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XLR vs USB | Which Should You Go For?


Musicians, podcasters, and other content creators spend a lot of time in front of Microphones. They expect clear and crisp vocals without much hassle. The two popular choices of Microphones are XLR and USB. If you are starting your ‘vocal’ journey, then you have to decide between XLR vs USB.

So, to help you out, we’ve put together a comprehensive comparison guide on XLR and USB. We will learn the basics of XLR and USB. After that, we will find out the differences between them along with their pros and cons. Finally, aided by a side-by-side comparison of XLR vs USB, we will figure out which microphone should you go for.

A Brief Note on Microphones

The vocal sound we hear on TVs, Radio, Smartphones, and other mediums is all captured by a Microphone or simply a Mic. It converts the mechanical vibration of a diaphragm into electrical signals.

There are three types of microphones. Dynamic (or moving-coil), Condenser and Ribbon. These three are popular even though there are several other types.

Irrespective of the type of mic, there are only a handful of connectors that help you plug in the microphone into different audio equipment or computers. The two popular options nowadays are XLR and USB.

XLR

The XLR Connector is an old-school analog audio connector that is still rocking. XLR Microphones are the main choice for professional audio recording. James H. Cannon developed this connector. Hence, we sometimes call it the Cannon Connector (or Plug).

It is a 3-pin connector with two signal pins (Positive and Negative) and a Ground pin. We often call the male XLR (with pins) as Plug and the female counterpart (with holes) as Connector.

There are other variants of XLR with more pins but the 3-pin variant is common and often dubbed the professional audio connector.

XLR can carry balanced audio using its Positive and Negative pins. Balanced audio has two signals, both of them with the same magnitude but opposite polarity. As a result, the XLR cables and connectors have superior noise rejection even with longer cables.

This is one of the main reasons why XLR is so popular in a live audio and professional setup. But an important point about XLR Microphones is that they are analog devices. That is, the audio signals from the XLR Plugs are analog.

So, in order to use the XLR Mic with computers or other audio equipment, you need an intermediate device to convert the analog signals to digital signals. Audio Interfaces and Audio Mixers are popular devices that do this job.

USB

Nowadays, everything is USB. For all the external components we connect to a computer, USB is the interface of choice. Earlier, we had different types of USB Ports, one on the computer side and another on the device side.

For example, USB Type-A on computers and micro-USB on smartphones or cameras. But things are changing with USB Type-C. Almost all modern gadgets have a USB Type-C Port. Even computers are coming with more than one USB Type-C Port.

Lawmakers are mandating the use of USB-C on all small and medium power devices, including smartphones, cameras, headphones, and even laptops.

Coming to USB Microphones, they are becoming popular among first-time buyers and creators with a limited budget. You simply plug in the USB Cable to a port on the computer and start using the device.

With USB Microphones, all the communications are digital. The mic itself has an analog to digital converter built in while the actual microphone is either a condenser or dynamic one. Some high-end USB Condenser microphones can produce very good audio quality.

Differences Between XLR and USB

Signal

The first and important difference between XLR and USB is the type of signal they produce (or operate on). XLR works in the analog domain whereas USB is completely digital.

As a result, to use XLR devices with modern digital equipment (computers, audio, video, etc.), you need an intermediary analog to digital converter (ADC). This is not the case with USB.

Even though the sound captured by a USB Microphone is analog, its built-in ADC converts this signal to digital data to transmit to a computer.

Audio Quality

You might have heard the trash talk on XLR vs USB like “XLR is for professionals and USB is for beginners”. There is a truth to this.

The audio quality from an XLR Microphone is clear, crisp, and noise free. That is why all professional studios, podcasters, and content creators prefer XLR Mics.

Not to disregard USB Microphones, but the audio quality is inferior to XLR counterparts. We have a Blue Yeti USB Microphone that is collecting dust on a shelf. The noise it produces is unacceptable.

We cannot say the same for other USB mics but in general, XLR has a better audio quality than USB.

Interface

This one is simple. XLR Microphones use a 3-pin XLR Plug and Connector. USB can use regular USB Type-A, micro-USB, Mini USB, and even the latest USB Type-C.

