Marco.org • About ▾

I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Podcasting Microphones Mega-Review

Updated on September 28, 2015 to add Electro-Voice RE20 and RE320; Sennheiser e865, MD 421-II, and 441-U; Pyle PDMIC58; Audio-Technica ATR-2100; Neumann KMS 105; and Blue Snowball iCE.

It’s hard to find useful microphone recommendations for podcasters: most people have only tried one or two, except pro audio engineers, who have very different needs and record in very different environments. And almost no reviews include audio samples to compare.

So I set out to change that. Some commonly recommended mics were disappointing, some were right on, and I’ve found some real gems that were previously unknown in my podcasting circles.

Jump to:

My favorites

Every microphone accentuates and suppresses different characteristics, so what works for one person may not sound as good with another.

I’ve provided sound samples from both my wife and me for comparison: I have a more nasal voice, while she has a smoother tone. My voice is more “picky” with mics, while she sounds great on almost anything. I need more midrange smoothness, while she needs more siblance suppression. I speak more loudly, and her quieter levels reveal background hiss more easily. And while we both have podcasts, neither of us are professionally trained announcers or have a background in radio — just like most podcasters.

From most to least favorite, considering sound quality, value, and practicality for podcasters who aren’t recording in professional studios:

  1. Shure Beta 87A (XLR small condenser): $250, plus a $100+ XLR interface
    An incredibly practical, good-sounding mic for the non-professional recording environments that most podcasters use. It picks up nearly zero room echo and very little background noise, and it can be powered well with no audible hiss from inexpensive XLR USB interfaces or portable recorder. It’s also small and extremely durable for travel. With all of the practicality of a dynamic mic and most of the sound quality of a good condenser, this is by far my top recommendation for most podcasters.
    Shockmount: Not necessary
    Pop filter: Recommended, $12 mount combo or $10 foam
    Sample:

  2. Neumann KMS 105 (XLR small condenser): $600, plus a $100+ XLR interface
    Extremely similar to the Beta 87A, but with better sound. It’s warm and smooth without losing detail, with zero background hiss — even quieter than the 87A. Like the 87A, it’s very good at suppressing noise and room echo, is easy to drive, and doesn’t need a shockmount, although a pop filter is recommended. This is the best sound quality I’ve found that’s also practical in a home environment, but I don’t think it’s worth nearly triple the price of the Beta 87A, which has all of the same strengths and sounds very similar — compared to the 87A, the KMS 105 sounds warmer, with less high-end harshness and siblance. This is my favorite microphone and the one I use, but its price keeps it from the top spot as a recommendation to others.
    Shockmount: Not necessary
    Pop filter: Recommended, $12 mount combo or $10 foam (same as 87A)
    Sample:

  3. Electro-Voice RE20 (XLR dynamic): $450, plus a $100+ XLR interface
    A great all-arounder: excellent sound, great suppression of background noise and room echo, and is very forgiving of amateur mic technique. It’s an industry standard for good reasons. Like many large dynamics, it needs a powerful preamp, but not as much as the SM7B. It’s also very large and heavy, especially with its shockmount.
    Shockmount: Recommended, $110
    Pop filter: Not necessary
    Sample: (US-2x2)
    Sample: (USBPre 2)

  4. Audio-Technica ATR-2100-USB (USB and XLR dynamic): $40
    An amazing value for the money: it sounds great for the price, and pretty decent at any price, as long as you speak up very closely to it. With USB and XLR outputs and a built-in headphone jack for USB mode, I don’t know of a cheaper or simpler all-in-one solution to recommend. Compared to other inexpensive USB mics aimed at beginners, which are usually large-diaphragm condensers, the dynamic ATR-2100 picks up far less room echo and background noise. But you have to speak up closely to it — get more than about two inches from it, and it gets very bad, very quickly.
    Shockmount: Not necessary
    Pop filter: Not necessary
    Sample: (Close up)
    Sample: (Desk stand)

  5. Pyle PDMIC58 (XLR dynamic): $10–20, plus a $100+ XLR interface
    A stunning value, this cheap knockoff of the Shure SM58 sounds amazing for the price — in fact, it sounds better than most of the dynamic mics I’ve tested at any price. It’s easy to drive from inexpensive interfaces, and like most dynamics, it picks up very little background noise and room echo. It feels pretty sturdy, although I don’t know how much longevity or consistency to expect out of such a cheaply made knockoff. Still, I can’t believe how good it is for this price.
    Shockmount: Not necessary
    Pop filter: Necessary, $6
    Sample: (Tascam US-2x2)
    Sample: (Behringer UM2)
    Sample: ($12 XLR-USB cable)

