With the continued growth and influence of YouTube creators, podcasters, and more at-home media creators, the demand for affordable, yet quality microphones to capture sound in a range of environments and minimal equipment is at an all-time high.
In my several years of working as a professional audio engineer, I’ve witnessed the arrival of professional-grade microphones that you could simply plug directly into your computer, which for the newcomer to recording, might seem like a simple thing, but along with affordable Digital Audio Workspaces (DAWs) like GarageBand and Audacity, it has revolutionized the accessibility of at-home recording.
No longer was an entirely separate analog-to-digital (A/D) interface required to connect to your computer, which separates it from its traditional microphone XLR cousins. Now, everything you needed to start your new media broadcast was self-contained within a USB microphone, minimizing gear and cost, and providing anyone with a bit of ambition to reach a huge audience.
With greater demand comes greater supply, and now you’ll find USB microphone offerings from all the major microphone brands. A large selection is always ideal for the searching consumer, but that also means tricky decisions on what product to select. We’ve selected two USB microphones to do an in-depth comparison and help with that decision making.
We’ll look at the Rode NT-USB vs. Blue Yeti, microphones that I’ve used extensively, and are widely revered by consumers, to see how they stack up against each other, other products in their company catalogs, and the wider USB microphone market.
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Rode NT-USB Review
There is an abundance of USB microphones to choose from these days, so it’s helpful to be able to rely on trustworthy brands and models, and Rode is certainly one of those companies. The NT-USB’s technology is based on another mic that I’ve come to rely on as one of my favorite mid-range microphones for vocals, USB or otherwise, the NT-1.
The NT-1 has been one of the best large-diaphragm microphones for at-home and in-studio users since its release. It has a great, well-rounded sound, perfect for voice-over artists, but also for sources like acoustic guitar and upright piano, and the NT-USB does its namesake proud.
The Australian company has been creating high-end mics for studios and videographers alike for the past 50 years, with a recent focus on developing products to be compatible with software from new phones and cameras. The development of USB microphones falls in line with the company’s expansion into these modern trends.
Not always the flashiest, but very reliable and well-built, Rode, has quite a bit to offer in their catalog for the professional voice-over artist or streamer. Over 5 different microphones that cater specifically to new media, the NT-USB included, have been specifically designed with the spoken voice in mind, including bundles, which we’ll highlight in a bit, to transform a simple at-home desk into a formidable mini recording studio.
What We Liked
- Transparent high-quality sound
- Mix control knob
- Zero-latency monitoring
What We Didn’t Like
- Slightly chunky, an important factor for video streamers
- On-desk stand adjustment not quite as easy at Yeti
- Pricier than other USB microphones
Transparent High-End Audio
As mentioned before, Rode might not be necessarily well-known for their flash or style in their products, but they have a laser-focus on the integrity of the sound of the microphone. You won’t find any gimmicks on this mic (though it does lack one feature we’d love to see, addressed below), it’s a no-nonsense, and great-sounding mic, which in my opinion, is something some other USB mics out there could focus more on.
The capsule, which is the component of the mic that captures the sound, of the NT-USB isn’t quite as large as the NT-1. You won’t get quite the depth of character as that large-diaphragm studio mic, but its transparency and fidelity are absolutely on par. It’s frequency-profile has been designed to specifically accentuate the best attributes of the voice as well. You get a boost in presence around 4.5kHz, and that adds brightness and clarity to any spoken voice.
There’s not a noise specification listed with the mic, which would be the signal-to-noise ratio and indicate how much noise the microphone naturally produces against the sound signal. But I was very impressed with how clean the signal was. It has great clarity, a very low noise floor, but it is one of the more sensitive USB mics out there. That’s not a bad element at all, it just means you’ll need to be in a fairly quiet environment.
This will pick up more background noise than other mics in this range. That’s the tradeoff for more high-end condenser mics, mics that are less sensitive tend to sound duller, and not have as much presence in the sound. That’s one of the more important things to look out for with finding a mic for your spoken voice, the most professional recordings sound crystal-clear and as if the speaker is in the room with you. The NT-USB goes a long way to achieving that!
Mix Control Knob
This feature is a bit of a double-edged sword. We love the mix control knob on the NT-USB, it’s a feature not found on many other mics, and in terms of interviews and podcasts, it’s pretty nifty. It relates to the zero-latency monitoring by plugging your headphones directly into the microphone. We would have loved to see a Gain knob on the mic as well though, and we’ll explain why below.
What the Mix knob does is blend the level of input from the microphone, with the output of your DAW. So that means, while you are recording your voice, you can blend the mix of your voice and any backing tracks that you are recording to. This is great for interviews, where your guest needs to be hearing the same tracks, but they can adjust their individual mix and the level of their voice relative to the tracks.
