Microphones buying guide
How to choose the ones that meet your needs
Microphones come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes. How do you choose the ones that will meet your needs?
Let's begin by looking at the most popular types and what they're good for.
- Dynamic microphones like Shure's iconic SM57 and SM58 are perfect for live performances of all kinds.
- Wireless microphones are good for performers and speakers who need to move around and engage the crowd. Form factors include handheld, headset, and clip-on (lavalier).
- USB microphones connect to your computer. They're great for podcasters and other internet content creators.
- Condenser microphones are great for a home recording studio. These sensitive, accurate mics make instruments and voices sparkle.
Below you'll find more information on each type. We'll also discuss the features and specs you'll come across as you shop for microphones.
Rugged, reliable dynamic mics are great for gigging musicians and other stage performers.
Because of their extreme durability, dynamic mics can handle frequent setup and tear-down. For that reason, they’re great for live performances.
How do dynamic mics work? When the diaphragm is exposed to sound waves, a small induction coil moves up and down around a magnet, creating an audio signal.
For live sound applications, our most popular dynamic vocal mic is the above-mentioned Shure SM58. Its close relative, the Shure PGA58, gives you similar performance at a lower price.
Need to mic an instrument or a guitar amp? The SM57 is a great choice. It also has a less-expensive cousin, the PGA57.
Another legendary Shure dynamic mic, the SM7B is great for recording vocals in your home studio. It's also perfect for doing voice-overs, radio broadcasts, and podcasts.
Need to move around on stage? Consider a wireless mic.
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.
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. The batteries and transmitter are built right into most handheld models.
Wireless lavalier mics are often used for video production. These very small clip-on microphones require a separate power pack/transmitter that clips onto your belt.
Fitness instructors often use headset mics like the Shure SM31FH. It's moisture-resistant, so a little sweat won't hurt it.
There's a lot you need to know before choosing a wireless mic — like how to choose the right frequency band for your area. To learn more, read our Wireless microphone buying guide. Or contact one of our expert advisors for a recommendation.
USB mics let you record directly to your computer. They're great for songwriters and podcasters. A USB mic can also improve the sound of your voice on Zoom meetings.
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. They're perfect for a one-person podcast. They're also great for improving the sound of your voice in a Zoom meeting or Skype call.
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.
Many USB mics have built-in headphone jacks for easy monitoring, like the Audio-Technica AT2020USB. It gives you taste of the clear, smooth sound that you can get from condenser mics, which I'll discuss below. But unlike traditional condenser mics, the AT2020USB doesn't require outboard phantom power, since it gets it from the USB connection to your computer.
Sensitive, highly accurate condenser mics capture all of the nuances of voices and musical instruments. That's why they're perfect for your home studio.
Condenser mics are great for home studio recordings.
Large-diaphragm condenser mics are usually used to record vocals. Small-diaphragm mics are better suited for instruments, such as the acoustic guitar.
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.
How do condenser microphones work?
The diaphragm of a condenser mic is one plate of a capacitor. The distance between the diaphragm and a fixed plate changes in response to sound. It's this ever-changing distance between the plates that creates the audio signal. Because the diaphragm can move quickly, condenser mics are extremely sensitive and responsive.
Professional recording studios often use super-expensive condenser mics. Don't be put off by those. If you're just getting started, take a look at our selection of affordable Audio-Technica condenser mics.
A mic’s polar pattern shows its sound pickup footprint. For example, some mics are very sensitive to the sounds coming from the front, but can't "hear" sounds coming from the sides or the rear.
There are three main polar patterns, and each has its own advantages. Some microphones allow you to switch between different patterns.
Cardioid — A diagram of a cardioid 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 often used for a singer or a single instrument. Cardioid mics are also used in broadcast studios.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Need expert help choosing microphones for your PA system or home recording studio? Give us a call at 1-800-555-9369.