If you’re looking for the widest frequency response, least noise, and overall best sound, then the best condenser microphones are what you want. It’s the choice of recording professionals for singers, solo instruments, and spoken voice.
To a large degree, that depends on the application, and your budget and personal taste. There are hundreds of excellent condenser mics to choose from, and the bewildering list of technical specs can make it difficult to choose. We’re here to help you make that choice!
So, first, let’s review a few technical details…
- What Is a Condenser Microphone?
- Large versus Small Diaphragm
- Top 10 Best Condenser Microphones In 2020 Reviews
- 1 MXL Mics 770 Cardioid Condenser Microphone
- 2 Audio-Technica AT2020 Cardioid Condenser Studio XLR Microphone
- 3 Blue Yeti USB Mic, 3 Condenser Capsules
- 4 Rode NT1 Kit Cardioid Condenser Microphone Package
- 5 Shure SM81-LC Cardioid Condenser Instrument Microphone
- 6 sE Electronics SE2200 Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
- 7 AKG Pro Audio C214 Professional Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
- 8 Avantone CV-12 Multi-Pattern Large Capsule Tube Condenser Microphone
- 9 Rode NTK Premium Tube Cardioid Condenser Microphone
- 10 Neumann TLM 102 Black Cardioid Condenser Microphone Studio Set
- More Superb Microphone Choices
- So, What Are The Best Condenser Microphones?
What Is a Condenser Microphone?
The heart of the best condenser microphones (the capsule) is essentially a capacitor, “condenser” being the original term. It comprises two parallel plates spaced closely together. A stationary solid backplate is made of brass or other metal. The diaphragm is the movable front plate, ideally gold-sputtered Mylar or thin aluminum foil.
In microphone manufacturing, “sputtering” is the process of vaporizing metal to coat the diaphragm with an extremely thin film. Gold is preferred because it’s an ideal electrical conductor.
An electric charge is applied between the diaphragm and backplate to form a capacitor. The diaphragm moves in reaction to sound pressure variations, changing the capacitance. A preamp converts the capacitance to a varying voltage.
Sensitive & Quiet
Condenser microphones have an excellent high-frequency response, typically flat from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. They’re also very sensitive to pressure variations, ideal for vocals and instruments but not for extreme close-miking. And they’re quiet because they don’t have electromagnetic coils to pick up hum.
Unlike dynamic mics, all condenser models require external power. Some include an external power supply, while others can be “phantom powered” through the cable from the mixing console or audio interface.
But They’re Not Perfect
Condenser mics are relatively fragile. Although they can handle high sound levels, dynamic mics are preferred onstage, where accidents can happen.
They’re also significantly more expensive. The best condenser mics once cost the equivalent of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, many leading manufacturers have re-engineered their classic designs to put them within the reach of project studios.
Let’s now examine some features of condenser mics more closely.
Large versus Small Diaphragm
Small condenser diaphragms are typically less than about 1 inch (25 mm) in diameter. The mic case usually has a pencil shape, and it’s “top-address” (primary sound pickup is on top). A smaller diaphragm has lower mass, producing cleaner transients and better high-frequency response. However, they’re less sensitive, so they have a lower signal-to-noise (S/N) ratio.
These mics can be hand-held or mounted on a stand. They’re typically used for piano, acoustic guitar, strings, drums, and cymbals. In matched pairs, they’re ideal for overhead or room miking of drums, orchestras or choirs.
Larger & Heavier
Large condenser diaphragms are generally 1 inch or more. Mics with large diaphragms are physically larger and heavier, and are almost always “side-address.” The higher diaphragm mass equals a lower resonant frequency, typically adding some bass boost but reducing high frequency and transient response.
It also moves further in response to sound waves, creating a stronger audio signal. This makes them more sensitive, with a higher S/N ratio.
A disadvantage of large-diaphragm, side-address microphones is that their larger grilles allow short wavelengths to bounce around inside the casing. If not properly damped, this can cause erratic high-frequency response. And because they’re heavier, they’re usually either suspended in a shock mount on a sturdy mic stand, or in a desktop stand. They’re the preferred choice for vocals and solo acoustic instruments.
