2017 was a hell of a year. Donald Trump ruined everything he could touch. SKT didn’t win Worlds. But most importantly, Twitch basically became Justin.tv again.
It’s opened up the broadcasting platform to all manner of creative, programmatic, mechanical and culinary pursuits, and as the number of active broadcasters increases past 2.5 million, technology continues to march ever so slowly forward, improving our tools for creating new and interesting content.
Each of these categories will be divided up into five tiers.
- Please Don’t: Means what it says on the tin. There is no logical reason for you to ever do or purchase the thing unless you actively like wasting your own time and money.
- I’m Just Getting Started: Something that gets the job done, while perhaps being janky or excessively simple. Okay for beginners or people who don’t want to put a lot of effort in.
- I Want To Do Better: Mid-tier broadcasters, people who want things to look and sound good, but price is a concern.
- Time To Get Serious: Expert twitch streamers for whom time is money, and who broadcast as a job.
- Literal Professional: You’re being paid for your time and equipment to produce live video content for someone else, so it’s worth spending money on.
- Honorable Mention / Mobile: Something that you should know about because it’s cool, or because it can be used while you’re out and about.
First up, everyone needs some sort of software to broadcast from. 2016 saw a lot of updates to existing platforms, and a lot of new releases. Pokemon Go is a game that exists, and made people leave their houses, bringing out a whole host of new techniques for broadcasting mobile.
We’ve got a lot of ground to cover so this will be split into several parts.
Part 1: Streaming Programs
The foundation upon which your channel is built.
Your streaming package is the most important choice you have as a broadcaster. It determines your toolset, you workflow, and ultimately sets the bar for how good (or bad) the viewer experience is.
It’s also the most frequently-updated, so as a category all of these options are constantly in flux. Just because you tried something six months ago, doesn’t mean you have the slightest clue what it’s like now – so stay informed and up to date.
Please don’t stream directly from your PS4 or Xbox One. I know it sounds like a really good idea – since direct-from-console streaming was added, there was a large increase in the number of people broadcasting. However, there was no equivalent increase in the number of people watching. Most people broadcasting from their consoles simply have literally no-one watching, for a number of reasons.
- There is no camera, so we don’t know who we’re watching;
- There’s no 2nd monitor to have chat open on, so they don’t interact with the viewers at all, and;
- Most people have no mic attached, so they can’t communicate at all. It’s just gameplay footage. Worthless, worthless gameplay footage.
Please don’t stream from OSX, unless you’re using Gameshow. If you don’t Bootcamp it and install Windows, you’ll have to install a series of custom audio routing tools in order to be able to capture sound being played by your computer, and that’s a rabbit hole that’s very difficult to climb back out of. If you do insist on going through it, you’ll need Soundflower and WavTAP at a bare minimum, and possibly a multi-output volume controller. Your in-game performance will generally be much worse in OSX, too. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Please don’t use Wirecast. It’s been getting progressively more buggy and unstable and even though we received our promotional copy for free, we have barred it from professional use.
I’m Just Getting Started:
Pros: Free, Lots of new features this year, Is not legacy OBS
Cons: Literally everything else
Look, credit where credit’s due – OBS Studio is a huge improvement. Original OBS was janky, spaghetti-code, CPU-heavy garbage. The replacement, OBS Multiplatform, made huge inroads into fixing that, and unifying the codebase with a ground-up rewrite. That has now evolved into OBS Studio, and it’s come a long way.
By far the two most important things are the ability to make changes as a set before sending them live, and the ability to recursively add scenes into other scenes, making it easy to create a ‘scene’ for your twitchalerts^H^H^H^H^HStreamLabs alerts that’s then included in your regular scenes.
It does, however, have its fair share of problems. Time/delay synchronization, dodgy driver hooks and poor support for high-end equipment make it unsuitable for power users, as well as difficulty backing up settings / scenes and profiling that just straight up doesn’t work. It’s still very impressive for a Free/Open Source project, but not something I’d want to be using if getting paid depended on it.
That said, if you are on OBS or Multiplatform, you should definitely upgrade to OBS Studio. It’s light-years better than it’s previous iterations, and should be considered the starting point for every broadcaster.
I want to do better:
Pros: Lots of features and integrations, very stable, low CPU usage
Cons: Interface sometimes confusing, ongoing subscription $5/mo
I feel about XSplit the way one does about their favorite screwdriver. It’s not something I relish using in a joyful way, but it does its job reliably, and in some circumstances it’s just absolutely the perfect tool.
I can’t stress enough how professional XSplit feels after using OBS Studio. It’s easy to store multiple output destinations, and overall it’s just plainly obvious that it was built with your workflow in mind, rather than just ‘hey we made it work ok lets move on’. You can also package your scene collection for portability and use it on another machine easily.
We do need to discuss one important feature, which is Local Broadcasting. XSplit can present your RTMP stream over HTTP on your local LAN IP. While it may sound unimpressive, this actually unlocks and enabled some really seriously powerful functionality. If you were to install XSplit Personal on ten computers on a LAN, and add each of those ten computers Local Broadcast IPs as an RTMP source on another machine, that machine’s broadcast software would then have the video from all ten machines as sources. Which means that you could, as a hobbyist broadcaster, easily create a live cast of a LAN tournament and switch POV in real-time for anything. Considering that League of Legends spectator clients have a 3 minute delay, this means you can actually have shoutcasters and people in your venue watching it live. You also gain something that spectators in MOBAs don’t have – the ability to see where a player is watching and clicking.
This is a Very Cool Feature and one that I’ve used building all sorts of live broadcast rigs, including some big names, like Twitch Headquarters Esports Room, and the flagship Razer Store in San Francisco.
