Even the most cursory glance in the audio interface section of a music store will let you see that there are a plethora of interfaces available. It can be a difficult choice to make. As well as a large choice, there is a massive budget range, from less than $100 to more than $1000 and everywhere in between.
Two that often rise to the surface in any search for a good audio interface are the Focusrite Scarlet 2i2 and the Universal Audio Apollo Twin. They are miles apart in terms of budget, but do you get what you pay for, or has the laws of diminishing returns kicked in and the Apollo is only a little bit better? Is it worth the extra?
In this review I’m using the two interfaces I have to hand. Namely the Scarlett 1st Gen and the Apollo MkII. There are newer versions out for the Scarlett that comprise of better preamps and the 3rd Gen now has an ‘Air’ switch that emulates the Focusrite ISA preamp.
Whilst there isn’t an Apollo MkIII, there is an Apollo X, so if you seriously considering buying one of these interfaces, make sure you look at the latest ones as well to get the latest technology and product the companies have to offer.
Table of Contents
The Ins and Outs
With a large difference in price, one would expect a large difference in features, and there is. On the hardware, the Apollo has a lot more to offer in terms of control and routing options. Whilst both units have 2 mic/line inputs, the Apollo has a third dedicated to a Hi-Z guitar input. This goes through an analog resistor to give the guitar a more natural tone as you would expect from an amplifier. The Apollo also has two line out jacks as well as two monitor speaker jacks. The Scarlett has two mic/line inputs and two monitor outputs. Both devices have one headphone out.
In terms of podcasting, this may well be enough. Unless you are wanting to host round table conversations, two mic inputs are fine. A pair of monitors and a pair of headphones – great. The extra Hi-Z input and line outs on the Apollo could well be surplus to requirements. In other words, you may well be paying for features you don’t need.
However, if your podcasting needs expand, or you want to add some outboard, the line outs could come in handy. One thing you can do with this is to send the signal to another device; a piece of hardware like a compressor, for example, and then return it to the computer through an input. There is also an optical in socket for adding up to eight more inputs and the Apollo uses an adaptor for power, so there is a power socket as well.
The other huge difference between the two interfaces is the way it connects to your computer. The Apollo Twin is Thunderbolt 3 and the Scarlett is USB. This is more than just a different shaped hole. Thunderbolt 3 is predominantly used by Macs but is becoming more common on Windows-based machines. Unfortunately, the Thunderbolt 3 connection is the same size and shape as USB C. Also, unfortunately, USB C and Thunderbolt 3 are completely different things and a USB C enabled PC will not talk to the Thunderbolt device.
If you are using a Windows PC rather than a Mac, check your machine is Thunderbolt 3 enabled. If you use a desktop computer, you can get a Thunderbolt card to ensure your machine works with this interface, but if you use a laptop, no such luck I’m afraid. If you like the features of the Apollo but require USB, then a USB version is available but at a slightly higher price point. Again though, this requires USB 3 where the Scarlett only needs USB 2. Check your computer before committing to the Apollo.
Knobs and buttons
Again, as you would expect for the price difference the Apollo is more ‘feature-rich’. The Scarlett has exactly what you need though. Phantom power for condenser mics, line/inst impedance switches, and a direct monitor on/off switch. The Apollo though has a bit more in terms of buttons and switches. As well as phantom power and line/mic switches, there is also a pad and a low cut. As well as this, you get a talkback function, phase inversion, mono, the ability to link both channels, and a mute button.
You also only get one knob (insert hilarious joke here). This has buttons that alter its function; one button turns it into a gain control for either channel and another that turns it into a volume knob for the output – headphones or monitors.
This works well once you get used to it. There is something nice and simple about one big control that feels meaty and solid in your hand, but it doesn’t feel as good as having four or five. The Scarlett has separate knobs for the functions, but they are a lot smaller and made of plastic. There is also a slight lip on the metal casing of the Scarlett that gets in the way ever so slightly of the knobs turning. The main volume knob is a good size though. It does have halo lights around the gain knobs that give you a good indication of levels. Green for good, red for peaking.
In terms of the controls you have, again, the Apollo is more feature-rich, but all the controls you get here are also available in any DAW. You can add a high pass filter to do the same as the low cut on the Apollo. You can flip the phase in the DAW and all the other things. So again, do you want those features attached to the preamp as well as in the DAW? On this, I would say it’s a good idea. The low cut and the pad can be invaluable. Depending on the mic you are using, taming the gain and cutting any rumble can save a lot of time and effort once you have recorded.
