Main Difference Between FireWire vs USB Audio Interface

FireWire Vs USB Sound Card

What is the main difference between FireWire and USB audio interface? Is it better to connect your audio devices via FireWire or USB?

Many professional and home studio users are asking the question that prompted me to write this article explaining what you need to know before investing in audio equipment.

FireWire and USB audio interface are the most widely used audio interfaces in the music production industry. Understanding their capabilities will significantly improve your music recording experience.

Let’s Take a Look at Some Key Definitions

Audio Interface

An Audio Interface is a hardware component that serves as a link between digital and analog signals for musical devices such as microphones. It is used to improve and extend the sonic capabilities of a computer.

A high-quality interface can decrease the latency levels to very low rates, therefore, providing the best possible input and output.

FireWire

FireWire is a high-speed real-time interface for Serial bus used for data transfer between enabled devices.  It offers sustained high speeds of over 3,200 Megabits per second, making it a preferred choice for digital audio/video camcorders, PCs and home entertainment units.

Also referred to as IEEE 1394, iLINK and Lynx, FireWire was initiated as the main communications interface by Apple way back in 1986.

There are two types of FireWire

Integrated FireWire

This FireWire is integrated onto the computer motherboard with a variety of external ports where you can insert the appropriate audio/video devices.

External FireWire With USB Adapter

This FireWire is operated externally. It has a cable that is attached to a USB adapter that plugs into a USB port on the computer.

USB

The USB Audio Interface stands tall among its peers as the most commonly used audio interface within the music industry.
It is an external component with many contacts on its bottom side and multiple ports of connection to audio devices such as speakers and headphones on its side.

The Sound card connects to the computer’s motherboard through a USB port which is mounted on a PCI or PCIe slot.

USB Sound Card with Multiple Ports

USB Sound Card with Audio and Video Ports Only

Difference between a FireWire and USB Audio Interface

There are a couple of differences among them, and having an understanding of both their capabilities will enable you to make better purchasing choices.

Cost

USB is comparatively cheaper to use and implement because almost all devices provide USB support.

FireWire doesn’t have as good adoption as USB with direct support on motherboards, because it’s required to upgrade your computer by inserting an expansion card.

FireWire Expansion cards for desktop cards are readily available as opposed for laptops which are relatively difficult to acquire and expensive. You’ll also be required to purchase a different set of cables to use with your computer.

Compatibility

USB is more widely used as all computers manufactured after 2000 support some form of USB connection. With decent data rate speeds of 480 Mbps or 60MB per second, they have become perfect for use with external data storage devices and audio equipment.

Not many devices support FireWire. Therefore you’ll have to source for additional equipment which includes expansion cards and cables.

Speed

FireWire is, without a doubt much faster and advanced than USB. It’s latest version FireWire 800 can support speeds of up to 800Mbps which as compared to speeds of 480 Mbps from USB 2.0.

FireWire still remains the best option for video and audio editing for most home recording studios.

Hey, don’t write off USB just yet.
USB latest version USB 3.1 can register speeds of up to 10Gbps.

Such speeds can handle large video and audio transfers and even allow you to run entire operating systems on a USB 3.1 external hard drive. The latest USB version is pretty fast. However, for audio and video data transfers, the odds favor FireWire as the desired connection type for most people in the music industry.

M-Audio Firewire 410 USB Audio Interface
M-Audio Firewire 410 (Source)

Technology

Both technologies may have similar features, but their capabilities are diverse.

USB is a slave technology, which means that for it to work, it requires a computer or a host device to share information. It means that all audio devices and external hard drives with USB connections are designed to be slave devices.

FireWire is a much more advanced type of peer to peer connection with the ability to handle and manage data transfers more effectively. It allows two digital devices to be connected together without going through a host device.

It uses a network topology referred to as an extremely reliable daisy chain.

Features of FireWire and USB Audio Interface

It through the complete understanding of the features of these commonly used audio interfaces that you’ll be able to confidently choose the most appropriate device for your home recording studio needs.

FireWire

Plug and Socket Connector

It has a plug and Socket connector with the capability for up to 63 devices, and data transfer rate (DTR) speeds up to 400 Mbps

Peer-To-Peer Communication

It offers Peer-To-Peer device communication networking without a central processing unit (CPU) or system memory, which allows audio devices to be connected without a need of a computer.

Plug-and-Play Support

Supports Plug-and-Play technology which enables a device to be automatically detected and configured by an operating system without you having to shut down the system.

Hot Swapping Support

Supports hot-swapping. This is the capability to remove and replace a component without having to shut down the system for the process to take place.

Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 2nd gen – (Source)

USB Audio Interface

Provides 3D Spatial Imaging

3D sounds are not exclusive effects of games. 3D spatial imaging features available on USB sound cards can provide auditorium or concert-hall effects.
It would be done by enhancing the Stereo separation of your audio files.

