Choosing a Microphone: Good, Low-Cost Sound for Online Video Conversations


Get Shift Done: Tips and Tricks

You have a webcam, either built into your laptop or on top of your monitor. You are producing recorded online video chats using tools like Zoom or possibly Skype + Evaer. Or maybe you are using online videoconferencing for business meetings, wherein your professional demeanor carries weight. One way or another, you’re aware of the importance of showing yourself to best advantage.

But in your online conversations, what are you using for sound? The microphone built into your webcam or laptop? That can leave your voice sounding muddy, rather than clear and easy to understand. We need a better microphone for online video conversations, and a nice pair of headphones might be good, too. So let’s choose the best affordable sound choices available today.

Naturally, the decision starts with this question: “How much money do you have?”

You can spend less than $10 for earbuds with a built-in microphone, and you can invest thousands of dollars for studio-quality headsets better than the ones The Beatles used when recording their music.

You should also consider visual presentation. Do you mind letting the world see you wearing a headset? Would you prefer less-obtrusive earbuds? Or even to wear no audio gear at all on your head? Your selection should take the visual factor into account, too.

If you don’t mind wearing a headset, the basic Logitech ClearChat Comfort/USB Headset H390 is a fine, cost-effective choice.

It has a USB connector, which means it bypasses your computer’s sound card; the built-in hardware quality doesn’t matter. That is especially important in laptops because many of them have poor sound circuitry. Even more important, the Logitech has a noise-canceling microphone, muting background sounds like air conditioning hums.

Other than that, there’s little to say. This is a simple headset. The only frill is a mute switch, which can be handy (unless you forget you are — or aren’t — muted, so be aware of it). But simple is fine. For less than $20 (at this writing) from Amazon and other online retailers, you’ll have all the sound quality you need for spoken word conversations. I consistently recommend this product to video production clients, purely as a happy customer; Logitech does not pay me for my endorsement.

But what if you prefer a discreet earbud set to headphones? My personal favorite, at least right now, is the Alpatronix EX100. At $15, it is the least expensive earbud set I found that gave me decent sound, a 4’ cord instead of a too-short 3’ (or one meter) cord, comfortable eargels (for me), acceptable noise isolation, and a tangle-free cord, which I consider a must-have earbud feature.

I’m not going to give a wholehearted recommendation here, because earbud comfort is a very individual thing. But I’ve had these for nearly four years, and I’ve thrown out in disgust most sub-$30 earbuds I’ve owned after a few weeks. I could probably spend more and get something better, but these are more than good enough for video conferencing.

One thing about using earbuds as a computer microphone and headset is that almost all of them come with a single 3.5 mm 4-contact male plug for a smartphone, so you need an adapter to use them with most computers. Even better, from that adapter you should go to a USB adapter to get the advantages of direct USB sound. Two “stacked” adapters may sound crazy, but I’ve never found a direct 4-contact 3.55 mm to USB adapter, so this is the best workaround.

Two microphone-only alternatives

A lavalier microphone is hard to see, and with a little care in volume adjustment you can use your computer speakers without getting any feedback. This $16 RockRok mic is surprisingly good for the price, needs no batteries, and has a long-enough cord to make it practical, plus an adapter so you can also use it with a smartphone. Recommended!

Also recommended: the $20 Ecoopro desktop mic. I bought this on a whim, expecting to send it back. But it turned out to be as good for spoken word use as was an old $100 condenser mic I’d had for at least a decade. So when I’m in the mood for a desk mic, this is what I use. It’s mildly directional, which helps keep feedback to a minimum. It has an old-fashioned 3-conductor, 3.5 mm plug, so you can only use it on your smartphone with an adapter like the one that comes with the Rockrok lavalier mic. And, of course, it works with a 3.5mm to USB adapter, too.

These basic, simple sound tools are all you need for online video chats. If you want more, feel free to go as crazy as your budget allows — but don’t expect to have noticeably better sound because you spend more money. Beyond a certain point, the microphone doesn’t make as much difference as does transmission quality over the Internet and your listeners’ speakers or headsets, and these are not under your control.

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