You can find microphones as both freestanding units and built into products within a number of different use areas - everything from hearing aids to surveillance cameras. The microphone was invented in 1877 by Emile Berliner, the same person who invented the gramophone. But it was only when Alexander Bell got involved that a truly usable model was developed.
Microphones transform sound waves into electrical signals. How they do this varies. Many of the more expensive microphones on sale today are condenser type mikes. This means that they have two electrical conductive condenser plates, one of which is mobile. Between these, an electrical field builds, making the mobile plate vibrate, and depending on the length of the sound waves, the distance between the plates varies. This distance is then transformed into electrical signals that turn into the digital sound that you hear. Because this technology is quite expensive, condenser type microphones are also relatively expensive compared to other microphone types. For example, they are suitable as studio mikes because of their high quality. There are also other types of microphone. An electret microphone is a cheaper variant of the condenser microphone, and is similar in design. The difference is that the electret mike has material with a permanent electrical charge instead of an externally supplied charge. This type of microphone is also used often in a studio context. Other examples of microphone technologies are dynamic and ribbon.
When you buy a microphone, it's important that you choose the right type on the basis of what you intend to use it for. If you're recording songs in a studio, you need one type of construction, while if you only intend to use it for voice calls via your computer you can get away with something cheaper. This affects both the technology inside and the visual design. Some examples of microphone types:
Microphones can also capture sound in a number of different patterns, known as the polar pattern. With a cardioid microphone, the polar pattern is heart-shaped and the sound capture area is only focused on the area in front of the microphone. This is a useful pattern when recording songs or during conversations, because you don't capture as much environmental noise. It's also useful for avoiding feedback. But if you instead want to capture environmental noise, an omnidirectional microphone is better. Here, the microphone picks up sound from all directions. If you instead want to interview someone and want your questions to be captured so that you don't have to move the microphone, you should choose a bidirectional, or "figure 8", microphone, as this picks up sound from both in front and behind the top of the microphone so that you and the person you're interviewing can be heard equally well. However, this type doesn't pick up sound from the sides. Some microphones have support for a number of different polar patterns and have controls allowing you to choose the pattern you want. Others are developed for one particular type of need and therefore only have one polar pattern.
As mentioned above, there are a number of different types of microphone, all built in different ways, and it's important that you choose the right sort depending on what you intend to use it for. But instead of reading about the technology involved, it's often easiest to assume that the well-known manufacturers have chosen the right microphone technology for the type of task it's intended for. Many manufacturers only have one type in their product range. For example, microphones from Razer and Blue are often the type that you connect to a computer, while Shure more often make microphones for singers. There are also manufacturers that target different areas equally. For example, there are Röde microphones for podcast recording, home music studios and other segments.
You should also remember that all microphones have a certain level of inherent noise. Naturally, you want to buy one that produces as little noise as possible, but still within your budget.
Remember too that if you buy a microphone with a built-in amplifier, it has to get power somehow. This often applies to condenser microphones. Some microphones come with a space for built-in batteries, while in others the power is supplied via the cable (known as phantom power). This means that the appliance you connect the microphone to, such as the amplifier, must be able to handle phantom power with the right voltage.
Depending on the type of microphone you have purchased, it will be connected in various different ways. If you have purchased a microphone for your computer, it is normally connected via USB. Examples of this type of microphone are podcast mikes and microphones intended for gaming. But it's also very common for microphones to be connected with an XLR connector. This is above all common in a studio context, but USB mikes also sometimes have an XLR connector.
Another, simpler type of connection - also for computers - is via the 3.5 mm input.
Many microphones sold today can also be connected wirelessly.
There are also microphone manufacturers who make mikes that can be connected to your mobile phone, tablet or camera. There are equally manufacturers who make manufacturer-specific mikes for their video cameras, such as Sony's ECM microphones.
Microphones sometimes also have a 3.5 mm headphone output so that you can directly listen to what is being recorded without the sound being picked up.
If you intend to use your microphone for recording conversation, it's a good idea to buy a pop filter for it. This prevents the popping noise caused by plosives (such as the first p in the word "popping"), and also reduces the amount of moisture reaching the microphone from the breath.
If you're recording outdoors, a windscreen is also a useful accessory to consider.
Another accessory appreciated by many users is some form of stand. This keeps your hands free as you record. Microphone stands are available both as freestanding models, table stands and those that you can attach directly to furniture, shelving etc. Remember that the stand should ideally absorb vibration to prevent the creation of additional noise.
We carry out all of our tests ourselves and test all products in real conditions. We tested the microphones in their intended environments. If the microphone is intended for home studios, we have created such an environment. If the microphone is intended to be portable, we have used it in the type of environments it is meant for. All microphones have been connected as stated in the user manual, and have been tested with several different types of technical equipment to ensure that any faults aren't related to aspects such as the computer used in the test.
