USB 2.0 vs USB 3.0 Audio Interfaces

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USB 3.0 audio interfaces aren’t easy to find, but they’re out there. It seems like most manufacturers have avoided using the USB 3.0 protocol in favour of USB 2.0 though, but why? That’s what we’ll be discussing in today’s article. We’ll also be determining whether or not these more recent USB protocols present any significant advantages for audio interfacing.

USB 3.0 audio interfaces offer more bandwidth than USB 2.0, but will that decrease audio latency? Believe it or not, USB 2.0 possesses more than enough bandwidth to handle our needs, that’s not the problem… What makes the USB protocol inferior is simply the way it handles audio/video data transfers. However, USB 3.0 is superior because it handles data differently than USB 2.0 (we’re also talking about USB 3.1 onwards). In other words, USB 3.0 audio interfaces DO reduce the audio latency, but is it really that significant? Let’s find out!

The difference between USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 audio interfaces

On the surface, it seems like the only improvement with the USB 3.0 protocol is the bandwidth. However, we should know by now that increasing the bandwidth doesn’t decrease the audio latency.

Just for fun though, let’s compare the different protocols:

  • USB 1.0 – 12 Mbps
  • USB 2.0 – 480 Mbps
  • USB 3.0 – 5 Gbps
  • USB 3.1 – 10 Gbps

Don’t get me wrong… Those are still some pretty impressive upgrades. It just doesn’t really apply to signal processing (unless you’re recording THOUSANDS of tracks simultaneously).

The real upgrade with USB 3.0 was the improvement made to data polling.

Data polling: USB 2.0 vs USB 3.0

The only reason USB 3.0 audio interfaces provide better performance is because of the way they handle data polling. In other words, that should reduce your audio latency by a few ticks.

What’s the problem with USB 2.0 audio interfaces though?

NOTHING. However, the biggest disadvantage with USB 2.0 audio interfaces is the fact that the computer needs to ask the audio interface if it has any new data to report. Some refer to this as “pinging”.

Think of it like hitting “refresh” on your browser.

That’s not very efficient… Is it? Nope, it also consumes more power.

That’s why USB 3.0 audio interfaces are SLIGHTLY better. Instead of waiting to be “pinged”, they can transfer data as soon as it’s ready. In the case of audio interfaces, it’s always ready when we’re recording.

That being said, why haven’t manufacturers adopted the USB 3.0 protocol?

USB 3.0 audio interfaces

To answer your question, YES. There are a few USB 3.0 audio interfaces on the market. One of the best ones is produced by Steinberg.

See it for yourself… Here’s the Steinberg UR24C 2×4 USB 3.0 audio interface.

Steinberg UR22C 2IN/2OUT USB3.0 Type C Audio Interface

The question remains though… Why are there so FEW on the market?

If you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the past decade or so, then you probably haven’t heard about FireWire and Thunderbolt.

We’ll be talking about these protocols in the next section, but just keep in mind that they’re superior to USB in EVERY WAY. That being said, why would manufacturers waste time with USB 3.0?

There was also a time when not all computers had USB 3.0 ports.

Instead of wasting valuable ressources on the USB 3.0 protocol, audio interface manufacturers opted to explore the possibilites of these newer/optimized protocols.

I’ve personally been working with Thunderbol 3 audio interfaces.

So, what’s so much better about these protocols?

USB 3.0 vs Thunderbolt audio interfaces

If you own an Apple computer, you’re in luck because you’ll have access to the Thunderbolt protocol. However, it seems that even Windows has begun suporting the Thunderbolt 3 protocol.

It’s currently the industry standard (that, or PCIe audio interfacing).

What’s so special about Thunderbolt though? It can’t be the bandwidth.

Even with Thunderbolt 3 coming in at 40 Gbps, it still doesn’t improve audio latency. The real advantage with Thunderbolt technology is how it handles data but this time, it’s even better than the USB 3.0 protocol.

Forget about data polling, Thunderbolt can write data DIRECTLY to your drive (it’s called Direct Memory Access or DMA for short).

