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Buying Guide for Thunderbolt Audio Interface

Buying Guide for Thunderbolt Audio Interface

There’s no doubt Thunderbolt is unparalleled thanks to its near-zero latency and up to 6 peripherals connectivity without any loss in transfer speed.

Who still uses USB audio interfaces anyway?

If you’re in the market for Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces but can’t decide which one to buy, worry not! I’ve got you covered!

I’ve shortlisted some of the best audio interfaces in the market across budgets, plus some answers to any questions you might have.

Table of Contents

The 6 Best Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces for Recording

Best Overall: Universal Audio Apollo Twin X Duo

Best Overall- Universal Audio Apollo Twin X Duo

Specs

  • 8 x 8 x 6 inches
  • Desktop Form Factor
  • 2 line outputs
  • Optical ADAT/SPDIF input
  • 2 mics and 1 instrument preamps
  • 24-bit/192kHz Analog to Digital Resolution
  • Phantom power
  • 2 x XLR-1/4 inches combo (mic/line), 1 x 1/4 inches (Hi-Z) Analog inputs
  • 2 x 1/4 inches (monitor), 2 x 1/4 inches (line out) Analog outputs
  • 1 x Optical Toslink (ADAT,S/PDIF) Digital inputs
  • 1 x Thunderbolt 3

With 60-years and counting in the pro audio industry, I’m starting strong with Universal Audio’s Apollo Twin X.

The Thunderbolt Universal Audio Apollo model has ALL the best features the other Rackmount Apollo X models lack:

  • Dynamic range of 127 dB D/A and an included bundle of UA Digital analog emulation plug-ins.
  • It features an elite-class D/A conversion and vice versa, equipped with the WIDEST dynamic range (127 dB dynamic range and -117 dB THD+N)
  • LOWEST NOISE of any desktop interface for clear recording and mixing.
  • It also boasts two Unison-enabled mic preamps (EXCLUSIVE to UA Audio!), providing you with a clean, high-quality signal for quality recording.
  • Near ZERO LATENCY regardless of your audio software’s buffer size.

And that’s not all.

Another exclusive from this brand is the LUNA recording system software, a full-featured music creation app for Mac with tons of built-in features and optimal extensions for a fast, natural workflow.

Now imagine all of that loaded in a portable and compact desktop interface.

PERFECT for your home studio and other small spaces. This Apollo variation is the best in its category!

NOTE: I’ve featured the Twin X DUO here, but it’s also available in 4 DSP Cores Real-Time plug-in processing.

Pros

  • Built-in UAD-2 plug-in processing
  • Durable build quality
  • Four Apollos and six total UAD-2 devices are PERFECT for large studios
  • Compact and Portable
  • 1 Year Manufacturer’s Warranty if purchased from an Authorized UA Retailer
  • Compatible with BOTH Mac and Windows OS

Cons

  • Lacks I/O options

Best Value: PreSonus Quantum 2626

Best Value- PreSonus Quantum 2626

Specs

  • 7.5 x 19 x 1.75 inches
  • 5 lbs.
  • Mac and Windows OS
  • Rackmount form factor
  • 30 GB hard disk space
  • 24-bit/192kHz digital converters with 120dB of dynamic range for clean sounds
  •  2 combo mic/instrument inputs and 6 mic/line inputs
  • 8 front-mounted ultra-transparent XMAX analog mic preamps
  • Dual ADAT Optical, S/PDIF, MIDI, and BNC word clock I/O
  • ¼” TRS Left and Right main outputs and 8 ¼” TRS line outputs, DC-coupled
  • 26 x 26 simultaneous inputs and outputs
  • 2 x XLR-1/4″ combo (mic/Hi-Z), 6 x XLR-1/4″ combo (mic/line), 2 x 1/4″ (return) analog input
  • 8 x 1/4″ TRS (DC coupled), 2 x 1/4″ (main L/R), 2 x 1/4″ (preamp out) analog output

The Quantum 2626 Thunderbolt 3 Audio Interface is regarded as one of the “fastest audio interfaces on the planet.”

I’ve found that it easily outperforms others in its category.

It contains the fastest and latest Thunderbolt 3, delivering blazing-fast speeds without compromising on sound.

This Thunderbolt 3 audio interface also gives you unparalleled low round-trip latency, unrivaled compared to other audio interfaces (up to <1 ms!).

PreSonus audio interfaces also let you capture complex musical harmonics smoothly and naturally, with no audible distortion. You get to hear every little detail!

