Science

AKG Ara USB Condenser Mic review: A focus on fidelity

At a time when there seems to be a new name entering the USB microphone marketplace every week, it can’t hurt to be a name with a legacy stretching back 75 years. Founded in Vienna, Austria in 1947, AKG enjoys that status, counting among its creations some of the most revered microphones in professional recording history. AKG’s C12 condenser microphone, which debuted in 1953, became one of the most sought-after microphones for vocals ever and a favorite of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and countless others. While those are impossible shoes to fill for the AKG Pro Audio Ara USB condenser mic, that lineage informs this concentrated mic, which focuses on bringing fidelity to podcasting, streaming, gaming, or just gabbing. 

The AKG Ara is the pared-down sibling of the higher-priced AKG Lyra ($122 MSRP). Both USB-C condenser mics have a camera-friendly modernized take on AKG’s vintage style (just one factor making the Lyra one of our favorites). Both are visually inspired by certain models of AKG classics, like the C414 and C12, then upgraded with features such as onboard no-latency monitoring through a built-in headphone output. However, the Ara has a lower maximum audio resolution of 24-bit/96 kHz (compared to 24-bit/192 kHz on the Lyra) and two pickup (polar) patterns compared to the Lyra’s four. As a result, the Ara is priced lower at $99 MSRP—the perfect price (and size) for a starter home studio or a minimalist mobile rig.

The AKG Ara’s design

AKG has focused the Ara on a combination of simplicity and sonics. Accordingly, it is easy to set up and operate. It comes with a solid metal desktop stand with a padded bottom to protect surfaces. The base of the stand unscrews to reveal a standard-sized (5/8-inch) threaded hole for mounting to a microphone stand or mic boom arm. The box also includes a 5/8-inch to 3/8-inch adaptor (the European standard) for mounting to different stands and boom arms. When I mounted the Ara to a basic On-Stage Stands mic boom arm (shown above), it was a quick and painless process to unscrew the Ara stand’s bottom and mount the Ara to the boom arm’s connector for positioning. The Ara swivels forward and backward in the mounting bracket and you can tighten it in place or unscrew it entirely from the brackets. 

The Ara is a little smaller than some popular streaming-oriented USB mics, such as the Blue Microphones Yeti or Yeti X. At 1.5 pounds total—including its stand—the Ara is a very portable microphone and it feels sturdy in its mostly metal casing. In its stand, the Ara measures about 9-inches high, 3.5-inches wide (at its widest point), and about 2-inches deep (at its deepest point), so it fits into tight spaces if needed and doesn’t take up too much space on screen for YouTubing or game casting. At the same time, it rocks a retro-modern look that takes some visual cues from classic mics from AKG’s past and current line-up of all-star pro studio vocal microphones, making it a welcome on-camera presence. 

Getting started with the AKG Ara

The AKG Ara has two connection ports on its underside: a 3.5mm analog audio output for connecting headphones and a USB-C port for connecting to hardware. A two-meter USB-C to USB-A cable comes in the box. 

With its USB class-compliant drivers, the Ara is built for plug-and-play operation with Windows and macOS computers, iOS and Android mobile devices—which need to be compatible with the USB OTG (On-The-Go) spec, and games consoles. With a MacBook Pro, I only needed to connect the Ara over USB, choose it as both the audio output and input in the sound preferences, and then make sure the Ara was the chosen input and output source in any software I used it with. Whether it was the OBS streaming software, a digital audio workstation (DAW) like Ableton Live, or conferencing software like Zoom and Google Meet, no Mac software I tried had a problem recognizing and connecting to the Ara. 

To use it with an iPad, AKG recommends connecting both the Ara and the iPad to the same powered USB hub. However, when connected directly over USB-C with an 11-inch iPad Pro from 2018, the Ara’s microphone, headphone output, volume knob, and mute button operated just fine. The same held true when using the Ara with Android OTG. I connected the Ara via USB-C with a Motorola Stylus G and the smartphone immediately recognized it as both an audio input and output, so the mic, headphone output, volume control, and mic mute button all worked right away with my various Android recording apps. Keep in mind that the USB mic draws power off the connected device, so it’s best to charge the mobile devices first.

