The best 2-channel USB Audio Recording Interfaces under $200 [Updated for 2021]


Audio Interface - 2 XLR inputs

One of the most important parts of your recording setup is your audio interface. This is the physical hardware device that takes an analogue audio signal, converts it to digital and sends it to your computer for recording into your recording software or DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).

You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on an audio interface with heaps of inputs and features, if you’re just recording guitar and vocals in your home studio. In fact, you can record a full drum kit and get a great sound with just two microphones (read my article about how to do this).

If you want to record a multi-track drums or a full band then you may want more than two inputs.

There are plenty of other USB two channel interfaces out there, but we’ve narrowed the search down for you to the most popular options. There are some variations in features between these models, but there were some key criteria that we used to select the models to discuss, these criteria are;

  • A list price of under $200 (US dollars)
  • Two microphone pre-amps built into the unit
  • USB Interface and bus-powered
  • Windows and Mac compatibility
  • Ranked in the top 50 sellers on Amazon in the Computer Recording Interfaces Category

In this article we’ll be comparing the following popular two channel audio interfaces that are on the market in 2020;

Note that the rankings on Amazon were at the time of writing this article and they may have changed since then. View the top 50 Amazon Computer Recording Interfaces here for the current rankings.

Unit

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

Presonus Studio 24

Behringer
U-Phoria UMC204HD

Tascam US 2X2

M-Audio M-Track 2X2M

Build Quality

Sound Quality

Price

Inputs

2

2

2

2

2

Outputs

2 x 1/4″ TRS

2 x 1/4″ TRS

2 x 1/4″ TRS
+ 4 x RCA

2 x 1/4″ TRS

2 x 1/4″ TRS

Midi I/O

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

iOS Support

No

No

No

Yes

No

Included Software

Protools First

Studio One

Tracktion

Ableton Live Lite

Protools First and Ableton Live Lite

Things to consider when choosing an audio interface

Sound Quality

One of the most important things to consider when selecting your recording interface is the quality of the sound.

There is some variation in the quality of componentry in these models that we are considering and this will impact the sound quality for your recording. In some applications, this will be less noticeable, but in other applications you may hear some background hiss or hum in your audio.

The thing to look at when considering the quality, is the type of pre-amps that the interface has. Some of the things to consider are the signal to noise ratio. This means that at a given volume, how much background noise (hum or hiss) is introduced from the componentry into your audio signal.

Connectivity and Controls

All of the units have the input connectors on the front panel which makes for easy access for connecting your input devices. On all the units we looked at, the XLR microphone input connectors double as a 1/4” line level instrument inputs so you can plug instruments like guitars, bass or keyboards directly into the front.

We also considered the output connectors, whether the unit has 2 or 4 outputs, are the connectors balanced or unbalanced*. What type of connection (RCA, Jack, XLR) are there any headphone outputs, is there Midi connectivitiy? Is the unit buss powered, or does it require a separate power supply? What controls are on the unit for things like gain control on the inputs, master volume for the monitor outputs, phantom power, input pads, headphone volume.

*What is a balanced vs unbalanced connection?

Now is a good time to explain the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio.

An unbalanced audio cable uses two wires to carry the signal – a positive or signal wire and a ground wire. Common types of connectors that are used for unbalanced signal include RCA (commonly used for home AV and DJ applications) and mono 1/4” jack – often used for connecting a guitar to an amplifier.

Unbalanced audio cables have some weaknesses – the ground wire has a tendency to act as an antennae over distance and pick up interference. This can cause things like background humming or buzzing in your signal. The signal level is also relatively low compared to balanced. Because of this, unbalanced audio cables are typically limited in length to 20 feet, to avoid too much interference.

Balanced audio cables by contrast have three wires – two signal wires and a ground wire. The two signal wires (called hot and cold or positive and negative) each carry the audio signal, however the cold signal has it’s polarity reversed. Both signal wires will pick up identical noise and interference on their way to the destination (things like hum and buzz).

The receiving audio equipment flips the polarity of the negative signal, resulting in a boost in the audio signal. Any noise that is picked up along the way in the cable is now out of phase with itself and is cancelled out in a process known as Common Mode Rejection.

We’ll evaluate which of the units have balanced outputs in detail below.

What is Phantom Power?

Condenser microphones require their own 48V power supply in order to function. This is an industry standard power supply format. Phantom power sends a 48v power supply back to the microphone along the microphone cable to power the electronics in the microphone. (Some condenser microphones have their own standalone power supply or can be powered by batteries).