Some interfaces are only as good as their software, but this interface delivers there, too! This particular Thunderbolt 3 interface comes with:

  • Studio One
  • Ableton Live Lite.
  • The Thunderbolt 3 Audio interface also has a Studio Magic plug-in suite

It even functions like a MIDI I/O board, letting you connect to your other gadgets and expand your system.

A low-jitter word clock delivers the BEST recording and listening experience.    

If you don’t have a Thunderbolt 3 Audio Port, don’t worry!

You can connect your existing thunderbolt audio interface to your thunderbolt 2 with the bidirectional Apple Thunderbolt 3 adapter.

Pros

  • 2 ¼ inches headphone outputs with dedicated volume
  • Easy adjustability (up to 26-in/26-out when expanded via ADAT I/O Optical)
  • Solid build quality and heavy-duty knobs
  • Easy to set up and user friendly
  • Also works with old audio interfaces (in case you don’t have Thunderbolt 3 yet)
  • Software bundle (with artist DAW included!)

Cons

  • Unable to work as a standalone audio interface

Best Budget: Zoom TAC-2R 2×2

Best Budget- Zoom TAC-2R 2×2 – Thunderbolt

Specs

  • 1.57 lbs.
  • 4.8 x 6.9 x 1.8 inches
  • MIDI I/O (for when you want to connect a synthesizer, etc.)
  • 2 x XLR/TRS (combined) inputs
  • 24-bit/192kHz
  • 4x upsampling during Analog to digital (and vice versa) conversion for reduced noise and enhanced fidelity
  • High-performance mic preamps with up to +60 dB of amplification
  • 2 (left and right) line outputs
  • 1x phone output (mono & stereo monitoring)
  • 2 combination XLR/TRS inputs, each with its separate phantom power switch (IDEAL for when you only need it on a single channel)

Do you play in large shows that need perfect audio quality with high PAs in your studio? If so, you’ll need this interface.

Like other, more expensive thunderbolt audio interfaces I’ve reviewed, the Zoom TAC also boasts near zero latency and the ultimate in HIGH AUDIO QUALITY (up to 24-bit/192 kHz).

Not to mention, it’s perfect for musicians on the road!

This thunderbolt audio is Compact and Portable. Without needing an AC plug-in, you can just connect it to the Mac laptop (or your studio computer), and you’re good to go!

It’s also great for field recordings and onstage playback for live shows.

Accidentally left it in the studio? It’s so small, shipping it to your location won’t be much of a hassle!

And if you happen to tour the countryside, it can also record nature sounds cleanly and without noise!

Do you enjoy switching between stereo and mono monitoring?

Zoom audio interfaces have 2 dual-balanced line outputs (left and right feeds) and a headphone output.

Pros

  • Phantom power is switchable
  • Portable, compact, and lightweight
  • Extended 1-year warranty
  • Flawlessly works in both STUDIO and LIVE situations

Cons

  • No power button on its own
  • Stays on as long as it’s connected to your powered computer

Best for Small Bands: Universal Audio Apollo X8P

Best for Small Bands- Universal Audio Apollo X8P

Specs

  • 18 x 22 inches
  • 9 lbs.
  • Rackmount form factor
  • 24-bit/192kHz Analog to Digital Resolution
  • 8 mics, 2 instrument preamps
  • 6 x Universal Audio Digital DSP Cores
  • 8 x XLR-1/4″ combo (mic/line), 2 x 1/4″ (Hi-Z), 1 x DB-25 (line) A inputs
  • 2 x 1/4″ (monitor), 1 x DB-25 (alt/5.1 surround) A outputs
  • 2 x Optical Toslink (ADAT/SMUX) Digital inputs
  • 2 x Optical Toslink (ADAT/SMUX) Digital outputs
  • 2 x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3)
  • Works on both operating systems

Are you looking for an upgrade? What about starting with features already designed for PROS?

The Apollo X8P is the perfect fit for you! I’ll tell you why.

If your computer’s having trouble keeping up with your music production, the new HEXA Core provides 50% MORE power for processing and mixing than its previous Apollo models.

It also gives you real-time tracking so that you won’t fall behind!

What Else Makes It Pro-Worthy?

  • Selectable +24 dBu operation gives you EASY COMPATIBILITY with professional mixing (but still user-friendly) consoles.
  • Tape machines and allows CONSISTENT metering/voltage headroom 
  • CONVENIENT front panel monitoring functions including Alt Speakers, Talkback mic, and assignable Dim or Mono
  • UPGRADED ELITE-CLASS AD/DA conversion and Dual Crystal word clock, for your pure, refined recording sound quality
  • A 7.1 surround monitoring support is PERFECT for sound engineers, musicians, and producers going pro.
  • It features 8 Unison-enabled mic preamps, which lets you track large projects through EXACTING mic preamp emulations from Neve, API, Manley, Helios, SSL, and UA.
  • ALL that with near ZERO LATENCY

I can’t miss mentioning the UA exclusive perk: a fully integrated LUNA recording system.

