Menu

Login

New to Audio Assemble?

Register

Already have an account?

Best Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces – 2021

There are a few options of ports and cables you can use to connect an interface to your computer. While the most popular way is via USB, Thunderbolt audio interfaces have a few benefits over it.

Best Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces

The first is that the Thunderbolt 3 connection is much faster than its USB counterpart, with speeds that can get up to 40Gbps. This will give you a much lower latency when monitoring what you’re recording. Using a Thunderbolt interface will also give you fewer headaches regarding pops and crackles in your sound.

Thunderbolt audio interfaces tend to cost a little more than USB ones and are usually designed for medium to large-sized recording studios. With that being said, there are still compact options that may work for smaller home studios, such as the Apollo Twin series.

In this article, we’re doing a roundup of 9 thunderbolt audio interfaces to decide which unit is the best for each of these 3 distinctive categories:

  • Home Recording Studios
  • Medium-Sized Studios
  • Large-Sized Studios

Tip: After you read this roundup, take a look at our Best Audio Interface article to check out more interface models.

Best Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces – Our Top Picks

Universal Audio Apollo Twin X QUAD

Universal Audio Apollo Twin X QUAD – Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface for Home Studios

Major Points:

  • DSP Processing
  • Bundled with DSP-Ready Audio Plugins
  • Unison Enabled Mic Preamps
  • Top Building Quality

Antelope Audio Discrete 4 Synergy Core

Antelope Audio Discrete 4 Synergy Core – Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface for Medium-Sized Studios

Major Points:

  • DSP Processing
  • Built-In LCD Screen
  • 4 Headphone Monitoring Outputs
  • Rugged Construction

Universal Audio Apollo x8

Universal Audio Apollo x8 – Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface for Large-Sized Studios

Major Points:

  • DSP Processing with Hexacore Processor
  • Unison mic preamps
  • Ultra low latency
  • Elite-Class Analog to Digital Converters

The 9 Best Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces Reviewed in Detail

Table Of Contents

  1. Universal Audio Apollo Twin X QUAD
  2. Antelope Audio Zen Q Synergy Core
  3. Apogee ELEMENT 88
  4. MOTU 828es
  5. Focusrite Clarett 8Pre
  6. Antelope Audio Discrete 4 Synergy Core
  7. MOTU 8A
  8. Steinberg AXR4T
  9. Universal Audio Apollo x8

1. Universal Audio Apollo Twin X QUAD

Universal Audio Apollo Twin X QUAD

Universal Audio is one of the best manufacturers when it comes to audio interfaces. The brand is specially known for the built-in DSP effects in their products and their attention to the detail.

Product Specifications

  • 2 Combo XLR Inputs
  • 1 Instrument Input
  • Optical Input
  • 2 Line Outputs
  • 2 Stereo Line Monitor Outputs
  • DSP Processing
  • Stereo Headphone Outputs
  • +48V Phantom Power
  • Bundled with 5 award-winning Universal Audio plugins
  • Unison Enabled Mic Preamps
  • Thunderbolt Connection

Advantages & Disadvantages

Pros

  • Universal Audio DSP processing is one of the best in the market. There’s a DSP in the Twin X QUAD that is capable of processing audio effects and emulations of vintage gear such as compressors and preamps in real-time, improving the audio quality and taking the load off your computer’s CPU.
  • This audio interface is bundled with 5 award-winning plugins from Universal Audio (at a value of $1,300), which include classics such as the UA 1776 compressor.
  • The unison-enabled mic preamps feature in this interface processes your audio right at the input stage, making it able for the unit to emulate classic preamps such as the ones present on Neve mixing desks.
  • There are a lot of controls on the top of the audio interface that can easily be accessed while recording.

Cons

  • A lot of functionality issues with Windows 10 were reported.

Conclusion

The Universal Audio Apollo Twin X QUAD is the most impressive audio interface we’ve come across. It really feels like a whole recording studio packed inside a compact box that won’t take much space on your desk, and we like that. Not to mention UAD has one of the best libraries of DSP-powered plugins in the market.

Another alternative for this audio interface is the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII, from the same manufacturer.

