When it comes to starting out in Podcasting, I’m a big fan of the ‘start small’ approach. Too many people dive in headfirst, spending a whole lot of money on digital recorders, XLR mics and mixers, creating a home studio of their own to boost their podcasting efforts.
While this can result in really excellent audio quality, it also introduces a whole load of complexity. And, to me, complexity gets in the way of ‘just doing it’ as our tick based sporting friends would say.
To a beginner it puts up barriers, lengthens the recording process and makes it pretty likely you’ll never get into the swing of releasing regular content.
To this end, I think one of the best ways into Podcasting is to get yourself a decent quality headset microphone. They’re super easy to use, they’re generally pretty inexpensive, and they serve double duty by also helping you out with better quality when you’re using Skype or Google Hangouts day to day.
Best of all, because they’re always connected, always easy, and you can record new episodes in no time, with no barriers. This means you’ll be putting out your weekly episode with ease and regularity. Achieving that aim will put you far ahead of those with much better kit, but less regular content.
The Showdown: 7 of the Top Headset Microphones for Podcasting
In this article I’m aiming to review some of the most popular headsets on the market. I want to provide a bit of my own input into what I think of them, and I’ll provide an audio sample from each so that you can judge for yourself. In the audio sample I’ll read a little extract from one of my articles as a comparison, so each mic will go through the same test, and then I’ll go through a few of the features as I’ve found them.
If you have any feedback on these mics, or you know of another that’s good enough to be included, then please do let me know. Just drop a comment on the bottom of the article letting me know what you think and I’ll keep this article updated with new microphones over the months and years.
What are we looking for in a Good Headset Microphone?
In this showdown I’m looking primarily at audio quality. That’s the main yardstick by which each headset will be judged, as that’s what we’re looking to deliver in the final product: our podcast.
Having said that, there are other things that matter. Build quality, for one. There’s little point in having a great sounding mic if it falls apart after 3 recording sessions. I’ll be commenting on how well they’re made and the quality of their components, hoping to refine the list down to long-lasting headsets.
I’ll also be looking at comfort. I’ve used some pretty uncomfortable headsets over the past few years, and it does have an effect on your Podcast quality. When your head’s hurting due to badly made earpieces or a hard little headband, then you’ll fidget and lose concentration. Neither is great for your Podcast.
Apart from that, I’ll mention anything that’s unique about the headsets, but rest assured, audio quality in first and foremost.
Why are these Primarily USB Headsets?
I’m mostly looking at USB headsets in this comparison, and that’s because they’re far more reliable in terms of sound quality. 3.5mm headsets can sound great, but the quality is somewhat dependent on the soundcard within your computer. If you have a great, expensive soundcard then you could find a 3.5mm microphone that will give you great quality. But on a computer with a cheap soundcard, that microphone could sound a lot worse. With USB headsets, however, this doesn’t come into play – they simply use their own internal hardware to generate the signal which ends up trasmitting through your USB port. So, in all, it’s more reliable to review USB headsets.
Saying that, I will include some 3.5mm headsets on this page if they’ve been highly recommended. You’ll have to bear in mind that final quality will depend a little on your hardware, though.
The Candidates: Podcasting Headsets for 2014
Here are the headsets I’ve covered – click the links if you want to jump straight to the review.
- Sennheiser PC 7 USB Headset
- Audio Technica USB Multimedia Headset
- Jabra UC MS Voice 550 Noise Cancelling USB Duo Headset
- Logitech H540 USB Headset
- Sennheiser PC 8 USB Internet Telephony On-Ear Headset
- Plantronics .Audio 995 Wireless USB
- Microsoft Lifechat USB Headset (Coming soon…)
£23 or $36 | Click here for product page
- Small unit and light
- One-ear only design, leaving an ear free to monitor your own voice
- Not quite as solid as the larger Senheiser but this feels like it’s designed to be a light, quick on-and-off headset for taking calls easily
- Very light and comfortable
- Very nice quality, quite balanced to my ear
- Very steady levels and safe from plosives, etc.
- Very good build quality – feels expensive
- Not the most pretty of designs
- Folding headsets have more moving parts, more tendency to break
- Quite large headphones – muffles your own voice when speaking
- A little bit of background noise is present
- Decent enough quality, but no better than the much less expensive headsets on test
£38 or $50 | Click here for product page
- A mixed build – nice add-ons, such as padding, but other parts feel flimsy, such as the mic arm
- Mic is not very easily adjusted – too springy and unresponsive
- After a few tests I was still getting a lot of plosive effects – I perhaps could have spent more time on position, but the recording shows the results I received after far more fiddling than any of the others
£30 or $32 | Click here for product page
- Very high build quality of the group – big and chunky
- Padded headphones and headband
- The microphone arm is solid, easily adjusted and kept to the side of your mouth
- Volume/mute buttons on the headset itself – causes noise in use and hard to find
- Feels a little bassy or muffled to me
- Despite the reliable mic arm, I found the volume increased/decreased a fair bit
£23 or $42 | Click here for product page
- Good, solid build quality
- Mic arm is very simple, very nice – easy to adjust
- No padding on the head-band, but a wide area to keep it comfortable
- Feels quite secure on the head
- Good quality, very low noise, and conveys a decent richness of voice.
- By far the most reliable recording with regards plosives & sibbilants
- Fully wireless unit so a great deal of freedom
- Feels very expensive, robust
- Very comfortable and well padded
- Very big unit, though, perhaps a little heavy
- Solid mic arm, just up and down, kept off to the side
- Some controls on the side of the unit
- Disappointing quality compared to the other headsets – possibly due to the wireless trasmission and bit-rate restrictions
- Low noise, however, and very steady volume
- Not prone to plosives at all
MXL 990 Condenser Microphone
Now, this is obviously pretty unfair, given the disparity of kit required, but I wanted to include the comparison with my normal day-to-day microphone. This is a condenser microphone through a Berhinger 1204 mixer. This may sound better, although it does depend on your tastes. It’s certainly more rich and bassy, but in a way some of the headset microphones are actually a little clearer. Let me know what you think.
I have to admit, for the most part the quality of the headsets on test were amazingly high considering how much they cost.
There are only two that I’d recommend you avoid – that’s the Plantronics 995 and the Jabra 550. Both are on the higher price end for this test and both had disappointing audio quality, particularly the Plantronics headset. I suspect that’s simply because of the wireless connection, but I suspect most would happily be tethered to their PC if it meant a much higher audio quality.
The rest of the headsets are all very serviceable, but I think, to my ear I’d pick out the Sennheiser headsets as the winner.
Test Winner: Sennheiser PC 8 USB Headset
2nd Place: Logitech 540 USB Headset
Both Sennheiser headsets performed nearly identically in terms of audio quality. The PC 7 is pretty useful if you prefer to have one ear free to monitor your own voice, which is a definite plus to many. The PC8 is my winner, though, because I prefer the comfort of listening to my interviewees with both ears and the steadiness that comes with being planted well on both sides of my head.
I also really like the build style which is a mix between good quality and minimalist. The mic arm is nice and easy to adjust, while the earphones are very comfortable and don’t block out too much sound.
If you’re looking to get started in podcasting in a quick and easy way, but still pump out great audio quality episode after episode, then I’d heartily recommend the Sennheiser PC 8 headset.
If You Need a 3.5mm Plug
As a short addendum, I’ve had some questions about 3.5mm alternatives. This is mainly so that the headset can be used with devices other than computers, such as a digital recorder. For that purpose I’d recommend the Sennheiser PC131 – it’s essentially, to my ear, the same mic as the PC8, but it has a 3.5mm plug, so well worth a go. Hope that helps.