Lastly, the technology of this audio interface does more than just filter your audio. It lets your mic input work the same way it does with hardware preamps.

Who needs hardware studios? This Apollo audio interface has got you covered!

Pros

  • Easy to set up
  • Seamlessly integrates with ProTools
  • Very transparent converters

Cons

  • No DAW-type recording tracks or virtual instruments

Best for Full Bands: Apogee ELEMENT 88

Best for Full Bands- Apogee ELEMENT 88

Specs

  • 13.5 inches x 5.5 inches X 1.75 inches
  • 3.5 lbs
  • 16 IN x 16 OUT Thunderbolt Audio I/O box
  • AD/DA conversion for recording up to 192kHz/24-bit
  • Optical I/O both support ADAT, SMUX & S/PDIF
  • 8 analog ins
  • Selectable phantom power  for connecting microphones, instruments, or line-level devices: 4 combination inputs and 4 XLR inputs
  • 8 analog out: 2 balanced rear-panel XLR outputs and 2 balanced 1/4 inches outputs
  • 2 x 1/4 inches stereo headphone outputs
  • Single port Thunderbolt connectivity
  • Rackmount form factor

I love the Element 88 because it can record your drum set and the rest of your band because it has 16 inputs and outputs in the Audio I/O box.

And, of course, the Thunderbolt connectivity to Mac delivers 1.41ms round-trip at 96kHz with a 32 buffer setting, giving you ULTRA-LOW LATENCY PERFORMANCE.

You also get enhanced definition for your sounds, thanks to Apogee’s signature AD/DA conversion for recording up to 192kHz/24-bit.

This Thunderbolt audio interface allows you to mix your tracks to achieve balance, eliminate noise, and boost your signal quality.

What else do you get? 8 world-class, jack-of-all-trades mic preamps!

Recording a full band means your sound will come from different sources. These different instruments will also challenge your preamps.

But there’s no need to worry! I’m pleased to report that Apogee’s mic can capture it all. Thanks to its Advanced Stepped Gain Architecture, the gain range increases from 0 to 75dB.

It takes in every little detail of every instrument for the best, most accurate recording sound.

Feeling lazy to stand up? Or buttons just out of reach? Apogee Control Mobile App even has wireless remote control via iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch!

(Yes, an iPod touch. Your dinosaur friends will love this.)

Worried about syncing your interface with other audio gear in your system? The Word Clock I/O has got your back for timing and syncing!

Pros

  • Direct monitoring feature in Logic Pro X eliminates recording latency
  • Multi-unit Thunderbolt support  lets you connect any two-element audio I/O boxes directly to Thunderbolt Ports on your computer

Cons

  • Only works on Mac OS

Most Simultaneous I/O Channels: Motu 8Pre-es Professional Multi-Channel Audio Interface

Most Simultaneous I-O Channels- Motu 8Pre-es Professional Multi-Channel Audio Interface

Specs

  • 21.26 x 11.81 x 43.31 inches
  • 6.65 Pounds
  • MAC and Windows OS
  • Rackmount form factor
  • Low latency at 1.6 ms at 96kHz over Thunderbolt™ with high-performance DAW hosts.
  • 8 x XLR-1/4 inches combo (mic/line/Hi-Z) Analog Inputs
  • 8 x 1/4 inches Analog Outputs
  • 2 x Optical Toslink (ADAT) Digital Inputs
  • 2 x Optical Toslink (ADAT) Digital Outputs
  • 2 x Optical Toslink (ADAT) I/O
  • USB, Thunderbolt 2, AVB for Universal Connectivity
  • Up to 24-bit/192kHz A/D Resolution
  • Phantom power
  • 2 x 1/4 inches for headphones

The 8Pre-es is a professional-grade interface that I’d recommend for bigger bands.

More Input and Output Channels

Were you impressed with the Apogee’s amount of input and output channels? I’d like to introduce you to the Motu 8Pre-es first.

Then get ready for Motu’s all independent 24 input channels, 28 outputs, combining for a total of 52 SIMULTANEOUS audio channels!

You also get the same wireless control as the element, meaning you can connect it to the following devices.

  • Laptop
  • Smartphone
  • Tablet

The 8Pre-es boasts of having redesigned its mic channels for individual preamp gain, pad, and 48V phantom power to give your sounds next-level transparency.

