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The 13 best microphones 2020: our pick of the best mics for recording instruments, vocals and podcasts

The 13 best microphones 2020: our pick of the best mics for recording instruments, vocals and podcasts
(Image credit: Future)

There are several reasons for seeking out the best microphones, but as you're here with us at MusicRadar, we're assuming you want a top microphone for recording musical instruments, vocals or even a cheeky podcast. Though for the latter, we'd also recommend you check out our more dedicated guide to the best podcasting microphones. Either way, if its mics you want, we've got you covered – after all, it's perfectly respectable to argue that there's no bit of studio kit more important.

Investing in the best microphones you can afford early on when putting together your home studio, or pro studio, for that matter, is a wise investment, as a poor quality mic will quickly lead to frustrating recording sessions. You need a recording microphone capable of accurately capturing a quality audio signal – that's a basic for any record producer or musician. But, as we outline below, not all recording mics are created equal.

In our expert guide to the best microphones for recording, we’ll explain the key differences to look out for choosing among the different recording mics available, and we'll help you gain a clear idea of which type of mic suits which use. The microphones we’ve chosen sit across a variety of budgets or ability levels, and we’ll happily put our name to any microphone that has made this list. 

So read on to discover our top choices for the best microphones for recording musical instruments, vocals and podcasts, and discover which ones are available to buy right now to add to your recording studio setup. If you're looking for more cool kit recommendations, also take a look at our pro guides to the best studio monitors, as well sleek studio monitor stands, plus the best studio desks for neater storage of your gear.

With Amazon Prime Day on the horizon, it could be worth holding off on picking up a new microphone until the Prime Day music deals start emerging. We'll be reporting on the best offers right through to Prime Day itself.

Which are the best microphones right now?

Each of the microphones we’ve listed below will suit a certain use perfectly, whether that’s accurately recording the microscopic details of a vintage acoustic guitar or grand piano, or embellishing the sound of a great vocal performance. As such, it’s difficult to choose an overall ‘best in class’. 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 recommend. Likewise, we love the clarity and accuracy of the AKG C636

Overall, however, the best microphone for recording is the one that achieves what you want it to achieve. 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.

How to buy the best microphones for your needs

As with any piece of studio gear, the first question you need to ask yourself is, ‘How will I be using this?' This question is crucial for a number of reasons. Each of the models featured in our best microphones guide naturally has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some work wonders for recording vocals, yet wouldn’t last five minutes on a sweaty stage. Others could survive a lot of wear and tear, but wouldn’t capture all of the nuances of a symphony orchestra.

Types of mic

Fundamentally, recording microphones fall into one of a small number of categories, with the two most common mics being dynamic and condenser. Dynamic microphones are perfect for performance, thanks to their inherent robustness and durability. This is down to their construction, with few moving parts to go wrong. 

Dynamic microphones are ideal for stages, and are often seen in the hands of singers, adjacent to kick drums or propped up against guitar amplifier cabinets. Often, they’ll feature a ‘cardioid’ pickup pattern, which takes audio from a single axis, i.e. the front or side of the mic. This enables them to focus on a singer’s voice, for example, while also rejecting signals from other angles.

Condenser microphones, on the other hand, can be mostly split into two distinct camps. Firstly, large diaphragm condenser mics bring flavour and colour to a sound, and are perfect for vocals, speech and acoustic instruments. Small diaphragm condensers, on the other hand, are superb choices for tonal accuracy, and produce a more consistent result across the frequency spectrum. 

You’ll see small diaphragm condensers used on cymbals, or as overhead or ambient mics to fill out an overall mix, for example. Condensers can offer a range of pickup patterns, from cardioid through to omnidirectional.

Ultimately, the best microphone for you will be dictated by a number of factors, including price, needs and situation. Let’s examine these top recording microphones now, so you can get started on your latest project.

The best microphones you can buy now

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1. AKG C636

A great handheld condenser and the best microphone for master reference

List 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

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2. Lewitt LCT 640 TS microphone

The best microphone for innovation

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

Flexible
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

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3. Slate Digital VMS

The best microphone for virtual modelling

List 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

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4. Audio Technica AE2300 microphone

The best mid-priced alternative to the Shure SM57

List 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

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5. Rode NTR Ribbon Microphone

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

List 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

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6. Aston Microphones Origin

An excellent low-priced condenser mic

List 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

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7. Rode NT1 microphone

The best affordable condenser mic

List price: $395/£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 due to the high-grade electronics keeping the self-noise level down to 4.5dBA.

Read our full Rode NT1 review

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8. Sontronics Aria microphone

The best valve microphone around

List 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

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9. Audio Technica AT5040 microphone

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

List 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
Expensive
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

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Best microphones: sE Electronics sE2200a II

(Image credit: sE Electronics)
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Best microphones: sE Electronics sE2200a II

(Image credit: sE Electronics)

10. sE Electronics sE2200a II microphone

The best multi-patterned mid-range mic

List 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

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Best microphones: Neumann TLM 102

(Image credit: Neumann)
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Best microphones: Neumann TLM 102

(Image credit: Neumann)

11. Neumann TLM 102 microphone

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

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

Superb vocal performance
Exceptional clarity
None!

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. 

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12. Sontronics Solo microphone

The best microphone if you need a Shure SM58 alternative

List 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 mic, 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

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Best microphones: 13. IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio

(Image credit: IK Multimedia)
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Best microphone: IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio

(Image credit: Ik Multimedia)

13. IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio

The best microphone for streamers and podcasters

List 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.