Walk into any top-end recording studio ask to look inside their microphone cabinet. Without many exceptions you’ll stumble upon an Audio-Technica AT4050 condenser mic. It has become an industry standard due to its virtues as a versatile, “workhorse” microphone.

As great as the AT4050 is, the price tag of around $600 puts it out of reach for most hobbyists. Although Audio-Technica is known for professional products they have come up with the AT2020 to meet the needs of podcasters and DIY recording musicians. In stark contrast to the 4050, the 2020 sells for $115 (street price). On top of that, you don’t need a fancy preamp, and audio interface to make USB mics sound good.

At this price you come to expect a plasticky feel or cheap, roughly finished aluminum. Upon pulling it out of the box the most striking property of this mic is the outstanding build quality. I’m one of the old fashion types that associates weight with well-made gear; the 2020 has just the right amount of weight to make me feel confident in its durability.

The AT2020 design is very utilitarian and similar to its big brothers like the AT4050. It is a simple cylinder shape with a grill so big that it spans half the length of the microphone. The USB cable plugs into the bottom just like traditional XLR mics. It draws its power from the USB port on your computer. To notify you that it’s powered up, the grill lights up blue thanks to an internal LED light.

AT has taken a very different approach than Blue Microphones has. The Blue Yeti and Snowball has a switch that allows you to change up the input pattern of the mic. The 2020 focuses on the most used pattern: cardioid. Although you’ll use the cardioid pattern the vast majority of the time as a podcaster or musician, omnidirectional recording is missed because it is fun to experiment with.

On the plus side, the knobs and switches feel a little flimsy on the Blue USB mics. Clearly this is because USB microphones are sold for so little, making cost-cutting an inevitable reality. Audio-Technica’s decision to make the unit rock-solid, and leave out controls that can just as easily be controlled from your laptop was a smart one.

Bit depth and sample rate meet the standard for current-gen USB mics: 16 bit/44.1 kHz. Frequencies between 20Hz and 16kHz are captured. This was a disappointment initially because Blue’s Yeti has a frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz. Granted, we are looking at a range of sound that most adults cannot hear after the age of 30. If voice or vocal recording is your goal, don’t sweat it. Only cymbals have frequencies of any magnitude that go past 16kHz.

Sound quality is very good as is expected from an Audio-Technica product. Tests with acoustic guitar and vocals yielded impressive results. The capsule is sensitive, perhaps too much so for the casual user. You’ll pick up a decent bit of background noise if you have a desktop computer running nearby. Either run a cable into a different room or invest in a shock-mount to avoid picking up noise.

Review Verdict

Audio-Technica’s AT2020 doesn’t have any gimmicks to speak of. It does a good job of capturing voices or instruments coming from in front of the mic. After all, that is all most people will ever need. On-location interviewers and experimental musicians will yearn for the variety of input patterns found in competing mics.

This is an awesomely built device making it the most road-worthy USB microphone tested thus far. Overall the 2020 is simple, strong and effective at recording 16-bit audio.

Blue’s orb shaped Snowball is just as much a piece of modern art as it is a microphone. Although the company is known for innovated designs, nothing breaks the mould as much as this one.

It’s about the size of a softball. The front of the device has a sexy, future-retro grill similar to what you’d find on a sports car. With the red LED light glowing you know it’s powered up and ready to pick up anything from voice overs and singing to guitar cabinets and acoustic instruments.

Looks aside, there are two really great advantages to picking up this mic instead of similarly priced USB microphones.

Firstly, it’s really cheap these days. If you look in the right place (hint: Amazon.com), you should be able to scoop the version with a white finish for less than $75. Gloss black and brushed aluminum finishes are also available for a little more.

Secondly, the Snowball offers a variety of recording modes making it useful for a wide range of applications. At the back of the unit there is a three position switch that allows you to select cardioid, cardioid with -10db PAD, and omnidirectional.

Cardioid – This is the default setting that podcasters and musicians alike use the most. Sound coming from directly in front of the mic is accepted. Background noise coming from the rear of the microphone is rejected.

Cardioid (-10db PAD) – This setting is aimed at musicians. Loud guitar cabinets and drums can sometime be tough to record without the signal clipping and thus distorting. The PAD lowers the level on the way in so proper gain is easier to achieve.

Omnidirectional – This setting captures sound in 360 degrees so essentially everything going on in the room can be heard. Omnidirectional recording can be very useful for ambiance. Listeners feel like they are in the same setting as the speakers.