  6. Electro-Voice RE320 (XLR dynamic): $300, plus a $100+ XLR interface
    A good all-arounder: like the higher-end RE20, it has excellent sound, great suppression of background noise and room echo, and is forgiving of amateur mic technique. The RE20 sounds more smooth and neutral to me, but the RE320 gets you much of the way there.
    Shockmount: Recommended, $110
    Pop filter: Not necessary
    Sample:

  7. Blue Yeti (USB large condenser): $130
    The Yeti has been recommended for years as an inexpensive starter mic. Getting good sound out of it takes some work and additional gear: it needs a strong pop filter, it picks up a lot of room echo, and its included desk stand keeps the mic too far away for good sound. But it’s a great value, and under ideal circumstances — close-up use in a silent, soft room with a pop filter — it can yield excellent sound quality. (The Yeti has selectable pickup patterns. These were using the cardioid setting, which both Blue and I recommend for podcasting.)
    Shockmount: Recommended, $70
    Pop filter: Necessary, generic clip-on, $10+
    Sample: (Desk stand)
    Sample: (Up close, with pop filter)

  8. Sennheiser MD 421-II (XLR dynamic): $380, plus a $100+ XLR interface
    A good dynamic all-arounder with a smooth, warm tone, but a bit too muffled-sounding for me. I also have concerns about the cheap-feeling plastic shell and mount, which don’t belong on a mic in this price class. But like most good dynamics, it’s good at rejecting noise and room echo, and isn’t very picky, so it’s practical for home podcasting. It’s a good mic overall.
    Shockmount: Optional, $60
    Pop filter: Necessary, $35 or the $6 SM58 one fits
    Sample: (1-step bass cut)

  9. Telefunken M82 (XLR dynamic): $400, plus a $400+ XLR interface
    Great sound for a dynamic when its High Boost switch is enabled, with great suppression of background noise and room echo as well. But it requires a powerful preamp, increasing the likely cost of your XLR interface. It’s a great alternative to the Heil PR 40, with similar gain requirements, no pop filter required, and a more even tone.
    Shockmount: Optional, sold in $500 bundle with boom arm
    Pop filter: Not necessary
    Sample: (High Boost, Blackjack)
    Sample: (High Boost, USBPre 2)
    Sample: (Varying settings, USBPre 2)

  10. Audio-Technica BP40 (XLR dynamic): $350, plus a $100+ XLR interface
    Below-average sound, but great suppression of background noise and room echo, and easy to drive from any XLR interface. It’s a practical choice for home podcasters, like the Beta 87A — but I’d say the 87A has all of the same benefits with better sound, a lower price, and more versatility.
    Shockmount: Optional, $100 (Bundle with mic at BSW)
    Pop filter: Recommended, $32
    Sample:

  11. Shure PG42-USB (USB large condenser): $250
    A nice all-in-one USB mic with a headphone jack. Compared to the Blue Yeti, it’s much smaller and comes equipped with a shockmount to go on a boom arm rather than the Yeti’s inadvisable but included desk stand. It picks up more treble crispness and detail than the Yeti, but also more background noise and room echo. The PG42 also lacks the Yeti’s convenient mute button, and unlike most USB mics, cannot be soft-muted by apps like Shush. But it sounds incredible if you’re in a very quiet room full of soft things. (An XLR version of the PG42 is also available for just $130 — an incredible value for sound quality.)
    Shockmount: Included
    Pop filter: Necessary, generic clip-on, $10+
    Sample: (with pop filter)

  12. Sennheiser MD 441-U (XLR dynamic): $900, plus a $400+ XLR interface
    A great dynamic all-arounder with a smooth, warm tone and a very high price for a podcasting mic. Like most dynamics, it’s good at rejecting noise and room echo, but it does need a good preamp to minimize background hiss. It’s a great mic overall, but I don’t think it’s better enough than the RE20 or MD 421-II for podcasting, which sell for half or less.
    Shockmount: Not necessary
    Pop filter: Necessary, $56
    Sample: (1-step bass cut)

