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The Best USB Microphone Today

By Lauren Dragan, The Wirecutter

If you are looking to buy a USB microphone, the Yeti by Blue is what I’d recommend. I'm basing this on extensive research that includes professional and retailer reviews, interviews with industry professionals, tests that involved a blind listening panel, and my years of experience in audio engineering and voice acting.

If you are looking to buy a USB microphone, the Yeti by Blue is what I’d recommend. I'm basing this on extensive research that includes professional and retailer reviews, interviews with industry professionals, tests that involved a blind listening panel, and my years of experience in audio engineering and voice acting. The Yeti is the best buy for the money--it has a solid build quality, a rounded mellow sound, and features that many more expensive mics lack. At under $100, it's a steal.

Photo credit: Flickr user jmangino

Why Buy a USB Microphone?

USB microphones are made for easy, plug-and-play use. They’re fantastic for podcasters, musicians looking to share their work online, voice actors, music/audio students, and people who just want something better than the microphone built into their laptop.

What to Look For in a USB Microphone?

A good USB mic will capture high quality sound at an affordable price and will eliminate the need for a secondary element (called an analog-to-digital or A/D converter) between the mic and your computer. Aside from recording sound, we also looked for mics that had zero-latency headphone inputs and an in-mic gain control. You can read more on why those are important and how they factored in the Yeti winning below.

How Did We Choose a Winner?

As with all Wirecutter research, the process began with reading reviews and compiling lists. First: there were dozens of professional reviews on some mics, few on others. Ones with favorable reviews were investigated further. Next, I checked out Amazon, Guitar Center, Musician’s Friend, and Sweetwater; top reviewed items made the list. Then, I interviewed recording professionals. This was a bit tricky, as many engineers have little to no experience with USB mics, using only the expensive microphones in their studio setups. Included in my professional interviews were Bill Holmes (Compost Productions, McCoy Productions‘s studio in Los Angeles, and The Voice Over Doctor) and Lynnanne Zager, a successful longtime voice actor and instructor. Because there were no direct comparison USB mic tests available to review, we took the process even further.

I had a panel of 5 audio professionals (including myself) do a blind listening of all the recordings and rank them 1-10.

From the narrowed down list, I brought in the top ten microphones to test. (More on the testing process is below.) After the tests were completed, I had a panel of 5 audio professionals (including myself) do a blind listening of all the recordings and rank them 1-10. Included in the panel: Brent Butterworth, a well respected audio reviewer for Sound + Vision, CNET, and many other magazines and sites; Geoff Morrison, freelance writer for Forbes, CNET, Sound + Vision, and the Wirecutter; Phil Metzler, keyboardist and vocalist in the band Just Off Turner; and John Higgins, professional pianist, guitarist, and educator in both vocal music and audio production at the prestigious Windward School in Los Angeles. As for me, I have a bachelors in vocal music performance and audio production fromIthaca College, which led me to working in broadcast radio as both an on-air talent and producer, then becoming a professional voice actor and audio tech writer/consultant for Home Entertainment, Home Theater, and Sound + Vision as well as the Wirecutter.

After taking into detailed account the microphones’ ranking, features and price, I came up with a winner.

How Were The Microphones Tested?

I ran tests of these microphones with consumers in mind. In doing so, I wanted the recordings to be as raw as possible with as little interference on my part as possible. So I tested the mics in two environments: first at McCoy Productions, who graciously lent me studio time to let you hear the mics at their best; then, I took the mics to a home office environment. I wanted as level a playing field as possible, so I used the exact same mic placement for each mic and read the same excerpt. This way a direct A/B comparison could be made. (For more details on the process, read the sidebar.) After the recordings were complete, I edited the audio files into CD quality .aiff files and asked my panel to listen to them with nothing to identify the microphone other than a letter A-J. They not only gave me a rank 1-10 for each microphone, but they also offered detailed notes on why they preferred the mics that they chose. But sound can be a matter of preference, so in a Wirecutter first, you can listen to our tests on SoundCloud and choose for yourself! Hear what our panelists heard here. Go through the playlist in succession or skip around at your leisure. Feel confident you’re making the right purchasing choice for you.

Why Did The Yeti Win?

Nothing is quite as frustrating as thinking you got a fantastic take, only to find out your “p”s were popping the entire time.

Quite simply: Features, sound quality and price.

Let’s start with features. There are two features that the Yeti has that I believe are necessary for any mic someone uses for podcasting or recording vocals. Firstly, zero-latency headphone input. Why is this important? Basically, it’s nice to hear what you are recording, while you are recording it. Nothing is quite as frustrating as thinking you got a fantastic take, only to find out your “p”s were popping the entire time. Secondly, if you want to sing or speak over another track, it’s nice to be able to hear yourself in the mix without any delay. When you plug your headphones directly into your computer, there is a slight delay that can be really infuriating if you are trying to match a beat.

