Why you should trust us
Melanie Pinola has written about technology and home office topics for more than a dozen years for sites such as Lifehacker, PCWorld, and Laptop Magazine, and she has reviewed various gear for Wirecutter for more than four years.
Kevin Purdy co-hosted the In Beta podcast for more than 100 episodes, all involving microphones and recording. Before that, he learned a lot about bad recording techniques on an amateur podcast and was frequently a guest on podcasts on the TWiT and 5by5 networks.
We coupled years of microphone experience with interviews of recording professionals who gave their takes on what makes the best USB mic. Lauren Dragan, a Wirecutter writer and audio expert, interviewed Bill Holmes (Compost Productions, the McCoy Productions studio in Los Angeles, and The Voiceover Doctor) and Lynnanne Zager, a successful longtime voice actor and instructor. Kevin later interviewed Jason Howell from This Week in Tech, veteran podcaster Tom Merritt, and two producers at radio and podcast organizations. And for the latest version of this guide, Melanie consulted Brad Fisher, technical manager for The New York Times Audio (The New York Times is Wirecutter's parent company); Gina Delvac, producer for the Call Your Girlfriend podcast; two audio producers who work in the film and television industries; and Josh Strid, sales engineer for the music technology and instrument retailer Sweetwater.
Who this is for
If you're a podcaster, a musician looking to share homemade productions online, or a YouTube vlogger—or you just want to do much better recording than your laptop's built-in microphone will allow—a USB microphone is the easiest way to improve your audio recordings. You don't need any extra equipment or even software: Plug a USB microphone directly into the USB port on your computer, and most often it will appear as an additional input you can choose in either your system settings, recording software, or conference call interface. USB mics are much easier than traditional mics that need extra equipment to connect to your computer.
Depending on your goals, a USB microphone alone might not make you sound as perfect as you'd like to. All of our experts advised us that the room environment has a big impact on sound quality; even the highest-quality mic will capture less than perfect audio if the room isn't set up ideally for acoustics (how sound is absorbed, blocked, or reverberated in a space). Josh Strid, Sweetwater sales engineer, said that a good-sounding room will make a larger difference in the quality of recordings than microphone choice. So before you upgrade your mic, be sure to limit background noise (no fans or air conditioning on, for example) and anything that will reflect sound like hard bare walls and floors. If that's not possible, you can purchase a shield to place around your mic to focus the audio input.
If you want to delve more deeply into recording your voice or musical instruments and want additional options, we have a guide for that too. A USB audio interface will offer even better sound quality overall than a USB mic and pick up more nuances in both vocals and acoustic instruments. But if you're just starting out or don't want to invest in an audio interface and a mic, a USB microphone will still make a significant difference in how you sound.
How we picked
For the update to this guide, we relied on expert interviews, our previous years of microphone testing and research, plus published reviews from customers and professionals. We then evaluated or reevaluated 23 current top-rated microphones and narrowed that down to eight USB microphones to test, including our previous guide's two picks, using the following criteria:
- Price under or around $100: Because a USB mic exists in the realm between built-in recording and the expensive world of studio-level microphones, the price point should be in that middle range too. A majority of the microphones we looked at with the most features, highest recommendations, and positive reviews fall between $60 and $100. Some microphones made for voice and music professionals cost more than twice that and offer high-definition audio recording, but according to our experts and our tests, most people can't tell the difference.
- Ease of use: A great microphone should offer options for those who want to fiddle, but those options shouldn't make things complicated. The more switches and knobs, the more overwhelming the mic will be to use and harder for you to dial in perfect settings.
- Headphone jack on the mic: A zero-latency headphone jack on the microphone helps you hear exactly what the mic is sending to your computer without any distracting delay. When you plug your headphones into your computer, there is a slight delay (due to the processing used by the analog-to-digital converter as it encodes your voice) that can be really infuriating if you are trying to match a beat, narrate over a video, or just don't want to be surprised after your recording that all your P's were popping.
- In-mic volume (gain) control: This gives you more control over the volume from the microphone into your computer. This is helpful if you are switching from a boisterous speaker to a soft-spoken one, or from a lullaby to an aria. If you're recording something live, like a podcast, it's also far easier to dial down a physical gain dial on the mic just a tad than it is to figure out in your recording software which slider you need to click and drag to reduce background noise or eliminate distortion from the mic.
