How good can these things sound? In a word, “really.”

Sure, USB microphones are convenient; set up takes just a computer cable from the mic to a computer or iPad. But are these just convenient toys for those without the budget for real preamps and converters, or are they seriously useable tools? Before this evaluation, I simply wanted to know. So this evaluation was a test: not a true shootout, but more an exploratory-, or discovery-based, test.

There were two reasons I decided to do this: one, I just got an iPad 4 and two, I don’t know any professional recording engineers that have ever tried a USB mic. For several years now, people have asked me what I think of USB mics — musicians and singers mostly — and I had no answer. It was time for that to change.

To be clear, this is not a mic “shootout.” No level calibration was attempted during recording. I’ve been doing product shootouts for over 30 years and I know that the first rule is to make sure the levels are absolutely matched, to make sure the audible differences are not just level-related because volume differences as small as 0.1 dB can skew a sonic evaluation.

No Calibration?

“So why not calibrate these mics?” Well, the reason is because these mics all have built-in preamps and A-D converters, meaning the output level is predetermined (except for two products, the Apogee MiC and Blue Yeti Pro). The user simply gets a stream of bits at the USB Out and plugs it into a computer — easy. The upside? A USB mic takes a lot of the set up, options (what preamp, mic cable, ADC, etc.) and potential headaches (wiring, grounding) out of the equation. The downside? No volume control, of course. Imagine how silly it would be to have a preamp or console with no volume control. One volume setting works for everything, right? Not hardly. So, in evaluating these samples, it is the listener’s job to adjust the faders to match levels.

In Use

I tried the following microphones with two common sources: spoken voice and electric guitar. I chose spoken voice because many of these mics are targeted at voiceover/podcast talent. Many of those customers are not professional voiceover artists, so I decided to do the voice myself. I chose electric guitar because I thought that would be quite a challenge. All mics were recorded into the WaveMachine Labs’ Auria DAW on an iPad 4.

Caption (image at right): The collection of USB (and other) mics in front of the guitar cabinet.

Here are the mics in alphabetical order:

1. Apogee Mic ($199 street): This is one startling little microphone. At only 4.5 inches tall and small enough to wrap my hand around, it looks like a toy. But this cardioid condenser really surprised me, mounted on its tiny camera-threaded tripod stand and plugged into an iPhone 4/iPad 3 (with the Apogee-proprietary locking connector to 30-pin MFi connector). It includes a very useful multicolor LED on the front (Blue for standby, Green for idle, Bright green for volume and Red for overload) and a Gain control on the side. The included cable is short (0.5m) but longer cables (3m, to MFi or USB Type A) are available, along with an adapter to mount the mic on a standard 5/8-inch mic stand. This mic includes a preamp with 40 dB of gain and offers 24-bit/44.1 or 48 kHz recording. The good thing is that it sounds great and is small enough to fit in a bag or pocket.

2. Audio-Technica AT2005 USB ($149 list/$80 street): This is the lone dynamic mic in this group and I’ll admit that it was surprising to look at the end of a handheld mic and see not only an XLR out but also a 1/8-inch headphone output with volume control and a USB Mini-B output. Wow. And a screaming bright Blue LED to indicate power applied. It comes with a mic clip, storage bag, small desktop tripod stand and cables, with 16-bit/44.1 and 48 kHz output.

3. Audio-Technica AT2020 USB ($249 list/$149 street): This is A-T’s standard 2020 cardioid condenser side address mic with built-in preamp and ADC, terminating in a USB Type B output. It features a very open grille, screw-on mic clip, desktop tripod stand and cables. It also includes a subtle Blue LED within the head basket to indicate power on, with 16-bit/44.1 and 48 kHz output.

4. Blue Snowball ($99 street): This switchable cardioid/omnidirectional condenser mic is about the size of a softball, about four-inches across. While visually striking in bright chrome (or white or black), its size can pose problems for placement at times, even with the swivel mount. Featuring a USB Type B output, it offers Cardioid, padded Cardioid (-10) and Omni patterns at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz output (though I did record samples at 48 kHz). It comes with a desktop tripod stand and cables, too.

5. Blue Yeti Pro ($249 street): A very large mic (8- x 3.5-inches), the Yeti Pro offers the most flexibility of the mics auditioned here. Featuring a tri-capsule array, this is the only mic in the group that will output stereo. It also offers 24-bit/192 kHz recording and a headphone out. Other options unique to it are a Mute switch and selectable patterns: Cardioid, Omni, Bidirectional and Stereo. A stereo XLR (five pin) output means it can be easily used in the studio.

