Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

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2pauluzz2
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Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by 2pauluzz2 » Tue Jan 30, 2018 1:21 pm

There is a wide variety of audio interfaces out there, some cheap, some expensive. It also seems there is a wide variety of interpretations about what one needs to spend on an audio interface.

Not taking into consideration protocol (let's assume USB works well enough for everybody), pre-amps (let's assume you work ITB exclusively) and other variables such as buggy software (let's assume the audio interface does what it says on the tin): is there an actual difference in "sound quality" in different audio interfaces, when you work ITB exclusively and only need to monitor speakers and headphone?

A little bit more about my reasons for asking, and my thoughts on the topic:

I've been slimming down my setup to the bare essentials. I've been working with a TC Electronics Studio Konnekt 48 Firewire interface and it performs well, but is bulky. I also use an Elektron Analog Heat which has a sound card on board so in theory I could just use that and get rid of the TC Electronics.

When I look online almost anyone will recommend brands like Apogee, RME or Apollo. They're probably worth their money but I can't determine how much people are simply parroting popular opinions. For example: when I bought my current audio interface I listened to a blind test of the TC and a Apogee device and there was only a very slight difference to my ears. It also seems that prices start to climb when good pre-amps become a factor, and when Thunderbolt becomes a factor.

So if we take those out of the equation, and all the interface needs to do is provide high quality translation between digital audio and my speakers + headphone, is paying €800,– for an Apogee interface still an economic choice?

Of course I wouldn't want to skimp on something as vital as an audio interface if the sound that comes from my speakers is "worse" than it would be with a better interface, but I wonder if that is at all true.

mikb
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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by mikb » Tue Jan 30, 2018 1:35 pm

2pauluzz2 wrote:
…all the interface needs to do is provide high quality translation between digital audio and my speakers + headphone, is paying €800,– for an Apogee interface still an economic choice?

Of course I wouldn't want to skimp on something as vital as an audio interface if the sound that comes from my speakers is "worse" than it would be with a better interface, but I wonder if that is at all true.
Generally the lowest standard concerning audio quality of 24bit audio interfaces is very good. As long as the interface is stable, I think most producers would be hard pressed identifying their fav ones in a listening test.

This noted, I've been almost blown away how good some interfaces sound right after you have replaced a previous interface, so I'd say there can be differences, especially when the system is under stress. Mostly I've heard artefacts that affects clarity, mostly in the middle of the spectrum, and possibly stereo perspective. I'm not sure why this would be nor do I feel sure it was not just me.

Of course, there's also the fact that some interfaces have drivers that are not as good as others and may start to drop out for short amounts of time or even crackle even under mild stress, which clearly affects quality.
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2pauluzz2
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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by 2pauluzz2 » Tue Jan 30, 2018 1:45 pm

Thanks for your input.
mikb wrote:
I'm not sure why this would be nor do I feel sure it was not just me.
Not meaning to insult you :wink: or sound like a know-it-all, but this thing of ours is littered with cognitive biases. Consumers are inclined to justify costly expenses, and "something different" might be falsely perceived as "better". Especially went it's shiny. This is why I did some blind tests, and why I'm wondering how much of what is spent on audio interfaces by ITB producers is justifiable (from an economic standpoint that is.. because in the end everything is justifiable for a convinced consumer).
mikb wrote: Of course, there's also the fact that some interfaces have drivers that are not as good as others and may start to drop out for short amounts of time or even crackle even under mild stress, which clearly affects quality.
Yes, but I wouldn't count that as "sound quality". Crackles/artefacts are very obvious and result in an unworkable situation, and sounds very different from eg the sound of reduced bitrate. So I would put those interfaces immediately in the category "nope" because they do not allow me to work.
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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by Tarekith » Tue Jan 30, 2018 3:08 pm

There can most definitely be an audible improvement in better quality audio interfaces. Lower noise on the outputs, better channel seperation, working better at different sample rates, better imaging and depth, etc.

Will those things have an actual impact if you’re working in the box? Maybe, but like most things in the audio world the more you spend the quicker the obvious benefits fall off.

