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15 best microphones 2021: our expert pick of the best recording mics for every application

15 best microphones 2021: our expert pick of the best mics for every application - from vocals and instruments to podcasts
(Image credit: Future)

The best microphones cover a lot of ground. Whether you’re looking to record instruments, vlogs or voice-overs, there will be a mic that fits your bill. Where to start though? With so many potential options it can be thoroughly bewildering. We can help with this guide to the best microphones for recording you can buy right now.

Essentially, you need a recording microphone capable of accurately capturing a quality audio signal – that's a basic for any record producer or musician. But not all mics are created equal, as we’ll outline here. It also pays to invest in the best mic that your budget will allow. That said, there can be excellent value found at all price levels.

In this guide to the best microphones, we’ll explain the key differences to look out for when choosing among the different recording mics available, and we'll aim to give you a clear idea of which mics are best suited to which applications. The microphones we’ve chosen sit across a variety of budgets and ability levels, and we’d happily use any microphone on this list in our own recordings. 

So, read on to discover our top choices for the best microphones for recording musical instruments and beyond, to add to your recording studio setup. We’ve featured these mics in price order to help you find the right one for your budget.

For all the buying advice you’ll need, click the button above. If you just want to check out our top picks, keep on scrolling.

Best microphones: Our top picks

The microphones we’ve rounded up in this guide each excel in their own field, whether that’s accurately recording the unique tonality of a vintage acoustic guitar or grand piano, embellishing the sound of a great vocal performance, or providing that velvet-smooth broadcast voice track. As such, it’s difficult to single out an overall ‘best in class’ mic, as everyone’s requirements will be different. Instead, we’ve highlighted a couple of high performers for your consideration.

The Aston Microphones Origin continues to impress. The depth of sound and quality of construction far exceeds the price tag, making it an easy one to pick out from our selection. Likewise, we love the clarity and accuracy of the AKG C636. Overall, however, the best microphone for recording is the one that does the job for your particular project or needs. Invest in something decent as soon as you can and you’ll reap the benefits of a higher quality recording microphone for years to come.

Best microphones under $/£200

Best microphones: Sontronics Solo

(Image credit: Sontronics)

1. Sontronics Solo microphone

The best microphone if you need a Shure SM58 alternative

Price: $135/£99/€111 | Type: Dynamic | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No

Full-bodied, clear vocal sound
Off-axis rejection is excellent
Well-weighted, solid construction
Not as compact as others 

The Solo is a well-weighted, solid microphone; light hand-held mics suck. The grille has a flat front which we much prefer to the bulbous type: it not only gives a more consistent distance guide when up close, it is also less likely to knock your front teeth out in a rowdy club gig. 

The output impedance is higher than the average dynamic microphone, and this is reflected in the healthy level at the preamp. This bodes well for controlling noise and feedback in live event gain staging, as well as studio usage. A beefy output is useless if the sound doesn’t pull its weight, which in this case it does. 

Read our full Sontronics Solo review

Best microphones: IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio

(Image credit: IK Multimedia)

2. IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio

The best microphone for streamers and podcasters

Price: $149/£160/€155 (each) | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Speech | Connection: Micro USB

Easy to set up
Decent sound
Great included software
Not geared towards pristine audio

Not every budget can stretch to pro-level prices, yet the burst in popularity of streaming and podcasting has seen a surge in demand for decent quality, simple bus-powered microphones. There are plenty of great options on the market now, but we’ve opted for the IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio on account of its simple setup, decent sound and access to a suite of apps for recording and production.

The iRig Mic Studio is equally at home on a portable device as a laptop or computer, and the price-to-performance balance makes this a very attractive option for anyone on a budget looking to get into recording.

Read the full IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio review

Best microphones: $/£201-400

Best microphones: Rode NT1

(Image credit: Rode)

3. Rode NT1 microphone

The best affordable condenser mic

Price: $269/£239/€269 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No

Low noise
Sound quality
Integrated shock mount
Not a lot

Rode's original NT1 was released around 20 years ago, followed by the NT1A a few years later. Now the company has gone back to the old name with a recently-released NT1 model that looks very similar to the NT1A but has actually been completely redesigned from the ground up – the only component in common with the NT1A being the mesh grille. 

