How do these 7 USB mics sound vs. popular non-USB mics? Part 2 of 2.

NOTE: This is the second post in a 2-part article. Click here to read part 1!

We always say, learning never ends. That's true of what we know about USB mics. They've gotten better. But are they ready yet for daily use in a professional VO recording studio? As we noted in Part One, in some circumstances, yes -- especially if the owner is just starting on a VO career. With the money you might save, you can invest in things that will have greater benefit to your sound.

But how do they stack up against each other? And can an expert really hear the difference between USB and conventional XLR?

Dan Friedman, one of Edge Studio's home studio consultants, oversaw a USB mic shootout, in which he evaluated USB mics' design and performance, and compared them to some non-USB mics.

Our friends at Sweetwater (a terrific microphone and voice-over equipment retailer) lent us five USB mics for testing (AudioTechnica 2020USBi, Sennheiser MK4 digital, Shure MV51, Blue Raspberry and Miktek ProCast System). In addition, Dan added two more USB mics (Apogee MiC and the Blue Yeti Pro). And for comparison, we also tested three comparably priced XLR (non-USB) Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC) microphones (XLR BLUE Spark, Rode NT2A, and Studio Projects C1), along with a Sennheiser 416 short shotgun XLR, an industry standard. That's a total of 11 mics. We have 12 audio clips because two of the samples are from the same microphone with different vocal presets.

The XLR mics require an interface, so with them we used the Centrance MicPortPro preamp/interface. We chose the MicPortPro because USB mics are often preferred for travel, and this interface is compact enough for that.

After recording each sample, each file was edited to include the room tone and the same script portion.

All microphones were tested as talent would use them in a real-world setting. If they came with a stand, we used it. Placement of each was slightly off-axis and 7 inches from the mouth. All were recorded on a laptop to Twisted Wave (as many talent would) then imported to Cubase on a studio system (as an engineer would listen). We attempted to establish good (and nearly identical) levels among all of them: above -18dB, and averaging between -12 and -6dB on digital meters. All files were then peak normalized to -2dB for continuity, but nothing else was done to process the audio. Each test sample begins with some empty space to reveal the mic's noise floor.

In commenting on whatever accessories come with a mic (e.g., a stand or mount), Dan considered the overall picture – for example, how well a stand can hold the weight of a microphone depends on the weight of the microphone. Everything is relative -- you may not be able to carry over a stand or mount to a different, possibly heavier or differently configured microphone.

Hear the samples, read the comparison

You can hear the blind recordings at DropBox:

Spoiler alert! If you want to judge the blind recordings yourself, do so now, before reading further.

At the end of this article, you'll find Dan's comments.

General observations

Ignore resale value. Resale value didn't enter into our evaluation. USB mics' resale value tends to be less than traditional mics, but these are relatively inexpensive to begin with. There is a more important reason: voice actors should never sell microphones that they've done recordings with. Having your old mics is important for pickup sessions that sometimes come years down the road. (So for each recording session, always keep a record of which mic you used.) Also, sometimes it's handy to have a different mic to give new cuts on your demo a bit more audio variety. So if you're thinking of replacing your current mic or moving upscale, just put your old one away, stored properly.

USB mics will continue to improve. Although our findings suggest that entry-level USB mics still aren't 100% equal to traditional studio equipment, every year they get better. Soon, interfaces and XLR cables will likely be things of the past. So why not skip those investments and begin this way now?

Are any of the USB mics sufficient for a beginner to launch their career? With proper mic technique and a good sounding recording room, any of these USB mics would be useable to a good sound engineer. The MK4 is probably most comparable to standard XLR type large diaphragm condensers. It was the best of all the USB mics.

But ... the XLR version of the MK4 is actually less expensive than its USB counterpart. According to the Sweetwater catalog, you can buy the standard MK4, with a shockmount, for $399.95 total. The MK4 USB is $399.95 total, and doesn’t come with a shockmount. Add the shockmount at $99.95, and your total is right at $500. Then again, for the XLR version you’ll need to purchase an interface, which could cost around $150 -- bringing the total price to $550. While the XLR/interface option would cost $50 more, that option could provide greater flexibility, better quality and possibly more years of use.

And the others? While the MK4 is possibly the best, any of the others could work. Yeti Pro was Dan’s second choice. AT2020 a close third. However, neither of these second two are great for travel.

How close in quality do the better USBs come to the XLRs? In the blind test, Dan didn’t choose any of the USB mics over the XLR mics overall. (The MK4 did have a slight edge over the Blue Spark.) Self-noise was a bit of an issue with nearly all the USB mics. Furthermore, smoothness across the frequency spectrum seemed to be lacking in nearly all of the USB mics compared to the XLR mics.

In short, are they "professional"?

Yes and no. Overall, for use in a commercial studio, USB mics aren't there yet. Dan felt this test proves that decent XLR mics sound better than most USBs.

