Digital USB microphone or analog with 3.5 jack and XLR – which is better?

A conventional microphone is connected with an XLR cable to the sound card. USB microphone connects directly to PC. Which is the best option? In what situations is an XLR microphone preferred and when can you get by with an all-in-one device? Is there a difference in sound quality? Do professionals use USB microphones? Understanding this blog.

Fundamental Difference Between USB and XLR Microphones
A typical chain of voice recording devices looks like this:

Microphone. It converts sound waves into electricity.
Preamp. It amplifies the signal and provides phantom power to condenser microphones.
ADC. It stands for “analog-to-digital converter”, it converts electricity to zeros and ones. The ADC / DAC module (the latter converts a digital signal into an analog one, often both elements are assembled on one audio chip) is the brain of any audio card.
Even budget audio interfaces combine both a preamp and a DAC / ADC under their wing. Most models have a phantom power function, and, in general, they have characteristics that are enough to record high-quality sound.

USB microphones combine all three of the above devices in one housing – microphone, preamp and DAC / ADC. They simultaneously catch the sound, amplify it and “feed” the signal to the computer in a digital form that is digestible for it. This is very convenient if only one function is required from the sound recording path – to record a voice.

What are the pros and cons of both options? For what tasks to choose the first, and for what the second?

Pros of USB microphones

The USB microphone looks like an ideal voice recording device: Comfortable. Using this is no more difficult than using a keyboard – stuck it in and you’re done. The manufacturer usually equips the device with special drivers that allow you to configure the microphone and control the sound.

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Sounds good. Any average USB microphone can handle speech recording for blogs and streams, and top models can even record vocals for your band’s demo tracks.
Universal. Microphones have directivity , which determines which situation the device is best suited for. Many digital microphones are multi-directional, so they can cover a range of tasks. For streams and podcasts, a cardioid diagram is useful – it cuts out unnecessary noise, for an interview with an interlocutor – bidirectional, for a round table – omnidirectional.
Lights up. Yes, it’s no secret that gamers, streamers, game bloggers and others like them have chosen USB microphones. And since all computer peripherals have long learned to shine like a rainbow, microphones cannot stand aside. In general, the design of USB microphones is more varied than that of the austere and boring studio models.
Useful items included. Often digital microphones are equipped with everything necessary for voice recording – an anti-vibration mount of the “spider” type to prevent a neighbor’s steps from being recorded, a pop filter that eliminates explosive consonants “p” and “b”, in some models it is built right into the body, cords, adapters and other buns.
Cheaper. The price of inexpensive models is equivalent to the cost of a budget external sound card. To be fair, the price of the top models is already equal to a set of sound card and XLR microphone.

Microphone HyperX QuadCast S 12 999 *
Pros of XLR microphones with external audio card

The advantages of the traditional audio path, where everything is separate, are not so obvious. This option is usually slightly more expensive and more difficult to operate. But here it all depends on the goals and objectives for which the recording chain is going. If there are many tasks and they are varied – from recording a rock group at a concert from the hall to samples of birds singing in the evening forest – then here a traditional microphone with an external ADC will be:

More flexible. The more elements, the more possible combinations. It is convenient to select different microphones for different situations. For example, most USB microphones are condenser and very sensitive. Yes, you can speak in them from a distance of a meter, but the payment for this will be knocking on the keys and cursing neighbors on the record. An external audio card will allow you to connect a dynamic microphone – it is less sensitive and only picks up speech, cutting off unnecessary ones.
Scalable. Several microphones can be connected to the sound card at once. This is important not only for recording bands of music, but also, for example, for genres like ASMR, where stereo sound is preferred. Yes, some USB microphones have a stereo recording function, but the panorama will be significantly narrower than with two separate microphones.
More convenient for field work. The USB microphone can also be used outside the home, but it needs a laptop. Not very convenient for recording interviews and samples of buzzing field bees. For such tasks, recorders were invented – professional dictaphones, you can connect external microphones to them, and the set usually already has a pair of its own. The recorder is more compact and more convenient, it is much easier to run away from the field bees with it.

Recorder Zoom H5 20 299 *
More reliable. USB microphones are designed for gentle home use, they have a complex electronic filling inside. Studio and stage XLR microphones are designed for communication with drunk musicians, and there are no microcircuits inside the case, only a capsule. Therefore, the good old Shure SM58 can at least hammer in nails .
Upgradeable. You can buy microphones, you can take another audio card, you can buy a preamp or a microphone activator. It’s like with a computer – someone prefers to buy a candy bar and forget like a bad dream about the compatibility of processors with different sockets, while someone is interested in digging into the hardware.

