RØDE’s Audio Interface AI-1 review

The already crowded audio interface market welcomes a new competitor with RØDE’s release of its first audio interface for home studio recording. It’s a 24-bit/94kHz capable device inside a gorgeous looking, small, black aluminium housing with one XLR input port, stereo headphones and balanced TRS output ports and two rotary knobs/push buttons for setting input gain, output volume and engaging 48V phantom power and direct monitoring. I received the studio kit, which comes with an NT1 large-diaphragm microphone, a 6-metre XLR-cable, SMR shock mount and USB-C cable. A voucher inside the box lets you download a light version of Ableton’s Live app.

Please note: With this review comes an archived folder of AIFF sound samples; recordings of a paragraph read by myself and recorded using an Apogee Duet iOS/Mac, an IK Multimedia iRig Pre HD and the RØDE AI-1. There were three mics used: the sE Electronics V7, the original sE Electronics sE2200a, and the RØDE NT1. All recordings were done with a target gain of -15dB to -12dB, which I was totally unable to achieve the V7 combined with the AI-1 only. You can download these samples here if you’re interested: Sound samples on Box UK.

While listening to these samples, you should take into account that in the EU, the Apogee Duet iOS/Mac costs between €580 – €800, the IK Multimedia iRig Pre HD between €99 – €119 and the RØDE AI-1 is not (yet/sold out already?) available on its own (it has a list price of €119), but the Kit is, costing around €340 – €390. That’s including the NT1 mic that, on its own, costs between €229 and € 299.

The AI-1 is quite heavy so you’ll have a hard time dragging it to the floor by just moving around with the XLR-cable inserted. The AI-1 being bus-powered means you cannot hook it up to an iOS device, which is a pity.

I spent two weeks trying out all kinds of different mics with the AI-1, some from RØDE, others from sE Electronics. The maximum gain of 45dB is quite low and while I found it to easily drive the RØDE NT1, I was having more trouble with an sE2200a. With the sE Electronics V7 dynamic mic, I couldn’t push the signal to my target of -12dB. Of course, if you have a mic with a low noise floor like the V7, you can push the signal in post.

After having tried the AI-1 with different mics, I recorded some vocal material with the NT1 to see – or rather hear – how the AI-1 sounds. RØDE’s first audio interface doesn’t disappoint, despite the unit not having been fit out with a top-end DAC/ADC chip.

The DAC/ADC is a Taiwanese chip, the NAU88L25 from Nuvoton. The company makes a decent DAC for ultra-low power devices such as the FiiO i1 for iOS devices, but it’s a far cry from the likes of Xilinx, Wolfson or ESS. The Sabre32 Hyperstream DAC/ADC you will find in the latest Apogee Duets, for example, has a THD of -113dB and a dynamic range of 123dB. The Nuvoton chip stops at -91dB and 113dB respectively.

RØDE’s must employ some amazing engineers, as the actual sound the AI-1 produces is pretty clear and detailed with very little self-noise if you’re using the NT1 mic. That’s all due to what seems to be a decent pre-amp. There’s no colouration – some might say it sounds bare – and there is a less outspoken performance at the low end, but it’s never ear-popping bad.

The AI-1’s midrange tones are outspokenly present as are the highs without those sounding metallic. It’s only the basses that under-perform. Those basses can be easily re-introduced by carefully manipulating the EQ curve, but you will introduce some reverb in the process, which you must filter out again. For vocals and string instruments such as acoustic guitars I consider the AI-1 to be a good, although not excellent audio interface.

The combination with the NT1 is the best – it’s clear the AI-1 has been optimised for it – and the NT1 is a great microphone with a nice low noise floor and a flat frequency curve. It offers beautiful midrange sound and has a lot of clarity in the highs. The SMR shock mount with the Rycote Lyre suspension system was a revelation and the metal pop screen that fits the mount did a great job.

The stereo headphones output port allows you to monitor your recording directly without any latency at all by pressing the headphones volume knob. For recording purposes, this may or may not be a good idea as you won’t hear any effects you’re adding, but that’s your own choice, of course.

The sound that is output over the headphones (mine were a pair of Sennheiser HD650s) suffers from the non-audiophile quality of the DAC, but it does the job that it’s ultimately there for just fine. The RØDE Complete Studio Kit can be had for €340.