Some budget microphones don't offer the headphone jack or gain control, so we made exceptions for those if the price was under $50 and owner ratings were high.
We also considered some niceties, but not must-haves:
- A mute button on the mic: This is handy for quickly muting, but you won't need a hardware button if you know your recording program's mute keyboard shortcut.
- Mobile compatibility: A microphone that works on iOS and Android as well as on Windows and Mac is more versatile, but we were looking primarily for microphones that people would use at their desks.
- Long warranty: Most of the microphones we looked at offer a decent two-year warranty.
- Included pop filter: This helps prevent strong blasts of air from hitting the microphone when the speaker is pronouncing certain consonants, but you can get a pop filter separately for about $10.
A note on pattern style: Most of the microphones we considered are cardioid or supercardioid, which is just another way of saying that the microphone picks up sound most when the sound source is right in front of it. Think: a podcaster or someone being interviewed speaking into a mic. Microphones can also focus on picking up sounds from other directions, like everything in every direction (omnidirectional) or from the front and back of the camera (bidirectional). Those are useful in some situations—such as if you want to pick up every sound equally coming from every corner of a sports stadium or from two speakers seated across from each other. But most USB microphones have the cardioid or narrower supercardioid pick up patterns because they're meant primarily to help the people speaking or playing their music directly into the mic sound better.
How we tested
We ran tests of these microphones with home users and minimal equipment in mind. Two speakers—one male and one female—took turns reading the same 40-second passage into each mic. The microphones were all placed at the same 5-inch distance from the speakers, with the gain set to the middle (either with the mic's knob if available or in our macOS settings). We didn't use any software audio enhancements, and we recorded all samples in Audacity in the same session for a neutral, common playing field.
Those audio samples, labeled simply with a letter for each microphone, were then sent to our panelists, who ranked them on audio quality. They looked for things like how crisp the consonants sounded, how much background or room noise was picked up, and how well the mic captured the voice ranges. It's worth noting that many people find mics work better for lower voices in general; our top picks scored well for both low and high voice ranges.
Our panelists for this round were Lauren Dragan, Wirecutter's headphone and audio expert; Sarah Witman, a Wirecutter staff writer on our podcast team; audio producer/engineer Mikhail Pivovarov; audio engineer Jim Kiernan; and Grammy-winning and multiple Grammy-nominated music producer/audio engineer Charles A. Martinez.
You can hear the audio samples from this round of tests on Soundcloud, as well as the recordings we did in 2013, 2015, and 2016. Compare this with a MacBook Pro's standard mic recording under the same conditions, and you can hear how much better an external mic will make you sound.
Our pick: Blue Yeti
If you want to plug a microphone into your computer and quickly sound clear and engaging whether recorded or live, we recommend the Blue Yeti. It provided the most reliably well-rounded, natural sound out of all the mics we tested—whether on Windows or Mac, or whether recording happened in professional studios or in a small, square office. Over the past four years, it's often been rated the best or among the best by different test panels. It offers live headphone monitoring and gain control, so you can optimize how you sound. Of all the mics we've tested, the Yeti felt the most durable and finely constructed microphone.
The Yeti costs about $20 more than most desktop-size USB microphones, but many people may not need to spend a dime more to be ready for a podcast, a YouTube show, or an amateur voice recording once they've purchased it. At most, people may want to pay a few bucks for a universal pop filter to use with the Yeti. Otherwise, you get a setup that sounds much better over a video call than a laptop's microphone, and that audio producers are more than happy to work with. One of our audio producer panelists remarked that this mic "sounds how I would expect a good professional condenser microphone to sound in an untreated room. I would use this and definitely recommend it to friends looking for USB mics." From our experience while recording samples with dozens of different USB microphones, we can attest that the Yeti is one of the easiest mics to get plugged in and sounding good without much knob twiddling or software slider sliding.
Our panelists found the Yeti "full and rich with appropriate ambiance" and "a nice happy medium for novices or recording in non-ideal settings." Even the Yeti X, Blue's microphone that's targeted toward professionals and costs about $50 more, didn't score higher than its sibling in our blind tests for audio quality. Most other mics, whether more expensive or seriously cheaper, pick up far more mouth noise and sounds ("plosives" and "sibilance") or significantly alter your voice at certain frequencies to round out the sound or try to correct shortcomings.