– – –

2. Antelope Audio Zen Q Synergy Core

Antelope Audio Zen Q Synergy Core

The Zen Q Synergy is UAD’s Apollo Twin competitor, and it can be a great alternative to the latter. Apart from having an excellent, very professional design, it supports DSP processing and comes with 37 analog-modeled plugins plus 50+ optional expansions included.

Product Specifications

  • 2 Combo XLR Inputs
  • 2 Instrument Inputs
  • S/PDIF In/Out
  • ADAT Input
  • Balanced Line Outputs
  • Dedicated Monitoring Outputs
  • DSP Processing
  • Loopback Functionality
  • +48V Switchable Phantom Power
  • Thunderbolt Connectivity

Advantages & Disadvantages

Pros

  • This Thunderbolt audio interface is compatible with real time DSP-processor effects. It includes 37 analog-modeled plugins plus 50+ optional expansions. The included plugins range from analog compressors to tape machine emulations.
  • You can have 8 additional inputs via the ADAT input, and stereo I/O over the S/PDIF input.
  • The two mic preamps in this interface have authentic console circuitry for maximum classic warmth and analog feel.
  • The unit features loopback functionality, which is essentially a way to feed the audio from your computer back into your audio interface. Great if you plan on doing live streams.
  • The screen present on the top part of this interface is easy to see while recording.

Cons

  • The afx2daw bridge plugin, which lets you use the DSP effects within your DAW session, must be purchased separately.

Conclusion

The Zen Q Synergy Core is truly next-level. We particularly liked the variety of plugins included with this Thunderbolt audio interface and the price, although on the higher side, is relatively okay compared with similar options (UAD, for example) and considering how much you get for the value.

– – –

3. Apogee ELEMENT 88

Apogee ELEMENT 88

The Apogee ELEMENT 88 is a thunderbolt audio interface designed for mid-sized recording studios that can connect with up to 4 instruments or 8 microphones at a time with is analog inputs.

Product Specifications

  • 4 Combo XLR Inputs
  • 4 XLR Inputs
  • Optical ADAT/SMUX/SPDIF In/Out
  • BNC Word Clock In/Out
  • 2 Balanced XLR Outputs
  • 2 Balanced ¼ Outputs
  • 2 Headphone Outputs
  • Switchable Phantom Power
  • Thunderbolt Connection

Advantages & Disadvantages

Pros

  • This thunderbolt audio interface has 2 headphone outputs that can be useful when tracking musicians.
  • Very low latency monitoring.
  • Apogee has given special attention to the analog to digital (AD) converters on this interface. The purpose of the AD converters is to transform the analog signal coming into the unit into digital and vice-versa.
  • This audio interface has full integration with the Apple Logic Pro X DAW, meaning you can control its parameters directly from the recording software.
  • Similarly, the parameters may also be controlled via the Element Control application available for Mac users.

Cons

  • Only 4 of the XLR inputs are of the combo type. The other 4 are regular ones.

Conclusion

The ELEMENT 88 is a great choice for mid-sized recording studios. A great advantage in this thunderbolt audio interface is that you can connect more inputs and outputs via the ADAT inputs, therefore, increasing the capabilities of the unit. 

– – –

4. MOTU 828es

MOTU 828es

MOTU is a household name in the music business and the 828es is a professional option with 60 channels (28-in/32-out). The most impressive points, however, are probably the value for the price and how lightweight this audio interface is (only 0.3kg).

Product Specifications

  • 2 Combo XLR Inputs
  • 8 Analog Inputs
  • 8 Analog Outputs
  • 2 Sends Outputs
  • S/PDIF In/Out
  • Word Clock In/Out
  • Time Code In/Out
  • MIDI In/Out
  • 2 Optical In/Out
  • 2 Headphone Outputs
  • Talkback Mic Function
  • Built-In Mixer with Onboard DSP Effects
  • +48V Phantom Power
  • Thunderbolt or USB Connection

Advantages & Disadvantages

Pros

  • This audio interface features a built-in onboard DSP with effects.
  • The value for the price is very good considering the number of inputs and outputs in this unit.
  • There’s a built-in LCD screen for easier navigation through the DSP effects.
  • The audio interface can be connected by either Thunderbolt or USB.
  • Near zero latency.