Here are a few more advantages of a thunderbolt audio interface…

  • Ability to “daisy-chain” multiple devices
  • Ability to upsample your ADC/DAC processes
  • Some of the lowest round trip latency rates
  • Improved stability and synchronization

If you’re still considering USB 3.0 audio interfaces after reading that…

Well, let’s just hope you get the point so we can move on to bigger and better things. There’s no excuse good enough in my opinion.

If you’re not using Thunderbolt at this point, you’re probably not serious about your craft (it doesn’t mean you’re not good though).

Take my advice and read this article if you still need more convincing.

Thunderbolt audio interfaces are MUCH better than USB 3.0 audio interfaces

If you were looking for a USB 3.0 audio interface, I hope you’ve learned that Thunderbolt is where the industry is currently at. If you still want to be stubborn though… Take a look at the Steinberg UR24C.

In my opinion though, the USB protocol is outdated.

It was never designed for labour intensive tasks like audio/video processing.

If you want the best performance, I highly suggest using a Thunderbolt audio interface. You’ll experience MUCH less latency and better performance/stability.

The only reason you’d need more bandwidth is if you were recording hundreds of tracks simultaneously. And even then, I would consider “daisy-chaining” multiple Thunderbolt audio interfaces together.

The beauty about Thunderbolt technology is the ability to pair devices without experiencing any synchronization issues.

Good luck achieving that with USB audio interfaces…

I hope this article has provided you with valuable information and if it has, please consider sharing it! If I hurt your feelings, don’t take it personally. It’s just my personal brand of tough love. Let’s get with the times and leverage Thunderbolt technology please. Thanks!

Sources

https://support.focusrite.com/hc/en-gb/articles/208095469-USB-2-0-vs-USB-3-0

https://www.engadget.com/2020-01-14-what-were-buying-steinberg-ur22c-audio-interface.html?guccounter=1

https://www.alyseum.com/usb3vsusb2.html

4 Responses

  1. Hi, thanks for all you’ve written here on this topic. I’m using a USB 2.0 (UR824) and am thinking of moving to a UR816C (usb-C 3.1 gen). It seems the bandwidth would be superior to my current usb 2.0, no?

    In your reply you wrote ” USB 3.0/3.1 audio interfaces would provide no additional benefit (even if they existed).”

    Isn’t usb3-gen1 faster than usb2.0? I’d think latency would improve and allow more tracks to be recorded using the 3.1 gen 1.

    1. Hey Gene,

      You’re right about the comment, but I published that response before updating the article.

      I was actually wrong about USB3.0+ audio interfaces.

      However, the improvement isn’t as dramatic as you might think.

      Check out [this article] if you want to see me comparing USB2.0, 3.0 and Thunderbolt 3 for audio latency.

      Let me know if you need more clarification. Thanks for the correction, I deleted the comments to prevent any future confusion.

      – Stefan

  2. There seem to be no mention of the central protocol improvement of data polling with USB 3.0/3.1?

    “With USB 2.0, data is transmitted after the host (the computer) asks the device (the audio interface) if it has any data to send. The device may have data to send, but has to wait until it’s pinged – or polled – by the host to actually send the data. With USB 3.0 [and 3.1] the device can send data as soon as it’s ready. In short, USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 do provide lower latency.”

    Source:
    http://www.engadget.com/2020-01-14-what-were-buying-steinberg-ur22c-audio-interface.html

    1. Hello Donse,

      I sincerely appreciate your feedback. I hadn’t come across this article when I was doing my research.

      None of the sources I consulted mentioned data polling, so I’m really grateful that you’ve brought this up. My article hasn’t been updated in a while, so I’ll be making the necessary corrections soon. I’ll also be adding this information in the 2021 version of the Computer Buying Guide for Musicians (once it’s released, of course).

      The audio interface mentioned in the article also seems pretty decent. I’ll make sure to review it in the future!

      The only thing I want to add is that even though USB 3.0/3.1 may show some slight improvements, it’s really no match compared to Thunderbolt 3. That’s what I’ve been working with for the past year or so.

      If you’re interested, I suggest reading this article as even Windows now supports the protocol.

      Once again, thank you for your input. I learned something new today.

      Take care!

      – Stefan

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