The Yeti ranked well for both lower and higher vocal registers; it was the top choice for the higher register for most of our panelists and in everyone's top three for the lower register. For the other microphones, our testers only preferred the mics for one register over the other. For example, one panelist chose the AmazonBasics microphone as top for the higher register, but fourth place for the lower one. The Yeti is less likely to hiss, boom, or enhance higher or lower voice disparities than other microphones. It's a sensible USB mic at a reasonable price for most people.
The Yeti's headphone jack and in-mic gain controls make it ideal for podcasting or recording vocals. The zero-latency headphone jack lets you hear yourself without any delay as you record, and the in-mic gain control gives you more control over the volume coming out of the microphone and going into your computer. This is helpful anytime you need to make on-the-fly adjustments for louder or softer speakers. If you're recording something live, like a podcast, it's also much easier to dial down a mic's physical gain dial just a tad than it is to figure out which software slider you need to click and drag to reduce background noise.
While other mics in this price category offer a headphone jack, in-mic gain, and mute controls, the Yeti's controls are the simplest and most intuitive to use. The master volume control mimics a headphone monitor control on a professional recording console. We liked the tactile clicks and volume marker that made it easy to gauge the adjustments as we went along, as opposed to the controls on the Blue Yeti Nano, which has a similar dial without that visual or tactile feedback. The Yeti's light-up mute button is accessible on the front of the mic, which comes in handy for live recordings, whereas other mics (including the Shure MV5 and AmazonBasics microphones) have a harder-to-press mute button on the back.
The other side of the Yeti has a dial with firm, reassuring clicks between four pickup patterns: cardioid (one person), stereo (multiple sources from two sides), omni (the whole room), and bidirectional (two people across from each other). A surprising number of microphones we tested made it hard, or just hard to see, what pickup mode you were using, and what features and inputs you had enabled. With four pattern modes, the Yeti is the most versatile of the microphones we've tested—most mics have one or two modes.
The Yeti comes with its own swiveling table stand, but you can remove it and place the mic on a traditional mic stand—but not all mic stands, and not without a little hassle. More on that below.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The biggest flaw with the Blue Yeti is not its sound; it is its build. The Yeti is a rare instance where build quality is good to its own detriment. The stand is sturdy and heavy (2.2 pounds with the mic attached), providing stability and bump resistance, but this also makes the mic take up more valuable desk space, and it's more difficult to stash away than smaller mics. Once out of its stand, the Yeti microphone itself weighs 1.2 pound—too heavy for most standard shock mounts, even though it has standard ⅝-inch threading to work with one. It can also be awkward and tippy with small desktop mounts. That's a recurring irritation mentioned in Amazon reviews.
The same goes for pop filters; those that are made for general microphones often do not fit well on the Yeti's basic stand. A universal clip-on version (like this filter) can do in a pinch, but the look and space taken up by a long wire can be irksome. If you want the perfect fit, you have to buy the Blue-made version of accessories, which means shelling out about $50 for a shock mount and about $20 for its branded pop filter.
Runner-up: Shure MV5
If desk or storage space is at a premium or if you often move your mic between spaces, consider the Shure MV5, which scored well with our panelists in voice recording quality—some even ranked it better overall than the Yeti. The trade-off is that the MV5 is not as sturdy, stable, or tall as the Yeti, making you work to set it up at the proper height for recording. And with just the cardioid pattern, it lacks the versatility that the Yeti packs in with four selectable patterns. But the MV5 has just enough recording features—a direct-monitoring headphone jack and impressive automatic gain control—to make it a solid pick for people who value a smaller size and portability. And if you want to use your mic to connect directly to a smartphone with Micro-USB or Lightning cables, the MV5 has that ability. The Yeti doesn't.
The MV5 was among our panelists' favorites with one audio engineer ranking it first for the lower register voice samples. Most of the other microphones we tested had a much wider range of scores from experts, but the majority did agree that the MV5 was nearly the best they heard when its "vocals" preset was used. Testers found the sound "clear, with almost no background noise" but also "tinny," at least for the higher register voice sample, in comparison to Yeti's "warm and very present" recording from the same speaker.
