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Whether for streaming, a podcast, a video blog or other recordings with an audio track – a microphone is essential for many tasks. But which is the right one for the project I have planned? And are there good microphones that are still reasonably priced? What exactly do I have to pay attention to?
In our microphone test 2023 we answer these questions and present you with detailed background information about microphones. In addition, we present some types of microphones in more detail and explain some criteria that can help you choose the right device for you.
- A good microphone is an indispensable tool for any audio recording. With an external microphone, however, you can also significantly improve the sound quality of communication applications on your PC.
- Basically, a distinction is made between dynamic microphones and condenser microphones. The former are more suitable for stage use, the latter for studio recordings. However, condenser technology is also used in electret microphones for PC applications.
- The directional characteristic is also important – it determines whether a microphone receives sound more from the front or evenly from all directions.
The best Microphone: Our Picks
Guide: Questions you should ask yourself before buying a microphone
What does a (good) microphone cost?
You can get very simple microphones – for example, as accessories for your smartphone – for less than 10 euros, for example, at Amazon.
The situation is similar for dynamic microphones, which you can buy online or in music stores. For condenser microphones for vocal recordings, the lowest price limit is around 50 euros.
However, if you value good quality, you should spend more:
Dynamic mics start at about 100 euros, for a condenser mic you should spend 200 euros or more.
|Simple microphone||from about 10€|
|Good dynamic microphone||from about 100€|
|Good condenser microphone||from about 200€|
An alternative is to buy second-hand:
For example, the popular Shure SM57 live microphone (new price over 100€) is offered on eBay for as little as approx. 60€. One disadvantage is that you can’t try out a used microphone beforehand if you buy it online – unless you live near the supplier. So you can also look for regional offers.
Can I rent a microphone?
Polar pattern: omnidirectional, cardioid, directional
An omnidirectional microphone is the right choice for an “all-round sound”.
If, for example, you don’t want to record your voice, but rather ambient sounds (wave noise, birdsong, station hall atmosphere…), this directional characteristic is the right choice. Voice recording also works if you are close enough to the microphone as a speaker or singer – then your voice dominates the environment, similar to saying something directly into another person’s ear.
Another advantage of omnidirectional microphones is their insensitivity to noise such as wind or finger movements on the microphone holder.
The recording area of a cardioid microphone, on the other hand, can be compared more to a funnel.
A cardioid microphone responds primarily to sound “from the front”, with the pick-up range widening with increasing distance. This type of microphone is most commonly used for music recording and live amplification.
Related to the cardioid is the supercardioid, which picks up sound somewhat more strongly from behind as well.
The pick-up range of a directional microphone is even narrower.
This primarily picks up sound directly from the front, i.e. everything that is directly “in the line of fire” of this tube-shaped microphone. This is especially useful if you want to record a speaker or musician who is at some distance from you, without the recording being too disturbed by ambient noise.
Because of this characteristic, however, you must aim a directional microphone very precisely at the sound source, otherwise the sound quality will be greatly reduced. Such a microphone is also very susceptible to wind noise, which is why it is mainly suitable for indoor recordings. A (but expensive!) windscreen can help.
In close-up recordings, directional microphones tend to overemphasise low frequencies, resulting in a muffled sound. This is called the proximity effect.
Connections: Jacks, minijacks and XLRs
XLR sockets have become established in the professional field. Inexpensive microphones (e.g. for laptops or camcorders), on the other hand, use the small mini jacks that fit into the sockets of PC sound cards. In the hi-fi sector, large jack plugs are also used.
Connecting a microphone directly to the PC?
- Connecting to the sound card (XLR)
- The use of a USB microphone
- A wireless microphone with Bluetooth transmission
If you want to connect your microphone to the sound card of your computer, the microphone must have a mini-jack plug. If it has a different type of connection, an adapter cable (e.g. an XLR mini-jack cable) can help.
An alternative option is a microphone with a USB connection. In this case, the sound card is built into the microphone itself. USB microphones are also available in higher quality, which is quite sufficient for good podcasting or karaoke. For the latter, wireless microphones are also recommended – they send their data to the PC via Bluetooth. They are also available as clip-on microphones, in which case they are called lavalier microphones.
