Understanding The Difference Between XLR & USB Microphones

Updated on Feb 01, 2021




USB vs. XLR Microphones, is there really a difference? Which one is better? Which one should I choose? ... These are questions we get A LOT! Some people think it's nothing more than a convenience difference, while others will swear to you that the audio quality is vastly different. Well, no more wondering, because we're going to start comparing microphones of all shapes and sizes so that we can get to the bottom of this mystery once and for all.

XLR Microphone Cables Wrapped Up
XLR Microphone Cables Wrapped Up

If you've worked with microphones before, you probably know that XLR mics are the industry standard. You can recognize this type of cable by it's circular shape and 3 pins. While microphones only use this variation, there are other types of XLR cables that vary between three and seven pins, and so it's best not to get these confused.

It wasn't until the early 2000's that USB microphones gained popularity. The flexibility offered by this innovative microphone had the power to save people money while offering a simpler experience. Condenser microphones can be harder to work with compared to dynamic mics due to their high sensitivity. Overtime, USB microphone designers began adding mulit-directional polar pattern options, effectively allowing you to cut off audio input from different sides of the capusle. You can read more in our article What Is A USB Microphone?

Differences

So let's start by talking about the main differences between USB microphones and XLR microphones.

Both the USB & XLR mics can be either condenser microphones or dynamic microphones. That being said, they're both built the same way, using the same kinds of diaphragms, capsules, etc. with the only real difference being that USB microphones are powered differently than XLR microphones.

We know that USB microphones obviously use a different cable than the XLR microphones, but the more modern USB mics also shifted away from industry-standard on powering the inner electronics. When Phantom power was invented in 1964, it set a normalized convention for future condenser microphones to follow, so instead of needing your own custom power source, connecting your XLR microphone to a preamplifier with phantom power could charge any condenser mic for years to come.

Amplifier With Knobs On Interface
Amplifier With Knobs On Interface

Of course, a preamplifier is commonly found in a recording studio, radio station, etc. but for a gamer, streamer, YouTuber, whatever, it's just another expense, and honestly, waste of space in some cases. USB microphones are supposed to add flexibility and simplicity, so of course, they eventually reached a point where they can be fully powered from your desktop's USB port, a massive advantage over the XLR microphones. That being said, USB microphones typically require a lower voltage than XLR microphones.

So now we know USB microphones are much easier to use than XLR microphones. Allowing you to just plug and play, these versatile microphones work with any desktop that has a USB port. Some USB microphones can even connect to your gaming consoles, like the HyperX Quadcast & the PlayStation 4, a functionality that XLR microphones couldn't even dream of.

But if you're a skeptic like me, then you're probably thinking "if it's that much easier, why aren't all microphones USB?". That's a great question. And why would Blue Yeti create a Pro Edition that has XLR microphone compatibility, even though they're a leading brand in the USB microphone space?

Only one way to find out. Let's compare.

Comparison

We've tested 10 XLR microphones and 10 USB microphones. Half of them were between $100 & $200, while the others were either over $200 or under $100, and we did direct comparisons with the closest in price.

What we've found, for the most part, was subtle quality differences, more so on the low-end models. The <$100 USB microphones had a bit of a drop in quality compared to the XLR microphones, which we were expecting. However, the features from our USB microphones allow us to cut off some of the extra noise. That is essentially a win in favor of USB microphones, only because <$100 condenser microphones can be a bit noisy in general.

However, as we start to climb the price ladder, there's no doubt that the XLR microphones start to shine on quality. Interestingly enough, however, we expected to notice a big difference comparing the Blue Yeti Pro with the USB cable vs. the Blue Yeti Pro with the XLR cable, but it was pretty minimal at best.

Overall, I've found the differences to be a little more subtle than I expected, but there's no doubt that the higher end XLR microphones are more studio-grade than their USB counterparts.

Below we'll breakout the pros and cons.