As a general rule though, many popular condenser microphones will require phantom power to operate. So, 48V phantom power is a pretty important feature that your recording interface should have. All of the models we are considering have 48V Phantom power.

What are input pads?

An input pad switch enables you to reduce the gain level of the input, usually by -10db. This enables you to send a much hotter input signal to your interface, such as electric or bass guitar, keyboard.

The input pad reduces the input level before it gets to the pre-amp, to avoid distorting or clipping. It also gives you greater control of the input gain if you’re recording a hot signal with a microphone like a guitar amp, or drum kit.

Here’s a quick overview of the units we looked at, showing which ones have input pads.

Audio Interfaces with Input Pads

  • Focusrite 2i2: No
  • Focusrite 2i4: Yes
  • Presonus Studio 24: No
  • Tascam US2x2: Yes
  • Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD: Yes
  • M-Audio M-Track 2x2M: No

Stereo/Mono mix

Listening to your mix in mono is an important step that I recommend as part of your mixing processes. You can set this up in your digital audio workstation, but some interfaces have this built in. At the flick of a button you can quickly toggle between mono and stereo to make sure that none of the parts have gone missing.

Build Quality and overall aesthetics.

The construction of the interface is important if you’re going to be recording a live show or traveling with your interface, you want to be confident that it’s robust and strong enough to handle the situations where you’ll be working. We’ve considered this on all of the units.

Reviewing the units

OK, let’s get into the fun part – looking in detail at the best two channel USB audio interfaces available in 2020!

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 has two XLR microphone inputs which double as line inputs so you can record instruments like guitar, bass and keyboards directly into your computer. (No need for a DI box).

The Scarlett 2i2 has a large brushed aluminum master volume control on the front which I really like. This makes it easily to quickly adjust your monitor volume level.

There’s a stereo headphone jack and associated volume knob on the front for easy access. (I like this a lot as I’m often unplugging my headphones!)

Each of the inputs have a gain control on the front and a LED level meter. The meter enables you to intelligently set the gain for your recording quickly and easily and monitor your levels. The LED display will go into the red if your input is getting too hot.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 – Rear View (no MIDI!)

One notable feature missing from the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is the MIDI connectivity. All the other models we’ve looked at had MIDI input and output ports. If this is a concern, then we’d recommend going for the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4, which has the onboard MIDI ports, extra line outputs and a few extra features under the hood. It’s just a few dollars extra (At the time of writing, it was on special at $179, so we think it deserves a mention in this guide!)

Sooner or later you’ll want to connect something via midi, whether it’s a synth, a sequencer or midi controller. Do yourself a favor and spend the extra few dollars to get that midi I/O.

The other important feature the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 has is the input pad button on each input. If you’re recording electric guitar or keyboards straight into the interface, you’ll find this incredibly valuable so your input signal isn’t too hot.

The stereo/mono switch on the monitoring is handy too – you should definitely be checking your mixes in mono to make sure parts aren’t getting lost. This switch makes it easy!

4 line outputs on the 2i4 are handy too – this enables you to send 4 unique signals out of the unit. Useful for live performances when you’re running backing tracks or Djing.

So, if you’re on a tight budget the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a great option – if you can stretch an extra $40 and want a few extra features, I definitely recommend the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4.

Check price on Amazon for the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

Check price on Amazon for the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4

Pros

  • Excellent quiet and clean preamps
  • Solid and attractive metal construction with premium quality knobs
  • Unique VU meter around gain control – works well

Cons

  • No MIDI I/O
  • Some users are reporting driver compatibility with Windows.
  • Not much headroom for recording guitars directly into the unit – did I mention you should pay the extra for the 2i4!
  • No input pads

Presonus Studio 24

Next on the list is the Presonus Studio 24. The Studio 24 comes in another rugged all-metal enclosure designed to handle gigging and life on the road. We thought the build quality wasn’t quite as good as the Focusrite Scarlett series, but it’s still very solid and durable.

Audio Quality

The Presonus XMAX-L solid-state preamps and high-quality converters touted to deliver excellent sound quality and resolution up to 24-bit, 192 kHz. We thought the headroom in the pre-amps was not up to those of the Focusrite 2i2, meaning you may get distortion or clipping with a very hot input signal.

