How a USB Audio Interface Is Better Than Your Onboard Headphone Jack

And when it's more than you need

  • A USB audio interface is more convenient, more flexible, and probably sounds better than your computer's built-in headphones and microphone jacks. 
  • Most USB audio interfaces work perfectly with the iPad, too. 
  • Even non-musicians can benefit.
Volt USB audio interface connected to a laptop and other audio equipment in a podcast recording studio.

Universal Audio

If you make music, record podcasts, or even just hook your computer up to speakers, you should probably use a USB audio interface. And if you use an iPad, you don't even have a choice.

Your computer comes with a headphone jack, probably a microphone input, and maybe, like some Macs, a combo socket that does both. And Mac's headphone socket is pretty great, even if you're using fancy studio headphones that require a lot of power to drive. But if you want to do anything but the most basic listening, you should probably plug a USB audio interface in and use that, instead. The good news is it can be really, really simple—especially on a Mac, iPad, or even an iPhone. 

"100% anyone serious about music production or podcasting needs an audio interface," audio engineer and music production blogger Talal Khan told Lifewire via email. "But you can use [AirPods or the computer's headphone jack] for listening to music from a non-production perspective. An interface is only required when you are recording and making mixing decisions."

What a USB Audio Interface Does

An audio interface is a box that plugs into your computer (via USB or Thunderbolt) and adds connections for microphones, musical instruments, drum machines, etc., plus outputs for speakers, headphones, etc. It also takes care of converting the analog audio (from a mic, say) to digital, and then taking the computer's digital audio and converting it back to analog again, a process known as digital to analog conversion (DAC), and vice versa (ADC). 

On top of that are a bunch of other options, but today we'll stick with these basics and explain why you might need them. 

RME Digiface AES


Reason one is connectivity. If you need only one microphone for podcasting, you can get a USB mic and plug it straight in. But If you have an audio interface, you can plug in several analog mics. What's more, you will have way more choice if you're choosing a regular analog mic than a cheap USB one, and usually, they sound better too.

"Audio interfaces are essential for anything related to music production. They offer higher audio quality than the built-in audio interface of Mac/iPhone devices. These are the greatest advantages they offer over built-in sound cards from a Mac/iPhone: Much lower latency, more inputs, and better connectivity, and better quality—audio interfaces have better AD/DA converters, providing a much cleaner signal than the standard mic input on a Mac or iPhone," music journalist and musician Eloy Caudet told Lifewire via email. 

And if you are using multiple devices, you can hook them all up at once and then address each separately in your digital audio workstation (DAW) software, recording everything to its own channel. 

And then there's the audio quality. Because an audio interface is purpose-built for its job, it usually sounds better than your built-in connections. Plus, most USB audio interfaces work just fine with the iPad, which no longer has a headphone jack. 

"An audio interface can provide enhanced volume control for playback as well as a clearer, cleaner microphone connection which is crucial for creating music or content on mobile devices and laptops,"  Mario Ponce, market development specialist and audio expert at Shure, told Lifewire via email.

A musician playing guitar while sitting on a bed, using an iPad and a Volt USB audio interface.

Universal Audio

USB Audio Interfaces for Home Use

But what about for home use? Is there any point in bothering with an audio interface if you're not podcasting or music-making? Sure, but not necessarily for sound-quality reasons because Macs already have great built-in audio outputs. 

"Even though it pains me to admit as a hardcore audiophile, the average music listener honestly doesn't need an audio interface," audio engineer and musician Ryan Dowell told Lifewire via email. "Even with the limitations in impedance and sensitivity rating, there are plenty of excellent speakers that an iPad or iPhone can drive to produce great sound." 

But if you regularly connect to speakers, or sit at a desk to work, then it's worth having an interface permanently connected. It's more reliable than Bluetooth, can stay connected to speakers, and can even be connected permanently to a hub or dock because it's USB. Just make sure to get a simple one without all the ports for microphones you'll never use, and you're done.

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