We have reviewed a wide range of products to bring you what we believe to be the best budget sound card in 2023. Most of our top picks fall within the $200 price range for beginners, but we added a few outliers to offer you more choices. The quality of these interfaces should satisfy even seasoned users, so it’s not just about the price. We chose our options based on their affordability and usefulness. In other words, we have created a selection of audio interfaces that genuinely have something to offer everyone.
Things to Consider
The quality of the Digital-to-Analog Converter should be the first consideration when purchasing a sound card. The critical module in charge of playing is the DAC; the higher the DAC’s caliber, the more noise-free your music will be. So how can you assess the DAC’s quality? SNR, or signal-to-noise ratio, is typically used. This refers to how much louder the intended good sound is compared to the unnecessary noise. Some premium sound cards offer up to 124 dB SNR. Since decibels are logarithmic, most motherboards with onboard audio solutions offer an SNR of 80–90 dB, which is a significant difference.
Considerations for DAC Quality
The quality of the Digital-to-Analog Converter should be the first consideration when purchasing a sound card. This module is the main component responsible for playback; the better the DAC’s quality, the more noise-free your audio will be. So how can you assess the DAC’s quality? SNR, or signal-to-noise ratio, is typically used. This refers to how much louder the intended good sound is compared to the unnecessary noise. Some premium sound cards offer up to 124 dB SNR. Since decibels are logarithmic, most motherboards with onboard audio solutions offer an SNR of 80–90 dB, which is a significant difference.
The sound card’s software functions are essential for most users, as every user has distinct preferences for audio features. It is one of the main reasons to get a sound card. The most notable feature is Virtual Surround Sound, which is widely used in combination with gaming headsets for improved spatial awareness, especially in esports titles. Moreover, software solutions can provide advanced audio features such as customizable frequency response and various equalizer settings.
Interface \sWhen we speak of the interface, there are two types. The first is the interface between the sound card and the computer, and the second is between the sound card and audio devices. Make sure you have an extra, clear PCI-Express slot because most recent sound cards utilize one. Two PCI-E slots are needed for sound cards like the Asus Essence STX II or the Creative Sound Blaster ZxR: one for the mainboard and one for the daughterboard. Due to the limited number of PCI-E slots on micro-ATX motherboards, this can be a problem for some users.
Replaceable OpAmp (Operational Amplifier)
High-end sound cards with swappable OpAmps are available because different OpAmps have various audio properties. This function is fantastic for audiophiles who enjoy personalizing the sound of their card.
additional connectors and power Some sound cards need extra power to drive the components in addition to the standard requirement for a sound card, such as a PCI or PCI-Express slot on the motherboard. Make sure your power supply has a power connector for the sound card. This is typically a Molex connector or a Six-pin PCIe power connector.
Last update on 2023-12-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Native Instruments Integrate Audio 6
Although slightly more expensive than the other interfaces on this list, the Komplete Audio 6 is worth the money. With two XLR/TRS combo inputs, two TRS line level inputs, four TRS outputs, MIDI I/O, and S/PDIF I/O, this device has many connectivity options.
A/D resolution operates at 24-bit depth with a 192 kHz sample rate cap. The unit is user-friendly for beginners and makes it much simpler to expand, thanks to its flexibility and connectivity. The Scarlett 2i2 is a popular choice, but as time goes on, its shortcomings become clearer. On the other hand, the Komplete Audio 6 offers functional longevity that is priceless if you’re serious about making music.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen
For most of you on a budget, the Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen is one of the more obvious options. It has outstanding build quality, cost-effectiveness, and sound quality, making it well-rounded. The device has two XLR/TRS combo inputs with 48 V phantom power on each, and it is a 2-in/2-out interface. It performs admirably in most other areas, with an A-weighted dynamic range of 110.6 dB and firm A/D resolution.
The distinctive Air mode, a preamp effect modeled after Focusrite’s ISA circuitry, distinguishes Focusrite products from others. Your recordings gain a coating of saturation and high-end sparkle as a result. Aside from this function, the Scarlett 2i2 is primarily a minimalist interface that provides high-quality recording at a low price.
The Motu M2 might surprise a few of you, but rest assured that it deviates significantly from the expectations of the standard interface. It is a 22 interface with a maximum sample rate of 192 kHz and 24-bit depth. The unit’s dynamic range is 120 dB, significantly higher than the norm for most budget-level interfaces.
The converter technology, which uses the same circuitry as Motu’s higher-end versions, is as outstanding. The M2’s RCA outputs, rather than balanced TRS, are its only drawback. While it’s not the end of the world, this impacts your monitoring quality. Nevertheless, the cost of having excellent audio running in rather than out is reasonable.
Audient iD4 Mk2
Although this interface may be somewhat constrained, the preamps are priceless. The iD4 has a gain range of 58 dB and an impressive dynamic range of 120 dB. The preamps use the same technology as Audient’s ASP8024-HE, a high-end unit that, depending on where you shop, can cost anywhere between $40,000 and $100,000. Despite this, they are highly low-noise, neutral, and transparent. The iD4 has to be among the best-sounding interfaces for the money regarding the audio quality of this caliber.
M-Audio M-Track Solo
Although the M-Audio could be better, it comes pretty close for less than $50. Even though the M-Track line has been around for a while, the most recent version is the best interface for beginners. The device has one instrument/line level input and one XLR/TRS input. It has a very well-built, user-friendly, and intuitive design.
Additionally, its A/D conversion technology is superior, far exceeding any hopes one might have for a device at this price. The unit’s software package, which includes two DAWs, several virtual instruments, and 20 free Avid plugins, may be worth at least twice as much as the interface itself.
There is no such thing as a perfect interface in the end. Even the most accomplished music producers are constantly upgrading, reconfiguring, and replacing their gear. What serves you and your situation the best is all that matters. Do that, even if it means purchasing the item for $50. Everything is irrelevant whether your music is decent because quality is subjective. Check out our suggestions for the best audio interfaces under $200 and the finest devices under $100 and $50 for even more fantastic low-cost solutions.