Hands-on review: JLab Talk Pro USB microphone
Image credit: JLab
Pro-level audio recording using just a USB microphone and computer? We plug and play in order to find out.
In 2002, a London-based duo released an album under the eponymous title '1 Giant Leap'. Issued as a DVD documenting its creation, most of the musical and vocal performances included in the final release were recorded during a six-month globetrotting journey, taking in such far-flung places as Senegal, Ghana, India, Nepal, Australia, New Zealand and the US. Featured musicians included Neneh Cherry, Robbie Williams, Michael Stipe, Baaba Maal and Maxi Priest, with spoken word contributions from Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
All these performances were captured in the moment, on the hoof and often in remote locations, frequently without a recording studio – sometimes without a building of any kind – in sight. No audio interface. No mixing desk. Not even a microphone in some cases – just the built-in mic on an Apple G4 PowerBook laptop.
The point of this story? Well, that album – much of it recorded with the barest of bare bones equipment – was subsequently nominated for a Grammy in 2003, ultimately missing out only to Don Letts' lauded documentary about The Clash, 'Westway to the World'.
This is as fine an example as you can get of what can be achieved by the transcendent power of a good idea, overcoming technical limitations. Fast forward 20 years to today, where we're looking at the JLab Talk Pro USB microphone, and we're thinking that '1 Giant Leap' would probably have loved to have had such a good-quality microphone available to them for their project and on their travels. Potentially, all you need is this USB mic and a laptop and you can record any sound source, any instrument, any human voice, anywhere, and always get the same great-sounding, fully professional results.
The JLab Talk Pro sits at the top of a tree of three USB mics launched by the company in its 'Talk Series'. The entry-level Talk Go is a respectable model with two directional patterns and 24-bit/96KHz maximum sound quality, for around €70. The mid-range model is simply called Talk, which retains the same A/D conversion quality and ups the pattern range to a choice of four, for around €130. The Talk Pro, reviewed here, has the same four patterns as the Talk – cardioid, stereo, figure-of-eight (called bidirectional here) and omnidirectional – but goes all out on the A/D conversion with 24/192KHz resolution. It also has more convenient, and separate, on-body volume and gain controls, better on-body metering, and a taller, more slender, more 'professional-looking' form factor. All of which is reflected in its €200 price tag.
All the Talk Series mics feature straightforward plug'n'play compatibility on Mac and Windows operating systems, a 3.5mm headphone jack for zero-latency monitoring, a quick-mute button, 5/8in mount foldable desk stands, and can also be mounted on standard studio mic stands.
These USB mics are effectively a microphone and audio interface bundled in a single device. You don't necessarily need any other in/out audio equipment to record, edit and review your performances. Obviously, you might well choose to, especially if you already own some very nice equipment for this purpose, but the fact that you can take just this mic and your laptop with you wherever you go and capture eminently useable results to bring back to your (home) studio could well be a godsend.
Strictly from a 'pro recording' standpoint, the Talk Pro is the Talk Series mic that holds most appeal. It both looks the part and delivers the goods. The small but important things that separate the Talk Pro from the mid-range, squatter-bodied Talk – apart from the physical difference – are the separate gain and volume controls on the rear of the mic and the dual-coloured level lighting on the front of the mic
The controls are easy to handle simply by reaching around the back of the mic and you can adjust levels without having to look at them, as the digital levels on the front of the Pro body change colour to reflect which parameter you're tweaking: Gain is green; Volume is blue.
Both the Talk and the Pro have the same 3 x 16mm condenser capsule set-up inside, so there's nothing to separate them there (the Talk Go baby of the bunch has a more modest condenser capsule arrangement, reflected in its more modest price). The 24/96 vs 24/192 differential is less of a concern, as the option to record at 192 is frankly a little bit ridiculous, even if it might technically be possible. Almost no one records at this level because even modern processors struggle to process the sound in real time; you're very likely to get glitches and dropouts as the converters struggle to keep up, and the resulting audio files are also huge. Even 24/96 is a big ask of many systems.
The Talk Pro looks like the real deal, though. For podcasting or voiceover streaming uses – including conference video calls and team meetings, using the omni setting, for example, to capture everyone in the room – either of the other Talk mics would be absolutely fine. For more delicate music recording needs, either mic would probably be OK, too. The Talk Pro just has that extra edge over both of them. Frequency response of the Pro mic is stated as 20Hz-20KHz, with a maximum SPL rating of 120dB.