Secondly, an in-mic gain control enables you to have more guidance over the volume of what is coming into the microphone. This is helpful if you are switching from a boisterous speaker to a soft-spoken one, or from a lullaby to an aria.

But aside from that, the Yeti also has a master volume control which mimics a headphone amp console in a professional recording studio, a mute button that comes in handy for live recordings (or if you want to listen to playback without mic input) and 4 pickup pattern choices including cardioid, stereo, omni and bidirectional. It also comes with its own table stand that can be removed should you want to put it on a traditional mic stand.

Sound quality is, of course, the most important aspect of any microphone. Our panel called the Yeti’s sound “rich”, and “rounded” with “decent presence.” It beat out all the mics in its price range, and several that were much more expensive. How much more expensive? To get a better USB microphone than the Yeti, you’d need to spend an additional $150. And there you have the price aspect. At just around $100, the Yeti is the perfect introductory microphone.

A Step Up

Overall, the microphone that got the most accolades from our listening panel was the Shure PG42. It was first place for three of our reviewers and in the top 2 for everyone. Our panel described it as “warm with good presence,” “clean” and “expensive sounding.” Personally, I found the process of working with it similar to some of the high-end shotgun microphones I’ve encountered when working in professional studios. For the extra cash, you not only get a more full and rich sound, but you also get some bells and whistles. Along with the zero-latency headphone jack and gain control that the Yeti has, it also offers a 15 dB pad switch (great for belters or amped instruments), a headphone volume control, a monitor mix control (so you can balance your voice with what is playing back), and a low-cut filter switch. It also comes included with a shock mount and a carrying case, which is fantastic for location recording. If you are looking to record uncompressed, or want to monetize your recording, the Shure PG42 is worth the extra cash.

What Else Did We Test?

An honorable mention also goes to the MXL .009. Our panel liked the sound (Brent liked it best of all) but some found the sibilance a bit too harsh. As a bonus, it comes bundled with digital recording software, a case and a desktop stand. While it does have some great on-mic extras like the Shure, it is more expensive. Also when our panel got to finally see the microphones they had heard, some commented that the build quality of the chassis seemed cheaper. For example, the knobs have no level indicator, so you don’t know your settings. Yes, that can be fixed with a sharpie, but for just shy of $300, should it need to be?

Also good was the Yeti Pro. It’s nearly the same microphone as the Yeti. Same capsule, same features, same chassis (but black). So why is it nearly $150 more expensive? Two things: 1) XLR analog output. 2) A higher sampling rate (the Yeti has 48 kHz/16 bit while the Yeti Pro offers 192 kHz/24 bit). Are these worth it to you? If so, spend the extra cash. But we feel that someone who is looking for a USB microphone won’t need/want the XLR setup from this mic nor the extra sampling rate that is not able to be represented on CD, mp3s, streaming, etc.

In 4th place was the MXL Studio 24. Our panel found it similar in sound to the MXL .009, but the sound lacked depth when compared to its more expensive sister mic. It also comes with digital recording software, as well as a carrying case and stand. However, the only on-mic control is a gain knob and headphone jack with no master volume control. The lack of features and its price tag ($140) was enough to put it below the Yeti in our recommendations.

Also On Our Panel

Audio Technica AT2020: While John liked the sound, the rest of the panel found it to be merely okay. Perhaps it’s because at $140, the AT2020 lacks gain control. It also lacks headphone input. If you are recording a space or don’t need to listen to yourself while you record, the sound quality is decent enough. But the lack of features is enough for us to give this one a pass.

Apogee MiC: With its tiny size and iPad compatibility, the MiC has one foot in this category and one in another. It does have a gain control and a little LED indicator to tell you if you are overmodulating. And for mobile recording, it’s fantastic. It’s small enough that you can fit the MiC, included stand, and a cable in a briefcase or purse. That said, the recording quality is below our top picks, and at $200, you’re paying for size, not features. So unless you’re field recording all the time, it’s not worth the cost.

Blue Nessie: Although it has the same capsule as the Yeti, many of our panel found the sound to be lacking. Perhaps this is due to the lack of gain control. This mic is marketed as the “point-and-shoot” of the Blue Microphone family and rightfully so. It has a built-in EQ settings switch, shock mount and stand. But there’s the issue. By limiting the Nessie permanently to the stand, you restrict the usability. If it were less expensive than the Yeti, it might get mention as a “step down” option for beginners, but at the same price? Get the Yeti.

MXL Tempo: It’s inexpensive ($66), and it has a headphone jack, but no gain control. Our panel didn’t love the sound, finding it “flat.” We think the features and better sound quality are worth the extra $34 for our top choice.

