Microphones are amazing bits of kit. We talk, sing, scream or play into them and, via electronic wizardry, they enable us to amplify or record our performance. The best condenser mics are the most transparent and sensitive type of mic you can buy, which is why they are such firm favourites in the studio.
These sonic advantages do come at a price. Condenser mics are less durable than their cousins – dynamic microphones – and they're usually more expensive, too. But if you're on a limited budget and can only invest in one mic, then a condenser still makes a lot of sense. Generally, if well looked-after, some are robust enough for stage use, and you can pick up a decent model for well under $400/£300/€350.
Best condenser mics: Our top picks
If you're on a tight budget and can afford only one microphone that's got to do everything, then the Shure SM27 takes some beating. This rugged, large-diaphragm condenser mic will work hard all day in the studio and then play hard out on the road at night.
Those fortunate enough to have £1,000 or more to spend may be tempted to dip their toes into virtual modelling. Slate Digital's VMS (Virtual Microphone System) is an impressive bit of kit that ticks a lot of boxes. But, ultimately, there's no substitute for hand-built quality, so our recommendation is the incredible Audio-Technica AT5040. This is an heirloom-quality mic with a modern feature set that's blessed with a simply stunning sound. Yes, it’s expensive but it should hold its value and will serve you well for decades.
Best condenser mics: Product guide
Rode claims that its recently revamped NT1 is the world's quietest one-inch cardioid condenser, with a self-noise level of just 4.5dBA. We certainly found it ultra-quiet and versatile enough to mic a wide variety of sources. Its smart, sleek design and dark-grey livery look über-cool, but the minimalist form factor does lack switches for a bass roll-off or pad. At this price point, that's hardly surprising.
What the NT1 does offer is exceptional performance. Vocals are crisp and detailed with plenty of warm low end, nothing amiss in the mid-range and a wonderful airy clarity to the top end. That silky top end provides fantastic results when recording acoustic guitars and hand-held percussion. We've no doubt the NT1 would perform admirably as a drum overhead or on a piano.
The lack of pad probably procludes it from close-miking loud drums and guitar cabs, but it's heartily recommended for almost every other studio application. A suspension shockmount and pop shield are included in the box, making the NT1 exceptional value.
Read the full Rode NT1 review
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If you love the idea of shaping sound with a microphone, or instantly being able to dial in a faithful tone, then the Lewitt LCT 940 is worthy of a place on your shortlist. Fancy the warmth of a tube mic one minute and the purity of a FET mic the next? Well, the LCT gives you both at a twist of a dial, plus the ability to blend them together.
The LCT 940 is two quality mics in one, and everything in between. To help you access its myriad features, Lewitt provides a decent-sized combined PSU and remote-control unit. Turn the left-hand dial to choose between FET and tube circuitry, or any blend of the two. Twist the right-hand dial to select one of nine polar patterns – omni, broad-cardioid, cardioid, super-cardioid and figure-8, plus an additional four intermediate patterns that sit between them. Pad settings range from -6dB to a substantial -18dB, enabling this mic to pick up some seriously loud sounds. A low-cut filter operates from 40Hz right up to 300Hz – well into the lower mid-range.
These features add up to one very versatile studio tool. Whether you're looking for an instrument to record a faithful rendition of a sound source, or you want to creatively enhance it, the LCT 940 fits the bill. Talking of bills, this mic may carry a relatively high price tag but it offers a heck of a lot for the money.
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The Aston Spirit may not offer any groundbreaking features or revelatory new tech, but it does stay true to the original spirit of Aston, which is to develop fine-quality instruments that punch above their mid-range price point. And, of course, it's made in Britain with pride.
The Spirit has a very strong aesthetic, a 'look' shared by its sibling the Origin. Their wave-shaped, sprung mesh guards and solid stainless-steel casings mark them out as something a bit special in a crowded market. A rather smart, black textured version is available, too, as part of the Spirit Black Bundle, which comes complete with a much-needed shockmount and pop filter.
Three switchable patterns are on tap: cardioid, omni and figure-8. There's also a pad with selectable -10dB and -20dB attenuation, plus an 80Hz low-cut filter. It performs wonderfully for vocals and acoustic guitar, displaying a smooth mid-range, a high top and agreeable brightness. The proximity effect response is well-tamed, so close-miking vocals in cardioid mode isn't a biggie. With its switchable polar patterns and low noise characteristic, it also suits room mic and distant miking roles.
