Why USB microphones are worse than classic XLR microphones

Why USB microphones are worse than classic XLR

USB micro or audio interface and jack / XLR micro

Often it pays to buy a “real” microphone and an audio interface more than a podcast micro

Advantages and Disadvantages of USB Microphones – If voice or vocals are to be recorded with the computer or the tablet in good quality, be it for podcasts, let’s plays, video dubbing or just the recording for the band, then you land quickly with the USB microphone. Sure, there are some advantages of the Plug’n’Play microphones, but there are a number of serious disadvantages as well. And this is exactly what I want to ride around on – because not everything that is up to date and practical is automatically better.

When rather the acquisition of a microphone with XLR (or even jack) rather worthwhile.

What is a USB microphone? Where is the difference to a “normal” micro?

A USB microphone combines the components microphone, microphone preamplifier and audio interface. It can be connected directly to a computer or mobile device.

What sets a USB microphone apart from the traditional, normal solution

A USB microphone appears to those who have never dealt with the subject before, simply and logically, the otherwise traditional technical solution unnecessarily complicated. Sure: If I have a keyboard that caches the information about my keystroke directly via USB to the computer, then a USB microphone can do exactly as I say or sing. That’s right – and that’s how it is done.

The “normal” microphone is connected to a microphone preamp via an XLR cable. In some cases, you need to provide the microphone with a voltage for it to work. Behind this microphone preamplifier, the signal has so-called “line level” and can be sent to other devices or to analog-to-digital converters, or audio interfaces with corresponding analog inputs. Many audio interfaces today have built-in microphone preamps.

The usual connection to the computer is via USB, in some cases also other interfaces. A USB microphone is virtually everything in a case. The microphone capsule, which converts sound into voltage, any microphone electronics, microphone pre-amplification, AD conversion and computer interface are housed in a practical box that fits on the microphone stand and only needs to be connected via USB.

Practicality of podcast / USB microphones: Yes, really?

One of the main arguments for buying a USB microphone is the practicality. You only have one device that delivers everything, put it in and get started. Anyone who ever had to perform the often fumbling operation on the front, back or side (or even combinations thereof!) Of a USB microphone, knows that this is not necessarily an ergonomic advantage. Because an external audio interface can also be in view and access while speaking or singing, this is often more pleasant for the workflow. In addition, there are strong micro-borne sound transmissions for every mic I know, if you just want to change the headphone level.

Why USB microphones are worse than classic XLR-1

USB microphone Beyerdynamic Fox

Monitoring with USB microphones: often suboptimal

There are USB microphones, where monitoring is very rudimentary or not intended. In these cases, there is no direct control. Although it is possible in most recording programs, which bring a reasonably professional signal flow structure, the incoming signal on headphones again. This can be connected directly to almost all computers and tablets. However, then there are AD and DA converter, various processing steps and buffers in this signal path.

Through this “software monitoring”, the signal comes with perceptible delay (“latency”) on the headphones, making a speaking or singing difficult to impossible. And of course, if you want to sing, you usually do that to a playback track in order to be right rhythmically and tonally. Is not this possibility by the USB microphone, it is usually vinegar with music, because all conceivable workarounds are very unsatisfactory.

And if you have separate rooms, you can usually forget the classic recording situation with USB microphones: You can connect a second pair of headphones to a jack on the microphone (for impedance reasons, not optimally!), But those who want to listen in on latency-free speakers will notice that there are no USB-Micro connection options for this.

Why USB microphones are worse than classic XLR

USB: Not necessarily the most practical and best solution

Other monitoring issues: It’s limited to headphones – plus one. If someone wants to listen in as an engineer or speak or sing and maybe have a different mix, then that’s not possible. Which is also a problem: If you want to record someone while listening to monitor boxes, it also gets complicated because the structure of USB microphones does not provide that – but the current audio interfaces almost always.

Sound quality of USB microphones

In theory, there is little to complain about the concept of the USB microphone, as far as the difference in sound quality to classic microphones is concerned. Whether the pre-amplification and the AD-conversion now happens in an external box or directly in the microphone, is finally not important. The fact that everything can be done in the smallest of spaces and with only a small amount of power is also not an apt argument, because, for example, the preamp converter system HAPI – cost over 6,000 euros – is also quite small and consumes 30 watts for 16 channels. And it sounds incredibly good.

