One of the best microphones can give your home setup a decidedly professional aspect, whether you're streaming, recording, or simply working from home. Yes, you can always use the built-in mic from a gaming headset, or just fall back on your smartphone, but cheap audio quality speaks for itself.
The best microphones can help you record music, communicate with gaming teammates, broadcast your thoughts to the world or simply talk with friends, family and coworkers. For everyday use, a good microphone is a nice touch; for a semi-professional project, it’s an absolute necessity.
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Our guide to the best microphones will walk you through what to look for in a mic, as well as help you find one that best suits your needs. One thing to keep in mind, however: We’re looking only at relatively inexpensive mics for the everyday consumer. If you’re looking to outfit an office building or a TV studio, you could (and should) spend thousands of dollars on the proper equipment. Here, we’ve kept our selections to less than $300, suitable for use in home offices, gaming nooks and recording setups.
What are the best microphones?
As with most tech, the best microphone you can buy depends on your specific setup. For most users, the Blue Yeti ($130) offers an attractive balance of design, functionality and pricing. You get a high-quality USB mic, a built-in stand, a variety of pattern modes and some handy accessories you can buy to enhance your setup. Because of its versatility, you can use it for gaming, streaming, podcasting or simply talking with friends and family online. It’s been the gold standard in USB microphones for years, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Blue also makes an inexpensive option in the Snowball Ice. This $50 microphone has the sound quality you’d expect from a Blue device, but with only one pattern available (cardioid). Still, if you’re looking for a better way to chat with your friends, or even a way to get your feet wet in the streaming/podcasting/video scene, the Snowball Ice has great sound quality and a trivially easy setup. If your built-in laptop mic just isn’t cutting it, but you’re not quite ready to drop hundreds of dollars on a solution, this is probably your first stop.
On the other hand, if you know that you’re going to be recording your spoken voice — and nothing but—the Rode Podcaster is the way to go. The Podcaster is an old favorite, having been on the market for more than 10 years. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and nothing about the Podcaster needs fixing. It records gorgeous, crystal-clear audio from a single speaker, suitable for recording podcasts or jumping into livestreams. It’s not cheap, but it’s possibly the last podcasting mic you’ll ever need.
The best microphones you can buy today
The Blue Yeti has been on the market for more than a decade, and it hasn’t changed very much since its introduction. To be fair, nothing about one of the best microphones really needed changing. It’s a smart, versatile peripheral that doesn’t cost that much money, and provides everything that amateur and semi-pro audiophiles need to record their own material. The Blue Yeti is a high-quality condenser mic with a built-in stand, a USB connection and — this is the clincher — four different pattern modes.
With a Blue Yeti, you can record audio in cardioid, stereo, omnidirectional or bidirectional modes. Very few microphones offer multiple audio patterns, and even fewer of them do a good job switching among them. But thanks to the Blue Yeti’s variety of audio patterns, you can record anything from a podcast, to an interview, to a musical performance, to a whole roundtable discussion.
If you want a peripheral that’s better than a built-in laptop mic, but don’t have the patience (or funds) for anything fancier, you want the Blue Snowball Ice microphone. This is about the simplest, cheapest mic you can get from a major manufacturer. The Snowball Ice is a compact, somewhat stylish sphere that’s available in either black or white. You connect it to your computer via USB cable, and then you speak into it. That’s it. There are no options to for you to change, for better or for worse.
The Snowball Ice uses a cardioid pattern, making it perfect for videoconferencing or chatting with friends in games. It’s perhaps not high-end enough to record your own podcast, but if you need to appear on someone else’s on short notice, the Snowball Ice will get the job done.
If you’re going to record the audio for a podcast or something similar — a YouTube video voiceover, a Twitch stream, an amateur audiobook — the Rode Podcaster is one of the best microphones you can get. This mic offers a dynamic pickup, meaning that it’s ideal for capturing loud sounds in everyday settings, such as speaking in a broadcast voice in a living room. The Podcaster’s audio pattern is cardioid, meaning that it’s optimized to pick up a single person’s voice, from a single direction. The Podcaster was designed with one thing in mind, and it shows.
