Hi friend and Welcome aboard!!
Before we get into the Audio Interface: USB vs. Firewire comparison, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
You’ve come to the right place!!
What I will bring you in this article
- USB vs. Firewire
- Final Word
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 PCs.
Does the IBM PS1 ring a bell? Lol. We had one for many years (pictured below).
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 plugin 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.
Host-based vs. Peer to Peer
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 usually around 10-20 watts 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 its 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 its flexibility.
With Firewire you may have to purchase extra adapters depending on if your PC supports its 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 its bandwidth due to that Peer to peer connection we talked about above.
- Related: 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 beforehand.
Firewire common connections:
- Digital video
- Printers and Scanners
- External Hard Drives
USB common connections:
- Flash Drives
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 its destination smoothly.
Asynchronous basically means that the processes in a computer sometimes operate independently of each other.
Related: What is Asynchronous USB?
For example, You download something off of the internet, and its progress is monitored until
- It completes successfully, or
- 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 some great budget interfaces?
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this Audio Interface: USB vs. Firewire comparison.
Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please contact me!!
Which interface type is tailored to YOUR needs? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…
All the best and God bless,
If you are doing studio work for audio, say recording a band or drumset, and need more than 2 mics, firewire is the only way. USB can’t record more than 2 mono or 1 stereo channel at a time, and has a lot of latency issues. Firewire can do many more, I have personally done 10 mics at one time with no issues. For a 1 member music band and recording 1 thing at a time at home, USB is fine. Serious recording takes serious hardware…
Thanks for that insight J!! I haven’t personally had to record a bunch at one time, but I appreciate the knowledge that you bring to the table.