miss SSL 2+, a new 2-in / 4-out sound card, the thing that amazed us was the really low price compared to other sound cards.
We also mention Universal Audio’s UAD Apollo Twin MkII, a 2-in / 6-out sound card that also allows you to use the UA range of DSP plug-ins.
Tips for buying a sound card
When choosing the sound card for your home studio, the first thing to understand is the number and type of inputs and outputs you want. If you only want to connect a microphone, one or even two inputs will suffice.
Multiple outputs can be useful if you want to set up a headphone mix, or send audio elsewhere for further processing.
You’ll typically find both XLR and 1/4 inch inputs on a sound card, often combined with connectors so you can plug mics, guitars and the like into the same input. Many cards also have a phantom power option, which is required to use certain microphones.
Sound cards typically work on USB or ThunderBolt. We’re now starting to see sound cards with USB-C connectors, but these can also be plugged into classic USB ports, the ones with the cable or adapter.
Most current sound cards offer a low-latency recording option, which means you can stay and work on a project even as you add multiple tracks. Some cards also promise low enough latency levels to use “real-time” effect plug-ins on the input while recording, while others have their own built-in DSP.
Read on below to find out what we consider to be the best sound cards on the market right now:
1. Audient iD4 – See price or buy
The best sound card at a low price
Connectivity: USB 2 | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 96kHz | Analog inputs: 2 | Analog outputs: 2 | Digital Connectivity: None | MIDI I / O: No
- Excellent value for money
- Excellent amplifier
- None at the moment
the iD4 is a simple two-input / two-output sound card with a mic preamp – complete with phantom power for use with condenser microphones – as well as an instrument-level DI to connect your guitar or bass. In addition, there is a main output for the speakers and two outputs for the headphones.
The whole is powered via USB and, with the Apple connection, it can also work with an iPhone / iPad. Audient iD4 is, quite simply, the best USB sound card we have ever seen at this reasonable price.
2. SSL 2+ – See price or buy
“SSL” at an incredible price
Connectivity: USB-C | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 192kHz | Analog inputs: 2 | Analog outputs: 4 | Digital Connectivity: None | MIDI I / O: Yes
- Solid quality
- 4K button adds “sound”
- You may not like the RCA outputs
This is the big brother of the SSL2 standard, the main difference is that the 2+ adds two outputs to the 2-in, 2-out configuration of the 2, MIDI In / Out plus an additional independent headphone output (with both possibilities for monitoring different mixes). There is also the 4k button which adds an extra “sound”.
There are two combo mic / line inputs with Hi-Z options for alternating between guitar and bass or synth or drum signals. A + 48v option also allows the connection of capacitors and dynamic microphones.
With excellent monitoring and recording quality and flexible I / O configuration, SSL 2+ is highly recommended.
3. Native instruments Komplete audio 2 – See price or buy
A compact 2×2 sound card at a competitive price
Connectivity: USB 2 | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 192kHz | Analog inputs: 2 | Analog outputs: 2 | Digital Connectivity: None | MIDI I / O: No
- Super compact
- Elegant design
- No scaling of controls
Komplete Audio 2 has two inputs and two outputs, with two mic / line inputs. Connections are on XLR combined with individual selectors to select between line and instrument.
In addition to the inputs, the front panel includes a hardware monitoring balance knob (Input / Host) and a headphone output.
Also included are input meters, as well as phantom and USB indicators. On the back is the USB B connector, a pair of balanced 1⁄4-inch TRS jack outputs and a Kensington security slot.
The performance of the Komplete Audio 2 is as smooth as its looks, and while the features are basic, it does its job admirably. And when you consider the excellent software package, it really is of great value.
4. Mackie Onyx Producer 2.2 – See price or buy
A high quality sound card
Connectivity: USB 2 | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 192kHz | Analog inputs: 2 | Analog outputs: 2 | Digital Connectivity: None | MIDI I / O: Yes
- Operation up to 24bit / 192kHz
- MIDI input and output
- Nothing to report
Onix Producer 2.2 has two identical mic / line inputs with combined XLR / jack connectors. Each has a green backlit switch for selecting a Hi Z instrument and there is also a backlit switch for 48V phantom power.
Input signals can be monitored with zero latency using the Input / DAW Mix knob, on the back you will find a pair of 1⁄4 inch jacks for monitor output and also a pair of MIDI connectors (In and Out), which is very useful. In the box you will also find a DAW, Tracktion T7.
5. Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 3rd Gen – See price or buy
Lots of connectivity for a competitive price
Connectivity: USB-C | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 192kHz | Analog inputs: 4 | Analog outputs: 4 | Digital Connectivity: None | MIDI I / O: Yes
- New and improved design
- Really useful MIDI I / O
- No feedback
Focusrite’s Scarlett USBs have traditionally done a great job of both sound and audio flexibility at affordable prices, and the third-generation drives certainly don’t disappoint.
All units in the range have received physical and technical upgrades, with improved preamps (now up to 56dB gain), balanced connectivity throughout, and inclusion of Focusrite’s ISA transformer preamp emulation (Air) option. They also have two mic / line inputs, two TRS line level inputs and four TRS outputs.
4i4 supports Focusrite’s control application, which means that settings can only be made from the software. The app also handles low-latency monitoring.
As we expect from the Scarlett series, the sounds are neutral and the drivers reliable.
6. Steinberg UR22C – See price or buy
2 inputs and 2 outputs with Yamaha preamps
Connectivity: USB-C | Audio Resolution: 32bit / 192kHz | Analog inputs: 2 | Analog outputs: 2 | Digital Connectivity: None | MIDI I / O: Yes
- Built to last
- Yamaha preamplifier
- Integrated DPS processing
Steinberg has enriched its range of UR sound cards by introducing USB 3.0 models for PC, Mac and iOS. The UR22C is certainly the most affordable among them.
Each offers USB Type-C connectivity (or SuperSpeed USB 3.1 Gen 1) and works at 32-bit / 192kHz audio resolution. There is also MIDI I / O and DSP which provides zero latency effects that can be used when monitoring. It can be accessed via the dspMixFx mixer.
Unsurprisingly, the UR22C is a 2-in / 2-out sound card. It carries a pair of balanced Neutrik combo inputs, each sporting a Yamaha D-PRE mic preamp and two balanced line outputs.
UR22C is undoubtedly an excellent and highly functional sound card, absolutely recommended.
7. IK Multimedia IRig Pro Duo – See price or buy
A small portable power plant
Connectivity: USB 2, Lightning, USB OTG | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 48kHz | Analog inputs: 2 | Analog outputs: 2 | Digital Connectivity: None | MIDI I / O: Yes
- Completely portable
- Works with mobile devices
- Record 2 channels simultaneously
Following the original iRig Pro Duo, the new version offers two analog inputs so you can connect and record both instruments and microphones at the same time. These inputs are equipped with class A preamps and phantom power. There’s also MIDI I / O, along with two 1/4-inch balanced outputs and a headphone output.
iRig Pro Duo comes with a USB-C cable for easy compatibility with modern devices (Lightning and USB-A cables are also provided).
The iRig Pro Duo I / O can run on two AA batteries and comes with an extensive software package. It is compatible with iOS, Android, PC and Mac.
8. Arturia AudioFuse – See price or buy
A classy sound card with many connectivity options
Connectivity: USB 2 | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 192kHz | Analog inputs: 4 | Analog outputs: 4 | Digital connectivity: ADAT I / O and I / OS / PDIF | MIDI I / O: Yes
- Outstanding sound
- Elegant design
- Nothing to report
AudioFuse is a stylish and portable sound card compatible with Mac, PC and iOS with many features.
Along the front edge you’ll find combo inputs and two fully independent headphone feeds. In turn, they can accommodate both mini-jacks and 1/4-inch plugs.
On the back, there are speaker outputs for two pairs of monitors, line level connectors, MIDI In / Out ports (which, due to size restrictions, have been replaced by mini-jack connectors, which you’ll find in the box) and – for digital interface – both S / PDIF and ADAT In / Out. There are also inserts for inputs 1 and 2, which allow you to track through hardware compressors.
AudioFuse connects via USB 2, but USB connectivity goes further; Arturia has incorporated a USB Hub, providing three additional USB ports.
9. Universal Audio UAD Apollo Twin MkII – See price or buy
High quality audio and DSP plugins
Connectivity: Thunderbolt | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 192kHz | Analog inputs: 2 | Analog outputs: 6 | Digital Connectivity: Optical Toslink | MIDI I / O: No
- Incredible audio quality
- UAD-2 plugin
- No MIDI
The Apollo Twin MkII would be the same as the original if it weren’t for the different color. It connects to your PC or Mac via Thunderbolt (there’s no cable in the box), but needs to be powered from the wall. The rear panel and front edge house the inputs and outputs.
the Apollo Twin MkII features the same Unison preamps, powered by Mic / Line and Hi-Z microphones. This allows a subset of classic UA hardware emulation plug-ins to be inserted directly into each input path.
