Important features in a USB microphone
Capsules are pieces of hardware that converts sound-pressure levels traveling through the air (in this case, your voice) into a direct-current (DC) signal, aka the audio signal. How a capsule picks up audio signals is determined by its type. The two most common kinds you’ll encounter—and should seek out—are condenser and dynamic capsules.
- Condenser capsule microphones: This variety of mic uses extra voltage (+48V aka phantom power) to charge the capsule, which makes it more sensitive. Generally, condenser mics are better for people who speak at softer volumes or have voices with more dynamic range.
- Dynamic capsule microphones: Dynamic mics don’t require that extra voltage and are thus less sensitive. This sort of mic is better for people with loud voices or folks trying to better isolate audio pick-up to only what’s close to the microphone (i.e., trying to block out background noises like a mechanical keyboard or loud PC fan). Dynamic mics tend to last longer, as too much sensitivity can harm a capsule over time.
- Electret condenser capsules: This capsule type is cheap and small, and more often used in laptops and smartphones. Unlike a true condenser mic, electret condensers aren’t actively charged—instead, they essentially come pre-charged, so they’re lower power and produce lower-quality audio.
Digital signal quality (bit depth / sample rate)
After your voice has been transformed into an electrical signal by a microphone’s capsule, it then passes on to the analog-to-digital converter (ADC) found in all USB mics. As you might guess, the ADC converts the incoming analog signal (your voice) into a digital signal that your computer can use.
How accurately the ADC does so depends on its defined bit depth and sample rate. These two technical specs indicate how faithfully an audio signal replicates the original sound—in this case, the transmission of your voice through your mic to your PC. As the microphone transcodes your voice, it captures parts of the audio at specific intervals (sample rate) and a specific level of detail (bit depth) and then reconstructs the original based on that data.
The higher the number of both bit depth and sample rate, generally the more faithful the reproduction. Other factors, such as the condenser type and how the microphone is tuned, also influence what you actually hear as the end result, but because bit-rate and sample-rate numbers reveal the amount of data captured and kept for use, they can serve as a quick way to screen for anything underpowered. A low bit depth and sample rate results in a voice that sounds digital and robotic—the signal lacks enough detail to keep all the nuance and personality of the original speaker—so avoid microphones that are stingy in this regard.
Consider a 16-bit/48kHz signal a minimum (it’s roughly the level of a CD in quality), and aim for higher to prolong the use of your microphone. Like with photos and video, standards gradually climb over time, and so too audience expectations for quality.
The sensitivity of a mic indicates how easily it picks up sound. If you have a quieter voice, seek out a more sensitive microphone for more accurate reproduction of your voice—conversely, if you have a booming voice, you’ll need a less sensitive microphone for the same effect. Condenser types (see above) influence how sensitive a mic is, as does the ability to tweak the gain level.
Touch-based controls might be popular for some microphones, but physical controls like buttons, knobs, and dials are superior: No looking is necessary when making on-the-fly adjustments during streams—you can keep your eyes on your screen while fiddling. Better microphones offer control over mute, gain level, and headphone volume (if you can plug in headphones directly into the mic) at minimum. We like to see crossfade (the balance between your PC’s audio and hearing your own voice fed in from the mic) as an option, too.
For a USB microphone, you’ll do all your audio processing—that is, tweaking the audio that comes through the mic—in a desktop PC program. Ideally, this companion software should be easy to use, easy to navigate, and allow you to tune the audio output. The best software also lets you configure the routing of other audio sources (e.g., the game, chat from programs like Discord, and music from Spotify). You can choose what gets pulled in and how that’s directed out.
The build quality of a microphone affects more than just how the device holds up with use—it also has an impact on audio performance. The better the materials, the better quality of vocal performance. The capsule type, housing around it, and any shielding placed between you and the capsule (to tamp down unwanted noises) all influence the mic’s output.
Type of USB connection
Micro-USB is still surprisingly common among USB microphones, despite the growing adoption of USB-C and its advantages. We prefer a USB-C connection for its better durability, both for the port itself and for cables—anecdotally, we’ve had more micro-USB ports and cables fail or loosen over time.
