What is the Difference Between XLR and USB Microphones?

What’s the difference between USB and XLR microphones? You’ve probably heard of an XLR connected microphone, typically when it comes to condenser microphones (at least with today’s comparison). Yet again, with the ever-rising technology of USB microphones, we’ve seen this question come up more often so we’ve decided to write a guide for you all. So, what’s the difference? To be able to understand the difference between these microphones, we have to know a little information about each connectivity type.

What is the difference between USB and XLR microphones?

We would not consider these different microphones types. Ultimately, the ‘type’ of microphone (for example dynamic or condenser) can be either USB or XLR connected.

Before we get technical, here’s our straight away answer to save you some time: USB microphones are for convenience, applications that are less reliant on actual audio quality and the need for flexibility with recordings, as well as budget. They’re cheaper and more suitable for uses such as gaming, streaming, online calls, and more.

For home studio applications such as recording music in vocals and instruments, we still recommend going the XLR route so you can have more flexibility with recording control and quality. Using an audio interface and mic preamp goes a long way when it comes to getting serious with tweaking your audio tracks — gain, feel, EQ cuts, you name it. If you can afford it, even XLR mics for streaming or other popular uses will never hurt. It’s just more expensive.

What are XLR Microphones?

X stands for X Connector, L stands for Locking Connector, R stands for Rubber boot. XLR cables capture an analog signal using three-pronged male and female connectors. These microphones carry balanced audio, which is essential for getting a clean sound. Most pro-audio recording gear is designed for XLR microphones.

So, these microphones are compatible with most recording gear. XLR microphones need to be plugged into an audio interface or microphone preamp to be able to use them. If you need to upgrade the sound quality of your microphone, you have the to upgrade the interface and get to keep your microphone. These microphones are used by recording and radio studios, as well as live performers. XLR microphones are also useful when there are more than one performer recording at the same time.

What is a USB microphone?

Popular USB microphones you may have seen around the market

These are really starting to grow on us, especially when it comes to studio applications (home studios preferably), especially with applications such as USB mics for vocals. These microphones are the easiest way to make high quality recordings on a computer without having to rely on external gear — just plug and play and you’re good to go.

USB microphones have the similar capsules and condenser elements as XLR microphones (mostly), but with the ability to plug directly into the USB port on a computer eliminating the need to buy additional audio equipment to record your audio files. That is why USB microphones are cost-effective. These microphones are designed for digital output, are portable and can be used on a variety of equipment like PCs, tablets, phones and laptops.

Unfortunately, the USB microphone is not upgradeable. In other words, if you want to upgrade the quality of your microphone, you have to replace it with another microphone or just go the XLR route for some more flexibility when it comes to a middle-man with interfaces or preamps.

Difference between XLR and USB

Now that we know the definitions of an XLR microphone and a USB microphone, let’s explore the difference between those two.

It all essentially comes down to the parts of a microphone. Very simply said, the difference between an XLR microphone and a USB microphone is in the connections. The internal organs of each are different. An XLR microphone, having three prongs in its connection, needs to be connected to a mixing board; without which it won’t work. While a USB microphone can be connected directly to your computer without needing any kind of audio interface.

How to choose the right microphone?

With that being said, we can get more in-depth if you’re still reading. Let’s get a bit more detailed here — every single audio setup needs the following three main devices: A microphone, a preamp and an audio to digital converter, also known as A-to-D converter.

A microphone sends practically an inaudible signal which is very, very quiet and is called the mic level signal. That is why it needs a preamp which takes those very quiet electrical signal levels and amplifies them into an audible level strong enough for further processing or sending to a power amplifier and a loudspeaker. The signal is strong enough that we can hear and it is called the line level signal. This signal is then transferred into a digital signal by an analog to digital converter. The A-to-D converter is a system that converts an analog signal, such as sound picked up by a microphone into a digital signal.

If you have an XLR microphone, you need to connect it into an interface or a mixer that has a preamp built into it, then right after it sends it out through a USB out, it converts it into a digital signal. In case of a USB microphone, all three of those main devices; the mic, the preamp and the A-to-D converter are built into the microphone. Therefore, all you need to do is to connect it to a computer through a USB cable. This is convenient, but also less flexible. Think of it like a pre-built computer with all of the parts chosen, as opposed to XLR mics where you can customize the layers to recording.

There are factors that you might think about when deciding which microphone is the right for you. Some of these important factors are:

Cost:

USB microphones are relatively cheaper than XLR microphones because when using the latter, you need to also buy an interface, preamp or a more simple form of phantom power (some do come with this).

