In this article, we explore the differences between a USB microphone and an audio interface. We’ll explain the pros and cons of each and share our recommendations on which system is best for podcasting, live streaming, music production, and video conferencing. 

Quick Answer: USB microphones are a budget-friendly, simple way to improve your audio in online meetings or record a podcast on the fly. An audio interface will give you more connectivity, improved audio quality and will grow with you as your needs change.

Equipment Used In This Comparison

With so many different USB microphones and audio interfaces available, it’s not fair to say that one type is always better. That said, we will be making recommendations based on our experience and some generalized assumptions about each kind of device.

To make things as fair as possible in the accompanying video, we compared USB and XLR versions of the Audio Technica AT2020. The XLR mic was connected to the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface.

USB Microphone Overview

To fully understand the differences between the two systems, let’s take an in-depth look at how they both work. We’ll kick things off with USB microphones.

  1. Microphone Capsule.
    The microphone capsule inside a USB microphone converts acoustic energy or sound waves into an analog electric signal. This mic-level signal is extremely weak.
  2. Microphone Preamp.
    The mic-level electrical signal then passes into a preamp within the mic, where it is boosted to a level more appropriate for a computer.
  3. A/D Conversion.
    Still inside the microphone, the analog electric signal gets converted into a digital signal in preparation for sending it to the computer.
  4. USB Cable.
    This digital signal is sent to the computer via the USB connection.
  5. Computer & Software.
    The computer receives this signal where it can be used by recording or broadcast software. 

USB microphones often come with their own software that can set the gain, manage clipping, and offer additional settings for further customization. You can connect a USB microphone to your computer and start using it right away.

Our Favorite USB Microphones:

USB Microphone Connectivity

Aside from the obvious USB connection to your computer, what other types of connectivity do USB microphones offer?

  • No inputs for other audio sources.
  • Headphone output with volume control.
  • Blend feature (on some mics) to adjust the headphone balance between the microphone audio and sound coming from the computer.

USB Microphone Benefits

There are 3 main benefits to using a USB microphone, all of which are pretty obvious.

  • All-in-One Device.
    USB microphones offer a self-contained, simple-to-use solution.
  • Less Expensive.
    A USB mic costs less than an audio interface and XLR microphone setup.
  • More Portable.
    The all-in-one nature of a USB microphone makes it the more portable option.

If simplicity, price, and portability are the most important factors to you, a USB microphone ticks all of the right boxes.

Audio Interface Overview

Audio interfaces generally have a variety of inputs, one of which would be for an XLR microphone. Let’s look at a step-by-step breakdown of how an XLR and audio interface setup works.

  1. Microphone Capsule.
    The microphone capsule inside an XLR microphone converts acoustic energy or sound waves into an analog electric signal just like the USB mic.
  2. XLR Cable.
    The analog signal travels from the mic to the audio interface via an XLR cable.
  3. High-Quality Preamp.
    The preamp in the audio interface boosts the weak analog signal coming from the mic. Generally speaking, the preamp in an audio interface is better than that of a USB mic, resulting in better sound quality with less noise.
  4. A/D Conversion.
    The analog signal is converted to digital within the audio interface; it does not happen in the mic with this setup.
  5. USB Cable.
    The boosted digital signal is sent to the computer via a USB connection.
  6. Computer & Software.
    The computer receives this signal where it can be used by recording or broadcast software.

These are our favorite audio interfaces right now:

Audio Interface Connectivity

Audio interfaces offer a lot more in terms of connectivity when compared to USB microphones, often having multiple inputs and outputs.

  • XLR inputs for microphones.
  • Instrument-level inputs for electric guitars etc.
  • Line level inputs for electric pianos or drum machines.
  • Headphone output with volume control.
  • Line-level monitor outputs for studio monitors/speakers.

Audio Interface Benefits

If you read through the previous section, the benefits of using an audio interface are pretty apparent.

  • More Inputs.
    You can connect multiple audio sources to your computer simultaneously with support for various input types.
  • More Outputs.
    Switch between using headphones and studio monitors depending on your needs and environment.
  • Better Preamp.
    Improved sound quality and reduced noise with mic-level sources.
  • Better Analog to Digital Conversion.
    Produce higher-quality audio files and recordings.
  • More Modular.
    Mix and match microphones and instruments with the option to upgrade them as budget and requirements change. 

If you want to capture high-quality audio from various sources, an audio interface is more likely to satisfy your needs.

USB Microphone & Audio Interface Comparison

We’ve gone over each system in detail, so you should have a good idea of their respective pros and cons by this point. Time for a quick comparison of the key features that should sway your decision one way or the other.

USB MicrophoneAudio Interface & XLR Microphone
CostLess Expensive More Expensive
MicrophoneLess Selection, Equal QualityMore Selection, Equal Quality
PreampMid-TierMore Selection, Higher Quality
A/D ConversionMid-TierMore Selection, Higher Quality
UsabilityVery SimpleCan Be Complex
PortabilityVery PortableNot As Portable
ModularityNo ModularityAbility to Mix & Match

Video Conferencing Recommendation

Video Conferencing Buyer's Guide

USB microphone

If you’re looking for a solution that makes you sound better in online meetings for work or school, we recommend using a USB microphone.

The single cable setup makes the USB mic a reliable solution. You will have an easy-to-manage solution that will give you great audio for your meeting.

Live Streaming Recommendation

Live Streaming Buyer's Guide

It depends…

We don’t have a hard and fast microphone recommendation for live streamers; the best choice depends on a few factors.

For people just starting out in the world of live streaming, we think it makes sense that you start with a USB microphone. It won’t offer an upgrade path, but it gets you started at a lower price point.

However, if you’re someone who loves gear, you know that you’ll want to upgrade microphones and experiment with your equipment soon enough. We think you’re much better off investing in an audio interface from the outset.

Podcasting Recommendation

Podcasting Buyer's Guide

It depends…

We think a USB microphone is the perfect solution for anyone doing a lot of remote, one-person podcasting. If you’re always on the go and need to travel light, a self-contained USB mic is the way to do it.

For everyone else, even if you’re just getting started in podcasting, we think you should get an audio interface. The added connectivity will be helpful for your podcasts by adding:

  • Additional inputs for recording with guests.
  • The ability to upgrade to a better microphone.
  • Ability to add other audio sources.

Music Production Recommendation

Music Production Buyer's Guide

Audio Interface

An audio interface is the way to go if you want to do any kind of music production on a computer. A USB microphone simply doesn’t offer the flexibility you need in a music environment.

An audio interface gives you the freedom to experiment with different microphones, the ability to record instruments, and connectivity for studio monitors.

USB Microphone Vs. Audio Interface – Featured Equipment Prices

USB Microphone Vs. Audio Interface Topics

  • 0:00 – Introduction
  • 0:42 – General Assumptions
  • 1:17 – Equipment Used
  • 1:41 – USB Microphone Overview
  • 3:19 – USB Microphone Connectivity
  • 4:13 – USB Microphone Benefits
  • 4:37 – Audio Interface Overview
  • 7:01 – Audio Interface Benefits
  • 7:22 – Comparison – Cost
  • 7:35 – Comparison – Microphone Capsule 
  • 7:59 – Comparison – Preamp & A/D Conversion
  • 8:45 – Comparison – Usability 
  • 9:11 – Comparison – Portability
  • 10:11 – Comparison – Modularity
  • 10:59 – Recommendation – Video Conferencing
  • 11:57 – Recommendation – Live Streaming
  • 12:57 – Recommendation – Podcasting
  • 14:09 – Recommendation – Music Production
  • 15:13 – Final Thoughts