The Snowball ships with everything you need to get started, which isn’t much. A USB cable and portable tripod stand is included in the box. Power is supplied via USB so you don’t have to worry about clumsy adapters. The stand is adequate for casual usage on a desk but can get pretty annoying to work with if you need to adjust the height very often. The neck has a tendency to slip down if you fail to tighten it with plenty of elbow grease.

Recording resolution is limited to 16-bit like most other USB mics out there. As a person that goes 24-bit whenever possible, I can’t help but be annoyed by this. It wouldn’t be surprising if the next generation of USB mics take on the 24-bit standard. Until then, 16-bit is perfect for podcasters that plan to stream in 16-bit MP3s anyhow but less than ideal for audiophile musicians.

I have to admit I was expecting tinny audio from such a humble device. Considering the price, the Snowball is actually a decent sounding little mic. Lows have a nice thud and highs are crisp.

Review Verdict

Blue’s Snowball provides a heck of a value for beginning podcasters and songwriters. However, let’s be clear, you won’t be getting the type of sound you need to make hit records.

If you are getting started but aren’t sure where the hobby will carry you, don’t hesitate to pick up the Snowball. Even if you decide to get a better main microphone down the road you’ll still find plenty of uses for it. Specifically, the omnidirectional function will keep you coming back for more.

JoelYetiIf you think of USB microphones as flimsy, scaled-down versions of pro XLR mics, think again. Blue’s Yeti is a substantial beast measuring 12 inches high and weighing in at 3.5 pounds (with the stand affixed). It towers over other wimpy USB mics; including two models offered by Blue: the Snowball and Snowflake.

Beyond its intimidating size, the Yeti is a very versatile mic that can record in four different modes. Even ultra-expensive pro microphones don’t offer this many options, making this the greatest strength of the Yeti.

Here is a breakdown of each recording mode and what you can do with it.

Stereo – Humans have two ears so you could say we are stereo beings. Capturing a sound source in stereo creates a realistic image similar to how you hear it in person. Stereo mode comes in very handy when capturing musical instruments with two distinct parts, like congas.

Cardioid – Nearly any mic can record in cardioid mode. Essentially it accepts audio along the front of the mic and rejects sounds that come from behind it. If you’re a podcaster recording your voice solo, this is the mode you’ll be using the majority of the time.

Omnidirectional – With this mode it doesn’t matter what direction the sound is coming from. It will indiscriminately pick up everything in the room. This is the mode to use for large groups (that would be impossible to mic separately) or for capturing the ambience of the setting.

Bidirectional – During one-on-one interviews you’ll ideally want two mics. Although it’s a little socially uncomfortable (especially with people you don’t know well), you can record two voices from either side of the mic. Sounds that come from the top and bottom, and not left and right are filtered out (to a degree).

The Yeti is ideal for podcasters that work while seated because of the high-quality, tillable stand. At the bottom of the unit, there is a threaded hole that allows you to connect it to any standard microphone stand. At either side there is a mini-USB input plus a headphone jack. The jack is an absolute must as far as I’m concerned since this gives you direct access to zero-latency monitoring.

Like most USB mics you are limited to 16-bit/48 kHz recording unless you step up to the Yeti Pro model which offers 24 bit/192 kHz digital recording resolution. For most indie podcasters the standard model is more than ample. The Yeti Pro is geared toward studios and music applications that require higher bit-rates.

Sound quality is well above average for a USB mic. When you put price into consideration, it’s outstanding. Frequencies ranging from 20Hz to 20kHz are picked up, which covers the maximum potential of human hearing. Lows are nice and thick. Highs are clear and smooth.

The Yeti is THX certified, which is unusual for a microphone or any type. As far as I can tell this is just a fancy logo placed on the body for dramatic effect. Marketing hype from George Lucas doesn’t carry must weight in the audio engineering industry.

Overall the Yeti is very solidly built, thus the weight. The only area to nitpick at is the wobbly volume knob. It feels a bit cheap compared with the rest of the unit.

Review Verdict

Realistically the Yeti isn’t a pro condenser microphone. I’d rank it as a “prosumer” device, as much as I hate the sound of that phrase. Unless you plan on out-producing P. Ditty, it is also probably the best you will ever need.

For what Blue is asking for, this is an absolute steal. If you are a podcaster without a decent audio interface and microphone, run not walk into your nearest retailer and pick up the Yeti today.

