A lot of folks are doing podcasts and voiceover work and even recording music on their home PCs and mobile devices. Even if you're not doing this type of recording, chances are you're chatting on Skype or Google Hangouts.
However you're talking to your PC, you want to be heard – and heard well. The number-one thing that most affects the quality of your recording is the microphone you use. The better the mic, the better you'll sound.
For computer-based recording, you need a microphone that connects directly to your PC's USB port. While you can use mics with traditional XLR or 1/4" connectors, going direct to USB is the best way to get that audio signal into your computer.
So how do you choose the best USB mic for your needs? Well, the best mic isn't always the most expensive one. Let's look at the top 10 USB microphones on the market today, and see which are best for your own recording needs.
Choosing the Best USB Microphone for Your Needs
When you're recording your voice or instrument on a computer, the easiest way to connect is via USB. Most computers simply don't have the XLR or 1/4" inputs used by traditional recording or stage microphones. (XLR is a round, three-pin connector; the 1/4" connector looks like any regular plug.) So you can either use an XLR-to-USB converter (which we'll discuss at the end of this article), install some sort of outboard pro sound box (or internal audio card), or just use a microphone equipped with a USB connector. Naturally, the USB microphone is the easiest (and lowest price) of these alternatives.
How does a USB mic differ from a traditional microphone? In addition to the USB connector at the end, a USB mic contains its own preamplifier (not relying on an outboard preamp) and an analog-to-digital (A/D) converter. Aside from these unique components, a USB microphone contains all the normal elements found in a traditional mic – capsule, diaphragm, and the like.
Using a USB microphone is easy. All you have to do is plug it into an open USB port on your computer and you're ready to go. (You may have to install a device driver for the mic, but that's easy peasy.) USB mics are ideal for podcasters, voice actors, recording musicians, and anyone wanting better sound than that provided by their notebooks' built-in microphone.
When you're shopping for a USB mic, you want the highest quality sound at the lowest possible price. Obviously, different needs require different quality levels, and everyone has his or her own specific budget. Still, it's the sound quality that matters, whatever your price range may be.
Most USB microphones are condenser mics, like those used in professional recording studios. A condenser mic captures sound waves via a thin conductive diaphragm. Condenser mics create a detailed sound that's good for vocals, acoustics guitars, and other low- to medium-volume sound sources.
(The alternative to a condenser mic is a dynamic mic – although there are few dynamic USB mics. A dynamic mic works via electromagnetic induction, and is ideal for use on stage or where higher sound levels are present.)
By the way, many traditional condenser mics require an outboard power source (dubbed "phantom power") to operate. A USB condenser mic derives this phantom power from the computer it's attached to, via the USB connection.
All that said, let's look at the 10 best USB mics for your recording needs, presented in alphabetical order.
Audio-Technica AT2020 USB
Audio-Technica is a Japanese company that produces microphones, headphones, and similar audio equipment for both the professional and consumer market. A-T mics are found in professional recording studios worldwide, and they've recently moved into the USB microphone market.
The AT2020 USB is a cardioid condenser mic, which means it's fairly unidirectional; sounds from the side and rear are mostly suppressed. It's a low-noise microphone, which makes it ideal for podcasting and similar voiceover work.
The AT2020 USB has a suggested retail price of $229, but you can find it as low as $99 at some retailers. Given the relatively high performance and affordable price point, this is the go-to mic for home artists concerned with recording quality.
Figure 1 The AT2020 USB
If you prefer a hand-held mic, check out Audio-Technica's ATR2100-USB. Like the ATR2020, the ATR2100 is a condenser mic with a cardioid pattern. Unlike the ATR2020, it's designed for hand-held use, as well as on a desktop.
There's another unique feature about the ATR2100 – it offers both USB and XLR outputs. So you can use the USB connector when recording to your PC, or switch to the XLR connector for traditional studio or stage work.
The ATR2100 is also a good choice if you're on a budget. It retails for $79 but can be found online for $59 or less.
Figure 2 The ATR2100-USB
If you want a desktop USB mic but have a tight budget, check out the ATR2500-USB. It's a cardioid condenser mic with relatively low internal noise. While overall performance is slightly below that of the ATR2020, so is the price – just $99, although available online for $69 or less. This gives you Audio-Technica quality at a bargain price.
Figure 3 The ATR2500-USB
Blue Microphones produces both studio and consumer microphones. The company has been in the forefront of USB microphone development since the beginning.
Blue's most familiar, and arguably its most popular, model is the Snowball. The Snowball was the world's first professional USB microphone, and it remains a strong contender today. It's long been a popular choice among podcasters and in-home voiceover folk.
The Snowball is a condenser mic that offers the choice of ominidirectional or cardioid pickup patterns. This makes it useful for a single speaker or picking up a room full of people. It's a sturdy fellow with decent sound quality.