Cons

  • None that we’ve found.

Conclusion

The MOTU 828es can be an excellent choice for a small to mid-sized recording studio since its value for the price is so great. You probably won’t find another option with so many inputs and outputs at the same price range. You can also connect this audio interface using USB, but it will have less latency over Thunderbolt.

– – –

5. Focusrite Clarett 8Pre

Focusrite Clarett 8Pre

Focusrite needs no introduction. The company basically helped shape the digital revolution in the music business by manufacturing some of the best products in the market (compressors, mixing consoles, etc). This is their Clarett 8Pre audio interface, designed for medium to large recording studios.

Product Specifications

  • 8 Combo XLR Inputs
  • 10 Line Outputs
  • S/PDIF In/Out
  • Optical In/Out
  • MIDI In/Out
  • Word Clock Out
  • 2 Headphone Outputs
  • +48V Phantom Power
  • Thunderbolt Connectivity

Advantages & Disadvantages

Pros

  • Focusrite microphone preamps are among the best in their category. They’re of ultra high sound quality.
  • The Air functionality can emulate the punchy mid-range and clear highs of Focusrite’s classic analog preamps.
  • Bundled with a bunch of additional software including Focusrite Red Suite, Softube Time and Tone Bundle, and 2GB of Loopmasters samples.
  • The large LCD screen in the front panel helps a lot when setting the gain for each input.
  • The Thunderbolt 3 audio connection offers pretty low latency.

Cons

  • High price.

Conclusion

Focusrite quality is unquestionable, as a matter of fact. The Clarett 8Pre offers a large number of inputs and outputs, high quality audio, and excellent features. However, the only drawback we found is the price. At around $1,737 by the time this article was written, there are several options that are more affordable on the list.

Tip: If Reaper is your DAW of choice, consider checking out our Best Audio Interface for Reaper article.

– – –

6. Antelope Audio Discrete 4 Synergy Core

Antelope Audio Discrete 4 Synergy Core

This is another option by Antelope Audio that can be either connected via Thunderbolt or USB, for maximum compatibility. Just like the Zen Q, the Discrete 4 comes packed with 36 real-time DSP processed plugins

Product Specifications

  • 4 Combo XLR Inputs
  • 4 Line Outputs
  • Stereo Monitor Outputs
  • DSP Processing
  • 4 Headphone Outputs
  • Word Clock In/Out
  • ADAT In/Out
  • S/PDIF In/Out
  • Thunderbolt and USB Connection

Advantages & Disadvantages

Pros

  • The 4 6-transistors mic preamps in this audio interface have superior sound quality and ultra low noise.
  • This audio interface supports DSP processing and comes packed with 36 real-time plugins modeled after studio gear such as a rare Australian-born EQ and a legendary British solid-state console.
  • The gain meters on the front panel look very good and are easy to monitor while recording.
  • There are 4 headphone outputs in this thunderbolt audio interface, which helps in case you’re tracking one or more musicians in your recording studio.
  • You can connect more inputs and outputs to this unit via the ADAT In/Out port.

Cons

  • High price.

Conclusion

The Discrete 4 is a great investment if you’re looking for a Thunderbolt audio interface with DSP capabilities. However, we also advise you to consider the Zen Q, also from Antelope Audio, since these two are very similar and the latter has a lower price. Overall, they are both great units with a good value for the money.

– – –

7. MOTU 8A

MOTU 8A

The MOTU 8A Thunderbolt ready audio interface pairs a minimalist look with 16 analog inputs and a built-in mixer with DSP processing capabilities. The building quality is also very rugged.

Product Specifications

  • 8 Analog Inputs
  • 8 Analog Outputs
  • DSP Processing
  • Headphone Output
  • Optical In/Out
  • Built-In Mixer
  • USB and Thunderbolt Connectivity

Advantages & Disadvantages

Pros

  • Can be connected either via USB or Thunderbolt cable.
  • Built-in LCD screen that can be used to navigate the onboard mixer.
  • Rugged building quality, in case you’re worried about durability.
  • The internal mixer comes with a handful of DSP-ready effects, including equalizers, compressors, and a classic reverb.
  • Can be connected either via Thunderbolt or USB for optimal compatibility.