Analog vs. Digital
All microphones are essentially analog devices, converting sound waves into electrical signals. However, some microphones have built-in analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) to output a digital signal, usually through a USB interface. In theory, any microphone can become “digital” by adding an ADC before the output.
Digital mics are easy to use with computers, often plug-and-play with no driver software required. No external ADC is needed. They usually include zero-latency headphone monitoring. And digitizing the signal close to the mic can reduce electromagnetic interference. They’re an effective solution for podcasting or other solo mic applications.
A digital microphone can usually be used only by itself, because the computer sees it as an audio interface. And they can’t easily be connected to analog gear. For these reasons, analog microphones are still the norm, even for digital recording.
Most microphones pick up sounds coming from different directions unequally. Mic specification sheets usually include a “polar graph,” illustrating sensitivity to sounds coming from all around. This response varies somewhat by frequency.
By far, the most common polar pattern for vocal and instrument mics is the “cardioid” pattern, so-called because it resembles a heart shape. Cardioid mics are much more sensitive to sounds at the front than at the sides and back. Small-diaphragm mics are almost always cardioid.
Some large-diaphragm mics have multiple capsules to provide additional pickup patterns. Variations of the cardioid pattern design include half-cardioid, super-cardioid, and hyper-cardioid, with greater rejection of sounds from the side. Other common patterns include omnidirectional and figure-8.
Frequency response is the range of frequencies, in hertz (Hz) or kilohertz (kHz), to which a microphone is sensitive. To be useful, this has to be qualified by a variation in decibels (dB), for example: 20 Hz – 20 kHz +/- 3 dB. In reality, many mic manufacturers provide only the overall range, so a frequency response graph can be valuable.
Professional condenser microphones generally claim a response of 20 Hz – 20 kHz, unless specifically noted otherwise. Some have dips or peaks within that range that give them a unique sonic signature.
Maximum Sound Pressure Level
Maximum Sound Pressure Level (SPL) is the loudest sound a microphone can handle without severe distortion or damage. This value is expressed in dB. Condenser mics have maximum SPL values of about 120 – 150 dB.
A microphone’s sensitivity is a measure of its output relative to a standard sound pressure level (SPL). It’s usually specified in decibels relative to 1 volt output (dBV). It’s calculated with a 1 kHz sine tone at an SPL of 94 dB or 1 pascal (Pa). The result is always a negative number, so the closer it is to zero, the more sensitive the mic is. Sometimes this value is expressed as millivolts per pascal (mV/Pa), but we’ve made conversion here.
A mic with higher sensitivity can pick up quieter sounds. This might or might not be a good thing, depending on the situation.
Signal & Noise
There are two standard measurements for microphone noise. The first is referred to as “self-noise,” “equivalent noise level,” or simply “noise”. This is the amount of hiss and other random sound created by the microphone circuit itself, and it ultimately determines the quietest sound that can be cleanly recorded.
It’s measured in decibels with an “A weighting” to correspond to the ear’s sensitivity, abbreviated dBA. Most condenser mics have very low noise, 5 – 20 dBA, so you can capture the softest nuances of a sound.
The other specification commonly encountered is the signal-to-noise ratio (S/N). This is simply the ratio of an SPL of 94 dB (1 Pascal, remember?) to the self-noise level. S/N is not the same as dynamic range, which is always much higher.
Next, we have a few other details you should consider when purchasing:
Pads & Switches
Many microphones have switches on the body to modify their behavior. An attenuator or pad reduces the sensitivity by 10 or 20 dB so you can record a higher-SPL source. A bass (high-pass) filter cuts the bass response to reduce rumble or the “tubby” sound of someone too close to the mic.
Bass filters usually have a slope of 6 or 18 dB octave at around 80 to 150 Hz. Some mics provide multiple filter options.
What’s In The Box?
To use and protect your condenser microphone, you need a few extras. Obviously, you’ll need a cable with XLR or USB connectors, and a case or pouch to store and transport it.
