When looking for a microphone to include in your home recording studio or to use for live performances, podcasting, and other audio applications, you’re likely to have to choose between two of the biggest types of microphones: dynamic and condenser microphones.
At first glance, the two may look the same, which is why it may be important for you to understand how they work in order to find out which type of microphone would be best for your specific needs. Let’s look at their differences, as well as their advantages and disadvantages, in the following sections.
The main differences between dynamic and condenser microphones are based in the way that they convert sound waves into sound signal outputs, which is dictated by their unique internal transduction devices. Here’s how they compare:
Dynamic microphones use electromagnetic induction (with a diaphragm, coil, and magnet transducer combo) to convert acoustic energy to electrical energy. As sound waves hit the diaphragm, the coil vibrates and moves within the magnetic field to create varying currents and convert sound into electrical signals, which will then travel to your audio interface, mixing board, amplifier, or other audio devices.
Condenser microphones, or capacitor microphones, use two plates—a fixed back plate and a very thin, flexible front plate—and a metal (or metal-coated) diaphragm to form a capacitor. When sound waves enter the device and make the front plate vibrate, the plates move closer to each other and create a change in capacitance. Only with phantom power (or a constant +48 volts) can the capacitor register these changes in capacitance and finally transduce the acquired energy into electrical signals that will be sent out to your mixing desk, audio interfaces, or pre-amps. Today, the same external audio devices can usually help provide the required “phantom power.”
Dynamic microphones are generally less sensitive, especially at picking up high frequencies and short, detailed sounds. They are also unable to pick up distant sounds laterally and from the back of the microphone, which may lead to flatter audio. These characteristics, however, make them more ideal for live concerts and other live performances where you want to minimize the chance of the microphone picking up other sounds. It is also ideal for minimizing feedback.
A condenser microphone can also pick up great quality audio but in a different manner. It has the widest frequency response compared to every other microphone type and is highly sensitive to transient and high frequency sounds around the microphone. Its sensitivity makes it ideal for recording vocals and instrumentals, or for applications that require the speaker/singer to keep their hands free (and not have to hold the mic up to their mouth the entire time).
Dynamic microphones are known for being durable and rugged, thanks to its simplified construction. This is another reason why you’ll see more dynamic microphones being brought along on road shows. And although many condenser microphones of today are better built for more rigorous applications, its internal mechanism is still more fragile and at a much higher risk of damage.
Due to the higher cost of the electronics and capacitors in condenser microphones, they are relatively more costly than dynamic microphones, which employ much simpler internal mechanisms for converting sound signals. Of course, a high-end dynamic mic will probably cost more than a mid-range to low-end condenser, but generally, the latter will usually be more expensive.
A case in point—the cheapest dynamic handheld microphone (the Sony FV100) on Adorama is just under $10, while the lowest priced handheld condenser (the Nady SPC-15) will still run you about $40.
As previously mentioned, because of the lowered sensitivity of the dynamic microphone, it is ideal for extremely high sound levels and for live situations where noise cancellation is needed, like broadcast and solo singing vocals, drums, and amplified guitars.
Meanwhile, condenser microphones are more sensitive to detailed audio from virtually any direction, so it’s perfect for soft speaking or singing voices and fingerstyle sounds on acoustic guitars. It’s no wonder why it’s the go-to microphone for soundproofed recording studios. Condenser microphones also come in different forms, so there are larger mics for general use, as well as small lapel mics for interviews, theater, documentary films, and news broadcasts.
It’s pretty clear that neither microphone is truly better than the other. Your purchasing decision should then be based largely on what you’re going to be using the microphone for.
If you’re looking for a microphone for controlled environments (like indoor recording studios and theaters) and want great sound quality across all frequencies, then a high-quality condenser mic is for you. But if you need to do a live performance or sound recording of vocals and loud instruments, whether in a studio, outdoors, or in a noisy environment like a club or concert, go for the noise-canceling and durable dynamic mic.
Once you’ve determined the type of microphone you’d like to go for, make sure to check out product reviews and their specifications to make sure that the specific brand and model of microphone that you decide to purchase will give you the best performance possible depending on your specific audio needs.