There are many great condenser microphones out on the market right now. Let us look through what there is and offer you our best recommendations. Also, we will discuss what condenser microphones are and how they work. Let’s dive in.
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Best large-diaphragm condenser
Neumann U 87 Ai
If you’re looking for the best large diaphragm condenser mic, look no further than the Neumann U 87 Ai. This microphone has been around since the 60s and is known for its amazing studio quality sounds and remains a gold standard to this day. It has three polar patterns: omnidirectional, cardioid and figure-8. The mic comes with a switchable low cut (high-pass) and pad to adjust signal strength which can get you up to 127 db without distortion. Also, it has a very low self-noise and 105 dB dynamic range.
The Neumann U 87 Ai is one of the most widely used vocal mics. If you want incredible sound from a large condenser mic, this will not disappoint.
Best affordable large diaphragm condenser
The RØDE NT1 comes with a large 1-inch diaphragm and gives you an incredible natural capture.
This microphone uses a cardioid polar pattern and has ultra-low noise of 4.5 dB, making it a great option for capturing softer sounds. It also has one of the widest dynamic ranges, coming in at 132 dB. This versatility makes it ideal for vocals — spoken or sung — and instruments. The RØDE NT1 also comes with a suspension shock mount for isolation, a pop filter and an XLR cable. The RØDE NT1 is a no-brainer for quality and affordability.
Best small diaphragm condenser
Neumann SKM 184
The Neumann SKM 184 uses a cardioid pattern and has no off-axis coloration giving you the cleanest, purest sound available.
This mic is perfect for acoustic instruments due to its very low self-noise. It has a high SPL (sound pressure level), so you can capture loud sounds without distortion, so you don’t have to worry about fluctuation due to musician intensity. Pair that with its 125 dB dynamic range, and you can capture it all. Its low impedance output stage also allows for cable runs up to 1000 ft without transmission losses.
It has a transformerless circuitry giving it a small form factor so it won’t get in the way. The Neumann SKM 184 is a small but feature-packed package.
Best affordable small diaphragm condenser
Lewitt LCT 140 AIR
The Lewitt LCT 140 AIR is a great affordable small diaphragm condenser mic. It uses a cardioid pattern and has two built-in recording modes: AIR, for adding what the manufacturer calls “a little bit of sparkle,” and “FLAT” — to get the most natural sound possible. The flexibility to change modes with the press of a button gives you great flexibility to go from natural dialogue to warm vocals without having to change mics. Also, this mic has a lightweight aluminum body and a wide dynamic range of 115 dB.
Best condenser for voice-overs and ADR
AKG C414 XLII
When you need to record voice-overs, the AKG C414 XLII has you covered. This mic comes with nine polar patterns to cover every situation and a few more. It comes with many built-in features that make it great for ADR. The mic has three attenuation levels (-6, -12 and -18), so you can quickly adjust the level on the fly. Also, the mic’s three switchable bass cut filters allow you to adjust immediately to your talent’s voice. There is an overload warning with an audio peak hold LED to let you know when you’re clipping. Additionally, the mic’s Live Mode lets you disable all controls for live work and installation use. Did we mention it has a 152 dB dynamic range? The AKG C414 XLII is the top choice for ADR.
Best condenser for Foley
The Shure SM27 is a large diaphragm condenser mic ideal for Foley. It has a flat, neutral capture for realistic reproduction. A built-in, three-position switchable low-frequency reduction is great for stopping unwanted noise and eliminating proximity effects. The SM27 has a durable metal construction great for Foley stages. It uses a uniform cardioid pattern that delivers great off-axis rejection to help you grab only the sound on your stage that you want. The mic’s 128 dB dynamic range gives you the flexibility you need to capture a wide range of sounds. It’s a great tool for any Foley artist’s toolbox.
Best shotgun mic
Sennheiser MKH 8060
Sometimes you need to capture audio with pinpoint accuracy. The Sennheiser MKH 8060 uses a supercardioid, lobar pick-up pattern (shotgun) and comes with a 110 dB dynamic range. It has transformerless circuitry and a very natural sound with no coloration and undistorted off-axis capture. The mic has a rugged, weatherproof metal housing with a non-reflective coating that won’t interfere with your scene. This is the perfect mic for running on a boom. Also, it comes with a windscreen to minimize noise and has very low self-noise and distortion.
Best camera-top shotgun mic
RØDE VideoMic NTG
If you’re looking for an on-camera, run-and-gun style mic, look no further than the RØDE VideoMic NTG. The RØDE VideoMic NTG lets you record broadcast-grade, highly directional audio in the field with natural, uncolored sound. The NTG offers a 3.5 mm output that’s perfect for many camera types. You can also use the digital USB output recording for computer or mobile devices.
Its built-in digital switching controls its high-pass filter, pad, high-frequency boost and safety channel and has a peak warning light. This mic uses an internal rechargeable lithium-ion battery that provides 30+ hours of recording. It’s lightweight and rugged with aerospace-grade aluminum construction and has a 105 dB dynamic range. The Rode VideoMic NTG is a true workhorse.
What is a condenser microphone?
A condenser microphone is a go-to microphone type for studio work and recording. While they may not be quite as rugged as dynamic microphones like the prolific SM58, they tend to give you a much higher quality of sound. A condenser consists of a thin diaphragm and a metal plate. The diaphragm moves when sound waves hit it, changing the capacitance between the diaphragm and the metal plate and converting it to an electronic signal.