So, what does that redesign involve? First up there's the new HF6 capsule, designed to feature a sound signature similar to vintage favourites but exhibiting extremely low noise. Then there's the fact that the transducer is suspended inside the microphone using Rycote's Lyre system, which should minimise external vibrations. Rode also claims that the NT1 is the world's quietest 1-inch cardioid condenser mic due to the high-grade electronics keeping the self-noise level down to 4.5dBA.

Read our full Rode NT1 review

Best microphones: Audio Technica AE2300

(Image credit: Audio Technica)

4. Audio Technica AE2300 microphone

The best mid-priced alternative to the Shure SM57

Price: $269/£249/€268 | Type: Dynamic | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No

Tailored frequency response
Optional low-pass filter
Rubberised screw tight clip
Reasonably pricey for a dynamic mic
Size precludes use as a handheld

The AE2300 is a broad-application high-SPL cardioid design, so should be ideal for percussion, drums, guitar amps and brass. It’s also pretty compact (less then 10cm long), so is perfect for discrete use in a live environment. The weighty brass casing and top grille feel robust, and the screw-tight rubberised clip should see off any wandering drum sticks while providing some mechanical isolation. 

Overall, it’s a beautifully designed and manufactured mic. The proprietary double-dome diaphragm improves high-frequency and transient response. The off-axis frequency response is also reasonably linear up to 120 degrees, and not bad even at 180 degrees off-axis, which could certainly be beneficial when setting up a multi-miked drum kit. 

Read our full Audio-Technica AE2300 review

Best microphones: Shure MV7

(Image credit: Shure)

5. Shure MV7

The best recording microphone for content creation

Price: $279/£249/€269 | Type: Dynamic | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Speech | Connection: USB and XLR | Powered: Both

Dual output adds versatility
MOTIV app is genuinely useful
USB-C connection would have been preferable

Shure have long been one of the first names pro podcasters, vloggers and streamers look to for their microphones, and with the MV7 it’s easy to see why. The MV7 is ideal for these applications, with a few neat tricks on hand to make the recording experience as simple and rewarding as possible. We particularly like the complementary MOTIV app, which allows you to choose specific vocal presets to give your sound a professional sheen.

This isn’t going to be the mic musicians or singers will look to. Sure, it can handle these applications at a push, but this is a speech-specific microphone and, at that, the MV7 is a highly capable option indeed.

Read the full Shure MV7 review

Best microphones: Aston Microphones Origin

(Image credit: Aston Microphones)

6. Aston Microphones Origin

An excellent low-priced condenser mic

Price: $299/£199/€299 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals | Connection: XLR

Fantastic price
Boutique appearance
Very few

The Aston Origin may be competitively priced, but it possesses a degree of originality that is uncommon in this range. The Origin is a fixed pattern (cardioid) condenser and is the smaller of Aston's two mics: the larger Spirit is a multi-pattern condenser with an extra 10dB of pad available. There are two switches on the stainless steel casing: 10dB pad and 80Hz low-cut filter. 

The XLR connection is on the underside of the mic, as is a mic stand mounting socket (5/8-inch with a 3/8-inch adaptor included). This latter feature means there's no need for a mic clip, though this does limit angle choices to the capabilities of the stand. The wave-shaped outer spring/mesh acts as a shock absorber for the capsule, and behind it sits a stainless steel wire mesh shielding.

Read our full Aston Microphones Origin review

Best microphones: AKG C214

(Image credit: AKG)

7. AKG C214

A great option for recording guitar amps

Price: $299/£275/€299 | Type: Large diaphragm condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Amps, acoustic | Connection: XLR | Powered: No

Works well with a variety of sound sources
Superb design
Higher frequencies can be exaggerated at times

While some of the mics we feature in this guide serve one specific purpose, there’s always room for a good all-rounder. The AKG C214 is a large diaphragm condenser which will excel at everything from guitar amps to acoustic instruments, pianos and vocals.

