Which is better - FireWire or USB?

Which is better - FireWire or USB?

Should your audio interface connect to your computer via FireWire or USB? FireWire is supposedly optimized for signals, but does USB have the power to compete?

by David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass

There are two areas where your choice of audio interface will be critical to the success of your recording. Firstly, does the interface work properly and reliably? Secondly, does it support the number of tracks you intend to use?

Your choice of interface will also involve choosing among the USB 1.1, USB 2.0 and FireWire buses. So which is most significant for professional use?

USB comes in two varieties - USB 1.1 and USB 2.0. USB 1.1 is a comparatively slow bus, running at 12 megabits/second. In theory this should be enough to support around sixteen channels of CD-quality audio, but in practice the number of channels that can work reliably is fewer. USB 1.1 is perfectly good for stereo though, as demonstrated by the Digidesign Mbox 2 USB Audio Interface.

USB 2.0 is very much faster than USB 1.1 - 480 megabits/second in fact. Theory suggests that this would be good for hundreds of channels, but interface designers have found USB 2.0 difficult to implement, compared to the alternatives. This might be surprising seeing as probably every computer sold today has USB 2.0 connectivity as standard. But we have to remember that audio is a special kind of data that needs to flow in real time, rather than any other kind of computer data that can flow in stops and starts.

FireWire on the other hand was specifically designed for signals - probably video rather than audio, but any bus that can handle the high data rate of video reliably shouldn't have any trouble with audio.

FireWire comes in 400 and 800 varieties. FireWire 800 runs at 800 megabits/second, as you might guess. In practice, you could conceivably run as many as eighty inputs and outputs at CD-quality. Some would say that if you need more channels than this, you're doing something wrong!

At this point in time, FireWire is the bus of choice for audio. USB 2.0 has the capability but that capability is only just starting to be fully harnessed for audio, where FireWire is well established.

USB 1.1 is surprisingly popular still, and of course will plug into a USB 2.0 socket on your computer just fine. The reason for this popularity is that manufacturers can buy audio chips for USB 1.1 off the shelf at low prices, where USB 2.0 requires design from first principles. In FireWire, this development work has already been done.

One point to look out for with USB 1.1 interfaces is that many are made specifically for the 'hobbyist' market, rather than the professional market. Buy a cheap interface and you'll know what to expect.

Surprisingly, there is an interface that is faster than any of the above bus systems - PCI.

In a PCI-based interface, digital audio is sent to a card inside the computer that communicates directly with the PCI bus, and therefore to the processor. The bandwidth of PCI is over 1000 megabits/second, which makes it the fastest interface of all.

That will be why the top-end Pro Tools HD system is PCI rather than FireWire or USB.

By David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass
Saturday December 17, 2005

Readers' comments on this article...

Joe, Livermore, USA
Saturday November 04, 2006

The choice is obvious. FIREWIRE all the way. It's more than a theory that if firewire is reliable for video then it should be for audio as well. I recently got into video editing and needed something reliable. My equipment runs on either usb 2.0 firewire. I decided to try a USB 2.0 PCI card because I already had the cable. It took me exactly one day after installing the card to go out and buy a firewire card. USB 2.0 is highly flawed, even pre-installed on new pc systems. It was intended to rival firewire but has been error prone and crashes many computers. Firewire is highly reliable and in most cases will install without the need for extra drivers. I woudn't give it up for anything. PCI interface is outdated and it makes sense to be able to hook up your interface to more than one pc. Go firewire, you wont be disappointed. The most awesome part is that you can transfer power from the pc.
Lee Rosario
Tuesday January 10, 2006

my apologies on the previous numbers, I got so caught up on the clock tagent I got my numbers all wrong.

:)

Cheers
Lee Rosario, Orlando, USA
Tuesday January 10, 2006

I think when considering firewire and USB, one thing is overlooked: The need for good clock.

*Especially* with interfaces such as the 002, mbox 2, M-audio or whatever other marketing epidemic creations are out there.

Some say firewire is a more stable approach to audio than "plug and prey", but also with this technology in its infancy, you bring about other problems as well. A "not so perfect" quality to your audio being one of those factors.

Furthermore, the problem escalates when tracking at higher resolution and sample rates. So if the trend of "I want higher sample rates" keeps up for home users, and clock hasn't been addressed, then your in for alot of subpar home recordings.

So to think: cramming 1000 or 2000+ kbps audio through a 800mbps line will create "good audio". The numbers don't add up to me.

PCI still seems to have it's lead for the moment.
Faders of the Lost Ark, London, Canada
Monday December 12, 2005

Even if the USB pipeline can transfer data as fast or faster than Firewire, there are other variables involved that make firewire the superior pipeline for audio.

One end of a USB cable has to be a 'dumb' device, and the other end has to be some kind of device to control it.

That is not the case with firewire which is a peer to peer pipeline.

For example... using firewire, 2 computers can be directly networked together.

With USB, your computer will be talking to something that has no virtual brains of its own - like a mouse/harddrive/Network adapter..

Also, FireWire 1394b is rumoured to transfer data at up to 1600 Mbps when using fiber optic connections instead of copper.
Donald Mohr, Boston, USA
Tuesday November 29, 2005

I read this and just went, "Yeah....I thought that was obvious."

I use firewire. Why? Because I am stuck with a g4 Aluminum Powerbook until I can afford a quad core. PCI has ALWAYS been faster.
kenny, austin, usa
Monday November 28, 2005

I think the USB 2.0 implementation on laptops should be getting people sued. If you download a program called HDtac you can run a speed test against your external and internal drives. On 3 laptops the usb 2.0 never exceeded 12-18 Mbps. The firewire consistently topped 40 mbps. My desktop's usb 2.0 crossed 25 Mbps. If you go buy a PCMCIA usb 2.0 card you will still only get 12 meg a second USB 1.1 rates. How to tell if you have the USB2.0 look in device manager under Usb devices. You will see 1 entry called standard enhanced USB this is USB 2.0. You can experiment buy plugging a drive into a port and turning off the Standard USB 2.0 in device MNGR (right click and select disable) You will soon notice that usually there is only 1 usb 2.0 and 2 usb 1.1 no matter what the specs say. HMMMMMM!!
Alex, Lancaster, UK
Monday November 28, 2005

Nikola: "So,what makes the FW PCI card slower than the audio PCI card?"

The fact that with a Firewire PCI card you have to deal with an extra layer, dealing with the firewire standard,

(Signal)->(Firewire)->(Computer)

Because of course Firewire has to work with all things firewire, so cannot be specialised.

Whereas a direct PCI interface talks directly to the compuetr, it's specialised for its purpose so it doesn't need that extra layer.

Capiche?
Nikola, Senta, Yugoslavia
Monday November 28, 2005

Well,I read the article about the bus drives USBs FireWire and I noticed that there is an unsolved riddle.I can't say that I deagree but I really don't understand the difference between the FW PCI card and a PCI AD=DA card when the data transfer is in spotlight.Why is the simple AD=DA card faster? As I know,these cards have the I/O through what they're streaming the audio(digital)signal or digital data.Also,the FW interface is an PCI card that goes right in the PCI slot,that creates a link between the HARDWARE(mixer or...) and the Computer(HardDisc),like a bus.So,what makes the FW PCI card slower than the audio PCI card?

Best Regards,Nikola
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