Other accessories you’ll probably need if they’re not included are a mic stand swivel mount, a windscreen, and a pop filter. For a large diaphragm mic, you’ll also need a high-quality shock mount. And a separate power supply is necessary if your mixer doesn’t provide phantom power.
And last, but definitely not least…
Price: Value Versus Prestige
Classic name-brand microphones enjoy a special status in studios. Musicians who know their way around a studio appreciate being recorded with your most celebrated and expensive mic. Fortunately, many of the leading brands have re-engineered their best models, producing mics with nearly the same performance for less cost.
Depending on your specific involvement in the recording business, you might consider owning at least a few premium microphones for special occasions. Then round out your collection with condenser mics from manufacturers that offer high performance without destroying your equipment budget.
So here’s our selection of condenser mics for you to consider…
Top 10 Best Condenser Microphones In 2020 Reviews
1 MXL Mics 770 Cardioid Condenser Microphone
The MXL 770 is an affordable and versatile cardioid condenser mic with a large .87-inch (22-mm) diaphragm, high-quality FET preamp, and transformerless balanced output. It can handle a maximum SPL of 137 dB with its -10 dB attenuation switch engaged.
Its published frequency response is 30 – 20 kHz, but it’s only -4 dB at 20 Hz. There’s a peak of up to 10 dB from 8 – 12 kHz, providing what MXL calls “extra clarity.” A switch rolls off the bass 6 dB per octave at 150 Hz. S/N is a respectable 74 dB, and self noise is 20 dBA. Sensitivity is -36.2 dBV.
The MXL 770 includes a shockmount and a foam-padded molded carrying case. It’s also available in a bundle that additionally includes a 10-foot XLR cable and windscreen.
- Bright high-end response.
- Very affordable.
- Cardioid pattern only.
- Noise floor higher than many other condenser mics.
2 Audio-Technica AT2020 Cardioid Condenser Studio XLR Microphone
The Audio-Technica AT2020 is a side-address cardioid microphone ideal for project studios, where high quality and low cost need to be balanced. Its low-mass diaphragm provides extended frequency response and superior transient response.
It has a very flat frequency response. The S/N ratio is 74 dB, and noise is 20 dBA. Sensitivity is -37 dBV. With a maximum SPL of 144 dB and a dynamic range of 124 dB, it can handle any job, from the softest vocals to drums or a guitar amp at close range. There are no attenuation or bass filter switches.
The AT2020 comes in a soft zippered pouch and includes a pivoting, threaded stand mount. It’s relatively lightweight at 12.2 ounces (345 grams). Also available is the AT2020 Streaming/Podcastick Pack, which includes an adjustable boom arm and monitoring headphones. Audio-Technica also sells the AT2020USB+ Cardioid USB Microphone.
- Excellent frequency response.
- High maximum SPL.
- Excellent value.
- No attenuation or bass roll-off options.
- No hard case.
3 Blue Yeti USB Mic, 3 Condenser Capsules
Blue’s Yeti USB microphone is designed for making professional-quality recordings directly to your computer with a minimum of setup. Mounted in its own swivel stand, it sits easily on your desktop. It’s available in a wide variety of metallic colors, including silver, platinum, Aztec copper, lunar gray, and midnight blue.
Three .55-inch (14 mm) capsules provide four patterns: cardioid, omnidirectional, figure-8, and stereo. Yeti includes a high quality 48 kHz/16-bit ADC, built-in headphone amplifier for zero-latency monitoring. And it has controls for pattern selection, gain, mute, and headphone volume.
In a word, yes! The frequency response has a 3 dB dip around 3 kHz and a gentle high-end roll-off above 10 kHz. S/N is a remarkable 100 dB.
Yeti is compatible with Windows XP or later, and Macintosh OS X 10.4.11 or higher, with a minimum of 64 MB of RAM. There are no drivers to install; just plug it into your computer’s USB port using the included cable, then calibrate it to your operating system, and you’re ready to go.
It’s heavy, a full 2.2 pounds (1 kg). But since it’s a desktop mic, the extra weight makes it more stable. Yeti is backed by a 2-year limited warranty.