Anyway, XSplit is really good, is what I’m saying. Seriously consider it as an upgrade from OBS.
Time to get serious:
Pros: Has heritage in professional broadcasting, a lot of great features designed for your workflow
Cons: Some odd behaviours
Make no mistake, Gameshow feels a lot like Telestream’s professional broadcasting software, Wirecast. It should – they share a lot of their core. Cut down to remove the extraneous tools that would truly unlock it to be able to create TV-show quality broadcasts, Gameshow was the first of the home broadcasting tools to allow you to make changes to a scene before sending them live. A lot of the way Gameshow does things just makes sense, but more importantly it allows you to have three separate layers of shots. From a time-spent-screwing-around point of view, this makes creating scenes very easy. Put your alerts overlay on the top layer, put a background on the bottom layer, and have your main video/camera sources in the middle layer. Easy.
Unlike OBS and XSplit, Gameshow isn’t built to do everything; it’s built to do a small number of things really well, and as a regular partnered broadcaster it’s unlikely that those restrictions will exceed your needs. Unlike OBS, it can actually pull in video and audio in a reasonable timeframe, making timing synchronization from multiple sources a breeze. There’s a full audio mixer with a suite of plugins like limiters, multiband EQs etc so you can make almost any mic sound godlike and compensate for suboptimal sound environments.
With Gameshow, everything you want to do is easy, because it’s designed around how you want to do things, and that development attitude makes the life of a full-time broadcaster painless.
Gameshow costs $30 for a perpetual license, and is worth every cent.
Pros: Lots of features
Cons: Not the greatest performance.
The full suite of plugins that are both included and available from the store is huge. There’s no reason to need to open anything else – just load XSplit and go.
Automatic scene switching as window focus changes ✓
Twitch/Youtube chat integration ✓
Follower alerts ✓
Integrated plugin store ✓
Audio customization per scene ✓
It’s just a big bag of features.
The criticisms that applied to XSplit Personal still apply here. Yes, it costs money ongoing, and yes, the interface is just plain difficult to find stuff in. Unless you know what you’re looking for, you’ll probably miss things. I found new things while refreshing my memory for this roundup. NDI is still somewhat of a beta feature, you may run into bugs.
Powerful, lightweight, fast. Difficult to set up the first time, takes maybe 2 – 3 hours to understand if you’ve used other packages from this list before but easy if you’ve done any sort of TV broadcasting. Not focused on capturing content from your PC so much as broadcasting other video sources. If you use a separate machine for broadcast production than gaming/spectating, this may be your ticket.
Most importantly, it contains triggers and scripting, so if you want to set up a broadcast and walk off, you can have countdown timers, videos playing in a row, playlists .. the list goes on.
The version of vMix that most of you will be looking at is $350, which I paid when my trial was up without hesitation.
Honorable Mention / Mobile:
Live:Air Solo for iOS is great for broadcasting from your phone when you don’t have access to a computer. If you’re a broadcaster, you NEED this on your phone with your details plugged in ready to go, so if your computer crashes, your internet goes out, whatever, you can be live again in seconds.
VoiceMeeter Banana. Stupid name, great product. This custom audio router lets you do just about anything with your sound in Windows.
Part 2: Headphones
Music to your ears, comfort for your head.
In all honesty, headsets haven’t changed much in the last 12 months. The best things here are mostly either the same as last year at a more reasonable price point, or slightly upgraded versions. If you have the previous version, there’s little reason to upgrade. But if you want to skip a tier, then it’s definitely worth it.
Spoiler alert: Astros A40/50s are still bad. Very, very bad.
Astro make some of the most comfortable headsets money can buy. That is where the good ends, because literally everything else about them is terrible. I can’t stress enough exactly how terrible they are at making sound, or recording sound.
I need to restate this: If you think they sound good, you are objectively wrong and do not know what good sounds like. The quality might be acceptable for, say, a quarter of the price, but even a 50% discount would be nowhere near enough. I got my A40s for free and I gave them away. They were given back. If you do get some for free, it’s possible to make them sound vaguely acceptable if you EQ them within an inch of their life, which you can do on a Mixamp (which is actually wonderful) using the Command Center software. But wherever possible, don’t spend money on them.
I’m just getting started:
Logitech G430: $49.99
The non-wireless version of the G930, the G430 is comfortable, sounds good, and has a good quality microphone. This is important because the G930 suffers terribly from driver issues under Windows 10 that causes it to constantly disconnect. No wireless, no wireless issues! Hooray! They’ve got plenty of bass without sounding too muddy, crisp-ish high-ends and just feels good when gaming. It’s actually surprising that these are only $50, because they sound and feel like something more expensive. The look is a little last-gen with the xx3 series gear going a bit more futuristic, but overall it’s difficult to fault this little headset.
Hyper-X Cloud: $69.99
I’m just going to come out and say it – I love these headphones, I really do. The frequency response is wide and deep, and the closed-back design is reminiscent of the Plantronics GAMECOM Commander used for many live esports events, giving good isolation and containing the sound from escaping into your lounge room. That said, you will never forget you’re wearing them – the closed-back also creates a very tight soundstage. A TeamSpeak-certified detachable mic makes them great for voice comms in game, which is clearly the primary focus of this device. There’s a huge gulf of performance across different gaming headsets, ranging from ‘excellent’ to ‘how did this get past prototyping’, and many different design philosophies. This one sits firmly in ‘quite good’ and ‘we copied something we know works and made it a lot cheaper’. A solid choice.