Connectivity and Controls

The connectivity is pretty standard on this unit with two multi-purpose XLR/ 1/4″ jack combination inputs on the front, two balanced TRS 1/4″ jack main outputs, one stereo 1/4″ jack headphone output and a 5-pin DIN MIDI input and output on the back. The unit has 48V phantom power as expected for powering condenser microphones.

There are simple 4-LED VU meters for the 2 inputs and stereo outputs, which do the job. The controls on the front include gain for the two inputs, main output level, headphone level and a mixer knob. This handy little mix feature blends your analog input and computer playback for low-latency direct monitoring as you’re recording. This means you can listen directly to your recorded signal from the unit, rather than experiencing latency (a time delay) if you had to route through your DAW.

The Presonus Studio 24 doesn’t have input pads.

Presonus Studio 24 USB – Rear View

Included Software

The Studio 24 comes with Presonus’s Studio One Artist music production software and the Studio Magic Plug-in Suite, which includes a selection of effects, processing plugins, virtual instruments, loops and UJAM Virtual Drummer 2 PHAT – a useful pack of drum samples. So you’ve got everything you need in the box to start creating music with your computer. The Studio 24 interface is compatible with most modern Mac and Windows audio-recording software if you prefer to use another DAW platform.

Check price or buy at Amazon.com

Pros

  • 4 LED VU meter for inputs and outputs
  • High Resolution and Bit rate (192khz, 24-bit)

Cons

  • Some users are reporting poor product support from Presonus and audio quality issues.
  • The unit only has two outputs, meaning it is limited for some applications like DJing or running multi-track backing tracks.
  • The unit only has two outputs, meaning it is limited for some applications like DJing or running multi-track backing tracks.

Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD

The Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD interface is another excellent value audio interface with a few extra features that go above and beyond others in this price bracket.

This unit has 4 outputs, which sets it in a class above most of the other ones we reviewed. That means it’s a bit more versatile for using for DJ work, running multi-track backing tracks. The main TRS 1/4″ jack outputs are balanced and the additional 4 x RCA outputs are unbalanced

The U-Phoria UMC204HD comes in a solid metal chassis. Great for taking out on the road. I thought the knobs felt a bit cheaper than the Presonus or Focusrite alternatives, but they certainly get the job done.

Audio Quality

The pre-amps in the UMC204HD are designed by Midas – a notable manufacturer that has been building high quality audio equipment since the 1970’s. The preamps are very clean and quiet, with a decent amount of headroom for things like recording guitars directly into the unit.

That being said, this is an entry level unit, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that the preamps and converters actually have exactly the same specs as a genuine Midas unit. I did a quick review of the differences between a genuine Midas preamp and the Behringer. The main stated difference between a $1,000 Midas XL48 Preamp and the UMC204HD is the maximum input level. The XL48 can handle an input level up to +11DBu, while the UMC204HD’s stated maximum input level is -4dBu. I was also hoping to compare the THD (Total Harmonic distortion) between the two units and the preamplifier gain levels but these metrics were conveniently absent from the UMC204HD spec-sheet. Of course, these two units are dramatically different but my point is that the so-called ‘Midas designed preamps’ are different from the preamps present in a Midas unit. That is not to say the Behringer is bad – it’s got a very full set of features in this under $200 price bracket!

Sources: Midas XL48 Datasheet. Behringer UMC204HD Datasheet

The sample rates supported are 44.1 / 48 / 88.2 / 96 / 176.4 / 192 kHz and the bit resolution is up to 24-bit.

Connectivity and controls

The UMC204HD has two combo XLR/1/4″ jack TRS inputs on the front for easy access. There’s a section for each input with a gain control, line/inst switch and an input pad. I was impressed to see the input pad on this unit as that’s an important feature missing on a few others in this price range. There are also separate signal and clip LED indicators – which is useful to some degree, but I prefer the LED VU meter that the Presonus Studio 24 has, so you can see when your signal level is approaching the red.

Also on the front we have a stereo/mono switch, something not present on any other of the units we checked out, except for the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4. This is an excellent addition from Behringer and enables you to quickly listen to your mixes in mono to make sure some of your parts don’t get buried in a mono mix.

On the front there is also a handy input/playback mix knob allowing you to listen direct to your input audio as you’re recording and mix with playback audio from your DAW. There is also a main output level knob, a monitor A/B switch, 1/4″ jack stereo headphone output and headphone level knob.

But wait there is more… The UMC204HD also has MIDI in/out LED indicators on the front, a power LED indicator and 48v Phantom power indicator!

