Updated on Oct 09, 2020
Microphones come in a variety of forms, built-in their own unique ways to serve one primary purpose; Recording audio. Of course, what we record and why we record it is going to be different from person to person but one thing we all have in common is a desire for high-quality recordings.
It’s funny to think that not too long ago if you wanted quality audio, you’d need to pay a fortune and book time in a studio, and today even on a budget you can bring the studio into your own home. A big reason for this is the evolution of USB microphones, an invention that first gained traction in the early 2000s but has since been simplified and improved.
However, without proper research, buying a USB microphone can be very hit or miss. Fortunately, we’ve tried and tested every popular USB microphone on the market, and even ran an updated test on a large group of possible candidates for this list of the best USB microphones on the market in 2020.
We’ll start by presenting our list and doing a run-through of each choice, but afterward, we’ll walk you through our ranking factors and what ultimately led to us choosing some of these microphones.
The Blue Yeti is hands down the most well-rounded USB microphone on the market, offering a wide range of models for almost any budget. These feature-rich microphones are incredibly versatile, and you can clearly tell that Blue was aiming to build studio-grade condensers for the average consumer that is as easy as plug-and-play.
The Blue Yeti offers a suite of features that anyone can pull value from, such as a headphone jack for playback, gain control and our favorite, multi-directional polar pattern modes. We discuss the polar patterns more below in the analysis segment, but the general idea is that they control how much audio the microphone receives. This flexibility will allow you to reduce noise when you're alone, and expand if you're with a group.
In terms of quality, the Blue Yeti produces studio-grade accuracy, providing a level of richness & depth that not every USB microphone can achieve. The low-mass diaphragm and high resolution offer deep, warm lows & crisp highs for a level of volume we expect from studio microphones. Going with any microphone from the Blue Yeti series could be one of the best decisions of your life.
The Rode NT-USB is another very fine choice in terms of USB microphones, offering professional-grade audio at a decent cost compared to Rode’s XLR microphones. When we compare with the Blue Yeti base model, we find the Rode NT-USB to come out on top in terms of quality, though it’s up for debate when comparing with Blue Yeti’s Pro.
The Rode NT-USB is really simple to work with, but offers the power of a studio microphone. The gain & mix control offer a level of flexibility when recording that not a lot of other mics offer without a preamp or other intermediary device, as well as a headphone jack & pop sheild. It's also compatable with Apple iPads.
The sensitivity and wide-frequency response rate of the Rode NT-USB offer a strong sense of studio quality, offering you confidence in your set up. This is one of few USB microphones where I would really feel comfortable using it in the studio, which doesn't surprise me coming from Rode. The ability to record both vocals and instruments speaks volumes on their quality. The only caveat I have is the lower resolution. It would nice if they offered a Pro model, like Blue does for their Yeti series.
The Audio Technica AT2020USB+ Cardioid Condenser is one of the hottest choices in the podcast space, offering smooth & extended frequency response perfect for vocal recordings. The versatility and strength this microphone offer rank it among one of the best computer microphones on the market, built for home use.
It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone when we see a microphone from the Audio Technica AT series on a list like this. The Audio Technica AT2020USB+ Cardioid Condenser is a very popular choice for podcasters, offering a wide-range frequency response with studio-quality articulation.
Aside from the rich features such as mix control & headphone jacks, the Audio Technica AT2020USB+ comes with a pivoting stand mount & a tripod desk stand with a threaded adapter & protective pouch. This USB microphone is ready to go right out of the box, but the only thing we don't like is that the condenser is permanently polarized as cardioid. This is fine if you think you'll be alone most of the time, but it would still be nice to have that option.
The HyperX Quadcast is one of our favorite microphones to talk about in lists like this, with it’s beautiful award-winning design, this microphone is a hot choice amongst the gaming community. This USB Condenser mic offers a choice between a red LED lighting or customizable RGB lighting, allowing it to fit in with any gaming rig.
Being one of my favorite USB microphones, the HyperX Quadcast offers a very natural warm & rich sound, alone making up for the higher price for a gaming microphone. The durability of this USB microphone is impressive given how lightweight it is, allowing you to safely travel with it if needed.
They come in strong with the features as well, offering an intuitive way of muting the microphone via a sensor on the top, because who doesn't love sensors? On top of that, it has a built-in shock mount and pop filter, two very essential features that not a lot of USB condenser microphones come with! Lastly, to add to their flexibility, they offer 4 polar pattern modes, allowing you to use this microphone for more than just gaming.