Every recordist needs some form of this ability to mix what’s in the DAW to what’s being recorded, but it’s very rare to find the microphone itself doing that work. Most people will be plugging their headphones into the computer, and getting the mix right in the DAW, but there’s one drawback to that, latency.
Why does latency matter?
When recording, latency is one of the biggest enemies of the engineer. Latency is the slight delay between the source being recorded, and the playback of that source through the DAW. Every DAW has an adjustable “buffer size” to adjust and combat latency, usually you will see a setting like “512 samples” when you open your audio preferences in your DAW. The bigger the number the bigger the delay and only powerful computer systems can keep that setting on a low number while your session keeps getting bigger.
But, do not fret, the headphone plug directly from the microphone circumvents this latency. This is vital when it comes to recording voice, even the slightest delay in the headphones when recording your voice is very distracting! The headphone jack captures the signal before it hits the DAW, preventing any delay, and also feeds back whatever pre-recorded tracks on in your DAW (latency only applies to the signal currently being recorded).
Gain vs. Mix
The Mix knob is a great feature, and the ability to mix in the signal from the DAW is unique. But the one drawback is that it seems to come at the cost of a gain knob, which I think is one of the most helpful features on an at-home USB mic.
Gain and mix are often confused, but think of gain as the volume control for the source, and mix as the volume control for the recorded signal. You want the source to be as loud as possible without clipping, this keeps background noise at a minimum because your voice will be loud relative to it. Many people crank the mix, but that will turn up all the background noise with it, leading to a very noisy recording because the gain wasn’t properly set.
With a gain knob on microphones, you can set this level very directly on the device. With the NT-USB though, you’ll need to set the gain on your computer, which isn’t always a straightforward process within system audio settings. It’s not impossible to do, it’s just a preference you’ll find with many recordists.
Versatile Studio-Quality Bundle
If you’re looking to take your operation to the next, very achievable level, Rode offers a bundle that includes the standard tripod stand and pop-filter but includes a professional boom arm as well. The boom arm has become essential for streamers, especially game streamers, who need to angle the mic away from immediately in front of them on a desk.
One drawback we’ve found with the NT-USB is that it is not as easily maneuverable as, say the Yeti, but an extra boom arm such as this would completely quell any issues around its position. And it just looks very professional, a key point if you’re going to be appearing on camera.
Blue Yeti Review
Blue (Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics) Microphones have become increasingly known for their range of low-cost USB microphones tailored to at-home creators. They were sold to Logitech in 2018, a company known for its consumer computer products like keyboards and headphones, who would now have an at-home microphone product line to add to their portfolio.
It would be a mistake though, to view Blue as purely consumer-level focused when it comes to the quality and build of their products. While their USB microphones are of exceptional quality and certainly help to pay the company bills, it’s important to note that they’re one of the top microphone companies in the world because of their production of some of the best, most transparent, high-end professional mics around. Everything they produce comes from great stock, and you’ll find similar technologies and techniques applied to their most affordable mics, that are used in the now-famous Bottle mic and others.
One of my favorite microphone brands to work with, I’m constantly impressed by the style and substance of Blue microphones. The Yeti has taken off as one of the most widely used USB microphones by YouTube creators, Twitch streamers, and podcasters alike, and for good reason. The market has been flooded by audio companies releasing flashier and flashier products to capture the eye, but the Yeti captures the ear too, backing up its design with high-quality sound.
What We Liked
- Great-looking Design
- Very positionable
- Multiple Polar Patterns
- Gain Knob
What We Didn’t Like
- USB Mini-B connector, not as common as it once was
- Many convenient features, but sound clarity slightly lacking
Before we start on the technological components of the microphone, first a word for the most noticeable aspect of the Yeti, it’s design. There’s a retro component to everything that Blue designs, and it’s one of the most distinguishing factors of their microphones. They’ve managed to straddle the line of harkening back to the 1960s golden-age of recording, yet unquestionable their microphones are a creation of the 21st century.
It’s a neat trick, and with the proliferation of streaming and video creation via social media and new platforms, it’s no longer viable for it to be ignored by discerning audiophiles. It matters! And Blue has been designing beautiful mics well before the first YouTube influencers were around, so it’s very natural for them to be one of the first mics that the video-conscious creator will reach for when selecting a mic.
Pop filter not required
Blue was extra savvy when designing as well. Knowing it would be primarily for voice, as opposed to another instrument that primarily doesn’t need them, they designed the Yeti to be used without a pop filter. Pop filters are those little screens you see attached to mics separating the speaker from the microphone. They reduce noise bursts from specific syllables like “p’s” and “s’s”, but they just aren’t the most pleasing piece of equipment to the eye, and the metal casing around the capsule is robust enough to not require one.
