Over the past decade or more, we have started to see more home recording studio setups than ever before. Producing music at home or podcasting on YouTube from the comfort of your own bedroom is more possible today because of the improvement in audio equipment and access to affordable gear. And this makes choosing the right cables for the job even more important.
I am often asked, do XLR to USB cables work? The answer is yes, they do, but only for certain things, and there is a load of factors you need to take into account. The introduction of USB changed the game, and the audio sphere is still just catching.
So, let’s find out more about XLR to USB connections and how you can adopt them into your home recording studio in my in-depth look at Do XLR to USB Cables Work?
What’s the Purpose of an XLR to USB Connection?
The idea behind this type of cable is to allow you to connect devices with XLR connections directly to your PC. The main reason the cable was designed was to allow you to connect an XLR microphone to your computer. This should result in you being able to use your computer to record from the XLR mic by plugging it into the USB slot.
As mentioned, and to answer the question, yes, XLR to USB cables do work, but only in specific circumstances. They work excellently when you need to amp up the volume of the XRL mic or any type of dynamic microphone. However, it’s important to remember that you cannot use XLR to USB cables for condenser mics because they need phantom power, and this type of connection doesn’t facilitate that.
How Does an XLR to USB Cable Work?
When you think about it, the mere fact that you can connect a device with an XLR connection to a computer via USB is pretty impressive. Not too long ago, most people couldn’t even envisage this being possible. They are interesting connections that do not get the kudos they deserve.
Technology has massively evolved over the past decade, and now it’s possible to connect a musical instrument or a mic with a cable to your computer so you can record in there.
But how do they actually work?
These XLR to USB cables have a built-in analog to digital converter and a preamp. The preamp’s job is to facilitate the audio signal and let it pass through before it gets to the converter stage. The signal is then converted from analog to digital format so that your PC or Mac understands it.
The normal job of any USB cable is to carry digital signals. The job of the XLR section is to accept analog signals before they are internally converted to digital. So in effect, when you are connecting an instrument or microphone via XLR to USB cables, the analog part of the signal is processed by the XLR as an electrical current. In this instant, the signal is usually very low, especially when connecting with a mic. This is why the preamp section in the XLR to USB cable is so important, as it processes the audio signal and gives it a boost.
Increasing the gain…
The preamp in an XLR to USB cable has fixed gain, which is different from a normal preamp. And that means if the signal is not loud enough for your liking, you can’t increase the gain to make it louder, so that is one of the disadvantages of using one.
Once the audio signal has been processed in the preamp, it’s moved on to the analog to digital converter section built-in to the cables. This is also sometimes called the ADC (Analog Digital Converter), and its primary function is to convert these analog signals to a digital format. From there, the signal is then passed along to your computer or laptop in a form it can understand.
Do XLR to USB Cables Improve or Reduce Audio Quality?
The harsh fact of life is that the audio quality will be reduced when using XLR to USB cables. You are essentially converting an audio signal to another format, and this has a negative effect on sound and audio quality.
However, even though the conversion process will reduce the quality of the signal, the loss of audio quality is not that noticeable in the grand scheme of things.
Always buy good quality XLR to USB cables
In the best-case scenario, the XLR to USB cable you buy will work well without any issues. But the reality is that these types of cables are often quite cheap, and that has a negative knock-on effect on the overall format conversion and audio quality. It’s standard for manufacturers of these cables to use as few electronic components as possible, and this can also negatively impact the audio quality.
The USB part of the cable is just as guilty as the XLR part when it comes to the reduction in audio quality. USB is very well known for having unbalanced wiring, using two wires but having no earth. This can result in surrounding unwanted frequencies being picked up.
XLR cables work great…
On a side note, standard XLR cables are known to work great in regard to creating a very clear sound that doesn’t have unwanted outside noise. This is the key reason why so many people swear by XLR cables when it comes to rigging live shows, pro studio sessions, home recordings, and studio soundtracks.
The main reason for the deficiency in sound when using XLR to USB cables is the USB section. Processing electrical signals and then converting them to digital formats at the USB end is the main cause for the reduction in audio quality, but as I said above, in real terms, it’s still minimal.
Do XLR to USB Cables Work? – Can You Get Phantom Power with XLR to USB?
A lot of people who own condenser mics ask me if they can get phantom power with an XLR to USB cable to power their mics. The answer is that an XLR to USB cable does not have phantom power, so, therefore, it cannot power a condenser mic per se. But they do support phantom power transmission, so there are a couple of ways around it.
The cables can essentially carry phantom power to your condenser microphone if connected to a device that has phantom power.
Condenser mics are very different from dynamic mics because they need phantom power of around 48V to function. If you try to use your condenser microphones without phantom power, they simply won’t work, as you have probably found out. This is why you find built-in phantom power sources on audio interfaces and mixing consoles so they can power condenser mics.
XLR to USB only works with dynamic mics…
There is no phantom power built into XLR to USB cables, so you can only use them in tandem with dynamic mics that do not need extra power. I cannot stress enough that these cables won’t work with condenser microphones. But don’t worry because if you keep reading below, I will give you some tips on how you can find ways to power your condenser mic.
Best Cables for XLR to USB Connections
There are a number of XLR to USB cable types and configurations that make it easy to plug in your XLR mic and record on your computer. However, you will have to circumnavigate the potential banana skin of poor-quality cables, and I will help you with that.
Reduced audio quality when converting formats using XLR to USB can be a concern, but the better your cable choice, the less impact this will have on your overall sound. The type and quality of XLR to USB cable you choose is super-important. The better the cable quality, the better the sound quality will be, with the cheapest cables producing the poorest sound quality.
Maintaining a proper electrical signal throughout the cable is essential for good audio. So, here are some of the best XLR to USB cables you can buy to ensure excellent audio quality.
