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USB Audio Interface Shootout and Review

Saturday, July 4th, 2009 | by


Four USB Mic PresSeveral inexpensive USB audio interfaces have hit the market in the past year. They cost between $50 and $150, and offer a single channel mic preamp for use in small-scale portable recording and podcasting. They provide a low-cost, easy way to begin home recording — a single mic and cable together with one of these USB preamps can be purchased for well under $300 and can provide a new recordist with sufficient tools to track guitar, bass, and vocals at home.

None of these will replace a multi-channel DAW — but they’re not intended to. These are great for web audio (e.g. via Skype or iChat), for mobile or field use (e.g. where AC power for your high-end rackmount preamps is unavailable), and for low-budget, one- or two-track home recording.

I sense the curling upper lip of your inner DAW snob. How can these little all-on-one, bus-powered mic pre/ADC devices possibly sound good? I decided to find out.

The Contenders

Four USB Mic PresMy research led me to four USB mic pre’s that share a basic form factor: cylindrical, about 5'' long and 3/4'' in diameter. Certainly there are other USB interfaces to try, like the ART USB tube pre, but I liked the idea of limiting the test to devices that shared whatever functional limitations might result from this small size.

From left to right in the picture, I tested the MXL Mic Mate, the Blue Icicle, the Shure X2U, and the CEntrance MicPort Pro.

Initial Impressions

USB Mic PresIt’s clear even from the packaging that the Shure and CEntrance devices are intended for a higher-end market. Simply put, both ship in boxes. The Blue and MXL devices ship in plastic blister packs, the sort that inevitably cut you back when you cut them open. I hate those things.

In the hand, as in the box, the Shure and CEntrance units are the most impressive of the lot. It’s all about the mass. Woz and Jobs understood this when they loaded one of the early Apple computer models with weights so the computer would feel more substantial.

Shure X2UAll the weight may well be in the casing, but the X2U definitely feels solid. It’s heavy, in fact. The case is metal, with two slots for a carry strap. Three thumbwheels on the face of the device control mic gain, headphone volume, and mix ratio. A microswitch enables phantom power, which can be left on between sessions by leaving the switch engaged. Three LEDs indicate USB connectivity, phantom power, and audio signal strength.

The controls on the X2U are smooth and certain. The build quality is second to none. The X2U looks and feels like a professional audio device that will last a long time. It would not be out of place in a professional broadcast rig or recording studio.

CEntrance MicPort ProIn terms of initial impressions, the MicPort Pro runs a close second place to the Shure. It’s a lighter-weight device, but still feels solid. Two rotary knobs on the side control preamp gain and headphone volume. A button on the bottom of the unit toggles phantom power, which is indicated by a small LED.

I found the placement of the headphone jack and P48 button (and LED) on the MicPort Pro awkward. They’re on the bottom end of the cylinder; their placement invariably required me to pick up the interface up to access them. I wish these had been put on the shaft, where the other controls are.

The MXL Mic Mate is a simpler device. It is a plain cast-aluminum cylinder with a USB jack at one end and an XLR jack at the other. Midway along the barrel is a 3-position switch marked “HI MED LO,” for mic gain. Next to the switch is a red LED to indicate USB connectivity. It all feels solid enough but somehow reminds me of inexpensive imported microphones. Of course, many inexpensive imported microphones do a great job for the money. We’ll see if the same thing is true of the Mic Mate.

Blue Microphones IcicleBased on this initial inspection, I was least impressed with the Blue Icicle. It is both the longest and fattest of the four interfaces in this test, but the lightest weight. At 45g, it feels insubstantial. More critically, the casing feels very thin, and it sounds hollow when I tap it. I think I could crush it or bend it in two without too much effort. Put another way, you wouldn’t want to inadvertently step on this thing. Don’t let this end up on the studio floor with the cables.

The Icicle has a single control — a rotary gain knob located on the shaft of the device. The embossed “Icicle” logo, and a ring around the gain knob light up to indicate USB power. I’m aware of Blue’s predilection for whimsical design, but my impression of the Icicle is that it’s a toy.

Needless to say, the sound isn’t in the design or the housing. It was time to fire them up.

Test Setup

I tested all four interfaces in three basic applications: IP telephony (Skype), voice recording and instrument recording. For the recording tests, I used a freeware audio application called Audacity. Apple’s GarageBand would also work.

K35For voice tests, I first used a Karma K35 — a large-diaphragm FET condenser, set to Cardioid. This is a basic imported condenser mic with a K67-style capsule and a street price of about $170. I put the mic in a makeshift 2'x2'x2' isolation chamber to reduce some of the ambient noise, and maintained a uniform distance of about 20'' when recording the samples.

SM57Then I repeated the VO test with a Shure SM57, using a smaller “booth” (about 10'' wide by 15'' tall) and a closer working distance, about 8''. The SM58 is a more-traditional choice for vocal applications, because the built-in foam windscreen reduces popping, but otherwise the two mics are the same — and the 57 sounded pretty good here.

STO-2For the instrument tests, I used an Avenson STO-2 omnidirectional condenser, set up about six inches from the body of a hammer dulcimer. I played several takes of the same chord progression with each USB interface, matching gain levels as closely as I could.

CHII repeated the test with a 3 Zigma CHI condenser, although with the small-diaphragm capsule rather than the lollipop head pictured here. The CHI is the quietest mic I have; its self-noise rating is just 7dBA. (See our 3-Zigma CHI microphone review.)

For the STO-2 dulcimer test, I recorded the same passage into my DAW, a Black Lion modded Digi 002R.