That said, micro-USB should still serve fine, especially if you don’t plan to move your microphone around (a potential source of stress on the port) or regularly plug and unplug the cable.
A polar pattern (or pick-up pattern) indicates the areas of a mic that are sensitive to sound. Streamers should focus on microphones with a cardioid pattern, which makes the mic more sensitive right in front of the capsule (typically the top of the mic) and less so on the sides and rear. This type of polar pattern helps physically isolate the audio source being recorded—in this case, you.
Some mics feature other polar patterns as well, making them more versatile for use. Other common ones are omnidirectional, which makes the mic sensitive to pick up on all sides (useful for conference calls); bidirectional, which picks up from the front and and rear (useful for face-to-face conversations between two people); and stereo, aka mid-side, which makes the mic pick up the right and left channel separately while being sensitive at the front (useful for multiple people conversing or singing while sitting side-by-side and all facing the mic).
What to look for
Our picks for best USB microphones work well with a wide variety of voices, but to find a mic that fits your voice just that much more, keep these factors in mind.
Tonal reproduction refers to how close the microphone’s output matches the sound of a person’s actual voice. Some microphones cater to lower-end vocal ranges by doing things like boosting mid-range frequencies, while others cater to those with higher pitches by having a less sensitive capsule. To get your desired style of output, find out how a microphone is tuned, plus the size of capsule in the mic and the type of mic. These add up to form the microphone’s profile—and once you know it, it’s pretty easy to narrow the field of mics that are right for you.
Vocal clarity refers to how loud and clear someone can be heard with a microphone. While tone can certainly play a part in this, the biggest influences on clarity are how sensitive the microphone is to the audio it’s receiving and how strong the amplification process is in translating that to a digital signal. A quiet voice will need both a more sensitive microphone and stronger amplification in order to achieve desired volume levels, while a big, booming voice will need the opposite. (In fact, if a highly sensitive microphone is regularly subjected to loud sounds, it can actually damage the capsule over time.)
The distance from you to the microphone has an impact on this as well, but we don’t recommend shifting your position to make a mic work with your voice. Generally, you want to have a microphone as close as possible to your mouth, as that’s the position for getting its best performance.
Analog-to-digital converter quality
As mentioned above, when you speak into a mic, that analog signal gets captured by the microphone’s capsule, then an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) transcodes that to a digital signal that your computer can use. How good an ADC is will impact both the tone reproduction and clarity of the digital output, as well as how loud it is. Output from low-quality ADCs sound less natural and can even have more digital artifacts, resulting in a tinny sound with less range. An ADC can also affect the signal transmitted to your PC by not providing enough power to the output of the audio, resulting in less clarity and a quieter volume to work with.
Think of an ADC like the middle person in a three-person game of Telephone—it has the ability to dramatically convolute or distort what the original person passed on. Generally, the better the converter, the more the voices of all types benefit from accurate reproduction, but some folks with specific voice concerns (like quiet volume or a thinner sound) might need to pay more attention to specs like bit depth/sample rate, which influence how strong a signal the ADC sends to your PC.
Once you’ve narrowed down your potential microphone picks, find videos of them in use to get a better sense of how their output sounds. As a starting point, we’ve used all of these microphones in this roundup in our live videos on YouTube and Twitch.
USB microphone vs. a headset
While USB microphones are cheaper than a full professional setup, they’re pricier than a good headset. Even headsets that cost about the same may still seem more appealing, since you can use a headset for both listening and talking.
So why choose a USB microphone instead of a headset? While headsets don’t sound bad on a stream, a headset microphone is just too small to really compete with a USB mic. Generally, the larger the capsule, the more sensitive a microphone can be to sound pressure changes, thus producing more accurate results.
That’s the reason headset microphones struggle to produce a well-rounded sound, especially in the low end. Short of attaching a huge capsule to a boom arm on a headset, a standalone USB mic will be better suited for professional-sounding streams. And the more you sound like you could be in the same room as your viewers, the more likely they’ll connect with you and stick around.