Although most laptops now feature built in web cameras and microphones, they often produce mediocre results. Those components might be great for video chat, but not for producing semi-professional content. For the audio portion, a new market has introduced USB-based microphones, that produce surprisingly good recordings. The California-based company, Blue Microphones (Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics), produces many high quality retro-looking audio products. The one I’m taking a look at today is the Snowball. It’s quite affordable, easy to setup, and produces great results.
Hardware: 5/5 stars
Blue Microphones includes all the essentials to get started with podcasting or recording audio. The box includes the baseball-shaped microphone, a tripod stand, and a USB cable. The tripod extends upwards, rotates a complete 360 degrees, and even allows tilting the head back and fort. Rubber tips on the legs of the tripod are a neat addition as they offer a strong grip and reduce vibrations. The unit also has a standard threaded connector, so it can attached onto any standard microphone stand. There’s a red LED indicator on the front and the USB port resides right below the mode setting switch on the back. The unit stands sturdy and has a unique retro look that catches glances.
Compatibility: 5/5 stars
Starting with Windows 7, the Snowball was detected and automatically configured in seconds. Windows Vista was also able to recognize and setup the device instantly. Windows XP with Service Pack 3 took a bit longer, it required contact Windows Update before it worked. Mac OS X Snow Leopard also detected the device right out of the box. To use the external microphone, I had to either set it as the default device in the control panel or manually choose the device from within an application such as Audacity.
Sound Quality: 3/5 stars
There’s no question that the Snowball is a huge jump up from just about any integrated laptop microphone or cheap auxiliary jack one. It will definitely make podcast recordings, audio chat, and voice overs sound a lot better. In fact a co-worker and I used Snowball microphone to create a screen cast to show off Six Apart’s Movable Type last year. The microphone works great, but it’s still not on par with decent condenser microphones. There are three modes on the Snowball: Cardioid, Cardioid with -10dB to filter loud sounds, and Omni Capsule. There’s a switch on the back to choose between the three modes. If you aren’t too tech-savvy, the manual even has suggestions for which mode to use in which environment. The device does a great job of filtering out unwanted static, wind, and background sounds. Regrettably during the process, I also noticed that vocal sound also seems to be a bit lower. I found myself having to speak close up to the unit and even adjusting levels afterward in my audio recording program. But despite that, for the price it goes for, it’s satisfying.
The Snowball is a great semi-professional microphone for anyone interested in podcasting or producing better quality audio. It’s also a great tool for video and audio conferencing in for casual and business users. As demonstrated in our video and emphasized by Blue Microphones, it has also been designed to record instruments such as Drums, Guitars, Saxophones, or the Piano in our case. Plus, one of these is available for as low as $70 if you shop around. And it’s an all-in-one solution as well, no other components other than a computer’s required. A decent condenser microphone and mixer will easily cost at least 2-3 times as much. If you are interested in doing any of the mentioned audio related activities, the Snowball USB microphone is a great place to start.