USB vs XLR Microphones (Differences & Which Is Best?)

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  • Learn The Differences Between USB And XLR Microphones
  • Understand The Different XLR Mic Types
  • Learn Which Of The Two Sounds Best, and Why
  • Also, Check Out Our Types Of Microphones Quick Guide!

Knowing which microphone to buy can be a tricky subject, after all, it’s easy to get bogged down in mic characteristics and qualities and before you know it you’re confused as heck and back where you started.

Luckily a little knowledge goes a long way!

An XLR microphone (as you can guess) uses an XLR connection in order to convert sound energy into electrical energy, whereas a USB microphone simply uses a USB cable to connect to a computer and produce sound.

These might seem like small differences but their uses and the equipment you need to be able to operate them differs greatly and you may find one much more suited to your particular needs.

In this article, we’ll talk you through using an XLR vs USB mic and why you might choose one over the other.

How Do XLR Microphones Work?

An XLR microphone is arguably the most common type of mic that you will come across.

You’ll have seen them used countless times in the studio and on stage and if you’ve ever been in a recording studio you will more than likely have seen XLR leads coiled up and hung on a wall.

An XLR lead typically has three prongs on one end and three small sockets on the other.

There are multiple types of XLR microphones which usually fall into three categories:

  1. Condenser Microphones
  2. Dynamic Microphones
  3. Ribbon Microphones

1. Condenser Microphones

A condenser mic tends to be the most sensitive type of microphone. These are often used for recording vocals or instruments with a low volume.

A condenser will require a small electric charge known as phantom power to be able to work.

2. Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic mics are also extremely common in the studio and live. The SM58 is an example of a dynamic mic that has withstood the test of time and can be seen in pretty much any live concert setup.

Dynamic mics do not require phantom power and are less sensitive than condenser mics.

3. Ribbon Microphones

Less commonly seen than condenser and dynamic microphones, but still widely used, a ribbon mic typically uses a thin metal ribbon to transfer sound in a recording situation.

They are less durable than dynamic and condenser mics but nonetheless are popular in studios worldwide but wouldn’t normally be used for applications such as streaming or podcasting.

So why do you need to know this to understand how an XLR mic works?

Well technically you don’t, but it’s worthwhile taking a bit of time to understand each one and how you would set these up to record or stream.

An XLR microphone works by converting sound energy, into electrical energy (via the XLR cable itself) which in turn is converted back to sound energy at the mixing desk, headphones, or monitors.

In order to be able to use an XLR microphone, you will need a preamp. This is because the incoming sound level from a microphone tends to be very weak, so a preamp is used to raise the level to a point where it is suitable to either record or broadcast.

If you’re recording digitally (which most of us are nowadays!) you would also need an audio interface to be able to convert your audio into a digital signal that your DAW can understand. Most audio interfaces include a preamp, such as a Focusrite Scarlett, which are very affordable and easy to use. 

This is where it’s good to know your type of XLR mic.

For example, if you’re using a condenser microphone you’ll need to ensure the channel you are using on your audio interface has phantom power, otherwise, you’ll hear nothing.

Similarly, if you’re using a dynamic or ribbon mic, it’s important to make sure that phantom power is turned off, otherwise, you can risk damaging the microphone itself.

So as you can see, the principle of using an XLR mic is very simple, but there are some added points to think about before you start recording to make sure you are set up correctly and not risking damaging your microphone.

You’ll also need to consider the extra gear you might need.

How Do USB Microphones Work?

Until around 2005 microphones were almost exclusively XLR microphones. That was until the USB microphone came along.

A USB mic actually uses a similar theory to an XLR microphone, however, they simply use a USB lead to convert the sound into a digital signal which can be fed into a computer.

For a USB mic to work you actually need very little expertise as it’s a case of simply plugging it into your computer or laptop and that’s it. 

You would not need an audio interface to be able to record with a USB mic and this is why they have become increasingly popular due to their low price, ease of use, and functionality.

If you’re looking to pick up a USB check out our pick of the 8 Best USB Microphones For Streaming & Podcasts.

Use Cases

Whilst there is no black and white rule, you’d generally find XLR mics being used more in a recording situation, whereas a USB mic will more likely be found in a streaming, podcasting, or YouTubing scenario.