All the above samples were recorded at 16 bits, 44.1 kHz, even though the MicPort Pro can run at 24/96.

Gain

Proper gain staging is critical for any sort of recording. Too little signal is far preferable to a signal that clips, but clearly the results are improved if the levels are sane.

MXL Mic MateThe MXL Mic Mate proved frustrating because its output level is so low for quiet sources. Even with the gain switched to the “HI” position, this device’s output level was consistently and significantly lower than all of the other interfaces during my VO tests. I tried it with multiple microphones, both condensers and dynamics, to see if there might be some sort of issue with phantom power or impedance. But in every voice test, the Mic Mate produced the lowest-level signal.

The other three interfaces in this test include published gain specifications. All three show a max level of +40dB. I expected their output levels to therefore be equal (at max gain), but this was not the case.

STO-2 measuring noiseTo get a handle on the issue, I plugged a pink noise generator into my stereo at a fixed volume, placed a mic in front of the speaker cone at a fixed distance, and recorded a sample of the noise with each of the USB audio interfaces. In each case I set the USB interface to its max gain setting. I then measured the audio level of each sample.

Blue
Icicle
CEntrance
MicPort Pro
MXL
Mic Mate
Shure
X2U
Sample Gain -2dB -3.5dB -24.2dB -10.7dB

The levels are arbitrary, as was the volume of the noise generator. But we can compare the levels — and the disparity is enormous. A change of 10dB is generally perceived to be twice as loud. Therefore the Icicle, at -2dB, produces a signal more than four times louder than the Mic Mate (-24dB).

OS X Sound pref pane for Blue IcicleThe Icicle is unique among these devices for offering a digital gain control within its driver software. Under OS X, in the Sound preference pane, the input level of the device can be adjusted. This feature can be used in conjunction with the analog gain knob on the Icicle to produce an appropriate signal level without overdriving any of the components in the signal path.

Curiously, the Mic Mate later gave me a different sort of gain problem. Plugged into an omni condenser set up as a mono overhead above my drum kit, the Mic Mate’s signal was too hot. Even on the “LO” setting, the preamp electronics clipped. In contrast, all of the other three USB interfaces, dialed down to a relatively low gain setting, produced a perfectly usable track. I think the problem is that the 3-way gain control on the Mic Mate is just too coarse; it doesn’t offer a sufficient range of settings to accommodate either quiet or loud sources. So, if you intend to use the Mic Mate for loud sources, you may well need an inline pad to bring the mic’s output level down so as to avoid clipping the Mic Mate’s amplifier circuit or ADC.

Telephony Test

I used the “Skype Test Call” service to record short samples of my voice with each of the four USB interfaces. They all sounded fine. Needless to say, this is a low-fi application, and all four interfaces passed the test easily.

The signal-level LED on the X2U came in handy in this application. Actually it came in handy in all applications.

Voice Tests

Karma K35

Following are four VO samples recorded with the Karma K35. If you listen to just the first half of each sample, you can test these “blind.” (I name each interface in the second half of the clip.)
Audio Sample
Audio Sample
Audio Sample
Audio Sample

The Mic Mate signal was about 20dB lower than the rest. After I’d normalized them all to equivalent levels (-8dB), the noise level in the Mic Mate sample was audibly higher than in the other three files.

I think the other three samples sound great. The MicPort Pro has the least noise, but the difference is subtle. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to pick a winner from these three.

Shure SM57

Shure SM57 in Isolation Chamber
SM57 through Blue Icicle
SM57 through Shure X2U
SM57 through Micport Pro
SM57 through MXL Mic Mate

My results using an SM57 were very similar to the above — the signal of the Mic Mate was lower, and after normalization the noise level in that clip was audibly higher, to the point where the audio would not be usable for any sort of recording. Also, unless I’m being misled by the noise level, the vocal sound has less meat than it does with the other interfaces. The sound of this interface seems thin.

The other three are similar, but after repeated listens I developed a slight preference for the Shure X2U. The noise level is a bit higher than on the MicPort Pro, but the vocal sound is richer.

The MicPort Pro sounds great, though. It has the lowest noise of the lot, and the audio quality is excellent.

The Icicle takes 3rd place in this test. Its noise level works against it, but more than that it seems to break up a bit on the ‘S’ sounds. The esses sound a little bit like eshes to me.

Instrument Tests

I first recorded the hammer dulcimer with an Avenson STO-2. But I matched all the gain levels to the Mic Mate, ending up with levels that were far too low for a 16-bit recording.

Compounding the low signal level problem was the self-noise of the STO-2, which is relatively high at 28 dBA. These are beautiful microphones, and in fact are my favorites for recording the hammer dulcimer. But the resulting tracks all sounded pretty poor.

CHI SDC over dulcimerSo, I recorded all the tracks again, swapping in a mic with much less self-noise, the 3 Zigma CHI (7dBA). And I used better gain staging (except on the Mic Mate, which doesn’t have sufficient control.) Note: if you want to listen to these blind, close your eyes before the player widget fully expands, as the interface in each clip is named in the title.
Digidesign 002 Rack
Blue Icicle
MXL Mic Mate
Micport Pro
Shure X2U

The Mic Mate stands out as the noisiest again — listen to the last few notes fade away, and the hash is apparent. Also, I hear less of the impact of the hammers on the strings, as if the transient response is somehow a little bit off.

In a blind test I could also identify the Icicle, due to its noise level.

The X2U, MicPort Pro, and 002R tracks all sound really good. I think the X2U track might have a tiny bit more noise, but in the context of a mix it would be negligible. In fact, within a mix I doubt anyone could distinguish among these three tracks.