Build quality is exceptional, with an all-metal body and pleasing heft, while there’s in-built attenuation thanks to a switchable 160 Hz bass roll-off. For home studio owners keen to invest in a solid, general-purpose studio microphone, the AKG C214 represents excellent value for money. 

Read the full AKG C214 review

Best microphones: sE Electronics sE2200a II

(Image credit: sE Electronics)

8. sE Electronics sE2200a II microphone

The best multi-patterned mid-range mic

Price: $399/£335/€385 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid, omni, figure-8 | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No

Well made and good looking
Flexible multi-pattern design
Bright but solid sound
Price increase from MK1 version

Like many large capsule condensers, omni mode on the sE2200a II is unlikely to be this mic's forte, and the MkII's response shows a noticeable dip (6dB) around the 5kHz mark. However, in use this wasn't that obvious, and is possibly compensated slightly by the gentle boost above 7kHz. Either way, both patterns are useful inclusions, and save you the trouble of buying or setting up another mic, should you want to try out different patterns. 

Overall, sE's upgrade is a success, and combined with the multi-pattern option, the 2200a MkII is more desirable than ever. OK, the multi-pattern capability has pushed up the price a bit, but there's always the fixed cardioid version if your budget's tight.

Read our full sE Electronics sE2200a II review

Best microphones: $/£401-800

Best microphones: AKG C636

(Image credit: AKG)

9. AKG C636

A great handheld condenser and the best microphone for master reference

Price: $499/£339/€399 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals | Connection: XLR

Clear, well balanced response
Superb feedback rejection
Excellent off-axis attenuation
You have to pay for quality

As a condenser mic, the C636 is inherently more complex than its dynamic siblings, a complexity that comes at a cost in both R&D and production. Issues with feedback rejection and handling noise have to be balanced against tradeoffs in sound quality. 

Behind the simple black exterior and lightness in hand, the C636 boasts serious design chops to give it the ‘Master Reference’ moniker, but is it deserved? In short, yes. The sound is clear and full, far more linear and ‘real’ than its dynamic mic counterparts. 

The high frequency range is present and well defined, without the harsh hype and phase-shift peakiness that some (cheaper) condenser mics either display or attempt to mask with an overall HF pull-down. 

Read our full AKG C636 review

Best microphones: Neumann TLM 102

(Image credit: Neumann)

10. Neumann TLM 102 microphone

The best microphone for recording vocals on a mid-range budget

Price: $699/£450/€584 (each) | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals | Connection: XLR

Superb vocal performance
Exceptional clarity

As one of the best-respected names in microphones we were expecting good things from the Neumann TLM 102. This large diaphragm condenser promises superlative performance for vocals, and it does not disappoint. Offering crystal clear reproduction across the frequency range, with a nice bump around the 6 kHz mark, the TLM 102 is a specialist mic which will do wonders for your mixes. 

That’s not to say it can’t do other applications though. It features a relatively high sound pressure threshold, so recording loud sources like drums and guitar amplifiers isn’t out of the question. All told this is an ideal investment for anyone looking to upgrade their recording gear and take their tracks to a new level. 

Read the full Neumann TLM 102 review

Best microphones: Rode NTR ribbon mic

(Image credit: Rode)

11. Rode NTR Ribbon Microphone

Need a ribbon mic? Then here's your best microphone for recording

Price: $799/£589/€888 | Type: Ribbon | Pickup pattern: Figure-8 | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No

Natural smooth and silky sound
Figure of eight pattern
Built-in shockmounting
Very little

Electronically, the NTR is active, running from 48V phantom power and has a built-in transformer that offers a high output so that the mic is not so finickity about preamp requirements as other ribbon mics and can, a fact borne out by our tests, be used with a wide range of preamps without having to turn the gain up to noise-generating levels. 

Internal shock mounting results in there being no need for an external suspension cradle, which helps with placement and, even though this is quite a heavy mic, the included compact mount which attaches to its base works great at holding it at any angle on a mic stand with little pressure needed to firm it up. 