It is a powerful hardware / software hybrid for anyone who wants to create music, and is certainly among the best of its kind.
10. Antelope Audio Zen Tour – See price or buy
For you guitarists
Connectivity: USB 2 and Thunderbolt | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 192kHz | Analog inputs: 8 | Analog outputs: 8 | Digital connectivity: S / PDIF, ADAT | MIDI I / O: No
- Fantastic DSP
- Portable for real
- Very flexible
- Just a compressor
Antelope Audio Zen Tour has a small but useful touchscreen that gives you access to all the basic functions of the unit, with input gain levels, headphone levels and talkback accessible directly via the buttons on the front panel.
On the front are two headphone outputs, two re-amp outputs and four line / Hi Z inputs, all on 1/4 inch jacks. On the back are four dual XLR / 1/4-inch inputs, two pairs of monitor outputs on 1/4-inch jacks, eight analog outputs on a DB25, two RCA sockets for S / PDIF input / output, a power connector and USB and Thunderbolt sockets. On the left side there are two pairs of entrances and exits.
Once the software is installed on your computer and connected, it is ready to go into operation. It also has a wide range of equalizers and compressors.
Guitarists will love it without a shadow of a doubt.
11. Apogee Element 46 – See price or buy
Sound nothing short of exceptional
Connectivity: Thunderbolt | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 192kHz | Analog inputs: 4 | Analog outputs: 6 | Digital connectivity: ADAT, SMUX and S / PDIF I / O | MIDI I / O: No
- Sumptuous audio quality
- Highly flexible
- The remote control is an extra cost
- No MIDI I / O
One of the best Mac sound cards on the market, the Element 46 prioritizes function over form – it’s an extremely simple unit with an LED and LCD in sight.
Everything else is handled by software, with that aforementioned remote or a free iOS app providing more intense interaction. Element Control provides an essential front end for Apogee’s preamps and A / D conversion.
12. Steinberg AXR4 – See price or buy
Connectivity: Thunderbolt 2 | Audio Resolution: 32bit / 384kHz | Analog inputs: 28 | Analog outputs: 24 | Digital connectivity: ADAT, S / PDIF, AES / EBU I / O | MIDI I / O: Yes
- Very high performance
- No Thunderbolt cable included
- Front panel setup can be complicated
Steinberg AXR4 offers latency-free DSP-based monitoring and effects, and I / O stack. Front are four Neutrik combo inputs and two headphone outputs, while the rear panel houses eight TRS line inputs, eight TRS line outputs and two sets of ADAT I / O that double as S / PDIF.
The second pair provides an alternate AES / EBU Sub-D connector, while two Thunderbolt 2 ports allow you to connect to your computer and connect up to three interfaces. The four hybrid mic preamps benefit from Rupert Neve Designs transformer and SILK processing, while DSP effects include the VCM 276 compressor, VCM EQ601, Sweet Channel Morphing Channel Strip and REV-X.
13. Prism Sound Atlas
Connectivity: USB 2 | Audio Resolution: 24bit / 192kHz | Analog inputs: 8 | Analog outputs: 8 | Digital connectivity: S / PDIF, ADAT | MIDI I / O: No
- Fantastic quality
- Full software control
- Highly expandable
- Not recommended for anyone who is not a “professional”
Atlas is a very interesting sound card, it has in addition USB 2U with many I / O possibilities, it also has an MDIO port that offers additional interface features.
The rear panel shows the internal interface capabilities offered by Atlas, with eight Prism Sound preamps supplied allowing XLR or TRS connections, as well as eight dedicated 1/4-inch balanced outputs. There are a few digital inputs as well, with supported formats including S / PDIF and ADAT, meaning Atlas is capable of recording up to 18 channels simultaneously, up to 192kHz, although the digital track count drops to a super high resolution.
You can configure some settings from the front panel, but Prism Sound also provides a complete control application that allows you to perfectly configure the software.
Atlas offers unmatched sound quality. Prism Sound’s reputation has further improved with its arrival and, as the quality of its sound cards was already seen as excellent, we once again confirm its leadership in this field.
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