Frequently, however, the pricing of a USB microphone is very much in the foreground, which is why in doubt rather mediocre preamp and converter stages are installed. You can hear that partly clearly. Sometimes even very old, technically obsolete components are used, some even with only 16 bits instead of the usual 24 today.

And that’s almost the next problem: pre-amplification and digital resolution! In order to make good use of an AD converter, the microphone signal has to be brought to such a high level by a “gain” by a microphone preamplifier that it has a high distance from noise and quantization distortions, but at the same time does not shoot over the maximum representable level, which is extremely unpleasant Distortion (“clipping”). If a USB micro does not have this option, you will either have a signal that is too low or too low for “safety reasons” or it will not be able to record louder sources. Or both.

Through USB microphones: Sound technology work is restricted, development hindered

These are tough words in the paragraph heading, but they are apt: the sound engineer can choose from equipment combinations by considering which microphone with which preamp best suits the recording purpose. Good: Anyone who just owns a first microphone and a small audio interface with built-in preamp, which can not. But he can expand!

If the money is there, you might invest in a characterful preamp (like the Fredenstein VAS ) or a small channel strip , an API Series 500 module . Or, another microphone is bought because it is found that the large-diaphragm vocal microphone is sometimes inferior to a voice coil microphone such as the EV RE20 or the Shure SM7B . Or the small budget audio interface is being exchanged for a newer, better one, one with DSP capabilities (like the UA Apollo) or simply more inputs and outputs needed. Also stupid: Since you have a USB micro maybe a transducer that is suitable, but this is a single-channel. To record a stereo atmosphere, microfone the acoustic guitar on the bridge and body? Maybe borrow or buy a little extra equipment to record a drumkit or a complete music group? This is almost impossible, the possible approaches, such as the use of a “Aggregated Device” in Mac OS are not really satisfactory. Take turns, try out or upgrade? With USB microphones, this is often almost impossible and that speaks against acquiring it in the first place.

Why USB microphones are worse than classic XLR

Well, which plug will you be able to use in a few years or decades?

USB microphones: future-proofing and sustainability?

In 2038, try to put a USB micro into operation. With a Schoeps Colette you will probably still succeed quite easily. It can be assumed that the USB standard will survive a few more years. However, even current standards will eventually become obsolete. Anyone who wants to connect, for example, the Midiman Portman 4×4 can understand this. Launched in 1996, the device was one of the most timing-stable and hassle-free MIDI interfaces, but designed for the “printer port” of PCs.

3.5 “floppy disks and many other examples make it clear that every technology has only a certain lifespan. The fact that an XLR connector and microphone preamp disappear eventually completely from the world, seems unlikely. Even if formats change, such as from Tuchel to XLR female and male: adapters can be rewired or purchased. The fact that one day the army disappears on microphone preamplifiers available world-wide does not seem plausible. Who pushes a Tube-Tech MP-2A or a UA 610 into the bin, because there are now USB microphones? And the professional AES42 standard for digital microphones and the in-house distribution of audio-over-ethernet most likely will not usher in the era in which a Neumann U 87 stays in the closet or comes straight to the studio showcase or to the wall.

The fields of investment security and sustainability clearly speak against USB microphones. And what about a defect in a location in the USB microphone? “Only use for a short time, buy new instead of repairing” we already do with smartphones (and household and kitchen appliances and now even cars!) Too often …

USB micro or XLR microphone with audio interface: Conclusion

So it makes sense to think carefully about whether you have one, two boxes and cables more on the desk and in the backpack and probably takes one or the other bill more in hand. I do not want to give any general advice, but these are arguments that, in case of doubt, tend to discourage you from buying the all-in-one-wish-less-happy-package and resort to more classic solutions. Of course there are also alternatives and intermediate solutions. A useful I see in the mic plugs as the Shure X2U , which are virtually “USB microphones without microphone”.

Advantages USB microphone Advantages classic solution with micro, preamp & interface
usually cheaper huge selection and combination possibility
easy to use more flexible and sustainable in case of defect and upgrade request
a single device instead of several more flexible in the application
Individual components matched Multi microphone set ups  by purchase possible
often complete with pop guard and table holder often better ergonomics
usually better monitoring
Monitoring also possible via loudspeaker
sound often in the advantage


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