- Ideal for use with a computer.
- Multiple pickup patterns.
- Very low noise.
- No bass filter.
- Not designed for general analog mic use.
4 Rode NT1 Kit Cardioid Condenser Microphone Package
The Rode NT1 is a new model that closely resembles their older NT1-A, but it’s been completely redesigned internally. It’s machined from aluminum, nickel plated for corrosion resistance, and coated in a military-grade ceramic layer. The cardioid capsule with 1-inch (25-mm) diaphragm is suspended inside the mic case using Rycote’s Lyre system, which significantly reduces vibrations.
The NT1’s frequency response is very flat. It’s also extremely quiet, with self noise of only 4.5 dBA and S/N of 90 dB. This makes it the quietest microphone reviewed here. It can handle a maximum SPL of 132 dB.
The NT1 Kit includes the NT1 mic and Rode’s SMR suspension shock mount that includes a removable pop filter. Also included is a cloth carrying bag and an XLR cable. This kit is also available as a matched pair for drum overhead, room mic’ing, and many other uses.
The NT1 is designed and made in Australia and covered by a full ten year warranty.
- Large diaphragm.
- Very quiet.
- No attenuation or bass cut switches.
- No hard case.
5 Shure SM81-LC Cardioid Condenser Instrument Microphone
The Shure SM81 is a high-quality small-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone made of vinyl-coated steel. It enjoys popular use in the studio and onstage for acoustic guitar and other instruments, or in matched pairs for drum overheads.
It has an exceptionally flat frequency response. A three-position switch lets you adjust the low-frequency response to be flat, -6 dB per octave below 100 Hz, or -18 dB below 80 Hz. Sensitivity is -45 dBV, typical for a small-diaphragm condenser mic. Maximum SPL is 136 dB with the 10-dB pad engaged, self noise is 16 dBA, and S/N is 78 dB.
The SM81 works best with a phantom supply of 48 volts but can operate, with lower headroom, on as little as 11 volts. The package includes a hard foam-padded case, windscreen and mic stand mount.
- Very flat response.
- Two bass filter options.
- Self noise is average.
6 sE Electronics SE2200 Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
The sE2200 is the company’s latest version of their award-winning condenser microphone used by vocalists like Amy Winehouse. This cardioid mic is handcrafted in the sE Electronics Shanghai factory. It uses two 1-inch diaphragms for exceptional performance. The package includes the Isolation Pack shockmount and curved metal pop filter.
Frequency is flat except for a 5 dB peak around 13 kHz. At -23 dBV, this is one of the most sensitive mics we reviewed. Self noise is a very low 8 dBA, and S/N is 86 dB.
Two low-cut filters reduce rumble at 80 or 160 Hz. And -10 and -20 dB pads provide extended dynamic range, allowing a maximum SPL of 137 dB.
- Two large diaphragms provide greater sensitivity.
- Low-cut filters at two frequencies.
- Very quiet.
- Cardioid pattern only.
7 AKG Pro Audio C214 Professional Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
AKG has been a revered name in high-end microphones for decades. The relatively affordable C214 is based on their famous C414 family, with the same iconic look and design. And it’s ideal for almost any recording situation.
The 1-inch (25 mm) capsule is mounted in an internal suspension system to reduce noise from footsteps or vibration. Frequency response is flat, with a bass switch to cut frequencies below 160 Hz. Sensitivity is -34 dBV, and a -20 dB pad allows recording up to 156 dB SPL. Noise is only 13 dBA.
The AKG 214 can be powered by 12 to 52 volts. It includes a hard carrying case, windscreen, and spider-type shock mount, and comes with a 3-year warranty. You can also purchase C214 matched pairs for use as overheads.
- Flat frequency response.
- Very quiet.
- AKG prestige at an attractive price.
- Cardioid pattern only.
- Impressive specs, but not quite as good as the C414.
8 Avantone CV-12 Multi-Pattern Large Capsule Tube Condenser Microphone
The CV-12 is part of Avantone Pro’s C (“Cabernet “) series of premium microphones, designed to emulate the look and performance of the best classic mic designs of the 1950’s and 60’s, in this case, AKG’s C12. Its wine-red finish with polished nickel trim and grille is visually striking.