The MV5 avoids the compromises you'd expect in a portable microphone. It has a physical mute button, headphone jack, and slightly recessed volume knob on the back of the mic. It offers three digital signal processor (DSP) presets: vocals, flat (i.e., neutral), or instrument. If you're going to be doing a lot of editing, the flat setting will give you the most leeway for adjustments after the fact. But in our tests, the vocals preset created a noticeably clearer reading.
The MV5 also supports direct recording into iOS and Android devices. The only other mic we tested in this round that works with smartphones and tablets is the Samson Q2U, but the MV5 is much more portable thanks to its stress-ball-like shape and size. This means you can easily keep recording while working at different locations without lugging around a laptop (Wirecutter's Lauren Dragan uses this while traveling and has booked voice acting gigs with it on the go). Shure provides an iOS app that allows for quick recording and sharing, with gain control, clip trimming, a live visual monitor, and more presets for equalizing your recordings. With the included Micro-USB and Micro-USB–to–Lightning cables, you can record to pretty much any device you can find.
The MV5 weighs 5.6 ounces with its stand (the mic head is 3.2 ounces on its own) and easily disassembles into a ball-shaped head and a C-shaped stand. A heavier mic and stand like the Yeti—it weighs six times as much—is useful when it sits on a standard work desk near a keyboard, because it transmits less motion to the recording. But the MV5 is far easier to stash after use, and it's much more suitable to toss in a bag. The MV5's light weight also lets it work with most desktop microphone stands without any tipping issues. The mic head has a ¼-inch thread, which is standard for camera tripods, but it also comes with an adapter so that it can be screwed into more typical ⅝-inch mounts.
Because the MV5 is a small mic, with a small default stand, most people are going to have to put the MV5 on top of something (preferably something stable) to get the mic into a comfortable speaking position while at a laptop or desktop computer. But this is often the case with the Yeti and other mics too.
Budget pick: AmazonBasics Desktop Mini Condenser Microphone
For less than half the price of the Blue Yeti or Shure MV5 (at time of publication), the AmazonBasics Desktop Condenser Microphone is a steal. Its audio quality stood out to our panelists in blind tests, ranking nearly as well as more expensive options. Although it feels less stable and more plasticky than the Yeti and lacks features we like, such as a headphone jack and gain control, this microphone is the most affordable way to noticeably improve your audio quality when recording or streaming.
For two of our five experts, this mic was their top pick, with one choosing it for best female voice recording and the other for best male voice recording. One audio engineer said, "It's the most natural sounding for spoken-word podcast," and another said it's on a par and in some ways better than the model they didn't know was the Yeti, with a more direct sound that would need less correction.
True to the brand, the AmazonBasics microphone also stands out for its simplicity. The mic's design isn't as huge and in-your-face as the Yeti, and it's also not as notably tiny as the Shure MV5. That makes it convenient to keep to the side of your desk and easily grab when you need it. The tripod stand is sturdy, but we found adjusting the legs didn't make a noticeable difference in getting the mic closer to your mouth. That wasn't an issue because angling the large diaphragm (3 inches in diameter, versus most mics' 2 or 2.5 inches) captured our voices just fine.
Going with this less-expensive option doesn't compromise on sound quality, but it does sacrifice other features found on higher-end microphones. The only control on the mic is a mute button. That's both a benefit and a disadvantage: We liked that the mic is easy to use, but we would've preferred to have the headphone jack so we could hear what we sounded like in real time while recording. You also will only be able to adjust the gain level for this mic in your software, rather than on the mic. Like the Shure MV5 (and most other USB microphones), the AmazonBasics Microphone only records in the cardioid pattern for one-directional recording. In the end, these missing features didn't affect the quality of our recordings or ability to sound great while speaking into the mic. However, our speakers are not professional vocalists. If precise no-latency feedback is necessary for your work, one of our other picks would likely be better for you.
Durability might be more of an issue with this mic. We haven't had time to test it over a long period of time like we have with more established models. AmazonBasics has a shorter one-year warranty compared with Blue's two-year warranties, and the tripod stand is less sturdy than the Yeti's. But compared with other mics in this price category, the stand with its rubbery feet felt a bit more stable and less wobbly. You can also unscrew the mic from its stand to place it in a microphone arm, and most pop filters and wind screens can clip onto the body of the mic.
