The prospect of "getting into audio" is a daunting one. After sifting through loads of conflicting information on gear and best practices, even the most basic setups for podcasters and musicians starts costing, and quickly. Hence, the rise of the plug-and-play USB microphone.
Image: Bryan Menegus/Gizmodo
They comes with stands and all the cables you'll need. Many even have built in monitoring, pop filters, and recording features to lighten the loan for any novice recordist -- and best of all they're comparatively cheap. We decided to test five of the most popular ones on the market to see how they stack up.
For music I wrote a short acoustic guitar riff with a mix of strumming and finger picking, and tracked it by pointing the mics at the 15th fret about 20cm away. For voice I aimed for the same distance but read a random passage from the first thing I saw on my bookshelf, which happened to be Recipes From The Road -- a cookbook written by the members of Smash Mouth, which remains one of the best gag gifts I've ever received.
All recordings were made in a 9' x 10' ground floor street-facing apartment with exactly zero sound treatment, which is probably where the majority of mics like these get used.
Best for Musicians: Neat Bumblebee
By contrast to the grays and blacks of most microphones, the colour scheme and bee motif border on ridiculous, but the Bumblebee is functionally flashy. A solid stand and three-jointed swivelling arm allow the Bumblebee to stay on your desk while hunting for the sweet spot of any instrument, and onboard volume and mode controls make sure you'll be getting at least a usable tone. It cannot be overstated how much time can be spent dicking around looking for the best mic placement when tracking songs, and having a versatile stand and passable mic capsule really does make all the difference.
There is a bizarre bump in the low end frequencies which will require some EQing, but cutting those frequencies in post is better than not having them at all.
Best for Podcasters: Blue Yeti
The reigning king of entry-level mics and for good reason: as the second cheapest of the five you're buying a sturdy stand, adjustable headphone volume, input gain control, and four switchable polar patterns (think of these as directions a microphone can hear from). It's also the only mic of the lot that allows for stereo recording.
The Yeti does drop off rather sharply at the extreme highs and lows and has a sizable cut in the midrange in cardioid mode -- the polar pattern you'll likely be using most. Those issues are more pronounced in other patterns. That makes it less useful for musicians looking to record a clean track. But when used to get clean recordings of the spoken voice that isn't required to cut through a mess of other instrumentation, those problems are hardly noticeable.
Best for your enemies: Shure MV-5
Shure is one of the most trusted brands in audio, with its workhorse SM57 gracing the stages of just about every venue on earth. But the MV-5 is a major disappointment. Everything about the construction feels cheap, and bass frequencies are rolled off so aggressively that recordings start to sound like you're talking through an old telephone. The headphone jack also automatically blends what's coming into the mic with what's coming out of your computer, which can sometimes make it difficult to play along to previously-recorded parts or a metronome. And worst of all, at barely six inches the stand is ludicrously short and non-adjustable. Pass.
Quality Without Complication: Røde NT-USB
A good height, and knobs to adjust input blending and headphone volume, the NT-USB looks and sounds great. It also has the best pop filter of the bunch -- meaning some of those harsh puh and shh sounds won't wreak as much havoc on your recordings. The specs, as reported by Røde, suggest the mic has about a considerable boost in the high frequency range. In normal human words, I found that added a bit of pleasant shimmer to my vocals but your mileage may vary.
The NT-USB is passable in most respects, but the stand is set up as a bizarre offset tripod. If the mic isn't positioned between the two closer feet, or if it's angled too far forward, the whole thing topples over.
Best at Falling Over: Audio-Technica 2020USBi
Meant to look and sound like the popular AT2020, the USB version delivers on the promises of its older sibling with the flattest frequency response of these five budget mics -- meaning it will provide usable recordings from the widest variety of sources.
Like the Røde however, it comes with a dinky, poorly-balanced tripod. Unlike the Røde, volume is the only on-board feature.