Audio interfaces are an essential tool for recording live instruments in your studio, and the built-in preamps will have an affect on your overall sound quality. If you’re on a budget, you’ll want to ensure that you’re getting the best preamp available at the best price.
The audio interfaces with the best preamps for under $200 are:
- Audient iD4
- Steinberg UR22C
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen)
- SSL 2 USB 2.0 Audio Interface
Audient iD4 MKII
Audient is an established brand within the studio equipment industry, known for their quality mixing desks which can be found in the world famous Abbey Roads Studio. The iD4 MKII is Audient’s latest audio interface model.
The iD4 MKII uses Audient’s “Console Mic” preamp for the Mic/Line input. This is the same preamp that is used in their entire product range. This means that the preamp featured here is also used in their iconic mixing desk, the ASP8024-HE.
Whilst most preamps at this price point won’t provide any real character to your sound, the “Audient Console Mic Preamp” is designed to shape your tone with some “classic analogue warmth”.
The preamp is also a “Class-A” design, which means that it is designed to process the entire waveform of the incoming instruments signal, which provides a clean and clear sound.
It’s also what’s called a “discrete” design, meaning that it’s built with individual parts, as opposed to being an integrated circuit that uses a chip. This usually indicates a better quality, which is definitely reflected in this case, as Audient are using this for their entire range.
All this gives you a preamp that can boost your signal without low noise and distortion, whilst also giving some tonal character.
Audient actually have a page dedicated to their preamp technology, I’d recommend reading it if you want to learn more about the history and design!
I’ve also included a link here to a video, which I think is a great resource for demonstrating the tonal quality of the iD4.
The Audient iD4 retails for around $199, though prices vary across different sites. According to averagefinder.com, you could pick this up for as low as $149 on eBay!
Keep in mind that audio interfaces are in high demand currently, which might push the price up in the second hand market!
A key feature worth mentioning is the JFET instrument input. This stands for “Junction-gate Field-Effect Transistor” and is designed to replicate the input stage of a classic valve guitar amplifier, which are regarded for their tonal warmth.
Whilst it’s not technically a preamp, it does shape the tone of your instrument, which is probably what you’re looking for if you’re reading this article!
The input is also DI, which stands for “Direct Input” or “Direct Injection” depending on who you ask. This changes your instruments’ signal from unbalanced to balanced, which can help improve your overall audio quality. Check out my guide on balanced and unbalanced audio for more information.
I recommend the Audient iD4 if you’re looking for an audio interface with a well designed preamp that can provide both clarity to your recording as well as giving you tonal warmth, which is often associated with high-end devices.
You can buy the Audient iD4 here through my Amazon Affiliate link, where I’ll get a commission from Amazon at no extra cost to yourself.
Steinberg is an iconic name in the music production industry, most notable for creating the VST standard and the Cubase DAW. Their budget audio interface, the UR22C, is designed with the quality you would expect from such an established market player, while its price comes as a welcome surprise.
The UR22C uses 2 “D-Pre”“ preamps, one for each input.
The D-Pre preamp is a discrete Class-A design. As explained earlier, “discrete” means that the preamp is designed with its own components, as opposed to being a programmed chip. A discrete design is generally a good indicator in quality.
Class-A refers to the preamp processing both the positive and negative parts of the incoming signal, which is considered to give a cleaner sound.
That being said, the UR22C has been said to have a higher noise floor than other comparable models due to the preamps, however, this shouldn’t make a difference in home studio use.
Check out this YouTube video explaining the topic!
You can read more about the D-Pre preamps here on Yamaha’s website
The Steinberg UR22C currently retails for around $164.99 on Amazon, which means that you’ll be walking away with plenty of change from a $200 budget. If you’re on a tight budget, this is a great option for you.
The Steinberg UR22C has plenty of extra features, most notably MIDI In/Out which is very hard to find at this price range.
In fact, I’ve written an article on why I think the UR22C is the best audio interface for a home studio.
From a preamp perspective, it’s fair to say that the D-Pre preamps work well enough for home studio use. The relative noise floor is around -123dBu, which you’re not really going to notice at a home studio level.
In my opinion, the UR22C is the best overall interface in this list due to the balance between quality, functionality, and price.
You can buy the Steinberg UR22C here through my Amazon Affiliate link, where I’ll get a commission from Amazon at no extra cost to yourself.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen)
Easily the most iconic audio interface on the list, the Focusrite Scarlett series is a staple for music producers across the globe. The 2i2 is one of Scarlett’s budget entries aimed at home studio producers, and is currently in its 3rd generation.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) uses “Scarlett mic” preamps which doesn’t really tell us anything about their design, however, they note that it has high gain and low noise. This seems to be the consensus when researching online, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) preamps are considered to give a clear sound for recordings.