(If you want to hear the original 16-bit WAVs, download them here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

In Use

The Shure X2U wins the prize for best interface design. They thought through the details: the controls are all front and center while the interface is laying on a table. The +48 button is an actual switch, not just an electronic toggle button. There’s a 3-color LED to indicate signal/peak/clip, and the manual documents the sound pressure levels that correspond to each color.

Good interfaces give feedback. It’s as simple as that. Kudos to Shure for implementing this feedback mechanism into the X2U.

None of the other interfaces had any sort of level or clip indicator. It’s possible to open the Sound preference pane (for OS X users) to see input levels there, but in practice this is awkward because the screen is likely to be filled with whatever audio software is in use. Moreover, it’s not usually desirable to have the laptop close enough to the instrument that the player can see it, because the microphone would pick up the sound of the computer fan.

The X2U and MicPort Pro are designed to lay on a table without rolling around. For my purposes, this seems like a good thing. The X2U gets the nod here again because it’s both squatter and heavier, making it more stable.

That said, if you’re plugging the interface directly into the mic, with no XLR cable, then you might well prefer the lightweight Icicle, which would put much less strain on your mic’s XLR jack as it hangs in space behind the microphone.

Characteristics

Blue
Icicle
CEntrance
MicPort Pro
MXL
Mic Mate
Shure
X2U
Blue Icicle CEntrance MicPort Pro MXL Mic Mate Shure X2U
Physical Specifications
Length 149mm 114mm 144mm 127mm
Diameter 25mm 24mm 21mm 29mm
Weight 45g 75g 100g 175g
USB Jack Mini-B, Female Mini-B, Female Type B, Female Type B, Female
Cable Length 1.8m 1.8m none 3m
Headphone Jack none 1/8'' none 1/8''
Usability
Plug-and-play Yes Yes Yes Yes
Stereo capable1
(using 2 interfaces)
probably Yes probably probably
Compatibility
Mac OS X 10.5.7 yes yes yes yes
Skype 2.7 yes yes yes yes
Audacity 1.2.5 yes yes yes yes
GarageBand 4.1.2 yes yes yes yes
Digital I/O
Bit Depth 16 24 16 16
Resolution (kHz) 8, 11.025, 22.05, 44.1, 48 44.1, 48, 96 8, 11.025, 16, 22.05, 32, 44.1, 48 8, 11.025, 16, 22.05, 32, 44.1, 48
Controls
Gain Control Rotary Rotary 3-way switch Thumbwheel
Phase Control no no no no
Headphone Volume n/a Rotary n/a Thumbwheel
Monitor Mix n/a n/a n/a Thumbwheel
Audio Specifications
Max Gain (dB) +40 +40 n/a +40
Frequency Resp 20Hz – 20kHz 20Hz – 20kHz n/a 20Hz – 20kHz
F.R. Deviation ±1.5dB ±1.5dB n/a ±1dB
Phantom Power
Power (VDC)2 44 48 48 52
Switched? Automatic Yes No Yes
Indicators
Power/USB White White Red Green
Signal/Clip none none none Green/Yellow/Red
Phantom Blue Orange none Blue
Etc
Made in China China China3 unknown
Warranty 3 years 1 year 2 years
Street Price $50-$60 $149 $45-$70 $129
Where to Buy (affiliate links; prices subject to change)
Blue
Icicle
CEntrance
MicPort Pro
MXL
Mic Mate
Shure
X2U
Blue Icicle CEntrance MicPort Pro MXL Mic Mate Shure X2U
Amazon.com $38.69 $140 $42.89 $199
(X2U + SM57)
Zzzounds.com $59.95 $129
Musician’s Friend $59.99 $149.95 $39.99 $99

Notes:

  1. CEntrance has a nifty driver that aggregates multiple MicPort Pro devices into a single stereo input. This is a clever solution. OS X can do the same thing natively, and in my tests happily created a single stereo “aggregate” input comprised of a MicPort Pro and X2U, or an Icicle and Mic Mate. Not all applications support aggregate inputs, though; Audacity couldn’t record my hybrid input. But GarageBand worked fine. Here’s a video tutorial and demo of recording in stereo via USB.

  2. I measured phantom power in DC volts between pins 1 and 2 of the XLR jack. In the case of the Icicle, I couldn’t trigger its automatic phantom power switch, although it was generating 44V anyway. Presumably it generates a full 48V when the switch is triggered.

  3. Presumably.

Disclaimers

I have no affiliation with MXL, Shure, Blue, or CEntrance, and received no compensation from any of these companies for including their products in the review. I acquired the four devices reviewed here via retail channels.

The Verdict

Update, December 2012

The world of 24-bit USB audio has finally expanded to include numerous low-cost, high-quality portable preamp/interface devices. Read below for the original, state-of-the-art 2009 conclusions, or click through to our updated USB audio interface shootout, in which the Micport Pro makes a second appearance.

If you are shopping for the most compact interface available, stay on this page. If you’re shopping for a home studio solution, check out the newer review, which includes primarily two-channel desktop devices. They’re small, but not this small.

CEntrance MicPort ProLet’s get the obvious part out of the way first: The MicPort Pro is the only 24-bit ADC in this test. The other devices will only produce, at best, 16-bit audio at 48 kHz. Therefore, if you need 24-bit audio, or 96kHz audio, the CEntrance MicPort Pro is the only solution. At least until the next generation of competitive USB interfaces hits the market (prediction: 3 monthsUpdate 2011-03-13: I wildly overestimated the manufacturers’ willingness or ability to create 24-bit USB audio devices. There are a few 24-bit USB microphones but the format is not ubiquitous as I expected.).