Microphone Shure 55SH SERIESII 13 599 *
Sound quality: USB vs XLR

In the end, what matters is how the microphone sounds, not what kind of cord it plugs in. Therefore, the differences in sound quality should be discussed separately. It consists of several parameters:

Sampling frequency. Most USB microphones record at 48 kHz / 16 bit. This is quite studio quality, which is sufficient for most tasks. For comparison, the audio CD standard is 44.1 kHz \ 16 bit. The standard for studio music recording today is 48 kHz / 24 bit, but the difference in bit depth is not felt by ear and is important only at the stage of mixing and mastering, since it gives a greater dynamic range.

However, the audio recording standard for cinema is already 96 kHz, and some studios prefer to record at 192 kHz so that later the album can be released on SACD and other HD music formats. An external sound card will give you more choice of bitrates.

External sound card Steinberg UR22mkII 13 499 *
Detail and timbre. The USB microphone brings all the elements under one roof. First, you need to understand that it will cost more than a regular microphone. A striking illustration is the rather popular Audio-technica AT2020 microphone, which is available in both versions. For the difference in price, you can just buy an audio card , but according to its characteristics it will not be better than an integrated one into a digital microphone. There is a head-on comparison of both models on YouTube and the difference in sound is not obvious.

Microphone Audio-technica AT2020
9999 *
Microphone Audio-technica AT2020USB +
13,099 *
Secondly, there is not always detailed documentation for the preamp and DAC / ADC of a USB microphone. On the other hand, budget audio cards also often contain non-name preamps and audio chips. Therefore, even if you compare the head-to-head USB microphone and XLR bundle with a sound card of an equivalent cost, it will be very difficult to determine the difference in sound. If it does, it will be minimal, and it is easy to neutralize it by processing plugins .

Noise and interference. A new microphone is often bought at a time when it has become impossible to put up with the noise and wheezing of the old one. USB microphones have an excellent signal-to-noise ratio. For example, HyperX QuadCast S – more than 90 dB, blue yeti cool gray – 100 dB. For comparison, the analog Tascam TM-80 shows 77 dB, the Shure BETA 87C – 71 dB.

Microphone Blue Yeti Cool Gray
9 499 *
Microphone TASCAM TM-80
5899 *
However, XLR microphones are connected with a balanced cable , which is structurally free from interference and can transmit a clean signal over long distances. In turn, a ground loop may occur with USB. If the computer is not connected to ground, noise and interference from the PC’s switching power supply will walk along the wires, including the USB bus. This is reflected in high-frequency noise and interference from speakers or when recording sound – an annoying digital squeak will be on the phonogram. If you touch the microphone or the external contact of the USB cable and the squeak stops, then the point is in the earth loop.

The same problem occurs with external audio cards, but it is easily solved by connecting a native power supply to the card so that the current does not flow through the USB bus. The microphones do not have an external power supply, so in case of such a problem, you will have to ground it somehow or buy a filter for USB . The problem does not occur often, but it is worth mentioning.

Are USB microphones used by professionals?
Oh sure! USB microphones are used by many professional streamers, podcasters, bloggers and journalists. No less professionals of various professions use such microphones for conferences and Skype calls. Professional musicians record demos and sound on them for vlogging in home studios.

As for commercial studios and concert venues, USB microphones are not used there. Not because they don’t sound outstanding, but for one simple reason – working with multiple USB microphones on the same PC is nearly impossible. In a DAW, you will have to constantly switch between them, which is not at all convenient.

For studio recording of drums, a minimum of 7 microphones are required. To record the entire rock group, you will also have to select a guitarist, bassist and vocalist on the microphone. To record these Bremen Town musicians live, the studios have a rack-mountable soundcard for 8-16 channels. And on concert venues there is a mixing console for 32–64 channels, depending on the size of the stage.

External sound card Tascam US-20×20 43 199 *
The number of possible recording channels is a major drawback and limitation of USB microphones. It can become critical even for bloggers and streamers who plan to invite guests to the studio. Yes, many digital microphones have different modes, but they are not always convenient to work with. For example, a bi-directional diagram will allow you to record two interlocutors, but they must sit straight and not wobble from side to side, since the reception area on each side in this mode will be rather narrow. Therefore, for such situations, it is more convenient to have several separate microphones with an external audio card or recorder.

What is the bottom line
The USB microphone is more than enough to record clear speech and clear sound – heaven and earth compared to a cheap multimedia microphone plugged into a motherboard. If the device requires musicality in sound, then you should pay attention to XLR microphones with an external audio card or recorder. This chain is more flexible and allows for upgrades. It will allow you to record audio at a high bitrate and with minimal monitoring delays (which is very important for musicians).

In the end, everything depends on the tasks set. Podcasts and streams are not listened to in order to enjoy overtones and dynamics, and not on the device that will allow you to enjoy it. But if you want to create art, then leaving an imprint in eternity is best in maximum quality.