It’s an upgrade from its older sibling, the ESS Sabre32 DAC.

Motu has now equipped 8Pre-es with the SAME QUALITY and 123 dB dynamic range as the brand’s flagship 1248 model.

I like the 8Pre-es because it’s packed with quality despite being a cost-effective audio interface.

Top-Tier Flexibility

A thunderbolt audio interface is one thing, but what if I told you it has even more connectivity options?

MOTU also has Hi-speed USB 2.0, AVB/TSN Ethernet (for standalone operation,) and an iOS option for using it with your iPad through the camera adapter of its USB.

It possesses ALL the mixing options you want. Take a look at these incredible features!

  • Full-fledged 48-input digital mixer
  • 7 stereo aux busses (3 groups)
  • Access to 64 network inputs
  • DSP effects (reverb, 4-band EQ, gate, and compression)

You also get to digitally trim your sounds coming from your analog input sources and get to adjust them by 1dB increments for superior sound quality.

The 8Pre-es is packed with features, has incredible sound quality, and unlimited headroom. What more could you ask for?

Pros

  • Sturdy and durable thanks to its solid metal chassis
  • Standalone operation with wireless control
  • New dual-LCD design
  • Built-in Talkback Mic

Cons

  • Some users report delays in reverb

Things to Consider When Buying a Thunderbolt Audio Interface

Things to Consider

Analog Inputs and Outputs

To answer this question, you’ll need to ask yourself: What are you planning to record?

  • Will you just record your voice through a microphone?
  • Will it be from a single instrument, like an electronic keyboard or guitar?
  • Will you record an entire live band? Maybe even an orchestra?

In my experience, an audio interface’s I/O can range from at least 1-2 to up to 18-20 inputs and outputs, sometimes even more.

If You’re Recording From Your Microphone or a Single Instrument

I recommend getting an interface with 1-2 input plug-ins.

Voice recording from your microphone will need a preamp, while a recording from a single instrument will need a line-level input.

However, some audio interfaces may not let you record simultaneously even though they have multiple input plug-ins.

Meanwhile, some audio interfaces already have combo jacks with built-in preamps, meaning you can plug your mic and instrument into the SAME INPUT JACK.

If You’re Planning to Record a Whole Live Band

I recommend getting an interface with at least 8 inputs.

For instance, your drum set will require 4-8 input plug-ins, and you’ll still have to connect the rest of the band afterward.

So if You’re Planning to Record on Your Own

I suggest going for the bare minimum of 1-2 inputs.

But it also helps to get audio interfaces with at least 2 inputs that can record simultaneously, if your budget allows that.

The extra simultaneous input may not seem useful now, but it’s good to have the option to expand. The price difference won’t be that big either.

What About The Outputs?

Your audio interfaces will need at least 2 outputs, whether you’re a singer or a small band.

This is because you’ll use them to feed sound for your pair of studio monitors, so you’ll need one for each side.

But Like the Number of Inputs, the More You Have, the Better.

Why?

More outputs will let you have a surround sound system setup. You can connect as many speakers as you have outputs and even a subwoofer if you’d like!

However, it still depends on the kind of music you produce.

If you’re a composer for film scores, you’ll want as many outputs as you can get (I recommend starting with 8) from your thunderbolt audio interfaces.

But if you’re a singer or part of a band, this might be overkill.

Microphone Preamps

Microphone Preamps

Do I Need a Preamp or Is My Audio Interface Enough?

Again, it depends on your music needs.

If you’re a singer doing voice recording, your microphone will ABSOLUTELY NEED a preamp.

Recording devices like interfaces can’t pick up the weak signals produced through microphones.

A preamp will take your microphone signal and help make it louder in a clean, colored way WITHOUT distortion or noise.

Not to worry though, because most thunderbolt audio interfaces (even the older USB interfaces) already have built-in microphone preamps.

But They Still Differ Depending on the Audio Interface You Pick

I’ve found that some preamps can help add character and more color to the sound.

While others will help give your audio resolution a more flat and neutral tone and work without adding much color.

But this gives your sound clean gain, making it EASIER for you to process post-production.

Max Sampling Rate

Max Sampling Rate

Sometimes, YES! Higher sample rates will let you record higher frequencies, give you more detail, and are useful for sound design.

It also lets you smoothen super-high frequency filters, giving you better noise immunity by reducing ringing.

I’ve found that higher sampling rates are GREAT for recording, where noise can build up when it goes through different audio products and filters.

However, keep in mind that higher sample rates also take up more disk space, so ensure you have enough space for your sounds.

However, I need to add that not everyone will be able to utilize the maximum sampling rate that comes with their audio interface.