Foam covers against wind noise
When recording outdoors, wind often causes noise in the microphone – a kind of deep thunder.
The same applies to breathing noises when a singer or speaker is close to the microphone. To mitigate this effect, microphones already have a foam insert inside that dampens air movements. If this is not sufficient, an external windscreen is needed: Here, a foam cover is used that can be attached to the microphone.
You can buy such a windscreen quite cheaply – it is often included with the microphone as an accessory. When recording, however, it also attenuates the high frequencies. Windscreens that enclose the entire microphone have a lower treble attenuation – but they cost a lot!
Pop shields against pop sounds
A variant of the windscreen is the pop screen (also called “pop protection”).
This is a circular membrane that is placed in front of the microphone. It protects against the air blast that occurs with explosive sounds such as “p”, “t” or “k”. A pop screen is mainly used in recording studios where protection against wind noise is not otherwise necessary. A pop screen can also be obtained quite inexpensively.
They are available with single as well as with double covering. The pop screen is usually attached to the microphone stand with a gooseneck and placed 5 to 20 cm in front of the microphone. You also need a pop shield if you want to prevent or intercept wet pronunciation.
In the following video you can hear and see what kind of noise pop sounds produce in the microphone and how a pop shield helps against it:
Decision: What types of microphones are there and which one is right for you?
There are different types of microphones, each with different sound characteristics. It is not simply a question of “better” or “worse” – it depends on the intended use.
Basically, however, all microphones work in the same way. Sound causes a diaphragm to vibrate, which converts the mechanical energy of the sound into electrical energy. This creates electrical impulses, which are then transported to the recording device via a microphone cable. In short, a microphone is a sound transducer.
Depending on whether you want to record a song with your band, need reliable amplification when singing at a live event or simply want to enhance the sound of your camera with an external microphone, you may be interested in very different microphones.
The most common types of microphones are:
- The dynamic microphone
- The condenser microphone
- The electret microphone
All of these microphone types have special characteristics and are particularly suitable for specific applications. We will show you these in the following:
How does a dynamic microphone work and what is it particularly suitable for?
In this microphone, a diaphragm is placed inside a magnetic field, which is vibrated by sound.
This creates different voltages. There are two types of dynamic microphones: the moving coil microphone and the less commonly used ribbon microphone.
This type of microphone is often used at live events and is by far the most common dynamic microphone. Moving coil microphones can withstand high sound pressure levels and are also quite robust. Therefore, they are ideal as vocal microphones and also for rapping.
A moving-coil microphone is not particularly sensitive – it can be dropped without damage. This, and the insensitivity to high volume levels, makes this type of microphone ideal for live use.
Technically, a moving-coil microphone is quite simple: a coil of wire is attached to the back of the diaphragm, which resonates with the diaphragm when exposed to sound. A ring-shaped magnet is installed around the coil. The movement of the coil in the magnetic field generates current – similar to a bicycle dynamo, but of much lower strength.
The ribbon microphone is more commonly found in the studio, where it is the specialist for particularly warm sound.
The ribbon microphone has a very thin aluminium ribbon as its diaphragm. Since aluminium itself is an electrical conductor, no additional wire coil is needed to convert the vibrations into electricity. Due to its low mass, the aluminium ribbon reacts much more sensitively to sound waves than the diaphragm in a moving coil microphone and responds more quickly.
However, the voltage generated in this way is very low, which is why a good preamplifier is needed. In addition, such a ribbon microphone is very sensitive to shocks. For this reason, ribbon microphones are mainly used in recording studios and not on stage, and there – because of the low treble sensitivity – especially when a particularly warm sound is desired.
How does a condenser microphone work and what is it particularly suitable for?
Condenser microphones are the standard for studio recordings and have a particularly high sound quality.
Condenser microphones are preferred in recording studios because of their good sound quality, which they owe to their very thin diaphragm. Large-diaphragm microphones are suitable for rap and vocal recordings as well as for instruments, whereas small-diaphragm models are used more for instrumental recordings. However, they distort more easily than dynamic mics when exposed to high sound levels. They are also considerably more expensive.
This microphone is based on the principle of the electrical plate condenser: The diaphragm of a condenser microphone is electrically conductive – at least on the surface.
A gold-coated plastic diaphragm is often used. This is placed a few thousandths of a millimetre opposite a perforated metal disc. The membrane and the metal disc form the two electrodes of the capacitor, whose voltage is changed by the vibrations of the membrane.
In contrast to a dynamic microphone, a condenser microphone needs external voltage in order to be operated. Mixing consoles or audio interfaces with microphone inputs can provide this voltage, which is called phantom power. However, there are also condenser microphones with a built-in battery compartment.
How does an electret microphone work and what is it particularly suitable for?
The electret microphone is by far the most common microphone and is mainly used in communication devices such as mobile phones.
The electret microphone is very similar in design to the condenser microphone. In this microphone, an electret foil is attached to the condenser plate, which is permanently live. This voltage is provided either internally by a battery or externally by phantom power.
As with the condenser microphone, the vibrating diaphragm is located opposite the plate, whereby the vibrations are converted into voltage fluctuations by the condenser.
This microphone is very inexpensive to produce – especially in extremely small designs – and requires less power to operate than a condenser microphone. This is why it is often used in smartphones or headsets, and why it tends to be found in the lower price range. However, there are also some very good electret microphones from well-known manufacturers.
Buying criteria: You can compare and evaluate microphones based on these factors
Do you want to buy a microphone? In the following, we would like to show you which criteria you can use to compare and evaluate microphones. This will make it easier for you to decide whether a certain product is suitable for you or not.
In summary, these are:
- The sound quality
- The transducer type
- The directional characteristic
- The type of connection
- The need for an additional power supply
- The location (clip-on, desktop, stage)
- The design of the microphone
- The price-performance ratio
In the following paragraphs you can find out what the individual purchase criteria are and how you can classify them.
Depending on whether you are using a microphone for video recording, podcasting, documentaries, karaoke or professional-sounding music recording, the sound quality will play a greater or lesser role in your purchase decision.
The sound quality of a microphone depends, among other things, on the signal-to-noise ratio, the frequency response, the impulse fidelity and the distortion factor (the latter, however, as mentioned above, no longer plays such an important role these days).
If you want a (semi-)professional microphone for music recordings, you can test it directly in many music stores and compare different products.
Did you know that you can easily check whether a manufacturer has flunked the specifications for self-noise and signal-to-noise ratio?
If both values are given, just add them together and you should get a value of 94dB. If you get a different value, something is wrong with the manufacturer’s specifications.
Apart from that, there are also many professional magazines (e.g. “Sound & Recording”) where you can read detailed microphone tests, including the technical specifics measured by independent testers, such as frequency response and signal-to-noise ratio.
Another possibility are recording forums where you can browse through the articles and ask questions about the sound of certain microphones yourself – sometimes very knowledgeable people write there.
You often can’t listen to inexpensive microphones beforehand.
In addition, technical specifications in this price range are often not given by the manufacturers. But you can find numerous customer reviews on the internet, for example on Amazon. You can find a lot of customer statements there, especially about frequently purchased low-cost microphones, so that you can judge whether a microphone has a good sound or not.
The type of transducer – e.g. condenser or dynamic microphone – has already been discussed above. It is especially important if you want a higher-quality microphone, as you will be more interested in the sound characteristics.
For recording in the home studio, the condenser microphone is ideal because it has the highest sound quality. However, if you want to perform live (e.g. with a band or for rapping), go for the more robust dynamic microphone, as condenser mics can quickly break if bumped or dropped.
Inexpensive microphones for mobile phones, cameras or laptops practically all have electret transducers.
The polar pattern
We have already discussed the directional characteristic in detail above. The decisive factor is whether you want to pick up the all-round sound in the room or whether you want to muffle it.