The MicPort Pro is the most expensive USB interface in this test, but compared to high-end mic pre’s, it’s a bargain at $150/channel. It’s small, portable, reasonably well laid-out, and it sounds as good as my Pro Tools rig. You won’t go wrong with the MicPort Pro.

Shure X2UThe Shure X2U is my personal favorite USB interface. It wins the usability analysis by a large margin. It has a mix-ratio control, useful for blending prerecorded with live tracks while recording. It costs less than the MicPort Pro. And it creates pristine tracks. For 16-bit audio, the X2U is a winner.

Blue’s Icicle is worth considering too. It is inexpensive, at $50-$60 street. It’s a little noisier than the higher-priced interfaces, but packs a metric ton of gain into its amplifier. For ambient or distant miking, the Icicle wouldn’t be my first choice due to its noise level, but for close-miked instruments I think its sound quality is hard to distinguish from the others. And its lightweight build could be an advantage in some situations.

The MXL Mic Mate came up short in this test. I can’t recommend it; for a couple dollars more, the Icicle has more gain, better gain control, switched phantom power, and it comes with a USB cable. (See also MXL’s Mic Mate Pro, which has a headphone jack and a rotary gain control.)

In my experience, hearing differences in preamps and converters is a lot harder than hearing differences in microphones. So it’s not a surprise to me that the major distinguishing factor among these four devices is the noise level. That said, having the X2U and MicPort Pro capture a mono track of the hammer dulcimer that is virtually indistinguishable from my upgraded 002R is pretty amazing.

USB Shootout WreckageThis test took over my living room — mics, stands, and cables everywhere. Check out the wreckage. Yes, it’s a good thing the family is out of town.

What’s on your mind? The comments are open.

See also our Editors’ Choice listing of top voiceover/podcasting gear.

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Posted in DAW, Reviews, Shootouts | 76 Comments »




76 Responses to “USB Audio Interface Shootout and Review”

  1. KY

    July 12th, 2009 at 1:41 am

    Excellent review. Thanks for all the troubles!

  2. Jon O'Neil

    July 14th, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Matt, other than the Centrance, all these devices likely use TI’s PCM29xx range of ICs. It’s a very clever product that is easy to design around, so the digital performance of those three should be roughly the same.

    The variables will be the +48V DC converter circuit and the analog buffer/gain stage in front of the A/D chip. As you showed, the noise performance and gain control of the analog side is critical for feeding the relatively noisy digital circuit a hot enough signal to maximize dynamic range.

  3. HappyBob

    July 20th, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    Just a quick but very sincere “thank you” for going to the trouble to provide this very useful guide. Consider it thoroughly appreciated.

  4. Ted Kim

    August 19th, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Very good review. I saw this review just right after I confirmed buying blue icicle at amazon.com. I was going to return icicle after seeing this review, but icicle is way better than i expected. micport and x2u must be really good… since icicle does everything i want.. i am not sure if i want to spend 100 more bucks for micport or x2u for direct monitoring and really less noise.

  5. Roberto

    August 25th, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    My compliments for the amazing review, very very helpful ! Thanks a lot from Italy…

  6. Lawrence Wu

    September 2nd, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Thanks for all of your hard work in putting together this very high quality review!

  7. Andrew

    September 2nd, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    After reading this review, I did more searching and discovered the OSP USB-16A “USB Microphone Adapter w/ Phantom Power”.

    It appears that it’s only offered by one reseller Sigler Music (the manufacturer?), which has a website store, as well as an eBay store.

    I decided to get one, since it’s only $34.72 after shipping! If it performs near as well as CEntrance MicPort Pro (which it looks similar to), it’s WELL worth the $.

    Their eBay customers are happy with the product:

    Product Page:
    http://tinyurl.com/mdj4kd

    [additional URLs deleted by the editor]

    Maybe you could grab one of these and update your review?

    Thanx for this painstakingly detailed & practical review!

    ~Andrew

  8. matthew mcglynn

    September 3rd, 2009 at 8:31 am

    Andrew, the Sigler unit won’t perform as well as the MicPort Pro, because it is a 16-bit device. As Jon O’Neil pointed out, it most likely shares the same ADC/DAC chipset as the other lower-end units. Let me know how it works out for you, especially with respect to self-noise.

  9. USB Audio Interface Shootout and Review — Echoes - Insight for Independent Artists

    September 21st, 2009 at 9:34 am

    [...] In the market for a portable audio recorder? Matthew McGlynn from Recording Hacks magazine performed a comprehensive review of 4 affordable USB audio interfaces. [...]

  10. Barbara Ann Cooper

    October 4th, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    I LOVED this review article! I was confused, doing research into USB mic adaptors, and stumbled across this while Googling. It was extremely helpful, and very well put together.

    Matthew’s helpful email replies about the Shure X2U convinced me it was the ‘right mic for the job’, and I bought one. Sounds great so far, haven’t really had a chance to use it yet.

    This is the only source I found, that was this helpful in comparing the 4 popular USB mic interfaces. Very glad I found it.

    Thanks for all the hard work, time and knowledge that went into a voluntary effort that benefits so many people!

    And thanks for reassuring me that buying the Shure X2U was the right thing for me. I am just learning digital media applications on the Mac, learning a new Yamaha digital piano (with a lot of electronics inside), and new to doing my own home recording (when I can get to it!).

    So this was extremely helpful, and I feel very confident that spending the extra money for the high quality of the Shure X2U was the right decision for my potential home recording needs.