Cons

  • Doesn’t feature any XLR inputs.

Conclusion

The MOTU 8A is a trustable option since MOTU is a household name in the music production business. The interface can be a great choice for those who favor a rugged construction. A major drawback though is that the unit doesn’t feature any XLR inputs, only ¼ ones, so you can’t connect microphones into it. It seems that this model is more focused on instruments.

– – –

8. Steinberg AXR4T

Steinberg AXR4T

Steinberg is synonymous with excellence. The AXR4T is priced considerably above the other options on this list, but has some features that are unique to this model. For example, the NEVE Designs SILK emulation.

Product Specifications

  • 4 Combo XLR Inputs
  • 8 Line Inputs
  • 8 Line Outputs
  • 2 Headphone Outputs
  • Optical B/AES/EBU Port
  • 2 Optical In/Out
  • Word Clock In/Out
  • +48V Phantom Power
  • MIDI In/Out

Advantages & Disadvantages

Pros

  • The mic preamps in this audio interface have a feature called SILK, designed by the famous audio brand NEVE Designs. When engaged, this mode will enhance your audio signal harmonically.
  • The built-in display present in the unit makes it easier to navigate through the options.
  • There are a few built-in buttons to quickly change parameters.

Cons

  • Limited effects supported by the DSP processor.
  • High price.

Conclusion

The Steinberg AXR4T is amazing for all its features and what it does, that’s not to say about its quality. However, the price is a bit high: almost $3,000, by the time this article was written. We ended up deciding that while it’s a great unit, there are cheaper options on this list that may perform just as well.

– – –

9. Universal Audio Apollo x8

Universal Audio Apollo x8

Another option by Universal Audio on our list, the x8 is more suited for larger recording studios. Just like its already discussed smaller counterparts, this unit features Apollo’s unmatched DSP processing in the form of a super powerful hexacore processor.

Product Specifications

  • 4 XLR Inputs
  • 2 Hi-Z Instrument Inputs
  • 8 Line Level Inputs
  • 8 Line Outputs
  • Stereo Monitor Outputs
  • 2 Headphone Outputs
  • 2 ADAT S/MUX In/Out
  • Word Clock In/Out
  • Thunderbolt Connectivity

Advantages & Disadvantages

Pros

  • The screen present on the front panel improves the user’s visibility for gain levels while recording.
  • There are two headphone outputs of easy access on the front side of this interface.
  • The DSP processor present in this interface is an hexacore, meaning it is one of the most powerful in its category.
  • The unison technology present in the mic preamps, apart from giving you much lower latency, can emulate the sound of numerous famous analog preamps from manufacturers such as Neve and Manley.
  • The elite-class analog to digital converter in this interface will give you amazing recording quality.

Cons

  • No MIDI input/output.
  • High price.

Conclusion

This is probably the best option of Universal Audio interface for large-sized studios. The price is quite high, though, so we wouldn’t recommend it for small recording places or music producers recording in their own homes. The only drawback we found regarding features in this interface was the lack of MIDI In/Out, which would come in handy considering the public it is designed for.

– – –

Buying Guide – What to Look For When Buying Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces

Before we head to our top picks, we would like to list some of the main features you should keep in mind while choosing the best Thunderbolt audio interface for your particular use case. The main points are:

  • Number of Inputs and Outputs
  • Mic Preamps
  • +48V Phantom Power
  • Quality of the Components
  • Compatibility
  • Design and Build Quality

Below, we will explain more about how each of these things may impact your experience with thunderbolt interfaces.

Number of Inputs and Outputs

The first one and more important is the number of inputs and outputs the particular interface offers. Larger recording studios are naturally going to need more connections to record large instruments such as drums or a band’s live performance. If you’re a home-studio-based music producer or songwriter though, you can get away with one or two inputs.

