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Five USB Audio Interface Myths Busted

Craig Anderton

When you’re recording with a computer, an audio interface provides the crucial translation from the analog world of guitars and vocals to digital data your computer can understand. The most popular type of audio interface connects to your computer via USB, but are there some myths that need to busted? Of course! Here are five of our favorites.

1. USB doesn’t perform as well as FireWire. There are theoretical differences and practical differences. There are also several different types of FireWire and USB. USB 2.0 is better on short data bursts than FireWire 400, which is better on sustained data transfers; but both are slower than FireWire 800 (which itself is slower than USB 3.0). Furthermore, the Thunderbolt protocol—the latest and greatest way to attempt to separate people from their disposable income—is potentially faster than all of these. If your head is about to explode, here’s a quick rule of thumb: USB 2.0 and FireWire 400, which remain the most popular ports for audio interfaces, give pretty much the same real-world results and are all that’s needed for most audio applications. However, it’s getting harder to find computers with built-in FireWire.

2. An audio interface’s mic jack delivers +48V of “phantom” power. Phantom power provides a voltage needed by certain types of microphones (note that not all interfaces provide phantom power). While this should be +48V, I’ve measured interfaces with as little as +34V (even though they were advertised as producing +48V). This won’t matter for most mics, but a few really do prefer +48V.

3. You need a 5-pin DIN MIDI connector to use MIDI gear. This is sort of true, because you do need it for “old school” MIDI gear with 5-pin DIN connectors. However, newer MIDI gear like keyboard controllers converse with your computer via USB, and don’t need the 5-pin connector any more.

4. All audio interfaces have pretty much reached parity in terms of quality. In some ways, this is true. Within a given price range and similar feature set, there are more similarities than differences. However, there are still many details to the art of designing an audio interface. Putting more effort into the circuit board layout, power supply, clock stability, and components can all have a major effect on the sound quality (Fig. 1). These aren’t just theoretical differences; you can hear them.

Fig. 1: TASCAM’s UH-7000 interface costs more than budget interfaces, but places an emphasis on premium components and best-in-class specifications.
Fig. 1: TASCAM’s UH-7000 interface costs more than budget interfaces, but places an emphasis on premium components and best-in-class specifications.

5. USB is mostly a Windows thing, so USB performance on Macs isn’t as good. This was true at one point, but not anymore—the Mac was a little slow to warm up to USB, but the latest Macs have smokin’ fast USB 3.0 ports, just like the latest Windows machines. If only all Mac vs. Windows arguments could be settled so easily…

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