How to Choose a Pro Audio Interface for Mac

Today’s Mac laptops are designed to process massive amounts of information at remarkable speeds. This type of computing power is ideal for working with high-quality audio material.

However, the standard audio interface built into these mobile Macs does not provide the highest quality audio throughput. For those yearning for a way to record and play back pristine audio, an external audio interface is the solution.

The Truth Behind Digital Audio Converters

Almost every Mac laptop has a built-in audio interface consisting of a microphone input and a headphone/speaker output. Without getting too technical, this is where incoming audio signals are digitized and outbound audio signals are converted back into analog sound waves via audio converters.

The quality of these built-in audio converters is decent enough for listening to compressed audio on ear buds but insufficient when working with full-bandwidth audio in a professional setting. By investing a little money into a third party external audio interface, one can enjoy high-quality audio throughput on a Mac laptop.

There is no shortage of external audio interfaces on the market. They range in price from $69 to over $5000. To help limit your options, first settle on a budget and then consider the options within your price range.

Ideal Audio Input and Output Configuration for Mac Audio Interface

The spectrum of audio interface configurations is vast – from simple, single input devices all the way up to fully configurable multiple input and output interfaces designed for professional sound applications.

For most users, upgrading to an external 2 input/2 output interface is the the best way to improve the sonic capabilities of a Mac laptop. These external devices improve the overall quality of the audio in several ways:

  • Audio conversion occurs in the external interface, not in the harsh environment of the computer.
  • The physical connections of an external interface are generally more robust and reliable.
  • And most importantly, the analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters in an external interface are almost always of a higher quality than those found inside a laptop.

Apogee’s Duet, Digidesign’s Mbox and Metric Halo’s ULN-2 are some excellent examples of quality 2-in/2-out interfaces. All of these devices allow for recording and monitoring stereo or mono sources while providing a stereo output, a headphone jack and phantom power. These interfaces also incorporate other useful connections such as S/PDIF, MIDI or Word Clock.  For those who need to monitor in surround sound or record three or more sound sources at a given time, a multichannel interface is required but avoid falling for the lure of more inputs and outputs unless you really need them. Quite often, a higher quality 2-channel interface can be purchased for the same price as a cheaper multichannel interface.

Audio Interfaces for Mac: Compatibility and Connectivity

Once you have some potential interfaces singled out, the next step is to check each manufacturer’s website to confirm that the audio interfaces are compatible with your laptop and OS combination.

While visiting each company’s site, be sure to spend some time browsing their user community (or forum) to see what other users with similar computers have to say about the interface. If a company does not have a community for its users, then it may be best to avoid buying their interface.

The last consideration is connectivity. All external audio interfaces connect to laptops via Firewire, USB or, more rarely, CardBus. Firewire is often considered the top choice with USB being the next best option (CardBus is better suited for other purposes). Connectivity via Firewire or USB is not an issue for most Mac laptops but it is worth mentioning that there are some Mac laptop models – old and new – that do not support Firewire.

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