With every passing year, it gets easier to record professional-quality audio at home. This is partially due to software improvements and partially due to the advancements in recording hardware. One such development is the introduction of USB microphones.
You don’t need an audio interface to start recording anymore. A USB mic is essentially a digital microphone with a tiny one-channel audio interface built-in.
Why Go with a USB Mic?
While it isn’t very useful to recording engineers seeking to record multiple sound sources, a USB mic is indispensable for simple applications. It’s best when used to record artists doing vocals, overdubs, or online broadcasters creating podcasts or audio for their YouTube videos.
Another benefit of USB mics is the fact you can get a quality device for under $150. If you go the traditional route by purchasing an audio interface plus XLR microphone, you’ll need to spend at least $500 for a decent setup.
Granted the best USB microphones can’t match up to high-end offerings in the XLR category. However, if you’re looking for a budget microphone, USB options are well worth considering.
It’s a particularly good fit if you prefer the portability of using a laptop. With a USB mic, you don’t need to mess around with all that extra gear.
Choosing from the Top Five
USB mics have been popular for well over a decade but the market still isn’t saturated with choices. Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to slim down the pack to five top USB mics.
Rankings are roughly in order: The Yeti is considered the best of the bunch for most people. 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
Due 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 an admirable 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 are 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
Like 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 but miss the possibilities offered by the Yeti.
The included desk stand isn’t really worth using. It comes off like an afterthought. Audio-Technica 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 its sleek design. This makes upgrading a no-brainer.
Blue Microphones Yeti X Professional USB Microphone
The Yeti is so iconic that it deserves a second appearance on this list. There have been different variations of it over the years such as the Yeti Nano, and Yeti Pro. The Yeti X is an evolved version of the Yeti Pro. And this time around it isn’t much more expensive than the original Yeti.
The Yeti X has nice bonuses you wouldn’t even expect in a professional mic such as a LED sound level indicator, and a socket for a 3.5 mm audio jack. The most useful upgrade is the added ability to record 24-bit audio. It’s much more forgiving in terms of hitting a suitable recording level. And since most people produce their own content with USB mics, that makes the creation process more streamlined.
It has the same four polar patterns as the Yeti: cardioid, omnidirectional, bidirectional, and stereo. All these options make it ideal for podcasting with one or two speakers. Like the original, it’s a swiss army knife for creators, but a refined one.
Samson C01U Condenser USB Microphone
It 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 values in 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’s partially because so many got their start with it. There were few good USB mics on the market when platforms like YouTube exploded in popularity. The C01U has served as a workhorse for many content creators. Thus, it’s been proven to stand up to the rigours of long-term use.
Blue Microphones Snowball USB Microphone
The 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 it comes in black, 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 well as an inexpensive “room mic” (captures the ambiance of the environment). Microphones at this price point don’t typically offer that feature.