Written By
Published Oct. 10, 2021

A good microphone is the cornerstone of any recording operation, whether it’s a pro-level million-dollar outfit or a podcaster’s mic’d computer desk. The variations of options are limitless. Yet certain classic mics seem to be eternal.

Invented in the late 1800s, microphones inarguably changed the world. Today’s microphones have come a long way from Emile Berliner’s carbon microphones, but they still retain the same basic concept. Sound waves hit a diaphragm that converts their frequency into electricity.

Today’s microphones serve many functions. Choosing the best microphone for your needs means determining exactly what you want out of your microphone. Every mic comes with its own particular uses and benefits. While the Shure SM58 might be the most recognizable mic of the modern age, it may not be right for every circumstance.

How We Picked These Products

Methodology

To determine which microphones to highlight in 2021, I used my own knowledge of microphones and reviewed more than 25 options from brands both classic and new. I read product reviews, user reports, and took a magnifying glass to the specs to create a list with a few classics and a few modern picks.

Purpose: Some microphones are truly multipurpose, picking up sparkling vocals and still catch that deep bass flutter. Other mics don’t. While the scope of microphone variations is far too broad to fit on this list, I made sure to include a good vocal mic, general mic, USB mic, and shotgun mic.

Polar Patterns: A microphone’s polar pattern determines the directionality of the signal the microphone picks up. Most microphones block sound from certain directions while focusing on sound from another. Even though cardioid microphones make up the majority of this list, I made sure to include one excellent shotgun microphone, as well as some other flexible options.

Studio/Live: Some microphones do well for live sound or field recordings and others just don’t. While I did once record someone on a USB Blue microphone in the desert, I wouldn’t recommend it. In this list, I factored whether a microphone was intended for studio or fieldwork before adding it.

The Best Recording Microphones: Reviews and Recommendations

Best Overall: Sennheiser MD 421 II Cardioid Dynamic Mic

Clear Flexibility

This excellent all around microphone will sound good recording… anything. Sennheiser

Check Price

Why It Made The Cut: This classic dynamic microphone is tried and true, used in studios all over the world, it’s a fantastic all-around cardioid at a medium price point. 

Specs: 

  • Type: Cardioid unidirectional large-diaphragm dynamic
  • Frequency Response: 30–17000 Hz
  • Connector: XLR 3
  • Weight: 0.85 pounds

Pros:

  • Sounds good on anything, high frequency to bass
  • Works for studio or live settings
  • 5-position low frequency roll-off switch
  • Effective feedback rejection

Cons:

  • This true medium-range price point microphone isn’t cheap

I have to admit—I have a Sennheiser bias, and this microphone is a Sennheiser classic. I’ve owned an E835 for years and absolutely loved it, and I’ve wanted one of these for a long time. Writing an article about great microphones and not including the Sennheiser E835 or the Shure SM58 seems almost disingenuous. However, when you’re specifically focusing on recording, this MD 421 is too perfect to not take the prize.

This is a great microphone for (almost) any purpose. An excellent high pass filter is part of the cornerstone of what this mic provides. With a switch for bass and low-range roll-off, you can attenuate out boominess on a kit or focus on high shimmers. With excellent vocal sensitivity, this mic will thin out to work well for sung vocals in a mix or even double as a great quality radio or podcasting microphone for speech recording.

Best Value: Blue Yeti USB Mic for Recording & Streaming

Affordable Home Studio Classic

This microphone works for just about any type of digital work. Blue Microphones

Check Price

Why It Made the Cut: With four pickup patterns, a USB output, and a slew of excellent features, this microphone is a staple for podcasters, streamers, and bedroom producers.

Specs:

  • Type: Condenser, 4 polarities: cardioid, omni, figure 8, stereo
  • Frequency Response: 20 Hz–20 kHz
  • Connector: USB 48 kHZ sample rate, 16-bit
  • Weight: 1.2 pounds

Pros:

  • 4 polarity condenser offers lots of options
  • USB connection makes for an easy sync with your computer
  • Mute button and headphone output on device
  • Affordable

Cons:

  • No XLR connection

Yes, I have this mic and love it. I use it for just about everything. If I’m playing an online game with friends I plug this in and run my headphones out of the bottom—boom, instant crisp sound. Want to record an acoustic guitar in a room and pick up room tone? Set it to omnidirectional and this mic will do a good job. Looking for a crisp take of a one-on-one interview? Set it to bidirectional and this will do the trick. I even once recorded a songwriter in the sandy New Mexico desert with this microphone running off my laptop’s battery power.

With four pickup patterns and a USB connection, this microphone is very much a child of the 2000s. It offers extremely crisp digital sound for a remarkably good price. This is a great microphone for entry-level podcasting or recording on a digital audio workstation (DAW). It doesn’t have the expression of higher;-end microphones, and without an XLR connection, this microphone isn’t meant to plug into a traditional recording rig. However, even as a more entry-level mic, the Yeti would still be a good buy for a producer who already has a stacked microphone cabinet. With an omnidirectional mode and stereo pickups, this is a great mic to set in the middle of the room for unpolished room tone, or even just to leave plugged into a laptop for crisp zoom sessions. An entry-level device has never before been this good.

While this microphone is a definite value pick, it’s not the very cheapest. If you’re looking for the cheapest USB mic that can still do a decent job with spoken vocals consider the Tonor Condenser. However, with its musicality, great sound, and multiple features, the Blue is still an all-in-all better deal.

Best for Recording Vocals: Shure SM7B Vocal Microphone

The Vocalist’s Favorite

This famous mic has become a staple of studios worldwide for the fact that it offers great voice recordings—always. Shure

Check Price

Why It Made The Cut: This is an excellent cardioid dynamic microphone built for vocalists. It does a great job for singers, radio, and podcasting.

Specs:

  • Type: Cardioid unidirectional large- diaphragm dynamic
  • Frequency Response: 50–20,000 Hz
  • Connector: XLR
  • Weight: 1.69 pounds

Pros:

  • Excellent vocals
  • Electromagnetic hum shielding
  • Included wind screen
  • Doubles as a general-use microphone
  • Unbothered by phantom power rigs

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Only one cardioid pattern

If you’re ready to get serious about vocals, this microphone is the tool you need. This mic was made famous as the microphone Michael Jackson used for Thriller. But this classic is by no means played out; it’s one of the most ubiquitous mics in sound studios all over the world today. Be it for interviews, speeches, podcasting, or singing, this microphone does the trick. 

As a home-studio microphone, the hum shielding that’s built into this mic can be crucial. Whether it’s laptop monitor noise, amplifier buzz, a fan tone from the next room, or footsteps in the hall, the home-recording era brings more and more situations in which noise seeps into the equation. The classic cardioid pattern of this mic also ensures clean unidirectional vocals with little accidental coloration. With a flat and crisp sound profile, the Shure SM7B Vocal Microphone mic is clean enough to double as a multipurpose microphone.

Best Field Recording Mic: Sennheiser Pro Audio Wireless Microphone System

Quality Range of Sound

Great sound in the field comes with an excellent shotgun mic, and this one truly delivers. Sennheiser Pro Audio

Check Price

Why It Made The Cut: With its excellent directivity and rejection of side noise, this microphone puts you right in the conversation, even from a distance.

Specs:

  • Type: Shotgun condenser, super-cardioid; lobar
  • Frequency Response: 40 Hz–20 kHz
  • Connector: 3.5 MM DSLR mic input (not included) or XLR (not included)
  • Weight: 0.28 pounds

Pros:

  • Exceptional side sound cancellation
  • Activated low cut filter
  • Phantom power or AA battery for operation
  • Shock mount included
  • Shorter than most equivalent shotgun mics

Cons:

  • May require separate wind guard purchase for outdoors use
  • No cables included

For anyone who’s serious about videography work, a good shotgun microphone is crucial. Shotgun mics cut side sound and focus on one forward source. When paired with a camera, a shotgun mic focuses your sound at the same target as the lens. For field recordings or interviews in uncontrolled spaces, shotgun mics direct the action on a subject. These can also be used for targeted studio recording, or overheads, to catch a cymbal hit or choir from above.

The Pro Audio Wireless shotgun microphone from Sennheiser offers a slew of impressive specs and functionality for an entry-level price. With excellent directional pickup, side sound cancellation, and a short body, this mic offers long-range pickup without getting in the way. One of my favorite features of this mic is its capability to function with battery or phantom power, meaning that this microphone is compatible with an especially wide array of uses.

Best Premium: Neumann TLM 103-MT Large Diaphragm Cardioid Microphone

Prince of Mic Royalty

This will get you plenty of the glory of a U 87 for a third of the price. Sennheiser Pro Audio

Check Price

Why It Made The Cut: This fixed cardioid version of the U 87 simplifies many features of the legendary mic to yield an absolutely top-notch large-diaphragm unidirectional cardioid that sometimes outshines its predecessor.

Specs:

  • Type: Cardioid unidirectional large-diaphragm dynamic
  • Sensitivity: 20 Hz–20 kHz
  • Connector: XLR, phantom power
  • Weight: 2.98 pounds

Pros:

  • Large diaphragm capsule taken from U 87
  • Extraordinarily low self noise
  • Accommodates very high peak levels
  • Superb sound quality

Cons:

  • Very expensive
  • Single cardioid pattern

With one of the most recognizable brand names in microphone recording, this Neumann TLM 103 is descended from mic royalty. Since the late 1960s, the Neumann U 87 has been a near prerequisite buy for world-class recording studios. This descendant of the U 87 uses the same body and diaphragm design as the U 87 to deliver a simplified version of its predecessor that occasionally outstrips it—it also sells for one-third the price.

Unlike the U 87, this mic offers only a unidirectional cardioid polarity. Because this mic uses the same shell design as its predecessor, that low-cut option opens up room for a major price drop, as well as a few new features that deliver. This mic is actually internally quieter than the U 87, with extremely low levels of self-noise. It has a classic warm and full tone that’s deeply musical. Perfect for vocals, spot recordings, or instruments, three of these microphones panned to left, right, and center, are even suitable for orchestral recording. This is a superb microphone that offsets its very high price with stunning quality. If you take yourself seriously as a recording engineer and you can afford it, you really can’t go wrong.

Things to Consider Before Buying a Recording Microphone

Type and Polarity

When most people picture a microphone, it’s probably the Shure SM58 from their local open mic night. While these Toyota Camrys of the microphone world can do a lot, you can fit a lot of other types of mics into the toolbox. If you’re looking for a mic for interviews and videography work, consider a shotgun mic. These pick up dedicated directionality and distance while cutting noises from the side. If you’re looking for a traditional vocal microphone, a classic cardioid often offers the most familiar and intuitive polarity. While there are none on my list, ribbon and valve microphones can also have interesting specific uses. The variations of polarity in microphones are endless, so when choosing your microphone, look for what you need.

Dynamic Microphones vs. Condenser Microphones vs. Ribbons

Dynamic mics pick up sonic vibrations on a diaphragm and convert them into electricity. Condenser mics instead use variable capacitance: Soundwaves vibrate a diaphragm with a magnetic plate behind it, which creates electricity that gets boosted (usually by phantom power) and sent as a signal. Condenser microphones tend to be a little more sensitive, while dynamic mics are better for “hotter” situations, so keep this in mind when you make your selection. Ribbon mics offer increased sensitivity to highs because of their sensitivity to passing air, but these mics are less popular in contemporary recording.

Connection

The way your mic connects is important. If you’re starting out with a home studio or recording directly into a DAW on your laptop, consider a USB microphone. If you’re looking for a mic to use with your DSLR camera, you’ll want a mic that has a 3.5-mm connection. Most microphones, however, use an XLR cable. For most intermediate users and beyond, look for an XLR. If you’re using a condenser mic, make sure to find one that works with your setup, as phantom power will likely be required.

FAQs

Q: Can I still use my vocal microphone for other instruments?

Often yes, most vocal mics will also work well for other settings. But be wary, certain situations (like mic’d snare drums), could require specific mics. For example, a large-diaphragm condenser microphone is extremely sensitive. While it might be good for capturing a whole drum set, if you want a microphone to put directly beneath your snare head, this could be better achieved with a dynamic mic. 

Q: How much should I spend on a microphone?

This depends on your needs and what you want out of your microphone. You can get a decent recording microphone for about a hundred dollars, but a really good one can cost thousands. Shopping for microphones is like shopping for instruments—a decent beginner model might not set you back much, but the ceiling for cost is nearly limitless.

Q: What is phantom power?

Usually important for condenser mics, phantom power boosts the signal created when sonic vibrations hit a microphone’s diaphragm and are converted into electricity.

Final Thoughts

Microphones come in limitless varieties. For this list, I picked a selection of the best recording microphones for the average home (or studio) engineer. If you’re getting serious about recording for the first time, you really can’t go wrong with the Sennheiser MD 421 II Cardioid Dynamic Mic. If you’re a beginner looking for an affordable USB option, I personally love my Blue Yeti USB Mic for Recording & Streaming. There really is a reason that these microphones are such great sellers. With so many microphones on the market, there’s one out there that will expand the musical horizons of every artist.

MORE TO READ