Behringer have sure crammed a huge amount of functionality onto the front of this compact unit and these functions are all very useful. As I previously mentioned the knobs feel a bit lower quality – but I can accept this based on all the other great features on the front of the unit.

Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD – Rear View

On the back of the unit, there is a USB 2.0 type B female socket which carries data and also powers the unit. This socket is the same as most printers, so cables are easy to find! There are two 5-pin DIN midi sockets (input and output). The 48V phantom power switch is also on the back – some other units have this on the front, but it doesn’t bother me too much that it’s on the back.

On the back, the UMC204HD features 4 RCA playback outputs. These are very useful for DJ’s and musicians who want to run 4 individual multi-track outputs. This sets the UMC204HD apart from most of the other units in this price bracket that only have 2 outputs.

There are two balanced TRS 1/4″ jack main outputs and two TRS 1/4″ jack inserts for channels 1 and 2. This unit is the only one that we looked at that has inserts – it’s a nice extra feature but probably not needed by most people looking for an interface in this price bracket.

Included Software

Comes with Tracktion T7 DAW and 150 downloadable instrument/effect plug-ins. Tracktion is a relatively new DAW Recording software package on the market but it has a pretty good selection of features. Learn more about Tracktion.

Pros

  • 4 individual outputs
  • 2 inserts
  • Stereo/Mono mix switch

Cons

  • The quality of construction is a bit lower on this unit, the knobs feel a bit cheap.
  • It would be nice to have a proper LED VU meter.

Check current price on the Behringer UMC204-HD

Tascam US 2×2

The Tascam US 2×2 has a unique look to it with some strange looking wings on the side, I was trying to think what it reminded me of, then it came to me…

A Tie Fighter from Star Wars!

Anyway, I digress… the build quality of this unit is pretty sturdy and robust – it has a solid metal case and those crazy looking wings on the side are made from aluminum. Those side wings are actually designed to angle the front of the unit up slightly for easier accessibility when it’s on your desk – clever!

Audio Quality

The Tascam US 2×2 has two very quiet “Ultra-HDDA” pre-amplifiers with an impressive 57db gain range. This means you can comfortably use them for a range of different microphones – dynamic, condenser and even ribbon mics. The unit has a low total harmonic distortion (THD) of 0.003% or less
and a Signal to Noise ratio of 101dB or more – meaning there shouldn’t be much background noise like humming or hiss.

The converters can operate from a resolution of 44.1khz up to 96khz at either 16-bit or 24-bit – on a par with most of the other units in this range.

Connectivity and Controls

On the front of the Tascam 2×2 there are two XLR combo ports which also double as 1/4″ jack inputs. There’s a 48V phantom power switch which affects both XLR inputs. Each individual input section has a toggle switch for selecting between mic/line or an instrument input. This function is useful as it means you can plug a guitar, bass or keyboard in without the signal overloading the preamp.

Each input section has a gain knob, a signal LED and a peak LED. As I mentioned previously, I prefer the proper LED VU meter that the Presonus Studio 24 interface has.

On the right front of the Tascam 2×2 are a group of global controls. In this section there is a USB connection LED – handy for showing that the unit is connected to your device and is getting power. There is also a useful mix knob, allowing you to mix your input signal with playback audio – useful for monitoring when recording multiple parts. There is also a master line out volume and a stereo 1/4″ jack headphone output with associated volume knob.

The knobs are a little small for my liking and felt a bit low-quality (I have big fingers!)

Tascam US -2×2 – Rear View

The back of the unit is pretty straightforward – on the left there are 2 balanced 1/4″ jack line outputs.

The 2×2 has 5-pin DIN MIDI inputs and outputs on the back, great for connecting up keyboards, synths, drum machines and a whole raft of other devices!

There’s a standard USB type B female socket for connecting to your device.

One of the unique features of the Tascam 2×2 is that it can connect to an iPad! The drivers are built into iOS. You’ll need a couple of extra accessories to get it working: A USB to lightning ‘camera’ adapter and you also need to get external power into it, as the lightning port on an iPad doesn’t have enough grunt to power the interface. To do this, you can purchase a separate AC adapter, or run the unit through a separate powered USB Hub.

Finally, on the back there is a 5v DC power input. Some computers send enough power down the USB port to actually power the device, but some laptops and the iPad will need the 2×2 to be powered separately.