Sound:

Usually, XLR microphones have a better sound quality than USB microphones. But it also depends on the application you use it for. If you are just using it for putting audio music on YouTube, for example, you probably will not notice the difference. But if you are going to use lots of different instruments and vocalists with all sorts of dynamic ranges, then you will definitely notice that XLR microphones have a better sound quality.

Usability:

It is recommendable that you try both types of microphone because some people might find out that the XLR works out good with their voice, and yet others, might find out that the USB microphones works out for them.

A USB microphone is usually used by those who want to utilize it as a hobby, not a profession, as well as beginners. That is because it has a low cost, you do not have to have a technical knowledge, it is easier to set up and a lot cheaper than an XLR microphone.

On the other hand, professionals who are considering more of a professional set up, use an XLR microphone because these are connected using mixers.

Lifespan:

Most USB microphones come with a short warranty, whereas XLR microphones come with extended or lifetime warranty which is an indication that they last longer (really just depends on the brand).

Pros and Cons of USB and XLR Mics

USB Microphone Pros

  • Portability: Since a USB microphone are powered by a computer, eliminating the need for a phantom power source, it cuts down on the amount of gear you have to carry when you are recording. Therefore, a USB microphone is transportable.
  • Simplicity: It is easier to set up because it is simply used by plugging it directly to a computer.
  • Affordability: Another pro is that it is a lot cheaper, affordable than an XLR microphone, that is because it doesn’t need any digital audio interface (DAI) to be connected to a computer.

USB Microphone Cons

  • One at a time: On the other hand, a USB microphone lacks some of the qualities of an XLR microphone. One of the drawbacks is that it is challenging to record multiple USB microphones at once because your computer will have trouble judging/deciding which microphone is which and will not record the audio correctly.
  • Latency: Some USB microphones have latency problems. There is a delay between the time the sound enters the microphone and the time it exits through your headphones, but that’s becoming less of a problem as time goes on.
  • Reduced sound quality: Many USB microphones are designed for podcasting or streaming applications, resulting in a considerably less professional sounding recording. It’s more expensive to pack in higher-tech in the bodies as opposed to XLR.
  • Control: Since a USB microphone is directly connected to a computer through a USB cable, it leaves no choice for control. You don’t have the options of an interface to have control over the produced sound.
  • Choice: Another pro would be choice. Since USB microphones are relatively new, there are fewer options, but we’re starting to see the market flood with new models every year.

XLR Microphones Pros

  • Adaptability: XLR microphones are significantly more adaptable to many different functions. Since this type of microphone is connected to an interface, it offers a lot more customization.
  • Flexibility: One can easily swap microphones, interfaces, cables and stands to customize the setup to fit your needs. It is better for multiple microphones.
  • Sound quality: Simply said, XLR microphones have cleaner sound quality than USB microphones.
  • Durability: These microphones have more power; they are built with durability in mind, therefore, they are likely to withstand the tests of time.

XLR Microphone Cons

  • Costly: An XLR microphone will end up costing more because it needs a phantom power source.
  • Inconvenience: It is an inconvenience to travelers to carry XLR microphones because they have to carry all of the equipment that have to be connected to it.

In Conclusion, Which Microphone Should You Buy?

Condenser microphones have more power and better quality than USB (usually)

The strength of having a USB microphone is in its simplicity, plug and go, all in one ease of use. The strength of an XLR microphone is its potential sound quality.

When you’re creating your home studio, it is essential that you choose the right microphone. Buying the correct microphone is really a personal conclusion; it depends on what you’re looking for in a microphone.

So which microphone is the best for you? The XLR? Or the USB?

Although we explained earlier and may sound redundant, here’s the final word. If you are going to use the microphone for home recording, or you are going to use it as a hobby, whether you are going to transport it, or you travel often and want to carry it wherever you go, USB microphones are your best bet. On the other hand, if you’re a radio broadcaster, streamer or even podcaster — someone who needs to record multiple people at the same time like more than one speaker at the same time, a musician performing on stage, or want to record in a studio, XLR microphones are recommendable for you.

USB microphones may appear to be an attractive choice for beginners’ home studio. Some USB microphones are made with cheap parts which will yield poor quality sound. So when buying a microphone, bear in mind that if you want your recordings to have a high quality sound, you have to choose quality equipment.

If you’re trying to build a professional stream, your goal should be a set up with an XLR microphone because it has more options, more sound quality and more control like compression, EQ, all the changes you can do with an analog audio.

Make the right decision with the visions you have.