The Audio Technica AT2005USB Cardioid Dynamic is another popular choice amongst podcasters, streamers, and gamers because of its smooth and subtle nature, with low sensitivity to reduce background noise allowing you to focus more on what you’re recording and less about where you’re recording it.
Out of all the microphones on this list, the Audio Technica AT2005USB Cardioid Dynamic is the only one that can be used as a handheld microphone as well, making it good for public speaking and such. The build quality is expert craftsmenship, which is less than surprising coming from Audio Technica.
This USB microphone is a really good affordable alternative to the Audio Technica AT2020USB+ Cardioid Condenser we mentioned before, being the younger sibling in this microphone series. The dynamic aspect of it is also highly beneficial for those who can't find a super quiet space when doing their podcasts or videos. It's a worthwhile purchase if you're looking for something under $100.
The Jlab Audio Talk is a younger brand of USB condenser microphones that appear to be following in the Blue Yeti’s footprints. Offering 3 models, we present the Jlab Audio Talk as our budget choice because of the Talk “Go” model, that comes in around $49 on average.
The Jlab Audio Talk Go is super lightweight and travel friendly, being so small that it can fit in the palm of your hand. The modern black & blue design gives it a level of flare that very few USB microphones target, adding a level of aesthetic to your desk setup.
What's really cool about this small & affordable USB microphone is the high resolution rates, offering 24 bit-depth / 96kHz sample rating, which is almost unheard of in this price range. In fact, the Blue Yeti only offers that level of resolution in their higher end models. This microphone also included gain control, an essential feature in any budget microphone. The polar pattern modes are limited to 2, however, Cardioid (single person) & Omni (the whole room). Even still, offering the Omni option instead of permanently limiting to Cardioid is pretty cool of them.
We could go on and on about our preferred USB microphones, but who are the Musician Nerds and why are we qualified to talk on this subject? As our name suggests, we are very passionate musicians. We have been working with audio equipment from a hobbyist standpoint from early ages, and our founder, Adrian, has been recording music since he was a little kid. He has experience from both a budget home-studio perspective and being in professional grade studios, allowing for unique insights on the importance of audio equipment. Furthermore, as "nerds", we love gaming, streaming, and listening to podcasts, and so we have an even deeper love for microphones used in those settings.
USB microphones come in many shapes and sizes, but before investing in one of these audio devices, it’s good to understand the complex nature of these devices and the evolution of the microphone industry. When USB microphones first entered the scene, it was nothing short of revolutionary. This was the next big thing since Phantom Power, a standardized method of charging the inner electronics in condenser microphones.
Before we had phantom power, studio-grade microphones required their own custom power sources in order to charge the metal backplate (which we will discuss a bit below) for capacitance. The power supply was often large in size and very heavy. This was, quite frankly, a pain in the neck for sound engineers, and a contributing factor to the high cost of such microphones. That is until Schoeps & Neumann collectively developed the new standard for powering condenser microphones, Phantom Power.
Phantom Power allows condenser microphones to receive the DC power required to operate via the microphone cable directly from the mixing board, or preamplifier, eliminating the need for an external power source.
USB Microphones on the other hand have taken it all one step further. Why do we need a preamp? Why do we need to worry about getting Phantom Power? It turns out we don’t! Modern day USB microphones require a smaller voltage, and can receive any power required from the USB port on any device, further reducing the need for external devices.
It's really easy for us to toss around terms like "condenser microphone" and "dynamic microphone", but it's no use to our readers if you don't know what they are, and where the differences lie. An oversimplification of the differences would be that condensers offer higher accuracy and are therefore a favorite in the studio, whereas dynamics tend to offer noise-blocking features and are a favorite for live performance. The differences are a bit deeper than that, however.
Condenser microphones are known for their high sensitivity. They use a low-mass diaphragm within the capsule adjacent to a metal backplate powered by the inner electronics in an effort to create what's known as capacitance. Due to the light weight of the diaphragm the microphone is able to record electric signals that match our sound waves by the relative changes in capacitance between the diaphragm & metal backplate. This provides a level of accuracy that cannot be matched, giving a full picture of the low, medium and high frequencies. We discuss this further in our article What Is A Condenser Microphone?
Dynamic microphones on the other hand work completely different. Rather than using a highly sensitive capacitor to record audio, they often emphasize the mid-range frequencies. Keeping the sensitivity low in this case is essential for live performances as with a condenser you run the risk of feedback and other unwanted noises getting into the microphone, mixed with the strong ambience from the stage. However, dynamics can also make for great home studio microphones for the same reason if you don't have noise proofing in your house. I personally use a Shure SM7B Cardioid Dynamic Microphone, which I first purchase for that exact reason.
