Best USB Condenser Microphone?

LockerGnome reader Seth asks:

For a while now, I’ve been on the lookout for a good-quality microphone.  I’ve always wanted a stand-alone mic that -wasn’t- part of a clunky headset.  So just as I did when I was in need of a webcam, among the numerous Google searches I did as research, I checked out your videos to see if I could find any reviews on any microphones.  I will admit that only checked out the first few searches YouTube gave me that had “microphone” in the title, and from those videos I got this list of mics (I got the prices from just a quick search on Amazon):

  • Blue Snowflake – ~$35
  • Blue Snowball – ~$64
  • Samson CO1U – ~$77
  • Audio-Technica AT2020 – ~$95
  • Blue Yeti – ~$100

I was wondering was if you could suggest a good mic, seeing as you’ve probably tested a handful of them throughout the course of your live video feed.  I don’t need anything “professional,” but at the same time I’d like one that I can rely on; one that would last.  A mic sufficient for commentary, podcasts, etc. would work just fine…though I am picky on sound quality, so I’d prefer it to be good.

This is a great question. The list of USB condenser mics you’ve listed here mirrors the list of recommendations I would have given you.

Blue appears in the list more than any other brand. The reason for this, no doubt, is their focus on USB-driven microphones while other major audio companies tend to focus on more traditional interfaces. Blue has a stellar reputation and their products are being used by a wide range of audio professionals including talk radio host Glenn Beck, singer Alicia Keys, among others.

Each one of these microphones could easily handle any basic audio recording needs you have, though if you’re trying to determine which one is the best, here are a few things to consider:

Audio-Technica AT2020
When you see Chris Pirillo’s recorded videos and live stream, you likely hear audio being fed through an Audio-Technica AT2020 USB, a side-address studio condenser, connected to his streaming system and set as the default audio source. This unit has great range so you aren’t required to have it within inches of your mouth, making it a really decent desk mic for situations where having it in front of you just doesn’t look right. The cardioid pattern reduces pickup of sounds appearing behind the mic, allowing you to focus recordings where you need them to be. The sounds produced by the AT2020 are surprisingly rich and full at both low and higher volumes.

The AT2020 comes complete with a basic tripod, pivoting stand mount, USB cable, and carrying pouch. Though this isn’t the smallest condenser microphone in the list, it is surprisingly small considering the form factor. While most mics in its class tend to be about 40% larger, the AT2020 features a low-mass diaphragm that delivers an extended frequency response uncommon among others its size.

Samson C01U
I’ve had some experience with the Samson C01u, and while it is a very clear and useful microphone, it really doesn’t bring anything special to the table in terms of sound quality and reliability. When the C01U first arrived on the scene, the software required to use the mic, SoftPre, was buggy and unreliable. Thanks to later service packs to Windows, it can now be used with the standard Windows USB microphone drivers. This update made it instantly more reliable. If you plan on using the C01u up close, it’s recommend that you invest in a windscreen or pop filter as well as a stand. You can purchase a version of the C01U complete with a spider-mount, so it’s best to be on the lookout for any deals or offers.

Blue Snowball
The Snowball features three different pattern modes to fit your recording needs. These settings include Cardioid, Cardioid mode with -10 dB PAD, and an omnidirectional mode for capturing sounds from any direction. This means that it can sound great close up, but if you want to use it as a room mic, you can switch the setting on the Snowball itself. The big drawback to the Snowball when it comes to home recording is its size. The Snowball is one big piece of hardware that can easily fill up a large space on your desktop.

Blue Snowflake
The Snowflake is a low-priced and smaller cousin of the Snowball and it is a great mic for someone on the road or with minimal desk space. Vocal presence is decent, though the Snowflake fails to provide the kind of depth and scope that a model with a large element may provide. This is, simply put, a great mic for travel due to its always-attached stand that folds up with it. When folded, the Snowflake is just a bit bigger than the iPhone in terms of footprint. If you want to do quick updates on the road, this would be my first choice, but I’d recommend something with a bit more power behind it for regular recordings.

Blue Yeti
This brings us to the Yeti, perhaps the biggest USB condenser mic on the list. The Yeti is the first USB microphone to achieve THX certification. Onboard controls present on the Yeti include a gain control knob, four recording modes (including a stereo selection), instant mute (referred to as a cough drop), and headphone volume. There is also a headphone jack for zero-latency monitoring. This means that you can plug in a set of headphones and hear yourself in real-time before and during recording. If you’ve done any recording on stand-alone USB microphones, you have probably run in to a latency issue when attempting to listen to yourself, which can easily confuse most speakers and ruin a good recording.

One major drawback to the Yeti is its size. This giant mic will take up plenty of desk space and be a hassle to take with you on trips. The Yeti comes with an included stand that doesn’t add much visual appeal to the device, but it does work rather well. Optimally, a spider-mount stand is best for condenser mics to reduce noise made when the desk is jarred or the stand touched in any way.

3 comments On Best USB Condenser Microphone?

  • I’d also add the Samson GoMic USB to the list as well. It can easily clip to a laptop or sit on a desk without an additional stand, can go from cardoid to omnidirectional with the flip of a switch, and comes in at a lower price point than the C01U ($50 online, $60 retail).

  • Great post Chris. Very informative. 

  • Thanks for the info, Matt, especially about Podtrac and Blubrry. I’ve been trying to get more listeners (and advertisers) for my podcast, but on my own, I would have never known about these services.

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