If you’ve been looking into purchasing a microphone for your computer, you’ll notice most mics specify themselves as either “USB” or “XLR” microphones. While this might seem like a minor difference in a sea of specs, it’s one of the most important things to know about a mic before purchasing it.
USB and XLR are both types of connectors—basically, it’s how the microphone plugs into a computer. You’re probably used to USB cables (USB-A specifically for most mics), but if you look at an XLR cable, you’ll notice there’s no port on your PC that matches. That’s because XLR microphones require an audio interface (which we’ll talk about more soon) in order to connect to a PC, while USB microphones just plug-in directly.
Regardless, there’s a lot more to cover than just ports. So, let’s dive a bit deeper and see which one is the best for you.
This is the big one and an area where there is zero competition—even mid-range XLR microphones can sound better than high-end USB ones. To put it simply, while the same kind of tech is found inside both USB and XLR mics, XLR is just more capable of transferring high-quality audio signals. (If you want to know about the more in-depth stuff, then our sister site, How-to-Geek, has a great explainer on XLR mics.)
The audio from XLR microphones sounds clearer and has more depth to it, which is commonly lost by USB mics. This allows more freedom when it comes to editing the audio, which is why XLR is preferred for professional recordings. Still, even if you’re recording a voiceover for a personal project, you’ll appreciate the benefits of higher quality audio.
However, there’s a decent amount of work involved in getting an XLR microphone to sound as good as possible. As we’ve already mentioned, you need an audio interface to record with an XLR mic. These devices take the signal from the microphone, usually let you mix the audio to some degree, then let the computer read it—XLR microphones can’t be detected by computers otherwise. You can definitely expect to be fiddling around with the interface for a while before the mic sounds its best. Plus having to add an interface raises the cost significantly.
That’s the advantage of USB microphones, while there’s not much room for adjusting it they will, at least, sound consistently decent. And quality USB microphones sound legitimately good, and the audio they provide should be fine for most situations. If you’re just chatting to some friends on a video call or even doing some livestreaming in your free time, USB microphones perform excellently.
Their biggest weaknesses in those cases are background noise, echo, and plosives. XLR mics aren’t immune to those issues, but USB mics are worse at dealing with them out of the box. Still, picking up some soundproofing foam and a pop filter goes a long way to solving those issues.
As you might have picked up from the last section, XLR microphones take a bit of work to get off the ground. Requiring an audio interface complicates your setup, and you can easily get lost in the weeds trying to perfect your audio. Convenience-wise, USB microphones definitely take the cake—it’s hard to beat a plug-and-play device.
While some USB microphones may come with software that allows you to adjust the audio, there’s nothing you need to do for them. You can have a USB microphone set up in a few minutes, which is worth a lot when comparing the two connectors. If you don’t need the higher-quality audio XLR provides, then there’s no reason to go through the hassle. USB microphones also don’t require any additional equipment, which means they’re ideal for travel or non-permanent setups.
USB and XLR microphones can range pretty wildly in price, depending on what you’re getting. You can find decent budget USB microphones for around $30-$50 like the FIFINE microphone or Blue Snowball iCE. But if you want to climb up the ranks, a $100 microphone such as the Blue Yeti provides a nice balance of audio quality and features. Past that, your gains in sound quality will be minimal, but some more expensive microphones can come with extra features. A good example is the Elgato Wave 3—a compact $160 microphone that has a versatile dial and great audio mixing for livestreams.
A well-balanced USB microphone that mixes audio quality, price, and features well.
Turning over to XLR, the prices aren’t too dissimilar. Mics like the Audio-Technica AT2020, Shure SM58-LC, and Blue Ember bring great audio quality for around $100, and they’re all excellent options for your first XLR mic. And if you look at XLR mics in the higher price brackets like the Shure SM7B, the quality becomes incredible. While the difference isn’t important for most people, if you’re using it for professional work it can be worth the money.
A high-quality XLR mic that doesn't break the bank.
However, we’ve already touched on the fact you need an audio interface for XLR microphones, and those aren’t cheap. You can find simplistic interfaces for around $50 like the BEHRINGER U-Phoria UM2, which is fine for starters. Going slightly up, the $100-$200 range features well-regarded models like the PreSonus AudioBox and Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, which should perform well for most recordings. Even then, you’re already looking at potentially doubling the amount you paid for the microphone itself, and that’s without touching the higher-end options out there—XLR isn’t cheap.
Note: If shopping for audio interfaces for use with an XLR mic, make sure to buy one that provides phantom power for the mic, which is usually denoted with a “+48” somewhere on the interface.
A lot of this comes down to personal preference and circumstance. If you just want to join some video calls and need to be heard clearly, then a USB microphone will perform fine for you. But if you’re doing a lot of stuff with audio production, then an XLR microphone provides quality USB models can’t match. On the other hand, the added cost and complexity of an audio interface weigh down the XLR models big time.
For most people, a USB microphone is a far better option. Unless you’re doing stuff like recording a podcast or music, an XLR microphone isn’t going to be worth the investment—you won’t gain much from using one on Zoom or Discord. A simple USB microphone is more affordable and doesn’t ask much of you, which is probably what you want out of a microphone in the first place. However, if you require higher quality recordings, or just want more control over how you sound, then XLR is the way to go.