Native Instruments, the hardware company? Following software/hardware products with integrated audio features, including Guitar Rig and Kore, NI is now getting into the absurdly crowded audio interface field with the Audio Kontrol 1.

Fortunately, the inclusion of a dedicated, switchable headphone out, giant controller knob, and low-latency drivers are enough to escape my Audio Interface Inbox of Doom. That’s the place I put press releases on boring, me-too audio interfaces, like the three dozen useless audio interfaces introduced at NAMM. It’s also our last line of defense before we get sucked into a dystopic future where the only audio and music gear is USB audio interfaces and crappy 25-key USB keyboards “perfect for DJs.” Before you think this interface fits into that category, though, here’s a preview suggesting it should be on your “worth consideration” list. (Just looking at the slick exterior should suggest this could be worth picking up.)

The good: Low-latency USB 2.0 drivers for Windows and Mac with a promised 4 ms latency (impressive), a giant knob on the top you can assign to control whatever you like, bundled software (Guitar Combos, Xpress Keyboards, and Traktor 3 LE — a decent lineup), and high-quality converters from Cirrus Logic with high-res 192/24 support. Includes an assignable headphone output, perfect for cueing (with source switching onboard, which is especially nice). Contrary to reader comments, includes MIDI in and out.

The not-as-good: Only 4 audio outs, so you can’t do surround. The deal-killer for me: no digital I/O. (As noted in comments, competitively-priced interfaces from PreSonus and Focusrite include the same dedicated headphone out features, but add digital I/O and surround-capable outputs, all for the same price.)

First take: Yeah, that giant knob on the top looks a little silly, but I’m glad to have something useful to control on my interface rather than have it sit onstage/in-studio like a paperweight. Being able to easily switch the headphone output for cueing is also a major bonus, not only for NI’s Traktor but for software like Ableton Live. Native says this is “for DJs,” but for anyone who needs to be able to monitor a separate mix through headphones, for recording, cueing, live electronic music in Ableton, click tracks, etc., this is essential. That’s a substantially larger and more interesting group than DJs alone, and now that a handful of audio interfaces have this feature, I wouldn’t buy any audio interface that lacks it.

And at US$299, it’ll be a good buy for someone. Bonus points: unlike most of its competitors, it’s not ugly. In fact, I have to say, this is the first audio interface design I’ve seen that actually looks intelligent, attractive, and easy to use. Simplifying the physical layout isn’t just about making something aesthetically pleasing; it makes it easier to use the onboard controls. So, NI, well done, and I look forward to testing the shipping product.

It might be worth spending a little more, though, for something with digital I/O on it (if you need that) or interfaces like Focusrite’s Saffire with onboard DSP, particularly if you’re playing live and trying to conserve CPU resources. I’ve got a Saffire on its way for just that reason, and will post a review.

And as noted in comments, while the large knob is intriguing, a lot of users are likely to turn to a competitive interface like the Saffire LE (without the extra I/O and DSP of the full Saffire), or the PreSonus Firebox, which offer more features at the same price, albeit in a more homely case. It ultimately comes down to how much you care about the design of the case, and whether you need the additional I/O or not. (Also, given this is the “Kontrol 1”, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the additional I/O show up on a sequel — Kontrol 2, perhaps?)

Native Instruments Audio Kontrol 1