In addition to crystal-clear audio recordings, the Podcaster also has a built-in audio jack with a volume control, so you can monitor your voice in real-time. However, that’s about all the device comes with. If you want a stand, a shock mount or a pop filter, you’ll need to buy those separately. They’re worth the investment, but be prepared to drop another $100 or so on top of the Podcaster’s retail price.
Technically speaking, most of the mics on this list are semi-professional, but you’ve probably seen the Shure SM58 in the hands of honest-to-goodness pop stars. The Shure SM58 is one of the best no-frills vocal mics on the market, with a cardioid pattern optimized for music, and very little background noise pickup. If you want to sing, you want to use the Shure SM58 — and if you want to accompany yourself with an instrument at the same time, the SM58 still sounds pretty good.
Bear in mind that the Shure SM58 uses an XLR connection rather than USB or 3.5 mm audio, so you’ll have to devise some kind of system to rig it up to a computer. (This isn’t difficult; just make sure you go with high-quality adapters.) Furthermore, the SM58 works best when you hold it or let it sit in an upright stand, so it’s not ideal for desktop applications.
The HyperX QuadCast is a stylish and robust microphone, perfect for gamers who don’t like headset mics, or who want to get into the streaming space. The QuadCast is a condenser mic with a built-in stand and shock mount, meaning that once you connect it to your computer via USB, you’re pretty much ready to start recording right away. Most users will probably want to start off on its cardioid setting, although it also has bidirectional, omnidirectional and stereo audio patterns, so you can bring other people into your impromptu recording studio, if you want.
The QuadCast is one of the best microphones for gaming because most of its features are analog. This means you won’t have to wrangle with software if you want to change the audio pattern, adjust the gains or even mute the microphone. It also has a rather aggressive black-and-red lighting pattern — whether you dig the “gamer” aesthetic or think it looks a little dated will largely depend on your own preferences.
On its surface, the Elgato Wave: 3 seems very similar to other microphones on this list. It's a USB mic with a cardioid pattern, specifically tailored to the gaming space. What sets the Wave: 3 apart from similar devices, though, is its connectivity with the ubiquitous Elgato Stream Deck. By using the Stream Deck in conjunction with the mic, you can alter mic pickup and sound mix without ever touching the mic itself, all while you keep an eye on your video size and other important streaming features.
Otherwise, the Wave: 3 is a high-quality mic, featuring dead simple controls, a crystal-clear cardioid pattern and a small profile that will feat easily on most desks. The mic's plain black chassis and tasteful lighting help accentuate gaming setups, and it's easy to adjust and monitor your volume in real time. In terms of audio quality, it's no better than any other mics on this list, but its streaming features alone make it worth a look.
Read our full Elgato Wave: 3 review.
How to choose the best microphone for you
The best microphone depends almost entirely on your setup. This list gives a brief overview of all-purpose mics, podcasting mics, music mics and so forth. Basically, determine what you most need a microphone for, then find the appropriate one for your needs. As with most other gadgets, cheaper microphones tend to be more generalized, whereas more expensive ones tend to be more specialized. This doesn’t mean that cheaper microphones are inherently worse. But if you want semiprofessional quality, you’ll have to pay semiprofessional prices.
Visit manufacturer websites, and learn for which purpose each mic is optimized. The official website will usually give you a good idea as to whether the mic excels in podcasting, gaming, music or some other application. Failing that, remember that cardioid is generally the most useful audio pattern if you’re going to be recording by yourself in a home environment. Other patterns are good to have, but they’re useful only when you bring in more people or sound sources.
What do the different audio patterns mean?
Some of the mics on this list offer different options for audio patterns: Bidirectional, cardioid, omnidirectional and stereo. Others offer only cardioid. Here's a brief explanation of each pattern, to help you decide when to use which one:
Bidirectional: The pattern picks up audio coming from two directions only. This is ideal for two speakers sitting directly across from one another.
Cardioid: This pattern picks up audio coming from one direction. This is ideal for a single source, speaking directly into the mic.
Omnidirectional: This pattern picks up audio from all around the mic. This is ideal for a whole group of people surrounding the microphone.
Stereo: This pattern picks up audio in front of the mic, as well as off to the sides. This is ideal for a musical group, or a panel of speakers facing the same direction.