On a variety of sound sources we found the mic to deliver a very natural representation of whatever was put in front of it with plenty of low-end and a clear top with a natural roll off, rather than the often overdone brightness designed into some condensers.

Read our full Rode NTR review

Best microphones $/£801+

Best microphones: Lewitt LCT 640 TS

(Image credit: Future)

12. Lewitt LCT 640 TS microphone

The best microphone for innovation

Price: $899/£879/€899 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Omni, wide cardioid, cardioid, supercardioid and figure-8 | Application: Vocals | Connection: XLR, mini XLR

Five pattern options
Selection of attenuation and roll off
Second output is quite fragile

Although visually similar to Lewitt Audio's LCT 640, its new LCT 640 TS sports a twin diaphragm capsule and incorporates Lewitt's integrated capsule matching system. The TS stands for Twin System: it works either in regular multipattern mic mode, or in dual mode, providing independent access to both diaphragm outputs. This allows adjustment of the pickup pattern after recording and also opens up some stereo recording options. 

In dual mode the second diaphragm output is accessed via a miniature three-pin connector on the side of body, and in the carry case there's a mini three-pin XLR breakout cable as well as accessories such as foam windshield, suspension cradle, mic pouch and a rather nifty magnetic pop shield. All told, it's a well put together and stylish package.

Read our full Lewitt LCT 640 TS review

Best microphones: Slate Digital VMS

(Image credit: Slate Digital)

13. Slate Digital VMS

The best microphone for virtual modelling

Price: $999/£1,099/€1,299 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No

Accurate sounding models
You only need one mic
No HP filter in the analogue chain

Classic large capsule condenser microphones are without a doubt amongst the most sought-after and expensive items on anyone’s wish list. With an original Neumann U47 commanding up to $10,000, most of these mics are out of reach for the average studio owner, and certainly only possible for a tiny minority of home studios. So in theory, if you can emulate them with software then you should be on to a winner. 

There have been a few plugs over the years which have claimed to give one mic the character of another but, given the limitations of the original mic, coupled with any number of mic pres that could have been used, plus the quality of the interface that recorded it, most of them have been pretty disappointing. Slate Digital have taken that idea and built a complete system which removes as many of those variables as possible. 

What you get with the VMS is a high-quality, large capsule condenser mic, a dedicated ‘ultra linear’ mic pre and a plug-in which contains the modelled mics. The only variable is that you have to use your own A/D converter to get it into your DAW.

Read our full Slate Digital VMS review

Best microphones: Sontronics Aria

(Image credit: Sontronics)

14. Sontronics Aria microphone

The best valve microphone around

Price: $1,199/£899/€1,092 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: 12AX7/ECC83 tube

Smooth non-hyped sound
Very well made
The classic mic and cradle styling
Not ideal for quiet sources

With everything plugged up, the first thing that's obvious with the Aria is just how natural it sounds. There's definitely a slight presence lift, but this is in the upper mids rather than right into sibilant territory. Beyond this there's no high frequency hyping, or the brittleness that plagues mics of that ilk. So, one's attention is drawn to the lows and low mids. These feel solid and although there is a small proximity effect, it's not at all overbearing. 

In use we feel the cardioid polar pattern is pretty broad both in horizontal and vertical directions. So the sweet spot is large, which is particularly useful for vocals and acoustic guitars. On vocals the Aria delivers a faithful sound, and when you dig in with more forceful delivery it responds very well. With acoustic guitar it's easy to capture a non-boomy sound, and once again the non-hyped sound is great. The smooth response also lends itself to complex sounds such as guitar amp, strings and percussion.

