Best USB microphones for high-quality Skype audio

WTOP-FM, an all-news station in Washington, D.C., has compiled a list of the best USB microphones at different price levels for high-quality Skype audio.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
6 min read
Yeti USB microphone from Blue.
Blue Microphones' Blue Yeti USB microphone. Blue Microphones

I'm occasionally a guest on WTOP-FM in Washington, D.C., and it's been trying to convince guests to upgrade to USB Skype microphones instead of using lower-quality telephones for future interviews.

To help us pick the right ones, the good folks at WTOP, an all-news station that also broadcasts in Maryland and Virginia, have spent a month testing the best microphones to use with Skype in different price ranges.

Here's what their engineers found, according to Ari Ashe, an evening producer and reporter for WTOP Radio. They rated the audio quality on a scale of 1, a cell phone, to 10, a high-quality ISDN link often used to transmit audio from one radio station to the other, which CNET uses as well.

Between $10 and $40, WTOP looked at the Griffin iMic+ and the Logitech USB H530, and concluded:

We highly recommend the Logitech USB H530 at this price point. It's a no-brainer. Logitech delivers a great pack for the punch at about $35. We believe if you're going to already spend $25, spend $35, because the the difference is that noticeable. The only shortcoming is that it is a consumer headset. A great one, but the broadcast gear is even better. On a scale from 1-10: Cell phone (1), Hard line phone (2), Logitech (6), ISDN (10).

In the $50 to $80 range, they evaluated the Beyerdynamic MMX2, Blue Microphones' Snowball, and the Samson C01U USB microphone. They concluded:

For us, this is an easy decision. The Blue Snowball blows away the Beyerdynamic MMX2. At $60, it is a better overall microphone than the Beyer at $79. The only drawback is that you'll need some headphones to plug into your computer with the Snowball. There will be some latency, which is essentially some overlap between the microphone and headphones where you may hear yourself briefly. However, it is a minor issue that is momentary. And with an old pair of headphones lying around, you'll all set to go. You'll run into the same problem with the Samson C01U, and the improvement, if any, above the Snowball, isn't worth the price difference. On a scale from 1-10: Cell phone (1), Hard line phone (2), Logitech (6), Bever (6), Snowball (7.5), Samson (7.5), ISDN (10).

In the $90 to $120 range, they evaluated the Blue Yeti, the Audio Technica AT2020 USB, and the Audix USB12. Here is WTOP's analysis and its engineers' conclusions:

The Blue Yeti: Like the Snowball, this is from Blue Microphones. And again, like the Snowball and the Mikey, we are very impressed with this product. The Yeti delivers a sound that's a small notch above the Snowball. It's nothing a listener will notice, but one that any TV or radio professional will notice. The construction of this microphone is also a step up from the Snowball.
POSITIVE: Blue adds the bells and whistles to this microphone to make it worth your while. Unlike the previous microphones, which you'll have to plug an old pair of headphones into the computer, the Yeti has a headphone jack on the microphone itself! A small feature, but a very handy one. No need to fumble for the computer. More importantly, we've found that this does eliminate a lot of the latency (hearing yourself talk in the headphones momentarily) that you'll experience in the Snowball or Samson C01-U. You'll also notice several knobs and buttons. Among them are dials that allow you to control the volume of the sound going into your headphones and the volume that your microphone sends the audio to the other Skype users. So, if we say you're too loud, you've got a "Gain" dial that you can turn down on the microphone itself. There is a Mute button that you can push to cough. Finally, and most importantly, the Yeti delivers the goods! This microphone can deliver an ISDN-quality interview, if you do all other things correctly.
NEGATIVE: The bells and whistles can be confusing. Besides learning how to adjust your headphone and microphone levels, the Mute button is confusing. If it's blinking, it's muted. If it's solid, it is on. In addition, there are four different microphone settings: stereo, cardioid, omni-direction, bidirectional. For our purposes, you want cardoid. There are uses for the others if you're a musician or hosting a group interview. For WTOP, there's no use. So when you get it, set the knob to cardoid (shaped like a heart) and keep it there. (Price: Market price is $150, but shop around for a better price.)

Audio Technica AT2020 USB: Like the Yeti, the AT2020 USB delivers the goods on the microphone in a way that the others cannot match. It has all the attributes we want in a broadcast quality microphone and few, if any, vocal problems.
POSITIVES: It is rich, bright, full and sounds like you're sitting next to the other person. It sounds almost like any satellite on TV or ISDN on radio. You will definitely impress your radio and TV partners with the Skype audio. It matches the Yeti step-for-step, and outpaces other microphones at all price points under $125 for audio delivery.
NEGATIVES: One small, one big. The small: Unlike the Yeti, the AT2020 USB does not have the bells and whistles. No knobs to adjust microphone or headphone volume. No mute button. No headphone on the microphone. Therefore, you will have to plug into the computer like the Samson C01U and Blue Snowball. And thus latency! The big: The AT2020 USB does not play nicely with Macintosh. We've had perfect success with Windows. However, we've run into compliance issues with Macs. We attempted to troubleshoot the problem with Audio-Technica and Skype, but no success. We have heard it works on some Macs, but we have not been able to verify it independently. (Price: Market price is $150...)

Audix USB12: Like the Yeti, the Audix USB12 has a microphone jack in the back of the microphone itself to plug in your headphones. Like the Yeti too, it has a microphone button that allows you to turn it on and off at will. However, unlike the Yeti, it does not have knobs that'll control your microphone or headphone volume.
POSITIVES: It delivers the audio quality you would expect at this price point. It is better than the Snowball, Beyer and Samson. Like the Yeti, the Audix USB12 plays well with Windows and Macs equally.
NEGATIVES: Two big ones. First, the price. It is more expensive than the Yeti and AT2020 and it doesn't deliver the goods to warrant the extra cost. Second, the "plosives": also known as popping your "P"s and "B"s and distorting your "T"s. At this price, it's unacceptable to have these audio distortions pop into interviews. Audix instructs the user to stand 6 or 7 inches from the microphone to prevent this. That should solve the problem. A mesh pop-filter from any music store like Guitar Center will also solve the problem. However, at this cost, you shouldn't need to deal with these issues. (Price: Market price is $150...)

Our recommendations: Bottom line, you can't lose in this category. We wish the Audix USBL2 didn't have popping ("plosive") issues. However, it isn't a problem that can't be fixed, if you really want to spend the money. At this price point, we're going to do a split recommendation.
For Windows: We highly recommend the Audio-Technica AT2020 USB. The microphone consistently tested slightly higher than the Yeti on three blind audio tests with our professional staff that have been in the industry for several decades. I would agree with the results as well.
For Macs: We highly recommend the Blue Yeti. Almost as good as the AT2020 USB, it is Mac compliant and the bells and whistles more than make-up for the slight difference in audio quality. At the same price, we would also be okay if Windows users opted for the Yeti. You cannot go wrong with Blue, although you will also love the AT2020 USB on Windows.

Thanks to Ashe and the engineers at WTOP for compiling this! You can download different versions of Skype here: Windows, OS X, Windows Mobile, Android, Linux, and iOS.