  13. Neumann TLM 102 (XLR large condenser): $700, plus a $100+ XLR interface
    A well-regarded studio condenser mic that sounds great with no inherent noise, but is extremely unforgiving of room echo, and absolutely requires a pop filter and shockmount. It’s very expensive for podcasters, especially with the required accessories. For all of the cost and hassle, you do get what I consider the best-sounding microphone here — I love the way this sounds when the room conditions are right — but the improvement above other condensers here, like the inexpensive Blue Yeti, is pretty subtle, and it’s nearly indistinguishable from the much cheaper PG42 (the PG42 is a bit more harsh in the treble and “S”-siblance pickup).
    Shockmount: Necessary, $130
    Pop filter: Necessary, foam ($50) or generic ($10+)
    Sample: (with pop filter)

  14. Sennheiser e865 (XLR small condenser): $270, plus a $100+ XLR interface
    Very similar to the Beta 87A and Neumann KMS 105, other small condensers made for stage vocals, but with a warmer and slightly muffled sound, and more background hiss. Like the 87A, it’s very good at suppressing noise and room echo, is easy to drive, and doesn’t need a shockmount or pop filter. But the 87A has all of the same strengths, at about the same price, with better sound.
    Shockmount: Not necessary
    Pop filter: Not necessary
    Sample:

  15. Heil PR 40 (XLR dynamic): $325, plus a $400+ XLR interface
    A lot of podcasters love this, but it just doesn’t work for me. It needs a lot of power and an expensive preamp to sound good without hiss, and it has a weirdly unnatural sound: there’s way too much of the deepest bass, but seemingly no mid- or upper-bass, sounding “thin” overall but also with too much bass. I think people like it because the overabundance of deep bass makes them sound more like hypercompressed radio DJs, but it doesn’t sound right in the world of podcasting, influenced more by public radio and hobbyists, where a less-processed natural sound is the norm.
    Shockmount: Necessary, $105
    Pop filter: Recommended, $60
    Sample: (Blackjack, with pop filter)
    Sample: (USBPre 2, with pop filter)

  16. Shure SM7B (XLR dynamic): $350, plus a $400+ XLR interface
    I wanted to love this classic mic so much and spent a lot of time and money chasing that dream, but it’s simply not well-suited to being used outside of a professional recording studio’s top-quality preamps and fully treated rooms. It unforgivingly picks up any room echo or background noise, and it needs so much gain that some baseline hiss is always noticeable, even with great preamps. With anything less than great preamps, the background hiss becomes far too distracting to be usable. (Yes, I’ve tried the Cloudlifter — in a back-to-back test with and without it, after level-matching, I found that it made no audible difference.)
    Shockmount: Not necessary
    Pop filter: Included, foam
    Sample: (Blackjack)
    Sample: (USBPre 2)

  17. Shure Beta 58A (XLR dynamic): $160, plus a $100+ XLR interface
    All of the practicality of the Beta 87A but with noticeably worse sound, sounding bass-heavy and somewhat muffled due to very weak treble pickup. Spring for the 87A if you can — it’s worth the difference.
    Shockmount: Not necessary
    Pop filter: Recommended, $6
    Sample: (with pop filter)

  18. Audio-Technica AT2020 USB Plus (USB large condenser): $150
    A solid contender among the other USB condensers. The Yeti sounds better to me and has a mute button, but is much larger and doesn’t mount easily to a boom; the PG42 is better equipped, but more expensive and can’t be soft-muted. Like most other condensers, the AT2020 is unforgiving of room echo and background noise, and absolutely requires a pop filter. And like the Yeti and Nessie, using its desk stand at a typical seating height isn’t recommended.
    Shockmount: Necessary, $46
    Pop filter: Necessary, generic clip-on, $10+
    Sample: (Desk stand)
    Sample: (Close up, with pop filter)

  19. Blue Nessie (USB large condenser): $85
    Very similar to the Blue Yeti, but smaller and lacking the ability to be mounted on stands or booms. Go for the Yeti unless size is a major concern.
    Shockmount: Not compatible
    Pop filter: Not necessary
    Sample: (Desk stand)
    Sample: (Close up)

  20. Rode Podcaster (USB dynamic): $230
    The Podcaster is a convenient all-in-one USB mic, but its sound quality is poor, with a midrange emphasis that makes voices sound much more nasal and harsh. It also picks up a lot of background noise and room echo. It’s not awful, but I don’t think it’s worth its price.
    Shockmount: Necessary, $40
    Pop filter: Not necessary
    Sample:

  21. Apple EarPods built-in mic: free with any iPhone
    When you plug the EarPods into any Mac made in the last few years, the microphone (built into the clicker remote) takes over from the Mac’s built-in mic. It’s not great, but because it’s so much closer to your mouth, it’s a lot better than using the built-in mic from sitting distance. And it says a lot that it’s not the worst mic here: I’d say it edges out the last couple because it’s not picky, it’s small, it doesn’t require any additional equipment, and you probably already own it.
    Shockmount: Nope
    Pop filter: Nope
    Sample:

  22. Blue Snowball iCE (USB large condenser): $50
    I can’t recommend this — the sound quality is simply too poor. In ideal conditions, it sounds harsh, and in anything less than ideal conditions, it amplifies every flaw. Even the best broadcaster in a silent studio would sound bad on this mic. And without a headphone jack for monitoring, it’s of limited usefulness to podcasters looking for a USB mic — the ATR-2100 is a far better choice in this price range.
    Shockmount: Recommended, $43
    Pop filter: Necessary, generic clip-on, $10+
    Sample: (Close up)
    Sample: (Desk stand)

  23. Samson C01U (USB large condenser): $60
    I can’t recommend this due to its very audible, constant hissing noise in the recordings, indicative of poor-quality electronics inside. I haven’t tested the newer Pro model with the headphone port, but based on this test, it sounds like it has a similar noise problem.
    Shockmount: Necessary, $25
    Pop filter: Recommended, generic clip-on, $10+
    Sample:

Condenser or dynamic?

Most microphones today are either the condenser or dynamic type. For most models (but not all):

(There are exceptions, of course.)

Most inexpensive microphones are large-diaphragm condensers, including most USB models. Beginning podcasters often pick an inexpensive USB condenser, like the Blue Yeti, but these usually make their jobs harder by requiring big pop filters, close and consistent technique, and padded rooms to get good sound out of them.

XLR or USB?

USB microphones are convenient, all-in-one solutions with limited capabilities and no expandability, and if any part of them dies, that’s it. They tend to be inexpensive but with relatively poor sound, and are made to low “consumer” standards for quality and durability. They’re also not very versatile, making some needs (like recording multiple people in the same room, or running a long cable) difficult or impossible.

An XLR microphone setup is made from multiple individual components that can be separately bought and upgraded as necessary, usually resulting in higher cost and physical complexity (more components, wires, buttons, and knobs). XLR mics are typically built like tanks, last forever, and span a much larger and better sound-quality range. Recording from multiple XLR mics in the same room is easy, and XLR setups offer far more flexibility and versatility.

If you’re just getting started with podcasting, a USB mic is good enough. If you’re established and looking to upgrade your production quality, or if you just love gear like me, you’ll likely find the jump to XLR worthwhile.

XLR interfaces

XLR microphones need to be connected and powered by XLR interfaces, which usually connect via USB. They should provide at least one XLR input and a headphone jack to hear yourself live. Like so many things, they should ideally require no software to be installed — every feature should be available from the hardware. And ideally, they should be bus-powered so there’s no cheap power brick to flake out.

There are many XLR USB interfaces in the $100–250 range that can acceptably power low-needs mics like the Shure Beta series and most condensers. These are my favorite budget preamps, in this order, and both have been used in this test (with the Tascam being used more recently after my Mackie developed a phantom-power hum):

Jason Snell tested many inexpensive XLR interfaces and came to a similar conclusion.

High-gain mics like the Heil PR 40 or Shure SM7B usually produce a noticeable amount of hiss on inexpensive preamps. The cheapest interface I’ve heard that sounded reliably good with the Shure SM7B is the finicky, screen-adorned, software-dependent, and failure-prone $650 Apogee Duet. I’ve read good things about the semi-software-dependent $400 Tascam UH-7000, but haven’t tried it myself.

My favorite interface by far is the $880 Sound Devices USBPre 2, which is gloriously covered in knobs, buttons, lights, and ports, and has no software whatsoever. This is a prime example of how to throw money at a problem to make it go away. It has extremely clean, powerful preamps that can easily drive every mic I’ve tried (including the SM7B) with plenty of headroom, it’s built like a tank, and it will most likely last a very long time. My only complaint (besides price) is that the headphone output is noisy, but the recorded output and line-outs are perfect.

Boom arms and shockmounts

Boom arms are much better than desk stands if you can tolerate their size — they allow freeform positioning within a huge area, so you can comfortably speak at the proper angle and distance from the mic.

To attach a mic to a boom arm (or any other universal mic stand), you’ll need a clip or shockmount with a standard screw thread on the end. There are two common sizes — ⅜ and ⅝ inches — and this $4 adapter connects them if necessary. Most booms come with one.

The Shure Betas come with mounting clips, the PG42-USB comes with a shockmount, and the SM7B has the entire mount built in. For most other mics, you’ll need to buy a compatible shockmount if you want one. Dynamic mics usually don’t need them, but condensers usually do.