Once connected, the Ara has a push-button Volume knob for controlling the level of the headphone output. Pushing this button mutes and unmutes the microphone, and a red LED shows you when the mic is muted. With the microphone active, you’ll hear the incoming signal from the microphone through the headphones, as well as the sound from any media on the computer or other connected device.

AKA Ara USB microphone rear view outdoors
Cable simplicity strikes a, well, chord in our hearts. Markkus Rovito

Key AKG Ara features

To reiterate, the Ara stands mainly on its simplicity of operation and the fidelity of its maximum 24-bit/96kHz digital audio quality. That’s a higher maximum audio resolution than the aforementioned Blue Yeti microphones, but equal to the resolution of newer USB mics like the Elgato Wave:3. The Ara, however, does not hype up any internal processing features that some other newer USB streaming mics do—features such as a built-in pop filter or a built-in limiter to prevent digital clipping. 

The Ara does have no-latency monitoring of the microphone’s input from the headphone output. Most USB streaming mics have that feature because if you’re recording or streaming live, it’s very helpful to hear what’s being said into the mic in real-time in your headphones. Without no-latency monitoring, you may have to use computer software to monitor your microphone and you can get an awfully annoying delay between what you say and what you hear in the headphones. 

Because it has two internal condenser capsules (the parts that capture sound) the Ara can offer two microphone pickup patterns, selectable from the top knob: Front and Front & Back. The Front capture mode is also known as the cardioid pattern; it hones in specifically on sound in front of the mic and is best suited for recording a single person. Meanwhile, the Front & Back capture mode (aka omnidirectional) picks up sound from all around the mic, so it can equally record two or more people sitting across from each other or around a table, or a group of musicians or singers. Having two pickup patterns gives Ara users recording flexibility that some cardioid-only USB mics (such as the Elgato Wave:3) do not. (For more in-depth information on different types of mics, check out our primer.)

The more expensive AKG Lyra has four microphone-capture modes: the same Front and Front & Back as the Ara, as well as the Tight Stereo mode, which aims at recording instruments with a stereo spread, and the Wide Stereo mode, which provides an even greater stereo spread good for recording ensembles of singers or musicians. The Lyra ups its maximum audio resolution to 24-bit/192 kHz and has a high maximum sound pressure level (SPL)—or the highest source volume it can record—of 129 dB. The Ara’s top SPL is slightly lower at 120 dB, but that still should be enough to record an electric guitar amplifier or a drum set. Both the Ara and the Lyra have a microphone frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz. 

The Lyra’s four mic pickup patterns and higher specs may have more immediate appeal for musicians, while the Ara’s reasonable price and simple operation appear more geared to podcasting, YouTube videos, gaming, or simply improving upon a computer or mobile device’s audio quality for video conferencing. AKG is still catering to its traditional base of musicians and music producers with the Ara, however, which shows in its choice of bundled recording software. 

Ableton Live 11 Lite software included

So beginning musicians on a budget should welcome a chance to download Ableton Live 11 Lite bundled with a sub-$100 USB mic. While it is stripped down quite a bit from the full version of Live 11, it retains all of the program’s coolest and most distinctive features, including its real-time “warping” of audio material and its dual track views that combine traditional timeline recording with loop- and clip-based composition that opens up many possibilities for spontaneous creativity and/or live performance. 

Live 11 Lite caps its sessions at only eight audio and MIDI tracks, which is probably its most limiting restriction. It also does not include the great software synthesizers that come with the full version. However, it does come with sample-based software instruments and a sizable collection of 40 instrument presets, as well as 78 Drum Rack setups, which include more than 1600 total drum samples for making beats. Whether for making music or just editing audio recordings, 15 audio effects can help polish the sound, and more than 100 Effect Rack presets group audio effects into professionally designed signal chains that are ready to drop onto vocal, drum, and instrument tracks. The 11 included MIDI effect devices can also come in very handy for composition by, for example, turning single MIDI notes into chords, ensuring that all MIDI notes play within a set musical scale, or turning notes or chords into rhythmic patterns with the Arpeggiator device.

The AKG Ara’s sound

Besides using it for any video chats and meetings I had, I used the AKG Ara to record spoken and sung vocals, stringed instruments, drums, and percussion. I also compared the results against recordings from the Blue Yeti and Yeti X, the HyperX QuadCast S, and the Elgato Wave:3 USB microphones. When focusing solely on the audio fidelity, USB microphones in the general price range of those mentioned are getting close to parity in terms of the transparent reproduction of details, and the distinctions can come down to some very subtle differences. 

The Ara captures very fine details. Every mouth noise, every guttural vocal texture, and every slight inhale or exhale comes through in the recording. Like a 4K camera that can highlight the flattering glistening of someone’s hair as much as it highlights the unflattering blemishes of their skin, the Ara will reproduce the slightest vocal idiosyncrasies in a recording for better or for worse, especially when recording at the full 24-bit/96 kHz resolution. I consider that a positive aspect overall. I’d rather take the bad with the good than sacrifice any part of the good. That transparency works very well for recording instruments as well. You’ll hear the key transients on the initial plucking or strumming of a strings, and the impact of a stick or mallet on a drum, cymbal, etc. For its affordable price, the Ara makes for a well-rounded, slightly warm microphone that can do the trick for just about any source you want to record. 

When it comes to comparing the Ara to the other mics, which all do an adequate job of reproducing audio detail, sometimes it just comes down to personal preference with how one microphone handles your voice. Aside from the Ara having a higher maximum resolution than the Yeti (16-bit/48 kHz max) and Yeti X (24-bit/48 kHz), I just preferred the presence that the Ara leant to my voice. Even when recording at the same resolution as the Yetis, the Ara gave a slightly more authoritative heft to my voice that I liked. From that perspective, the Ara sounded more similar to the HyperX QuadCast S and the Elgato Wave:3. However, the Ara had less self-noise than the QuadCast S and it handled sibilant sounds better than the Elgato Wave:3, which emphasizes “S” and “T” sounds a little more. 

Like the other USB mics I compared it to, the Ara’s recording sensitivity is very high. I found the best position for recording a normal speaking voice to be 8- to 12-inches away from the mic. Closer than that might be a little too hot. And while moving further away than that reduces the level of recording quickly, the Ara still picks up every sound around you, such as lightly touching papers and other objects, a computer’s fan, people typing in another room, etc. Even if you have the capture mode at Front instead of Front & Back, it can still pick up sounds behind it, just not as loudly. That level of sensitivity can be good for detailed recordings, but can also work against you if you can’t create a silent recording environment. 

Even though AKG makes no mention of the Ara having an internal limiter that stops the recorded mic signal from clipping, because the Ara handles loud signals up to 120 dB, it was difficult to get any vocal or stringed instrument recordings to create unwanted digital clipping when played back. Even if loud shouting, clapping, or percussion instruments drove the input signal on the recording software into the red, the audio upon playback very rarely produced clipping except when I recorded a full acoustic drum kit played very loudly with the Ara mic placed way too close to it. Yet even if the Ara handles most loud signals very well, it’s still not ideal to record anything so loud that it pushes the level meter into the red. So without an input level control on the mic, you’ll have to make sure to attenuate the input level within the recording software, or else modify the volume of the recording and/or the distance of the Ara from the source.

AKG Ara USB microphone outdoors in the sun
Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up … Markkus Rovito

So, who should buy the AKG Ara?

If you’re looking for a good streaming microphone or recording microphone that’s easy to operate at an accessible price, the AKG Ara puts forth a straightforward option that cuts down on some of the microphone pickup patterns and extra controls that some USB mics offer, but does not skimp on audio quality. It’s priced very competitively for a 24-bit/96kHz USB-C microphone. There are many choices of great-sounding USB microphones for recording and streaming, so musicians may be swayed by the option to try the Ableton Live 11 Lite software that comes with the Ara.  

One notable limitation of the Ara—the lack of an onboard control for setting the microphone input level—can be found on the AKG Lyra for a somewhat higher price. The Lyra also adds two additional microphone pickup patterns and raises the audio resolution to 24-bit/192kHz. However, that level of audio resolution is not essential for a YouTube or podcast mic and the Ara provides enough more than enough fidelity to record vocals for self-produced music and content creation. Even if all you really want is an all-purpose microphone for improving the audio quality of your devices, the Ara gives you that and more in an affordable, attractive retro-chic package.



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