It could be argued that there is no more important piece of studio equipment than the humble microphone. Whether you’re recording or performing, the ability to accurately capture a quality audio signal is essential for any producer or artist. But, as we’ll outline in this best microphones guide, not all mics are created equal. Some favour absolute accuracy, while others are chosen for the ability to imbue a sound with their own unique tonality.
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In this guide we’ll explain the key differences to look out for, along with providing an idea of which type of microphone suits which application. The microphones we’ve chosen suit users of different budgets or ability levels, and we’d happily put our names to any on the list. Read on and find out our choices for the best microphones around in 2020.
Which are the best microphones right now?
Each of the microphones we’ve listed below will suit a certain application 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 is the one that achieves what you want from it. Invest in something decent and you’ll reap the benefits 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 microphone types we explore will have its own strengths and weaknesses. Some will work wonders for recording vocals, yet wouldn’t last five minutes on a sweaty stage. Others could survive a bomb blast, but wouldn’t capture the nuances of a symphony orchestra well enough to do it justice.
Fundamentally, microphones fall into one of a small number of categories with the two most common 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 mics 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.
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Condensers, on the other hand, can be mostly split into two distinct camps. 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 type of mic you choose will be dictated by a number of factors, including price, needs and situation. Let’s examine some of the best microphones options for you right now.
The best microphones you can buy right now
A great handheld condenser and master reference mic
List price: $499/£339/€399 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals | Connection: XLR
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 the full AKG C636 review
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
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 the full Lewitt LCT 640 TS review
An excellent low-priced condenser mic
List price: $269/£199/€299 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals | Connection: XLR
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 the full Aston Microphones Origin review
The best affordable condenser mic
List price: $395/£239/€269 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
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 the full Rode NT1 review
5. 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
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 the full Sontronics Aria review
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
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 the full Slate Digital VMS review
The best high-end condenser mic
List price: $2,999/£2,999/€3,111 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
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 the full Audio Technica AT5040 review
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
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 the full sE Electronics sE2200a II review
9. 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
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.
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
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 the full Audio-Technica AE2300 review
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
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 the full Sontronics Solo review
This is the best ribbon mic around
List price: $999/£589/€888 | Type: Ribbon | Pickup pattern: Figure-8 | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
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 the full Rode NTR review
13. IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio
The best microphone for streamers and podcasters
List price: $150/£160/€155 (each) | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Speech | Connection: Micro USB
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.