To date Blue’s Yeti hasn’t had much competition in terms of popularity.  The Snowball has done well too while other USB mic manufacturers have struggled to keep up with Blue’s success.

Audio-Technica, a heavy hitter in the realm of pro studio gear, hasn’t rested on its laurels. The AT2020 is a fine USB mic and one of the bigger threats to the dominance of the Yeti.

Both are great mics but in different ways, which comes down to differing design principles.

The Yeti has physical knobs and buttons both on the front and back, making it ideal for tweakers not big on software controls.

The AT2020 in contrast looks nearly identical to Audio-Technica XLR mics. Hardware controls are absent so gain levels must be adjusted via software.

Most notable strengths of the Yeti are features and value. It handles four polar patterns: cardioid, bidirectional, omnidirectional, and stereo. Many top-end studio mics can’t do all that. No matter the situation, from interviews to instrument recording, to capturing the ambiance of the room, the Yeti is flexible enough to fit the task.

Strengths of the AT2020 are build quality and simplicity (geared towards controlling everything from the computer). While the AT2020 only does a cardioid pattern, this is all most people need anyhow. The build is closer to studio mics rather than USB mics, which tend to have cheap plastic parts. If you’re taking it on the road or recording a variety of characters voices or instruments, the importance of this advantage is boosted. Lastly studio engineers working on location will prefer having all controls at their fingertips and out of the way of the client just as when working with XLR mics.

Moving to sound quality, beyond tech specs there isn’t a world of difference. The AT2020 may have a slight edge overall, but the slight variations in frequency peaks and dips come down to personal preference. On paper the Yeti goes up to 20kHz while the AT2020 maxes out at 16kHz. In practice most adults can’t hear frequencies in that range rendering the difference irrelevant.

Looking at the most noteworthy advantages of each it’s easy to see why the Yeti is chosen more often. It’s more in line with the needs of the self-recording musician or DIY podcaster while the AT2020 is closer to what a pro studio owner would want in a USB mic.

If you’re still on the fence there are full individual reviews of the Blue Yeti and Audio-Technica AT2020 that go into the features and sound quality in greater detail.

The first condenser mic was invented in 1916 by E. C. Wente. Microphones have remained analog since then until recently with the popularization of USB-enabled devices.

Although it’s an exciting innovation, USB options aren’t for everyone or for every situation.

While USB mics have much to offer in the area of plug-and-play convenience, the trend hasn’t taken over the high-end market. For the time being, USB mics are intended for musicians with a limited budget, frequent travelers, and podcasters.

The first advantage of USB microphones is price. You don’t need an audio interface that essentially transforms analog XLR input into a digital signal. While most musicians would want this anyhow for instrument recording, podcasters, vocalists and casual tinkerers don’t necessarily.

USB mic’s greatest advantage may be portability and ease of use. For people that prefer to work on a laptop, mobile device and on the go, the ability to plug in directly without dealing with external gear is a big plus.

Where most USB mics fall short is sheer sound quality and technical limitations. Don’t give me wrong, a Blue Yeti sounds great for the price. However in higher price brackets, classics like the Pearlman TM-1 or L47MP MKII are on a different level. Although Blue has attempted to appeal to the pro market with the Yeti Pro, USB mics still have a long way to go before they can compete with the best XLR mics.

The vast majority of USB mics are 16-bit (CD quality) which by today’s standards is adequate but far from cutting-edge. If you’re doing a YouTube video, a podcast or even a vocal track on a home demo it’s more than good enough. However it’s a noticeable notch below the sound you’d expect from a pro studio.

The good news is it’s only a matter of time before USB mics have made the jump to 24-bit en masse. The Yeti Pro has set the stage as one of the first. The issue is high resolution is to some degree wasted when the microphone capsule isn’t detailed enough to fully take advantage of the high spec. It’s akin to point-and shoot cameras with high megapixel counts but mediocre quality lenses.

For many the best option is to have both USB mics and analog XLR mics on hand. Big name artists are fully taking advantage of USB devices when on the road. However when in the studio you’d better believe they’re reaching for a vintage Neumann or SM57. It’s all about choosing what is best for the job, and considering external factors.

If you’re curious about the best USB microphones, read my roundup of the top 5 models.

Not long ago the idea of home recording was revolutionary. For the first time ever musicians were able to make impressive recording sans the hourly studio fees.

The latest step in this revolution is increased interest in maximum portability. Why chain yourself to your desk at home when music can be captured virtually anywhere?

Leading the trend Apogee has released JAM, and MiC: a guitar input and digital microphone, respectively, for iPad, iPhone and Mac. Before that the Duet and ONE made strides in the direction of increase simplicity and travel-friendliness.

When I first got into recording over a decade ago I was bamboozled into believing the more flexibility and features the gear had the better. Experience has taught me just the opposite is true.

Apogee’s choice to make drivers only for Apple operating systems is a plus rather than a minus. In practice company’s have big challenges in keeping up with driver updates, and more supported operating systems leads to software development efforts being spread too thin.

The Jam and MiC are incredibly specialized in their configuration and applications, taking this Zen-like product philosophy even further.

While I love the Duet and originally picked it up to strip down my setup, ironically I’ve found it’s often more than I need for on-the-fly recordings and overdubs. The ONE concept is fantastic but again if I plan on spending an afternoon on overdubs the built-in mic is a wasted feature.

What’s really great about owning both JAM and MiC is you can travel with only the tool you need to get the job done.

For me, the more I can minimize production concerns, the better the performances are. Having only the features you need at your fingertips and eliminating the ones you don’t helps achieve.

As multitudes of people carry an iPhone with them everywhere, the ability to pick up the JAM or MiC at the last minute is a groundbreaking possibility. In addition, the use of the touch screen on the iPad is amazing in a rehearsal situation while a guitar is strapped to your shoulder.

Finally next-gen devices can be used to produce professional-quality recordings. As this is just the beginning it will be fascinating to see where this leads Apogee and others.

Pictured: Apogee MiC with Zacuto Zgrip.

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.