Choosing the best quality XLR to USB cable
The first XLR to USB cable I would recommend is this Hosongin XLR to USB cable, which is probably the best XLR to USB you can buy online. It uses the best quality components and wire quality with heavy-duty alloy metal connectors that are solid and durable. This all helps in the high-quality conversion levels and also optimizes the conversion of electronic signals between the XLR and USB connections. It comes equipped with a USB male connector and an XLR female mic connector cord that makes it perfect for recording at home.
The next highly recommended XLR to USB cable is this Comica Audio XLR to USB Type-C cable on Amazon. However, the main difference between this cable and the Hosongin option is the Comica cable has a Type-C connection on one end, and on the other end is a female XLR connector. This type of cable was purposely designed to be used in tandem with a dynamic mic or a battery-powered one. This means you can use it to record the mic on your PC or any other Android device or even with MacBook Pro models.
How Can I Get Phantom Power to XLR Condenser Mics?
As I mentioned earlier, there are a few fixes to get phantom power to your XLR condenser mic. However, we have to understand the differences between an XLR condenser mic and a USB condenser mic. You will need 48V of phantom power to use your XLR condenser mic, but USB mics are designed differently and do not need much phantom power to function. USB condenser mics draw a small amount of voltage directly from the USB connection.
Because you need 48V external power for your XLR condenser mic to work, using an XLR to USB cable alone simply won’t work. The way around this is by using an audio device like a mixing console that has phantom power as well as an option for USB. But if you have one of those, you wouldn’t need an XLR to USB cable in the first place.
However, there are a few ways to get phantom power into your XLR condenser microphone.
Using XLR to USB Adaptors…
When you need to directly record from your condenser mic to your computer AND need phantom power, you could use an XLR to USB adaptor. This type of adaptor has phantom power, so you can record from your XLR condenser mic directly on your PC via the USB port.
These adaptors are fantastic and can convert analog signals from XLR devices like instruments and microphones and then turn them into digital signals that computers can understand. They work perfectly in tandem with condenser mics by simply connecting them to your computer’s USB port and then starting recording.
Such as using a Shure X2U XLR to USB Adapter…
A superb option for getting phantom power for your XLR condenser mic is by using this Shure X2U XLR to USB Adaptor. It literally is the number one choice if you want to buy the best XLR to USB adapter. It makes up the middle ground between a full-scale audio interface and a simple converter cable. This adaptor basically encases an XLR to USB cable inside. And the best part is that it comes equipped with a built-in switch for 48V phantom power.
It even has a preamp button with a gain knob, which is very different from the fixed gain option you usually find on XLR to USB cables. With this simple adaptor, you can boost the signal level of your mic to your preferred setting. There’s also a monitor mix control feature that lets you use the computer to mix your audio playback.
This is a solid yet portable and compact adapter that is reliable and durable that also has volume control via a headphone jack part. But as you would expect, it is a lot more expensive than a simple XLR to USB cable.
Using USB Audio Mixers
If you feel like spending a lot more than the cost of a basic XLR to USB cable, you could use a USB audio mixer that allows you to play audio and record it directly onto your computer via one or more USB ports. This device converts the analog audio signals during your mixing process into digital signals so your computer can understand. The functionality is very similar to a mixing board as it offers phantom power and more than enough voltage to power your condenser mic.
It’s also possible to use it to mix a number of audio sources at once, add effects to them, or even equalize and pan them depending on the mixer’s complexity. This allows you lots of control over your sound and mixes, all while simultaneously being able to power a USB mic. You can conveniently use a USB mixer to connect your computer with an XLR microphone.
The easiest way to get this up and running would be to simply plug the USB mixer into your computer via the USB port and then connect your condenser mic by XLR cables to your mixer.
Using an Audio Interface
Last but not least, and cheaper than buying a mixer, but still a lot more than a simple cable, you could buy an audio interface. They come in many shapes and sizes and a number of formats. But they are usually a rectangular box that is small and compact and designed to convert analog audio formats into digital formats that your computer can understand.
The vast majority of audio interfaces are compatible with all types of microphone, and usually have selectable switchable phantom power that can be used when needed to power your condenser mics. You can connect the audio interface via a USB cable to your PC or Mac. Alternatively, there may be some kind of firewire or Thunderbolt port that makes it easy to connect from your interface to your computer.
As well as a whole host of other great features, they also usually route audio to your studio monitor speakers or headphones.
In most cases, your audio interface will need to be plugged into an external power supply.
Do you think an Audio Interface may be a better option?
You might also be interested in our reviews of the Best USB Microphones, the Best Computer Microphones, the Best Vocal Mics, the Best iOS mics, the Best Dynamic Microphones, the Best Microphones for Youtube, or the Best Microphones for Recording Electric Guitar on the market.
Or, if you really want to raise your recording game to another level and have phantom power available, take a look at our reviews of the Best Microphone Preamps currently available.
Do XLR to USB Cables Work? And Should I Buy One?
Yes, they do, and yes, you should! If you want to hook up a dynamic mic so you can record it on your computer, XLR to USB cables are the perfect and cost-effective choice. They are a cheap and quick way to get the job done, and although you will reduce audio quality slightly, if you buy a good quality XLR to USB cable, the reduction in quality is almost unnoticeable.
But if you are using a condenser mic that needs phantom power, you will have to look at the other alternatives, such as an audio interface or an XLR to USB adapter.
XLR to USB cables work fantastically well with dynamic microphones allowing you to record your voice or musical instrument on your PC in a matter of minutes for minimal financial outlay. All in all, XLR to USB cables have revolutionized home recording and podcasting, and I think they will only improve in quality with time.
Happy recording on a budget!