Steelseries 200: $59.99 (25% off)
Steelseries headsets are underrated and I don’t know why. The current discounts on some of the range is indicative of new models dropping soon, so get in while you can. Like the others in I’m Just Getting Started, there’s not a heap to say about them. Good headsets at a low price, comfortable for long periods of time, sizeable drivers with reasonable detail levels.
I want to do better:
Let’s just get this out of the way first – Logitech wants to be Razer, but I’m not terribly upset about it. Both the headsets at this tier just happen to be wireless, and similar to each other. While this definitely wasn’t the plan, don’t underestimate how good wireless headsets are for streaming. It’s super easy to stream in different places in different ways when your audio and mic aren’t tethered to anything; cooking streams, Pokemon Go, working on cars, whatever. It is far, far easier than trying to use fixed mics in random places.
Logitech G933: $99.99
The G933 is a successor to the G930, which I’ve tested and used extensively, even getting a pair for myself to use permanently as a headset for travel, and have accompanied me around the world several times. Hardy, durable, they sound great, can drive hard, with great battery life and an excellent microphone, it’s difficult to find anything to complain about. The frequency response isn’t the flattest thing you’ve ever heard, emphasising gaming immersion over accurate reproduction, and when I use the microwave they tend to drop out. Range-wise I can walk all over my apartment or downstairs while using them and not lose signal. I won’t buy G933s for myself, but if my G930s die (god forbid), then I’ll replace them with G933s. Easily worth the $100, and a notable upgrade in every way from all of the IJGS headsets.
Worth noting that the G933 has regular wired connectivity as well, meaning it can connect to Xbox/PS4/et al, making it far more versatile than the original.
Razer ManO’War Wireless: $139.99
The ManO’War Wireless is the only Razer headset you should consider buying (with the possible exception of the Tiamat 7.1). They’re definitely better than the G933s. Are they 40% better to justify the 40% price difference? Maybe. They’re staggeringly impressive though. They feel great over any time period, they don’t ever feel heavy, and the sound stage is impressively open. Great battery life, good sound, good mic, great for streaming, and absolutely sounds better than the wired version. The only real complaint is that unlike the G933 you can’t connect a 3.5mm – if there’s a PC driver issue or you want to connect it to something else, you literally can’t; you’re tied to the dongle. On the bright side, it does also work on PS4 and OSX out of the box. The mic sounds crisp and clear, and has fooled people on-stream a few times asking what off-screen mic we were using. Surprise! ManO’War.
After-sales support is truly spectacular as well – this year one of ours bought in Australia failed in Hong Kong, and they shipped us a replacement from a local warehouse in HK the same day. The only caveat was that they asked us to destroy the failed unit, so no-one else attempted a warranty claim on them. It’s honestly one of the most sensible, pragmatic customer support experiences I’ve had and it makes it easy to recommend purchasing.
Steelseries Arctis 7: $149.99
If you have a $150 budget, buy this headset. Don’t read any further, just click buy and never worry about headsets again. This is one of the only headsets in existence that seems tailor-made for broadcasters.
The simplified transceiver requires no setup, and has a 3.5mm line in and line out. The line-in can take input from a console, making console streaming easy. Or, you can plug your phone into it so you don’t miss any messages while gaming. By comparison, normally you’d need something like the Astro Mixamp (listed further down for $130) to do that, which is just a wired headphone amp. Being able to wirelessly transmit a secondary source is way more useful than you might think, because all of a sudden any audio source can be wireless. I no longer carry my phone around the house, because I’ll hear it on my headset if it rings. If the headset is off, audio will go out the line out for connection to external speakers, making the transition from broadcasting to chilling a single button press.
The Arctis 7 has the same drivers as the $300 Steelseries 840, so they sound good. The isolation is surprisingly good as well; the firm but soft fitment transmits bass incredibly well, while remaining light on your head even for long periods of time. There’s a 3.5mm TRRS cable that can be plugged straight into a phone – this works even if the battery is dead, which makes them really useful for travelling.
The configuration software is easy to use, has a heap of options, and the firmware upgrade process is smooth. There’s a mic mute button on the left cup, and the mic itself is flexible and retractable. Getting the mic just right for your environment should only take about five minutes, and it’s pretty easy to find levels where you get keyboard sound or just voice. Mixing between chat and game volume is done on the headset, and there’s a 3.5mm output (you read that correctly) on the headphones themselves to plug in a second set of headphones, which you think you’ll never need, until you do. Then you’ll be surprised that someone thought of it. You can actually use this to turn the entire thing into a wireless audio bridge! My range topped out around 30 feet, and they handle interference from microwaves like a boss (unlike the G930 which stops entirely if you heat up some noodles).
I actually just can’t believe these are $150; I’d happily have paid $250. These have become my main PC gaming and travel headphones, and I refuse to give them back. The studio can have them when they pry them from my cold dead hands.
They are a streamer’s delight, and I for one have not been this impressed in a long time.
Time to get serious:
Audio-Technica ADG1x: $299
These headphones are really, really great. So great, in fact, I bought them twice. With my own money. There are two variants available, an open-back and closed-back version, and I own them both, at nearly $300 each, and with no regrets.
They sound better than anything else on this list, and possibly anything else available for less than $600 that doesn’t need amplifying.
I need to restate this again for avoidance of doubt: ADG1x’s sound absolutely spectacular. I’ve heard things in-game and taken my headphones off to see what that noise in my apartment is. My long-suffering reference headphones, the Denon AH-D2000s, were $1600 when they were new, and they are only slightly better than the ADG1x’s.
They’re so comfortable there is literally no time period of wearing them which will hurt your head. They come with good cabling options and a USB sound card, if you need such a thing (it is not very good so probably just throw it away). The soundstage is open and reproduction is accurate. There’s only one confusing thing about them, and it’s in the way the mic works. It can’t be fully slid out of the way, and the mute button isn’t on-off, it’s push-to-mute. And it’s on the inside, so you hit it with your thumb. I don’t understand this, but it is very easy to use for a quick aside while streaming, so questionable design aside, it sounds good. It could stand to be more directional, as it has a tendency to pick up room noise, but that can be worked around with a noise gate and a limiter in your effects panel, if you have one.
If you have to choose between the open and closed-back models, it’s really down to whether you want to annoy your coworkers. The open back spills sound like a drunk white girl dancing to a cover band, and there is a slight tradeoff in sound quality for going to the closed-back version, but not much. The closed-back version inexplicably trades in the fabric pad cover for something non-porous. I don’t like it. You might. The comfort comes from the four-points-of-contact design that uses your head for suspension, however if you have a small head like our director, you can increase the tension by attaching a rubber band between the two suspension arms, which will will firm the damping nicely.
To re-iterate: if you want a wired headset and value sound quality & comfort for long sessions without fatigue, buy these.
Steelseries 800: $229 (25% off)
There is no other headset on this list, or in fact anywhere in the world that can do what the Steelseries 800, and let alone the features of its successor the 840. I almost don’t know where to start.
Sounds great: ✓
Myriad of connectivity options: ✓
Even more connectivity options: ✓
Replaceable standard battery: ✓
Compatible with everything: ✓
The 800 series is discounted because the 840 is out, which is basically the same but also WILL BLUETOOTH PAIR TO YOUR PHONE SO YOU CAN USE IT AT THE SAME TIME AS YOUR PC. Jesus christ Steelseries. You calm down. You’ve made a headset that can literally do anything. There’s even a 3.5mm out on the headset – you read that right – so you can daisy chain a second pair of headphones off them. You can connect with USB as an interface, the transmitter can take multiple inputs of 3.5mm or optical S/PDIF with levels separately adjustable. You can use it with your phone, your xbox, your PS4, your PC. If your microwave had a line out, you could use it with that too. I’m actually angry this exists, because it makes me re-evaluate how stupid any headphone is in comparison. The ADG1x does sound a little better, but that’s a totally fine trade-off for what the 800 brings to the table.
At $229, I can’t give any reason not to buy these immediately.
Alternately, you can upgrade to the 840 for $329, which is also amazing if you can justify it.
Audio-Technica BPHS-1: $160 + interface
Do not buy the BPHS-1 unless you have a mixer/recording interface. This is a professional broadcast headset with an XLR-cabled dynamic microphone, and a 3.5mm TRS stereo cable for connectivity. It is useless to you unless you own the appropriate hardware to connect it to, and even then it’s going to sound worse in your ears than either of the TTGS recommendations. However.
If you intend on running a broadcast from an event, these headsets are brilliant. Solid isolation, plugs directly into your audio equipment, and headset mics that properly mirror the performance of a real dynamic stage mic, for $160 these are a steal compared to competing models like the Sennheiser HME 26-600(4)-XQ going for $550 (which Riot uses at major events).
Nothing more to say. A workhorse designed for getting work done, and will make your life much, much easier if you’re doing live events.
Part 3: Microphones
What use is a phone call, if you cannot speak?
There is no such thing as a perfect microphone, only a perfect microphone for a situation. I have studio recording mics that cost more than a small car, which sit in a drawer because they’re just not appropriate for streaming. What we’re covering here is what’s good for streaming, but be aware that your use case must factor into any decision.
I’m just getting started:
Just use your headset mic. It’s really not worth paying for anything extra until later on, and you already own it so just run with it until it becomes a problem.
I want to do better:
Antlion Modmic: $55
At $55 this is by far the cheapest, easiest upgrade you can make, especially if you have a quality pair of headphones with no mic. This little magnetised mic flips up and away when not in use and comes in uni or omnidirectional models, and with or without a mute switch. The mute switch is a little useless since it’s kind of difficult to use, but gosh. Unless you spent a lot on a headset, there’s a good chance this mic is better.
It’s more expensive than the V-Moda Boom Pro but works with literally any headphones (rather than just a small subset with a detachable cable), and it sounds better. When we got the modmic, people on the other end of voice chat asked if I’d gotten an expensive desk mic because the sound was that much clearer. The cabling can be messy if not done sensibly, but that’s on you, you lazy sack of crap.
Time to get serious:
If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s worth the upgrade from a headset mic to a real microphone, there’s a sample recording on the Razer Seiren web site about half way down.
In short – yes. Yes it is. No surprises where this section starts either.
Blue Yeti: $89
A staple of broadcasters everywhere, the Yeti remains on the list once again, because it does what it does really well and cheaply. The community is deeply divided on Yeti quality, but this is largely misunderstanding what it is you’re supposed to do with it. Condenser microphones should be placed close to the source of the sound (with an optional pop filter for those nasty plosives), with the gain turned right down. Not far away, with the gain turned right up, so that it picks up every keystroke, every click, every dog running by your house. Set up correctly, there is no reason most people will ever need to move past a Yeti, but sadly most will never be set up correctly, and people will continue to spend money chasing something that could be rectified by having the slightest idea what they’re doing.
The Yeti connects by USB and also has a pro version that has XLR out, but if you’re reading this you probably don’t care about that. You should strongly consider investing in a $40 shock mount which will get rid of desk vibration noise from slamming the keys angrily typing ‘no peel gg’.
