Author: J. Hawthorne

Some professional recording engineers got bitter when cheap Chinese mics got good. Who could blame them? They spent a fortune on fancy mics from Neumann, Blue and AKG. Of course these microphones are still the cream of the crop but inexpensive offerings from companies like MXL came dangerously close. Models seemed hit or miss with MXL. However, the message was clear: you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to sound good.

Design and Electronics

The MXL 990 USB is the USB compatible version of the 990. It looks identical to its brother but has completely different electronics. Inside there is a little USB audio interface, allowing you to hook it up to any computer without hassling with mixers, preamps, etc.

Its design was kept clean instead of opting to integrate hardware dials and switches. Personally, I like to do my tweaking with software for two reasons. Firstly, a knob and a few switches don’t offer comprehensive control anyhow. Secondly, I like road-worthy gear. Flimsy knobs are the first thing to go missing or get damaged.

What You Get

If you manage to get the kit version, this mic comes in a pretty slick foam-padded case. I was expecting to find a shock mount inside as the non-USB 990 comes with a nice one. Unfortunately there is a USB cable in the place where the shock mount should be. Does anyone need yet another USB 2.0 cable? At least this will ensure you don’t forget it to the gig. Also inside the case is a mic stand adapter. You can also use the included desk tripod if you are a podcaster or plan on recording while sitting down.

Software Woes

In theory, drivers work with either Windows or Mac. This is the area where budget manufacturers like MXL fall down. Smaller companies seem to have trouble keeping up with changes in the software world. I didn’t have problems besides one mysterious crash in Windows 7, but I’ve heard reports that this mic doesn’t play nice with some computer setups.

MXL definitely needs to update their software installation instructions. At this point only XP and Leopard are covered, both of which are long in the tooth as far as operating systems go.

Sound Quality (and Noise) Report

According to MXL, the diaphragm is “6 micron 20mm gold-sputtered.” Most of this bit is over my head, but I can tell you that a 20mm diaphragm is a generous size for a USB microphone. Larger diaphragm mics produce a deeper, richer sound.

Sound quality was crisp and clear. A friend had a nice set of congas in our jam space so I just had to see how well the 990 would reproduce such sounds. Overall it did a pretty good job in stereo besides the fact one side was stronger than the other. MXL definitely needs to work on consistency.

MXL tends deliver pretty well in this department. However, another common theme is noise. Compared with similar mics in this price range I found the 990 USB noisier than it should be. I felt like I couldn’t get gain levels as high as I liked because I dreaded increasing the noise floor.

Review Verdict

The MXL 990 is a good USB mic, and a solid contender a few years ago. Currently there are more than a few better options so it is hard to recommend it. Both the Blue Yeti and Audio-Technica AT2020 are better microphones at a similar price.

I did like the sweet case for transport. However the fact they left out the shock mount is puzzling to say the least. What kills this mic for me is the crappy software. The last thing I want to do with a USB microphone is dink around with technical issues. It was supposed to be “Plug-and-Play”, remember?

The Samson CO1U is a staple in the podcaster’s arsenal. Since it’s been out for several years it has been thoroughly time-tested. Often experienced podcasters recommend it due to its reliable track record and performance. For many, this is the first USB microphone they’ve ever owned. There is an urge in technophiles like myself to always look to the latest, assuming it is the greatest. I’m admittedly late to the C01U party but felt the need to review it. Clearly, this mic is still relevant and will be for years to come.

This model looks like a condenser mic should. Visually it is almost identical to its brother, the CO1. The only difference is the CO1U has a silver grill instead of black, and of course it has a USB connector instead of analog XLR. Hard knobs and switches aren’t necessary due to downloadable SoftPre software, which allows you to set gain levels, cut lows, etc.

The differences are far greater on the inside. The engineers at Samson managed to squeeze a micro USB interface inside the CO1U.

Sampling rates range from 8 to 48 KHz at 16-bit resolution. This falls in line with the current generation of USB mics, with the exception of the Yeti Pro which does 24-bit recording.

Frequency Response is 20 – 18000 HZ. To test this range in the real world, I busted out the acoustic drum kit. It was able to capture the lowest thuds from the bass drum accurately, as well as the high-end sizzle from cymbals. The sound quality is natural rather than hyped, which is good news for purists and tweakers alike. The unique bass roll off control comes in handy for overly boomy-sounding voices or instruments. Beginners or podcasters that want quick, effective solutions should be using this often.

Sensitively is great, maybe a little too good if you have loud fans in your computer or live near an airport. Although this is a cardioid pattern mic, it has a tendency to pick up more than expected.

Flexibility is a weakness for the C01U. Unlike competing mics from Blue, it has a cardioid pattern only. If you plan on doing traditional voiceover work or recording lead vocals, this shouldn’t concern you much. Experimental types that want to capture the ambiance in the room or record an interview with only one mic need to look at the Yeti or Snowball instead.