This mic looks good and feels good in the hand, with a decent metal heft to it. It doesn't feel flimsy or 'plasticky' at all. It comes with a good-quality braided USB-C to A cable (C from the mic; A to your computer), which is substantial and of good length.
There's virtually no set-up necessary to start using it: plug in the cable and select the in/out sound settings on your computer to use the Talk Pro's mic input and headphone output (if you want to – you can always route the sound elsewhere, if you desire).
On two test Macs, we found we could repeatedly hot swap the device between them without incident. We did experience some teething issues with our versions of macOS, whereby the microphone was not reliably recognised by a laptop running Catalina, rendering the mic effectively mute, whereas with a Mac Mini running Big Sur (the latest version of macOS) the mic was fine every time. After we upgraded the laptop to Big Sur (solely in order to verify this issue) everything was OK.
The Talk Pro mic is easy to position precisely, with its angle adjustable via the side tension screws. The capsules are housed in a vertical arrangement, so the mic should be placed parallel to the source – not with the top of the mic pointing at it, as may initially be suggested by that bright blue circle! Think of this mic as more like a Neumann U47 than a Shure SM57.
The mic has a standard size thread at its base (where all the connections are, including a button for the novelty ambient lighting ring), so any professional mic stand can be used. The stand it comes with has nice rubber feet for a modicum of acoustic decoupling from whatever surface it's standing on, which is a nice touch.
A simple tap button on the front selects between the four polar patterns, with another tap button to mute the mic. It should be noted that there is a pronounced popping sound when you switch between the mic's polar patterns, so you'd be advised to turn the volume down as you switch between them.
To start recording, you set your levels by cranking up the gain – just not all the way up. Check your levels in your DAW of choice. If you're coming in too hot, roll off the gain.
This is a very sensitive mic, especially with the gain up high. During our testing, the mic was picking up Storm Evert's winds building up outside the double-glazed windows, which we couldn't hear directly because of wearing headphones to test the mic – we could only hear the wind because we were monitoring the mic's input.
Even with the gain at minimum, the mic is still picking up sound. Basically, you can use this according to your needs. If you want to get right up on the grille for that late-night intimacy or morning shock-jock heavy-proximity effect, you'll probably want (or need) to turn the gain right down. You can still overload the capsule, distorting the sound, if that's an effect you want. Optimum gain levels and mic distance can also be experimented with for some subtle fattening of the source. The volume control has a much more obvious audible effect, dialling down entirely to nothing.
Testing the different polar patterns, we were getting similar results from reasonable distances. There was no over-pronounced proximity effect and no distortion or sibilance. Naturally, voice results got 'thicker' the closer we got to the mic's grille. There is less difference between the four patterns than you might be used to from regular studio microphones: it's more like four 'flavours' of mic response. They do all sound different, in a good way, but the figure-of-eight bidirectional setting has virtually no null point, for example, while the cardioid setting has very little rear sound rejection. Cardioid was definitely the quietest setting overall – rejecting more of the surrounding noise elsewhere in the room – while the stereo setting sounded nice on instruments.
As well as voice tests, we also recorded acoustic guitars, pointing the mic around the neck/body join, and also mic'ed up an electric guitar amp, playing with the pickup options on the guitar. All the results were very useable. Any captured sound, from almost any mic, inevitably requires a bit of judicious EQ and compression treatment, but the raw audio captured with the Talk Pro will give you a solid starting point, no question.
Aside from the initial computer OS issues we had (ultimately resolved), the only other reservations were that while the stereo setting does indeed sound 'wider' than the other mono-esque settings, you can't split 'stereo' recordings across two channels in your DAW, e.g. have input 1 on one channel and input 2 on another channel, for a true stereo recording. This is only one mic, of course, so that makes physics sense. We also wish this mic could be used natively with an iPad, as that would make for an even more portable recording setup, but alas it's not to be.
Overall, the JLab Talk Pro mic is a great tool for a wide variety of users: podcasters, vloggers, streaming gamers, office video callers, itinerant musicians and field recordists. The quality is absolutely here, providing you look after your levels and learn the mic's sweet spots. Any place or space where you need to capture great-sounding audio, the Talk Pro shouldn't let you down.
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