Voice is captured well, but it’s important to recognize that the Yeti was designed to capture /everything/. It was designed in a time when USB condenser mics literally didn’t exist, and so it functions pretty well for most use cases. What this does mean however, is that it wasn’t designed specifically for streaming, that’s just something we use it for. If this will only be used to pick up your voice at close range in front of a PC, consider..
Razer Seirēn X: $99
The Seiren-X is what happens when you design a mic from the ground up for streaming. The diaphragm itself has an internal shock mount, it’s light, it’s small, and it packs away easily.
But most importantly, it has no controls. This is important, because 99% of condenser mics are set up incorrectly. By removing the controls, it forces the user to position it an appropriate distance from themselves, and in doing so, makes an immediate improvement in the vast majority of users. The first time I fired this up, people on discord asked if I had a new mic. Even heavily compressed, it still sounded far better. It has permanently displaced the dynamic mic I was using on account of its clarity, and excellent ability to filter out background noise.
For $99, this is a much easier choice than the Yeti.
Rode NT-USB: $168
Rode has an amazing tradition of making great condenser mics, but don’t let this one fool you – it’s not a USB version of the classic NT-1A (which I own), it’s the USB version of the NT1. The outside may look the same but the internals are all new. This doesn’t necessarily make it better, just more fit for purpose. This is a great mic for speaking with multiple people, recording guitar, or playing and singing. As for the split over the Sieren, that’s really down to taste, but the Rode is tasty. Very tasty. And it comes with a pop filter. And it looks very cool. And it sounds really warm. I really like this mic and recommend it to anyone. I’ve done that twice, and so far two out of two people have been incredibly happy, even the one with an extremely noisy room fan (??) which doesn’t seem to be a problem for some reason.
Behringer XM8500: $20 + interface
This is the last thing anyone would expect to see here, but hell, we’re doing it. Behringer makes cheap copies of well-known equipment. This is a dynamic mic for $20, or you can get a Shure SM58S for $110, and most people can’t tell the difference. It will put up with being shouted in, and transmit the bass in your voice well. Again, add a limiter in software and you’ve got a sweet vocal sound.
Obviously this doesn’t cover the cost of the audio interface required to pick it up, but if you have one already, or are buying into it cheap, this is absolutely the best value for money. I’ve tested all of the mics mentioned here, and I still use a Behringer XM for streaming.
Rode NTG1: $250 + interface
The only shotgun mic mentioned here, the NTG1 is very good at capturing sound directly in front of it, making shotguns a prime choice for broadcasters. It will capture some off-axis sound, but gosh, it’s just really sweet. The sounds are sweet and accurate. You don’t have to have a mic right in your face either. It is also the only mic listed that requires +48v Phantom power, so if you don’t have an audio interface capable of providing phantom, then you won’t be able to use the NTG1.
Rode has the best after-sales service of any mic company I’ve ever dealt with, and spent some time helping me debug a problem that turned out to be with a Canon camera, just because I had a Rode mic connected to it. Mark, if you’re reading this, thanks for your effort.
Rode is pronounced ‘road’, not ‘roadie’, by the way.
I use an NTG1 in my portable rig and it’s spectacular for interviews or small groups. It’s the most expensive of the TTGS group, but if it’s a natural sound you’re after, you can’t beat it.
Behringer XM1800S 3-pack: $40 + mixer interface
Again, surprises. You can get a 3-pack of dynamic behringer mics in a road case for $40. They sound near-indistinguishable from mics 6x the price and it doesn’t matter if they get lost, stolen or broken. You will need a mixer interface for this because by default, audio interfaces will attempt to assign channel 1 to Left and channel 2 to right. If you have two casters, this will pan one full left and one full right. You do not want this. Get a mixer that has a USB connection. Get a $5 colored foam wind shield to pretty it up if you want.
Audio-Technica BPHS-1: $160 + mixer interface
The only repeat-appearance on this list, the BPHS-1’s dynamic microphones are great for casting because they’re attached to your head and they deal with variation in speech volumes very well. Again, given the nature of why you’d buy these, a mixer is a must.
Remember, sometimes professional doesn’t mean ‘the very best quality’, it means ‘the best effort:reward ratio with minimal screwing around’.
Neewer Boom Arm Mic Stand: $13.50
Whatever mic you choose, get one of these. They cost basically nothing, they mount to practically anything, and they’re awesome. Surprisingly durable considering it costs less than a good sandwich; we’ve bought 3 of them and will definitely get more in the future. Plenty of options too, with models containing USB cables, XLR cables or have integrated pop filters. And if you don’t like it, put it in a cupboard somewhere – you will find a use for it.
Part 4: Audio Interfaces
The sound of silence (with some mild hissing).
Your computer already came with a sound card so more than likely you don’t need another one. That’s all an audio interface is – a really fancy sound card with some special bits. That said, when you do need them, you really need them. Here’s where to look when you find those use cases.
Just starting out:
Don’t bother. You don’t need it.
I want to do better:
Astro Mixamp Pro TR: $130
You may have gotten the wrong impression earlier – I don’t hate Astro. In fact, I’m thankful every day that they made this little gem of a thing. It is more expensive than the TTGS options presented here, but it works with your existing headset AND it’s a headphone amp as well, which Sennheiser users will appreciate.
Connectivity is spectacular. It’s a USB audio interface of its own, but it’s also got secondary 3.5mm and optical ports, as well as an Aux in that you can hear in your headset but doesn’t get recorded to stream. Add in the ability to daisy-chain them to create a private voice loop between adjacent mixamps and you’ve got a seriously powerful tool.