If you don’t have recording software and don’t feeling like forking over a wad of cash, you’re in luck. The CO1U offers the advantage of free bundled software: Cakewalk Sonar LE. Unfortunately this benefits Windows users only. The software for the CO1U is Mac-friendly, but Sonar LE is not. If you’re totally new to podcasting or recording, Sonar is one of the better applications to learn.

Review Verdict

Samson’s CO1U came out at a time when there were few USB mics to choose from. Since then, Blue and Audio-Technica have come on the scene with some great offerings. I can definitely see why proud owners of this mic recommend it to friends, but I feel there are better options.

For those buying today, either a Blue Yeti or Audio-Technica AT2020 are the best moderately-priced USB mics going. You may want to grab the CO1U regardless, if the price is right; especially if you want to get your hands on Sonar LE software for free.

Technically the Apogee ONE can’t be thought of as a USB microphone; it isn’t a USB interface either. It is a hybrid of both.

A handful of years ago Apogee released an innovative, Mac-only interface called the Duet. It stood out due to its sleek form factor as well as its minimalist approach. Oh yeah, and it sounds amazing. For many singer-songwriter types, two channels are adequate for producing demo recordings and laying down overdub tracks. In my own travels, I found there was less to get in the way. There was no reason for me to lug around a rackmount unit with 16 channels when so much of the recording process requires only one or two sound sources. It added needless complication, making something I love less fun. In contrast, the Duet was super simple to use.

With ONE, Apogee brings the minimalism of Duet to a new extreme. This time there is one channel instead of two. Apogee hasn’t merely taken away however; ONE includes a built-in condenser microphone. Additionally you can connect either an unbalanced ¼” instrument line from your guitar or keyboard. If you want to make use of an external mic, there is a balanced XLR input.

So why is there a need for an interface with one channel and a built in mic? There are three reasons: convenience, simplicity and portability.

Starting with convenience, every second seems like an eternity when you have a great musical idea you wish to capture. This makes ONE a good sketchpad for songwriters. Portable digital recorders like the Zoom H4n are very useful for applications like this as well, but you’re better off with the Apogee if you have a laptop nearby. Portable recorders have really small displays and cryptic software.

Simplicity is off the charts. Like the Duet, ONE has a big honking knob similar in feel to the one on your stereo receiver. It of course controls volume plus more than you might imagine when it interacts with Maestro software. Press it to toggle between controlling mic/instrument gain level and headphone volume. Press and hold the knob for one second to enable mute; do the same to disable mute.

The portability factor is pretty self-evident. An outboard microphone isn’t necessary for offsite recording sessions. All you need to pack is your laptop, ONE and a USB cable. Setup is substantially quicker as well.

Now for the big question: how does it sound? Apogee has a bullet-proof reputation for sound quality. Even the bargain-priced Duet has sound comparable to their upper-end products like Ensemble. For this reason I went in expecting a lot from ONE. I wasn’t disappointed. With an external M-Audio Sputnik microphone attached, ONE sounded very similar to the tried and true Duet. The lows were pronounced and the highs in the speech were silky smooth. Of course, using a spectacular microphone helped quite a bit.

Next was a test to appraise the real worthiness of ONE. The internal microphone is of course crucial. Otherwise, you’d be just as well off with a small USB interface minus the mic. To produce a bed track, I plugged my Larrivee acoustic/electric guitar into the device and recorded a ditty of mine. Next, I mounted the ONE on a stand, set the levels, and recorded my vocals using the internal mic. The sound was of a fairly bright character as I anticipated; similar to the tone of a small-diaphram condenser microphone. The lows were evident as well so getting a smooth sound wasn’t tough at all with a little EQ magic. Overall, it is a highly usable entry-level mic. Once you outgrow it for critical applications, you can of course add an external large-diaphram condenser later.

I used GarageBand and a fair bit of Logic Pro during my tests. Apogee has designed ONE to work flawlessly with either application. This is an advantage of the ONE being a Mac-only device. I’d rather have a device that works really well on one platform rather than one that has clunky cross-platform software.

Review Verdict

This is one of those rare products that I had a tough time criticising. The internal microphone can’t compare with a large-diaphragm condenser mic, but anyone expecting it to would be crazy. ONE gives you a very solid small-diaphram microphone sound. For the times you need a bigger sound, plug in an external mic and wail away.

The audio interface portion is based on the excellent Duet, so Apogee has left little to chance. At times I missed the extra channel of the Duet because I couldn’t record vocals and a scratch guitar track at once. Really, it depends on your needs. For overdubs on the fly, ONE is godsend.

The Go Mic is part of a new breed of micro USB microphones that clip on the top of notebooks. It’s Samson’s answer to Blue’s Snowflake that was released before it.

An appealing aspect of this mic is it takes an already convenient concept: USB connectivity and combines it with ultimate portability and a utilitarian mounting scheme. It borrows from webcam model, which are now commonly built into laptops.

Positioned just above the monitor, the device is right in the sweet spot for VOIP calls, voice overs and podcasting. Alternatively you can attach the microphone stand adapter and get a more traditional setup going.

