Audio-Technica bills its AT2020USB-X as “the best microphone for streaming, podcasting, recording music, gaming, and video recording.” This is a pretty lofty claim, but if anyone can live up to it, it’s Audio-Technica. The company has a stellar reputation in pro audio circles for sonics, reliability, and relatively low prices; one can get a lush studio sound with Audio-Technica mics at a fraction of the cost of, say, pricier studio staples.
Indeed, many consider A-T gear to be solid workhorse units. I’ve depended on Audio-Technica’s studio mics and studio headphones for almost half of my life and, in all that time, I’ve only ever had to service a microphone once.
So, when the good people at B&H sent me the Audio-Technica AT2020USB-X to review, I gladly accepted—and not only because of the company’s pedigree. I also reviewed one of Audio-Technica’s USB mics many moons ago (the now discontinued AT2020USBi). Like Homer Simpson before encountering snootier critics, I gave it nine thumbs up.
Would the AT2020USB-X stand up to its forebears, both analog and digital?
Let’s find out.
The AT2020USB-X includes a USB cable, a USB-A to USB-C adapter, a thread adapter for different kinds of mic stands, and a desktop stand. If you’ve ever held an Audio-Technica USB mic in your hands before, you might notice this one feels a bit lighter; I certainly did.
The mic itself offers a spartan control set. Only a headphone volume knob, a latency control, and a 3.5mm headphone jack are on hand. The latency knob is your standard mix control, crossfading between your digital playback and the mic’s input. It also features a silent, touch-sensitive mute button to mute audio at the microphone quickly and easily.
There is no gain control on the microphone itself; you’ll have to set the levels inside your computer. This mic is primarily for people who podcast, stream, Twitch, or Zoom, so the lack of a gain control might not be a hindrance. Such users don’t require anything complicated. Simplifying the gain stage might, therefore, be an advantage.
The microphone features built-in mood lighting. It maintains a solid blue glow when connected, switching to a beaming red whenever you mute the mic with a touch of the capacitive mute button. A warning for those who aggregate audio interfaces (or those use apps like Loopback): if you choose the mic as your input, and a different audio interface as your output, the light will begin to flash. It will not stop flashing. It won’t affect the sound, but you might find it annoying. Per Audio-Technica’s internal testing, this visual cue is most likely a result of using different bit rates on the microphone and output device.
After setting up the AT2020USB-X, I put it through its paces. Now, the first test I go for is dead simple: does the mic work immediately when I plug it in? Not every USB mic passes the test. This one did.
The Spoken Voice
With the mic set up and my DAW open, it was time to start recording. I began with my spoken voice in a less than ideal circumstance:
This is me speaking two feet away from the capsule. The mic has been positioned to pick up my laptop’s fan noise, a USB hub’s power supply noise, and reflections from the laptop screen.
Why am I showcasing it this way? To demonstrate what the mic would capture in a typical scenario. Think Zoom call or Twitch stream. This is how the mic would sound in those circumstances if your room were fairly dead. As you can hear, it’s quite sensitive to your surroundings, but it definitely handles the job. As a cardioid condenser microphone, this behavior is expected.
But when you get right up on the capsule, the mic really starts to come into its own:
I think that’s a pretty good sound for just less than $150. Yes, it’s a little aggressive in those low-mids—and yes, it might sibilate a little. But that’s a common tradeoff in close miking.
Also, to get the most out of a close-proximity sound, you have to play with your input gain. That’s what I did in the following example, adjusting the input on my Mac’s “Sound Preferences” tab. Now you can hear how it responds to changes in level:
For my particular voice, I feel it works well—but then again, I have experience with Audio-Technica microphones, so I know how to elicit the sound I want out of them. Your mileage may or may not vary.
Next, I wanted to judge Audio-Technica’s claims regarding the AT2020USB-X’s musicality. I did this by playing—surprise surprise—music. I triple-tracked an acoustic guitar and sang four rounds of background vocals; unfortunately, at the time of recording, a nasty cold affected my ability to sing any sort of nuanced lead.
Here’s what we got, with no EQ, no compression, no noise reduction, and no verb—just basic balancing of the signals:
You might be wondering, why am I not showing you one instrument in solo—or one vocal on its own? Simple: I want to show off this mic in the real world.
A bedroom producer/musician is unlikely to choose a solitary USB mic capture on two instruments, not when overdubs beckon from the corner like the ghost of Elliott Smith. I wanted to show what a basic multi-tracked production would sound like, and I think the mic held up well, considering the only tools at my disposal were changes in mic placement and changes in performance technique.
The next hurdle for any mic in this situation? Testing how well it stands up to processing: the average bedroom producer is quite dependent on plug-ins; if a digital mic billed for music doesn’t take plug-ins well in the 21st Century, we’re in trouble.
How did it do?
Here are fruits of my labor:
Mixing a track built entirely out of this microphone did leave me with one solid takeaway: the mic seems to curtail the lows and low mids quite naturally, at least compared to other mics in my collection. This means I had to use a fair amount of parallel processing to give my vocals the meatiness I felt the track required.
All in all, it took all manners of processing like a champ—but even so, it wouldn’t be my first choice to capture something with a big bottom end.
Summing It Up
With the mic thoroughly tested, I can now offer a precise summation of my thoughts.
The mic is incredibly easy to use. It works right out of the box, and it sounds great for the money. Those are three reasons to check it out right there. It can easily handle voice-over and musical work—that is, if your room is treated and you have a grasp on mic technique.
This brings us into the possible drawbacks. Like many USB condenser microphones, the AT2020USB-X is exceedingly sensitive. It will capture room noise, machine noise, and room reflections, so you better have a handle on proper room-treatment and mic technique if you want to use it to its most flattering advantage. For the beginner streamer looking to get in game, the mic would pair well with a crash course in room acoustics.
One more drawback: the included stand and cable are both prone to picking up stray vibrations and sounds. So, I’d set the stand on some sort of isolating buffer (even a book helps) and I’d swap out the cable for something like this.
All in all, this is a solid mic for the money. It does everything it says on the tin, giving you a sound somewhat akin to a classic workhorse Audio-Technica condenser mic, like the AT2020.
What do you think of the AT2020USB-X? Let us know in the Comments section, below—if you dare!