Shockmounts are all structured very similarly but have different shapes, sizes, and attachment methods for different microphones. Usually, only the one offered by your microphone’s manufacturer will fit. Many offer discounted bundles with the microphone, shockmount, and other accessories.

My favorite shockmounts for stage-sized microphones (Shure Beta 87A, Beta 58A, and SM58; Pyle Pro PDMIC-58; Neumann KMS 105; Sennheiser e865) are these plastic mounts with suspended metal-screen pop filters, sold under many different brand names for about $12. Not only are they incredibly cheap and result in a clean-looking and compact setup, but many consider metal-screen pop filters to be the best kind. Set it to be about ½-inch from the front of the microphone.

Cables

Fancy cables don’t make a difference almost anywhere, including XLR cables, especially since they’re balanced. Get whatever XLR cables you want — I’ve accumulated a range from cheap nameless ones up to overpriced Mogami cables, and it makes no difference, even when noise is a major concern like with the SM7B. XLR cables can also be pretty long before you hit noticeable issues, and unlike USB, multiple XLR cables can be daisy-chained without any adapters.

Monoprice’s recent audio cables are so unnecessarily thick they’re bulky, stiff, and annoying, so my current go-to is Sendt, which are cheap, thin, and seemingly well made.

USB cables don’t matter at all. You’ll know if you have a bad one because it won’t work. If it works, it’s fine. (I’ve been using USB devices since USB 1.0 on my Pentium II in 1997, and I’ve never seen a bad USB cable.)

Mute switches

Most USB mics don’t have mute switches, but Shush can mute many of them (although not the Shure PG42 USB) when you hold down an assignable keyboard key.

If you want a mute button for an XLR mic, Shush probably won’t work with your XLR USB interface, so you’ll need to buy an actual hardware mute switch. This is one of those categories where everything sucks, like shaving mirrors, but the one I use (which is merely OK) is the Rolls MS111. You’ll need a second XLR cable. (Please don’t tell me how great your shaving mirror is.)

Headphones

I have a lot of headphone opinions for enjoying music. For podcasting, you need four characteristics, in this order:

The $80 Sony MDR-7506 is the cheapest I’ve found that satisfies all four well enough, although it’s poor for music listening (despite the common wisdom, its “revealing” nature is just midrange distortion).

If you can spend more, the $170 Audio-Technica ATH-M50x is a great all-arounder that’s also great for music, although its bass is slightly stronger than neutral. Nothing like Beats, though.

(I master my podcasts on the best headphones I’ve ever heard driven by one of the few amps that can drive them, but this is truly ridiculous.)

Travel

To record a podcast alone while you’re away, you can’t really beat the small size and convenience of a USB mic.

For XLR mics, very small interfaces such as the $100 Shure X2U exist. While I haven’t tried them, I’d expect them to be fine for the Shure Betas but not for microphones with high power needs.

If you need to record multiple people in person with XLR mics and don’t need or want to involve a computer, it’s hard to beat Tascam and Zoom recorders, which can record 2–6 live tracks onto SD cards. My $240 Tascam DR-70D has served me very well, powering three Beta 87As and a Beta 58A for two podcasts at WWDC last summer, although it can’t be used as a USB interface — it’s only a standalone recorder.

A lot of people also love the $200 Zoom H4n or $400 Zoom H6. They can be used as USB XLR interfaces as well, but since their preamp quality isn’t as good as most standalone preamps in this price range, I wouldn’t recommend that you buy one primarily to be used as a USB audio interface, especially for a high-needs mic.

Other Reviews

The Wirecutter nailed it this time: the Blue Yeti and Shure PG42-USB are clear winners among USB mics, although the ATR-2100 is a better value and much more forgiving of room conditions than both. The Yeti and PG42 are very sensitive condensers that pick up a lot of background noise and room echo, and require big pop filters and shockmounts. Since so few USB microphones are anything but unforgiving condensers, I’d urge buyers to consider XLR options as well for more easily achieving good sound at home.

Dan Benjamin’s Podcast Equipment Guide is a great resource as well, with some areas I didn’t go into. Dan’s Podcast Method podcast is full of great info on a broad range of relevant topics as well.

What did I miss?

Nobody’s perfect, nobody has tried everything, and nothing works for everyone.

I’ve tried to include as many relevant microphones as possible while balancing cost (I have to buy them all), time, and likely usefulness for podcasting.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with podcasting gear on Twitter to inform future updates. Thanks.

Ads via The Deck