Thanks to the pandemic, there has been a sudden and significant shift in what we need on the desktop. Whether it’s the endless video conferences we suddenly had to attend, requests for the production of video tutorials for remote training with voiceover, or the production of podcasts and YouTube – there is a new demand for an interface quality audio which would preferably also be affordably priced during this test period.
The PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 stumbled across our desk and although widely known as an excellent audio interface, to our surprise it also happens to be a very decent headphone amplifier. Does that mean it can be the only desktop audio interface that covers all our audio input and output needs? We dove to find out.
Sturdy metal construction and compact size
The PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 is about the size of an Intel NUC, which is a nice size to have on the desk – not taking up too much space while still being large enough to house all of its ports and controls. The compact size also means that if you want you can also take it on the road for some mobile projects – as it only uses a USB bus and doesn’t need an external power source.
The all-metal casing not only looks premium, it also plays the active role of dissipating heat from the unit. The cast aluminum sides even feature ribs that increase surface area, drawing more heat away from internal components. The front of the AudioBox USB 96 features blue brushed aluminum that gives it a distinct look, complemented by elegantly sharp corners.
All-metal knobs and classic red LED indicators for channel power and clipping add a more old-school look, while providing essential functionality. I appreciate the understated, classic aesthetic of the AudioBox as opposed to the translucent buttons and multi-colored LEDs you get from other audio interfaces on the market these days.
XLR ports with phantom power
Besides the two female XLR ports, the rest of the AudioBox USB 96 ports are found on the back of the device, leaving the front minimalistic and clean.
These input ports along with the phantom power it provides are what differentiate the AudioBox USB 96 from micro USB solutions. XLR ports open up the possibilities for a whole realm of microphones: from a generic $22 Amazon condenser microphone to a $3,000 or more Neumann microphone. I found the sound recorded with just a cheap condenser mic to be crystal clear as the signal is transmitted digitally to the computer via the USB connection.
The XLR ports can also take 1/4″ jacks for connecting instruments like a guitar or keyboard or auxiliary music player or wireless microphone, each with a touch button for independent volume control.
Improved audio for video conferencing
Having an audio interface like the AudioBox USB 96 means you can bring a major upgrade to your video conferencing game. Its low latency means there’s no lag in your speech while the XLR inputs make room for dual, simultaneous sound sources.
I’ve personally used it with Zoom (which isn’t known for amazing audio quality) for live vocal/guitar performance, and it still delivered great results that a single USB microphone would have struggled with.
Clean input for podcasts, recordings or YouTube production
Besides video conferencing which doesn’t demand too much audio quality, I’ve also used the AudioBox USB 96 on more demanding productions for YouTube and Podcasts. The low latency allows for excellent multitrack recording as there are minimal adjustments needed in post-production, and sound recorded on the AudioBox USB 96 sounds noticeably brighter with excellent dynamics and energy.
Whether for speech or music, I found the sound recorded through the AudioBox to be more organic compared to USB microphones – which sound more digitized and rigid in comparison. So if you are looking for a more realistic sound recording, I would again recommend using this audio interface over a USB microphone solution.
Excellent desktop headphone amplifier
Perhaps the most surprising use of the AudioBox USB 96 is as a headphone amplifier. Discovered this during a recording session while using Focal Utopia headphones (headphones cost around $4000), surprised at how good the premium cans sounded, I kept getting more listening sessions with various music with equally excellent results. The fact that the AudioBox USB 96 can easily drive 80 ohm headphones and completely open up its sound is quite surprising and shows its prowess as a headphone amp.
We also tested the PreSonus audio interface with beyerdynamic T1, another audiophile headset. Comparing the sound with a FiiO M11 Pro DAP and found that the AudioBox opens up the sound of the T1 more with a better soundstage and better separation of instruments.
Since the AudioBox USB 96 has touch sensitive volume controls, as well as excellent sound reproduction, it really makes for an excellent desktop headphone amplifier.
When you combine excellent construction with excellent XLR inputs and even a capable headphone output and put them together in one device, you have the perfect desktop audio interface. The PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 is simple to use, with a minimal learning curve while delivering consistent output.
The fact that the set costs less than $100 makes the AudioBox USB 96 an easy recommendation, as anyone looking to upgrade their audio setup should definitely look into it. We’re proud to award the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96 our Outstanding Offer badge.
David is a tech enthusiast/writer who’s often on the go, but since lockdown he’s been on a mission to explore gadgets to enhance his ‘work from home’. This is a contribution to an ongoing IBTimes review series on gadgets for home productivity.
All the photographs in this article were taken on the ASUS Zenfone 6 unless otherwise stated.