Read our full Sontronics Aria review

Best microphones: Audio Technica AT5040 microphone

(Image credit: Audio Technica)

15. Audio Technica AT5040 microphone

Need a high-end condenser mic? Then this is the best microphone for you

Price: $2,999/£2,999/€3,111 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No

Stylish, functional and well made
Natural open sound
Big output level and very low noise
Requires careful positioning

With a new large diaphragm condenser mic there's rarely anything unusual to discuss. After all, the focus is typically on the general frequency response, pick up pattern, build quality and sound. Audio Technica's AT5040 ticks all the boxes of a typical high end phantom powered condenser mic with its discrete component design, low noise, high SPL handling and decent shock mount. Look closer, however, and you will find some special touches. The noise figure is exceptional and the quick release cradle beautifully designed (more later). 

Also worth mentioning is the advanced internal capsule decoupling mechanism and the fact that it's 100 percent hand built and inspected. The really big deal here – bigger than that whopping price tag – is the capsule: a four-part rectangular design delivering over ten square cms of surface area (roughly twice that of a one inch capsule). Put into perspective, a circular design with roughly the same area would have a diameter of 3.6cm.

Read our full Audio Technica AT5040 review

Best microphones: Buying advice

A microphone set up in a studio ready for a vocal take

(Image credit: Future)

As with any piece of audio gear, the first question you need to ask yourself is, ‘what sound am I looking for here?' Establishing your sonic objectives early on in the production process will enable you to choose the right kit for the job, including microphones. It's unlikely you'll have a precise notion of how the final recording will shape up, but even a vague idea of the direction you want to take will enable you to make a good start, which is half the battle.

How do microphones work?

To fully understand how to choose between one microphone and another let's take a quick look at how they work. Essentially, sound waves generated by a vocalist, an acoustic guitar, a flute, a pregnant elephant or whatever else you're trying to record will hit a flexible diaphragm inside your microphone. As the diaphragm moves it generates an electrical signal that travels down a cable to your amplifier, desk or recording interface. Nine times out of ten this signal will end up at a speaker, or pair headphones, where it causes a speaker cone to fluctuate. These movements cause the air pressure to change, generating sound waves that match your original source. Yes, it still seems like magic to us too. 

OK, there's a bit more to it than that, but if you think about it the microphone and speaker work in a very similar way. The mic's diaphragm and the speaker's cone are doing pretty much the same thing but in reverse. One is converting sound into an electrical signal and the other is converting it back again.

The way in which a mic's diaphragm handles the conversion will impact the characteristics of our sound, so we need to make sure our microphone choice aligns with the sonic ambition we set out in step one. Two types of diaphragm, and their associated electrical gubbins, account for the vast majority of microphones found in studios today – the dynamic mic and the condenser. Let's take a closer look.

Dynamic vs condenser

Types of mic

Life is pretty darn simple for the dynamic mic. It's little more than a conductive coil, sat in a magnetic field, that’s attached to the rear of a diaphragm. As sound waves enter the microphone the diaphragm flexes, moving the coil which generates an electrical signal. The process is crude and insensitive but it works surprisingly well. 

Dynamic mics are just the ticket for live use. Their no-nonsense build means there's little to go wrong and, in order to support the coil, they're equipped with relatively hefty, robust diaphragms. They're also passive devices, which means that, unlike condenser mics, they don't need phantom power in order to operate. These attributes make them well-suited to the rough and tumble of life on the road.

Their insensitive nature, a product of the thick diaphragm, does limit their frequency response, but that's not entirely bad news for live use. The last thing you need is a mic so sensitive that it picks up every bit of background sound and handling noise. They also excel at miking loud sound sources that would damage most condenser mics.

Condenser microphones are far more sensitive and substantially more complex because they rely on capacitance to generate an electrical signal. Two conducting plates are needed to generate the signal, so the condenser mic features a rigid backplate in combination with a thin diaphragm, which acts as the second conducting plate. As the diaphragm moves the distance between it and the backplate alters, which causes a variance in electrical charge or capacitance, resulting in a signal. 

Close up of microphone's protective wire mesh

(Image credit: Getty/Carol Herbert/EyeEm)

The diaphragm can actually be incredibly fine, a quality that enables it to vibrate very freely, very fast. This gives condensers a wide, relatively colourless frequency response, which is perfect for reproducing sounds extremely faithfully. 

