Tagged: Bluetooth

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:

  1. The internal microphone of my MacBook Pro,
  2. AirPods connected wireless via Bluetooth,
  3. EarPods connecting deprecated mini-plug via the headphone jack in my MacBook Pro,
  4. The microphone that dangles from a pair of AKG K545 headphones,
  5. Blue Snowball condenser microphone, discontinued by the manufacturer, that I set on my desk,
  6. 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.

Harvard Sentences

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…

  1. A king ruled the state in the early days.
  2. The ship was torn apart on the sharp reef.
  3. Sickness kept him home the third week.
  4. The wide road shimmered in the hot sun.
  5. The lazy cow lay in the cool grass.
  6. Lift the square stone over the fence.
  7. The rope will bind the seven books at once.
  8. Hop over the fence and plunge in.
  9. The friendly gang left the drug store.
  10. Mesh wire keeps chicks inside.

Here are the results of testing each microphone.

MacBook Pro early-2015, Internal Microphone

The internal microphone of most MacBook Pro notebooks near the keyboard.

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

My trusty and dusty AirPods can record audio.

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

These EarPods are at least five and a half years old.

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

Testing 1, 2, 3… checking levels on the cable microphone on my AKG K545.

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

I bought this Blue Snowflake microphone over ten years ago to record my lectures, a practice that didn’t last long.

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 couldn’t resist to buy a Blue Yeti in midnight blue because why not…?

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.

Conclusions

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.

Why You Shouldn’t Believe That You Shouldn’t Buy AirPods

Back in September, shortly after Apple announced the new AirPods, the folks at Lightning Cans posted a lengthy article explaining why you shouldn’t buy Apple AirPods.

Their conclusion is based on two claims. Unfortunately, both are wrong.

“Because AirPods use Bluetooth, and Bluetooth ‘Is Terrible,’ Thus AirPods Sound Terrible”

First, they claim that AirPods will produce terrible audio because they use Bluetooth, and Bluetooth produces terrible audio. In both theory and in practice, sending an audio signal over a wire is much better than sending one over a wireless connection. As the article notes, “Audiophiles have long been repulsed by Bluetooth audio. The frequency range is limited, the sounds are distorted, connecting can be a nightmare and audio can stutter or stop mid-stream.” But Apple might have overcome many of these challenges, not by sending a raw audio signal over the wire, but instead sending a digital audio stream that is decoded by the new W1 chip.

In practice, these standard criticisms against Bluetooth headphones aren’t there with the AirPods. The quality of the audio is about the same as what you get with the wired EarPods. I wouldn’t have expected any less (or any more) than that. However, there are some issues with audio dropping out from time-to-time. I notice this mostly when I’m streaming audio in busy areas, such as Union Square in Manhattan, for example. I’m not sure if this is because my iPhone can’t stream the audio, using the cellular radio, and send the digital audio signal to both AirPods, in a crowded area with a lot of radio interference.

Also, while it is true that pairing a Bluetooth audio device, such as headphones or a speaker, can indeed be difficult, connecting these AirPods take no time. I opened the case with one hand while I had my iPhone in the other, and after one tap to connect my AirPods, I was listening to them in a matter of seconds. This process also invisibly paired my AirPods with my other devices: my iPad, my Apple Watch, and my MacBook Pro. This was the ultimate Apple experience: It Just Works.

In short, compared to the wired EarPods, AirPods sound just as good, and they work almost as well for keeping an audio stream going. However, there’s one difference between AirPods and EarPods: there’s no tangled wire that becomes a white bird’s nest in your hand.

“AirPods Require a Wired Connection for Charging”

Second, they claim that although AirPods are wireless, they require a charging case that is wired. They write, AirPods “have an internal lithium ion battery that works for a whopping 5 hours (so like, maybe a couple days), and then when they die, you need to put them into their special ‘charging case,’ which then needs to be plugged into a power source via a cable.”

This misrepresents how one charges AirPods. While it is true that you have to use the case to charge the AirPods, the case itself has its own battery. The charging case itself does not have to be connected to anything to charge the AirPods. However, because the case has a battery, which does become depleted after about five AirPods-charging cycles, it does need to be connected to a Lightning cable and a USB power source. You can use the same charging cable as the one you have for your phone. Moreover, charging the case takes a very short amount of time, less than an hour.

At some point, yes, charging AirPods requires a wired connection. But this is similar to what you have to do with just about any mobile device but less often. If you have an iPad, you normally don’t have to charge it on a nightly basis like you have to do with your phone. This is similar to what you do with the AirPods charging case. An occasional wired charge will suffice. But otherwise, using and charging AirPods is a wholly wireless experience.

Conclusion

This is the danger is writing a review of a product before it is released. Having used AirPods for a little more than two months, I can tell you that this is the best new Apple product the company has released in a long time. The audio is comparable to what you get with wired EarPods. Apple has produced wireless, Bluetooth earphones that sound as good as the wired ones. No doubt, EarPods provide a more reliable connection, but the convenience of going wireless outweighs those occasional connection issues.

Ultimately, consumer goods succeed not just on quality but on convenience. CDs provide superior audio fidelity than MP3/AAC files, but carrying around CDs is inherently inconvenient. And if you don’t believe that Bluetooth can succeed in the consumer space, I will admit my early skepticism about WiFi nearly twenty years ago: “isn’t Ethernet more reliable?” It is, but imagine what a smartphone would be like if we were tethered to a network router, untangling bird’s nests of Cat-6 cables.

And, no, they don’t fall out of your ears.

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