When considering mics for a recording studio or live sound reinforcement, you will first need to decide if you prefer to work with mics that use an XLR connector or a USB connector. The XLR connector has been the audio industry’s standard for more than 60 years.
The USB connector is a more modern invention that allows the mic to connect directly to a computer or other electronic device with a USB port. This article will give you the knowledge you need to evaluate the best budget microphones for your home studio or to use at live events.
Before making a choice, let’s have a closer look at each type of microphones. The first will be XLR mics. Here we go!
XLRs are one of the most popular mics (and one of the oldest ones as well). Someone just loves them, and someone finds them terribly inconvenient. That’s what I think of them.
Here are my pros and cons for using an XLR mic:
- The XLR mic cable standard has been in use since the 1950s and is compatible with most professional audio equipment.
- A locking feature helps make sure the cable stays connected.
- XLR mics can be used to transmit phantom power that is needed by condenser mics.
- XLR cables easily and securely connect with each other to extend the cable length.
- The construction of an XLR cable is very durable.
- XLR mic cables are more expensive than USB cables. A budget-priced 10-foot XLR is around $10. A 10-foot USB cable is around $5.
- An XLR mic cannot connect directly to a computer unless you use an adaptor and this only works when you use a dynamic mic that does not require phantom power to function.
- XLR condenser mics require using an audio interface device that costs from a few hundred dollars to thousands for a top-end unit.
- An XLR mic system may require another piece of equipment called a mic activator to provide enough power to the mic.
- The equipment for an XLR mic system is heavier to carry than a USB mic system.
And, of course, what can we do without setting-up? Perhaps someone does not like XLR microphones precisely because they do not know how to set them up correctly? Now you will see everything clearly.
How to Setup an XLR Mic
Here are some examples of how to set up an XLR mic system.
Setup 1 – XLR Omnidirectional Mic with an XLR-to-USB Cable Connected to a Computer
If you want to use an omnidirectional mic (such as a Shure 58), which does not require phantom power, then you can use an XLR-to-USB cable to plug it directly into your computer.
This video, produced by Podcastage, shows how to use an XLR-to-USB cable. It also shows the problem that happens when trying to use an XLR-to-USB cable with a condenser mic. A condenser mic does not work when plugged directly into a computer. A computer does not provide enough power through the USB cable to allow a condenser mic to work properly.
Setup 2 – XLR Mic with an Audio Interface Connected to a Computer
Another way to use an XLR mic is to connect it to an audio interface and then connect the audio interface to your computer.
This video, produced by Anson Alexander, shows how to use an XLR mic with a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface (costs around $140). He adds an additional piece of equipment in the mic-cable pathway, which is a Cloudlifter CL-1 (costs around $150) as a pre-amp. He uses this to boost the mic’s gain (volume) before it connects to the audio interface.
As we can see in the video, the audio interface connects directly to the computer using a USB cable. It gets all the power it needs to operate from the computer over the USB cable. The audio interface also accepts a second signal that could be from an instrument.
There is a real-time monitor output on the audio interface that can be used to listen to the input signals without the delay of analog-to-digital conversion. You can wear headphones to hear yourself as you record. The reviewer in the video is using a headset mic with headphones. Both mic and headphones are plugged into the audio interface.
For this setup, there was a need to add the Cloudlifter device because the mic he is using requires a lot of power to operate. The audio interface cannot provide enough power to increase the mic signal from mic level to line level. The Cloudlifter gives a mic about a 24 dB boost of clean gain. Depending on the mic you use, it may not be necessary to use this extra piece of equipment to boost the mic gain.
In this video, produced by Kettner Creative, he shows how to connect three different mics: an omnidirectional dynamic Shure SM58 mic, a dynamic Shure SM7B mic, and a wide-diaphragm condenser microphone that requires 48V of phantom power.
The Shure SM58 works with an XLR-to-USB cable connected directly from the mic to the computer. The Shure SM7B requires some gain boost that is provided by the use of an audio interface. He shows a PreSonus AudioBox 22VSL audio interface device. It works well with the Shure SM58, the Shure SM7B, and the wide-diaphragm condenser microphone. The audio interface has a switchable phantom power that is needed when using a condenser mic.
And now let’s move on to the main opponents of XLR microphones — USB mics.
Microphones with the USB interface appeared not so long ago, but have already firmly occupied their niche in the market of professional audio equipment. Let’s take a closer look…
Here are my pros and cons for using a USB mic:
- Connects directly to a computer with no extra gear needed.
- Lower cost.
- Lighter weight for the equipment needed.
- Super easy to set up.
- Nice quality for podcasts and videos.
- A USB mic is not as easy to use with XLR-based audio equipment.
- There are no separate components so is not easy to upgrade.
- Not using an audio interface gives much less control over the sound.
