Are USB Microphones High Enough Quality for Broadcast?

Driven by more powerful personal computers, the first USB microphones were cheap consumer devices designed to simplify the home recording process for amateurs. As a result, those early models gave USB mic technology a bad name. That has changed. Today, many USB microphones offer far beyond broadcast quality audio.

Sennheiser MK4 USB Mic

Sennheiser MK4 USB Mic

USB microphones are now widely used for mobile recording. The key reasons are convenience, portability and audio quality. Most high-end models have built-in preamps, internal analog-to-digital converters, a built-in headphone jack with zero latency monitoring and plug and play connectivity with a wide range of computing devices. The best USB microphones are equal to other microphones in sonic quality.

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, which is a standard for interconnecting computing devices. Most modern personal computers have several USB ports. Convenience comes from simply plugging the mic into a USB port. No other devices, like preamps or mixers, are needed.

Years of research and development on USB microphones has vastly improved them. Current top-end models can record at 24 bits/96 kHz. Many have controls for gain, mix and headphone levels. They have excellent specs and there are models for any kind of recording.

Professionals — ranging from news reporters, voiceover artists and podcasters — routinely use USB microphones, especially while working on-location. These mics are used mostly for voice applications.

However, musicians also use USB mics to make demo tracks on tour. Corporations use the mics for conferences and meetings, while court reporters use them to record courtroom transcripts. For all of these applications, good sound quality is imperative. But with that comes a desire for very portable equipment that allows studio-quality sound to be easily recorded anywhere.

USB microphone technology has come a long way fast. For example, for years voiceover artists had to own an expensive home studio or find a properly equipped audio facility on the road to deliver a recording. Today, all that's needed is a USB mic and an iPad plus some make-do acoustical treatment.

Apogee HypeMiC

Apogee HypeMiC

With a top of the line USB mic, like Apogee’s HypeMiC with an internal analog compressor circuit, the voice can be processed from within the mic. This sets a new standard for on-location audio.

Though some USB microphones have digital signal processing control in a companion app for a smartphone, other mics place software in the microphone itself. Microphone pickup patterns, levels and type of recording can easily be selected in the field.

Shure USB Mic app on iPhone

Shure USB Mic app on iPhone

So what is the negative side of USB microphones? Many of the very low-cost mics are cheaply made and use poor quality components. They can sound awful. Make sure you check for the best models from top manufacturers and stay with them. With this category of product, you certainly get what you pay for. Be suspicious of prices too good to be true.

Set your expectations for what a USB mic does and does not do. These mics are limited in their functionality by design. USB mics will never offer more than the basics. You can’t plug a USB mic into anything other than a computer (unless you have a model with both USB and XLR connections). For USB only mics, forget about using a mixer, preamp or other pro audio gear.

The user doesn’t have to set the input levels on a USB mic. The mic's interface is tailored for the mic itself. There are few controls and the user has little say in the setup. If the signal is too low, the user needs to move the mic to get a louder sound. That may bother some people, but users looking for a super level of convenience like it. Operation is as simple as plugging in the mic, selecting it as the audio device and starting to record.

For making media in our increasingly mobile society, USB microphones can be valuable professional tools. Choose them wisely and know their limitations. They can save time and hassle. 

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