USB 2.0 vs Firewire Audio Interfaces

Brandon Drury —  August 14, 2009 — 21 Comments

I cover this topic in Killer Home Recording, but I’ve got to cover it here too.

I see person after person after person looking for an audio interface ask if either USB 2.0 or Firewire is better. The truth is they are both fairly similar. The specs are close enough. For all practical purposes, for the guy just wanting to make music at home, they are identical.

That I don’t have an issue with.

Then people ALWAYS start discussing which one has greater transient through-put and which one has better sustained bandwidth. Bla bla bla I don’t even have the terminology down. I can’t help but wonder, “Are there this many people out there who are designing or modifying audio interfaces?”. It just blows my mind that so many people are tearing into discrete surface mount technology in their garages.

The truth is no one I know is modifying their audio interface (preamp modifications aside).

So let’s talk about the Tascam US-1641. It’s a USB 2.0 interface with 14 analog inputs (8 preamps) and 2 S/PDIF inputs. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the engineers at Tascam know exactly what they are doing. Tascam has been a respected manufacturer of audio recording products for decades. I certainly have no reason to question their understanding. Most people on the forum probably aren’t in a position to argue with these people either.

I think it’s safe to say the Tascam guys tested the USB 2.0 method quite thoroughly before unleashing this beast to the public. To insinuate that the US-1641 is incapable of 16 simultaneous tracks of recording is also to insinuate that the designers simply through it together in a weekend and shipped it out the door. I have no idea how long R&D takes for an audio interface but I’m guessing it’s substantial. I have no idea what it costs to configure a factory to produce these things, but, again, I think it’s substantial! To say that Tascam or any other manufacturer of USB 2.0 audio interfaces is releasing products that simple are incapable of doing the job seems to be complete madness to me.

So What Is The Debate?
If USB 2.0 is totally capable of 16 simultaneous tracks or recording (probably more) day in and day out, what are we debating? People often make the claim that Firewire is better because of it’s persistent connection. What is guy recording at home going to gain?

Taking It Further
If a person really wanted to criticize a product for it’s computer connection method, we should take a look at all aspects of the design of that interface. What is the metal housing made of? I’m sure whatever the nearly retired space Shuttle Endeavor is made of is probably stronger. What about the power supply? I’m sure for $4,000,000 we can find a more stable power supply. What about input jacks for XLR and 1/4”? Are they gold plated? Wouldn’t that be better?

Conclusion
The truth is you can always find ways to make the design of a machine better, but that doesn’t mean that product itself will be any more effective at what it is designed to do. I’m don’t see how either USB 2.0 or Firewire is going to make better recordings more reliably. They both seem to be quite adequate.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

21 responses to USB 2.0 vs Firewire Audio Interfaces

  1. Hi Brandon – just rss’d the blog a few days ago, and beginning to read the articles . . .

    I think the real issue with USB vs Firewire is that most casual PC owners, including many home recording enthusiasts, don’t realize they can put a $10 firewire card in their PC. Most people think Firewire is a Mac feature because it’s an Apple-developed technology and the general marketing push over the last several years has been towards USB.

    USB has this “utilitarian” aspect to it, and because companies want to maximize their potential customer base, they go with what most people have – USB is standard to both PC and Mac.

    Here, though, is a perfect visualization for the strength of the constant connection argument – have you ever tried to convert video from a DV (Digital video) cam? The sort that streams the data from an analog tape to your PC via either a USB or Firewire cable?

    The USB connection will drop frames like crazy, dozens every few seconds, because USB is subject to the CPU’s processing heirarchy. If the CPU wants the power supply, fan, RAM, Windows Media Player, or any other process to get more power/attention, it’s going to get it before USB. Meaning the USB connection MUST transfer data at a slower/lower/inconsistent rate.

    Firewire, though, will drop maybe one or two frames total, and that’s usually only if you are messing around with a lot of other programs/system resources during transfer. It transfers at constant data rate, and is not subject to the CPU’s heirachy demands.

    The difference is that of watching a webcam on dialup and a real home movie.

    Now, apply that to your musical data streaming to or from a hard drive – do you want to risk the potential of that data not coming as fast as you need it? or not coming as fully as you need it? For all the system tweaks, db-watching, room treatment, etc that we’re all already doing, for the cost of a $10 PCI expansion card (or a Yugo, if going the Mac route), I’ll go with a Firewire interface any day.

    And I can even do my own video editing when I’m done. Look forward to reading the rest of the articles!

  2. Ben, I’m curious about your video capture observations.
    Are they based on comparing a couple of different cards, or would this be the case with all USB vs. firewire cards?
    I put all these issues behind me by having both PCI video capture card and a PCI audio interface.