There is of course no reason why one can’t be used for another but a lot of streamers, or similar, will opt for mics like a Blue Yeti as it’s affordable, easy to use, and can integrate well into their setup.

You are unlikely to find a USB mic in a recording studio, however. When we’re talking about pro audio, much more attention is paid to things like frequency response, clarity, warmth, and, well, many other factors that can go into a studio engineer’s choice of equipment.

Is an audiophile going to pay attention to the sound quality of a song they are listening to? Absolutely.

Is someone watching a Twitch stream going to be concerned with the tone of the mic they are listening to? Probably not.

That’s not to say that a streamer wouldn’t use an XLR mic and audio interface. In fact, the Shure SM7b has become hugely popular in and out of the studio for its clarity and tone. This would require a preamp to lift the signal but it has become a firm favorite for producers, podcasters, gamers, and more.

Which Is Best, USB Mic Vs XLR?

This really does depend on your circumstances. If you’re looking for something you can plug in and use with minimal fuss then a USB might suit your needs most.

However, if you’re a singer looking to record clean-sounding, quality vocals then an XLR mic with an audio interface is probably more applicable to what you are aiming for.

There are a couple of other factors to take into account as well. For example, you might find your USB mic isn’t as sturdy as an XLR mic, and normally any breakages or faults result in having to buy a completely brand new mic.

On the plus side, USB mics can be pretty cheap so it really isn’t the end of the world if your unit needs replacing.

On the other side of the coin, XLR mics may be more sturdy but you’re likely looking at a heftier price tag, plus the cost of an audio interface and any other additional extras such as a pop shield, mic stand, and XLR lead.

The quality you’ll get with an XLR mic will generally be better than a USB mic and much more suited to music production. 

FAQs

What Mic Do Most Streamers Use?

First of all, check out our post on the best USB mics for streaming and podcasting.

Anyway, we’ve mentioned the Blue Yeti already, and this tends to be a go-to USB model. It’s reliable, it doesn’t cost a fortune and of course, it’s very easy to use.

There is a wide range of XLR mics that streamers use but the Blue Yeti is arguably the most popular.

In terms of XLR mics, the Shure SM7b tends to be seen the most in a streamer’s setup. Although the microphone is quite pricey, the sound is fantastic and the mic is sturdy and robust.

If you’re looking to invest in a similar mic, the MV7 shaves a bit off the SM7b price tag but still sounds great.

Why Do XLR Mics Sound Better Than USB Mics?

To outright say that all XLR mics are superior in sound to USB mics is a bit of a false statement. After all, you can pick up a really cheap XLR mic and find it sounds terrible!

Generally, though, the components are of a higher quality and the addition of an audio interface or preamp can add coloration which sounds a lot more pleasant to the listener.

There’s also more scope for customization. For example, many mics come with switchable polar patterns (changing the direction in which it picks up sound) as well as high pass filters which can help eliminate unwanted room noise, and pads to reduce the signal should it be too loud. 

Is An XLR Mic Worth It For Streaming?

A tricky question. It goes without saying that the more you invest in your gear, the better it will sound but if you are just starting out and wanting to get into streaming, then a USB mic will be a lot easier on your bank balance and still produce great results.

We’d recommend starting with a USB mic for this reason and working up to an XLR as time goes if that becomes your preference. 

Don’t forget to check out our list of the Best XLR Cables For Home Recording.

Why Is The Shure SM7B So Popular With Streamers And Podcasters?

We could probably write a whole article on this one!

Aside from just saying ‘they sound great’, SM7B’s are a dynamic mic, which means they are less sensitive than a condenser mic.

This also means they won’t pick up on a lot of annoying room noises (whether that’s computers humming, air conditioning units, or people moving around).

They also offer excellent off-axis rejection meaning any noise coming from behind the mic isn’t picked up very well. In a podcasting situation, particularly if there are other guests, this means they won’t pick on the additional talking.

This is vital for post-production where the mixer will need a clean take from each participant in order to EQ and compress the recording properly.

Looking to pick up an SM7B? Head over to our full SM7B review, as well as the Best SM7B Preamps.