In this post we will take a detailed look at the difference between a USB mic vs audio interface and XLR mic.
Do you want to make better quality recordings? Are you thinking about upgrading your home recording studio equipment? You may be trying to decide whether to buy a USB microphone or to go for an XLR mic and a separate audio interface. Or maybe you are just plain confused about the difference and want to know more?
So let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of the XLR mic vs USB microphone. Then hopefully you will then be able to choose the right gear for your own recording situation – and budget. You can start by watching this video, then get into the detail.
USB Mic vs Audio Interface Video Tutorial
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What is the Key Difference Between a USB mic and an XLR mic?
The answer to this will become more and more apparent as you read on. But the quick answer here is that a USB mic is literally a microphone that you can connect straight to your computer or to your tablet or mobile device with the right adapter. You do not require additional equipment to make good quality recordings of voiceovers, vocals and acoustic instruments.
An XLR mic is just that – a microphone with XLR output. Although it is possible under certain circumstances to connect it directly up to your computer or mobile device, generally you need an audio interface to do the job.
Your audio interface will have the correct input for your microphone. It will then perform the analog to digital conversion required to turn your sound source into a digital audio stream which can be recorded and stored on your computer.
To really illustrate the difference along the way, we will directly compare the Audio Technica AT2020USB+ USB mic with its analog brother, the Audio Technica AT2020 XLR studio condenser microphone.
You may also consider the AT2020USBi which is more recent version of the AT2020USB+ (and slightly more expensive). The i version also has a lightning cable to connect directly to mobile devices in addition to a USB cable.
So now let’s make some comparisons of the XLR microphone and audio interface versus a USB Microphone
Cost – Low Budget USB Mic vs Higher Budget XLR Mic + Interface
If this is your first foray into home recording studio setup, then cost may be the main issue for you. The more expensive option is to buy an equivalent XLR microphone, plus audio interface, plus the necessary cables. A USB microphone is a self-contained purchase, you do not need anything else.
Complexity – USB Microphones are Simpler to Set Up
New to home recording? There is no doubt that the USB microphone is very easy to set up. Most are simply plug and play.
All you do is plug the microphone into an availabe USB port, select the microphone as your default input and output sound device in System Preferences (mac) or Control Panel (windows). Adjust the recording and playback volumes. Connect headphones to the USB mic. You are ready to record.
To use a mobile device, simply use the correct camera adapter or connector and the USB mic should plug and play. Depending on which recording or video app you are using, you can usually select the mic, and adjust gain settings within the app. To power the mic, you will almost certainly require a powered USB to device adapater.
(Alternatively, your USB mic may also ship with the appropriate cable to connect directly to your mobile device)
Setup using an XLR microphone and audio interface is more complex. You may need to install drivers or some kind of control panel for the interface. You will then need to ensure you connect the XLR microphone correctly, and ensure phantom power is switched on if necessary. However, once you have correctly set up the interface, you will find that you can physically adjust levels on the front panel of the interface, which is nice and intuitive.
(Note the AT2020USBi does have a physical mic gain control which allows you to adjust input level on the mic itself).
Flexibility – 1. You Can Do More with an Interface
The USB microphone is a one trick pony. It does the job of recording very well. But at the end of the day, it is just one microphone. Perfect for voiceovers. Great to record acoustic instruments. Even an ensemble. But it is what it is.
Purchase an audio interface and microphone, and then you can – depending on the interface – record many different types of audio sources in different ways. Your audio interface may have more than one mic pre-amp so you can connect more than one microphone.
It may have a dedicated instrument input so you can plug in and record a guitar. It will almost certainly have line inputs to record your digital piano, synth, or other line level sources.
Or you could plug in a mixing console and record multiple instruments as a stereo analog stream.
Plus, in future you could upgrade or expand your studio and connect and record more than one type of microphone.
Finally, your audio interface may also have other features such as MIDI and digital i/o as well. So for the extra cost, much more recording flexibility.
Flexibility – 2. You Can Do More with an XLR Mic
Generally the only way to use a USB mic is to connect it to your computer or mobile device. The beauty of an XLR mic is you can: use it live; connect it to a mixing desk; plug it into an amp, loop pedal or FX unit; or even potentially plug it into a camera (depending on the type of mic).
If you have multiple uses for a mic, other than simply recording direct to your computer, consider the flexibility of a mic + interface combination.
An audio interface will allow you to record more than one thing at the same time. Depending on the number of inputs, you could potentially record multiple tracks in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).