And how many mic companies offer multiple color schemes for the same piece of equipment? Well, I can tell you, not many. Blue clearly has been designing its product with an eye on the visual, separating them from their sound wave-fixated contemporaries.
Multiple Polar Patterns
Now to the technology of the mic. The Yeti is built using a 3-capsule array and using three means the user can fine-tune exactly how and in what direction they would like the sound to be captured.
The polar pattern refers to the shape of the field around the microphone that is being recorded. Most condenser mics have one setting, and a lot of the time it’s going to be the heart-shaped cardioid pattern. This means that the recording is focused on what’s directly in front of the mic, slightly picking up what’s immediately behind it and to the side.
But the Yeti has 3 more directional offerings than that, stereo, omnidirectional, and bidirectional. This is vital for any recordist who isn’t doing every single podcast or video while sitting directly in front of the mic on their own. This gives you the flexibility to conduct an interview effectively only using the Yeti, or move around your studio without completely losing your levels.
There are many options with this amount of polar patterns, a stereo recording is normally only achievable using two mics in tandem, but with the multiple capsules of the Yeti, you can record a guitar in stereo with a single mic, giving you a much wider audio image. Omnidirectional allows you to maintain your levels no matter what direction on the mic you’re facing, or pick up some of the ambient noise in the room if you need it to be naturalistic. And bidirectional is the perfect interview setting.
Sometimes a visual guide is most helpful when describing polar patterns, and this review goes through all the options with helpful diagrams –
Sample Rate and Bit-Depth
It’s worth pointing out a few differences in specifications between USB mics and traditional XLR mics. Sampling rates are something unique to USB microphones you won’t find on other microphones, and they refer to the analog-to-digital conversion taking place. How it used to work, was that with all microphones, you would need to have a separate interface to take the analog signal of the microphone, and convert it to the digital signal you see and hear from your computer workstation.
Both mics have a listed sample rate of 48kHz and a bit depth of 16 bit. The sampling rate determines the rate or frequency at which the signal is captured, similar to a video frame rate, the higher that number, the more accurate and dynamic the frequencies in the digital conversion. The bit depth refers to the size of the samples in that sampling rate, the larger that number, the better the resolution of the sample.
What does all that mean?
These are plenty good for the at-home recordist, especially for the rate at which audio is compressed for streaming platforms like YouTube. Professional recording studios might use interfaces that boast numbers like 192kHz sampling rates, and 24-bit depth, but professional recording requires the utmost fidelity for highly complex signals, when less than the most pristinely transparent signals may start to muddy the end product.
For instance, you’ll see a 24-bit/192kHz rate on the Blue Yeti Pro, and 24-bit/96kHz with the Rode Podcaster for the recordist with the most high-end needs, but that certainly doesn’t need to be the starting point for most. The advantage of the 16-bit/48kHz rate is the cost, it’s able to be packaged into an affordable microphone, with the best part being, it’s the only thing you’ll need to start recording to your computer.
The mighty mute button is a simple, but powerful tool that isn’t necessarily standard on many microphones out there. They’ve become more prevalent on streaming and podcast specific mics such as these, and it allows for the recordist to truly stay in the moment. A microphone that can be muted on the actual device, for instance, during an interview means that time and focus won’t be wasted searching on the computer for the same function.
Zero Latency Headphone
We went a bit over the issue of latency when recording. It’s become an essential function for a microphone to have a zero-latency headphone listening jack, and we appreciate that both microphones do.
Relative to everything else in recording, the advent of the USB microphone is relatively new, but looking at the Blue Yeti and the Rode NT-USB, the future is bright. Both are great mics, some of the best examples of what’s on offer in the world of USB microphones.
But each has its strengths. As an audio engineer, I’m very drawn to the sound that the NT-USB provides. It has great clarity and sensitivity, but in our new media landscape, sound really isn’t everything. And it’s a slight difference between the two in sound, so slight that it’s completely understandable for someone to decide that the extra features and look of the Yeti might push it over the top.
You won’t find a USB mic in this range much more versatile than the Blue Yeti. For someone who needs to be able to grab a guitar and not have to completely reposition the mic to get some continuity from their recording, the Blue Yeti is a great choice.
For the professional at-home voice-over artist, a lot is appealing about the NT-USB. The presence and crispness it delivers can certainly help a recordist achieve new levels of quality in their recordings.
There’s a lot on offer from both, it is just about finding the fit for your project.