For the latter, cardioid microphones and especially directional microphones are more recommended than omnidirectional microphones. With omnidirectional microphones, it is important to remember that even such a microphone normally only produces a mono recording of the room’s surroundings. For stereo recordings you need either 2 microphones or a special stereo microphone.
If you want to make good quality recordings in your room and do not want to record PC noise or cars passing by outside, it is best to buy a directional microphone, as this is the most effective way of attenuating noise “from the side”.
Here, too, it is best to test microphones with different polar patterns in a music shop first and get advice from an expert dealer.
The type of connection will also be important for you. Depending on whether you only have a PC with a sound card, or a mixing console or a professional audio interface, different types of connections come into consideration:
A normal PC sound card usually has connections for mini-jack plugs. The socket for microphones is usually coloured pink. If you use a microphone on your PC for twittering or podcasts, you can therefore use a microphone with a mini-jack cable.
Or you can use a microphone with a USB connection.
Your PC doesn’t even have to have a sound card, as the converter is already integrated in the microphone itself.
With a good-sounding USB microphone, you have the advantage that you can connect it to various devices (e.g. to a tablet with a USB connection in addition to your PC) and always have good sound – even if these devices have a poor onboard sound card.
If you are an ambitious singer or musician and want to amplify your vocals live or record in your home studio, you will want a mic in the higher price range. These almost always have an XLR connector.
Such a connector cannot be connected to a PC sound card, so you will need a mixing console or a special audio interface. These are available very cheaply, e.g. from the Behringer company.
If necessary, you can also use an XLR mini-jack adapter, but onboard sound cards of PCs usually have a very poor sound quality. In a nutshell: If you buy a good microphone, the audio interface should not ruin the sound.
|Home use on PC||Mini-jack, USB|
|For good music recordings||XLR jack|
|If you want to move freely||Wireless mic, Bluetooth mic|
If you want to move freely when recording, e.g. for a video recording or a live report, you should try out a wireless microphone.
These are available as conventional radio microphones – the microphone is connected to a receiving station via radio. For some years now, however, there has also been the possibility of a connection to the PC via Bluetooth.
There are two types of wireless systems: Those with handheld transmitters and those with pocket transmitters.
In the case of microphones with handheld transmitters, the transmitter is built directly into the microphone. As the name suggests, you have to hold these microphones in your hand or attach them to a stand in the conventional way. The alternative is the pocket transmitter: with this, a small clip-on microphone is connected to the transmitter via a microphone cable. The latter can be carried in a jacket pocket, for example.
The quality and range of wireless microphones depends on the price range. Good Bluetooth microphones, for example, are quite expensive. With the Bluetooth version, you also have to consider that other digital transmitting devices such as mobile phones or WLAN modems can cause interference noise in the microphone.
However, a clear advantage of Bluetooth microphones is that they can be easily connected to almost all modern devices and thus no additional equipment is needed.
Additional power supply necessary? (battery, phantom power)
The independence from a separate power supply could also be important for your purchase decision.
This is especially true if you want to record something quickly and easily via your sound card without having to rely on a charged battery, for example.
As mentioned above, condenser microphones can only be operated with an additional power source, the so-called phantom power. This is not provided by ordinary PC sound cards. If you do not have a mixing console or audio interface that can supply this, make sure that your microphone does not require phantom power.
However, some microphones can be powered by a standard battery. If you don’t want to run the risk of the mic suddenly failing when the battery is flat, buy a mic that is powered purely by the sound card. This is the case with most inexpensive consumer mics.
|Type of microphone||Power supply?|
|Condenser microphone||yes (via phantom power or battery)|
What is your mic for?
Depending on how you want to use your microphone, the way it is placed or attached will play a major role in your purchase decision. If you want to be able to move around freely – for example, during a performance or a report – and not have to stand “in front of the microphone” all the time, a clip-on microphone is the right choice for you.
You can attach it to your clothes with a clip or clasp. Such microphones are usually very small so that they are not visually distracting (e.g. during a lecture). Because they are attached at chest level and therefore close to the mouth, clip-on microphones also have good speech quality.