The Blue Yeti Nano is like the younger sibling of the Blue Yeti. Its more compact size makes it easier to stash away or ignore on your desk, but only one of our testers rated this microphone in their top three based on the audio samples. For about $20 more, you'll get higher quality audio from the Blue Yeti, as well as on-mic gain control and two more pickup patterns (the Yeti Nano's patterns are cardioid and omnidirectional, while the Yeti adds bidirectional and stereo capture), making the Yeti more suitable for more types of audio recording needs.
The Samson Q2U Recording and Podcasting Pack is a standard handheld mic (the kind you imagine for singing karaoke) with a tripod stand and a pop filter. The mic's most compelling feature is the XLR analog output—so when you're ready to invest in an audio interface to pair with the mic, you can do so. It's also almost half the price of competing mics. However, it rated lower on our blind audio quality tests for the majority of our panelists, and the stand felt less stable than all of the other mics, probably because it's more suited for holding in your hand than sitting on your desk.
Razer's Seiren X USB Streaming Microphone is the same shape and size of the Blue Yeti Nano—it doesn't take up a lot of desk space. It has a great build quality, with nice touches like a braided cable and a built-in shock mount for extra sturdiness against vibrations. None of our testers, however, chose this for one of their top three mics, saying the recordings sounded unclear and boomy, with too much room noise and echo.
Introduced in 2019, the Blue Yeti X is like an enhanced version of the Blue Yeti—it has the same four pickup patterns as the Yeti but adds in vocal effects, an LED meter (which we loved!) to adjust your gain/voice level, and vocal presets (via Blue's audio software) to adjust your tone and audio effects. Voice-over professional and headphones and audio expert Lauren Dragan chose it as her second pick for voice quality, but the less expensive Blue Yeti rated higher in the blind testing among all of the other panelists. It also costs about $50 more than the Yeti. However, if you are a content creator—streaming sound on Twitch or recording YouTube videos—you might prefer the presets and on-mic controls that can help you adjust your audio on the fly.
The Senal UB-440 USB Microphone has a headphone jack and onboard gain control, and it's priced at about $40 less than the Yeti. Our audio engineers rated this mic last or second-to-last in our blind testings, though, noting that it picked up a lot of interference, sounded hollow, and lacked clarity. One audio professional remarked that it "sounds like an old laptop mic or cell phone mic 10 feet away."
These are some of the other microphones that we dismissed from previous testings:
The Samson Meteor was a prior pick for a decent-enough portable USB microphone, but the sizable grill causes bounce-back that makes it sound unnatural, and both experts and staffers noticed a lot of mouth noise.
Shure's MV51 comes from the same Motiv family of Shure portable products as our MV5 portable pick. It has a larger diaphragm for capturing sound, more processing modes, and touch-bar buttons for input level and muting the mic or headphones. It's a bit heavy to be portable, a bit small for the desktop, and didn't sound better to either set of panelists than the MV5—and it's twice the price of the MV5.
On the recommendation of commenters and the strength of reviews, we tested two Audio-Technica microphones in 2016: the condenser ATR2500-USB and the dynamic USB/XLR hybrid AT2005USB. The AT2005USB vocal samples were rated last and near last by staffers and experts, respectively. The ATR2500-USB didn't fare much better with our experts.
The Rode NT-USB USB Condenser Microphone came the closest to unseating the Blue Yeti in our 2015 tests. Its sound quality, averaged across two rounds of testing, was nearly tied with the Yeti, just ever-so-narrowly edged out by the Yeti's more neutral sound. But the Yeti costs less, was a bit simpler to set up, and has a stronger reputation behind it.
The Yeti Pro is nearly the same microphone as the Yeti: same capsule, same features, same chassis (but black). So why does it cost about twice as much? Two things: XLR analog output and a higher sampling rate (the Yeti has 48 kHz/16 bit while the Yeti Pro offers 192 kHz/24 bit). We feel most people looking for a USB microphone won't need/want the XLR output nor the extra sampling rate that can't be represented on CD, MP3, and streaming.
The other mics we dismissed because they just didn't sound as good as our top picks in the blind testings include: the Samson C01U Pro, Razer Seiren Elite Pro, Apogee MiC 96k, MXL USB.009, MXL Studio 24, Audio Technica AT2020, Blue Nessie, MXL Tempo, and Rode Podcaster USB Dynamic Microphone.
This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.
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