A simple way to remember a condenser microphone’s design lies in its name. The word “condenser” is a British English synonym for “capacitor.” The name has clearly stuck since around and is still in use it today.
In order to better understand the workings of a condenser microphone, it is important to look at what makes them different from dynamic microphones. A microphone’s ability to pick up sound, including the basis of microphone amplification, all hinges on electrical current.
Condenser microphone design
The biggest difference between dynamic and condenser microphones is that the latter requires additional power in the form of 48 V of DC current — also known as phantom power. In other words, where a dynamic microphone is passive, condensers are active electronics.
Condenser microphones use the electrostatic principle to create a charged structure that functions as a capacitor. The structure is the microphone capsule and is made up of two thin plates of equal size and surface area. The top plate, or diaphragm, is moveable; the backplate stays in a fixed position. Both plates are separated by a dielectric, in this case, air, and is also a fixed value. For now, all we need to know about dielectrics is that they are a type of electrical insulator. Combine these elements together, add phantom power, and you have a capacitor!
Now for the next step, sound pickup and amplification. More on this later, condensers also used to be known as tube microphones.
The capacitor first charges so that both plates are at equilibrium. Sound pressure waves reach the diaphragm and create movement, causing two events to occur. As the distance between the diaphragm and backplate decreases, capacitance increases. The same applies in the other direction. As the distance between the plates increases, capacitance decreases.
Everything we’ve described so far leads up to the final moment of producing an output signal. The last two components in the chain are a high impedance resistor to sample the changing output voltage — remember. the output voltage fluctuates because of the diaphragm’s movement — and a conversion amplifier that functions as a current to voltage converter. This is the signal that will be sent to the microphone pre-amp!
The modern condenser
The modern condenser design has been around since the 1960s, brought about by two developments. Up to this point, condenser microphones used a tube for the amplification stage at the end. This required what can only be described as a hefty external power supply — the size and weight of a small cinder block. These microphones were neither portable nor durable. Dropping one was catastrophic.
The first was the growing adoption of transistor technology that helped miniaturize the final amplification stage and drive down the power requirement. The other was Neumann’s introduction of a standardized method of delivering 48 volts of direct current over a three-pin cable from the mixing desk. If this sounds familiar, it should. This standard was quickly adopted across the industry and became phantom power. Another key feature of phantom power is that it should not damage any connected dynamic microphones.
Application and usage
Phantom power effectively removed all of the restrictions on condenser microphones’ usage and portability. Removing the tube also made the design much more robust. The thought of using condensers out in the field and for live applications became a real possibility!
A condenser microphone’s most noticeable quality is the increased sensitivity when compared to dynamic microphones — the next most popular design. The great thing about a condenser capsule’s design is that its size scales well in both directions.
Dynamic vs. condenser
Let’s compare two popular vocal microphones: the Shure SM58 and Beta 87C. The Shure SM58 is a well-rounded dynamic cardioid microphone. Additionally, it has robust pickup for a variety of styles, from dialogue to rock and pop vocals. Its close relation to the Shure SM57 makes it a good drop-in instrument microphone. Take a few steps back and its qualities start to change. The drop-off in signal strength and pickup is immediately apparent.
In contrast, the Beta 87C requires less gain to achieve the same level of pickup. Even when adding distance from the source, its sensitivity is more even and sustained.
Condensers used to struggle with higher decibel sources, in the range north of 110 dB. These limitations have mostly been addressed, and many condensers now advertise their high SPL credentials. This explains why condensers weren’t always the first choice for close-micing sources with sharp and loud transients.
Dynamic microphones excel in noisier environments. Their reduced sensitivity pairs well with close micing sources, especially louder ones! They are popular for speaking engagements, live events, concerts and, of course, in the studio.
Condensers are not limited to just studio use and have plenty of outdoor applications. Their use takes on a more specialized role in the form of pencil condensers, shotgun microphones and lavaliers.
With greater sensitivity comes the potential for more sound to bleed through. Manage this by choosing microphones with more directional patterns and greater off-axis rejection. Further mitigation is achieved with baffles in and around the microphone.
I recall an extreme live sound micing case involving “The Prodigy.” A pencil condenser was positioned as close as possible to the hi-hat and shrouded by a vocal baffle to reduce the bleed from the kit and the rest of the stage. You can get away with bleed in some situations as long as it is coherent and mostly in phase.
Smaller sound interfaces, sound mixers and portable recorders treat phantom power as an all-or-nothing affair and usually feature a single switch. The trend towards banked and individual phantom power starts on larger interfaces and studio-oriented mixers.
Phantom power is safe for use with the majority of microphones, with the exception of most ribbon mics. Regardless, always check if it is off. Also, take stock of existing connections before plugging or unplugging them — certainly before enabling phantom power! The idea is to avoid shocks to the system — or worse — damaging something.
Designs for all occasions
The advent of phantom power allowed condensers, in some ways, to become all things to all sound engineers. The design was no longer hamstrung by the fragility of tubes or took a huge mobility penalty because of the bulky power supply.
Small diaphragm condensers
This category typically covers smaller mounted microphones like pencil condensers, smaller shotguns, and even calibration microphones.
This category makes up the remainder of the condenser family which includes the standard and larger side-address microphones.
Contributors to this buyer’s guide include Greyson Collins, Blag Ivanov and The Videomaker Editors.