There are also models that you can hang around your neck with a hanger. Clip-on microphones can be used very flexibly, as they can be attached independently of the speaker’s clothing and do not have any cables to get in the way.
If you make voice recordings at home on your PC – for podcasting, for example – or if you want to have better sound quality when skyping, opt for a microphone stand. These are also available with a small stand so that you can place it comfortably in front of you on your desk. Many models also have a so-called gooseneck, with which you can bend the microphone in any direction you want.
If you buy a table stand for a more expensive microphone, make sure that it is sufficiently stable. Table microphones are especially useful for PC applications such as YouTube videos, gaming or podcasts, because you have your hands free. Even at a slightly greater distance from the microphone, the sound quality is not impaired and therefore does not need to be placed directly in front of the mouth. Most table microphones have a USB connection.
An advantage is a stand with a relatively solid base plate. Such stands are available, for example, from the companies Samson or König & Meyer. When performing on stage, there is usually no table available, so you need a large tripod to place the microphone on the floor. A stand is usually not supplied with stage mics, you have to buy one separately. Make sure that it is stable.
The appearance of a microphone may not be important to many users, but you may want a microphone that not only sounds good but also looks cool.
To pimp the black or silver mics a little, there are various design companies on the Internet that can give your microphone a visual makeover.
Facts worth knowing about microphones
Useful technical terms
The frequency response indicates the extent to which a microphone amplifies or attenuates certain frequencies. Ribbon microphones, for example – as mentioned above – pick up high frequencies somewhat attenuated, while some other microphones do not pick up low frequencies as well.
Also, one type of microphone may respond particularly strongly to certain frequency ranges. The frequency response is also strongly dependent on the direction from which the recorded sound is coming.
This means the signal that you “actually” want to record, e.g. your voice, but not unwanted rumble or noise. The latter is called noise.
This is the ratio of the volume of a disturbing noise to that of the useful signal: the more your voice is disturbed by noise, the lower the signal-to-noise ratio.
The signal-to-noise ratio decreases not only when the noise is louder, but also when – conversely – your voice is softer, but the noise remains the same.
Pulse fidelity indicates how accurately a sound arriving at the microphone is “translated” into electrical vibrations. Pulse fidelity is strongly influenced by the sensitivity of the diaphragm.
If the diaphragm of a microphone needs longer to settle, the original impulse is weakened and a drum beat, for example, no longer sounds as crisp on the recording as it does in the original.
Distortion factor refers to the amount of undesired distortion of the audio signal, i.e. how much does the waveform deform during recording? At least in the case of microphones used for music, the distortion factor is very low nowadays, so you should rather orientate yourself on other factors when buying a microphone.
History of the microphone
The microphone was originally invented in 1860 as part of a telephone set. The inventor was the Italian Antonio Meucci, who had emigrated to the USA.
The microphone was then continuously developed further – a major step was the invention of the carbon microphone in 1877. This consisted of a current-conducting capsule behind a membrane made of metal. The capsule contained conductive carbon rods that served as transducers. The rods were later replaced by granulated carbon.
In this form, the carbon microphone remained standard for a long time – in recording studios until the 1940s. It was even used in telephones as late as the 1970s.
The microphone gained new importance as a result of radio, which became established in the 1920s.
In the 1930s, Georg Neumann invented the condenser microphone. These microphones had a much higher quality than carbon microphones – preserved models from this period can still be used for recording today. The condenser microphone replaced the carbon microphone as the studio standard in the 1940s. The company founded by Neumann is still one of the most renowned microphone manufacturers today.
The electret microphone was introduced in 1962. Although its functional principle had been known since the 1920s, its implementation failed for a long time due to a lack of suitable materials. Today’s electret microphones work on the basis of Teflon foil.
Mention should also be made of the recently developed laser microphone, which is likely to be of particular interest for espionage purposes. The “membrane” here is, for example, a window pane onto which the laser beam is directed. If conversations take place in the room behind it, very weak vibrations are generated in the glass. These can be scanned with the laser light and the conversations can be listened to.
Picture source: pixabay.com / vanleuven0