There are some great microphones available for podcast production, some of which are USB and some XLR. What are the main differences though and which one should you choose? In this article, we explore those differences to help you decide. Let us start with the most obvious difference.
A USB microphone plugs directly into the USB port of a computer whereas an XLR microphone needs to be connected to an external device which can either be an audio interface, a mixer or digital recorder. In many cases, the same condenser element is used.
If the same element is used, why then might the USB version of a microphone differ to that which uses an XLR connection? The difference is down to how the analogue to digital signal conversion is made. This is where things get interesting…
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USB microphones have a built-in preamp and analogue to digital converter. This means that they’re ‘plug and play’ in that you can plug the mic straight into your computer’s USB port and start recording. No other hardware is required and if you pick the right mic, you can get great sounding audio with minimal effort.
In contrast, XLR microphones don’t have an in-built preamp or analogue to digital converter, therefore they require both of these things to function correctly. When podcasting, the most common piece of equipment to provide this is an audio interface. The XLR mic plugs into the audio interface and the audio interface plugs into your computer via the USB port. Audio interfaces have their own preamps and handle the signal processing as well as supplying phantom power to the microphone if required (not all XLR mics require phantom power).
The real advantage of using an XLR mic with an audio interface is that you can match the two things to give you the best possible results. It might be that a certain audio interface provides a great sound from your favourite XLR mic or you could even use an external preamp which would sit between your mic and audio interface potentially providing an even better sound and giving you more options to play with.
For some people, this might seem like hard work and the plug and play route is the preferred one. If that sounds like you, a good quality USB mic is likely to be the best option for you. For me personally, I want that versatility. I want to invest in a robust, high quality XLR microphone which I can use with my audio interface, my mixer and my field recorder for when podcasting on location but more on that shortly.
Variety and Versatility
One thing that XLR mics do have in their favour is the sheer range available. Dynamic or condenser, shotgun or lavalier, the options are vast which makes them extremely versatile.
This may not sound like a deal breaker as there are also plenty of good USB microphones on the new and used market, however, if for example the room you record your podcast in isn’t ideal in terms of sound treatment (and therefore echo is an issue), a dynamic mic would be preferable as it’s easier to get a good sound from a dynamic mic in those conditions than it is a condenser and the majority of USB mics are condensers.
Another reason XLR mics are more versatile is because they can be used with different external devices. As mentioned earlier, you’d use an audio interface if you wanted to send audio to your computer but if you were recording on location, for example when interviewing a guest for your podcast, you’d generally be using a digital field recorder, most of which feature XLR inputs but not USB inputs.
You may even end up recording a panel discussion for your show where multiple microphones need setting up and running into a mixer. In this scenario, XLR mics are the way to go.
Does this mean that XLR mics are the way to go in all cases? Absolutely not. One of the downsides of them is the cost. You can get budget XLR mics but remember that you also need to factor in the cost of the additional equipment to run them. At the very minimum a user interface so you can use the mic with your computer. Buy a good user interface though and that can be a one-time purchase. If you change your mic in the future and swap it for a different XLR mic, you can continue to use your existing interface. The same applies for mixers and field recorders.
At this point, you may be thinking ‘I know about all the benefits of XLR mics now but it’s all a bit overkill, I just want to focus on recording my podcast’. I get it. Some of us like gear, like playing with different pieces of equipment to get incremental gains in our audio quality and enjoy that side of podcasting as much as sitting with a guest and producing an awesome interview. If that’s not you though, if you just want to focus on getting the best possible content for your show and the audio production side of things is a bit overwhelming, a USB mic would probably be the way to go.
It’s worth noting that although there are multiple benefits of XLR mics, there are still some fantastic USB mics on the market. Just make sure you do your research and pick the right one.
One thing that should be mentioned in this comparison is durability. XLR is seen as the industry standard in professional audio, therefore manufacturers expect XLR mics to take some abuse. From dynamic models that are shoved inside bass drums on a live music stage to shotgun mics being dropped outdoors on a film set, build quality is key. USB mics are made to be plugged into a computer. Computers are almost exclusively indoors and are not subject to anything that means they need to be built to withstand poor conditions.
If anything does break on an XLR mic, it’s much easier to replace the individual components than it is in a USB mic as XLR mics don’t contain all of the electrical wiring that USB mics do (remember those in-built preamps and signal converters inside of a USB mic…)
Hopefully, you now have more of an understanding of the differences and the things you need to consider when you’re weighing up what type of microphone to buy. To finish up, we’ve put together a list of pros and cons for both XLR and USB microphones.
XLR – Pros
- Swap and change your preamps, audio interfaces, mixers or field recorders to achieve the sound you’re looking for
- Lots of options to suit every application
- XLR mics are built to last – invest in a good one then treat it well and you’re unlikely to ever need to replace it
XLR – Cons
- Because additional equipment is needed for it to work properly, the up-front cost can be quite high
- If you get overwhelmed by the audio engineering side of things and are not interested in learning more about it (which is of course fine), the complexities involved in getting the best out of a good XLR mic may put you off
USB – Pros
- Plug and play
- If you just want to get podcasting without the burden of having to think too much about gear, a USB mic would be a great choice – plug it into your computer and get recording
- Although there’s an investment to make in a good USB mic, no other additional equipment is needed therefore keeping the cost lower than it would be if you needed to buy an audio interface too
USB – Cons
- A USB mic is only good for plugging into a computer. If you plan to record on location or interview multiple guests, you’ll very quickly find yourself looking at XLR options
- USB mics are built with indoor conditions in mind so if you do plan to do any sort of audio work on location, it may not be the best choice
Good luck with whatever route you take, there are some great options in both camps so the trick is to work out which is best for your specific needs and then to pick the mic which will give you the best possible audio quality for your budget.