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What is a condenser microphone?

Which condenser microphone is best?

Recording studios have long relied on condenser microphones to deliver the utmost sonic clarity and detail when recording voice-overs, singers or musical instruments. Today, condenser mics are also used by musicians and podcasters recording at home. Our top choice, the Audio-Technica AT4040 Cardioid Condenser Microphone, combines high-quality performance and affordability, making it a popular choice for professionals and hobbyists alike.

What to know before you buy a condenser microphone

A condenser microphone is designed to pick up detailed sound in a studio environment where audio can be closely controlled. Condenser mics require a power source, but most audio interfaces and recording mixers can supply this power via the same cable that transmits the mic’s sound. While dynamic mics are often hand-held, condenser mics usually require a microphone stand.

Diaphragm size

Condenser mics are described as having small or large diaphragms. A large diaphragm, as the name suggests, captures massive sound, capturing the depth of low frequencies, making it ideal for the human voice. The bigger sound is especially pleasing to most ears due to its warm and natural tones. Small diaphragm mics are better at picking up higher frequencies, transients and more airy tones, such as those from drums, woodwinds, acoustic guitars and other string instruments.

Polar pattern

What do you want your microphone to pick up — just the sound right in front of it, or the entire area around you? Visualize the area around the microphone where it’s able to pick up sound, and that’s its polar pattern. An omnidirectional pattern is designed to pick sound from all around the microphone, making it ideal for capturing room ambiance as well as multiple instruments or voices. Cardioid pattern microphones are designed to pick up sound from the mic’s front and sides while minimizing the sound detected from behind (this roughly heart-shaped area gives this polar pattern its name). It’s also the most common pattern in consumer microphones. Other polar patterns are designed specifically for professional use.

Dynamic range

The microphone’s dynamic range describes its ability to capture quiet sounds as well as to accommodate louder sounds without distorting. Condenser mics are typically more sensitive than dynamic mics, meaning they are better able to capture softer sounds but might also be overloaded, or even damaged, by higher-volume sounds such as an electric guitar amplifier or a snare drum.

What to look for in a quality condenser microphone

Intended use

If you intend to use your condenser microphone to record in-person interviews, vocals for music or live orchestrations, you’ll want a large diaphragm mic with an omnidirectional pattern. For recording individual instruments, especially those with delicate tones and sensitive transients, choose a small diaphragm microphone with a unidirectional polar pattern. Check the stats and manufacturer’s information to find the right one for your audio needs.

Power supply

Because condenser microphones require external power, it’s important to know whether a mic is driven by phantom power or a power supply unit. Phantom power is the process of delivering DC power through a preamp or mixer using a three-pronged XLR cable. It’s the most common power source for modern microphones, but vintage tube microphones often require an external power supply.

Accessory kit

Many manufacturers offer a full accessory kit with their microphones. These kits can include useful items such as a small shock-absorbing mic stand, pop filter, XLR cable and dust cover.

How much you can expect to spend on a condenser microphone

Condenser microphone prices start around $100. Most midrange-quality condenser mics are $200-$900, while high-fidelity professional mics can cost $1,000 and upward.

Condenser microphone FAQ

Are condenser mics durable?

A. One downside of condenser microphones is their fragility compared to dynamic mics. Because of this, they are predominantly used for studio recording rather than live performances.

Can you plug a condenser microphone into your computer?

A. Many modern condenser microphones are made expressly for connecting directly to your computer via USB cable. A traditional studio condenser mic with XLR output can connect to your computer via a separate audio interface designed for recording.

What’s the best condenser microphone to buy?

Top condenser microphone

Audio-Technica AT4040 Cardioid Condenser Microphone

What you need to know: With its superior performance and sonic consistency, the AT4040 is a studio-grade mic available at a consumer-friendly price.

What you’ll love: Low noise, wide dynamic range and ability to handle high sound pressure levels make this highly rated mic exceptionally versatile.

What you should consider: Some engineers report irregularities in its high-frequency response.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon


Top condenser microphone for the money

Rode NT-USB Cardioid Condenser Microphone

What you need to know: The NT-USB is one of the highest-rated USB microphones, especially considering its price tag, and it is available with a full accessory kit that includes a pop filter and USB cable.

What you’ll love: The built-in headphone jack provides zero-latency direct monitoring as well as internal gain adjustment.

What you should consider: The plastic boom bracket is not as stable as a metal bracket.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon


Worth checking out

Rode NT1KIT Cardioid Condenser Microphone

What you need to know: With this package, you get both a high-quality mic with exceptional clarity and a full kit of accessories so you can start recording right away.

What you’ll love: Its low self-noise, sonic purity and extended neutral frequency response make the NT1 ideal for all applications.

What you should consider: The NT1 has few downsides other than its fragility.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon


Audio-Technica AT2020USB+ Cardioid Condenser Studio USB Microphone

What you need to know: For a very reasonable price, this mic delivers easy plug-and-play usability and a crisp, clean sound.

What you’ll love: With its sturdy build and smooth, extended frequency response, this mic is a great starting point for aspiring singers and podcasters.

What you should consider: You’ll probably want to replace the included tripod desk mic stand.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

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Matt Fleming writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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