The Audio Interface: USB vs. Firewire | AN IN DEPTH LOOK!
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Before we get into the Audio Interface: USB vs. Firewire comparison, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
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What I will bring you in this article
USB vs. Firewire
Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!
If you’re familiar with Audio Interfaces, you know that they either come equipped with Firewire, USB, or thunderbolt capability. Thunderbolt is for another article. What does an audio interface do? Firewire, also known as Sony i. link or IEEE 1394, was started by Apple in 1986, and then later created in 1995 with major contributions from engineers at Texas Instruments, Sony, Digital Equipment Corporation, IBM, and STMicroelectronics (formerly INMOS/SGS Thomson). The full name is actually IEEE 1394 High performance serial bus, and is very similar to USB (Universal Serial Bus). A serial bus simply transfers data one bit at a time.
USB was introduced in 1996 as USB 1.0, and aimed to replace all the weird connections on the back of those ancient PC’s. Does the IBM PS1 ring a bell? Lol. I still have it for sentimentality’s sake. Contributions for USB came from companies like Compaq, Digital, IBM, Northern Telecom, and Microsoft.
USB 1.0 > 1996.
USB 2.0 > 2000.
USB 3.0 > 2008.
In essence, Firewire is simply a method of transferring information between two devices at a high speed. Currently, speeds top out at 800 mbps (mega bites per second). 400 mbps used to be the standard, until the release of USB 2.0, which surpassed the mark with 480 mbps. In 2002, Firewire again upgraded to 800 mbps, essentially leaving USB in the dust.
Single plug and socket connection capable of connecting to a maximum of 63 devices.
A plug in serial connector on the back of your computer and on many other types of auxiliary devices.
High speed data transfer.
Plug and play. You can plug in while your computer is on and not have to worry about it wigging out.
Ability to chain multiple devices together without complicated wires and adapters.
The ability to stream A/V data off a hard disc in real time without computer assistance.
A way for two computers to connect and transfer files.
USB vs. Firewire
While Firewire is meant for use with electronics that contain a lot of data (camcorders, DVD players, etc.), USB doesn’t require quite as much speed.
Another main difference is that USB requires a computer (single host) to send and receive data and control the network, while Firewire does not. Two Firewire devices can be hooked up to each other and communicate without a computer.
USB 2.0 can manage 127 devices while the 800 Firewire can only take on 63. Both also work using plug and play, and can be plugged in while the computer or device is running.
USB is host based (slave/master) while Firewire = Peer to Peer.
USB was designed for simplicity and low cost, while Firewire was designed for the superior performance required from audio and video applications. USB was initially supposed to complement Firewire by providing a means to interconnect hard disks, audio interfaces, and video equipment.
USB ports supply less power. Typically 2.5 watts compared to the 60 (in theory) of Firewire. It’s around 10-20 watts usually though.
Firewire can send more data faster than USB, but the difference between a single or dual channel USB vs. Firewire interface is almost insignificant.
Firewire can stream data in both directions at once, while USB has to wait before a piece of data reaches it’s destination before sending another.
With USB, conflicts are more likely to occur because it’s used with such a wide variety of hardware.
By the same token, USB is more universal (hence Universal Serial Bus), which contributes greatly to it’s flexibility. With Firewire you may have to purchase extra adapters depending on if your PC supports it’s connectivity.
USB devices are typically more affordable than Firewire.
Your computer cannot be upgraded with Firewire connections if it doesn’t have a Cardbus, PCMCIA, or ExpressCard slot.
Firewire benefits from lower latency than a USB interface because it wastes less of it’s bandwidth due to that Peer to peer connection we talked about above. What is Latency?
Because Firewire relies on that Peer to Peer relationship, you may find yourself in a situation where your computer simply does not want to respond to the interface, or vice versa. This comes as a result of the two not being tested and validated by the manufacturer. This can also occur with any two components that you’re attempting to chain together. Apple users are less prone to experiencing this issue, as most Firewire interfaces are built using common components and are tested before hand.
Firewire common connections:
Printers and Scanners
External Hard Drives
USB common connections:
Firewire is supported by:
All versions of Windows, from Windows 98 to Windows 10, MAC OS 8.6 and later, Linux, and most other operating systems.
Supports both Isochronous and Asynchronous applications.
Isochronous requires that the timing and coordination of a piece of data be in sync. For example: A video of a person speaking. Notice how sometimes their lips are out of sync with the audio. This process basically ensures that doesn’t happen and that everything arrives at it’s destination smoothly.
Asynchronous basically means that the processes in a computer sometimes operate independently of each other. For example: You download something off of the internet, and it’s progress is monitored until a) it completes successfully, or b) it fails and you have to re-initiate. Either way, you’re alerted by your computer.
I hope this helped! Without getting long winded, with the advent of USB 3.0, Firewire is becoming a bit obsolete. It’s still a great option if you have a MAC and don’t want to pay Thunderbolt prices, or if you’re planning on recording in a large studio with a lot of gear. That said, I’ve always been a USB guy and don’t really see a reason to switch.
Interested in learning more about my favorite budget audio interface? Check out my: