Test Drive: Cheap Mics!

by Steve Cunningham

If you want to start a heated conversation among audio professionals, try asking the following question: “What’s the best voiceover mic for less than $300?” Actually, you can just use the form “What’s the best [blank] mic for less than [blank]?” Either way, you’ll hear lots of opinions (and perhaps a little verbal abuse).

The best answers I’ve heard are along the lines of “Whichever mic sounds best to you.” The truth is that choosing a microphone is a very personal process, involving some logic, some direct experience, and a lot of emotion. Tradition is also a factor — “We’ve always used RE-20s, and all our people like them” — but the past few years have seen the introduction of a number of inexpensive, large diaphragm condenser mics. This month we’ll take a look at a few Asian-built mics that you can buy for less than three hundred on the street.

THE DISCLAIMERS

First, keep in mind that buying a mic is a lot like buying a car. Nobody in their right mind buys a car sight-unseen. You have to go to the car lot, look at it from several angles, sit in it, open the trunk and hood, and most importantly, drive it. So while this piece may help you focus on one or two models, do yourself a favor and try them out before you plunk down your bucks. Borrow them, rent them, whatever, but try them first. Ideally you should do this in your own studio, but if that’s not possible then find a dealer with a reasonable listening room and connect all the candidates at once to get a fair comparison.

Second, we’ve set an arbitrary price limit of $300 street for this article. While these mics represent excellent value for the money, it’s still true that you get what you pay for. Many of these microphones are manufactured in China, and while they may claim to use the same capsule design as a German mic costing ten times as much, few pro engineers will mistake them for the real thing. A couple of models are also inconsistent from unit to unit, so it pays to audition more than one of them. Now, none of this implies that we’re comparing apples and oranges, because these mics are surprisingly good. But if you want the sound of a Neumann, you’re gonna have to pay for a Neumann.

Last but not least, YMMV. That stands for Your Mileage May Vary, and comparing microphones is a highly subjective process. I’ve been fortunate in that my frame of reference includes many “classic” (and expensive) microphones; my go-to voiceover mic is a big Lawson, and I use RE-20s and Sennheiser 416 short shotguns on a regular basis. Nevertheless, my ears ain’t yours and you may hate a mic that I like, so please do the homework and try ‘em out for yourself.

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