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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by 2pauluzz2 » Tue Jan 30, 2018 4:30 pm

So that would imply that I could be shooting myself in the foot by opting for the Heat rather than the TC electronics or some new device. I think the best thing is to a/b them side by side for a while once I get my studio back up in the new house. I guess I was hoping for an abundant "it doesn't matter that much" but I'll have to figure that out for myself.
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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by Tarekith » Tue Jan 30, 2018 5:03 pm

I don't know if I would say it's as extreme as shooting yourself in the foot, but yes it could impact what you hear. Usually the trade offs are most noticeable with lower end soundcards, and I admit I have no idea how good the Elektron is as a soundcard. It might be amazing and on par with RME. Definitely one of those things you want to try and compare yourself if you can.

2pauluzz2
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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by 2pauluzz2 » Tue Jan 30, 2018 5:04 pm

Thanks Erik, that's very helpful. Sounds like I'll be having a comparison session when I'm back up and running.
Last edited by 2pauluzz2 on Tue Jan 30, 2018 7:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by Shift Gorden » Tue Jan 30, 2018 7:28 pm

Good considerations, Tarekith. I hadn't really thought about it like that.

I have a Scarlett 2i4, Scarlett 18i20 and an Apogee Duet. I've noticed no difference between the Apogee and Scarlett's in terms of audio quality. I didn't plug in the Apogee and say "holy crap, that sounds amazing."

But, I haven't done a side by side. Which I'll do when I'm finally back in my house (small fire nearly a year ago...house still not put back together!!!)

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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by Machinesworking » Tue Jan 30, 2018 8:24 pm

Shift Gorden wrote: I have a Scarlett 2i4, Scarlett 18i20 and an Apogee Duet. I've noticed no difference between the Apogee and Scarlett's in terms of audio quality. I didn't plug in the Apogee and say "holy crap, that sounds amazing."
Mostly with audio interfaces the output to speakers is all the same, like Tarekith mentioned some have lower noise floors, but mostly all are solid. It's inputs for recording etc. that separate them. Digital to analog converters seem to be relatively cheap to do decently, but analog to digital converters take some expensive parts. If you're talking preamps and desirable coloring of sound, then you can spend as much on that as the sound card and computer itself. Most built in pre amps on sound cards (microphone inputs built in) are pretty bad. The more expensive brands have decent pres, and that's a good portion of the price.

Basically the Scarlett should sound as good during playback, but it's entirely possible the Duet has better Pres.

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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by jestermgee » Tue Jan 30, 2018 9:19 pm

The other thing to keep in mind is exactly what level of "professionalism" you need.

If you are really just creating stuff as a hobby or small time, or just need an interface to drive a PA or speakers for performance then almost any interface would do that offers the I/O you need. Basically 98% of what is in an audio interface will be about the same between any model.

Where the cost (and technical challenge come in) is within that last 2%. As mentioned this would be things like:
- Lower noise op-amps (possibly inaudible to an average joe)
- Higher quality mic pre-amps
- Higher quality components overall
- Better design and function
- Efficient and reliable drivers/software (lower latency, higher bitrates and stability)
- Brand Name

None of that makes a lick of difference if you are using it to DJ, but can make all the difference if you are mixing the next Leo Sayer hit.

Of course to even benefit from that last 2% you need a good reliable (clean) computer, quality monitors (and monitoring chain, cables, connectors all of high quality) Mics, Mixers... Everything then needs to be at that top level.

If you look at an audio interface and think "gee, that seems damn expensive..." chances are you do not need that level. People that know why they need it will be buying it (or just have money to burn).

mikb
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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by mikb » Tue Jan 30, 2018 11:11 pm

2pauluzz2 wrote:
mikb wrote: Of course, there's also the fact that some interfaces have drivers that are not as good as others and may start to drop out for short amounts of time or even crackle even under mild stress, which clearly affects quality.
Yes, but I wouldn't count that as "sound quality". Crackles/artefacts are very obvious and result in an unworkable situation, and sounds very different from eg the sound of reduced bitrate.
I think you may have misunderstood me. I'm talking about when you get series of extremely short drop-outs. You do not notice this easily, but it does affect experience. I've only encountered this myself using Ableton Live and only noticed it in the lower mids or just above this when comparing listening to the mix in Live to the exported file playing back in the same system. The symptom is a kind of unclear image in this band range. Which magically clears itself when exported.

