In the world of external sound cards, there are loads of choices and they run the gamut of price from bargain-basement to top-shelf studio systems. But somewhere firmly in the middle of these is the $500 Focusrite Forte. I’ve been using the Forte for the past week, and it’s proven itself to not only be a highly-flexible, beautiful device, but it also provides positively stellar audio quality from a brand that I’ve known for ages.

Before we get into the specifics, let’s talk for a moment about the history of Focusrite. The company was founded in 1985, in England, by famed electronics engineer Rupert Neve. If you’re wondering where you’ve heard the Neve name recently, chances are that you’ve become familiar with the essential documentary from Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Sound City. Neve created a legendary recording console, the Neve 8078. Its capabilities are credited with being the secret to the sound behind bands such as Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine and Fleetwood Mac among others.

Neve8078@TheWayStudio The Focusrite Forte is a stunning USB sound card for the audiophile in all of us

Focusrite has spent the majority of its life inside of professional or prosumer recording setups, where its equipment has been heralded for years. Vintage Focusrite equipment, such as the company’s standout microphone preamp ISA 110, bring thousands of dollars in auctions and third-party sales to enthusiasts. Suffice it to say, the company knows a thing or two about making incredible audio, and it has brought that knowledge to the desktop with its newer products.

Unboxing the Forte, you’d be forgiven for drawing parallels between it and the stalwart of the Apple audio world, the Duet from Apogee. The two units are similar in both size and design, though Focusrite kindly includes outputs on the device itself instead of requiring a breakout cable like the Duet. Inside the box you’ll find the Forte itself, a power adapter (but it’s only required if you need phantom power, otherwise USB bus power works fine) and a breakout cable. Yes, there is a cable, which includes two XLR inputs and two TRS instrument inputs. But if you’re not running anything into the Forte, you’ll be able to keep it looking clean on your desktop without the breakout.

Forte Overview6 The Focusrite Forte is a stunning USB sound card for the audiophile in all of us

Using the Forte is fairly straightforward. Touch-sensitive buttons on the display allow you to control input and output levels, as well as offering the options to dim the outputs, mute them or gang them into a mono channel. But where the Forte steps ahead of the competition is in its ability to use the metal knob as a controller for your digital audio workstation of choice.

Tapping on the DAW button, you’re taken into DAW mode if you have one running. For my tests, I used Reaper. The stock choices on the Forte allow me to switch the turning of the knob between Zoom, Fast Forward/Rewind and Mouse control. Pressing the button, I have the choice of causing it to Play/Pause or initiate a Record command.

Forte DAW Control 730x270 The Focusrite Forte is a stunning USB sound card for the audiophile in all of us

But the software options aren’t just limited to the device itself. Focusrite’s desktop software, Forte Control, allows even more granular control of the headphone and speaker mixes, input devices and much more.

ForteControl 730x445 The Focusrite Forte is a stunning USB sound card for the audiophile in all of us

While all of this software magic is quite welcome, it would mean nothing if the Forte didn’t sound amazing. At $500, this isn’t a purchase that you’re going to take lightly, and that’s understandable. In my testing, I’ve been running the Forte through to a set of Dynaudio BM15A studio monitors, and a variety of headphones. I’ve chosen these speakers because I’ve run no fewer than 10 different audio devices to them over the years. In all of that time, the only thing that has even begun to compare is the Fireface 800 by RME, a $2,000 rack-mounted piece of overkill. As much as it pains me to say it, my beloved Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 sounds like a child’s cassette recorder compared to the Forte.

It’s not often that I run across a piece of audio equipment that I’ll be genuinely sad to send back to the company after a review. The Forte, however, is notably at the top of that very short list. Beautiful aesthetics, combined with amazing functionality and second-to-none audio quality have put the Forte into my number one spot for recommendations.

Focusrite has managed to create a device that doesn’t care whether you run it via a Mac or Windows machine, it has packed the thing with a stunning amount of power and it somehow did all of this while keeping the price almost $100 less than its closest competitor, while still offering more functionality. Combine all of these points and the Focusrite Forte is an absolute no-brainer, buy-on-sight audio interface for when you’re ready to get serious about sound.