If you’re in the market for a USB microphone, you probably have a specific use in mind for it. What works for live streaming games might be a musical disaster, and the pristine signal you get from a top-flight mic aimed at musicians might provide far more fidelity (and far less convenience) than you need for a podcast. So no, not all USB mics are the same, which can make buying the right one for your needs a little tricky. That’s where we come in.
We’ve tested a number of USB microphones to determine which ones work best for different scenarios, not to mention different budgets. Here you’ll find the best mics we’ve tested, along with a guide to their various uses. But before we get to that, let’s talk a bit about microphones in general.
To start, you should know how most professional microphones function. In a typical recording studio scenario, a microphone is an analog piece of gear that sends a signal to a console or computer through an XLR cable (often through a mixer that can handle multiple microphones at once). The signal from the mic should be more or less pure, with EQ, dynamic compression, and reverb added later in production.
Digital mics that use USB cables are a totally different beast. The audio is processed and digitized through the microphone itself instead of at the other end of the cable. Any editing you do at the computer is being done to a signal that has already been digitally processed, with the maximum sampling and bitrate dictated by the microphone. Each USB mic is essentially its own analog-to-digital converter (DAC), and often with its own gain knob built in (in the analog studio world, that gain knob is often on a different piece of gear entirely, usually referred to as a Mic Pre). USB mics also often have headphone jacks, which is another anomaly compared with the analog studio mic world.
The biggest differentiator between USB mics themselves is how they use digital signal processing (DSP). Some mics have it and use it subtly. Some mics avoid DSP completely and offer you the purest high-bitrate signal they can. And some mics not only employ DSP, but glob it on in thick coats that offer anything but a pure signal (and that can be fine, too, if it serves your intended purpose). Typically, most of the mics with heavy DSP are geared toward gamers, though that’s not exclusively the case.
Outside of the USB mic world, there are several styles of microphone (condenser, dynamic, ribbon) that, combined with the various microphone polar patterns (cardioid, hypercardioid, omnidirectional, figure-eight), produce a wide range of options for the recording engineer. Among USB mics, it’s mostly (but not always) condenser mics, and mostly (but not always) cardioid patterns.
Finally, most USB mics are plug-and-play ready. Apple GarageBand, for instance, will typically recognize a USB mic immediately and ask if you want to use it as an input (if you want to use it as a headphone monitor, as well, set it for both input and output). But not all recording software plays nice with USB mics. Perhaps most surprisingly, Avid Pro Tools, which is more or less the industry standard for music recording software, requires a somewhat tedious workaround to enable the use of most USB mics. You can search for “aggregate device USB mic Pro Tools” to get a better handle on that.
Now that we’ve got that all out of the way, let’s break down the three most typical uses for a USB mic, and discuss the various options, characteristics, and needs in each realm.
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Best USB Mics for Gaming/Live Streaming
Gamers who want to record or live stream their gameplay would appear to need the same things musicians who want to record clear vocals need. But musicians recording vocals with a pure signal are then likely to mix the recorded vocals in a multi-track scenario, applying EQ, dynamic compression, and perhaps reverb. Gamers, more likely than not, need some of these things to be baked in from the outset, or at least to have some form of DSP that knows when to limit spikes in levels—say if you shout or laugh during a recording. Thus, most gaming mics aren’t going to be shy about employing DSP to reduce distortion and clipping.
Some gaming mics up the ante by providing multiple polar patterns to choose from. While cardioid (single-direction) is the standard pattern, maybe you want to capture more than one voice with an omnidirectional or figure-eight pattern. Some gaming mics will also have switches built in to work with specific consoles.
Finally, most gaming mics are going to offer their own headphone jack, hopefully low- or zero-latency, so you don’t hear a distracting slapback delay while talking. And for more gaming audio gear, check out our favorite gaming headsets.
Best USB Mics for Podcasting
The goal with any mic is almost always going to be about clarity, but for podcasts, we need to take into account the vocalist. If you are recording an experienced speaker who has excellent mic technique, you might want to go for a USB mic that has no DSP baked in. If, on the other hand, the podcast routinely calls for interviewees who have little or no mic technique, you may wish to use a mic that has some protective DSP like in the aforementioned gaming mics, so that outbursts of laughter or sudden rises in level are not immediately turned into a distorted mess.
Another consideration is how many people will be speaking simultaneously. If it’s only one person talking in the room, a cardioid pattern mic is probably the best route. It might be worth considering a mic that has a figure-eight pattern if there’s a one-on-one interview happening—placing the mic in the middle of the two speakers in this scenario (provided they are not far away from each other) can yield a natural-sounding recording.
There’s also the omnidirectional route if you’re trying to capture the sound of a room. This can be particularly useful for location recordings—say, if your podcast calls for you to get the sound of a softball game in a park or the sound of glasses clinking and dinners chatting at a restaurant. But this brings up another point—if your podcast is going to involve on-location recording, you may want to consider a mic that can record directly to mobile devices. We’ve tested a few that ship with cables to connect directly to the Lightning port on iOS devices, for instance.
