The Streaming Revolution, Headphones and Hardware Part Two: Microphone and Mic input

Last time we covered the DAC portion of a good streaming setup, with special attention paid to connectivity and latency, which can make all the difference in audio and video being synched... or not. This time we’ll discuss an often overlooked, but equally vital component for the content-creation and online gaming crowd: the microphone input.

Microphones and microphone inputs are quickly becoming a more common sight, even on companies traditionally rooted in hi-fi, and I think it’s important to understand what they do and what to be aware of, since in any streaming or gaming setup, this will be a crucial part of the puzzle.

Microphones in this arena generally fall into one of two categories: the condenser or dynamic types, and the elecret or lavalier style. The Shure SM7B or Blue Yeti are examples of the former, and the V-Moda BoomPro or Mod Mic Mini are examples of the latter. The important distinction here is that electret mics will require only an ADC and aux input – the diaphragms are pre-polarized and thus don’t require a microphone preamp to be brought up to line level.

Mod Mic Mini.

Condenser and dynamic mics by contrast require a preamp to bring the signal up to line level, as their output is much lower. Where an electret mic such as a lavalier, or a headset mic can be plugged straight into an aux input with an ADC, something many gaming laptops come supplied with, the Condenser and dynamic mics require a full-size balanced connection, usually accomplished via an XLR input. It also requires the extra circuitry, and inherent cost to implement.

If you’re casually gaming, an electret style mic is a great choice. They’re available for relatively low cost and although the cheapest ones won’t wow you with their quality, even a modestly-priced lavalier can sound surprisingly decent. For the most part however, these are a ‘get the job done’ device. They also benefit from being small and unobtrusive, a boon during longer gaming sessions.

In contrast, condenser and dynamic mics are large, complex and expensive. In this case, spending a certain amount is almost required – very cheap condensers may actually sound worse than an equivalently priced electret. Though there will be more detail, there will also be more noise, and potentially a nasty frequency response. It’s the difference between doing something the ‘easy way’ and spending money to do it well, and doing something the ‘hard way’ and cheaping out.

A solid ‘easy’ implementation often wins in this equation. In situations where you might be broadcasting or streaming, creating content such as a podcast or video, or are simply interested in good sound in your gaming or video-calling experience, then a condenser or good dynamic is a must. For many applications the most economic choice will be an all-in-one audio interface which includes microphone preamp, ADC, DAC, amp and analog outputs. Often these have phantom power and the features you need built-in, and it is simply a matter of choosing which is within your budget and features-et needs.

These interfaces often represent a compromise between all of these various factors, price points, size. Simplicity for streaming is crucial. When it comes to microphone choice however, the choices are even more dizzying and important. Although condenser microphones are a popular choice for many streamers, I actually feel a good dynamic microphone is often a better choice given an integrated interface from companies such as Focusrite, Presonus or Motu. A dynamic mic will generally pick up less room noise and have less self-generated noise than condensers. Additionally, when a dynamic microphone overloads, it will react a bit slower and less aggressively when distorting. In contrast, a condenser microphone will pick up more detail, but will be more sensitive to various types of noise and will generally cost more for a good unit. Unless ultimate quality is your top goal, a modestly-priced dynamic can offer a lot more than a good condenser, and is often less fragile too. And for the fuss-averse, there’s always the Blue Yeti.

Shure SMB7.

To recap, we’re looking for great sound at reasonable prices, and a solid electret mic like the Mod Mic Uni is a great choice for the casual gamer or streamer, while a dynamic mic such as a Sennheiser E series or SM7B are good choices for the more serious content creators.
With great microphones comes great responsibility – and the need to hear yourself too. Next up we’ll be talking the final piece of the puzzle: the amplifier.