    I especially love the idea of a high quality USB adaptor, as I still have a pretty good quality Radio Shack Dynamic mic from when I was a vocalist in a Country/Oldies band, that has surprisingly good sound. I much prefer the idea of combining a quality adaptor to a tried and true quality analogue mic, than spending at least $200 for a pure USB mic that may not be as good.

    And your review helped substantially to help me do that. Why waste a perfectly good quality analogue mic just sitting in a drawer, when you can combine it with a high quality USB adaptor?

    Barbara Ann Cooper (San Diego, CA)

  11. RobShaver

    October 7th, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Great review, Matt. One thing I was not clear on was the headphone monitoring capabilities you mention for the two interfaces that had it. Is this directly from the mic or is it digital back from the computer? Another way to say it is can I hear audio from the computer as in a Skype call or a track playback while recording, or will I need something else for the audio output?

    Again, thanks for your excellent work on this review.

    Peace,

    Rob:-]

  12. matthew mcglynn

    October 7th, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Rob, the headphone jack on the X2U gives you both — a zero-latency signal from the mic, mixed with the digital audio coming from the computer. There’s a “mix ratio” wheel you can use to adjust relative volumes.

    The MicPort Pro is the same, but there’s no “mix” control. I guess you could use your recording software to adjust the volume of the playback tracks up or down though, which more or less does the same thing.

  13. krikorik

    October 16th, 2009 at 5:20 am

    Very nice comparison job. I’m trying to get one of this to record acoustic piano. In the review there are no sound samples with the frequency range capability of the piano. If you test wider frequency ranges, would it change the results?

  14. matthew mcglynn

    October 16th, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Krikorik, I imagine a piano would stress the lesser units, but I don’t expect it would change the results. The pre’s that sounded nice on the sources I tried will very likely still sound nice on a piano.

  15. Mark

    October 19th, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Excellent review, your effort is very much appreciated and will be helpful to many.

  16. Jonathan

    November 11th, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Great review! Thanks for taking the time. I am also considering the Guitar Rig Session and the Apogee One, which may both be considered in a different category. Worth looking at nonetheless.
    What kind of Hammered Dulcimer is that?
    JC
    P.S Great looking living room!

  17. Stephen

    November 24th, 2009 at 8:08 am

    Well, I just found this fantastic review after buying two Blue Icicles for stereo recording. Of all the reviews I’ve read, this was the only one that had actual samples I could listen to. Thanks for that.

    Luckily, the Icicle has come down to a price of about $37 at bhphotovideo.com and elsewhere, so I won’t feel bad about the re-gifting I’ll be doing this Christmas.

    Like you, I was impressed with the Shure.

    As for using two USB Microphones at once, after reading everywhere that it couldn’t be done, I found that a combination of the free asio4all asio driver plus the (almost free) Reaper DAW software (two mono tracks) had it working pretty well.

    Thanks again for the review.

  18. matthew mcglynn

    November 24th, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Stephen, I’m glad this was helpful. Your stereo-USB recording challenge must be Windows-specific. On the Mac, the OS does it natively: http://hac.kz/1/288

  19. payday monsanto

    December 6th, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Thank you SOO MUCH for this review. Happily, I had just purchased the Shure X2u and am very pleased with all its features. I had an icicle that just STOPPED WORKING and it ws a blessing in disguise as the Shure is so much better.

  20. Brian G

    January 21st, 2010 at 9:06 am

    i Got The Shure X2U PUSHING A RODE NT 1A mounted on an se reflexion filter going into ableton live 8

    I love it sounds great

    best i’ve used for vocals was a neumann u87 into an avalon 737 into pro tools so I have a great a/b comparison source
    the shure is great

    nice having the gain/mix control right in front of you at the mic too

  21. Shure X2u (XLR to USB Mic adapter) - homerecording.be forum

    January 30th, 2010 at 2:46 am

    [...] Shure X2u (XLR to USB Mic adapter) Volgens deze test zou het ding de moeite waard zijn. Gek genoeg kost het ding ongeveer 130 Euro terwijl je voor een [...]

  22. Steven Servis

    February 5th, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    This is a good review. I just bought the Mic Mate for around $40, and I found this review as I was searching for a solution to its low volume level. After reading this, I kind of wish I would have gotten the Icicle. However, I will make do with it. I haven’t noticed any noise yet. The low gain is a pain in the butt. Anyone know of any software to fix this problem?

  23. Francisco Santa Maria

    February 18th, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Great review! Very helpful!!!

  24. Heavy

    February 22nd, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    “All the weight may well be in the casing, but the X2U definitely feels solid. It’s heavy, in fact.”

    “It’s a lighter-weight device, but still feels solid.”

    “The X2U gets the nod here again because it’s both squatter and heavier, making it more stable.”

    That’s it. From now on, I’m making all my audio products out of depleted uranium. Think how good the reviews will be! The electronics will be complete crap, but all my customers will be totally impressed by how “solid” they feel.

  25. matthew mcglynn

    February 22nd, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    I think the physical characteristics of a product are a legitimate review issue. The Icicle, for example, seemed vulnerable to being squashed. The weight and build quality suggest the length of time a product might last.

    It is certainly possible that vendors of some products might disguise inferior circuitry with heavy-weight cases, as you imply, but to suggest that buyers will all be “totally impressed” is fallacious.

    In short, I appreciate the sarcasm, but reject the criticism it implies.

  26. Steve

    February 26th, 2010 at 12:12 am

    I just purchased the X2U and found right away that input level adjustments within both Sound Studio and Garage Band are disabled. Am I limited to the gain wheel on the adapter for all input adjustments, or am I doing something wrong?

    Running an Intel based iMac.