The exceptionally large 1-1/4 inch (32 mm) diaphragm and a tube output circuit provide a warm, classic tone and exceptional sensitivity of -35 dBV. The low-noise Russian 6072A output tube provides a noise floor below 17 dBA and S/N of 78 dB.
Nine polar patterns are selectable on the included power supply. Normal frequency response is ruler flat, and a switch cuts the bass 6 dB per octave at 80 Hz. With the -10 dB pad engaged, its maximum SPL is 146 dB.
Included with the CV-12 microphone is a power supply with cables, a retro shockmount, a wooden box for the mic itself, and a padded aluminum case for the entire kit.
- Nine pickup patterns.
- Warm tube sound.
- Very large diaphragm offers excellent sensitivity.
- Excellent packaging.
- Must be used with included power supply.
9 Rode NTK Premium Tube Cardioid Condenser Microphone
The Rode NTK is a premium side-address cardioid condenser microphone with a tube preamp. Featuring a 1-inch (25 mm) gold-sputtered diaphragm with internal shock mounting, it’s ideal for vocals and single instruments.
A Class A output circuit using a low-noise 6922 twin-triode gives the NTK the classic warm tube sound preferred by many studio engineers. With a noise floor of 12 dBA and a maximum SPL of 158 dB, this mic can handle everything from the loudest instruments to the softest whisper.
The otherwise very flat frequency response has a 2 dB peak around 5 kHz that subtly enhances vocals and strings. Sensitivity is -38 dBV.
The NTK comes in a hard case and includes a ring-mount microphone stand mount. Rode provides a very impressive 10-year warranty.
- Unique tube sound.
- Very high maximum SPL.
- 10-year warranty.
- No pad or bass cut switches.
- Power supply not included.
10 Neumann TLM 102 Black Cardioid Condenser Microphone Studio Set
Many engineers claim that Neumann produces the world’s best microphones. The TLM 102 certainly doesn’t disappoint, a relatively affordable option to its big brother, the TLM 103.
The TLM is quite compact, just 4-9/16 inches (116 mm) long, and weighs a mere 7.4 ounces (210 gr). Yet its 1-inch (25 mm) diaphragm delivers the legendary Neumann sound with extremely fast transient response. The frequency response includes a slight boost above 6 kHz for added vocal presence. Maximum SPL is 144 dB, and the noise floor is 12 dBA.
To achieve such high performance at a price within a project studio budget, Neumann designed the TLM 102 as a cardioid-only mic. But to be honest, that’s the pattern most engineers use 90% of the time. They also eliminated the attenuation and low-cut switches. This set includes their professional shock mount.
- Clear sound, ideal for vocals.
- Cardioid only.
- No pad or low-cut switches.
More Superb Microphone Choices
For a well-rounded recording, you’re going to need more than just a great condenser mic. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Microphones Recording Electric Guitar, the Best Microphones for Recording Rap Vocals, the Best Vocal Mics, the Best XLR Microphones, the Best USB Microphones, or the Best Dynamic Microphones currently available.
So, What Are The Best Condenser Microphones?
If you’re shopping for best condenser microphones for a professional or home studio, you’re probably considering getting more than one. If not, you should be!
However, if we can buy just one mic, our top pick has to be the… Neumann TLM 102.
It sounds beautiful, it’s extremely quiet, and it’s a Neumann! You’ll fall in love with it, and so will your clients.
Our second purchase would be the… Avantone CV-12
…because we’d like to have a tube microphone in our cabinet. It edges out the Rode NTK, also wonderful, because it provides nine polar patterns plus pad and bass filter switches.
We’d probably go for the… Shure SM81
…because we need a small-diaphragm mic, and this one is loaded with features.
To be honest, we’d really like to own at least one of every microphone reviewed here. All perform exceptionally well, and each has something unique to offer. We’re confident you’ll be satisfied, no matter which one(s) you choose.