Surround Sound Support

A good USB sound card connected to the right speakers can enable your PC to deliver Dolby Surround sound effects. It’s good when listening to your favorite music audio CDs or watching DVD movies using your PC.USB sound cards such as the X-Fi Xtreme audio card from Creative Labs can deliver Dolby digital 7.1 surround sound, 24-bit/195 kHz audio playback. It’s a far more superior quality than most commercial musical audio CDs.

MP3 Encoding Support

Some USB audio interfaces come inbuilt with MP3 encoding feature and digital effects. Why is this feature so important?
For starters, it relieves your PC processor from the tedious task of ripping and playing your MP3 files freeing up resources. Then, your PC can utilize in performing a variety of tasks without any noticeable drop in the PC performance.

SP/DIF Ports

You need a USB Audio Interface that has got these ports, especially if you intend to connect your PC to a home theatre system. These ports provide extremely high-quality audio signals though dependent upon the source.

Game and FireWire Ports

Many of the USB sound cards currently in the market are equipped with a FireWire or gamepad port. It is a feature that allows you to connect entertainment devices which only got these ports.

MIDI Ports

MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, using ports to connect synthesizers to a variety of electronic entertainment instruments such as keyboards, electric drums.

A MIDI port provides you with the ability to play a musical instrument and record its audio files as MIDI directly into the computer and play MIDI music files without attaching any musical instrument. This eliminates your need for purchasing cards with built-in MIDI ports to play MIDI music files.

Pros and Cons of FireWire and USB Audio Interface

FireWire and USB Audio Interfaces are the most commonly used audio interfaces in the music industry.
However, both have their pros and cons.

FireWire

Pros

– FireWire devices support higher bandwidth than USB 2.0. FireWire 400 and 800 series have maximum bandwidth speeds of 400 Mbps and 800 Mbps respectively as compared to 480 Mbps for USB 2.0

– The higher speeds provided by the FireWire 800 series allows faster data transfers for large multimedia files as compared to USB audio interfaces.

– FireWire cables can transfer power and data along the same cable which reduces the number of potentially dangerous power points. This feature also makes it possible to charge and sync devices at the same time.

– FireWire Streams data while USB packets the data. This feature provides a more stable synchronization and performance.

– A FireWire can stream data in both directions and at the same time as opposed to USB. The USB requires to send data packets to complete the transmission before the device can receive any more data.
This is something that can impact performance and stability.

– Multiple FireWire devices of the same family can be connected for additional inputs and outputs.
You can’t connect USB devices in this fashion.

Cons

– FireWire is mainly dedicated for audio/video purposes, unlike USB which you can use for a wide variety of hardware equipment.

– Unfortunately, some computers cannot be upgraded to support FireWire. Your computer or laptop must have a Cardbus, PCMCIA or Express Card installed to install a FireWire port to the system.

M-Audio Fast Track Pro (Source)

USB Interface

Pros

– Many computers manufactured after 2000 contain USB ports, unlike FireWire ports which you must upgrade your computer to support FireWire technology. This requires purchasing additional hardware making the whole exercise expensive.

– Since Chipset incompatibility doesn’t exist, a USB 2.0 interface can be used on almost any USB 2.0 port.
However, with FireWire, you must have a supported Chipset to use the device effectively.

– USB are comparatively cheaper as compared to FireWire, making them an attractive item for businesses on a budget.

Cons

– A USB Interface cannot guarantee a reliable, uninterrupted connection making FireWire a better choice for large data video or audio transfers.

FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions

Should I Choose A FireWire Or USB Audio Interface?

Majority of the available audio interfaces today can communicate with your computer either through a FireWire or USB connection.

The first step you need to do before going ahead to purchase an audio interface is to check the type of audio interface your computer supports.

The good thing is that most modern computers have got at least 2 USB ports. FireWire is usually in machines within the pro audio and video environment, however, modern computers can be upgraded to support FireWire functionality at a minimal cost.

Can I Use Both FireWire And USB Audio Interfaces At The Same Time?

No, that is not possible. You can only use one audio interface at a time. The system recognizes whichever connection was established first.

Should you want to use a new interface, you’ll be required to disconnect from your cable from the active port, after that connect the new cable to the appropriate port. If the device isn’t recognized, turn off the power and restart the machine.

You can connect multiple FireWire devices in a daisy chain, but the power should be ON at all times.

Conclusion

FireWire and USB audio interfaces are, without a doubt, the most commonly used video and audio interfaces in the market currently. An understanding of each interface capabilities goes a long way in cost savings in finances and time.

Viliam Šulek

MusicGearo is a blog site created by passionate music producers for the music lover who wants to build a home studio or purchase various music performance or production gear.It also addresses those who already own home studios but need to learn how to get the most out of the gear they already own.

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