usb-microphone-vs-audio-interface

Should you buy a USB or XLR microphone? (With Sound Test)

USB microphones are really popular these days, especially when everyone seems to be a creator.

Whether you create content or run live streams, you create a better experience for your listeners when you sound better. I don’t understand people who say they want to do good for their audience, yet proceed to annoy their audience with bad audio, using a cheap microphone.

But whether you should go out and buy a USB microphone really depends on what you’re using it for.

Some common uses:

  • Video calls on Zoom.
  • Livestreaming.
  • Creating video content & you need better sound.
  • Recording podcasts and voice-overs.
  • Recording vocals and instruments.

In this post, I’ll explain when to buy a USB microphone and tell you which ones are my favorite. You can also listen to the sound comparison between a few budget USB microphones in the videos below. OK, let’s start.

USB Microphone vs Audio Interface

I assume you record audio into a computer. (Unless you’re some kind of hipster, and still record on tape.)

An audio interface or USB microphone, enables us to record analog sound and turn them into digital sound on our computer.

A common dilemma I see many people have is choosing between buying an audio interface + XLR microphone setup versus just a USB microphone. Have that dilemma too? Let me help you clear it, once and for all.

When to buy an audio interface.

Think of an audio interface as a sound card. Audio interfaces are built to connect to your computer via USB, Thunderbolt, Firewire, and even PCI connections. Then you’ll need an XLR microphone that you’ll connect to the audio interface.

My review video below shows how to use a typical audio interface:

Here’s the thing. Choosing the audio interface setup means having to spend more money. That’s because audio interfaces and XLR microphones are sold separately. Also, you probably want to avoid buying studio recording bundles (the microphones included in bundles are usually not that great.)

recording-studio-bundles-focusrite

A typical recording bundle, Scarlett 2i2 by Focusrite

I would buy an audio interface for its versatility. Instead of only recording voice, I could line in instruments like guitars or keyboards and record them too. Audio interfaces also have better monitoring capabilities and lower latencies, so that’s a plus.

Let me summarise the pros and cons of choosing to go for the audio interface + XLR microphone setup.

Pros:

  • Better sound quality. (Granted you buy a high-quality XLR microphone.)
  • More recording flexibility.
  • Better future-proofing.

Cons:

  • You’ll spend more money, upfront.
  • Setting up can be confusing for newbies.

When to buy a USB microphone.

The biggest advantage of using a USB microphone is its simplicity. USB microphones don’t need a pre-amp. It’s already built into the mic. You just connect the USB mic to your computer and start recording.

Watch me connect and record with the Mackie EM-USB microphone below: 

Since it’s mono, USB microphones also work more seamlessly with video call software – like Zoom or Google Meet.

On the other hand, audio interfaces usually have 2 or more inputs. Because most video call software usually only accepts mono (single channel), using an audio interface, sometimes you end up only being able to send the left or right channel. (Which means your audience will be enjoying your voice on one side of his headphones/speaker.)

I like USB microphones for their simplicity when recording podcasts, voice-overs, or going on video calls/live streams. However, I wouldn’t choose a USB microphone for any serious studio work, especially if I’m recording vocals or instruments.

Summarizing the pros and cons of choosing a USB microphone:

Pros: 

  • Simplicity. Plug and play.
  • Cheaper than buying an audio interface setup.
  • Works seamlessly with most general video call & streaming software.

Cons

  • Your USB cable run length is limited – usually 2-3m at most.
  • Wouldn’t recommend for music recording.
  • No expansion. You’re stuck with a single mic input.

How to choose a good USB microphone.

There are tons of USB microphones to choose from. Here’s how to choose a good USB microphone.

Microphone type.

Most USB microphones are condenser microphones. Compared to dynamic microphones, condenser microphones give you that distinctive warmth, radio-DJ type of sound, which makes it great for voice recordings.

The thing about condenser microphones is that they’re super sensitive. Besides your voice, it’ll pick up the sound of your AC blowing and the sound of your dog scratching itself nearby. Unless you have a fairly sound-treated and quiet room, recording on a condenser microphone can be tricky.

Dynamic USB microphones, like the Audio-Technica AT2005USB or Shure MV7 USB Podcast Microphone on the other hand, are less sensitive, making them a great choice for certain recording situations – such as a podcast recording with 3-4 guests in the same room (so that sound doesn’t leak into other microphones.)

With microphones, you get what you pay for. Don’t be too cheap when it comes to buying one.

Direct-monitoring.

A very important function in USB microphones is direct monitoring. Direct monitoring, means monitoring the “direct” undelayed signal input from your microphone, straight into your headphones. This is important if you do any audio-dubbing or vocal recording work, where your recording needs to be in sync.