If you’re prepared to get a little weird, split the TRRS combo jack out, add a multi-out headphone amp on output, put a passive mixer on the input, and you’ve just made yourself a very cheap casting rig using just consumer equipment, thanks to the mic sidetone.
Or if you want to stream your Xbox One/PS4, you can hook the audio output from that up to the aux input so you can listen to the game live while still getting your PC’s notifications and alerts, and use your headset mic. We ran this setup just to prove that we could, and liked it so much that the model Astro sent us keeps being ‘liberated’. If you do plan to use the Aux input, pick yourself up a $10 Ground Loop Isolator, as running it from the same base power source as your secondary input can produce a mild buzz.
Note to self: Buy another Mixamp.
Time to get serious:
A functional, cheap USB2 audio interface with phantom power, live monitoring and RCA outputs on the back. Convenient signal level meters around the outside of the gain knobs. Very small, very light. These vary in price over the year – I got mine for $49. Keep in mind that with one XLR and one ¼” jack, they’re very clearly targeted at Singer/Songwriter types who want to put a guitar and a microphone in.
Presonus Audiobox 22VSL : $169
Don’t mistake this for the cheaper Audiobox USB; despite incredibly similar appearances and feature lists, the 22VSL is the one you want, and yes it is worth being $70 more. If you only need two inputs, this is the way to go. The mic preamps are warm and delightful, construction is rugged but still really pretty. Although Virtual Studio Live is no longer a thing, the VSL Audiobox is still a great interface at a reasonable price, and really good for picking up a mic or two. It’s also 2×2, meaning two input channels, two output channels, so there are options for some cool monitoring solutions.
Mackie ProFX8v2: $200
If you’re recording more than one host at once, you need to seriously think about getting a USB mixer/interface. “But wait”, you ask in a fervored tone, “more than one? Those interfaces have two inputs”. You are correct, they most certainly do. But you should know that no modern streaming programs have the ability to split those up as separate inputs – they want to treat them as the Left and Right of a single Stereo input. This is a much more difficult to solve problem with no easy solution, except for a mixer. Like this one. The ProFX8v2 has some nice effects on board, and works instantly with any PC or Mac with no drivers to install. Great bit of kit.
Yamaha MG10XU: $200
Pretty much the same as the Mackie. Simpler to operate, way fewer controls, so if you’re less technically-minded this could be a better choice. The inputs are all XLR/TRS-compatible so if connectivity is important to you then this might be a priority. Technically it has two more channels, but 99% of people who buy these will never fill out their channel budget. No sliders, so it’s more space efficient, although that makes it harder to get a read on levels on the fly. That said, it’s unlikely that you as a broadcaster will be actively adjusting levels constantly, so it’s definitely targeted more for self-produced users than the Mackie which is more of a professional rig.
Hear me out. Again, this might be unexpected to most, but it’s one of those things how actors use hemorrhoid cream on their puffy eyes – “one weird trick”. Using the included ‘voice chat’ link cables on Mixamp Pro TRs creates a very simple local voice chat loop, and it’s all in hardware so it’s instant. If you ever have a need to broadcast more than one voice source, say hosting an event, or if you’ve got people on a LAN but only one PC broadcasting, using Discord / Teamspeak creates a weird echo and makes it incredibly hard to hear everything well or capture it. And, if you’re picking up broadcast feeds from multiple computers using XSplit’s Local Broadcast feature (or NDI) you’d usually get janky scene switching audio delay issues when it cuts over, but using the Pro TR’s voice chaining it works seamlessly. Buy as many as you need (and keep a spare one for yourself that just happens to accidentally come home with you for your PC).
Part 5: Lighting
A Candle In The Dark
All photography, and video is just really fast photography, is based on light. Lots of fancy equipment can work around suboptimal lighting, but you can get great shots on any gear with the right light. Here’s how to get it right the first time.
Just getting started:
Seriously just point some lights, any lights, at a wall. Light should be delivered to the subject from the same direction as the camera. That is, it should always be bouncing off the subject and then back towards the camera. Never point any raw light directly towards a camera. Trust me on this.
I want to do better:
The CN-160 represents the second-best value for money in this article, with the best being the other Neewer product, the mic boom arm in section 3. It makes light, and quite a lot of it. Sure, the construction is cheap, and there’s no AC adapter, but it can take a whole mess of different types of batteries (Panasonic CGR-D16S, Sony NP-FH70/NP-FM55H/NP-F550, 6xAA), and there’s an AC adapter available. It drops off after about 8 feet but that’s fine; you’ll probably never be that far from a camera anyway.
Time to get serious:
Ringlights make your eyes really super pretty and anime-like. Melonie Mac and OMGitsfirefoxx both use diffused ringlights and you should too. For regular PC-on-a-desk streams, this is all you’ll ever need; a soft, omni-directional-seeming light source with a nice spread. The stand will take up some space so you may need to mount them to a desk.
If you have more space available, or happen to want to do live events, this is an incredibly cost-effective way to get things done. You will need to cut the diffusers significantly in order to fit them over the barndoors, but it’s worth it. I use these for mobile photography as well.
There’s no question that a trio of softboxes will give you the best look out of anything here, but they are massive, and you will need to learn how to arrange a lighting solution or things will look not quite right for reasons you don’t quite understand. But, with the included green-screen and rack, it’s difficult to argue against this if you have room for it.
You probably don’t have room for it though.
These panels are great, especially if you know people will be taking photos with phones or some other device with no ability to adjust color temperature. Small, mobile, and with two sets of LEDs between 3200K and 5500K, they offer a clean field that’s just as easily bounced off a wall. You could diffuse these if you wanted, but most might not bother. These have the best combination of portability, results and space usage anything on this list, with a price tag to match.
