Current testing methodology is v1.2
December 5, 2017
7 x 3 x 5 in
I went down the rabbit hole of microphones and audio interfaces about a couple of years back when I started to get into streaming. And as it was with the start of my headphone journey so many years ago, there was a lot to see and a lot to learn.
After a couple of months or so of intense research and several back-and-forths with music stores in my area, I settled on the RODE AI-1, a $130 single-input interface that seemed to fit what I needed on paper.
It would turn out to be the best purchase for the streaming setup that grew around it and in this review, I’ll go through why I bought it and why it might work for you too.
An honest-to-goodness audio interface that does exactly what it says on the box
As Rode’s first attempt at an audio interface, the aptly-named AI-1 meets the bare minimum of what an audio interface is meant to do: it has an input for a microphone or instrument and outputs for headphones or monitor speakers. No matter which way you look at it, the AI-1’s package is as spartan as it gets.
But what the AI-1 does do, it does well — arguably better than the immediate competition. With a headphone output that’s clean and powerful enough for all but the absolute top-end of the audiophile space, similarly solid inputs, and a diminutive form factor, it’s a black box that’ll be more than enough to start your streaming journey with — at least, until you upgrade to a Rodecaster.
- Inputs: 1x Neutrik XLR + 1/4″ combo
- Outputs: 2x speaker out (1/4″), 1x headphone out (1/4″)
- Bit Depth: 16-bit, 24-bit
- Sample Rate: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz
- USB Connector: USB-C
What’s in the Box?
- RODE AI-1 Audio Interface
- USB-C to USB-A cable
Stuff I like
- Simple, zero-frills operation
- Beefy headphone output
- Super compact frame
Stuff I like less
- Analog knobs aren’t the best for long-term durability
- The layout is pretty smushed together
- Not a lot of bundled software
A Bit of Background
Based in Australia, RØDE Microphones is one of the most notable pro audio names outside the usual staples of Sennheiser, Shure, and Audio-Technica.
Although their bread and butter have always been microphones for studio recording and filmmaking, they weren’t one to miss out on the boom of podcasting and amateur content creation, releasing the Podcaster and VideoMic to critical acclaim and widespread success.
Over the last few years, they’ve quickly expanded their product catalog to cover every key part of a typical recording setup. This includes mic stands, shock mounts, cabling, headphones, and of course, audio interfaces.
Released in 2017, the AI-1 is Rode’s very apt name for its first attempt at an audio interface. With a single input and two output options, it seems to have been made as a response to the Focusrite Scarlett Solo and similarly barely passes the bar for what counts as an audio interface.
Like most audio interfaces of its class, the Rode AI-1 doesn’t come in particularly fancy packaging. The box is simple and laden with informational print all over, and not much is stored inside aside from the interface itself and the USB-C power and data cable.
For better or for worse, there are no surprises here.
Like the Scarlett Solo it competes against, the Rode AI-1 is built quite nicely. Its all-aluminum frame both feels and is quite thick and seems to be cast as a single piece — a bit overkill but impressive for equipment at this price.
The weight of the AI-1’s housing, paired with its small footprint and rubberized bottom panel, makes the interface feel quite dense, which helps keep it from sliding around on your desk as you record.
Its black matte finish is understated to the eye and feels nice to the hand, but it tends to catch dust over time. I had to put in a bit more effort to clean this for the review — an anodized or gloss finish would’ve made cleaning as trivial as a wipe across the top.
Even in the “interactive” bits of the AI-1, there isn’t a lot to see and be impressed by. The interface cuts down on clutter by condensing the physical controls to two knobs that each can be pressed down to toggle extra functions.
The input knob can be pressed down to turn on phantom power, while the output knob can be pressed to turn on direct monitoring, which lets you hear the mic input directly with minimal latency.
Either way, the minimal use of markings and design details on the Rode AI-1 is its own interesting aesthetic.
As someone who already has a fully featured DAW and a dozen other pieces of painfully expensive VSTs and plugins, Rode bundling in a copy of Ableton Live 10 Lite isn’t really useful to me.