They are especially good at picking up delicate sounds higher up the frequency spectrum, areas that dynamic mics just cannot reach. That's why you'll find condensers miking up acoustic guitars, hi-hats and vocals.

Due to their complexity, condenser mics tend to be much pricier than dynamic mics. Generally speaking, they're also less robust and better suited to life in a warm dry studio than the back of a damp Transit van. They need phantom power in order to operate but this does give them higher output levels, so they don't need as much potentially noisy gain at the preamp to generate a decent signal. 

Large diaphragm condensers, especially the tube variety, have a reputation for warming up vocals in the most delightful way. In contrast, small diaphragm condensers are usually very transparent, making them the go-to mics for strings, hi-hats, drum overheads and any other instrument where colouration isn't desirable.

Neither type of mic is better overall, but a dynamic will be best suited to some applications and a condenser more appropriate for others. Every mic model has a unique frequency response curve, which defines whether it will colour the sound source dramatically or barely at all. If you're lucky enough to own a few mics, recognise their characteristics and learn to use them to your advantage.

Understanding polar patterns

The area or direction from which a microphone captures sound may be very wide or extremely narrow. This directivity, known as a polar pattern, is useful when you need to include or exclude certain sounds. It also affects tone too, so you can use different mics to experiment with what is captured and how it's coloured.

Omnidirectional mics, or omnis, pick up sound from all directions. They sound open, with a gorgeous bass response, which makes them a wonderful choice for vocals. Unfortunately, they are susceptible to room noise and prone to feedback, which makes them a poor option for live use.

Cardioid mics are most sensitive to sounds in front of the mic, and capture very little from the rear. This makes them very popular for semi-isolating vocals or other sound sources, both on stage and in the studio. They are susceptible to the proximity effect, which is a boost in bass frequencies as the mic is brought closer to the action, but this can be desirable depending on the result you are trying to achieve. Radio DJs and voice-over artists often favour the proximity effect because it can make them sound smoother, but some instruments just end up sounding muddy.

Supercardioids and hypercardioids have increasingly narrow patterns, which makes them perfect for isolating vocalists on stage, provided the talent doesn't move outside the pickup area! The proximity effect is even more evident but feedback risk is almost non-existent.

USB vs XLR connections

Best XLR Microphones: Buying Advice

(Image credit: Future)

USB is ubiquitous, most of us probably have a box full of USB cables of one sort or another lying about the house, and all modern computers will feature some flavour of USB. It's the convenient choice. 

XLR cables and connectors are less commonplace for domestic appliances but they are the mark of pro audio equipment. XLR connectors are superior because they are 'balanced', which means they offer protection against unwanted noise. They can also carry 48v of phantom power and are built to take some serious abuse.

In short, there's nothing very wrong with USB, but XLR is the pro's choice.

How much should I spend on a microphone?

The old adage 'you get what you pay for in life' holds true when it comes to investing in a microphone, but with some important caveats. 

Dynamic microphones can be substantially cheaper than condensers, and yet they can perform better for some applications such as capturing live performance. If you have limited funds then you may be better spending your money on a really decent dynamic mic, like a Sontronics Solo at circa $135/£99/€111, rather than a 'cheap' condenser. There's nothing to stop you using a good dynamic mic in the studio.

Iconic condenser mics are a sight to behold and objects of desire to covet. We'd have a mic locker full of them if we could, but they can cost thousands and thousands. We've found that for most 'bedroom' producers something like an Aston Origin at circa $299/£199/€299 really isn't that far behind in terms of recording quality. So, if you're working out of a home studio you may be better off spending your hard-earned cash on sound treatments and training rather than lusting after a famous mic. The law of diminishing returns means that you'll need a really good studio space in which to hear the subtle difference between a good condenser and a really good condenser.

Chris Corfield

Chris Corfield is a journalist with over 12 years of experience writing for some of the music world's biggest brands including Orange Amplification, MusicRadar, Guitar World Total Guitar and Dawsons Music. Chris loves getting nerdy about everything from guitar gear and synths, to microphones and music production hardware.