Part 6: Camera
Seeing Is Believing
Webcams exist. Here are some you can consider.
Before we start, some of you are going to say ‘but there are no DSLRs on this list’. That is correct. By and large, using a DSLR as a webcam, while feasible (in fact I’m doing it right now) is so much more trouble than it’s worth. You need external power, then you probably need a firmware hack (eg MagicLantern, NikonHacker) to disable power management or get a clean HDMI out, then you need to get the settings right, and get your workflow set up, etc etc … don’t ask. If you have to ask, it would be too difficult for you.
Try to use a Canon DSLR as a webcam. More trouble than it’s worth. The only exception to this is the Canon SL2 which has a clean HDMI out and power-off-disabling in the firmware.
Just starting out:
Logitech C920: $70
There is nothing to say about the C920 at this point. It’s been the default industry standard for quite some time and nothing has changed. It is the best value for money, and will do an adequate job.
I want to do better:
Logitech C922-x: $95
There’s slightly more to say about the C922. Adding 60fps support to this camera makes it look significantly better for broadcasters already streaming in 60fps, which looked weird to have 30fps cam on 60fps gameplay. Be aware that when you go from 30fps to 60fps, you’re halving the amount of time that each frame gets on the sensor, which means the sensor gets half the amount of light. Be prepared to add more light or up the gain on the camera. It’s just plain newer and better than the C920 in basically every way so get one if you can afford it.
Razer Kiyo: $100
Ringlight works well, 720p60 is really nice. Really good for home setups with suboptimal lighting (which is all of them)
Time to get serious:
Sony HDR-CX405: $179 + capture card
This is an amazing value for money camera. I own two of these for studio-only close-up cameras and they’re super impressive. Power from USB, clean HDMI out, good low light performance, wide aperture, good zoom. Not the most features in the world, but it’ll output 1080p60 and has enough customization for most people.
GoPro Hero4 Black: $350 + capture card
Unbeknownst to most, GoPros actually make really good webcams. Their onboard microHDMI output is clean and aside from the regular low-light performance issues that all action cameras suffer from, they produce a really interesting look that will differentiate you from the crowd. The Hero4 is the last to have a dedicated microHDMI port – you’ll need a USB-C to HDMI cable if you want to use the 5, but as yet they have not been released.
Sony FDR-AX33: $750 + capture card
Sony video cameras have been good for a long time and this is no exception. Solid video quality and used by many professional youtubers on big channels. Light, small, hardy, and easy to mount. Definitely worth considering.
Canon VIXIA HF G40: $1059 + capture card
The HF G40 is a solid consumer camera. It doesn’t handle low light particularly well and can get a bit grainy, but there’s fine control and lots of configuration options. Good lens, great optical zoom, and the 58mm ring makes it easy to mount accessories. Check out 2mgovercsquared for an example – her Vixia set up is tight.
Canon XA30: $1799 + capture card
The XA30 is the professional version of the Vixia, and has professional XLR audio options, allowing the mounting of shotgun mics or handhelds which is really great for interviews. I’ve used these for LoL World Championships, Intel Extreme Masters, Pokemon Go streams and my own streaming – recommend for ease of use and workflow.
Sony HDR-CX405 …. again?: $179 + capture card
Yes, again. These are cheap enough you can afford to buy them in bulk and just throw them anywhere. They’re pretty flimsy and will take nearly no punishment, but if you want additional shots for not a lot of money, it’s good value.
Part 7: Capture cards
Gotta Capture ‘Em All
If you’re using a camera with HDMI out, or capturing from a console, you need a capture device to get that signal into the computer. They generally use USB3, Thunderbolt or PCI-E, but not always..
Just getting started:
Xbox App / PS4 Remoteplay: Free
Obviously these are alternatives to capturing your console gameplay via a capture card, and neither of these help you with a camera, but they’re both excellent for trying out whether or not you want to console stream. And they have the added bonus of running over the network so no additional cabling. You can view some comparison videos on my youtube channel.
I want to do better:
Elgato HD60: $89 – $160
The cheapest option, the HD60 can happily capture 1080p60 on USB2, but there’s a catch – it does onboard h264 compression to get over the USB2 bandwidth limitation, so the signal is about 650ms delay. You can also inject 3.5mm audio if your audio source is separate, but be aware – if your signal comes through in 5.1 you may not be able to capture it as the Elgato will not downmix it to stereo.
Beware – the Elgato drivers will only support one device per machine. Don’t buy two, they won’t work together. This issue exists on the HD, but the HD60S and HD60Pro support up to four per machine. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Pricing varies wildly depending on what’s on sale any given month.
Razer Ripsaw: $169
The Razer Ripsaw is actually an OEM of the Avermedia GLX, which is definitely not bad. Ordinarily I wouldn’t recommend an OEM but Razer’s drivers and ecosystem are easy to work in and for me, the support of a larger company is worth a lot. Super easy to set up – all you need to do is tell it the resolution it’s expecting and it will sort the rest out. Definitely the most easy of everything on this list to get working, by a large margin.
Elgato HD60 Pro: $159
Like the HD60, except PCI-E and with no delay. Can use up to four at the same time, if you use this special driver, although be aware it’s not on the main software branch so updates are sparse. Good quality, and worth considering if you want internal, which if you’re only ever running from a desktop PC, may be worth doing. The HD60-S is available as well at the same price point, but works better than the standard HD60 because it uses USB3.
