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Looking to improve the audio of your home studio? You will probably want an XLR microphone instead of a USB one. Here are five of the best cheap audio interfaces to make that possible.

Having used a Blue Snowball microphone for years, I understand the convenience of a USB mic. I also understand that it does a rather good job for £50. Enough for streaming on Twitch or recording a voiceover for a YouTube video, anyway.

But what if you want to take sound quality to the next level? There are various methods, the most obvious of which involves buying a higher quality XLR microphone. The problem is that you will then need an audio interface.

Why? For two major reasons. Some XLR microphones such as those of the condenser type need what is known as ‘phantom power’ (nothing to do with Ghostbusters, which an audio interface usually provides.

With zero or inadequate power, a condenser microphone will typically sound very quiet, which will mean boosting the gain and making unwanted noise such as an electronic hiss more prominent, or, more likely, record nothing at all.

You could buy a dynamic microphone as these are typically self-powered, which means no need for phantom power. But you still need to connect that XLR cable to your computer and that’s best done with an audio interface.

Audio interfaces can also improve the audio quality. This is because a capable microphone pre-amp keeps the sound clean, while sometimes also adding warmth or another preferable aural traits to your recordings.

Other benefits include being able to monitor your audio as you speak, adjust the gain of a mic and allow multiple microphones to be used at once, which is useful for group talks and interviews. An audio interface is, therefore, a vital component if you plan to improve your audio quality.

In this guide, I’m going to focus on audio interfaces ranging from £32 to £300, all of which are popular choices that happily connect to your computer via USB. Prices were accurate at the time of writing, but are subject to change.

5) The 5 best cheap audio interfaces: Behringer U-Phoria UM2

Behringer U-Phoria UM2 audio interface (front)

If you are trying to keep things as cheap as possible, you could just buy a phantom power device from the likes of Neewer or Behringer. But for around £13 more, you can have a full-blown audio interface in the form of the Behringer U-Phoria UM2.

This dinky audio interface is limited to a 48kHz audio resolution, but its Xenyx microphone pre-amp is of passable quality, if a little lighter and less full than some of the alternatives I’ve listed.

Connections include the 2-input/2-output, 48V phantom power, 1x XLR/TRS for a microphone, 2xRCA for speakers and a 1/4-inch jack for headphones.

Behringer U-Phoria UM2 audio interface (rear)

Okay, so the quality is less impressive but the internals are better than you would expect. As a way to test the water without spending much money, the Behringer U-Phoria UM2 is a sensible first step although you could argue that it would also make sense to spend a bit more and save yourself money in the long run.

£30.60 | Amazon Link

4) The 5 best cheap audio interfaces: Presonus Studio 2|6

Presonus Studio 2|6 audio interface (front)

Of all the interfaces, the Presonus Studio 2|6 came closest to becoming my personal audio interface. For one thing, it’s a respected brand but the main reason is that you get a lot of genuinely great software in the box, including PreSonus Studio One.

It also has 24-bit/192kHz audio resolution PreSonus XMAX-L solid state pre-amps that are known to be decent, an easy to read graphical readout so you can avoid clipping (when the volume is too loud and it ‘clips’) and USB 2.0 connectivity.

Presonus Studio 2|6 audio interface (rear)

There’s no optical link, sadly, but you do get two XLR connections, MIDI in and out, two line-out and two main-out and the usual microphone slot for monitoring so it’s more than capable for those looking to make YouTube videos.

£170 | Amazon Link

3) The 5 best cheap audio interfaces: Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6

Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 (main panel)

Another brand known in the business, Native Instrument’s affordable offering is the Komplete Audio 6. Besides looking the most aesthetically pleasing in my opinion, it’s feature rich and capable of a great sound.

Sound quality-wise, it has a 24-bit/96kHz audio resolution, which is less than some but supposedly you would struggle to notice. It also has USB 2.0 connectivity, two XLR inputs and – unusually at this price – a digital S/PDIF input/output for lossless signal transmission.

Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 (rear panel)

The large analogue volume knob and graphical interface makes it easy to use when sat on a desk, while its ability to power itself using a USB connection only will prove handy if you take it on the road. The 48V phantom power source, meanwhile, is said to be clean so you should get great audio recording.

£149 | Amazon Link

2) The 5 best cheap audio interfaces: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio / Solo

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio audio interface

The Scarlett 2i2 and its smaller, single XLR input Solo are hard to beat. Focusrite makes great audio equipment and most people seem to buy it if the sheer number of Amazon UK and Amazon US reviews are anything to go by.

In fact, a number of microphone YouTubers such as Podcastage use the Scarlett 2i2 so it can be trusted, which makes sense when you consider it offers decent sound quality and some of the lowest latency in the business, which is useful for when recording and monitoring audio at the same time.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio audio interface (rear panel)

The difference between the Solo and 2i2 is that the Solo has, like the Audient ID4, just the one microphone connection. The more expensive 2i2 provides two channels, while the even pricier 4i4 ups the ante to four channels. Useful for a band, not so useful for voiceovers.

The biggest downside is that some users have reported reliability issues and trouble with drivers for using with Windows 10, although more recent feedback suggests these issues have been resolved. Overall, the Scarlett 2i2 and Solo will be a great addition to your home studio setup.

£138 | Amazon Link

1) The 5 best cheap audio interfaces: Audient ID4

Audient ID4 audio interface (front and top)

Don’t let the small size fool you, the Audient ID4 is a highly recommended audio interface. Besides, the small footprint means it avoids taking up too much space on your desk and is easily transportable if you plan to record audio on the move.

Standout features include solid build quality, class A pre-amps for the microphone that ensure a great sound, a large control knob on top that can be used to control just about any function and it only needs USB power as opposed to a wall socket connection.

Audient ID4 audio interface (rear panel)

Audio resolution is 24-bit/192kHz, while it has a two-input and two-output design plus a main output if you want to connect headphones or speakers for monitoring audio. You can even connect it directly to an iPad or iPhone using a special kit from Apple.

Factor in clean phantom power and you have yourself a truly great sounding, sturdy and flexible audio interface. Just bear in mind that it only has the one microphone connection, so consider the Scarlett 2i2 if you want to record two microphones at once.

£103.95 | Amazon Link

What’s a good way to record and edit audio?

Audacity is my current favourite, although a number of the audio interfaces above come with at least one piece of software that will help you, say, add a touch of bass, remove background noise and other stuff that can further improve the end result.

What Audacity lacks in aesthetics, it more than makes up with serious functionality and it’s free. Plus you can add plug-ins for specific tasks such as a noise gate for removing unwanted background noise, although it’s better to do that with the microphone itself.

Dynamic microphones are usually best at this, but there are other options such as a condenser with a tighter pick-up pattern, known as a super cardioid or hyper cardioid. For a room with reverb, you are best off with the former, while the latter will provide more detail potential although that is more important for instrumental work.

Are USB microphones that bad, then?

Not really. Most people would struggle to tell the difference, especially if they are using their phone to watch your video. On headphones there’s a chance, but even then a Blue Yeti does a great job and you can further enhance the sound in post if you are happy investing the extra time.

But an XLR microphone at the very least means you can use your microphone at a greater distance from the computer and it can be more easily transported. Plus you can always upgrade the microphone at a later date if you want to and keep using the same audio interface.

Coming next: 5 of the best cheap microphones to go with your shiny new audio interface.

A touch of housekeeping: A Tribe Called Cars is entirely funded by myself to keep it unbiased and free to do whatever. All that I ask is that if you do purchase a recommended product that you use an Amazon affiliate link so I get a few pence for being a part of the process. It costs you nothing but it means I don’t have to eat baked beans out of a tin! Thank you.