Included Software

The Tascam US-2×2 comes with two DAW applications to choose from – Cakewalk SONAR X3 LE and Abelton Live Lite 9. Both of these are cut down versions and fairly basic, but they’ll be enough to get you started.

Overall the Tascam US-2×2 has everything you need to get started recording audio or podcasting.

Highlights

M-Audio M-Track 2X2M

The M-Audio M-Track 2X2M is the final interface we’ve chosen to evaluate in this article. At the time of writing this was ranked number 35 in the Audio Interfaces category on Amazon – making it a solid contender

The first thing you’ll notice about the M-Audio is that it has a different form factor design than all the other units. M-Audio have cleverly utilized the top of the enclosure to enable them to use larger controls and a decent 4-LED VU Meter. This makes a lot of sense to me and I don’t know why more manufacturers don’t use this layout.

The construction quality on the 2X2M feels very nice – I particularly like the feel of the large brushed aluminum master output volume knob with the textured grip around the circumference. The other controls also feel solid and have a nice looking brushed aluminum top on them. The black casing is treated with a clear acrylic for a glass-like finish – which makes the unit feel and look very classy.

Audio Quality

The preamps are quiet and clean and have plenty of gain headroom for quieter input sources. I think the quality is not quite up to that of the Tascam or Focusrite units, but still very good in this price range.

The AD converters are high resolution 192khz, 24bit.

Connectivity and Controls

The M-Audio M-Track 2X2M is unique in all these units we’ve looked at, in that it has separate 1/4″ jack instrument inputs on the front as well as the combo XLR / 1/4″ jack inputs which are on the back. The separate instrument inputs on the front is handy and allows you to leave input sources plugged in around the back while plugging a guitar or bass in the front.

On the front panel there is also a nice aluminum 48v Phantom power switch and a stereo 1/4″ jack headphone output.

On the top of the unit there is a gain control for each channel with the nice solid feeling knobs I’ve already mentioned. Each channel also has a 4-LED VU meter which I really like – this is really useful to monitor your input levels accurately. Each channel is clearly labelled ‘1’ and ‘2’ which is just a nice little extra attention to detail.

The main feature of the top panel is the large master volume control with the rubber grip ring around the outside. This is very nicely engineered and makes the whole unit feel like it should be in a much more expensive price bracket.

In the top right corner of the top panel there is also a mix knob. It is somewhat confusingly labelled ‘USB’ and ‘Direct’ – other units use the terms ‘playback’ and ‘input’ which makes more sense to me, but that’s just a minor niggle. This knob allows you to create a mix with audio from your DAW and your recorded signal.

Also in the top right-hand corner there is also a headphone volume knob.

The unit also has 4 blue LED indicators showing power, +48V phantom power MIDI in and MIDI out.

M-Audio M-Track 2x2M – Rear View

On the back of the unit there is the obligatory USB port – on the 2x2M this is a USB type C connector – it’s easy enough to get a cable to convert this to standard USB though.

There are also 5-pin DIN MIDI in and MIDI out ports – a prerequisite for all the units we looked at in this article.

Next up on the back there are two balanced 1/4″ jack master outputs – you’d run these to your monitors, or into the sound system if you’re using the unit for live performance.

Finally on the back we have the combo XLR / line inputs for connecting microphones, or line level inputs.

Included Software

The M-Audio M-Track 2x2M comes with an impressive bundle of software including two DAW software productS: Protools First (M-Audio Edition) and Ableton Live Lite, Air Creative FX plugin pack, Air Minigrand virtual instrument, Air Strike Drum arranger and Air Xpand Virtual Instrument pack with over 2500 instrument presents.

Highlights

  • Clever physical design layout which makes the unit very easy to use
  • LED VU meters
  • Comprehensive software bundle pack – all you need to get started creating music
  • Separate instrument inputs
  • High Resolution 192khz/24-bit recording
  • Price: Check current price or buy at at Amazon.com

The Winner!

My pick out of all of these excellent interfaces is the M-Audio M-Track 2x2M. The feature set and usability is simply superior to any of the others. It is beautifully designed and comes with an excellent software bundle.

Check the latest price for the M-Audio M-Track 2x2M.

If you can stretch your budget just a little further, then I highly recommend the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 which has the MIDI I/O as well and an additional 2 analogue outputs.

Check the latest price on Amazon for the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 here.

Update: The Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 has now been replaced with the new version the Scarlett 4i4. Check pricing on Amazon for the Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 (Gen 3).

We’ll be reviewing this unit in a separate article soon.

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