I do appreciate Rode going with Team Ableton over something like FL Studio for this, but the impact is dulled a bit after I did a couple of quick searches and found out all of the Rode AI-1’s contemporaries also come bundled with Live Lite.
That said, Ableton Live Lite is the only piece of software you get with the Rode AI-1, which is a few steps back from other audio interfaces that would at least come with extra third-party effects plugins and virtual instruments to get you started.
Rode’s minimal software approach also extends to the AI-1 itself. Unlike higher-end interfaces like a GoXLR or Rode’s own Rodecaster Pro, the AI-1 only needs standard USB drivers to get working.
Sure, you could download the Rode Central utility to update the AI-1’s firmware (which does improve mic gain performance with version 1.3.1) but as far as getting things to work, even this isn’t really needed.
By all accounts, it’s a convenient plug-and-play experience.
The Rode AI-1 features a single Neutrik combo jack that lets you plug in either an XLR mic or a 1/4″ guitar cable, but not two at the same time — a detail that gives a point to the Scarlett Solo, which has separate connectors. If you need to get mic and guitar input at the same time, this will be a deal breaker.
In my case, this wasn’t a problem as I neither had nor knew how to play guitar. Naturally, this also means that I don’t really have the means to properly test the AI-1’s guitar input, so we’ll leave it at that.
The mic input, meanwhile, worked perfectly fine for my setup. The gain knob was smooth and powered a Rode PodMic dynamic mic and Boya BM-6040 shotgun condenser mic equally well with practically no distortion with the gain set at the 10 o’clock position. 48V phantom power is easily turned on and off by pressing the mic gain knob.
For the live streams and voice recording I do, mic input on the AI-1 worked about as well as I could ask for — although I can’t say I’m an expert on the subject.
I do, however, have a bit more experience with audio output — and it’s because of the Rode AI-1’s headphone output that I bought the thing in the first place.
As is often the case with audio interfaces, there’s very little information about what components are used on the AI-1. While it would’ve been nice to get direct info on this from Rode themselves, I’m sure most users probably don’t care.
Thankfully, we did find from a teardown video by EEV Blog that the AI-1 is equipped with a Nuvoton NAU88L25 DAC chip and a Nisshinbo NJM4580 op-amp.
While some of the more persnickety parts of the audiophile community will balk at the DAC chip and how it isn’t something from ESS or Cirrus Logic, the Nuvoton chip is quite transparent throughout the audible frequency range with little distortion (that I can hear, anyway).
That amp chip, however, is especially noteworthy to me since it allows the AI-1 to pump out a whopping 220 mW into 32 ohms and 30 mW into 300 ohms — more than enough to drive even the mighty Sennheiser HD800.
Having that much power on tap is super convenient for a headphone reviewer like me since I can have both my audio input and output handled by a single box without worrying about a headphone being too quiet.
At its retail price of $130, the Rode AI-1 is already a pretty solid deal from a hardware standpoint.
It’s a powerful but clean-sounding little box that can accommodate just about any headphone and microphone you throw at it without the slightest complaint. With housing that’s small and tough as nails, it’s also quite easy to stuff in a bag if you’re the traveling musician type.
Its bundled software (or lack thereof) is probably the only thing I can think of that holds it back in terms of value.
If you’re a beginner music producer with absolutely no software before this, you might find Analog Lab on the Arturia Minifuse or Addictive Drums and Addictive Keys on the Focusrite Scarlett Solo to be a better deal.
At its core, an audio interface is a box that lets you get great-sounding audio into and out of your computer — or at the very least, better than the headphone and microphone jacks on your PC or laptop.
With amateur music production and content creation being the massive market that it is now, software bundles and other value adds are more useful to more people.
But not everyone needs a bunch of extra software they either won’t or can’t use. Not everyone needs fancy audio monitoring displays on an audio interface that’ll be placed far outside the line of sight on the streaming setup.
Some people just need something that works. And at least from my experience, the Rode AI-1 works, and it works very well.
This post was last updated on 2023-11-29 / Some images from Amazon Product API & some links may be affiliate links which may earn us a commission from purchases.