This is where you get the real difference between these two units. The Scarlett is good, and for the money, it’s really good. There is plenty of headroom for most applications, but particularly gain hungry dynamic mics may find it difficult to get a really good signal. The preamps on the Scarlett blow the competition out of the water at this price point though. For the price, you won’t find better, and to be honest, you’ll have to double the price to find a significant improvement.
With a high sample rate of 96KHz at 24-bit resolution, you aren’t going to go wrong, and very low latency as well. Newer generations of this interface allow higher sample rates and more headroom. On the 3rd gen, there is also an ‘air’ button that emulates a Focusrite ISA preamp. They were brilliant, so that should sound good.
For the Apollo, this is where things get interesting. The Preamps are ‘Unison’ enabled, meaning they can emulate a wide range of preamps from the likes of Neve, API, Manley as well as Universal Audio.
The headroom and amount of gain available are incredible, and thanks to processors onboard the interface, near-zero latency. Let me say that again; this interface has processors on board so when using the UA plugins, you aren’t using your computer’s processor. That gives you a lot more processing power for your DAW.
On top of the speed of the Thunderbolt connection, this is absolutely on fire. The only downside is the size of the software. Every plugin they sell comes with the download and then you pay to activate them either individually or in bundles. This means they all appear in your DAW’s plugin list, but you can’t use them all unless you have purchased them or began a 30-day trial. They can be removed, but you need to do this manually. That for me is a bit of a pain, but not a deal-breaker.
The software bundled with the Scarlett is good, but not great. The compressors and reverbs you get with it are fine but aren’t a real improvement on what comes with most DAWs already. The Universal Audio plugins, however, are second to none. The sound quality is astonishing and I think most people would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the software emulations and the original hardware on a recording. They are that good. I was skeptical at first, but when I got one and plugged it in was blown away by the transparency and general quality of the sound.
My daughter, who is probably best described as a ‘bedroom guitarist’ could tell the difference and prefers the Apollo over everything else. It is that good.
The customer is always…
The Scarlett is aimed and priced at the home, amateur, studio, and is perfect for that. You can throw it in and it works. It’s good at what it does and the leader in that price range. The Apollo is marketed at the professional who requires a portable interface. Again, it can be thrown in a bag and used on the go. You can get a little case/gig bag for it for that very purpose. But the Apollo is a professional piece of kit. Not only does the price point give that away, but also the sound quality and preamps and plugins screams quality at you. Again, just as the Scarlett is the leader at that price point, the Apollo is the leader in that one.
And the winner is…
Well, that would be unfair, wouldn’t it? It’s like comparing a Ford Focus with a Ferrari. Yes, they’re both cars that will get you from A to B, but there is more to it than that. Where on earth would you put the supermodel in the Ford Focus or the weekly shop in the Ferarri?
In the same way, the Scarlett does a great job of getting the sound from the microphone into the computer and then back out through your speakers or headphones. It does it without much latency and does it well. For someone starting, or someone on a tight budget, you can do a lot worse than investing in the Scarlett. If you then choose to upgrade in the future, you’ll have a good backup to use or something you can throw in your bag for remote or location work.
The Apollo is a serious couple of steps up in terms of quality, expandability, and overall sound. However, let’s be clear. This product is marketed and aimed and musicians. Most of the preamp, EQ, and compression plugins can, of course, be tweaked and used for podcasting and used to great effect as well. But most podcasters aren’t going to take advantage of the full range of plugins available and therefore can probably get away with buying an interface that doesn’t have the built-in processor.
So in this very unfair race, between the Premium thoroughbred racehorse and the old nag that’s been on the plow for 5 years, it’s not a shock that the Apollo comes across as the better piece of equipment, but as Einstein once famously said; ‘it’s all relative’.
If you’re still wondering whether or not you need an audio interface, don’t buy the Apollo. If you are after that professional quality sparkle in a portable package, don’t buy the Scarlett. These are different breeds of audio interface and so it’s impossible to say one is better for everyone than the other. Yes, the Apollo sounds better and will give someone who knows how to take advantage of its features better results, but that isn’t everyone. For some people, the price is prohibitive right from the start, or their computer doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3.