Evaluating Five USB Microphones Under $100
For a recent project creating video-based courses, I needed to select an affordable USB microphone to provide to remote instructors who will be recording video, audio and screencasts directly from the instructor's computer.
My criteria for selecting a microphone were:
- Under $100
- Good audio quality
- Very easy to setup and use
- Compact form
I asked colleagues and searched for reviews to select the microphones to review. I initially started with 10 recommended models. After filtering out those which were outside my price range or clearly unsuitable for technical reasons, I selected five microphones to evaluate. They ranged in price from $15-$100.
My test involved the actual process and tasks that instructors would be performing, and not a raw evaluation of the sound quality recorded directly from the microphone. To create my test audio files, I recorded about 30 seconds of video, audio and screencast content using ScreenFlow Pro 3 on a MacBook Pro. I then exported the recorded file at the highest quality settings to an MP4 file. I uploaded the file to Brightcove for transcoding at the highest available transcoding quality based on my MP4. I streamed the video files from Brightcove.
I provided links to the sample files to each of 14 colleagues to evaluate. I did not reveal which microphone created each recording, or even which microphones I used. Of the 14 colleagues, nine identified themselves as audio/video professionals, and four (like me) as mere as audio consumers.
(Please note that there is a difference between the audio samples I provide in this blog post and the samples I provided to the evaluators. These audio files are just the audio portion of the recording exported from ScreenFlow, and not the files that were transcoded and streamed by Brightcove. For the audio pros out there, these files were output from ScreenFlow as AAC, Stereo, Rate 44.100 kHz, Render Quality Best, MPEG 4 AAC LC Encoding Strategy Average Bit Rate with Target Bit Rate set to 256 kbps.)
Evaluation & Sample Audio Files
Each evaluator rated each recording on a scale from 1 (Poor) to 5 (Excellent).
The MXL Tempo was the preferred microphone with an average rating of 3.77. Notably -- for my purposes -- this was also the only device that did not receive any ratings of "Poor", while being awarded 3 "Excellent" ratings.
Overall scores were:
|#1||MXL Mics MXL-TEMPO-SK Condenser Microphone||3.77||Sample|
|#2||Logitech USB Desktop Microphone||1.38||Sample|
|#3||MXL USB006 USB Cardioid Condenser Microphone||3.46||Sample|
|#4||Blue Microphones Yeti USB Microphone||1.92||Sample|
|#5||MacBook Pro built-in||2.42||Sample|
Chart 1: Overall Audio Quality Rating (Higher is better)
Chart 2: Frequency of Ratings of Audio Quality
Chart 3: Selection of Best Recording
|BEST CHOICE: MXL Mics MXL-TEMPO-SK Condenser Microphone||Score: 3.77||Price: $59|
The packaging for the MXL felt a little cheap and it's at first confusing to attached the stand to the microphone. However, the device feels solid, and there is only one minor configuration to make on the device before use, which is a big plus.
Comments from reviewers:
- This one seemed the flatest (in a good way), meaning I heard relatively little overly.
- Distinct coloration; it seems the most linear.
- Comparable to 3 (MXL USB 006), but probably better for your use.
- Very clear but seemed lower in volume than the others.
- Flat, needs more treble.
|Logitech USB Desktop Microphone||Score: 1.38||Price: $19|
I already use this device with good results for webinars and Skype, so I included it in my evaluation. It came in Amazon-packaging. It's very light and unobtrusive, and has worked well for me for audio conferencing in the past.
Comments from reviewers:
- Loud but doesn't handle S's well.
- Wouldn't touch this.
- This one has a very harsh frequency curve. It favors mid-range frequencies giving it a "honky" sound.
- Too much echo.
- Nasal, slight echo.
|MXL USB006 USB Cardioid Condenser Microphone||Score: 3.46||Price: $99|
This device was impressive on delivery. It comes in a zippered carrying kit which secures all the different parts. There are a couple settings that need to be made for optimal recording quality, which was non-ideal, but the product looked very solid.
Comments from reviewers:
- Loud and clear but a little echo-ey.
- This one is also good. the trickiest comparison for me was between 3 (MXL USB 006) and (MXL Tempo). They're both pretty clear, but 3 (MXL USB 006) has more low-end (bass) almost to the point of it being a little unruly. This would be a fine choice, but for spoken word, 1 (MXL Tempo) might be a little easier on the ears.
- A little reverb, but sounds good.
- Might be a little too live.
- Good, but a bit too sensitive.
- Bold, well-balanced, nicely layered.
|Blue Microphones Yeti USB Microphone||Score: 1.92||Price: $101|
This device was by far the most impressive microphone in terms of form factor and presentation. It was the largest and most solid of the entire group and felt like it should cost far more than $100. Using this microphone made me feel like I should be a professional podcaster. There are a variety of knobs and dials to configure cardioid, bidirectional, omnidirectional and stereo input. While this wasn't the right choice for this project, it was my favorite microphone, and I'm keeping the Blue Yeti on my desk for other audio recording projects.
Comments from Reviewers
- Sounds like it has a little echo.
- This one compresses the sound awkwardly creating "floor noise" or background "hum."
- Sounds distant, has a humming.
- Too much echo/reverb.
- Flat, slight hum in the background.
- This may be too much microphone for your project.
|Apple MacBook Pro built-in Microphone||Score: 2.42||Price: Included with Mac notebooks|
Comments from Reviewers:
- Still slightly echoy, but if cost is an issue, then acceptable.
- This one has "phase-flutter" similar to a cell phone or the little mics on a mac.
- Was sibilant on s's and was not as clear on some words.
- Seem to be capturing a lot of extraneous room noise. Likely the better mics have a tighter unidirectional pattern.
- Muffled, compressed.
- Unlayered but still good, could use a little bass to round it out.
Based on our evaluation, we've standardized on the MXL Tempo, and so far, it has been delivering excellent results.