Web cams are notorious for poor quality in comparison to full-sized video cameras. The difference in quality between the Go Mic and a larger USB mics isn’t as pronounced. Speech is clear with a surprisingly full-bodied resonance. At the very least it blows away the internal mic in your Macbook Pro and the chintzy voice input on your Plantronics-style headset.

There are two switchable modes: cardioid and omni polar patterns. Cardioid grabs audio from directly in front of the mic and rejects sound from behind. Omni mode opens up full 360 degree recording so everything in the room can be heard. The possibility of the omni pattern seemed interesting but superfluous for a product that is primarily designed to sit on a laptop monitor. That impression was proven false when I used the Go Mic to interview someone. It really shines in this application because you can easily see the recording software at work without turning your head.

I can see this as being a very handy tool for a singer-songwriter. When writing music, it is helpful to quickly capture your ideas so you can remember how far you progressed. Think of it as an audio sketchpad. The quicker you can get setup, the better. For this reason it is a good alternative to a portable recorder from Tascam or Zoom. If you have a laptop handy, you’ll save money by going this route. In addition, you won’t have to deal with a cramped LCD screen and cryptic menus. Instead you can use your favourite DAW, such as Logic or Pro Tools.

There’s nothing worse than misunderstanding someone because they are using a crappy mic for VOIP. With the Go Mic, you’ll put the person at the other end at ease. This is especially welcome for business use as it ensures your directions are properly understood and therefore followed through correctly.

There are two inputs along the right side of the Go Mic. One mini-USB input for connecting to your computer and powering the device plus one headphone jack. The headphone output ensures direct monitoring with zero latency so there isn’t a lag disrupting your flow of speech.

Audio resolution is 16-bit/44.1kHz which is the current standard for USB mics. Frequency response is 20Hz – 18kHz so you’ll be able to capture pretty well anything within the limits of human hearing.

The mounting clip folds into the device, making the Go Mic highly portable and less prone to breakage. The mic can be angled in any way you like thanks to the metal joint attaching it to the clip.

Review Verdict

The Samson Go Mic is a very impressive little microphone for the price. I certainly wouldn’t use it for lead vocals for serious music recording. However, for music demos, voice overs and VOIP communications it is wonderfully convenient. The ability to just slap it on the top of your laptop screen ensures it gets used often.

I can’t recommend this over the Blue Snowflake as they are very similar in strength. In this case, it comes down to personal preference.

There is one limitation common to USB mics that has me reaching for an old fashioned XLR microphone: the sample rate. Blue’s original Yeti records at 16bit/48 kHz. That is ideal for streaming content on the Web via podcasting or YouTube videos. For music or more demanding applications it falls short. Anyone making records in 16-bit isn’t thinking ahead. Inevitably high-res, 24-bit digital downloads will be the norm in the future.

This is a trailblazing microphone. First off, it is the only USB mic so far that can record 24-bit audio. Secondly, it is the first mic I’ve seen that accepts both USB and XLR connections. For people on the move that flexibility can be a lifesaver in a pinch, especially when working with others. Plenty of pro audio engineers don’t have experience with USB mics. These types will be at home with industry standard XLR connections and analog post-processing.

The most obvious upgrade to the Pro model is the sexy casing. The black textured body adds an element of class that was missing from the modest original. It weighs in at around 3 lbs and stands nearly a foot tall. The Yeti was already a beast of a USB mic; this thing is a monster.

At the bottom of the unit there is a XLR input positioned above a treaded input for stand mounting. To the left is a mini-USB port and to the right there is a headphone input.

The 1/8” headphone jack is of course useful for people that don’t have the luxury of a professional, full-duplex sound card. You’ll be able to take advantage of low-latency monitoring thanks to the internal audio interface.

Like the original Yeti, there is an array of three 14mm condenser capsules under the grill. By switching on and off any combination of these capsules the Yeti Pro offers your choice of four pickup patterns: stereo, cardioid, omni, and bidirectional. In my previous review for the Yeti I broke down the uses for each of these patterns. You can read it here.

So, how does the Yeti Pro sound? Audio is off the scale awesome for a USB microphone. Right off the bat it has the advantage of being the only 24-bit USB mic (presently) on the market. The jump from 16 to 24 bit makes everything sound richer and smoother. High end especially is more detailed and pleasant. In regular circumstances I wouldn’t use a USB mic as an overhead on drums. If I had to however, this is the USB mic I’d choose. You can’t quite capture the sparkle in the cymbals in anything less than 24-bit.

Controls and switches are identical to the previous model. You have a nice big volume knob with a mute button above it in front. In the rear there is a switch that allows you to switch between recording patterns. Power is provided either via USB or 48v phantom power, depending on how you choose to connect the Yeti Pro.

Review Verdict

USB mics certainly blow away that Plantronics-style headset mic. Still, it isn’t honest to call any USB powered offering I’ve heard yet a professional mic. This is the best “prosumer” USB microphone yet. The addition of XLR is handy if you don’t own several other mics (or only want to bring one microphone to the gig).

Podcasters and musicians that don’t have a fancy audio interface (soundcard) and want to experience 24-bit recording have no better options. This puppy is it!