Every passing year it gets easier to record good quality audio at home. This is partially due to software improvements and partially due to the advancements in recording hardware. One such recent development is the introduction of USB microphones.

For the first time ever you don’t need a fancy audio interface to start recording. A USB mic is essentially a digital microphone with a tiny one-channel audio interface built-in. While it isn’t very useful to recording engineers seeking to record multiple sound sources, a USB mic is indispensible for simple applications. It’s best when used to record artists doing vocals, overdubs, or online broadcasters doing podcasts or audio for youtube videos.

Another benefit of USB mics is the fact you can get a quality device under $150. If you go the old fashioned route by purchasing an inexpensive interface plus XLR microphone, you’ll need to spend at least $500. Granted the best USB microphones can’t match up to high-end offerings in the XLR category. However, if you are looking for a budget microphone USB is worth considering, especially if you prefer using a laptop. With a USB mic, you don’t need to mess around with all that extra gear.

USB mics are still novel, cutting-edge devices so the market isn’t saturated with choices. Admittedly it wasn’t hard to slim down the pack to five top mics. Rankings are in order: the Yeti is considered the best of the bunch overall while the Snowball is the weakest. Of course price and feature preferences come into play. Every one of these microphones is worth considering depending on the intended application.

Blue Microphones Yeti USB Microphone

blueyetiDue to the bidirectional and omnidirectional settings, this is by far the most flexible choice for podcasters. Although it is best to have individual microphones during a one-on-one interview, the Yeti does a really admiral job in a pinch. Audio is picked up on either side of the mic. By switching on the omnidirectional function you can pick up sound from the entire room in 360 degrees. This can be very handy for picking up sound atmospheres or the mutterings of large groups of people.

The design and included desk stand is pretty darn perfect for podcasters or those going for the broadcasting style of recording. Controls on the front couldn’t be simpler. You have a big volume knob for recording level and a mute button for reducing background noise when idle.

Audio-Technica AT2020 USB Condenser USB Microphone

AT2020Like Blue, Audio-Technica microphones are very well received by audio professionals. The AT2020 USB looks a lot like a miniaturized version of AT’s larger and famous condensers like the AT4040.

Frequency response is very flat so the AT2020 USB works well for a wide variety of applications. It records with a standard cardioid pattern which captures audio directly in front of it. This is the most common use for any mic, but one can’t help miss the possibilities offered with the Yeti.

The included desk stand isn’t really worth using. Since it comes off like an afterthought, AT seems to be catering to the pro music market more than beginner podcasters without a good stand on hand. Luckily, the mic fits beautifully into a shock mount like the Samson SP01 because of the sleek design. This makes upgrading a no-brainer.

Samson C01U Condenser USB Microphone

samsonusbIt may be getting a touch long in the tooth due to its release date back in late 2005, but the Samson C01U still ranks as one of the best USB mics available. Sound quality is good and comparable to the Yeti and AT2020 USB. Unfortunately it can get nosier than competing models when you crank up the gain.

A large group of podcasters swear by this mic but that is probably only because it is one of the few decent USB mics that has been out for several years. At the same time it has served as a reliable workhorse for many. That is proof that it stands up to the rigours of long-term use.

Blue Microphones Snowball USB Microphone

snowballThe Snowball is a decent microphone with a very unique look and a cheap price. Like the name implies it is shaped like an orb (and comes white or brushed aluminum). The form factor allows you to do creative things with the Snowball you can’t with other mics. However, this comes at a price. For standard podcasting the Snowball is adequate but definitely inferior to its big brother, the Yeti. If you are buying your first mic and need ultimate versatility, you’ll probably want to spend a little more.

You can record in cardioid mode for standard front-on sources or omnidirectional mode for capturing the sound of the room. The snowball works very well as a cheap “room mic” as microphones this price point don’t typically offer that feature.

MXL 990 USB Powered Condenser Microphone

mxlusbMics by MXL are shockingly cheap. So much so that many are weary about their offerings, assuming it must be Chinese garbage. In reality, MXL mics are quite good and an incredible value. If you are on a tight budget and still want half-way decent sound quality the MXL 990 USB might be for you. Those with a bigger budget probably should be looking at the Yeti or Audio-Technica.

Unlike most other USB mics the MXL 990 USB includes a shock mount. It’s not unusual to spend around $30 for a shock mount alone so the addition makes a sweet deal even sweeter.