Time to get serious:
A more serious internal capture card than the HD60 Pro, the Intensity Pro 4K does, as the name suggests, support 4K capture. Blackmagic can be more finicky than Elgato but overall the results can be more professional depending on your workflow. The drivers are definitely more stable as well.
Magewell XI100DUSB-HDMI: $300
I know there are already several external USB capture cards on this list, and this one is nearly double the price of the others, but if you need a high-quality device that works anywhere with no drivers and need it to be reliable and stay sync’d, this one’s your ticket. Magewell makes really good stuff, and because of that it’s expensive. There is no pass-through on this, it is designed for capture – making it ideal for cameras.
Elgato Cam Link: $129
One of the cheaper cards on the market, the Cam Link is well-sized and is specifically designed to take your camera input. The serious USB bandwidth it consumes makes it difficult to stack – only one per USB controller is supported. This is a good option if you only need one cam, or you know you have multiple controllers on your machine.
The Magewell Pro Capture Quad (or X4) is a four-input HDMI capture card. This means you can capture four simultaneous sources at once. You might assign one port to a Spectator client, one to a host, one to an analyst desk and one to shoot the crowd. You might put three cameras on the desk and swap between shots of individual people. Who knows! But you’ve got options. Because it’s Thunderbolt 3, it’s easy to get a laptop you can plug it into, or if you want to plug it in at home, a PCI-E Thunderbolt 3 card is $20. This is a core component of a Studio In A Box and should not be ignored, as stacking the cheaper options can get messy.
If you don’t have Thunderbolt 3, but have TB1 or TB2 ports like many Macbook Pros, this unit is wonderful. They’re small, light and can capture up to 1080i60. You read that right – no 1080p60. The drivers can also be questionable, as you need to tell it /exactly/ what format it’s receiving, and what framerate, and what interlacing. If you get any of these wrong, you get no picture. These two things push it off the main list and onto the Honorable Mention list, but I keep two in my broadcast travel box just in case.
These HDMI duplicators do exactly what you think they do. One port in, two ports out. I have an array of them behind my TV heading into a secondary HDMI switch so I can stream consoles without replugging anything. Always leave one in your gig bag, just in case. And the lights come on when they get a valid HDMI signal so if you think your patching is off, you can test!
Part 8: Laptops for encoding
I’m going to break the pattern here because we’re delving into hardcore territory – Streaming Laptops.
This sounds crazy, but hear me out. Many people have a laptop and a computer, but very few people can justify (or have space for) two computers.
A second computer with a capture card will almost always produce better results than streaming from the computer you’re playing from. To do this effectively, you run your broadcast program on the computer you’re playing from, but assign the output to a secondary monitor. Plug this monitor port into your capture card on the second machine, and set up a broadcast program on there that’s ONLY taking in the capture card. This way, you’ve effectively split off your encoding entirely to one machine, leaving it free to do all the hard work.
I’ve tested my own laptops, and here are the results with the most effective encoding settings. More will be added here as people and companies donate them for testing purposes. Laptops and settings listed here is the best a device is capable of, that conforms to Twitch standards.
Tests were performed with an Elgato HD60 taking in a 1080p60 video feed, encoded with XSplit. It’s important to note that any time a machine hits thermal throttling, the CPU is creating too much heat, and is forced to reduce it’s speed. This can produce inconsistent results if it seesaws on and off thermal.
- Download this video.
- Install XSplit
- Set canvas to 1920x108p60 @ 6000kbps
- Add video to scene
- Set video to loop when finished
- Select an encoding method (x264, NVENC, Quicksync, VCE)
- Stream to a channel
- Visit inspector.twitch.tv
- Verify that bitrate and framerate are stable
- Visually verify that channel playback is smooth.
- Repeat for all other encoding types. For x264, you need to determine the highest working encoding quality.
Ratchet down settings in the following order to find the best working stream quality:
1080P -> 720p
6000kbps -> 4500 -> 3500 -> 2500
If still unacceptable at 720p30@2500, throw your laptop into the ocean
Razer Blade (2016)
Intel Core i7-6700HQ @ 2.6ghz (boost to 3.1ghz)
– x264 Superfast, 65% cpu, 1080p60 @ 6000kbps
– QuickSync, 45% cpu 1080p30 @ 6000kbps
– NVEnc, 45% cpu 1080p60 @ 6000kbps *best*
Apple Retina Macbook Pro (2015)
Intel Core i7-4870QU 2.5ghz
– x264 Veryfast, 75% cpu, 1080p60 @ 6000kbps (thermal throttling, 1.6ghz to 2.3ghz)
– VideoCodecEngine, 25% cpu, 1080p60 @ 6000kbps, 2.5ghz
The Retina MBP is by far the worst thermal offender, although VCE uses the AMD R370X to do its encoding, which is why the CPU usage is far lower.
Intel Core i7-6600U @ 2.5ghz (3.0)
– QuickSync, 65% cpu, 1080p60 @ 6000kbps, thermal throttling to 2.5
Apple Mac Mini (2014)
Intel Core i5 @ 2.6ghz
– Apple H.264, 75% cpu, 1080p60 @ 6000kbps
MUST DISABLE STRICT CBR OR JANKY KEYFRAMES WILL GIVE YOU A SEIZURE
Each of these options and pieces of hardware have pros and cons. When it comes to broadcasting, there is never any ‘best option’, only the one that best suits a particular use case or budget. There are many ways to send your message to the world, but if you want to get it right the first time, take what you’ve learned here and use it to guide where your money is spent, to make sure you get the best value.
All prices in USD and listed at Amazon.com
Thank you to those who provided additional suggestions and contributions: