Choosing a new microphone for your home studio is a big deal.
Not only is it a high-stakes game (because you want to make sure you choose a mic that knocks recordings out of the park), the number of choices available is paralyzing.
Wisely, you’ve settled on a condenser microphone for their detailed top end and unrivaled vocal clarity.
Problem is, every manufacturer and his brother are offering a whole line of these mics, and despite costing anywhere from $50 to $5000, they all look more or less the same on paper.
So, what’s the best condenser mic?
That’s what we’re here to answer today.
We’ll start with a quick recap on what condenser mics are and why they’re useful, for anyone who needs a quick refresher, and then we’ll jump straight into the 12 best condenser mics on the market right now, followed by a condenser microphone buyers’ guide to make sure you’re perfectly prepared to make the right decision.
Let’s jump right in.
- 1 What is a condenser mic?
- 2 When should I use a condenser mic?
- 3 Different kinds of condenser mics
- 4 The 12 best condenser mic choices
- 4.1 Best All Round: AKG C414
- 4.2 Best Tube Mic: Audio-Technica AT4060
- 4.3 Best Beginner Mic: Rode NT1A
- 4.4 Best Cheap Condenser Mic: Behringer C3
- 4.5 Best High-End Condenser: Neumann U87
- 4.6 Best USB Condenser Mic: Blue Snowball
- 4.7 Best Value: sE Electronics X1S
- 4.8 Best Professional Choice For Voice: Neumann TLM103
- 4.9 Best Versatile Condenser Mic: Blue Bluebird SL
- 4.10 Best Stereo Condenser Mic: Avantone Pro CK-40
- 4.11 Best Small Diaphragm Condenser: Audio-Technica AT4041
- 4.12 Best Versatile SDC: NT55
- 5 Condenser microphone buyer’s guide
- 6 Conclusion
What is a condenser mic?
Condenser mics are defined by the technology they use to capture sound.
Bear with me, things are about to get a little nerdy.
You’ll recall from elementary physics lessons that sound travels through the air as vibrations. To record this, we need some form of device that can convert this energy into electrical energy (known as a transducer).
All microphones serve this role (being a form of transducer), but condenser mics have a very specific way of achieving this that differs from other mic types like dynamic and ribbon microphones.
In a condenser mic, just behind the mic grille is a thin membrane known as the diaphragm. In most modern microphones, this diaphragm is made of gold-sputtered mylar, though older units have employed other materials such as thin metal foil.
When the vibrating air hits the thing sheet of mylar, it acts upon that diaphragm and vibrates it. It’s kind of like a speaker cone, but in reverse.
Behind the diaphragm (in very close proximity) is a solid metal plate, known as the backplate.
Because the two plates (the backplate and the diaphragm) are charged (via 48v phantom power), when the diaphragm moves back and forth, the capacitance between the two plates changes, which results in an electrical signal being created.
There are a few other components involved (such as an impedance converter between the capsule and the output so the mic can talk to other equipment), but that’s the gist of the situation.
Stepping out of the tech talk, condenser mics can be thought of as a type of microphone that is highly sensitive, both physically speaking (they can be easily damaged if dropped or hit) and in terms of their response (they are more prone to picking up room or background noise than are dynamic mics).
They typically have excellent transient response (meaning they react well to fast-acting sounds like a snare drum being hit) and an extended top-end range, allowing them to capture sound right up to the limit of human hearing (roughly 20kHz).
When should I use a condenser mic?
Condenser mics are always a great choice if you’re recording something with a lot of top-end detail, such as cymbals or piano.
They are often used on vocals because they are great at capturing vocal nuances and enhancing vocal dynamics.
Due to their sensitivity, condenser mics are almost always a great choice for distance or room mics, such as capturing the sound of a drum kit in a cathedral.
Despite sounding so great (usually), there are a few applications where using a condenser mic isn’t appropriate.
Mostly, these are situations where the room you’re recording in isn’t very well treated, acoustically speaking.
Because condenser mics are super-sensitive, they pick up a lot of background noise and reflections from the room. Unless you’re recording in a nicely designed acoustic space, like a recording studio, then your room generally isn’t designed to sound good.
Think about your bedroom, for example. It’s not designed to be an acoustic masterpiece.
For starters, it has three sets of parallel walls (including the ceiling and floor), which is pretty much the worst thing from an acoustic design perspective.
So, if you’re recording at home, dynamic mics are often a better choice, unless you have some good acoustic treatment or are able to nicely isolate your sound source.
You might also like to keep your condensers away from hard-hitting drummers.
Though a set of condenser mics can sound great on toms and snares, they tend to be both fragile and expensive, so not a great combo to be putting in hitting range.
Save your condenser for drum overheads and room mics, and throw some strong and durable dynamic mics in for close-mic applications.
Different kinds of condenser mics
LDC (large diaphragm condenser)
The most common form of condenser mic is the large-diaphragm condenser.
These microphones generally have diaphragms of around 1” in diameter, picking up a wide range of frequencies.
LDC mics are a great choice for most recording applications, including vocals, guitar cabs, and pianos.
SDC (small diaphragm condenser)
The small-diaphragm condenser mic has, well, a small diaphragm.
Technically speaking, these diaphragms are ½” or less in diameter.
Typically, SDCs have small, cylindrical bodies, which is why they are often referred to as pencil condensers.
The idea behind these handy little guys is that because they have such small diaphragms, they are even more sensitive to high frequencies than regular condenser mics, as the small membranes are more easily moved by high pitches.
So, SDCs are typically used for applications like miking up an acoustic guitar, or as overheads on a drum kit.
Lapel mics (also called lavalier or lav mics) are a very specific type of condenser mic which are used in stage and TV applications.
These microphones are very small in size and have a small clip attached to the microphone body.
This allows you to attach the lav mic to your subject’s shirt or tie, and record audio of them speaking without having a big mic right in front of your face the whole time.
Next time you’re watching the news, take a look at the presenter’s shirt collar, and you’ll probably see a lapel mic.
Gooseneck microphones are basically lapel mics that are attached to the end of a long, flexible tube.
In most cases, gooseneck mics are designed to be desk-mounted. You’ll often see gooseneck mics used on podiums and on presenter-style desks, such as at a UN meeting.
The last special kind of condenser mic that you’ll come across is the shotgun microphone.
These mics look like super long small-diaphragm condensers, and they usually have a bunch of slits along the side of the body.
The difference between shotgun mics and regular mics is that shotgun microphones are incredibly directional and can pick up sound from a significant distance.
For that reason, shotgun mics are very often employed in film and TV audio recording, positioned at the end of a long boom.
They all sound engineers to position the mic up above the actors and well out of the camera frame, but still capture a close-up sound with minimal room noise.
The 12 best condenser mic choices
Best All Round: AKG C414
The C414 has got to be my favorite condenser mic purely for the fact that it owns it on so many fronts.
It’s not the most gorgeous, vintage sounding mic (coming soon), or the cheapest (also coming soon), but it packs so much value into one mic body that it can’t not be a part of your recording arsenal.
The C414 offers 5 different polar patterns in one mic. That’s omni, figure-8, cardioid, hypercardioid, and an interesting ‘wide cardioid’ shape, which is somewhere between a cardioid and an omnidirectional polar pattern.
The flexibility doesn’t stop there, though.
You also get three pad options (-6dB, -12db, and -18dB) and three high-pass filters (40Hz, 80Hz, and 160Hz).
All of these options are switchable via little digital buttons on either side of the C414 (which is a neat little trick and prevents switch handles breaking off), and lend the mic to a bunch of different applications.
Plus (yes, plus), you get a specially-crafted shock mount to sit the mic in and isolate it from bumps and knocks, a windscreen, a pop filter, and a sturdy carrying case to store it in.
You just can’t beat the C414 for value, and don’t get me started on how great it sounds on a vocal performance!
Best Tube Mic: Audio-Technica AT4060
The AT4060 is a glorious microphone, offering nothing in the way of extra switches and buttons, but doing what it does in absolute style.
It’s a tube mic, meaning it comes with a necessary power supply, and it sounds, well, damn tubey.
It’s perhaps not vintage sounding as some other tube mics, but that’s what I kind of love about the AT4060.
I used to own one several years ago, and I used it on pretty much everything, from crooning vocal performances to drum room mics. It’s especially nice on a blaring guitar cabinet, as the smooth tube response helps to reign in the harsh upper mids that super distorted guitars are often plagued with.
Pair this mic with a nice vintage sounding preamp, like a Neve 1073 or a UA 610B, and you’ve got yourself a winning sound.
Best Beginner Mic: Rode NT1A
The Rode NT1A was my first condenser mic, as I’m sure it is for many.
Though I’m calling it here as the best beginner condenser microphone, it’s far from being an entry-level piece of kit, despite the price tag.
That’s actually why I’m putting it here, it just offers so much value.
Not only do you get a professional sounding condenser mic, the package also comes with a shock mount, dust cover, pop filter, and XLR cable – basically all you need to get recording.
Some find the mic to be a little harsh on the top end, so I’d recommend using it to brighten up dull cymbals, or in tandem with a more subtle mic like the Royer 121 when recording guitar amps.
Best Cheap Condenser Mic: Behringer C3
Behringer have come a long way since their days making cheap guitar pedals (they still do, by the way).
Ever since their parent company acquired Midas several years back, their entry-level audio offering has skyrocketed in terms of range, quality, and popularity.
The C3 condenser mic is the centerpiece of that comment, bringing a professional sounding large diaphragm condenser mic to the market for not much more than $50.
The mic has a handy little low-cut filter, as well as a switchable pad, and offers a frequency response with a strong presence boost in the upper mid-range, making acoustic guitars sparkle and adding a smooth sense of air to breathy vocal performances.
All in all, this is a pretty solid mic, for the price tag.
Best High-End Condenser: Neumann U87
You can’t go into a single recording studio today without seeing one of these babies in the mic locker.
It’s pretty much the flagship condenser of flagship condensers; the original mic that almost all large-diaphragm condensers are based off, at least in terms of their visual aspects.
It’s a fairly expensive mic, sure, but it damn well sounds like one.
The U87 has a switchable polar pattern (cardioid, omnidirectional, and figure-8), as well as a high-pass filter and switchable pad, and is available in a classy black or that classic nickel livery.
The sound palette of the U87 is warm and natural, with a refined mid-range and top-end that doesn’t get all in your face like some cheaper LDCs tend to do.
Best USB Condenser Mic: Blue Snowball
For a long time, mics have really only been available in one output form: XLR.
That’s meant that anyone recording with a condenser mic needed some form of external mic preamp and analog to digital converters, or, more commonly, at least on the consumer level, an audio interface.
USB mics have done away with all of this tech (by packing it into the same body), offering entry-level sound engineers a plug and play solution.
By far, the Blue Snowball is the most widely used of those offerings, and for good reason.
It’s a condenser mic with switchable polar patterns and an auto-gain function, so you barely need to dial in a thing,
Plus, the Blue Snowball ships with its own tripod desktop stand, so you can throw it up on your desk and get podcasting straight away.
Best Value: sE Electronics X1S
sE Electronics is one of those brands who just keep pumping out excellent quality audio gear at a fraction of the price of their competition.
Their flagship condenser mic, the X1S, is their original X1 on steroids, with a more refined mic capsule offering studio-level performance, without the price tag associated with a trip to Abbey Road.
The X1S has some pretty hardcore internals, tackling SPL levels of up to 160dB (ridcioulsly high), while somehow managing an incredibly low self-noise.
Flexibility comes from the microphone’s -10dB and -20dB pads, and two switchable low-cut filters.
It’s a fantastic vocal mic thanks to it’s tight cardioid polar pattern, and pairs perfectly with sE Electronics’ Reflexion Filter.
Best Professional Choice For Voice: Neumann TLM103
If you were considering the Neumann U87, but the price tag scared you off, then the TLM103 might be more up your alley.
It’s sort of like the U87, in that the capsule is designed from that legendary mic, but it tones things back a bit on the functionality front, offering a cardioid polar pattern only, without any of the frills such as high-pass filters or input pads.
Still, the TLM103 sounds bloody awesome, and it still ships with a super sturdy shock mount from Neumann.
I can’t tell you how important it is to have a good shock mount. After hours and hours of use, those cheap and cheerful units just fall apart, but this German-engineering unit goes the distance.
The sound of the TLM103 is natural and beautiful, with a frequency response that is flat down to around 60Hz, and right up to 3kHz, where it pulls up slightly to deliver a lovely little upper mid-range boost, perfect for bringing vocals forward in a mix.
Best Versatile Condenser Mic: Blue Bluebird SL
Blue Microphones is one of the most forward-thinking mic manufacturers out there.
I mean, they’re really owning the USB market with mics like the Snowball and the Yeti, but that’s far from their only trick.
The Bluebird is a more affordable version of their famous Blue Bottle, a mic with interchangeable capsules that allows you to really change up the sound of your mic at just a moment’s notice.
The Bluebird is a cardioid only mic with a switchable pad and low-cut filter, smooth transparent mid-range, detailed upper frequency range, and Class-A circuitry that ensures maximum accuracy.
It’s a damn good looking unit, too, and it ships wiht a really nice shock mount that helps to keep the microphone isolated from acoustic interference.
Best Stereo Condenser Mic: Avantone Pro CK-40
A challenge many pro audio engineers face in the studio is setting up a stereo set of condenser mics.
This is pretty easy when it comes to little pencil mics, but can be a bit of a pain in the ass when you’re dealing with big, bulky, LDCs.
That’s why Avantone Pro has brought the CK-40 to the table. It’s two mic capsules in one sexy red body.
Both mics have low-cut filters and -10dB (though you can only engage one or the other), and switchable polar patterns (omni, figure-8, cardioid).
The CK-40 ships with a deluxe carrying case and box, a shock mount, and a handy little red box that decodes the single output from the mic into two standard XLR outputs, so you can connect easily to your mic preamps.
Best Small Diaphragm Condenser: Audio-Technica AT4041
The AT4041s were the first set of SDCs I ever bought, after spending countless hours in the studio trying out various models.
I love these guys. They are built tough, with a neatly hidden low-cut filter and a lovely sound palette that works perfectly for adding a little sizzle to drum overheads, or a bit of sparkle to acoustic guitars.
Best of all, they are dead flat throughout the mid-range, so they don’t color the sound too much, just a couple of subtle bumps in the upper frequencies to bring the sparkle in.
Best Versatile SDC: NT55
You’ll know by now that I love Rode for the insane value for money they bring to the table.
And if we’re talking SDCs, then the NT55 has that value in spades.
It’s a multi-pattern condenser, which is pretty rare for SDCs, and is made possible via interchangeable capsules.
Obviously that means that when you buy the mics, they’ll ship with just the one capsule (probably cardioid), but you can grab a set of omni caps to really open up the sound when recording in a really nice room.
The response of these mics is dead smooth, until you get up to around 3kHz, where you get a hefty broad boost, hitting +10dB at around 10kHz.
That makes the NT55 great on instruments like a cello when you’re trying to bring out the string and bow noise, or when looking to add some clarity and top-end sparkle to an acoustic guitar performance.
They also have switchable pads and low-cut filters, so they’re ideal for recording loud sound sources or for rolling back some of the low-end boom from big dreadnought guitars.
Condenser microphone buyer’s guide
As you’ve probably realized by now, not all condenser mics are made equal.
So, to help you determine which condenser mic is best for your needs, let’s take a look at four aspects of a mic purchase you need to consider.
A microphone’s polar pattern is its sensitivity to sound with regard to direction.
That is, from what directions does the microphone pick up sound.
Let’s look at some of the most common mic polar patterns:
- Omnidirectional – Omni mics pick up sound from all directions equally. They are best for use in applications when you want to pick up a lot of room sound, like when recording a piano in a really nice recording studio.
- Cardioid – A cardioid polar pattern is sensitive to sound coming from the front, a little from the sides, and rejects it from the rear. Most applications are suitable for cardioid polar patterns, because most of the time you want to pick up what you’re pointing the mic at, and nothing else.
- Supercardioid & hypercardioid – These two polar patterns follow the same concept as the cardioid pattern, but with an even more focused front end and less side pickup.
- Figure-8 – Figure-8 mics (also known as the bi-directional polar pattern) pick up sound from the front and back, but not at all from the sides. They are best in situations where you really need to isolate instruments from the side, such as when you’re recording toms on a drum kit.
- Multi-pattern – some condenser microphones offer several polar patterns and give you the ability to switch between them at will. These tend to be the best kinds of mics, as they are incredibly versatile.
A mic’s frequency response tells you a bit about how it’s likely to sound.
There are two things to take note of.
The first is the frequency range the mic offers, which is basically the highest and lowest frequencies the mic can pick up.
Most condenser microphones will cover more or less the whole audible frequency range (20Hz to 20kHz), though some will top out somewhere between 16-18kHz, which for many purposes isn’t a big deal, but it can take a bit of the top-end off of cymbals and acoustic guitars.
The second part of the response graph is how sensitive the mic is at different parts of the frequency range.
On a frequency response graph, you’ll see dips and bumps at various points, which tells you that the mic will be more or less responsive in certain ranges.
For example, condenser microphones often have a pronounced bump in the upper midrange, which helps to bring clarity and intelligibility to instruments like vocals.
Often, you get more than just the mic in the box.
Here are a few things that may or may not be included in your purchase:
- Carrying case or storage box
- Pop filter
- Power supply (for tube mics)
- Mic cable
- Dust cover
- Shock mount
Pads & switches
Aside from being able to switch between different polar patterns on certain large-diaphragm condensers, you might also find a couple of other switches to fiddle with.
One such feature is the pad, which allows you to drop the output of the mic by several decibels (usually -10dB or -20dB). This is a feature best used when recording loud sound sources so that you don’t overload the input of your mic preamp.
The other common switchable mic component is adjustable frequency responses.
Often, you’ll get a low-cut filter (aka high-pass filter), which gives you the option to filter out some of the low end rumble in instruments where bass frequencies aren’t required (such as vocals and electric guitars).
Sometimes (though this is less common), you’ll also get a mid-frequency boost, which is best engaged when trying to bring vocals forward in a mix, or give a little edge and clarity to piano recordings.
So, now that you’ve seen and heard about the 12 best condenser mics on the market, and learned all about how to choose the best one for you, it’s time to make that decision and get started recording.
So, what are you waiting for?