We have focused on the following aspects.
Sound: How good is the sound quality of the recorded material? Is there any noise? How natural is the sound? How clean is the sound? Is the sound well balanced? How well does the directional sensitivity work when we move around the microphone? How much environmental noise is picked up?
Build quality: How well built is the microphone? Are there parts that give off noises? If there are controls, can they be altered during recording without them giving off noise? Do the controls move smoothly? Is the microphone stable?
Beyond these factors, we have also taken into account user-friendliness, the manual and guarantee. Finally, we have compared all of these aspects with the price of the test product and allocated a score on the basis of value for money.
The Blue Microphones Yeti is a table microphone that gives you lots of sound and has good build quality for the money, and is therefore our best in test. It's well built apart from slightly sluggish controls, and has a stable design. You have access to a decent number of settings. In terms of design, it's quite big, but the rounded shape makes it seem smaller. It's easy to orient. You can fix it in a particular position using the two controls on the side. With the USB cable connected, you can easily get started with recording. This makes the Yeti extremely user-friendly even for those who aren't used to technical products. We like the fact that there's a physical mute button. This is very useful, for example, when you're speaking into the microphone and want to be able to quickly turn off the sound if someone comes into the room.
The Yeti gives you very high quality recording quality given the price tag. In this price class and segment, you can't find a microphone that performs better. You get a very natural soundstage which is clean and clear and with good balance. At the same time, noise is kept to a very low level. Unfortunately it does also pick up a bit of environmental noise regardless of how you set the sensitivity, which impairs the good impression somewhat. For example, a computer with a noisy fan can produce audible noise in your recordings. There's quite a big difference when you rotate the sensitivity knob, so you should experiment with this before starting to record. But even on the lowest level we experience quite a lot of environmental noise. The USB cable is very long, which means you can place yourself a little way from the computer, but this is still a negative point in the test report. However, given the price this is a very good value for money table microphone suitable for those wanting to record podcasts, YouTube films or if you want to stream to Twitch or similar services.
The Antlion Audio Modmic 4 is a discreet, small external boom microphone that can be attached to your normal headphones and which delivers good sound quality. The microphone is connected to the computer's microphone input and then positioned in a suitable place. It includes a number of plastic clasps and adhesive pads that you can use to attach the microphone. For example, you can use an adhesive pad to attach it directly to your desk. If your headphones are wired, you can instead use a plastic clasp to attach the microphone there. Another exciting solution is to attach it directly to the headphones with an adhesive pad. We like the length of this boom microphone as well as the fact that you can angle it with a small screw. This gives you even better positioning options. The Modmic 4 gets still more points for its discreet travelling case and the mute button on the cable.
Even if the Modmic 4 generally has high sound quality, in some cases it can pick up static sound when you use an analogue connection. There are ways around this, but you should check whether this problem occurs with your particular sound card - and if so how to resolve it - before buying. For example, one solution is to use an external USB sound card. But this doesn't happen with all computers and out of the four we tested, we only had the issue with one. The microphone has no problems picking up sound at distance, so it works very well if you want to position it on your desk. However, you shouldn't place it too close to the computer as it then risks picking up sound from the keyboard and fan. Overall, it does a good job to reduce environmental noise and simultaneously pick up your voice. In summary, the Modmic 4 is an excellent option if you already have a pair of headphones that you like and which you want to supplement with a good microphone. It's ideal for anyone playing games in a group, both on a LAN and at home - and also for playing games online.
The Razer Seiren Pro is a microphone with really good sound quality and a user-friendly OLED screen that provides information about the volume etc. The microphone is very easy to understand and start using. The controls are clear and exude high quality when you rotate them. The actual microphone is stable and you essentially only have to plug it in to start using it. The sound quality is exemplary, with good sound balance and hardly any noise. But we have still identified a couple of shortcomings. The first is that the bass is a little exaggerated and thus not entirely natural. The second is that the microphone easily picks up environmental noise and so should only be used in silent surroundings. We would have liked to see it being possible to control the sensitivity more, given the price tag. The available controls don't make a sufficiently noticeable difference. In some cases, background noise can add to a recording, but it shouldn't take over as it tends to with this unit. Another disadvantage with the Seiren Pro is the price. You may get an OLED screen into the bargain, but in terms of sound quality you can find equivalent products for a significantly lower price. So if you have no need to make exact adjustments directly on the microphone, this isn't good value for money. But if you're prepared to pay extra for this functionality and have a silent recording environment, the Razer Seiren Pro is an excellent choice.