    Thanks!
    Steve

  27. matthew mcglynn

    February 26th, 2010 at 9:14 am

    Steve – yes, in my testing, only the Icicle allowed software gain control. If you need more gain, you have a couple options: (1) the Centrance MicPort Pro has a hotter output, by about 7dB; see the analyis in my review above. (2) For dynamic mics, including ribbons, the Cloudlifter provides 20+ dB of very clean gain, and probably sounds better than the gain stages of any of these USB devices. See a full review here:
    http://hac.kz/1/332
    (3) For condensers or any mic that requires phantom power, the Cloudlifter won’t work, but the phantom version of the Triton Fethead will. (4) Or, use a mic with a hotter output. Check out the “sensitivity” specs in the mic database: http://hac.kz/2

  28. newfuturevintage

    February 26th, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Thanks for the reviews. And thanks for mentioning build quality / weight…I’m considering this for a mobile voice over rental package, and build quality / durability is a very serious consideration for me. Depleted Uranium aside :)

  29. Pat Gadget

    February 28th, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Hi, Thanks for the marvelous reviews,
    i will probably buy the Shure Model but i was searching also for a stand alone device like those in your review but that actually record without the help of a computer, a bit like the http://www.hhb.co.uk/flashmic/, but this device, it can only be use with there mic, did you see anything like that
    Thanks in advance
    Pat Gadget

  30. matthew mcglynn

    February 28th, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Pat, try the Zoom H2. It works well for ambient music recording. It works well for interviewing so long as the two people speaking are near to each other, and there is no ambient noise — specifically that means it’s not great in a loud convention environment, unless you plug in a pair of lapel mics for the interviewer and interviewee.

  31. william

    March 22nd, 2010 at 6:13 am

    hello Matthew.
    your review is excellent. my research indicated that the Shure unit was the one to buy; then i came across a slew of nasty reviews claiming massive amounts of hiss. i suspect that many people simply plug their mics into their laptop without considering the drivers being used. A quick pass through your recordings confirmed that the Shure will be added to my little portable studio ASAP. Love your style, man.
    And btw, your comments concerning materials, construction and durability are most relevent.
    nice music space!
    peace
    w

  32. John

    March 28th, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Thank you so much for this extremely helpful review. i was having a hard time deciding which one to purchase and your reviews helped me decide on the shure model. i’m VERY happy with it.

    and to “HEAVY”, I’m pretty sure making a product out of depleted uranium would wreak havoc on your profit function, not to mention George Dubya will probably declare war on your family and kill everyone in your neighborhood. so good luck with that.

  33. B-Dub

    April 6th, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Wish you could have included the MXL Mic Mate Pro version in the comparisons. While it adds more control features to line up better against the Shure and CEntrance offerings, I’d be concerned that the low output would still be a problem. Of course it still won’t achieve the sound quality of the CEntrance, still being limited to 16-bit/48kHz. MXL provides very scant deatil on specs.

    For me, I will probably sacrifice portability on the CEntrance to go with a larger interface with 2 or more channels and equal or better A/D/A at the high price point these currently sell at – maybe a Tracker Pre, for example, or go for something more versatile but still small and less than $100 like the Cakewalk UA-1G.

  34. John Basile

    April 10th, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    This is a really solid review. Thanks. I bought the MicPort before these other competitors were around. A friend just asked me why he couldn’t get away with one of the newer cheaper models and I had no good answer. This article did a great job of explaining the feature differences of the USB interfaces with which I was familiar and clearly pointed out why the MicPort Pro is significantly more expensive than the Icicle.

    Curious to know what you use to put the comparison charts on the page. It’s a very sharp presentation.

    John

  35. Klem Daniels

    April 13th, 2010 at 8:05 am

    Nice job with the testing and review. I have a question, I wear many hats one of which is a teacher of Voice Over/Acting. I set my students up with a home studio and am wondering if the Icicle would be a good starting point in replacing the mixer they currently voice through?

    I look forward to your thoughts or anyone else.

    Klem

  36. thomas

    April 16th, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Great Review!!!

  37. Jonathan R.

    May 21st, 2010 at 6:01 am

    Thank you for taking the time to write this! I have recently been researching all of these and this review has been a GREAT help. I’m definitely going with the X2U.

  38. Bruce Anderson

    May 21st, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Hi Matthew–My thanks for the research and review. I have been using a Neumann TLM49 through the Shure X2U into a laptop to record vo’s and sfx in the field for the television commercials I produce. The result has been simply outstanding as the Shure preamp is clear and strong. Again thanks for your time and effort — greatly appreciated.

    Best-

    Bruce

  39. KN

    May 23rd, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    Thanks for the thorough review!

  40. MC

    June 18th, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Great review Matthew!

    If you don’t mind me picking your brain, for the purposes for testing accurate measurement of audio response from loudspeakers, would still recommend the Shure over the CEntrance? (or are their other options that I should be considering?). Thanks in advance for your indulgence.

    MC

  41. Da Buddha

    June 23rd, 2010 at 7:32 am

    Awesome Awesome review!
    I’ve been looking into the Icicle mainly because of its low price point, but now you got me looking at the Shure. I’ll have to do more researching, but thanks for your review.

  42. C. Ortiz

    August 22nd, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Great reviews – thanks.

    Possibly a lame newbie question, but is it possible to also record plug-in and record guitar with any of these (or something similar)? I know Centrace also does AxePort, but for one of those and a MicPort, that’s over $300….