Beyond that, you need to think about windscreens and pop filters, regardless of where you’re recording—dealing with the wind, or a speaker with no mic technique, will likely require either a windscreen or a pop filter in order to keep plosive air sounds from distorting the recording. Luckily, many of the mics we include here ship with one or the other.
Once you’re ready to get recording, check out our tips for how to create your own successful podcast and the best audio editing software.
Best USB Mics for Recording Music
Microphones in music recording have always been one of the more mysterious elements of the signal chain. You want a mic that provides an accurate, clear signal, but there’s no denying that engineers and producers consistently go to certain mics because of their particular characteristics. A Royer R-121 ribbon mic, for instance, is a figure-eight pattern ribbon mic favored by engineers going for a richer, smoother sound (along with perhaps picking up some of the room), compared with a Shure SM7, the Michael Jackson-famed vocal mic also popular in broadcasting because of its crisp clarity. Thus, the concept of a “pure” signal is a bit misleading—what you’re really usually after is a clean signal, which should be a given with pro mics.
After that, you take into account the mic’s specific characteristics that make it bright or dark. Some mics can handle higher sound pressure levels, making them great for recording loud drums and amps, while some mics are ideal for capturing every bit of detail in a vocalist’s dynamic performance. With USB mics, the concept isn’t—or at least shouldn’t be—wildly different. Clarity should be a given, so we focus on characteristics.
You probably don’t want a mic that uses obvious DSP in the signal like many gaming mics do. With music, the goal is typically to get the purest recording “to tape” (even if your “tape” is GarageBand) and then any processing that needs to happen will happen when mixing. Some engineers will record with a little EQ or compression as part of the signal chain, but that offers less flexibility down the road, as those effects are now baked into the recording. Of course, the compression or dynamic limiting is often in place to prevent distortion on peaks, so it’s there in the name of preventing distortion from getting into the recording, which is the whole purpose of DSP to begin with.
We could talk in circles here, but a USB mic for music recording should probably only have minimal DSP, if any. While there are some models that employ DSP, like the Beyerdynamic Fox, the DSP in these scenarios is really subtle compared with a typical gaming mic’s DSP. And there are plenty of music mics, like the Sennheiser MK 4 Digital and the Blue Raspberry, that use no DSP whatsoever.
If your goal is to get the highest quality recording possible, with a USB mic you also need to take into account sample rate and bitrate. All mics are going to be able to do 44.1kHz/16bit, but if fidelity is a top priority, you may want to consider mics with higher sampling rates like 48kHz or even 96kHz, and 24-bit capabilities. Basically, most USB mics already have their mic pre’s built in, and they also have built-in analog-to-digital conversion. In the pro studio world, those processes are often handled by standalone gear. So USB mics are essentially combining the roles of mics with some of the necessary associated gear in a pro studio setting, and simplifying the signal chain for you.
How Much Should You Spend on a USB Mic?
There’s a wide price range among USB mics, and we’ve done our best to test models across the entire spectrum. Spending more doesn’t necessarily mean you get a better product, but there does seem to be a fairly sensible scale of quality associated with price.
Check what accessories come with your microphone as well. Depending on what and where you plan to record, you might need your own mic stand, pop filter, or perhaps even a shock mount. You can easily spend more than $100 on those three items alone. For some users, a mic that ships with its own stand and windscreen or pop filter will be the more reasonable choice. Go figure.
In other words, don’t base your decision on pricing and buy the most expensive thing, assuming you’re getting what you need. Determine what you need first and see what options meet your criteria.
Do You Need an XLR Mic Instead?
A quick word about a major limitation in the USB microphone world: You can typically only record one mic at a time. This is because, on the whole, USB mics are made less for pro-level setups and more for typical computer-based setups that lack an audio interface to field multiple inputs. All your computer can do without an audio input/output to field the multiple signals is select a single input. There are workarounds, of course—there’s recording software that will allow you to record multiple mics at once—but the catch is that they’ll all record to the same track. If it’s possible to pan one signal all the way left and the other all the way right, in a stereo track, and then after recording, separate the channels of the file and drag them into new tracks, then you have your separation (you’d likely want to center them again instead having each hard-panned left and right). But again, that is a lengthy and annoying workaround.
Basically, if your goal is to record multiple microphones at once, USB mics are probably not what you need—and you’ll want to look instead into a USB (or Thunderbolt) audio interface that can receive multiple inputs at once and send them as separate tracks to your recording platform. In this scenario, you’re almost definitely talking about using XLR mics (since the interface handles the digital conversion for you and connects via USB or Thunderbolt, thus eliminating the convenience and need for a USB mic in the first place), and you’re on your way to a setup that’s more pro-level than what we’re typically discussing when USB mics are part of the equation. But USB mics can still provide solid, high-fidelity signals—it’s just assumed that you don’t need to run multiple mics at once.