One term you might’ve seen a lot throughout the article is "polar patterns", which encompasses other familiar terms like "cardioid" microphones. We can’t emphasize enough how important of a role polar patterns should play in your decision making. The odds are you don’t have a designated soundproofed room to record your audio, and as such, you’ll want to reduce as much (or as little) background noise as you can. So, what are they and what do they do?
Shure describes it as The polar pattern of a microphone is the sensitivity to sound relative to the direction or angle from which the sound arrives, or easier worded how well the microphone "hears" sound from different directions. To give an example, a "cardioid" microphone will only receive input from the front, whereas an "Omni" receives audio from the whole 360 degree radius of the capsule. The other common options are "Bi"-directional, which takes audio from only the front & back, and "stereo", which is similar to Cardioid, but has a much wider radius.
Some microphones on our list, like the Blue Yeti, offer the ability to change the polar pattern as needed. This is an awesome feature because it lets you limit the captured audio by using Cardiod mode when you’re alone, but you’ll still have the option to expand the input in other settings. With condenser microphones, it is essential to limit the audio where you can.
As much as we talk about the technical specs and engineering in each of these USB microphones, it all comes down to how they sound and perform. One mistake we’ve seen a lot of people make is they find one microphone has better resolution than the other that was recommended to them, so they figure it’s a good purchase. What they don’t consider is some of the other factors, like sensitivity. A condenser microphone could have the best resolution rates but without high sensitivity your audio is not going to have the level of depth we expect.
The only honest way to know if a microphone is good is to record different samples and record comparisons. Here at Musician Nerd we pride ourselves in staying up to date on every popular microphone that enters the market. Beyond that, we give special considerations to the more affordable and less known brands in an effort to not just offer exposure but find genuine hidden gems in the audio scene.
When recording samples for comparison, we use appropriate judgement to figure out what the microphone appears to be able to record, based on either the description from the manufacturer, or using our own judgement based on the specs. This allows us to group them for direct comparisons. For example, I won’t compare the Audio Technica AT2005USB with the Rode NT-USB to see which is better at recording acoustic guitar, because the AT2005USB wasn’t built for that, so it’s not a fair comparison.
We chose the Blue Yeti series as our “Best Overall” choice in this article due to their extreme versatility, wide selection of options, and studio-grade recording quality. The reality is, not every Blue Yeti microphone is the best choice for you, like when comparing the Rode NT-USB with the Blue Yeti base model, however in this specific instance, many may agree the Blue Yeti Pro would come out on top. On top of that, Blue Yeti offers an affordable option in the series, known as the Blue Yeti Nano, which brings the same Blue Yeti quality at a lower cost.
It's this level of variety that does it for me. The Musician Nerds care a lot about inclusion, so companies developing affordable options for the consumer market using high-end electronics, while also offering upgraded editions all the way up to a studio-grade professional model is a good way to earn serious points with us. Factor in the versatility these microphones offer, and the rich features.
The Blue Yeti series is the best overall because you can do so much more with them than any other microphone on our list.
Choosing the Jlab Audio Talk Go for the budget choice was an easy decision for us. We've been watching this microphone series since it's release in May of 2020. This microphone hit the market strong using a modern & clean design for their lightweight travel-friendly condenser microphone. As we mentioned before, their objective seems to be following in the footsteps of the Blue Yeti.
As we determined in our article, Jlab Talk vs. Blue Yeti, the Jlab Audio Talk doesn't quite meet the standards of the Yeti, but they're also lower in cost and they're almost nipping at Blue's heels. It's not unreasonable to view this series as a "budget" version of the Yeti, which is just another reason we thought it to be an appropriate budget choice.
One thing we absolutely love about the Jlab Audio Talk series, as we mentioned above, is the top-of-the-line resolution, with a 24 bit-depth / 196kHz sample rate. The only major caveat is they went with a lower sensitivity, which makes the audio a little more flat compared to high-sensitivity condensers.
In an age where almost anything can be done from your home computer, it makes sense to invest in a good USB microphone. The number of hobbys & careers out there that revolve around streaming have also led to a booming innovation in the world of microphones, which is why USB mics have advanced so much since the early 2000's.
We are really excited to see how they continue to advance. We read about famous artists putting up their hotel mattress for noise proof and record right in there hotel room when they're on the road, so it's not just the average consumer who benefits from these advancements.
What did you think of this list? Do you think we're missing out on another great USB microphone? Let us know because we're always looking for hidden gems! And if you buy a microphone from this list, let us know in the comments below how you like it!
Posted on Oct 02, 2020
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