Summary List Placement
- A USB microphone is a simple accessory to pair with your computer for enhanced audio quality.
- We tested some of the top USB mics and spoke with professional podcasters and streamers for this guide.
- The Elgato Wave 3 is our favorite because of its crisp sound that deafens background noise well.
Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky
Though some of the top tech on the market is Bluetooth these days, a quality USB microphone is a great investment. Whether it’s for producing a podcast, starting a streaming channel, or enhancing the audio quality of your Zoom calls, the wide diversity of specs makes each microphone unique for the type of sound you’re after.
I’ve worked with much audio equipment throughout my college minor in interactive multimedia, but I always seemed (quite literally) to have my wires crossed when it came to which microphones would effectively pick up the appropriate sound. It was about time to do some testing.
We tested six mics to determine the clarity and depth of the audio, how well they picked up individual and multiple voices, and if any background noise was present. Podcast and streaming experts also weighed in to help us understand what to look for and how to effectively use USB mics, all while unpacking technical audio language for clarity.
The recommended USB mics below both met the criteria established by our experts and performed well in our various tests, so you’ll no longer be plagued by choppy, muddy, or distorted audio.
Here are the best USB microphones of 2021
- Best USB microphone overall: Elgato Wave 3
- Best USB microphone for streaming: HyperX QuadCast S
- Best USB microphone for podcasting: Blue Microphones Yeti
- Best budget USB microphone: Blue Microphones iCE Snowball
Best USB microphone overall
The Elgato Wave 3 is unmatched for its crystal-clear sound that works just as well if there’s more than one person in the room.
Pros: Slim and sturdy design, simple control of gain levels, adjustable for an ideal angle, unidirectional, captures precise speech, built-in headphone jack, two-year limited warranty
When I unboxed the Elgato Wave 3, my first thought was, “It looks basic but seems like it should get the job done.” And, after testing, I noticed it did just that and more with its easy plug-and-go, unidirectional functionality that captures your voice in a pronounced, precise way.
This microphone was our top performer across all of our tests and especially stood out for enhancing my natural voice without distortion, thanks to its unique Clipguard technology coupled with a premium condenser capsule. What’s more, its well-architectured steel grille encases the speaker for a smooth, diffused sound.
The Wave 3 has wonderful gain controls (how loud the audio is, input-wise) and even has a complementary Wave Link app to control the USB microphone recording. While it’s great for professional recording, I noticed this microphone worked well, without taking up too much space on my desk, for my online conference calls, too — a versatile tech product to capture your voice.
And, in case anything goes wrong with your microphone, Elgato offers a two-year limited warranty.
The best USB microphone for streaming
The HyperX QuadCast S is an impressive microphone especially fit for streamers with its modern controls, RGB lighting, and outstanding audio pickup for game wins and losses alike.
Pros: Anti-vibration shock mount, customizable RGB lighting, easy tap controls, four polar patterns to adjust input levels, included mount adapter, built-in headphone jack
Cons: Not as simple to plug the cord in because of the attached circular structure
If you’re looking for a USB microphone, you likely have other tech equipment, especially if you’re a streamer; a gaming chair and a ring light are two of many tools in your arsenal. To generate high-quality audio, the HyperX QuadCast S is versatile with four audio patterns, including fit-for-streaming cardioid.
Not only is this microphone professional-grade quality but its dynamic lighting effects add an exciting touch to your next recording — especially if the mic is visible in your stream. And, not only does the light make this microphone stand out, but it’s Discord- and TeamSpeak-certified, so you know you’re getting broadcast-level quality.
If you’re immersed in your game, the simple tap-to-mute and power functions make audio adjustments easy. HyperX’s anti-vibration shock mount with a built-in pop filter will help mitigate unwanted noise, and with all of its key controls, you’ll have a customized gaming experience. HyperX’s one downside is hardware-related — because of its circular structure design, it’s a little tough to plug in.
HyperX offers a limited lifetime warranty on manufacturing defects.
The best USB microphone for podcasting
Blue Microphones’ Yeti is a classic audio staple that produces a warm, clear sound and effectively mutes background noise — perfect for podcasters.