Pros & Cons


XLR Microphones


Pros

  • More Depth & Clarity
  • Massive Quality Difference > $200
  • Non-digital

Cons

  • Extra Equipment
  • More Expensive


Some of our favorite choices for XLR Microphones include the Audio Technica AT2020, which offers studio grade audio, and the Shure SM7B, a pricey but well worth it dynamic microphone used on Podcasts everywhere.

Audio Technica AT2020 Cardioid Condenser Studio XLR Microphone
Audio Technica AT2020 Cardioid Condenser Studio XLR Microphone

The Audio-Technica AT2020 is a favorite amongst podcasters & streamers for it's lower price and higher quality. Featuring a custom engineered low-mass diaphragm, this XLR microphone offers best-in-class frequency response, and superior transient response. While it offers a USB model, we prefer the XLR microphone, as there may be other similarly priced USB microphones that we like better.

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Audio Technica is a signature brand, and while we really enjoy this XLR microphone from them, they've had a big part in the USB microphone space. My first USB microphone, in fact, was an Audio Technica.

One of my personal favorite microphones, the Shure SM7B is a leader in the podcast and streaming world. While it has a hefty price tag to go with it, this Cardioid Dynamic XLR microphone offers incredible high quality audio with limited background noise, and can be recognized on some of your favorite radio shows. Examples include The Breakfast Club, Joe Rogan, so many YouTubers, and even Michael Jackson used it on Thriller! Checkout our in-depth review.

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Suspended Shure SM7B Cardioid Dynamic XLR Microphone
Suspended Shure SM7B Cardioid Dynamic XLR Microphone

The Shure SM7B is a timeless classic that still holds to this day, offering a quality-first experience for any vocal application.


USB Microphones


Pros

  • More affordable
  • No extra gear required
  • Plug & Play
  • Often Cooler Features

Cons

  • Short Selection
  • Bad W/ Multiple Microphones
  • Limited Clarity
  • Often Less Durable


Some of our favorite USB microphones include the industry leading Blue Yeti USB microphone series, as well as arguably the best gaming microphone, the HyperX Quadcast, offering a healthy mix of beauty and quality.

Blue Yeti X With Box Contents
Blue Yeti X With Box Contents

The Blue Yeti is one of the more famous USB microphones, currently. They offer some of the best studio-like quality, and have a microphone in their Yeti series for almost any budget. Their more affordable model, the Nano, offers great quality for streaming and gaming, whereas their high end model, the Yeti Pro, is so good, it could be used in a studio. Checkout our in-depth review.

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While the Blue Yeti may be one of the most iconic USB microphones on the market, we think gamers especially will appreciate our next choice. If you care about having a microphone with impecible design, get ready for one of our favorite USB microphones of all time.

Just take a second to look at this beauty. It's no wonder it won the Design Award in 2019. Everyone knows gamers love red, and this microphone even offers RGB functionality (may be limited to certain models), allowing it to blend in with your gaming rig. However, we know design isn't everything, so rest assured that the HyperX Quadcast offers fantastic quality as a gaming and streaming USB microphone. Checkout our in-depth review.

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HyperX Quadcast 2019 Design Award Winner
HyperX Quadcast 2019 Design Award Winner

We chose these USB microphones in particular because they're built to be streaming, podcasting, and the best gaming microphones. Instead of offering us a half-assed attempt at being a studio microphone, they focused all their efforts on being the best at those 3 things.

Summary

As we all lowkey expected, there is no real winner in this debate. XLR microphones are perfect for those who need superior depth & sound, while USB microphones are perfect for those who are streaming, want to limit expenses, and keep their setup simple.

My personal rule of thumb is if I'm not going to (drastically) mix & master the audio post-recording, a USB microphone is fine. A great example of this is when I'm live streaming. Of course, when money is less of an issue, and your budget can span between $300 & $500, of course, you'll find a better XLR microphone out there, but for the new podcasters, streamers, gamers, YouTubers, etc. USB microphones are great.

You may also be interested in reading our recommendations for the best USB microphones as well as the best XLR microphones.


Posted on Sep 25, 2020

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