There are two basic types of connectors: XLR and ¼. XLR jacks are usually used for microphones (sometimes for unbalanced output); While ¼ jacks are more frequently used for instruments such as guitars and basses, and line-level signals.

Many audio interfaces nowadays feature what is called a combo XLR jack. That is, a jack that can be used both with XLR and ¼ plugs.

Mic Preamps

The microphone preamps main job is to turn up the signal coming in from your microphone into line level. They are an important component in a Thunderbolt audio interface since their quality is directly related to your audio quality.

Many classic microphone preamps are sought after because they imprint a pleasant, warm tone in your sound. Some modern thunderbolt audio interfaces with DSP capabilities, such as the Universal Audio Apollo Twin X Quad, have onboard faithful emulations of these vintage recording gear.

+48V Phantom Power

If you want to use a condenser microphone with Thunderbolt audio interfaces, the unit is going to need to have +48V phantom power. This is so the mic can be properly powered and the signal can have the proper amount of gain. All of the audio interfaces on the list have this feature.

Quality of the Components

There are many components inside an audio interface and it can be hard to know whether they are of great quality or not. Some components that will impact directly on your sound quality, for example, are the already mentioned microphone preamps and the digital to analog converters.

We advise you to stick with trustable manufacturers. All of the brands featured on our list have a great reputation in the music business.

Compatibility

Naturally, you must make sure that your audio interface will be compatible with your computer. Nowadays most interfaces, be it Thunderbolt or USB based, are class-compliant, meaning they will work plug-and-play on most computers.

Design and Build Quality

Of course, the design and build quality are also important when selecting thunderbolt interfaces. A unit that uses good and durable materials will last much longer than lower-quality ones. In our opinion, some of the options with the most rugged building in this list are the Antelope Audio Zen Q Synergy Core and the MOTU 8A.
Tip: Learn more about digital to analog converters and their differences versus audio interfaces in our Audio Interface vs DAC article.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a Thunderbolt Interface Better Than a USB Audio Interface?

Thunderbolt type connections have a few benefits over USB such as increased data speed, which reduces the latency while monitoring your audio and increases the capability for handling audio effects and plugins in real-time.

What Is DSP Processing?

Some Thunderbolt audio interfaces feature a DSP processor inside them. This component can process audio effects in real-time inside the unit, taking some load off the computer’s CPU and giving you better sound quality.

One of the best thunderbolt audio interfaces with this feature is the ones from the Universal Audio Apollo series, such as the Twin QUAD X and the Twin MKII. Universal Audio has an extensive library of plugins that emulate classic audio equipment such as the UA 1176 compressor.

Conclusion

After reviewing these 9 units, we decided to divide our top picks for the best thunderbolt audio interfaces into three categories: home studios, medium-sized studios, and large-sized studios. Keep reading to learn more.

Universal Audio Apollo Twin X QUAD

Universal Audio Apollo Twin X QUAD – Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface for Home Studios

The Apollo Twin X QUAD is truly amazing in all its features. To start off, UAD’s DSP processing is one of the best and most complete DSP systems in the market, with multiple plugins to record and mix with. The unison enabled preamps are another positive feature in this unit.

Antelope Audio Discrete 4 Synergy Core

Antelope Audio Discrete 4 Synergy Core – Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface for Medium-Sized Studios

The Antelope Audio Discrete 4 Synergy Core offers a great value for the money for medium-sized studios since it features DSP processing, 4 combo XLR line/mic inputs, and 4 headphone outputs for sending monitoring signals when tracking musicians.

Universal Audio Apollo x8

Universal Audio Apollo x8 – Best Thunderbolt Audio Interface for Large-Sized Studios

UAD appears again on our top picks. We can’t deny that the brand is amazing at everything they do. The x8 is the flagship model from the company, with a large number of inputs and outputs and hexacore DSP processing (even more powerful than UAD’s entry models).

How to Buy

You can find the link for each product’s Amazon page on their respective titles on the list. Please research extensively before making your choice.We hope our best Thunderbolt audio interfaces article was helpful. If you want to learn more about audio interfaces make sure to read our related articles and don’t hesitate to contact if you have any questions!