The Spirit is great value for money, the slightly more expensive Spirit Black Bundle even more so.
Read the full Aston Spirit review
Neumann is one of the most revered names in microphones, but the breathtaking sonic character of its products is usually matched by heart-stopping prices. To address this, some years ago the manufacturer introduced a range of more pocket-friendly, TLM-branded models – one of which was the TLM 103. Originally aimed at home studios, the mic has since found its way into the hands of many pros. So, how does it stack up against a 'proper' Neumann?
Very well, as it happens. The TLM 103 is billed by Neumann as an affordable version of the venerable U 87 Ai, one of the best-loved studio microphones in the world. Its capsule design is derived from the U 87 Ai but, instead of offering three polar patterns, the TLM 103 is a fixed cardioid. Both mics share a similar sonic character, but the TLM 103 has a slightly wider presence boost for frequencies above 5kHz. This lends its voice a touch more clarity. Despite the lack of pad, filter and switchable patterns, this is more than just a great vocal mic. Try it with acoustic guitars, drum overheads, piano, classical strings and even lightly driven electric guitar cabs, and you won't be disappointed.
Some will dismiss the TLM 103 as a budget Neumann, but if you don't need the additional features of the U 87 Ai, then ignore the haters and save yourself a bundle.
In the main, microphone design hasn't changed that much in decades, and models introduced 30, 40, even 50 years ago are still bestsellers today. It seems engineers of the last century got it pretty much right. Well, not quite…
The AT5040 is that rare step forward in microphone development. Large-diaphragm mics benefit from higher sensitivity and lower noise, but at the cost of limited high-frequency response. After much experimentation, mic designers have discovered that a one-inch diaphragm hits the sweet spot for vocals, and many other applications too. It's very common to find small-diaphragm mics in action, but unusual to find anything with a diaphragm larger than one inch. The big-brained engineers at Audio-Technica rethought the whole capsule-size conundrum and came up with an alternative solution. They built a four-part rectangular grid that delivers more than twice the surface area of a traditional one-inch diaphragm.
Essentially, the four parts are summed together, overcoming the shortcomings of one large diaphragm. The result is a mic with an incredibly open, detailed, neutral voice that works superbly on vocals and, when positioned carefully, on acoustic guitar and percussion too. As you'd expect, the sound responds particularly well to EQ.
The AT5040 is an expensive mic, but it’s ultra-quiet, sounds wonderful and is built completely by hand. A thing of beauty.
Read the full Audio-Technica AT5040 review
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Let's face it, equipping your studio with a fine quiver of classic mics is going to cost you a five-figure sum, which for many of us just isn't feasible. But before getting too disheartened, it's worth considering whether modelling technology might help you realise your dream.
Slate's take on this technology is to provide studios with an entire system – mic, preamp and plug-in – so that the integrity of the entire audio signal is guaranteed. This should mean the end result more closely matches the audio characteristics of the original mics. The manufacturer’s system mic, the ML-1, is a large-diaphragm FET that promises to provide a flat, clean response, and the bundled hardware preamp is similarly neutral and pristine. The perfect blank canvas, if you like.
The magic happens when this transparent signal is processed by one of the eight included mic models loaded into Slate's Virtual Mix Rack software. The models are the FG-47 (Neumann’s iconic U 47), the FG-800 (Sony’s C-800G), the FG-251 (Telefunken’s ELA M 251), the FG-67 (Neumann’s U 67), the FG-12 (AKG C12), the FG-M7 (Shure’s SM7B) and the FG-269 (Neumann’s M 269 c). Two software preamps are also bundled with the VMS – the FG-73 (Neve 1073) and the FG-76 (based on Telefunken’s V76).
Flicking between the mic models opens up a whole new world for us. The characters are very distinct and entirely in keeping with what we expect. There's so much on offer here, it’s a very seductive package.
Read the full Slate Digital VMS review
Condenser microphones rely on their thin, often fragile, diaphragms to deliver outstanding frequency response. They sound sublime right up until the point when they're dropped, kicked, soaked in beer, left out in the rain or sat on by a fat roadie. Which is why many spend most of their life shut safely out of harm's way in the haven of a warm studio.
