Trying to choose between a USB microphone and an XLR microphone? In this article, we compare both microphone types to help you decide which is the best for video conferencing, live streaming, podcasting, music production, and live sound.

Quick Answer: USB microphones are a budget-friendly, easy way to improve your audio. We recommend them for online meetings, new live streamers, and podcasting on the go. XLR microphones offer improved quality, additional control, and the flexibility to adapt as your needs change.

Featured USB & XLR Microphones

USB and XLR microphones come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with each model having its own pros and cons. That said, we’re going to make some generalizations about the standard features available with USB and XLR microphones, based on our experience.

In the accompanying video, we look at a pair of AT2020 mics that are identical apart from the fact one is USB, and the other is XLR.

USB Mics Shown

XLR Mics Shown

USB Microphone Overview

USB mics are an all-in-one, plug and play solution. On connecting the USB cable, your computer will recognize the USB mic as being a microphone and a headphone jack.

USB microphones come in different shapes and sizes, with various features and benefits, but they are all generally class compliant. This means your computer will always recognize them as a microphone.

Some USB mics come with their own software that gives you access to firmware updates and additional tools to shape the sound of your microphone audio. Still, they should work fine without this software installed.

USB Microphone Components

While USB mics appear simple from the outside, the truth is, there’s a whole lot happening on the inside to get your voice to your computer.

  1. Microphone Capsule
    This captures the acoustic energy generated by your voice and converts it to a mic-level electric signal.
  2. Microphone Preamp
    The preamp boosts the electric signal to a level more appropriate for your computer.
  3. Analog to Digital Conversion
    The boosted electric signal is converted to a digital format, ready for transmission to your computer.
  4. USB Cable
    The digital signal is sent along the USB cable to your computer. The computer returns another digital signal for the USB mic’s headphone jack.
  5. Headphones
    The USB mic converts the digital headphone signal to analog and routes it to the headphone jack.

There’s a lot going on in a short space of time, but the USB mic takes care of everything. You don’t have a lot of control over each aspect; it just works, which is ideal for a lot of people.

Related: Best USB Mics for Live Streaming

USB Microphone Benefits

  • Cost
    When you factor in the costs of everything you need to make an XLR microphone work, a USB mic will be less expensive.
  • Easy to Use
    You don’t have to understand how all of the components work; if you know how to connect the USB mic to your computer, you’re good to go.
  • Portable
    You don’t have to carry additional equipment to make it work; you just need the USB mic and your laptop.

XLR Microphone Overview

The XLR microphone workflow has all of the same elements as a USB mic, but it’s broken down and separated from the mic, giving you more control over each individual stage.

The sole job of an XLR microphone is to capture acoustic energy and create an electric signal. An audio interface or mixer takes care of the remaining signal processing that takes place inside a USB mic.

XLR Microphone Components

  1. Microphone Capsule
    Captures the acoustic energy generated by your voice and converts it to a mic-level electric signal.
  2. XLR Cable
    The XLR Cable carries the electric signal from the XLR mic to an audio interface (or mixer, external recorder, video camera).
  3. Microphone Preamp
    The preamp in the audio interface will boost the mic-level signal to a more appropriate output level.
  4. EQ & Compression
    Some devices will allow you to further process the signal using EQ, compression, and FX.
  5. Analog to Digital Conversion
    The audio interface converts the boosted, processed electric signal to a digital format for use in a computer.
  6. USB Cable
    The digital signal is sent along a USB cable to your computer.
  7. Headphones
    Your computer returns another digital signal which the audio interface converts to analog and routes to your headphones.

An XLR microphone setup is a lot more modular, giving you greater control. The downside to this is that it is a lot more complex, and you’ll need to decide if you need an audio interface, mixer, or something else.

XLR Microphone Benefits

  • Multiple Microphones
    You can connect many microphones to an audio interface or mixer. This is much harder to do with USB mics.
  • Better Preamps
    Audio interfaces and mixers generally have better microphone preamps.
  • Better Sound Processing
    You have access to tools like EQ and compression on these other devices that give you more control over how your XLR microphone sounds.
  • Multiple Outputs
    The audio interface required for an XLR mic opens up options for connecting studio monitors, powered speakers, and headphones.
  • Better Analog to Digital Conversion
    Audio interfaces and mixers generally have better A/D conversion resulting in a higher quality recording.

USB Mic vs XLR Mic Quick Comparison

USB Microphone
XLR Microphone
Less expensive
More Expensive
Less selection, equal quality
More Selection, equal quality
More Selection, Higher Quality
A/D Conversion
More Selection, Higher Quality
Very Portable
Not As Portable
Connects To A PC/Mac
Audio Mixer / Audio Interface

USB vs XLR Mic Video Conferencing Recommendation

USB Microphone

A USB mic is a great solution if you just want to sound better in online meetings on Microsoft Teams or Zoom. It creates less clutter on your desk, and it’s easier to use.

The self-contained nature of a USB mic makes it portable, meaning you can use the same setup with your laptop whether you’re in the office, at home, or traveling.

Check out our video conferencing buyers guide for more information on the best setup.

USB vs XLR Mic Live Streaming Recommendation

It depends…

If you’re just getting started with live streaming, we recommend purchasing a USB mic. It’s a cheaper way to get started, and it’s less work to set up, meaning you can focus on streaming instead of a complex setup.

If you’re an established live streamer, or you’re a gear head, you know you’re going to want to experiment and upgrade your equipment to get the best possible sound. In those cases, we think you’ll be much happier with an XLR microphone.

Take a look at our live streaming buyer’s guide for our favorite setups.

USB vs XLR Mic Podcasting Recommendation

It depends…

If you’re a solo presenter, or you travel a lot and frequently record while on the road, we recommend a USB microphone for its ease of use and portability.

Otherwise, most podcasts have (or grow to have) multiple presenters and guests. That’s why we recommend most podcasters invest in an XLR microphone setup. You’ll have more options to expand and gain more control over your audio.

If you don’t know where to start, check out our podcasting buyer’s guide.

USB vs XLR Mic Music Production Recommendation

XLR Microphone

There’s really no discussion about this; an XLR microphone is the way to go for a music production environment. You’ll be mixing and matching equipment and experimenting to get the best sound.

Even for something as simple as a singer-songwriter, a single USB microphone won’t give you the flexibility or control that you need. 

What gear do we recommend? See our music production buyer’s guide for more.

USB vs XLR Mic Live Sound Recommendation

XLR Microphone

Like music production, if you’re doing anything with live sound, you have to go with an XLR microphone. Everything in live sound and events is optimized around the XLR platform, so any venue or event you attend will be expecting you to use an XLR microphone.

USB Mic vs XLR Mic Pricing

USB Microphone vs XLR Microphone Chapters

  • 0:00 – Introduction
  • 0:17 – Equipment In Video
  • 0:53 – Pricing & Specs
  • 1:05 – General Info
  • 1:48 – USB Microphone Overview
  • 2:58 – USB Microphone Components
  • 3:53 – USB Microphone Benefits
  • 4:43 – XLR Microphone Overview
  • 6:15 – XLR Microphone Benefits
  • 7:15 – Cost Comparison
  • 7:35 – Quality Comparison
  • 8:12 – Portability Comparison
  • 8:48 – Connectivity Comparison
  • 9:43 – Video Conferencing Recommendation
  • 10:20 – Live Streaming Recommendation
  • 11:28 – Podcasting Recommendation
  • 12:11 – Music Production Recommendation
  • 12:42 – Live Sound Recommendation
  • 13:15 – Final Thoughts