Are Microphones Input Or Output Devices

It’s crucial to grasp how audio works in terms of inputs, outputs, and signal flow in order to completely understand microphones. Several years ago when I began working with computer audio, the very first thing that I had to understand was the difference between the system’s input and output devices.

So, are microphones input or output devices? 

Microphones are input devices as they transmit data to a computer system where it is processed by recording software. The microphone’s analog-to-digital converter changes the mic’s output from analog (voltage) to digital (data) so that it can be read by the computer software.

In this article, I will help you understand the concept of input and output devices and how it correlates to the functioning of a microphone.

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Why Are Microphones Considered Input Devices

A microphone is an input device that was developed by Emile Berliner in 1877. It is used to convert sound waves into electric waves or input the audio into computers.

To help you understand why microphones are considered input devices, first I will explain the difference between input vs output audio devices.

An input device sends data to be processed into a computer system by specific software, whereas an output device receives the processed data or the information processed by the computer system. 

Now apply the above logic to microphones. Microphones are input devices because they convert sound waves into audio signals or voltage, which is then converted to digital data by an A/D converter and fed into the computer system to be processed and outputted via an output device such as a speaker.

Input devices are only capable of taking in information, sounds, or data, while output devices can only reproduce it. If you have a dedicated input device, such as a recording microphone, it will not be able to output the data. That would necessitate the use of another device. If you have a specific output device, such as a set of speakers, it will only emit the data it receives.

However, there are devices that can perform both Input and Output functions as well. These are known as the I/O (Input/Output) Devices. A computer or a phone are two of the most common examples of an I/O Device.

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A microphone captures audio by converting sound waves into an electrical signal, which may be a digital or analog signal. This process can be implemented by a computer or other digital audio devices. 

This implies – A microphone can only be considered an input device if the mic’s signal is first converted to digital data which can be recognized by a computer system.

Below are the three most common ways for analog-to-digital conversion of the audio signal.

Digital Microphone

The digital mics process and digitize audio through the microphone itself instead of at the other end of the cable. Any editing you do at the computer is being done to a signal that has already been digitally processed, with the maximum sampling and bitrate dictated by the microphone. Each USB mic is essentially its own analog-to-digital converter (DAC), and often with its own gain knob built-in. These mics connect directly to a computer via USB.

A perfect example of a USB mic would be Blue Yeti X Professional Condenser Microphone.

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The biggest differentiator between USB mics themselves is how they use digital signal processing (DSP). Some mics have it and use it subtly. Some mics avoid DSP completely and offer you the purest high-bitrate signal they can. 

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Audio Interface (Hub)

Hub-style audio interfaces are the most common method of connecting a microphone to a computer.

This amazing device allows you to connect more than one microphone – this simply means that you can sing and play an instrument with a dedicated microphone for each audio input.

An analog-to-digital converter converts the analog signal into digital data which is then transmitted/inputted into a computer system to be processed. This transmission of data to the computer is done via USB, Lightning, FireWire, Thunderbolt, etc.

There are many hub-style audio interfaces available in the market today, but my favorite is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Audio Interface. With its new upgrades and features, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a serious digital audio interface that provides impressive pro-quality sound and ease of use that makes it a great choice for new and experienced recording enthusiasts alike.

Audio Interface (Adapter)

An adapter-style audio interface is not a very common way to convert a microphone’s analog signals to digital data, although it is used by artists who choose this because of its portability.

You can typically connect just one mic to it, it has a basic A/D converter and it connects to a computer via a USB connector.

The Shure X2U XLR-to-USB Signal Adapter is one of the best-selling adapter-style audio interfaces on the market. It connects any XLR microphone to a computer for recording with headphone monitoring. It has some useful features such as USB connectivity, an integrated preamplifier with microphone gain control, and zero-latency monitoring for real-time playback.

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Can A Microphone Be Both Input & Output Device

A microphone is a transducer that converts mechanical energy i.e the sound waves into electric voltage i.e. analog audio signals.

A microphone converts sound into a small electrical current. Sound waves hit a diaphragm that vibrates, moving a magnet near a coil. In some designs, the coil moves within a magnet.

Other microphones, such as condenser microphones, work on the principle of capacitance. Capacitors consist of parallel conducting plates that store charge and are used to smooth out signals like voltage variations in a power supply. In a condenser microphone, the incoming sound vibrates one plate of a capacitor. The varying capacitance is converted into a corresponding electrical signal.

So this proves that although microphones output electrical audio signals, they are essentially considered as input devices as they send data to a computer system for processsing before being converted to recognizable digital data.

Can a Microphone (Input) Be Used as a Speaker (Output)

Speakers and microphones are like the two sides of the same coin — they have very similar technology. 

A microphone can work as a speaker if you plug it in an audio output jack. Microphones have a diaphragm that vibrates to produce sound when it receives an audio signal. Please note that you will hear a sound but it won’t be loud enough and moreover, you might also damage the microphone.

The diaphragm is a key component of microphones. It’s a delicate element of the microphone that’s also incredibly light. When a sound wave reaches it, it vibrates due to its properties.

The voice coil and magnets, among other components inside the microphone, assist in converting the diaphragm’s vibration into an audio signal in the form of an electric current.

Speakers, on the other hand, get an audio signal in the form of an electric current from an amplifier. The signal is sent to the voice coil of the speaker. When an electric current runs through the coil, it instantly transforms into an electromagnet.

The voice coil will travel back and forth, repelling and attracting the permanent magnets in the speakers. The speaker’s diaphragm produces sound due to the back and forth movement of this voice coil.

To summarize the above discussion, microphones use the diaphragm to pick up sound waves and convert them to audio signals. Speakers, on the other hand, receive audio signals and transform them to sound waves by vibrating the diaphragm of the speaker.

Are headphones with a built-in microphone input or output devices.

A headphone with a built-in mic can be considered both Input as well as an output device. Since headphones with an integrated microphone can perform the functions of input and output devices, so they are called input-output devices. The microphone can be used to give instructions to the computer or any other digital device, while the headphone speaker gives a sound output.

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