One of the most appealing aspects of the Snowball is its price. It retails for $99 and is available, in a variety of colors (not just blue) for under $50 at many merchants. That makes it an appealing first mic for many home recordists and podcasters.
Figure 4 Blue Snowball mics in a variety of colors
If you want a really affordable USB mic and pro-level quality isn't necessary, check out the Blue Snowflake. This is a good basic mic, certainly with better quality than your PC's built-in microphone. It's also small and portable, and easily clips onto your monitor or notebook PC screen.
Know, however, that you're going to hear more noise with the Snowflake than you will with the higher-priced Snowball. But that's probably acceptable for a mic that retails for $59 and sells for around $40. This makes it a good choice for Skype and Google Hangouts video chats, although it's less than ideal for more professional voice work.
Figure 5 The Blue Snowflake
Blue Yeti/Yeti Pro
If you like Blue Microphones and want higher quality audio, then go with the Yeti. The Yeti is a condenser mic with its own built-in volume control and multiple pickup patterns – unidirectional cardioid, stereo, bidirectional, and omnidirectional. That makes the Yeti a flexible option for use in a variety of applications.
The Yeti produces a rich and rounded sound with tons of sensitivity. It's as good or better as any other mic in its price range, and compares favorably with mics priced another hundred dollars or so higher. And that's why the Yeti is a number-one pick of many discerning home recordists and podcasters.
Blue also offers the Yeti Pro that features a 24-bit interface for even higher-quality recording. It also comes with an optional XLR connector if you want to use it on stage or in traditional recording studio.
The basic Yeti retails for $149 and is available for around $100 if you look hard enough. The Yeti Pro retails for $289 and is available for around $180.
Figure 6 The Blue Yeti
CAD produces both professional and consumer-grade microphones. The CAD U1 is a low-priced condenser mic, ideal for first-time podcasters and home recordists, as well as for anyone chatting on Skype or Google Hangouts. It can be used with a desktop stand or as a hand-held mic.
As with most sub-$100 mics, there's no built-in volume control; you have to control the input volume from your computer. It features a cardioid pickup pattern.
The CAD U1 isn't studio quality, but it's pretty good for the price. It retails for $59 and can be had for $25 or less online.
Figure 7 The CAD U1
CAD U37 USB
CAD also produces better performing mics, like the U37. This mic utilizes a larger, higher-end condenser element for a warmer, richer sound. It has a cardioid pickup pattern, and offers a bass-reduction feature and computer-adjustable sensitivity.
The result is very good sound quality for the price. Yes, higher-end mics (like the Blue Yeti) will capture better sound, but they also cost a lot more. The U37 retails for $79 but can be had for around $50 online.
Figure 8 The CAD U37
Samson Go Mic
If you want a lot of bang for your buck, go with the Samson Go Mic. Samson Technologies produces a variety of pro audio equipment, with some consumer models thrown into the mix. The Go Mic is definitely a consumer model, compact and portable, which makes it ideal for recording on the go. It's great for Skype or Google Hangouts, or for situations where you don't need the highest quality.
In terms of specs, the Go Mic offers a choice of either cardioid or omnidirectional recording. It's also usable in non-USB mode, with a 3.5mm headphone connection. It can sit on its own desktop stand or mount on the top of your notebook PC screen or desktop monitor.
The Go Mic retails for $89, but that's a bit of a smokescreen; you can find it most anywhere at around $40.
Figure 9 The Samson Go Mic
Samson Meteor Mic
Finally, we come to the Samson Meteor Mic. This is a unique looking, extremely small condenser mic with a cardioid pickup pattern. It offers solid performance that's more than good enough for most podcasting and voiceover work – and for audio and video chatting, of course.
Because of its small size, the Meteor Mic doesn't take up a lot of space on your desktop. It looks a little chrome bullet, and it's three built-in legs fold up when you need to move it, which is kind of cool.
The Meteor Mic retails for $149, although you can find it at most retailers for around $70. That's a lot of mic for the price, size aside.
Figure 10 The Samson Meteor Mic, connected to an Apple iPad
Using an XLR-to-USB Adapter
What do you do if you already have a microphone with an XLR connector that you use either onstage or in the studio? There's no need to throw out your old mic just because you want to go the computer route. Instead, purchase an XLR-to-USB adapter that lets you connect your XLR microphone directly to your computer, no fancy sound boards or audio boxes required.
Probably the most popular of these adapters is Shure's X2u. This adapter works with all of Shure's iconic mics as well as models for other manufacturers. It includes built-in headphone monitoring and controls for both mic gain and playback volume. (It also provides switchable phantom power to those mics that need it.)
The X2u isn't cheap, but chances are you're using it with an expensive microphone, anyway, so it's probably worth the bucks. It retails for $154 but sells regularly for $99.
Figure 11 Use the Shure X2u to connect a traditional XLR mic via USB