  3. from all the research i did prior to buying my pci firewire card, it’s a usb vs firewire situation, and then direct a/b comparison between the two – it’s drastically different!

    i also bought a motu ultralite mk3 – no usb at all. while it’s generally being used on a late 07 gen mbp, firewire was a huge reason in buying that particular model as well. i have enough things running on usb that i don’t need the competition really!

  4. To my knowledge, the issue of Firewire / USB arose when the first products came with USB connection (1.0). They received power supply through this port, and then sometimes when voltage from the power supply of the PC fell down, there were drops and clicks in sound reproduction, which was not the case with a Firewire connection. This meant that engineers began to say that Firewire was better. But today this is no longer true because of the large capacity of power supplies.
    Maybe there are some other issues in this endless discussion.

  5. Ben is correct. FireWire is much more appropriate than USB for audio and video data transfers due to its isochronous data-transfer mode. While USB transfers data in packets, much like Ethernet, FireWire’s isochronous mode allows data to be streamed continuously, which is much more appropriate and efficient for multichannel audio data and for video. Also, USB uses the host CPU to manage the low-level USB protocol, whereas FireWire relies on the interface hardware to manage that, so FireWire requires little or no CPU power. Wikipedia states: “For example, the FireWire host interface supports memory-mapped devices, which allows high-level protocols to run without loading the host CPU with interrupts and buffer-copy operations.[5] Besides throughput, other differences are that it uses simpler bus networking, provides more power over the chain, more reliable data transfer, and uses fewer CPU resources.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IEEE_1394_interface

  6. when i’m buying audio hardware, most of it comes down to “what is going to make it easier for me to get stuff from my head OUT”. Obviously, at a certain price point, all things are going to be the same but different.
    What i’m noticing is the disappearance of Firewire from laptops. Availability and ease of use are far more important issues than 0.00001db at 30,000KHz frequency response difference!

  7. It seems to me you all look at audio from a computer point of view. So I would like to bring in an audio point of view.
    It’s a fact that 0 db(u) = 0.775 V. So in the digital domain you would have a maximum of 18 db(u) which is closely 6.15V. Now USB can handle up to 5 V and Firewire 8 – 30 V. So what would you like your transients to go through?

  8. So are you saying that USB clips transients? While I’m not in a position to argue, it seems like this problem would make USB an unusable format and no electrical engineer would use it if that were the case.

    It seems you are making reference to the analog signal, right? If the signal is converted to digital first, which is the entire point of an audio interface, do these voltage levels matter? Just curious.

    Thanks,
    Brandon

  9. So, wouldn’t it be safe to say……Technically speaking from the information already mentioned in this thread, that firewire is technically superior to USB mereley by its specs. Therefore, for about the same price as USB it would make sense to buy the firewire over the USB. What advantage would USB have other than some computers don’t have firewire or the fact that USB can usually run off the computer power.
    I am about to pull the trigger on an audio interface for the first time for a new iMac, have used Yamaha stand alones so this will be the first purchase of an interface and man has this research been confusing. I am leaning towards firewire because it just seems to make more sense. If it is not superior, won’t make a difference. If USB is inferior I am ahead of the game!!
    Hey Brandon…thanks for your articles, they have been a great help to me.
    Mr. Openheimer, I am leaning towards your product, and your comments lean towards firewire as well and you make both USB and Firewire products.

  10. There are two main advantages to USB that I can see, neither of them a deep technical issue. One is simply that lots of computers have USB and not FireWire, so you would have to add a FireWire card to those computers, if that’s possible. The other, and this is a matter of opinion, is that I find it a lot easier to screw up a FireWire port by mistake. The sockets are fragile, and I have ruined a couple of FireWire ports on hard drives and on one G4 PowerBook by being a bit sloppy plugging/unplugging. I am now more careful! Otherwise, given the choice, FireWire is technically superior, and as noted, the transfer speed is not the key factor. With roughly equivalent transfer speeds, FireWire is the way to go.

    Now, ya’ll have surely noticed that Apple removed FireWire from its MacBook (but not MacBook Pro) line. I can’t speak to what Apple is up to because I don’t know, and if I did and said anything, they’d probably sue me. But it’s probably not because USB is the future answer for audio or video, even when USB 3.0 is implemented. That will be great for some stuff, but the next generation for streaming audio and video is likely to use Ethernet, with a modified protocol to manage the streams so that they are not interrupted and to supply power over Ethernet– in other words, so Ethernet can do what FireWire does only much faster and over longer distances and still compatible with existing Ethernet networks. That’s not a secret, BTW, that info is all over the Web. But to my knowledge, there’s no established standard yet, and there may be licensing issues involved. So we’re seeing another transition but in the early stages.

    Meanwhile, we’ll still rely on FW and USB for awhile.

  11. Firewire doesn’t seem to be going away at this time. I’m looking right at a Macbook on the Apple website at this very moment. I see a Firewire 400 connection. The Macbook Pros have a Firewire 800 connection.