If you’re not making high-res jazz music, the usual 44.1kHz is more than enough.

Software

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter that you’re still using an old USB audio interface because the software you use affects your sound processing speed.

Remember, the software you use is just as important as your interface.

The speed that thunderbolt audio interfaces brag so much about is only as good as the software you’re using to make music.

Audio craftsmanship companies try to one-up each other when it comes to the built-in software their interfaces use.

So if you want faster sound processing, I’d advise upgrading your software FIRST and see if it deals with that problem before investing in thunderbolt interfaces.

Budget

When shopping for thunderbolt audio interfaces, I could go on and on about the best technology, awesome S/PDIF, fast shipping, excellent customer service, etc.

However, you won’t care because those interfaces don’t fit your budget.

So what are the MOST IMPORTANT SPECS you should consider when trying to stick to a budget?

  • Look at the number of I/O that you’ll need, and get an interface based on that number (or maybe add 1 or 2 more I/O options)
  • Will it have enough mic preamps?
  • Is it compatible with your computer? (some interfaces only work with Mac)
  • Will it be optimal for your studio?
  • Does it have the technology to meet your requirements? (Do you want a word clock feature? S/PDIF I/O? etc.)
  • Will the software it works with keep up with you?

What are the most important things about interfaces?

Focus on meeting those first and slowly work your way to better upgrades as long as your budget still fits.

Don’t forget to account for shipping costs in your budgeting too!

Are Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces Better Than USB?

Are Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces Better Than USB-

YES!

The main difference Is SPEED.

The processing time (also known as the latency) it takes for your input signal to get from the built-in preamp, converter, to your computer, to your speakers for a USB is 2.74ms.

Meanwhile, the latency for a Thunderbolt can be as fast as 1.67ms. That’s almost double!

The latest Thunderbolt 3 interfaces allow you to connect up to 6 devices to one port without sacrificing their near-zero latency.

There’s a reason audio interfaces shifted from USB to Thunderbolt!

A Recap of the Top Thunderbolt Audio Interface Picks

A Recap of the Top Thunderbolt Audio Interface Picks

Still can’t choose from all these thunderbolt audio interfaces? Allow me to narrow the products down further.

Best Overall: Universal Audio Apollo Twin X DUO

This Apollo clearly falls under the BEST OVERALL category.

It’s got all the specs and essential features you want, all packed in a portable, desktop-format interface.

Whether you work in a project studio, professional studio, or even a moving studio, there’s something for everyone!

  • Sturdy material
  • Excellent sound quality
  • Built for the road

Have I mentioned that it has TWO Universal Audio Exclusives? The Twin X Duo has both the LUNA recording system software and two Unison-enabled mic preamps.

What more can you ask? It’s the best in its category!

The only downside is that it may not have enough I/O for your recordings.

Also, remember how I said you should account for shipping costs in your budget?  Well, you don’t have to worry about shipping costs that much (This is already so small!)

Do you want more ins and outs? I’ve got you!

Best Value/Runner Up: PreSonus Quantum 2626

I love that NOTHING can beat its less than 1 ms latency! You can’t get nearer to zero than that!

PreSonus Quantum 2626 here bags my best value title, thanks to its I/O number against any other interface in its price category.

Earlier, I said your software is just as important as your interface. Quantum 2626 gives you the ENTIRE bundle, including Studio One, an artist DAW software.

And let’s not forget the professional-level MIDI I/O board for connection and expansion and a low-jitter word clock.

Are both top choices still over your budget category? Don’t stress!

Best Budget Pick: Zoom TAC-2R 2×2

Most interfaces in this price category will more or less have the same specs across different brands.

However, what makes the Zoom TAC 2R stand out is that it packs a lot of purpose in its compact body.

I love it because it’s great for BOTH field recordings and onstage playback.

It also has 2 dual-balanced line outputs plus a headphone output, making switching between stereo and mono monitoring super easy.

Not to mention, it comes in a small, desktop form factor (like my winner, Apollo TWIN X) for on-the-road producers, performers, etc.

Conclusion

And that’s all she wrote!

All in all, these Thunderbolt audio interface options are truly your best friends for making top-tier and high-quality music.

I hope I’ve helped address some of your questions and concerns about getting a thunderbolt audio interface.


CHANGELOG:

January 4, 2023 – minor formatting updates

About the author

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After becoming obsessed with the beats that were the soundtrack to his youth, Nick became a student of hip hop, digging for vinyl records, looking for the perfect break. Before he got his hands on an MPC sampler, he would mash these records, beats, and breaks into mixtapes and live DJ sets.