6. Internal iPad 4 mic: I know some might be surprised that I’m including this mic but the truth is that there are people making recordings with it. It is inexpensive (free with the iPad) and doesn’t require carrying any cables to use it, plus you can’t forget or misplace it. It pretty much is what it is and offers no options.

[Since a USB mic provides the clock for the iPad, when plugging in a mic, turn the monitors down. There will be audible thumps as the iPad re-establishes the clock source. - Ed.]

On Voice

Caption (image at right): Clean and simple: Apogee’s MiC plugged directly into an iPad 4 recording into GarageBand

For the voiceover recordings, I did even out the levels a bit in software after the recording, but it is not calibrated, though. The difference in level from softest to loudest was over 20 dB, so I decided to pre-adjust them. Here are my findings.

Apogee MiC: This mic sounds very clear and natural, as one would expect of a studio condenser. Its grille is very open and transparent, as is the sound of the mic. I think it sounds very good. The combination of its sound, diminutive size and single cable connection make it one of my top choices. For plug-and-play simplicity, it is the best choice I tried. The only problem I had with it is one not uncommon to studio condenser mics: sensitivity to plosives. Once it was outfitted with a foam pop filter, it was fine. It’s a bright mic and a little lean on the bottom.

Audio-Technica AT2005 USB: I like that this mic has an XLR out in addition to a USB out. Being able to work the mic closely yields enhanced low end, due to proximity, which is frequently flattering for voice, especially mine. This is really an excellent mic, especially when you consider that similar dynamic mics cost the same without built-in preamp/ADC/USB out/headphone amp. It also minimizes room pickup if you are in a noisy or reflective room. For under $100, this is a great value. If someone needs a handheld mic that works onstage/studio or for doing interviews plugged into an iPhone, this is the ticket. The only other mic I used that offers a headphone out is Blue’s Yeti Pro.

Audio-Technica AT2020 USB: This solid, all-metal bodied mic has been very well received because it looks and feels like a professional mic (which it is a studio-grade 2020 outfitted with USB), has great clarity, nice full low end and there are no variables. Just plug it in and go. It sounds great on voice and can be worked close with the addition of a pop filter. For podcasters, this very affordable mic gets my strong recommendation.

Blue Snowball: If you’re looking for a present sound and don’t mind the size, this is a good mic. Its very non-traditional design will certainly grab the attention of all who see it. Plus it’s very affordable. As a matter of fact, I borrowed this one from my 15-year-old son, who got it for his birthday. (Is that a sign of the times, or what? Borrowing a mic from a teenage son.) Although I wasn’t fond of the sound of it on my voice, having dual patterns would be a plus in some situations.

Blue Yeti Pro: This mic really is a standout, and in many ways. Though it’s the most expensive in this lineup, it offers lots of value. It’s capable of a wide range of sounds because all the patterns sound surprisingly different. Add in the ability to record in stereo — at sample rates up to 192 kHz — and it’s unique. Because of its circumference, I don’t know of a foam pop filter that would fit, but a Popper-Stopper type filter would work fine. It comes with a large, heavy metal base that holds the mic at a great height for desktop voice recording, but it’s time consuming to unscrew for mounting on a regular mic stand. The built-in mute button and variable gain are definite pluses, but my headphones (Audio-Technica ATH-M50) kept slipping partly out of the headphone jack, even when mounted sideways. I would highly recommend this mic for voice or other applications. If portability is an issue, however, then this mic drops in terms of desirability; it’s the largest of this group and requires a powered USB hub to power the mic, which adds to connections and setup time not to mention proximity to a 120V outlet. All the other mics were happy with the power from the iPad’s Lightning connector. Please note that the Yeti Pro’s Gain control is still in the circuit when using the XLR output. I found that very peculiar, and users should be aware of that.

iPad 4 internal mic: This is not a bad mic considering the cost (free with iPad purchase). Its biggest asset is also its biggest drawback if you’re recording to an iPad; I had to hit record and then pick it up or stand-mount it and sing/play into the end of the iPad, which is a definite drawback when recording voice. I could record off-axis while looking at the screen, but then the sound is compromised and in a live space, it picks up lots of room ambience. Another huge factor is that it rolls off the bottom end substantially in order to avoid plosives and wind noise, rolling off about 150 Hz and is down 20 dB by 100 Hz. So, with it, I can’t make quality recordings of any source that has low frequency content, or even voice for that matter, with nothing below 150 Hz.