Rode Podcaster: How did this mic get priced at $229? And how did it get 4-star reviews? Rode claims this end address mic has a “tight cardioid pattern” but the amount of noise that it picks up is unbelievable and unacceptable, especially from a company with as great a reputation as Rode. It sounded so terrible that I actually enlisted help from another engineer because I was convinced that there must be something wrong. No. That’s how the Podcaster sounds. Listen for yourself. Then buy something else.

The Pro Options (or Mega-Step-Up)

Want to play in the big leagues? In the voiceover world, the professional gold standard microphone is the Sennheiser 416 ($999). It’s a shotgun tube condenser mic used in most recording studios and dubbing stages. More and more pros are taking them on the road and using the CEnterance MicPort Pro to allow it to interface with their computer. It’s worth mentioning that the CEnterence MicPort Pro functions as a preamp and USB converter for any XLR microphone that you want to plug directly into your PC. It also has zero-latency monitoring and a headphone volume control. So if you already have a microphone that you want to connect to your digital recording software, this might be a good option for you. But at $150 plus the cost of accessories (and whatever mic you choose) it’s not a first microphone investment.

Okay, I Got My Mic. Anything Else? Time to Accessorize!

…you’ll probably want a microphone stand should you want to, well, stand up while recording.

While a lot of these mics come with a desk stand, you’ll probably want a microphone stand should you want to, well, stand up while recording. A boom stand enables you to get optimal mic placement and is adjustable for any height. It works for vocals, instruments and room sound. Look for one that has couplings at the neck as well as the boom. Buy one for $25 here.

Also of great importance is a pop filter. (Unless you get the Nessie; it has one built in.) Not only will a pop filter help to eliminate that annoying explosive sound that happens when you speak too close to a mic, it also protects delicate capsules from damage. While I’ve seen crafty types run a nylon stocking around a needlepoint hoop, for $15 you may as well purchase one with an adjustable arm and clamp. For people who are adjusting mic placement during a live recording, who live in an earthquake zone, or who (like me) have a bad habit of bumping the stand or table, a shock mount can be really useful. The Shure PG42 comes with one included, but for mics that don’t: this one by Samson is a good choice. It will work with the MXLs and the AT2020. For the Yetis with bigger chassis, you’ll want the Blue-branded mount.

Small Pricetag, Big Footprint

Tons of features, mellow sound quality, good adaptability, and a price that’s completely doable. Whether taking your podcast to the next level or laying down some tracks for your first LP, the Blue Yeti gets you the most bang for your buck.

Footnotes

1. When recording, I was exceptionally cautious to have the same proximity to the mic when recording in the home and office. (5 inches from mouth to mic. Yes, I used a ruler.) I have years of VO experience and am accustomed to a small hypercardiod shotgun pickup pattern, so I kept my head as still as possible when recording. If the microphone offered gain control, I used the gain to enhance the recording. If the mic offered several pickup patterns, I used the one best suited to voice. (Most were cardiod.) I recorded into Garage Band on a Macbook Pro with input levels set the same for each mic. Why Garage Band? Because it’s exceptionally commonly used. Most folks don’t have access to programs like ProTools (which, yes, I do have and could have used). And while some of the microphones did come with filtering or recording software, the use of software for one mic and not another would eliminate the equal playing field that I was trying to create across the board. I wanted to have as much be exactly the same for the mics as possible. I recorded each mic separately rather than simultaneously because proximity effect could cause differences in sound quality.

What I did not do: filter the audio in any way, use pop filters, compress the audio beyond CD quality, or run them through a mixing board (the Yeti Pro offers an XLR out). Why? Because at the end of the day, a good engineer can make nearly any clean file sound decent with the right amount of compression and post-production. But most folks buying a home USB microphone may not have access to higher end recording software or knowledge of plug-ins, compressors, limiters, or filters. My goal was to choose a microphone that sounded great right out of the box with no or as little interference as possible.

2. I ran a PC tower with three fans and an air conditioning unit in the room next door to create basic room/office noise that home users would encounter. The office has a few bookshelves and windows, but no wall mounted sound baffling.

3. A word on sampling rate. While I am among those that believe that there is something real to super-audible psychoacoustics, I don’t think that the average consumer buying a USB microphone would care/want to spend the extra money to recreate something that they “can’t hear.” Especially when the digital recording medium can’t represent it. Do I find the addition of the XLR input handy? Yes. But I also realize that to use that output, the consumer would also require a mixing board or Digital Audio Workstation with XLR inputs. And to me, that defeats the purpose of this article. Also, once we get into XLR-out mics, a new category of microphones is opened, and then the Yeti would need to be compared to other condenser microphones in its price range. But that, I feel, is a topic for another article. To sum, if you want this feature, go for it!

4. There are other A/D USB interfaces out there, for example the Shure X2U, the MXL MICMATECand the Blue Icicle, but the CEnterance is the only one with the higher 96kHz/24bit sampling rate; key if you’re recording for a feature film.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on August 4, 2013 and is republished here with permission.