USB microphones compared

Recording with a high-quality microphone and a computer has traditionally been a messy process involving a mixer or external adapter, and possibly an external pre-amp. Blue Microphones’ Snowball USB Microphone and Samson Audio’s C01U USB Studio Condenser Mic are unique, mono condenser microphones that make computer recording simple by connecting via USB. Plug one into your Mac’s USB port, and your computer will automatically recognize it as a new input device; the USB port provides all the power these microphones need, and no device drivers are necessary. These features make USB microphones ideal for computer-based music recording and podcasting.

You adjust each microphone’s levels in the Sound pane of OS X’s System Preferences or by using the settings in your recording application, such as GarageBand (   ). However, because these microphones are USB-only, you can’t connect them to an analog mixing board, you can’t use traditional microphone cables, and cable length is limited.

The globe-shaped, retro-looking Snowball microphone uses a dual-capsule design that lets you switch between cardioid (directional) and omnidirectional modes. The former is useful for single-person or single-instrument recording, as it picks up sound directly in front of the microphone; the latter is better for recording multiple voices or instruments positioned at any location around the microphone. In my testing, the Snowball’s omnidirectional mode still favored sound sources in front of the microphone, but it picked up enough audio from behind to make the Snowball useful for conducting podcast interviews or for other situations where sources are positioned on opposite sides of the microphone. There’s also a special cardioid mode—called PAD by Blue—that reduces the Snowball’s output when recording loud sources.

The Snowball’s overall frequency response is fairly smooth; however, I found the microphone’s tonal balance to be a bit bright (tipped slightly toward the higher frequencies), thanks to reduced pickup at the low end. The Snowball’s overall output levels were also fairly low. However, Blue recently posted two firmware updates that allow you to adjust the Snowball’s output to higher or lower levels; you can use these updaters to switch between the low- and high-output settings—repeatedly, if necessary. (One of the advantages of a USB microphone is the ability to easily update firmware.) The Snowball’s output is permanently set to 44.1kHz, 16-bit; and Blue provides no software for customizing output.

A six-foot USB cable is included with the Snowball, along with a sturdy, telescoping mini-tripod that allows you to rotate, tilt, and raise the Snowball to optimize the recording position. (The Snowball is also available without stand and USB cable.)

Samson’s C01U, based on the company’s non-USB C01 microphone, uses a 19mm cardioid diaphragm with a single recording mode. (Samson calls the C01U a hyper-cardioid model, meaning that it is designed to reject even more audio from the sides and rear than a typical cardioid.) Although this makes the C01U less flexible than the multi-mode Snowball, the Samson’s output sounded a bit more balanced than that of the Snowball—the C01U picked up lower frequencies better—and its default output level was significantly higher. The C01U provides 16-bit audio at sample rates of 8, 11.025, 22.05, 44.1, and 48 kHz, as determined by the recording application. In addition, you can use Samson’s SoftPre utility, downloadable from the company’s Web site, to monitor input level (via a VU meter) and to adjust the microphone’s gain, invert phase, and enable a high-pass/low-cut filter; the latter can omit all audio below the frequency you choose. These options can significantly improve the quality of your recordings. Unfortunately, at this writing, SoftPre is not a Universal Binary; more important, since SoftPre requires a kernel extension, it can’t run under Rosetta, so the options provided by SoftPre are unavailable on Intel Macs.

Included with the C01U is a 10-foot USB cable, a thin-fabric carrying pouch, and a plastic stand mount; unless you plan on holding the C01U during use, you’ll need to spring for a stand.

Both the hard-plastic Snowball and the die-cast-metal C01U are likely to stand up to the rigors of travel and long-term use; unfortunately, both are also bulky and heavy—the Snowball is nearly two pounds with the stand, and the C01U is approximately 1.2 pounds without a stand—making them less than ideal for carrying in a laptop bag.

Macworld’s buying advice

For people who are serious about podcasting, or are looking for a way to record vocals or instruments with their Macs, these USB microphones are worth a look. Neither provides studio-quality results—you’ll need a mixer and a higher-end microphone for that—but their convenience and ease of use make them ideal for computer-based recording. The Blue Snowball’s dual-capsule design and included stand make it a good choice for recording multiple-source audio, with the option for single-source; the Samson C01U’s hyper-directional approach makes it a better option for capturing a single voice or instrument. The C01U’s more balanced frequency response and included software also produce recordings of slightly better quality.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The first Snowball review unit we received exhibited problems; a later unit worked as advertised.

[ Dan Frakes is a Macworld senior editor and the senior reviews editor at Playlist.]

Blue SnowballSamson C01U
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