USB microphones that don’t offer direct monitoring rely on input monitoring – which is when your live signal goes into your computer, gets processed, and then sent back to your headphones. Now, the problem is all that processing and analog to digital conversion causes delay. You’ll typically hear the signal a few milliseconds late.

Bit-rate and sample rate.

To understand bit-rate and sample rate, here’s a crash course on how microphones work: When you speak into a microphone, the sound waves cause the mic diaphragm to move back and forth in the microphone. The diaphragm is connected to a magnet, which then creates an electric signal that matches the sound you created.

A USB microphone goes one step further, converting that analog electric signal into a digital signal on your computer.

Now, a digital signal is represented by bit rate and sample rate. I won’t get too deep into the subject of bit rate and sample rate in this post, but generally, the higher your bit rate and sample rate your recording is, the higher quality of audio it will be – at the cost of having a bigger file.

Although most people cannot hear the difference between a 16bit/44.1kHz and 24bit/48kHz recording, I think it’s a good practice to always record at a higher bit rate and sample rate, whenever possible. This is useful during editing, as an audio file with a higher bit rate has more information, and will be able to go through more processing without losing quality.

You’ll find mid-end USB microphones like the Samson Satellite records up to 24-bit/96kHz – although recording at 24-bit/48kHz would be enough.

Recommended USB Microphones

Here is a list of USB microphones that I’ve used and would recommend. Keep in mind, that the ‘best USB microphone’ for me could be different for you. Maybe you value form factor or brand over price. I’ll briefly explain why I think some of these USB microphones are great buys.

Below USD50

  • Fifine K669B – I’m skeptical about USB condenser microphones that cost under USD50. How many good components can it be built with, given that ridiculously low price? But having tested the Fifine K669B, I changed my mind. The microphone sounded like a condenser microphone alright, and would be great for basic voice-overs. I just didn’t really like that the USB cable is soldered permanently to the microphone.
  • Blue Snowball iCE – The Blue Snowball iCE is the smaller brother of the popular Blue Snowball. What’s the difference? Well, the Snowball has an extra mic capsule built in which allows for more pick-up patterns (cardioid, omnidirectional & cardioid with pad). With most voice recordings though, you’re good with a cardioid pickup pattern, so don’t pay for features you won’t use! Both Snowballs, however, record up to 44.1 kHz/16 bit only. And no direct monitoring here.

Below USD100

  • Samson Satellite – Not the best-looking microphone but great for value. Though the built quality is a lot of plastic, the sound quality is great. You could probably even get away with recording some instruments on this microphone. Direct monitoring ready, 3 pickup patterns, and even records up to 96kHz/24bit.
  • Mackie EleMent Series (EM-USB) – A solid USB microphone that looks and feels great, for below USD100. The EM-USB comes with really convenient features, from a built-in gain knob and a headphone output with mute control. Sound-wise it’s clearly better defined from microphones under USD50, as you can hear in my review below.

Below USD150

  • Rode NT-USB-Mini – As an owner of a few Rode products, I’d say they make really good microphones. All Rode’s manufacturing is done in Australia, and you can really feel the difference in build quality. The Rode NT-USB Mini sounds amazing for voice-overs, gaming, and podcasting. A few more plus points to go for this mic are the in-built digital signal processing and the 360° mic clip that it comes with.
  • Audio-Technica AT2020USB – This is the USB variant of the popular AT2020 condenser microphone that many home studio owners start out with. Great for voice-overs, podcasting, and even instrument recordings. Honestly, most people cannot hear the difference in the sound quality between the AT2020 and microphones which cost a thousand more.

USD150 and above

Wow, so against my advice, you are ready to splurge on a USB microphone? Alright, here goes:

  • Shure MV7 USB Podcast Microphone – This is inspired after the ever-popular SM7B microphone, used by artists like Michael Jackson. The MV7 is a USB/XLR dynamic microphone, which is great for non-treated rooms. Built with features like auto-leveling and touch controls for gain, monitoring volume, headphone mix, and mic muting – this is the perfect microphone to use for serious podcasting and voice-over work.
  • Rode NT-USB – This is one of the best-sounding USB condenser microphones I’ve heard. Solid build, great frequency range, direct-monitoring ready, and complete with an included pop filter. The NT-USB has the close sound characteristics of the Rode NT1-A studio condenser microphone. If you have the budget for a premium USB microphone, you won’t go wrong with the NT-USB. Check out it’s sound in the video below

Final thoughts.

So, should you buy a USB microphone or go for an audio interface + XLR microphone setup? I like to choose the audio interface route, as that gives me more options. However, the truth is it depends on your nature of work and your use of the microphone.

Otherwise, pick a microphone that you can afford and learn how to use it.

What is your favorite setup? Leave your comment below and discuss it with me.

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