All My Microphones, Compared
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In the Age of the Virus, I’ve been teaching remotely. This has given me two new tasks that require decent audio: video conferencing and recording classes at home. I would never call myself an audiophile, but for whatever reason, bad low-fidelity audio bothers me. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I want to do better.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a bunch of different ways of recording sound on my computer, and I thought it would be fun to test each of them to see how they preformed.
I used the following six microphones for this test:
- The internal microphone of my MacBook Pro,
- AirPods connected wireless via Bluetooth,
- EarPods connecting deprecated mini-plug via the headphone jack in my MacBook Pro,
- The microphone that dangles from a pair of AKG K545 headphones,
- Blue Snowball condenser microphone, discontinued by the manufacturer, that I set on my desk,
- the very popular Blue Yeti USB condenser microphone with an attached pop filter.
I couldn’t try one of my oldest microphones—a Blue Snowball. I left that at my office at NYU, inside Bobst Library, and the entire building is inaccessible to non-essential employees like myself.
For each recording, I used Sound Studio for Mac and recording using an early 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro. (Yes, the one that many considered to be the last great MacBook Pro until Apple came out with last year’s 16-inch model.) I did some slight editing on each recording: I trimmed my reading of each sentence, inserted a half-second of silence between each sentence, and normalized the sound. I did the latter to control for loudness; most of us are biased to think that louder sound is a better sound.
I read aloud the following ten Harvard Sentences into each microphone. I used “List 5” from this list of Harvard Sentences for those who want to reproduce this test at home. For the most part, I read the phrases as written, although I did flub a couple of them. The sentences are…
- A king ruled the state in the early days.
- The ship was torn apart on the sharp reef.
- Sickness kept him home the third week.
- The wide road shimmered in the hot sun.
- The lazy cow lay in the cool grass.
- Lift the square stone over the fence.
- The rope will bind the seven books at once.
- Hop over the fence and plunge in.
- The friendly gang left the drug store.
- Mesh wire keeps chicks inside.
Here are the results of testing each microphone.
MacBook Pro early-2015, Internal Microphone
This is the most convenient way of recording sound on a Mac. It requires nothing more than the Mac itself. The result is pretty solid.
I have my MacBook Pro slightly elevated at tilted towards me since it is perched on a laptop stand. Remember that sound, especially the human voice, is very directional. Perhaps titling it towards me helped get good sound. If memory serves, the internal microphone on a MacBook Pro is located near the top of the keyboard.
One thing to consider is that I wasn’t using my speaker. I always find it annoying to hear feedback on conference calls that noticeably degrade the sound quality.
AirPods, Handsfree via Bluetooth
Apple’s AirPods is one of my favorite devices. Before All This Happened, I used my AirPods on a daily basis, listening to music and podcasts as I walked around town. But as we are all staying home as much as possible, I’ve been using them a lot less.
Using AirPods for phone calls—over the cellular network or VOIP—is unmatched in terms of its convenience. It doesn’t require your hands and don’t have a wire to get in the way. You don’t even have to have your device on your person—as long as it’s not too far for the Bluetooth radio. This is probably why you see late night TV hosts and some newscasters use AirPods to record themselves.
However, in terms of sound fidelity, they fared the worst.
It sounds like I’m talking through a machine—as it doesn’t sample enough of my sound—or if it used a lossy compression algorithm at a very low bitrate.
I was surprised that it was actually worse than recording through using the MacBook Pro’s internal microphone. I learned back in college that even the worst external microphone was still better than using the on-board microphone in my field recorder because the recorder makes some noise that will be on the recording.
To be fair, I think the poor sound has to do with my Mac. Listening to music on my AirPods doesn’t sound as good playing from my Mac as it does playing from an iOS device, such as an iPhone or a iPad.
Wired EarPods with a Mini-Plug
I actually have a couple of pairs of these EarPods lying around. They might be from my iPhone 6 (2014) and maybe even my iPhone 5 (2012). I used these instead of the newer ones that came with my iPhone 11 Pro because I can connect these to my MacBook Pro.
The sounds was also pretty solid—good depth and warmth—and it didn’t sound compressed like the AirPods. It also sounds marginally better than “going bareback” on my MacBook Pro.
AKG K545 Headphones, Handsfree Wired
In late-2014, I was engaging in some retail therapy and listening to a lot of sad music, and these headphones were the result of that.
I expected these would fare better than the EarPods simply because they’re more expensive than EarPods. But they capture more of the room echo than the EarPods.
Again, to be fair, these are primarily headphones for listening—not microphones for recording. As far as headphones sound, they’re pretty good, but are heavy. And because they have a closed-back design, they isolate ambient noise. A lot of people prefer these kinds of headphones, but I don’t. I get fatigued wearing them for any substantial period of time.
Blue Snowflake on My Desk
The Blue Snowflake is a portable USB microphone. Despite its small size, it’s a great little microphone that I picked up at the end of 2009. It is meant to sit on a desk or clipped to a computer monitor to provide better sound during voice conference calls and for field recording. It is an omnidirectional microphone so it captures a lot of other sounds. This is good if you are in the audience and want to record a lecture or a band playing live.
I really like how it sounds. It doesn’t seem to get too much of the room echo while still clearly recording my voice.
Again, recording voice from a person speaking nearby is exactly what the Snowflake was designed to do. It performed great.
Blue Yeti with Pop Filter
I expected this to make the best recording, and it did. The Blue Yeti is a very popular USB microphone. It is marketed to podcasters who don’t want to mess around with a XLR cables and a USB preamp. It’s been a while since I bought this microphone, but I think I bought the Yeti because I like the design of Blue microphones. They just look cool.
I also added a basic pop filter to this microphone to cut down on the popping Ps and other noises when you make when speaking close to the microphone.
The sound here is terrific. There is no room echo, largely because I’m speaking into the microphone. The recording has high fidelity: my voice sounds like it should if I were in the room with you.
Of course, the Blue Yeti performed best of all the microphones I have on hand. It is meant to record podcasters and other spoken word, and it does this really well.
The other microphones were more interesting. Honestly, I was surprised how well the built-in microphone in my MacBook Pro worked. For this you don’t need anything, and it records quite well. I think that if I were using the built-in MacBook Pro microphone for videoconferencing or VOIP, I would I use a set of headphones to prevent the feedback.
In fact, I think it would be useful to use the configure AirPods for sound output but use the internal microphone for sounds recording. This way you can have the convenience of wireless earphones and a decent microphone.
But, of course, in the Age of the Virus, no one expect studio-quality sound.