    I have a little white Macbook. I’ve upgraded the hard drive to one running 7200 rpm and wonder if it’s worth it to try to upgrade to Firewire 800.

  12. …But, usb 2 is working for me…and the audio sounds great. I don’t have a way to expand to firewire, so I bought the usb 2 interface. We can debate tech specs all day long, but in the real world, I routinely record 12 or more tracks simultaniously via usb, then overdub vocals. I’m using a Tascam us1641 into my Compaq laptop running Vista 32. I think we may be splitting hairs…at some point, I think the bandwidth is more than enough. I agree FW is probably better for video, but I think USB is enough for audio…to a certain point. I don’t have any idea if usb 2 could record more than 16 tracks, but I know it works for that many at least. YMMV

  13. Note that USB 2.0 is fully backward-compatible with USB 1.1. That means you can plug a USB 2.0 device into a USB 1.1 port and the device will work, but it will have a limited data throughput of 12Mbps (at the most). The same is true if you plug a USB 1.1 device into a USB 2.0 port.

  14. I’m a Firewire user. Doing a bunch of video got me going in that direction. I think the strength of the connector depends on which connector. 4-pin = awful. 6-pin is metal and rugged and great, never had an issue. 9-pin, back to mostly plastic and much less positive connection.

    All that being said, check out the newly announced Intel/Apple Light Pipe technology… It’s the future. Believe dat. All devices simultaneously through one connector.

  15. The Intel/Apple Light Peak technology sounds promising for many applications. It does not supply bus power, so it’s not going to be useable for mobile interfaces and other bus-powered devices, but for products with power supplies it could be very cool. That’s the good news.

    On the other hand, it’s still vaporware. If and when it comes out, there’s a question whether it will be adopted outside of Apple. Some previous Apple bus technologies never crossed over widely to PCs. That would be significant for third-party products that have to work cross-platform, including interfaces.

    So Light Peak is very interesting, and it might indeed turn out to be the future, but it’s far from a sure thing. At best, it’s not happening for at least a year and probably more. For those who don’t know what we’re talking about, here are some published reports:

    http://www.roughlydrafted.com/2009/09/30/why-apple-is-betting-on-light-peak-with-intel-a-love-story/

    http://mac.blorge.com/2009/09/27/intel-apple-aim-light-peak-connection-standard-for-2010-delivery/

    All of the problems I had with FireWire connectors were with metal 6-pin connectors. The metal was pretty darned flimsy. But maybe the newer ones are better made. I am extra careful now and have not had the problem in a few years.

    Steve O, PreSonus

  16. There’s no way that’s right, right?! The iPhone never used to be anywhere near that. I’m experienced enough to recall the very first that even had mouse support

  17. If firewire and usb were equal why then when I see high end audio interfaces like Apogee, RME and the better TCElctronics using firewire. The correction rate is superior with firewire as compared to usb2. But! for a 2 channel home recording set up, usb2 is more than adequate.

  18. Thanks for this article! I understand what you say. It’s hilarious when people who don’t know anything about recording and just want to record their guitar playing start arguing about the superiority of firewire over usb.

    I am just a starter,too, but I have no latency problems with a usb 1.1 device, recording one channel at once. Well, and this is the method most of those guys want, anyways.

    One thing I find interesting, but could find no real information on was something I read in an interview. This tech said that many chipsets don’t work well with firewire.
    I find this more interesting than any 800000 GB/s labor condition specs.

  19. I am in no way saying you should not use USB. We sell USB interfaces, and so do our respected competitors, and the interfaces work very well. Using USB interfaces won’t screw up your audio or we wouldn’t sell them, and presumably neither would our competitors. We don’t use USB for our larger interfaces (including our digital mixer/interface) that have to move a lot of audio streams. We’ll continue to make new USB interfaces.

    I’m just saying that if you have the choice, FireWire is technically better for audio and video, and if you want to move a audio of audio streams, you really should go with FireWire until a better technology becomes established and proven. But USB works very well for many applications. You pay your money and take your choice.

  20. me again, i posted awhile back singing the praises of firewire.

    a few weeks ago, at my first real performance, my macbook pro and the motu both crashed pretty hard, firewire ports seemingly fried.

    there’s a lot of non-apple documentation about this problem, especially in pre-unibody mbps and apple has been of little to no help. there’s a litany of hacks that, as a pc person, i have been willing to try, and with limited success – but the reality is that to fix this, it will take a $700 logic board repair or paying substantially less for a usb-enabled interface.

    motu repaired the confirmed-fried firewire ports on the ultralite mk3, but i really wish they would have sent me a usb hybrid in return, because i already regret putting myself in the sole hands of firewire once.

  21. Intel/Apple Light Pipe, Ethernet – I’m even more confused as to the near future of audio interface to computer connections? Think I will stick to my old interface for a bit longer…

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