Pros: Broadcast-quality sound, four pickup patterns, included studio controls, two-year manufacturer warranty
Cons: The microphone stand may awkwardly pivot, takes a bit of a learning curve
Even though I listen to podcasts of all different genres, one thing remains the same, for the most part: Blue Microphones’ Yeti is a podcaster’s tried-and-true go-to. The podcast duo of Pretty Basic swears by it, and Michelle Reed, host of her But, What’s Next? podcast declared the Yeti as her favorite in an Instagram exchange. And, they’re certainly not the only two fans.
I appreciated the sturdy speaker head that’s connected to its large cylindrical base; it provides a good grip if you decide to take it off the stand and hold it. Speaking of, I tested the Yeti on the brand’s Yeticaster stand and, while I thought a production-level stand was unnecessary given I’m not a podcaster or radio show host, it really adds to the experience. It’s quick to assemble (it clamps to the front frame of your desktop) and its non-intrusive swivel doesn’t leave you with cumbersome tech equipment getting in the way of your workspace. I used the microphone while standing behind my desk chair for a public speaking class and it delivered audio with impressive warmth and clarity.
Though high-quality, the Yeti takes a bit of a learning curve to operate. It was difficult for me to tell if the microphone was on because the power and mute buttons are the same. Just make sure you hold the button down to get it going and check your computer’s audio controls to see the audio range visibly shifting. That said, it’s a far better microphone than the brand’s Yeti X, which was harder to plug in and gave us some audio difficulties.
The best budget USB microphone
Blue Microphones’ iCE Snowball delivers noticeable sound quality with its unique tri-center base design — a practical piece of tech equipment that enhances your natural voice.
Pros: HD audio, large and round speaker for sound pickup, stays in place on a desk with its tri-tiered base
Cons: Average multiple-sound pickup; the sound is more noise-cancelling and muffled than our other picks
I’ve had Blue Microphones’ iCE Snowball for more than a year now and it’s the perfect budget-friendly microphone for recording basic audio or enhancing your voice for a video call. And, as the only microphone in this price range to completely soundproof background noise in our testing, there’s no surprise it’s our best budget option.
What I love most about the Snowball is its large spherical speaker and three steel legs that sturdily set the microphone on your desk. The unique base is equally as convenient for folding together to form a handle for on-the-go recording sessions. I used this microphone to record a few podcast episodes for a class project, and the quality was similar to the brand’s Yeti, working well for more than one voice. Do note, however, that playing an audio recording for the Snowball doesn’t capture as true a sound.
What else we tested
During our testing process, there were two that didn’t quite make the cut:
- Blue Microphones Yeti X: Compared to the classic Yeti, the X produced a fuller, deeper sound with great sound pickup and background noise cancellation, but it wasn’t as crisp or precise. We also ran into many technical issues and, for USB microphones that are supposed to be plug-and-go, it fell short.
- Razer Seiren X: This is a great miniature option that rotates on its base, but we found it muddled my natural speaking voice while testing. That said, it is pretty good at picking up multiple voices and mitigating background noise, but the overall sound quality wasn’t as great compared to our top picks.
What we’re testing next
We are always reviewing and updating our guides, and here’s one we are looking forward to testing once it becomes available for us:
How we tested USB microphones
After weeks of testing each microphone on different audio and video platforms like QuickTime Player, Google Hangout, and Zoom, we noticed the latter consistently provided the weakest results. Keep in mind that the platform in which you record may have a slight impact on quality. Here’s what we looked for when assessing each mic:
- Sound quality: Since audio takes center stage, I hopped on video conferencing platforms with Insider Reviews senior tech editor Joe Osborne to assess the quality of each microphone, using the built-in MacBook Air microphone as a control. He noted if the sound was crisp, warm, or muffled, and paid special attention to how it picked up other sounds like keyboard typing and mouth noises between speaking.
- Effectiveness with multiple sounds: Some users may be recording with multiple people or playing recorded audio into the mic, so we had an audio-based translator app help us out. After I said a sentence, we played an audio recording on my iPhone in front of the speaker to assess if it sounded natural or speakerphone-like.
