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Microphones buying guide

For home studio and live sound applications

In a Nutshell

Selecting microphones can seem daunting for a first-time buyer looking at the wide variety of shapes, sizes, and prices. But the basic concepts behind microphones are pretty simple.

Once you’ve determined what you’ll be using a mic for, selecting one to match your needs and budget can be straightforward.

  • Condenser microphones are very sensitive, accurate mics that make instruments and voices sparkle.
  • Traveling musicians rely heavily on rugged dynamic microphones.
  • You can make a direct connection to your computer with a USB microphone.
  • Some performers and speakers need to be able to move around and engage the crowd. That's where wireless microphones come in handy.
  • For interviews and speeches, a small lavalier mic that clips to your clothing is an excellent choice.

Full Story

Below is an outline of microphone types and how they’re most commonly used. With this information, you should find it easier to select a microphone that’s best suited for your needs.

What will you use this mic for?

There are two basic uses for microphones: studio recording and live performance. “Live performance,” of course, not only covers music venues, but also churches, school auditoriums, and other places where a voice or instrument has to be amplified to be heard clearly by an audience.

Shure dual pattern condenser microphone

A Shure condenser microphone

Condenser Microphones

Best for recordings — Condenser mics are extremely sensitive, and very accurate, making them the first choice for recording studios.

Large diaphragm condenser mics are usually used to record vocals, while small diaphragm mics are better suited for instruments, such as the acoustic guitar.

Small diaphragm condenser mics are sometimes used to in live music venues to mike cymbals, which can give them a clean, tight sound.

What they are — the diaphragm is one plate of a capacitor. As it vibrates, the changing distance between the diaphragm and the fixed plate create the signal. Because the diaphragm can move quickly, condenser mics are extremely sensitive and responsive.

Condenser mics require an external power source. Usually this comes in the form of "phantom power," which is 48-volt direct current supplied by your mixer or audio interface and is carried via an XLR cable to the mic.

Shop Crutchfield's selection of condenser microphones

Shure Cardioid Dynamic Microphone

A Shure dynamic microphone

Dynamic Microphones

Best for live performances — Because of their extreme durability, dynamic mics can handle frequent setup and tear-down. For that reason, they’re great for live performances.

What they are — a small induction coil, attached to the diaphragm, creates a variable magnetic field that provides the signal.

Dynamic microphones are often tailored for certain frequencies for specialized applications. The AKG Perception P4 dynamic microphone, for example, is designed for low instruments and has a frequency response of 40-18,000 Hz instead of the full 20-20,000 Hz.

Shop Crutchfield's selection of dynamic microphones

How much do you want the mic to pick up?

Polar patterns

Do you only want to record the sound of one guitar and nothing else around it, or the sound of the whole band in front of an appreciative audience? A mic’s polar pattern shows what sound sources it’s picking up. Some microphones allow you to change the pattern of the mic. Each of these three main patterns have their own advantages.

Cardioid — A diagram of a cardioids pattern looks like an inverted heart, with the mic at the point where the two halves curve in. A cardioid mic picks up mostly what’s in front of it, with very little from the side, and nothing from the back.

This pattern’s most often used for mic’ing a singer, or a single instrument. Cardioid mics are also used in broadcast studios.

Cardioid polar pattern

Cardioid polar pattern

Omnidirectional — an omnidirectional mic records everything in a 360-degree radius. These are used when you want the ambiance of the room mixed in with the sound source. It’s also useful if the sound source is changing position in relation to the mic, which is why camcorder mics are omnidirectional.

Omnidirectional polar pattern

Omnidirectional polar pattern

Bi-directional — sometimes called a Figure 8. This type of mic picks up what’s in front of it and behind it equally, and nothing from the sides. Bi-directional mics are useful when two people have to share a microphone — such as an interview, or two singers.

Bi-directional polar pattern

Bi-directional polar pattern


How a microphone responds to changing air pressure is called its sensitivity.

Highly sensitive mics are preferred for situations where a lot of sonic detail is desirable — like recording an acoustic guitar and capturing the sound of fingertips sliding across the strings.

That same mic, though, set in front of a kick drum in live performance might deliver a muddy, unfocused sound with too much ambiance and extraneous noise. For that situation, a mic of lower sensitivity which just picked up the thud of the drum might be a better choice.

In microphone specs, sensitivity is expressed in one of two ways — either as how strong a signal the mic generates, or how loud that signal is. For the first, the spec shows how many millivolts (1/1000th of a volt, abbreviated mV) it generates per Pascal (a unit of pressure measurement, abbreviated Pa). This spec will look something like this: 50mV/Pa. The higher this number, the more sensitive the mic.

The second version is actually calculated off the first. It's the ratio between that millivolt measurement and a reference level of one volt (V) and expressed in decibels (dB). This results in a negative number; our 50mV/Pa spec could also be written as -26dBV/Pa. If the spec is given in dBV, then the higher the negative number, the lower the mic's sensitivity.

Shure USB condenser microphone

A Shure USB condenser microphone

USB Microphones for recording direct to computer

Most microphone cables have either a quarter-inch jack or an XLR plug, which means you can’t plug them directly into a laptop.

USB microphones, however, are ideal for simple home recording. All you need is the mic and your computer. Your computer’s USB port supplies power to the microphone. And the connection allows you to record directly to your computer’s audio editing software.

Shop Crutchfield's selection of USB microphones

Wireless Microphones for video and performances

Wireless microphones come in a variety of sizes and configurations, but all offer the same basic benefit: freedom of movement. That can be helpful for a lead singer who can perform better roaming the stage. It’s also useful if you want to mic a saxophone — just attach a small wireless mic to the instrument’s horn.

A wireless microphone uses battery power to transmit a signal to a receiver, which is connected to the mixing board the same way a wired microphone is.

Shop Crutchfield's selection of wireless micophones

Learn more: Read our Wireless microphone buying guide

A subset of microphones which are often used for wireless applications are lavalier mics. These are very small microphones with a wire running to a power pack/transmitter.

Lavalier mics are used for video production. Reality shows and news programs often use lavalier mics, as the mic can be unobtrusively attached to a shirt collar, and the transmitter clipped to a the subject’s belt, out of camera view.

Shure drum kit microphones

A Shure drum kit mic assortment

Starting from scratch? Consider a microphone bundle

Microphone bundles can save you a lot of trial and error as you gather gear for your home studio or live performances. Drum microphone bundles features a mix of dynamic and condenser mics. The dynamic mics are for the snare, toms and bass drum, and the condenser mics for the cymbals.

Some microphone bundles provide the accessories you need to get the best results with the mic. Such bundles may include things like a shock mount, pop filter, or mic stand.

Shop Crutchfield's selection of microphone bundles

Please share your thoughts below.

  • Art from New York, NY

    Posted on 8/26/2016

    What microphone(s) would you recommend that I attach to my MacBook Pro for participating in group web conferences, giving talks on the web and / or being interviewed or doing a podcast? Are external mikes much better than the built-in one? (I HOPE so!). What about external video camera vs built-in one? I usually use an external monitor and keep the computer shut so I could really use an external video. Thanks for the excellent overview of microphones by the way. I had absolutely no idea that there were so many specialized types of microphones.

  • Ralph Graves from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/10/2015

    There are many variables. How large (or small) is your budget? What's your setup? Will you be recording directly to a computer, or using a mixing board? I've forwarded your question to our advisors, who can follow up and better help you select the right microphone based on your criteria and setup.

    In general, though, I would recommend a condenser mic that was specifically built for vocals.

  • syeed malik from United States

    Posted on 8/9/2015

    what is the best kind of microphone for voice over work

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