  43. D de Vries

    August 31st, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    I lost my MicPort Pro but really liked it a lot. I agree that the Phantom Power button on the end is awkward. The Shure design looks better in that regard. But I’m not I’m crazy about the thumbwheels on the Shure. The MicPort’s knobs are easier to visually reference for levels. You can’t see the levels on the thumbwheels. I got very used to that and I’m not sure I would like the Shure design for that feature. Not having the 24bit option is somewhat of an issure as well. Will the new model address that deficiency?

  44. MJ Ferruzza

    September 8th, 2010 at 7:58 am

    Thank you! Great in depth review. And as I have wavered on deciding… you pushed me over the fence and in the right direction!

  45. Spectacular Review

    October 8th, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    I have a fresh installation of Windows 7 64-bit ultimate, and I was receiving random spikes of static using the Blue Icicle, with a Bluebird Blue Microphone. I needed a replacement and decided per your review to go with the Shure X2u, as recommended. Not only was your review comprehensive and thorough, it helped me make an advised decision on my pre-amp converter purchase. I received just what was recommended, however the Shure X2u has no driver for my OS. I now have to return it.

    Anyone know the compatibility of the other aforementioned XLR-USB converters?

  46. John Weeks

    March 13th, 2011 at 5:41 am

    Thank you for going to the trouble and giving us the detailed review. I’m a voice over talent and use the Sound Devices USB-Pre which I think sounds great, but is overkill for what I do. I’ve been thinking about selling the unit and going with something else. Your review has been a tremendous help!

  47. Jen

    May 15th, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Thank you so much for this. It’s really helping me make some choices

  48. John

    June 11th, 2011 at 5:07 am

    Thank you Matthew for taking the effort to publish this!

    I am completely new to home recording and have spent the best part of the day confused researching for a microphone and adapter combination to purchase.

    Thanks to you I feel I have made an informed decision to get an SM57 and Shure X2U

  49. Roberto

    June 17th, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Hi,
    Thank you for your great review,
    Im interested to buy the Shure X2U, I’m new on this, I would like to know if this can hanlde condenser and dinamic mic as well and if the Phantom power is pressed by mistake when a dinamic mic is connected, could it be damaged?, I read this review on Amazon where this guy says so.
    So please let me know and Again Thank you
    Roberto
    (Mexico)

  50. Sindy

    July 8th, 2011 at 4:11 am

    Hi Matthew – ever grateful to folks like yourself!!
    Recall reading this I guess close to first published.
    Thanks so much for the 2011 update.
    Although the Micport sure has a lot of positive backing, & is no doubt an excellent gadget, I think I’m leaning towards the X2u.- more features (oh, that strap option is great too, don’t know why but I like it), cheaper… & who needs to record in 24/96 anyway??

    Big cheers from London.

  51. Sindy

    July 8th, 2011 at 4:13 am

    BTW, my choice is purely for recording whilst away from the “mothership”.
    Now I just need to find a good portable mic… Definitely veered away now from the usb mics…

  52. limper

    July 12th, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    Thanks!

  53. Kim Spanswick

    August 29th, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Hi Matthew,

    A very interesting and detailed report. I have been looking for a device to replace the Griffin Imic I presently use to interfacet a dynamic microphone with some spectrum analyser software. My problem with the Imic is it’s inherent noise which reduces what I can see below 30dB from 4KHZ and above. I guess the imic may also use the same ICs as the above but would your gut feeling be that any of the above tested have less noise than the Imic. When handled I also notice static clicks and pops from the Imic device. Given it’s thin plastic case did you notice this with the Icicle?

    Any thoughts appreciated. Thanks

  54. matthew mcglynn

    August 29th, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    @Kim, I did not specifically test susceptibility to handling noise, but I did not notice any during the tests. The X2U is for certain not going to click or pop — I know this because I bought one.

    The Icicle is audibly noisier than the X2U and MicPort Pro, so if you want a low noise interface, then I recommend the X2U or MicPort Pro.

  55. Kim Spanswick

    August 30th, 2011 at 9:40 am

    Thank you Matthew

  56. sav

    October 2nd, 2011 at 3:01 am

    helpful and detailed. thanx.

  57. Vermouth

    October 31st, 2011 at 10:13 am

    This is the BEST review I’ve seen so far! Very technical unlike other people who unprofessionally review on such, misleading noobs like me huhu.

    Anyway, if I buy the X2U, is it still necessary for me to buy a pop filter? Thanks.

  58. Gaston

    November 5th, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    awesome review! five stars!

  59. RIcardo

    November 25th, 2011 at 7:44 am

    Just to add to the list of THANK YOU!! I was trying to decide between the Mic Mate and the Micport Pro and you made the decision easy to justify the extra cost of the Micport.

    Thanks for taking the time to save others headaches and especially MONEY!

  60. Q

    March 30th, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    Very disappointed with the Icicle, poor sound quality, after 20 seconds noise interference and a 1 second delay….Regret purchase.

  61. matthew mcglynn

    March 31st, 2012 at 8:35 am

    @Q, I didn’t have any delay problems with any of these. You might have a driver conflict. But I’ll agree that the Icicle was too noisy for me. I’ve had good luck since this test with the X2U — which Shure is revising with a higher-gain preamp.

    The Micport Pro is, I believe, still the only pocket-size 24-bit USB preamp. So much for my prediction!