However, in home studios, USB mics may have a role. They’re well suited for learning the VO craft. And assuming you have a good sounding recording room and are trained on mic technique, they’re solid enough for your daily work as a professional voice artist. (Again, we stress that good mic technique in a good sounding room can help make even a low-quality mic sound pretty good.)

In addition, USB mics are also used by working pros when traveling.

For your first mic, that might be sufficient. Bear in mind our advice above: For a mic to make you sound like a professional, first you have to sound professional. And so does your recording room. Choose the mic that will most easily and economically work with that.

Here are the reviews

For the five mics that came to us fresh from Sweetwater, Dan included his observations seeing them straight from the box.

A -- Apogee MiC (USB) (Apogee has replaced this early version with newer MiC models.) Very compact, stand is flimsy, sensitive gain control.
Picking up the most room noise.
Hollow-sounding and a bit harsh in the top end.

B -- Sennheiser MK 4 digital USB
Does not come with a stand. Comes with Lightning cable in addition to USB. Same type of connector to mic as Apogee MiC. There is also analog version. No indicator to show it’s live. No gain control through the mic -- you must use the computer's audio input preferences. Needs about 3 seconds to “warm up”.
Low self-noise (but a little)
A bit of crackle initially.
Decent presence and warmer than previous.

C -- BLUE Yeti Pro XLR and USB
Very heavy and bulky. Four polar patterns. Had USB and XLR connectivity. Had to put gain all the way up to get a decent level, not much headroom.
Pretty quiet overall (room noise)
Small digital glitch occurred while recording, definitely not a plosive.
A bit thinner than previous.

D -- Miktek ProCast SST USB Broadcast Microphone with Mixer (USB)
Definitely not something you’d travel with; it is not very portability. Very fancy looking. Ready to use out of the box; an impressive little setup - very cool and simple. Includes mic, mic stand, mixer. Seems like podcasting setup -- maybe that’s why it’s called “procast”? Mic is tiny, with two modes (flat and bass roll-off). Started up seamlessly with computer. Has level meter on mixer; had to crank it up high to get enough level, not much headroom.
Lots of hiss
Sounds distant and thin
Least impressive overall sound quality.

E -- Audio-Technica AT2020USBi (USB)
Weak levels -- turned all the way up and still low. Flimsy stand, especially for the weight of the mic. Mic itself is solidly built. No headphone jack for playback.
A little noisy
A tad, squawky-sounding
Nice overall clarity but a little edgy at the top end.

F -- Blue Raspberry Studio USB (USB)
Feels cheap, all plastic parts. Comes with Lightning cable. Plug into phone or computer directly. Easy controls on either side of the mic for gain and headphone levels. Fancy packaging.
Kind of noisy (static sound)
Not very smooth sounding across the frequency range.
Fragmented and harsh at the top.

G -- Shure MV51 Digital (USB) – voice mode
Heavy -- not optimal for traveling. Mounts to a mic stand, but comes with own kickstand. Has headphone jack for monitoring. Came with Lightning cable. Plugs into phone or computer directly. Has touchpad gain control - was a little clunky to use.
Very quiet (low self-noise)
Fuzzy in the top end
Dull … Not very crisp

H -- Shure MV51 Digital (USB) – singing mode
(Same "out of the box" observations as above.)
Very dull in the top end
Hollow sounding
Least desirable.

I -- Studio Projects C1 (XLR)
Very quiet, low self-noise
One of the smoothest across the frequencies

J -- Blue Spark (XLR) (This version does not have the newer Blue Spark SL (XLR) version's pad and roll-off switches, but the internal electronics are reportedly otherwise unchanged.)
A little edgy in top end
Quiet overall (noise)

K -- Rode NT2-A (XLR)
Very quiet, low self-noise
Smooth across all frequencies

L -- Sennheiser MKH 416
Best of all
Without question the quietest overall and smoothest across all frequencies

Top 4 Favorites
1st: L - Sennheiser 416
2nd: K - Rode NT2A
3rd: I - Studio Projects C1
4th: B - Sennheiser MK4

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A Newbie's Ear

As a new student with Edge, I've been researching equipment to set up a home studio. Although with my less experienced ears, I had checked C as sounding a little better than A and B, and actually had chosen H as being a decent sound when it was determined to be the least desirable USB, all of the mics that sounded best to me were XLRs: I circled K and L as my favorites, and had checked off I, the Studio Projects C1 as also sounding a bit better than the other mics. This was a really helpful article and has decided me on an XLR for my home studio, even if it is just in a closet for now ;-)

USB/XLR shootout

Brilliant and helpful shootout. What an achievement by the VO, to stay so consistent. I did listen blind, but needed to skip the noise that betrayed most of the USBs!
Yes, I scribbled Good on MK416, NT2A and C1 - all XLRs. One USB, the MK4, had decent presence I thought, if a bit scooped. MV51 USB I did prefer, but you found it dull!
The other USBs just had nasty capsule quality: thin, boxy, distant - reflecting prices I suppose, though I haven't checked those out yet. Onward and upward!

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