XLR vs USB Microphones: Which is Best for You?
Microphones come in all shapes and sizes, with different designs, capabilities and intended uses, but one of the first decisions you’ll need to make when buying a mic is how you plan on connecting it to your recording device. There are a few different options on this front, but the two most common when capturing sound at home or on the go are XLR and USB.
While you can get a general idea of what a microphone should be used for based on its connection type, modern designs can lend them to being much more versatile than they may first seem. In this article we’ll give you a rundown of what XLR and USB microphones are, the advantages and use cases of each, and which type is right for you.
The NT1-A condenser microphone captures pristine, studio-grade audio and uses an XLR connection.
What Are XLR and USB Microphones?
Before we take a dive into which of the two types of microphones is best suited to your needs, it’s important to get an understanding of what sets them apart.
XLR microphones such as the RØDE NT1-A are by far the most common type of microphone in professional audio applications, such as studio recording or live performance. As their name suggests, XLR mics utilise an XLR connection to transfer the audio signal produced by the microphone to its destination via an XLR cable.
This is a fully analog process, and in most modern recording applications, this means you will need to plug an XLR microphone into a device such as an audio interface or mixing console that can convert the analog signal produced by the microphone capsule into a digital signal, which can be recorded by a computer or other digital device. This is the key difference between an XLR and USB microphone.
USB microphones like the NT-USB+ are designed to plug directly into a computer, tablet or similar device using a USB cable, without the need for additional equipment. These mics have an on-board A/D (Analog-to-Digital) processor that converts the analog signal produced by the microphone into a digital signal, which is then transferred to the recording device via a USB cable.
USB microphones also typically offer features that you would find on an audio interface for an XLR mic, such as a headphone output or level control, as well as accessories such as a stand and pop filter integrated into the microphone. They are very much an “all-in-one" recording solution.
The NT-USB Mini offers a compact, affordable and professional solution to recording audio directly to your computer.
Advantages of XLR Microphones
As we touched on earlier, XLR microphones are more common in professional recording applications. The fundamental way in which they capture audio is very similar to a USB microphone, however they offer some key advantages that may make them more suitable for you depending on what type of recording you are doing.
First and foremost is versatility. Because USB microphones have the equivalent of an audio interface built into the microphone itself, you are essentially locked to this setup, with no option to change or upgrade the microphone or audio interface to suit your needs. With an XLR microphone setup, you are free to mix and match the mic and interface or other recording equipment as you like. There’s a wide world of XLR microphones to explore (the same goes for audio interfaces, mixers and other recording gear), and by choosing this type of setup, you are free to try different styles and features to find what suits you best.
The RØDE AI-1 audio interface is used to convert the analog audio signal from an XLR microphone into a digital signal that can then be sent to a computer.
Advantages of USB Microphones
The key advantage of USB microphones is their simplicity. They are designed to be incredibly easy to use, while still delivering excellent audio quality. All you need to record with a USB microphone is the mic itself, a computer, and a pair of headphones.
Their compact “all-in-one" design also means they are highly portable and offer a high-quality recording solution that you can set up just about anywhere. You can also plug some USB microphones directly into a tablet or smartphone, which you cannot do with an XLR microphone, making for an even more compact setup for the road.
The NT-USB+ features on-board controls for adjusting both headphone volume and the mix between your device audio and monitoring level, like you would typically find on an audio interface for an XLR microphone.
Is an XLR or USB Microphone Right For You?
Whether an XLR or USB microphone is right for you largely depends on what type of recording you are doing.
If you are starting out podcasting, streaming, doing basic music recordings, or need a microphone for video calls or other business applications, a USB microphone will give you great audio while being easy to use and affordable, with no extra equipment required. In many cases, this is all you need to record high-quality sound, and an XLR microphone might be overkill.
If you are starting a home studio and think you will be exploring recording beyond simple guitar or vocal recordings, choose an XLR microphone setup. This will allow you to explore different microphone types and expand your recording setup as you grow as a musician. For example, you may want to try some different condenser mics to find one that best suits your voice, or upgrade to a more professional option if you are getting more serious about your craft.
Similarly, if you are exploring recording different instruments, an XLR setup will allow you to try different microphone types, such as ribbon mics, small diaphragm condensers, or tube mics. Also, if you need to record more than one microphone simultaneously – for example, recording an acoustic guitar in stereo – you will need an XLR setup with an interface or mixer that has more than one input.
The RØDECaster Pro II is a great way to mix and record up to four XLR microphones simultaneously.
Similarly, if you are getting more serious about podcasting or streaming and want to explore different microphones to suit your voice or upgrade to a more professional setup, an XLR microphone is the best option. Also, if you are podcasting or streaming with more than one person, an XLR setup with a mixer such as the RØDECaster Pro II is a great option (though you can record multiple USB mics with one computer using our RØDE Connect software).
In short, USB microphones are excellent plug-and-play microphones that sound great, are affordable, portable, and easy to use. XLR microphones will require more equipment to get started but offer more versatility with the option to upgrade the microphone and expand your setup as you need.