Condenser Microphones vs. Dynamic Microphones

Choose the right microphone for you and your project

Microphones are sold in a range of prices. Affordable models are less than $50, while expensive ones can add up to thousands of dollars. Despite there being a lot to choose from, almost every microphone falls into one of two basic types: dynamic and condenser. The other and less common kind you'll encounter is the ribbon microphone. Although each is a transducer that picks up and captures sound, the methods of creating electronic output signals are distinct.

Depending on your recording needs and situations, one may be the better option over the other. The thing is, it's difficult to tell the different types apart by looking at the microphone.

Condenser mic vs. dynamic mic
Lifewire
Dynamic Microphones
  • Outdoor use.

  • Live performances.

  • Gathering news and interviews.

  • Recording at high volume levels.

  • Lower frequency vocals and instruments.

  • When you need something durable.

Condenser Microphones
  • Indoor use.

  • Studio performances.

  • Podcasting and newscasting.

  • Recording for detail and accuracy.

  • Higher frequency vocals and instruments.

  • When durability isn't a factor.

Whether you plan to create a podcast or newscast, record music, or entertain an evening of karaoke at home, a dependable microphone plays a crucial role. Although most microphones stick to a familiar form, you can find ones exhibiting creativity with different shapes and sizes. As with other types of modern technology, microphones showcase a variety of specialties and useful features.

Dynamic Microphones

Advantages
  • Does not require external power or batteries.

  • Easily handles high volume sounds and instruments.

  • Typically more affordable.

  • Usually more durable than condenser microphones.

  • Ideal for outdoor and live recording environments.

Disadvantages
  • Generally requires an additional amplifier for best results.

  • Not as sensitive or responsive as condenser microphones (especially at higher frequencies).

  • Frequency response can vary depending on the design and application.

The operation of dynamic microphones can be related to that of traditional speakers but in reverse. With a traditional speaker, the audio signal travels from the source to the voice coil attached to a cone (also known as a diaphragm). When electricity (the audio signal) reaches the coil, a magnetic field is created (electromagnet principle), which interacts with the permanent magnet located behind the coil. The fluctuation of energy causes the magnetic fields to attract and repel, forcing the attached cone to vibrate back and forth, which produces the sound waves that we can hear.

As with traditional speakers, dynamic microphones are excellent at handling high volumes with tried and true technology. Dynamic microphones are typically less expensive to manufacture, and the electronic insides tend to be more rugged than their condenser counterparts. This means they can take a hit and handle a drop—ideal for actively holding in hands versus leaving it mounted on a fixed stand. Overall durability comes through quality construction. Just because a microphone is dynamic doesn't guarantee it's built to last, let alone outlast a condenser microphone.

Dynamic microphones aren't as sensitive as condenser microphones. For the most part​ because there are expensive models that deliver incredible results. This is largely due to the weight of the magnets and coil, which inhibits how quickly the cone responds to sound waves. While a drawback, it's not always a bad thing. Lower sensitivity and a more limited high-frequency response generally mean less detail captured in recordings, but that also includes ambient and unwanted sounds.

Condenser Microphones

Advantages
  • Creates strong audio signals without a preamp.

  • Generally more sensitive to picking up faint and distant sounds.

  • Greater dynamic frequency response.

  • Ideal for indoor and quiet recording environments.

Disadvantages
  • Requires external (phantom) power or batteries.

  • Enhanced sensitivity can lead to distortion in certain situations.

  • Can be more expensive.

  • More fragile electronics than that of dynamic microphones.

The operation of condenser microphones compares to that of an electrostatic speaker but in reverse. With an electrostatic speaker, a thin diaphragm is suspended between two grids (also known as stators) connected to a voltage supply. The diaphragm is constructed with electrically-conductive materials to hold a fixed charge and interact with the grids.

Audio signals of proportional strength but opposite polarity are sent to each grid. When one grid pushes the diaphragm, the other grid pulls with equal strength. As the grids fluctuate from the changes in voltage, the diaphragm moves back and forth, creating the sound waves we can hear. Unlike dynamic microphones, condensers don't have magnets.

As with electrostatic speakers, the major benefits of condenser microphones are enhanced sensitivity and response. By design, the thin diaphragm is capable of quickly reacting to faint and distant pressures of traveling sound waves.

This is why condenser microphones are exceptionally accurate and adept at capturing subtleties with crisp clarity, which makes these ideal for high-fidelity recordings—particularly ones involving vocals or higher frequency ranges. And because of how the electronics are designed to work, condenser microphones can be found in a wider variety of shapes and sizes than dynamic microphones.

Although enhanced sensitivity may seem fantastic, there are some drawbacks. Condenser microphones are subject to distortion, such as when attempting to record loud instruments or sounds. These microphones are also susceptible to audio feedback. This happens when sound received by the microphone passes through a speaker and is picked up again by the microphone in a continuous loop. These can also pick up unwanted noise, particularly if you're not in a quiet or sound-proof room. For example, a condenser microphone may not be the best to use for an outdoor interview or recording when there is wind, rain, traffic, or other background sounds. Although such noises can be removed with software for editing music and sound recordings, it requires an extra step.

Final Verdict

Although both types showcase strengths relating to function, there are other aspects to consider if you're looking for a new or replacement microphone. Many microphones are designed with a specific use in mind, so it's best to match uses with needs. You might want a microphone that's specialized for: general purpose recording, live performances or events, PA systems, interviews, studio recording, vocals, acoustic instruments, electric instruments, high-frequency instruments, low-mid frequency instruments, flat frequency response, enhanced or tailored frequency response, and podcasting and newscasting. You can find excellent options with either across the many brands.

Microphones also have a varying dynamic range of frequency response (check the manufacturer's specifications), which makes one type better than another, depending on how each is used. Some are also designed to treat recordings naturally and neutrally, while others add enhancement to the overall imaging. This can be in the form of coloration or the perceived size of the sound.

Other specifications to compare and consider are signal-to-noise ratio, maximum sound pressure level (input sound), total harmonic distortion, polar pattern, and sensitivity.

In the end, the right microphone is the one that sounds best to your ears while meeting your needs for use.