The Shure SM27 is an altogether more rugged beast. If it had arms, they'd be tattooed (old-school hearts and anchors), and if it had friends they'd look and talk like Jason Statham. Shure's entire SM range, including the SM27, is designed to take the kind of punishment that live performance inflicts.
You'd think that its sonic characteristics would be compromised in some way, but the SM27 has a flat, neutral frequency response and very low self-noise. It's perfect for reproducing faithful, natural renditions of delicate sound sources such as tender vocals, acoustic guitar, strings, cymbals, woodwind and saxophone. A -15dB pad means it's equally brilliant for miking up screamers and guitar cabs. The SM27 is a proper all-rounder that's equally at home in the studio or on the stage.
The C414 XLII is AKG's valiant attempt to reproduce the sound of its iconic C12 microphone from the 1950s. Its frequency curve has a slightly more pronounced lift above 3kHz, which gives it an airier top end than its close sibling the C414 B-XLS.
The headline feature is its nine – yes, nine – switchable patterns, which harks back to the original C12. There are five base patterns – omnidirectional, wide cardioid, cardioid, hyper cardioid and figure-8 – but these can be combined with one another for sonic experimentation. Pad settings provide -6dB, -12dB and -18dB attenuation levels, and three different low-cut filters can be employed.
This comprehensive feature set means the C414 XLII can tackle just about anything. As a C12 soundalike, it's outstanding for vocals, but it can also handle piano, strings, horns and woodwind with aplomb. Build quality is excellent.
The e 965 is a rare beast in that Sennheiser has specifically developed it for handheld stage use. Ordinarily, this is not comfortable territory for a large-diaphragm condenser mic – these prefer to be cosseted in a shockmount and protected by a large pop shield. Condenser mics are also very susceptible to handling noise, so this is an impressive feat for Sennheiser to pull off.
Dynamic mics rule on stage for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they're inherently robust. Unfortunately, they cannot come close to matching the frequency response of a good condenser mic, so audiences listening to talented singers with good range risk being short-changed.
Enter the e 965, which transmits even the finest nuances in impressive detail. Polar patterns can be switched between cardioid and super-cardioid to reject unwanted sounds; there's a low-cut filter to omit rumble; and a built-in pop filter handles plosives.
If you want your audience to hear every detail, this could be the mic for you.
Vocalists love mics that flatter their voices by adding a little low-end warmth or some top-end presence. Large- diaphragm condensers are just the job because they sprinkle a touch of sonic fairy dust over the sound.
But when it comes to miking instruments, audiences expect to hear faithful renditions of the original source without anything being added or taken away. This is where small-diaphragm condensers come in, because they have a relatively flat response that yields a very transparent sound. Their tiny size means they are also very easy to place and visually unobtrusive.
The Neumann KM 184 is one of the best-regarded small-diaphragm condensers, especially for miking drum overheads. Usually bought in matched pairs or sets, for stereo or surround-sound applications, it is also a popular choice for piano, acoustic guitar, violin, woodwind and brass. Small-diaphragm condensers can be used for vocals but usually only where complete authenticity is required.
Best condenser mics: Buying advice
Should you buy a condenser mic?
Rather than mistakenly believe that one kind of mic is better or worse than another, we’d suggest reframing your creative expectations. The truth is that all mics – dynamic, condenser, large-diaphragm, small-diaphragm and so on – will colour or affect your sound to some extent. On the face of it, this trait may seem undesirable but it can actually reveal huge creative opportunities.
Consider the sound you are trying to achieve and then think of a mic as an instrument that will help you to realise it. Different mics and different applications will yield different results. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.
This explains why pro studios have a legion of condenser microphones at their disposal, and why so many producers, engineers and artists favour particular models to reproduce their signature sounds. It also helps us to make sense of the huge variety of condenser mics on the market, and narrow our choice down to the model or models that will best fit our sonic ambitions.
Some long-standing condenser mics enjoy almost mythological status, earned over many decades of glorious recordings. Many of us may have to consider selling an organ (antique Hammond or newish kidney!) in order to meet their hefty price tag, but fear not – the mic market is vigorous enough to support many brands and models right across the price spectrum.