On Electric Guitar

For recording electric guitar, the biggest impediment turned out to be the lack of gain controls on the mics. If a mic’s gain is optimized for speaking voice, then it may work fine for acoustic guitar, but what about trumpet or electric guitar or a screaming singer? That’s what I wanted to check. The first step was coming up with a great guitar tone. My buddy, Peter Warren (peterkendallwarren.com) did that very well. I put no restrictions on him as he dialed in a sound. When he was done, the amp was putting out a measured 112 dB SPL A-weighted at one inch off the speaker grille, a typical mic position. [See sidebar for Pete’s guitar equipment list. - Ed.] For reference, I also recorded a Cascade Fathead II short-ribbon (w/ Lundahl transformer) and my stock SM57 in the same position, using three different preamps: Focusrite Scarlett 18i6, PreSonus AudioBox 1818VSL and a CEntrance MicPort Pro. Note that the levels (unless the mic had a Gain control) are “what you get is what you get,” meaning all over the map and quite hot.

Apogee MiC: As we set up and tried out different mics, this was the first one that made me smile. The Apogee was clear and bright and not overdriven, thanks to the gain pot. I was impressed at how it handled the high SPLs. Two samples are offered: One at a typical level and the other hotter (gain turned up on the mic), which was comparable to the other USB mics.

Audio-Technica AT2005 USB: Here’s one example of what happens when a mic that is gain-staged for voice is put in front of a loud guitar amp. It’s right up in the red all the time. Sure, I could have turned down the amp but that would have changed the tone which is not what I wanted. I wasn’t trying to taper or accommodate the guitar sound to the mic. It should be the other way around. The AT2005 USB is very bright and very loud. Compare the USB OUT recorded sample to the other AT2005 sample that used the XLR out to the Focusrite 18i6 interface at a more reasonable level.

Audio-Technica AT2020 USB: You can hear the difference in the bottom end, but clearly this mic is also drastically overdriven. Thus, it’s not ideally suited for this application.

Blue Snowball: This mic has the hottest output of all the straight (no gain knob) mics tested. In Cardioid (Position 1), it is clearly gasping and putting out long strings of digital 1s. Positions 2 and 3 fare better, but still are not desirable to my ears.

Blue Yeti Pro: I didn’t expect much from this little R2D2-looking mic. Boy, was I wrong. The recording level is lower (on purpose, controlled by the gain knob) but it offers three distinctly different tones and the Fig. 8 audio clip really floored me because it had so much beef. Remember that this mic has three 14mm condenser capsules under the hood. I was really shocked. I also took the Cardioid setting via XLR out to the Focusrite 18i6 and tried it that way too, which sounded different than the USB out. Both were very useable. I’m looking forward to taking this mic into the studio with me. I also included a recorded sample of the Stereo Out just for grins.

iPad 4 internal mic: Want to hear what a beefy overdriven electric guitar sounds like with nothing below 150 Hz, especially when it’s drastically overdriven? Watch out. It’s not pretty.

Summary

The two standouts in this lineup were (perhaps not surprisingly) the two most expensive mics — Apogee’s MiC and Blue’s Yeti Pro. A critical factor is that they both include gain controls, which I consider essential for any professional recording tasks. They also sound great; they are good enough that I look forward to trying them out in the studio, although the Apogee’s lack of XLR Out will make that challenging (maybe a cable for Apogee Out to XLR should be considered).

The real eye-opener was the quality of these mics at this price point (all under $250) and the fact that all include built-in preamps, ADCs and connect with a single USB cable. That’s impressive. I think many of these mics would be very useful in the hands of a professional.

Any working pro engineer will want the answer to this one final question: Do these USB mics sound as good as a high-dollar mic through an expensive preamp, cable, and converter using a solid clock source? In my opinion, no. Others, however, might not discern an appreciable difference. Or be able to afford that difference. To my ears, there is.

Sidebar: Pete Warren’s Guitar Rig

An early 90’s MIM (Made in Mexico) Fender Stratocaster neck on a newer MIA (Made in USA) Strat Body, DiMarzio ProTrack Bridge Pickup with a 500k volume pot. All cables are Mogami Gold with Switchcraft ends. An L.A. Sound Design (LASD) Buffer/Interface set in Vintage mode went to an XAct Tone Solutions XTS Preamp, used for Atomic Overdrive, was then routed back into the LASD Interface to an Egnater 15w Tweaker head with stock tubes, into a 1x12 Egnater cabinet with a Celestion G12H-30 12-inch speaker. Mics were positioned dead center of the cone, exactly 6.5 inches below the cabinet lip.