XLR Or 3.5mm To USB ? – Which Works Best?


Gone are the days when you need an entire studio and a mixing desk with 64 channels to record audio.

For the most part, you only require a mic and then a cable along with your computer, laptop, or Mac. You will only need to consider how to connect them up and the connection points involved. Specifically a USB connection or a 3.5mm.

In all instances, it is better to use an XLR to USB connection than 3.5mm, because the ADC (analog to digital conversion) is done before the signal reaches your device, which means that it is less prone to noise and interference along with offering a lower latency. This is true for both dynamic and condenser microphones.

If you are new to the world of recording and are looking for a way to connect up your microphone to your device (computer, laptop, or Mac) but are not sure how to do it, then read on.

In this article we will cover the two different types of mics you use and how to connect them, along with which would suit you better: USB or 3.5mm.

XLR cable and microphone overview

Before we can deduce which connection point is better for recording your audio, there are other factors that we need to consider before we arrive at this point.

  • The first thing we need to consider is what type of microphone you are using.

There are two types of microphones that you will be able to use to record your audio. The first is a dynamic microphone that is typically used for live performances—for example, the SHURE SM-58. A dynamic microphone requires nothing more than a cable (XLR cable) to connect to it and your recording device to produce sound.

The next type of microphone is a condenser microphone (for example, the Audio Technica AT 2020). This is designed differently from a dynamic microphone.

These microphones have electronics and built-in preamps that will require a source of power to work correctly. Lucky enough, XLR cables are able to carry this type of current known as phantom power.

For more information on phantom power check out this article

Understanding phantom power

A condenser microphone will need 48 volts of phantom power to function, and without it, there is no possible way for the microphone to work.

Phantom power will be supplied to the mic from a piece of audio equipment that is connected to your microphone. This could be an audio interface, mixing desk, adapter, power supply, etc.

How to connect up a dynamic microphone

As we said, you will only need a cable that connects to your dynamic mic and your recording device. This means you can use either an XLR to USB cable or an XLR to 3.5mm jack cable. There is no other equipment that you will need.

Which is better for dynamic mics: XLR to USB or 3.5

For all scenarios, it will typically be better to use an XLR cable that converts to USB. This is because all the conversion of analog (the mic signal) to digital (the signal your device can read) is done within the cable, and for the most part, these cables will introduce less noise and interference.

Additionally, the latency (time taken from the sound being recorded to when you hear it) of an XLR to USB cable will be slightly lower than a 3.5mm cable.

The reason for this is due to the fact that the ADC (analog to digital conversion) is done within the cable and a USB connection sends digital data very fast. Hence, your device can read it quickly.

When using a 3.5mm jack, there are two things to consider.

The first is that if your XLR cable converts to a 3.5mm connection, the jack should be a TRS (Tip, Ring, and Sleeve) connection.

This means that the output of the audio signal (like an XLR connection) will be balanced. However, it is more than likely that your device will only support a TS connection making that connection point a “hot” connection point. This means that it is not balanced and can be susceptible to noise and interference.

Furthermore, the ADC in your device will first have to read and convert the audio signal from your mic before your device can read it properly. In some cases, the ADC in your device can be substandard increasing latency, noise, and interference.

Take note that there are exceptions to the rule, and you may have an XLR to USB cable that is not of the greatest quality, or you may have an ADC in your device that is pretty good and works well.

How to connect up a condenser microphone

In all instances of a condenser microphone, you will need phantom power, as we discussed. This means you can’t just use a typical XLR to USB or XLR to 3.5mm, as we stated above. If you do, your condenser microphone will not produce sound.

As such, you will need to consider one of three options in order to produce phantom power for your condenser microphone;

  • Phantom power supply
  • Phantom power adapter (XLR to USB Adapter)
  • Audio interface/mixing desk

Phantom power supply

What you are able to do is purchase a piece of audio equipment whose sole purpose is just to produce and send phantom power to your condenser microphone.

Connecting your mic up is simple enough. All you would do is plug your mic into the phantom power supply using an XLR cable and then connect up the power supply to your device using either an XLR to USB or XLR to 3.5mm jack.

Phantom power adapter (XLR to USB adapter)

If you are not looking for anything bulky, then your best bet would be to go with a phantom power adapter that plugs directly into your microphone.

This would be your second best option. The SHURE X2U is such a device that provides phantom power, offers zero latency, has mic gain, volume, and monitoring levels.

Audio interfaces

The problem with using a phantom adapter like the SHURE X2U is that you are only able to record and deal with one audio signal at any given time.

If you are recording audio by yourself, this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you are looking to record multiple audio signals, your best option would be to get an audio interface.

For example, if you are looking to record guitar and vocals or do a podcast where you will have a guest, you should definitely consider an audio interface.

Audio interfaces offer multiple inputs and outputs along with phantom power, multiple gain, volume, and monitor settings.

In addition, they are also connected to your device via USB and offer zero latency. Connecting up an audio interface will require the same steps as a phantom power supply. This means that the audio interface will sit between your mic and the device.

Which is better for condenser mics: XLR to USB or 3.5

You can see both the phantom power adapter (XLR to USB) and audio interface is connected to your device via USB. This is because, again, the ADC will take place in the adapter or audio interface, offering less latency in addition to less noise and interference.

Considering an XLR to 3.5mm jack for a condenser microphone will require a phantom power supply.

As we discussed, the connection input of your device may only be suited for a TS connection and not a TRS connection, as well as having to process the signal in the device, increasing latency, noise, and interference.

Conclusion

We discovered that in all instances, whether you are using a condenser microphone or a dynamic microphone, you are better off using some form of XLR to a USB connection point.

While dynamic mics will only require a cable to connect them to your device, a condenser microphone will require phantom power that can be obtained in one of three ways, via a power supply, adapter, or audio interface.

Due to the fact that the analog audio signal is converted to a digital signal before it reaches your device, it is less susceptible to noise and interference in addition to offering a lower latency to a 3.5mm connection.

This is because the ADC in your device may struggle to convert the signal and may not be suited for a TRS connection point.

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