And why doesn't more clearly heard crackles count if one interface has them with the same project and another doesn't? After all, everything else is the same.

Was the short drop-outs Live or the cheap audio interface in question? I can't say for sure. When I switched interface (to an expensive one) these problems disappeared in a blink never to return. At the very least I think it's clear different audio interfaces interact differently with the machine when the machine is using a lot of its resources.

And, again as I said the cheapest audio interfaces are quite good anyway.
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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by Pitch Black » Wed Jan 31, 2018 1:00 am

If you’re gigging, build quality as important as sound quality. The RME Multiface Mk1 that I’ve had for 15 years is still my main live and studio I/O. The computers that drive it have come and gone every 5-7 years and the RME keeps on keepin on and hasn’t needed an upgrade. $$ well spent IMHO.

“Long after the price has been forgotten, the shittyness lingers on...”
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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by Tarekith » Wed Jan 31, 2018 1:35 am

Agreed. When you’re just starting out, any audio interface is going to be a nice upgrade compared to built in sound cards. When it’s time to go beyond that point, I think it’s worth spending the time to save up for a good, solid upgrade that will last you a long time and be reliable. Support for a device is almost as important as specs are sometimes.

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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by jlgrimes » Wed Jan 31, 2018 3:31 am

2pauluzz2 wrote:There is a wide variety of audio interfaces out there, some cheap, some expensive. It also seems there is a wide variety of interpretations about what one needs to spend on an audio interface.

Not taking into consideration protocol (let's assume USB works well enough for everybody), pre-amps (let's assume you work ITB exclusively) and other variables such as buggy software (let's assume the audio interface does what it says on the tin): is there an actual difference in "sound quality" in different audio interfaces, when you work ITB exclusively and only need to monitor speakers and headphone?

A little bit more about my reasons for asking, and my thoughts on the topic:

I've been slimming down my setup to the bare essentials. I've been working with a TC Electronics Studio Konnekt 48 Firewire interface and it performs well, but is bulky. I also use an Elektron Analog Heat which has a sound card on board so in theory I could just use that and get rid of the TC Electronics.

When I look online almost anyone will recommend brands like Apogee, RME or Apollo. They're probably worth their money but I can't determine how much people are simply parroting popular opinions. For example: when I bought my current audio interface I listened to a blind test of the TC and a Apogee device and there was only a very slight difference to my ears. It also seems that prices start to climb when good pre-amps become a factor, and when Thunderbolt becomes a factor.

So if we take those out of the equation, and all the interface needs to do is provide high quality translation between digital audio and my speakers + headphone, is paying €800,– for an Apogee interface still an economic choice?

Of course I wouldn't want to skimp on something as vital as an audio interface if the sound that comes from my speakers is "worse" than it would be with a better interface, but I wonder if that is at all true.
Most budget interfaces produce good sounding recordings.

Audio interfaces do a variety of things so the more cost you pay can give you a variety of things some that improve sound quality and others that don’t.


Going from a cheap to expensive interface will most likely be a subtle improvement.

Usually you will get more dynamic range, lower distortion, more linear freq response, higher gain pres, but it doesn’t mean it will be a huge or noticeable improvement. Most audio interfaces are transparent or very close to it.

Some will just offer more I/o, lower latency, more stable drivers, newer/faster technology (eg thunderbolt vs usb 2.0) for more bandwidth, real-time effects processing.


It is likely you won’t hear a big improvement but I guess you could test this at a store. Interfaces have come a long way sounding better than older stuff at cheaper prices. Some of what you are buying is assurance that recording a variety of sources will record without noisefloor issues and other artifacts which are usually small to begin with. A lot depends on what/how you are recording as well.

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Re: Truths about perceived quality in audio interfaces for ITB

Post by fishmonkey » Wed Jan 31, 2018 6:26 am

i think it's also worth noting that the quality of your monitoring system—headphones and/or speakers+room have a large impact on what you hear.

this is especially true of speakers in rooms. many people spend big on interfaces and speakers, and ignore or skimp on room setup, acoustic measurement, and treatment. these have a massive impact on sound quality which dwarfs any difference between budget and high-end audio interfaces.

if you've never experienced the difference between an untreated and treated room, here is an example:

http://gikacoustics.com/wp-content/uplo ... d_room.mp3
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