In addition to this, the preamps come with a built in “Air” circuit which is designed to brighten your sound and give it more space, generally meaning that it’ll boost the high end frequencies of your signal. This technology is designed to emulate the Focusrite’s legendary ISA preamp.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) retails for $169.99 on Amazon, which will leave you with change from a $200 budget.
For this price, you’re definitely getting a high quality product that will suit your audio production needs.
There’s not any additional features to bring out on this one, though the “Air” function more than makes up for the lack of MIDI In/Out (if you don’t need it!)
The fact that the Focusrite Scarlett series is used by so many home music producers is a clear sign that this audio interface is a perfectly viable option.
The preamps give a clear, responsive sound, with the option to add bright character to your sound at the push of a button. In my opinion, this makes it best suited for recording live instruments or vocals. Synth users might miss the MIDI functionality found with other units.
Overall, for the quality at this price, it’s a great unit to pick up if you can!
You can buy the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) here through my Amazon Affiliate link, where I’ll get a commission from Amazon at no extra cost to yourself.
SSL 2 USB 2.0 Audio Interface
Solid State Logic are a big player in the music production technology industry and are famous for the character that their devices give to the overall sound of the recording, known as the “SSL Sound”.
SSL states that the SSL 2 has “2 SSL designed microphone preamps”, but don’t go on to specify anything about their design. The reason I have included them in this list, however, is for the onboard “4K” switches.
The 4K switch, named after the renowned SSL 4000-series console, engages a circuit that adds some analogue character to your signal. Whilst not a preamp, it does shape the character of the sound, which I’m guessing is what you’re looking for from this article!
SSL say that the 4K adds a high-frequency boost along with a subtle harmonic distortion to give your sound a warm, analogue feel.
You can see this clearly demonstrated in this video here: https://youtu.be/enH6IdKqnRY?t=259
The SSL 2 retails for $199.99 which is right up against the $200 budget. For the full budget, you’re certainly getting your money’s worth in terms of
There aren’t too many other features with the SSL 2, however, I’d argue that the 4K switch is enough of an added bonus at this price range.
To have an SSL product as such an affordable price, and with this level of quality, would have been unheard of several years ago. The SSL 2 is a great device for music producers who are looking to really craft an analogue sound, be it from a vocal performance or synthesizer.
You can buy the SSL 2 here through my Amazon Affiliate link, where I’ll get a commission from Amazon at no extra cost to yourself.
You should now have a better idea about which audio interface has the best preamps for under $200, and have hopefully found the right audio interface for you!
From a preamp perspective, they will all give you a clean and clear signal for your audio music production needs. In terms of character, the Audient iD4, Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen), and SSL 2 all offer the ability to subtly shape your sound in different ways.
Perhaps surprisingly, I recommend the Steinberg UR22C. In my opinion, the functionality and quality is just incredible considering the price. That being said, I really do love the sound of the SSL 2 with the 4K switch engaged!
What do you think? Get in contact here and let me know what you’re thinking of picking up!
What is a preamp in an Audio Interface?
A preamp, short for “pre-amplifier”, is a device that increases the amplitude of a signal to a line level, which makes the signal sound stronger and clearer.
In an audio interface, the preamp is built into the device and is used to increase low level signals, as well as giving colour to certain sounds, though these units generally come at more expense.
Do I need a dedicated preamp?
In most cases, you do not need a dedicated preamp as audio interfaces and audio mixers have built in preamps. If you are looking for a certain tonal characteristic, then a dedicated preamp may be the right choice for you.
What is the difference between a Class-A and a Class-B preamp?
A “Class-A” preamp is designed to process the entire waveform of the incoming signal, whereas a Class-B preamp processes either the positive or negative polarity of the signal. This means that a single Class-A preamp can be used to process a full signal, whereas 2 Class-B preamps would be required to achieve the same goal.
Due to this, Class-A preamps are considered to have a superior sound quality as Class-B preamps can have distortion based on how the signal is processed.
What is the difference between a discrete and integrated preamp?
A discrete preamp is a preamp that has been constructed with individual components (such as transistors, resistors, etc), whereas an integrated preamp is a preamp that has been constructed using a microchip that has been programmed to process the incoming signal in a certain way.
Conor is a music producer, multi-instrumentalist, and all-round enthusiast from the UK with over 15 years of experience. He’s the founder and sole-content creator for the roundtable audio blog and YouTube channel.