In order to arm you with the knowledge you'll need to go forth and buy the best condenser microphone for you, we're going to have to cosy up with some basic physics. Don't worry, it'll be over before you know it!
A condenser microphone relies on capacitance to generate an electrical signal. A thin diaphragm at the business end of the mic acts as one conducting plate, and a rigid backplate the other. As sounds vibrate the diaphragm, the distance between it and the backplate changes, which causes a variance in electrical charge or capacitance. This varying capacitance is transformed into a corresponding electrical signal, which is then fed to your amp, desk or interface.
The exceptional thing about this design is that the diaphragm can be ultra-thin, enabling it to vibrate much more freely and a lot faster than those found in other types of mics. This liveliness gives condensers a broad, relatively colourless frequency response that enables them to reproduce sounds very accurately.
They are especially good at picking up delicate sounds higher up the frequency spectrum that are well beyond the reach of dynamic mics. That's why you'll find condensers miking up acoustic guitars, hi-hats and vocals.
Those capacitor plates need to carry a charge in order to work effectively, and this is commonly supplied by an onboard battery or +48V phantom power from your desk or interface. This gives condensers a higher output than dynamic mics, so they don't need as much gain at the preamp to get a usable signal. Cranked preamps can introduce noise, so being able to work at lower, quieter levels can be hugely advantageous.
Different polar patterns not only dictate how directional a mic is, they also have different frequency responses, resulting in different sounds.
Cardioid mics have a focused pickup pattern, which means they are good for isolating the singer or instrument being miked up.
Omni-directional mics pick up sound from all around, but their character is more open, natural and less nasal than cardioids. Omnis also suffer less from the proximity effect – the low-frequency boost that appears when close miking.
So, although it seems logical to reach for a cardioid when miking up a vocalist, you may be better off using an omni in a well-treated room where reflections have been minimised. This could be an expensive studio or a spare bedroom with judicious placement of duvets and blankets!
Some of the best condenser mics, like the AKG C414 XLII, have switchable polar patterns that include cardioid, omni and the less-used-but-still-useful bi-directional figure-8.
Condenser mic diaphragms come in three flavours: large, medium and small. Large-diaphragm mics, such as the Aston Spirit, are almost always side-address, which means you perform into the side of them. Noise performance usually improves as diaphragms increase in size, so large-diaphragm mics will often boast impressively small self-noise figures. They are popular for vocals because they often exhibit a subtle high-frequency boost – presence – and a roll-off right at the top end. In addition, at the low end even cardioids take on omni characteristics, which gives them a lush, open sound that flatters most vocalists. Just be aware that the presence boost can make aggressive or thin-sounding vocals come across as harsh.
Small-diaphragm condensers, like the Neumann KM 184, have a much flatter frequency response, which means they excel at faithfully picking up every detail, even at the top end. They're popular for miking guitars, hi-hats, woodwinds and most classical instruments. They tend to be end-address, which, together with their diminutive size, makes them easy to place and aim.
Medium-diaphragm condensers sit somewhere between the two.
Tube or FET?
The active circuitry within a condenser mic will either be based on 1900s tube technology or 1940s solid-state FET technology. Tubes add a harmonically rich warmth, while FET delivers a cleaner, more pristine sound.
Some condenser microphones feature a Passive Attenuation Device (PAD). This can be engaged to stop very loud sounds overloading the mic's active circuitry and driving it to distortion.
Condenser microphone applications
Below are some tried and trusted ways of using condenser mics. But don't be constrained by tradition – experiment to find your sound! Remember, a cheap mic in a well-treated room will always 'sound better' than an expensive mic in a poorly treated room.
- Acoustic piano: Multiple condenser mics. Large-diaphragm for the low strings and small-diaphragm for the high strings. Experiment with placement.
- Acoustic guitar: Small-diaphragm cardioid condenser mic positioned at the 12th fret.
- Strings: A small condenser is good for any instrument in the violin family.
- Drums: Small-diaphragm condenser on the hi-hat, multiple small-diaphragm condensers on the overheads. Condensers are commonly used on toms and snares, but the kick drum is usually dynamic-mic territory. Experiment!
- Vocals: Large-diaphragm condenser mic, but attempt to match the mic to the talent. Even the best condenser mics are susceptible to sibilance and plosives, so use a pop shield. It will keep saliva from gumming up your prized purchase, too!