Someone thinks that setting a USB microphone up is much easier. Let’s find out more about it.
How to Setup a USB Mic
Some USB mics require downloading software to make it work, but this is rare now. Most USB mics are plug-and-play, so all you need to do is use the included USB cable to connect it to your computer. You may have to use a USB adapter cable or a USB hub if the USB cable that comes with the mic is not the same USB style as the input jacks offered on your computer or another device.
Alternative Setup Using an Analog Mixer
In this video, produced by TheLucios Life, he shows how to connect a Rode NT USB mic to an audio mixer. This is interesting because a USB mic sends a digital signal to a computer, and in this case, he is connecting the mic to a YAMAHA MG10XY analog sound mixer.
He uses the USB mic’s headphone outlet to get the analog signal connected to the sound mixer, and then he can add effects to the sound using the mixer. It is an interesting workaround to go from digital to analog, which is the reverse of what is normally done. Using the headphone jack’s output gives a line-level signal, which is strong enough for the mixer to work with.
What are the main differences between XLR and USB mics?
Here are some notes about the differences and how they might affect your recording and live-performance options:
- In professional audio recording sessions, XLR mics are much more common.
- XLR mics are usually higher quality than USB mics.
- XLR mics are just one component in a three-component set-up (mic, pre-amp, analog-to-digital converter). It is easier to upgrade components.
- USB mics include the mic, pre-amp, and an analog-to-digital converter in one device, making it not possible to upgradeon one of the components.
- Many USB condenser mics have the same mic elements as their XLR counterpart. The sound quality is virtually identical. The only difference is the way the mic connects to another device.
Difficult Choice: XLR or USB?
There is a trade-off between the two styles. Here are some reviewer’s opinions and my professional advice about which style you should use for certain purposes.
In this video, produced by Alpha Gaming, USB vs. XLR mics are explained, with the reviewer concluding that if you can afford it, an XLR system is a better choice. However, for those on a limited budget, a decent quality USB mic is a good start for gamers and podcasters until they can afford to upgrade.
The reviewer compares the Yeti Nano USB mic (costs around $100) with a Blue Ember XLR mic (costs around $100) that is used with a Yamaha MG10XU mixer (cost of around $200).
The XLR system is more complex and costly (total cost of $300). It requires being comfortable with a bit of a learning curve to understand how to use the mixer. For an audiophile interested in getting the best sound possible, the XLR system offers substantially more control.
The reviewer compares the sound of the Blue Ember XLR mic (costs around $100) with the sound of the high-end HyperX Quadcast USB mic (costs around $130). He thinks it is not worth the extra money to buy the high-quality USB mic, and it would be better to save for an XLR system.
Why You Should Choose an XLR Mic
- Mics with XLR connectors are more suitable for live performances, especially if the performers move around, which can be even better accommodated by an XLR wireless mic system. It is generally better for more versatile uses to have an XLR system.
- XLR mics are built to be durable with the assumption that they will be used for live performances. They have to withstand abuse such as being dropped. The sturdy build means that they may provide many years of service. I have some Shure SM58 XLR mics that I have used for more than 30 years. Nothing else in my life lasted that long, including my marriage!
Why You Should Choose a USB Mic
- USB mics are more suitable for podcasting and making videos for YouTube. A USB mic is usually plug-and-play, so the setup is effortless. You connect it with the USB cable to your computer or another device, make sure your device or computer recognizes the connection, and then use the mic with your favorite audio recording software.
- USB mics are less expensive than an XLR mic system. A nice USB mic like the Blue Yeti costs around $100. Some designs are very attractive. The aesthetics of the mic may be an important consideration if the mic shows in your YouTube videos.
- Even though XLR mics are made to be used by bands on the road, a USB system is more compact and much lighter due to having to carry less equipment. You can easily take a USB mic and a laptop or tablet device to record or live-stream almost anywhere. If you plan to do a globe-trotting travel show with live streams from exotic locations, a USB mic and laptop are what you want to carry along with you. You do not want to drag around a bulky mixer and an audio interface.
In this video, produced by Alpha Gaming, the reviewer compares four of the most popular USB mics. The comparison is interesting between the Blue Yeti, the HyperX Quadcast, the Razer, and the Samson.
The type of mic that will suit your needs depends on what you want to accomplish. My favorite XLR mics are any of the mics made by Shure. For a USB mic, I like the Blue Yeti to take on trips and the Samson for use in my home recording studio. I like the Samson because it is the only mic with two channels built-in. I can use it to record my singing with my acoustic guitar and easily record the two tracks live.
Hopefully, this guide helps you decide the mic(s) you want to use for certain purposes. Most professional audio recording engineers have many types of mics and use each one for the most suitable purpose. I like both XLR and USB mics. At my last count, I think I have more than four dozen mics of various types so that I always have the mic that I want to use for any audio project.