USB vs XLR Microphones | Which One Do You Need?

A USB microphone is a simple option for video conferencing, streaming, and basic recording, but an XLR microphone offers a lot more flexibility if you are more serious about recording and audio production.

In this post, we are going to look at the most important differences between USB and XLR microphones and by the end, you’ll know which one is right for you.

The video above contains audio comparisons of the Audio-Technica AT2020 and the Audio-Technica AT2020USB+.

Simplicity & Cost

USB microphones tend to be a bit more expensive when comparing the microphones themselves. However, USB mics actually end up being cheaper when you factor in the cost of the other devices needed to use an XLR microphone.

A USB mic usually comes with a USB cable that simply connects to your computer and you connect your headphones or speakers to the microphone itself. USB microphones have a microphone preamplifier, an audio interface, and usually a headphone amplifier built-in.

On the other hand, XLR microphones don’t connect directly to a computer for recording. Instead, an XLR microphone will connect to an audio interface with an XLR cable and then the audio interface will connect to the computer with a USB cable. In an XLR microphone setup, your speakers or headphones will connect to the audio interface instead of the microphone itself.

One thing about a USB microphone that I find limiting is the fact that every device needs to connect to the microphone. This is nice if you just need a mic for video calls or streaming because all of the controls are right there on the microphone.

For me, this is inconvenient because I’m using a pair of speakers and a pair of headphones, so I would need to constantly swap the cables on my microphone to switch between them. My audio interface has line level outputs for powered speakers on the back and a headphone output on the front with an output volume knob for each of them.

If you’ll always use the microphone in close proximity to your computer, a USB microphone is fine, but being tethered to your computer with a USB cable can be limiting if you plan to record vocals or instruments.

USB 2.0 is limited to cable lengths of 5 meters or less. That’s about 16’6″. An XLR cable can travel hundreds of feet with no problems, meaning that I can place my interface near my computer and record microphones anywhere in my room (or anywhere in my house for that matter!).

I can also connect different types of sources to an audio interface, such as an electric guitar or a keyboard, or to use different microphones for different sounds. An XLR microphone and audio interface are much more flexible, compared to a USB microphone.

Expandability & Versatility

If you want to record music, chances are you will want to record multiple inputs at some point.

The USB microphone is all you need to record one sound source at a time, like your voice or an acoustic guitar or a guitar amplifier. But if you want to record your voice and guitar at the same time, you’ll need an audio interface with at least two inputs.

If you think you’ll ever want to record a guest on your podcast or record yourself singing and playing guitar or record your band, you’ll probably want an audio interface and an XLR microphone so that you can expand later.

A multi-channel audio interface can record each input source to a separate track, which gives you more control over each signal when mixing and editing.

Not only do XLR microphones offer more flexibility for recording, but they are also useful beyond just recording. XLR is the industry standard connector for microphones, so you could potentially use your XLR microphone with a mixer at a live performance or with a portable recording device.

If you plan to dive deeper into the world of recording and music production in the future, you’ll be glad to have an XLR microphone that will continue to be useful as you expand your setup.

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