- Background noise pickup: We played tropical chime music on YouTube in the background of the video call at low-to-medium volume as I spoke over it. We took note of how well the mic filtered out the background noise.
- Ease of use: A good USB microphone should be plug-and-play without complicated setups or software downloads. I took note of how simple each mic was to get up and running.
What to look for in a podcasting microphone (& how to produce a successful show)
Whether you’re researching how to jumpstart your podcast passion project or simply want to upgrade your current setup, audio is first and foremost the most important. “Podcasting is an audio-based medium and it’s important for a show’s success to have high-quality audio and to be pleasing for the listener to hear,” said Michelle Harrison, Head of Production at Dear Media.
She shared a cheat sheet with Insider Reviews on what to specifically keep in mind while shopping for a podcasting USB microphone:
- Unidirectional microphones: This means that the microphone only captures the incoming signal from one direction instead of from around your room, helping to eliminate background noise.
- Microphones that can slightly compress your audio: Podcasters typically don’t need a built-in processing microphone to immediately release audio because they often self-edit after recording. A mic that can slightly compress and equalize the incoming signal to ensure a level volume is all you need. All other tweaks can be made in post-production.
- Adjustable incoming signal controls: Some podcasters intentionally inflect their voices, while others have naturally soft or loud voices. To accentuate volume, look for a microphone with which you can increase or decrease signals during parts of your episode. This comes in handy especially for podcast duos or group recording sessions.
Don’t fret if it takes you a few trial runs; USB microphones can have somewhat of a learning curve. Alisha Marie, co-host of Pretty Basic, and her YouTube videographer, Taylor King, shared some tips on audio and recording style to produce a successful, quality podcast:
- Record like you’re talking to your best friend: In Alisha’s case, her co-host Remi Cruz is her best friend, but whether your podcast is lighthearted or informative, maintaining a conversational speaking style will keep listeners engaged.
- Keep an eye on battery life: “The most expensive microphone is not necessarily the best,” Alisha said. “You want something that will last for your entire podcast because if your microphone dies and you’re halfway through with a guest, you can’t get that back. If I had to give up quality, I would if that meant it would be seamless and wouldn’t turn off.” None of the mics we recommend died while I was using them, even in two-hour-long calls.
- Convenience is crucial: Podcasters are creators, yet some audio creators also produce content on YouTube and social media, like Alisha. She says above all, look for a microphone that will plug in and record just like that, and is especially versatile for recording voiceovers for video content or hopping on a professional call.
“On a less technical standpoint, I look for a microphone that’s going to capture someone’s voice the best, just because the cool thing about a podcast is that it’s so personal,” King added. “Being able to understand the difference between someone’s voice compared to yours is important, as well as picking up inflections in voice.”
What to look for in a streaming microphone
Streamers are in a class all their own: they rely on a USB microphone for live audio transmission that picks up their gaming loop and inevitable excitement (for game wins) and frustrations (for irrevocable losses). We spoke to Marcus Graham, Head of Creator Development at Twitch, to share the specifications unique to streaming USB microphones:
- Versatility: As Alisha mentioned with podcast microphones, Graham also emphasized finding one that can serve multiple purposes (i.e. work meetings, side projects).
- Digital signal processing (DSP): This feature alters the input provided by a USB microphone to enhance the incoming signal once you’re recording, without the need for other equipment. Technically speaking, Graham says it takes an analog signal and turns it into a digital one. “By having a microphone with DSP (or other audio components), you have much more freedom and flexibility over what you can do with your sound,” he said. “Take voice changing, for example — a fun way for streamers to add some variety to their stream or transform into another character.”
- Cardioid capabilities: “A cardioid pattern tends to be a ‘heart-shaped’ pattern that focuses on picking up sound from the front while limiting or ignoring the sound coming in from the side or back of the microphone,” Graham explained. If you are strict on limiting background noise, this is important, but some microphones can switch between different patterns (like omnidirectional), for emphasis on game audio or other effects.
Check out our other audio guides and roundups