  62. Donald Bangerin

    May 1st, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    My friend bought a Blue Icicle. It was working PERFECT for about a week. Then all the sudden started getting the crackles and Pops. He put it in the Mail to be exchanged by Blue. Went and bought another ones from Guitar Center, so as to use the Blue warranty replacement model as a backup. The one from the store (2nd one) is worse than the first one!! No doubt the one Blue has in the mail will do the same thing when it comes. This review was very helpful. Will tell him to try the Shure model

  63. Sean Caldwell

    June 29th, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    nice review. I bought the shure and micport a couple years ago. both tested well, the Shure sounded slightly better for voice imo with my setup.

    quick note: if windows 7 (or other variants) are boosting the recording volume a lot inside windows, it will cause users to turn down the mic preamp on the mic too low, which will lead to hiss. (skype and others will automatically adjust this level if the input seems to quiet…so you might need to readjust from time to time).

    My solution is to right click on the speak in the lower right of the screen, select recording devices, select the unit, properties, levels. For the shure, I’ve found that setting it on 5 will be optimal, then adjust the gain on the unit to record a good level. Hope that helps someone.

    Sean

  64. Ryder

    July 5th, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Hey! I am looking for some help. I have audacity to record, I am using the SM57 Mic, and the icice to record my vocals. I’m working on upgrading but whenever I record. My voice sounds terrible and is almost impossible to hear. What could be the problem? Is there any chance it could be my laptop? Your voice test of the SM57 and Icicle sounds a hundred times better any test I’ve done.

  65. matthew mcglynn

    July 5th, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    @Ryder, I can’t really offer tech support here, but the first things I’d check are whether the SM57 and the Icicle are working properly. Do either sound good in any other test? Can you rule out either of them as a source of failure? Secondly, check the gain on the Icicle driver software; make sure it’s not so hot that it is distorting.

  66. gary earl

    August 9th, 2012 at 5:51 am

    THANKS! great review, well done. i’m recording in Auria (check it out, new and amazing for the iPad) as a backup when power outages hit my studio. was just going to order micport pro and after your article, it confirmed what i needed to know. i do need lowest possible noise and best possible quality, we do lots of tv/film music, mostly songs with pro vocalists, and using neuman mics. and we have artists fly in from europe to record too, so this’ll get me able to record 24/96 vocals with no power! THANKS THANKS THANKS… best wishes with your music & projects…. and have a good life.

  67. Jeff Meier

    November 17th, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    This review was EXTREMELY HELPFUL! So I just wanted to say thanks.

    Also, your comment above from March said that you weren’t aware of any 24-bit solutions except the Micport Pro. Does that still hold true?

    And when does not having 24-bit capabilities become an issue, in your opinion?

  68. Leo

    December 4th, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Very helpfull review.
    I produce documentaries and record sounds/voice narrations to my Fostex FR2Le and a small collection of mics (Oktava – Rode – AT – M-Audio).
    I was looking at recording directly to my laptop instead of to media and then to laptop for editing.
    I am looking forward to trying the Shure X2U.
    Many thanks !

  69. Bottomzone

    December 8th, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Thank you very much, Matthew, for a very thorough review and comparison! I am starting my voice over business and the Micport Pro has gotten rave reviews by many voice talents, including Harlan Hogan. Is the Shure X2U just as good for voice over work? I did see that someone is using the X2U got VO with great results.

    Thanks again and God Bless!!!

  70. matthew mcglynn

    December 8th, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    @Jeff – in this ultra-compact form factor, I think the Micport Pro might still be the only 24-bit solution. But there are numerous 24-bit interfaces now (in 2012) that are bigger and offer more features. I’ve just added a link to our updated USB interface review; find it in the “verdict” section of this page.

    @Bottomzone – any 24-bit device will have a lower noise floor than a 16-bit device like the X2U. Since this 2009 test, we’ve found that both the X2U and MPP have been surpassed by devices from other manufacturers — albeit in a larger form factor. If size is a key factor, the X2U and MPP remain viable choices, so long as you’re using a condenser mic. I think neither has enough gain for use with dynamics. If you can use a larger device, see our updated USB mic pre/interface shootout, as noted above.

  71. Doug Sutherland

    February 5th, 2013 at 9:56 am

    I’m a novice at this laptop voice recording, but I do a voice feature for CBS which is recorded in-studio. I need to broaden my reach, so I’m putting together a voice recording system using my laptop. Your review was invaluable. Question: I have a Sony condenser microphone (ECM 737). It has a 1/8th inch output plug. With an adapter, is this compatible with the Shure X2U?

  72. matthew mcglynn

    February 5th, 2013 at 11:43 am

    @Doug, unless you’re convinced that your ECM737 is the only mic that works for you, I’d strongly recommend getting a mic with an XLR output, and one of the 24-bit interfaces recommended in our newer USB interface review. Or if portability is your concern, go with the Micport Pro and a condenser mic (because the MPP probably doesn’t have enough gain for a dynamic mic on VO).

  73. Planet Shel

    October 19th, 2013 at 7:43 am

    Absolutely, a most fantastic review. Thank you for all of your hard work that you put into this. I use an Icicle, but this has reaffirmed my decision to bump it up a notch to the Shure, as I am in love with my Shure microphone. Have a great day, Shel.

  74. Ted

    April 18th, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    this device will not work with multiple mics plugged into a macbook. I don’t know why, but the audio midi setup program won’t even recognize more than one

  75. matthew mcglynn

    April 19th, 2014 at 12:03 am

    @Ted, Perhaps OSX has changed, but in 2009 it was definitely possible to aggregate two separate USB devices into a single stereo input; see detailed instructions here: http://hac.kz/1/288

  76. Pat Vidas

    October 11th, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Can you give me a suggestion to a setup for recording trumpet for a laptop remote studio on the move? Not a blasting trumpet, but a softer sound.
    Mic
    Mic pre
    USB interface for pro tools or reason.

    Thanks you for your time and expertise.

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