With a USB mic, it’s the good at one thing scenario again. You can only record one track at a time. However, if that is all you want to do, then you may well be completely satisfied.
Recording Resolution and Recording Quality
Let’s go back to the AT2020 USB Mic vs the AT2020 XLR Mic. There is no difference in the actual microphone itself. The key difference between the two is that the USB version has, effectively, a built in recording interface. This is what enables you to connect it directly to a computer or mobile device.
So the AT2020USB+ is a condenser microphone with USB output for digital recording. The recording resolution is 16-bit, with either 44.1/48 kHz sampling rate. The newer AT2020USBi has a higher recording resolution of 24-bit and up to 96 kHz sampling rate.
Futhermore, USB microphones have a built-in preamp (and we will come back to this later).
To record with the Audio Technica AT2020 XLR version, you will plug the into an audio interface. In our demonstration we will use the Focusrite Scarlett 4i4. This interface has a recording resolution of 24-bit and up to 192 kHz sampling rate. The higher the sampling rate, the better the resolution of the recording. (If you want to know more about what this means then check out our complete guide to digital audio).
This particular interface also has extremely high quality pre-amps. They also have “Air mode” which breathes life into vocals, and adds unique high-end detail.
In short, if you buy a good quality, professional interface, then you will get better recording resolution and quality. Furthermore, because of all the circuitry built into a USB mic, no matter how good it is, there will always be an extra element of noise (although this is barely noticeable in high-end USB mics)
Head to Head Comparisons
While we consider the recording resolution and quality, take a listen to these original audio recordings. It’s a USB vs XLR mic head to head comparison!
XLR Mic + Audio Interface Side-by-Side Comparison
USB Microphone Side-by-Side Comparison
Audio-Technica AT2020 XLR Mic + Focusrite 4i4 Interface – Max Recording Resolution 192 kHz 24-bit
Audio-Technica AT2020USB+ at Max Recording Resolution 48kHz 16-bit
Portability and Convenience
When I travel with my laptop, I will often pack my USB mic. With just that and a set of headphones, I can make great quality recordings on the go. Compare that to the extra equipment you need to carry around if you want to travel with your audio interface, mic, stand, cables etc.
That said, you can pack a small interface, mic and cables into a rucsack, it just is not quite so portable and convenient.
Phantom Power – What is it? Do I Need it?
A phantom power supply is required for condenser microphones. This is because of the way the mic works. A dynamic mic works through a physical mechanism so does not need phantom power. You can get a more detailed explanation of how mics work here.
With a USB microphone, the USB power supplies that phantom power. It is not something you have to even consider. The mic works out of the box, no extras required. In short – no external phantom power is needed for a USB mic. If it is a USB condenser mic, the phantom power is built in.
If you have an XLR condenser microphone then you will almost certainly require a phantom power supply. (The exception is that some condenser mics allow you to insert a battery if no phantom supply is available).
Nearly all audio interfaces actually have a phantom power switch, so they will work with any kind of microphone. The same is true of other devices where you might wish to connect your XLR mic. For example, looping pedals and effects units.
However beware that just because a device or piece of equipment has an XLR microphone input, do not assume that it also has phantom power. For example, guitar amps may fall into this category. So when you come to choose equipment for your home recording studio, and especially when you choose an audio interface, make sure you have considered phantom power.
Shopping List – What Exactly Will I Need?
USB Microphone: USB Mic; Studio Headphones and/or Studio Monitors
XLR Mic + Interface: XLR Mic; Audio Interface; XLR Cable; Any other audio leads and connectors for other instruments and equipment; Studio Headphones or Studio Monitors; microphone stand (USB mics usually come with a desktop stand, XLR mics do not).
For either microphone, consider a pop filter too.
Summary – USB Microphone vs Audio Interface and XLR Mic. A Question of Balance between Budget, Quality and Flexibility
So have you decided which is the best recording setup for you? It is really a question of budget, flexibility and recording requirements.
If you want to record quickly and easily with minimal fuss, and you want good quality but do not need super deluxe resolution then you will be perfectly satisfied with a USB mic.
However, if you want to record multiple different things (either now or in the near future), have a bit more to spend, and are hoping to get professional quality then take the plunge and go for the audio interface and mic combo. Or consider one of the all-in-one recording packages which incorporate the mic, headphones and leads with an interface in one purchase.
Good luck, and happy recording!