Cost

One of the major factors in deciding XLR vs USB is the cost. XLR Microphones are generally priced above USB ones. This and the fact that you need an audio interface to use it makes the whole XLR setup an expensive affair.

Broadcast and Podcast mics from reputable brands such as Shure and Rode begin at $100 and go up to $300 or even more.

Even good quality USB Microphones from Logitech and HyperX are close to $100. But there are lot more decent options much less than that.

Pros and Cons

XLR

+ Popular interface. Many audio devices and equipment use this connector.

+ Obvious choice for professional and semi-professional audio recording. So, there are several options in the market.

+ High-end XLR microphones have significantly better audio quality.

+ You can plug XLR devices into other compatible devices directly.

+ The circular connector of XLR is very durable. Some even have a locking mechanism.

+ Good quality XLR Microphones are capable of producing high sampling rate audio of 96kHZ or even 192kHz.

+ Excellent option for connecting multiple microphones. One audio interface or audio mixer can take input from several mics.

+ With additional hardware, you have very good control of the audio.

– Cables, Microphones, and other XLR devices are expensive.

– You need an audio interface to connect with a computer.

– With all the wires and equipment, an XLR setup is difficult in terms of portability.

USB

+ Plug and play. No need for any additional interfaces or mixers.

+ Lightweight and very easy to set up.

+ Often less expensive than XLR Mics.

+ You can easily carry them anywhere you go.

– The audio quality is good but overall, it is less than XLR.

– All the audio control is through software.

– There is a chance of buzzing noise.

Comparison of XLR vs USB

The following table shows a side-by-side comparison of some important aspects of XLR and USB Microphones.

Parameter XLR USB
Signal Type Analog Digital
Interface 3-Pin XLR Plugs and Connectors. USB (Type-A, micro-USB, or USB-C).
Additional Equipment Needed. Audio Interface or Audio Mixer is necessary to connect with a computer. No need. Simply plug and play with any computer (or even smartphone).
Compatibility Compatible with industry-standard audio gear. Only USB devices (computers)
Noise XLR produces balanced audio. This is free from noise. USB Microphones are notoriously famous for buzzing noise.
Cost The overall cost of the setup (XLR Mic with Audio Interface) is expensive. Comparatively cheap.
Recommended for Pro and semi-pro Budget-constrained content creators

Which One to Buy, XLR or USB?

Now comes the difficult question, which is better among XLR and USB? Both XLR and USB Microphones have their fair share of advantages and disadvantages. So, how to pick one between XLR vs USB?

First of all, the choice of microphone depends on your personal requirements, needs, budget, and present equipment.

If you are a professional artist, then there is no alternative to XLR Mic. Despite the additional cost of the audio interface and other equipment, you will get the best possible audio quality.

Other music and audio equipment (guitars, interfaces, etc.) have easy compatibility with XLR devices. So, if you produce independent music, XLR Microphone is a better option.

XLR Setup is also easy to upgrade. You can add several microphone inputs to a single interface. This makes it an interesting choice for podcasters who bring guests to the show.

If you are a new content creator or podcaster and are limited by a budget, a good quality USB Microphone will be a preferable option. You don’t have to buy any extra equipment. Just plug the microphone into a computer’s USB port and start recording.

The downside of a USB Microphone is it is one-off equipment. There are no upgrade paths or devices you can use. Portability is also great with USB Mics. You can use them with laptops and even smartphones while you are on the go.

Beginners can purchase a USB Microphone while starting their career. Down the line, as you and your content are growing, you can invest in a better XLR setup.

Conclusion

In the modern day and age of massive digital content, Microphones are essential devices. Whether you are an artist, a podcaster, or a general content creator, you need a good-quality microphone to record your voice.

XLR and USB are the two popular connection options for present microphones. The debate of XLR vs USB has been going on for years. You need to consider several parameters before choosing the best microphone.

In this guide, we saw some basics of XLR and USB Microphones. After that, we listed the differences between them with some important metrics.

We also saw a side-by-side comparison of XLR vs USB Microphones. Finally, we gave some guidelines on which microphone is better for you.



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