Last Updated on September 18, 2020 by Ryan Harrell
Building a home studio? Then you’ll need a good condenser microphone for recording vocals. Here’s our pick of the best condenser microphone under $200 to help you get started
Walk into any studio and you’ll see the same thing: a condenser microphone planted in the middle of the recording booth.
Condenser microphones are what I consider an “essential” for every studio. You can get away with not buying a lot of studio gear professionals use, but if you want to record vocals, you absolutely need a condenser microphone in your gear library. A dynamic microphone might suffice for recording drums or guitar pieces, but they usually fail to capture the delicate dynamics needed for vocals.
The question is: what’s the best condenser microphone you can buy right now if you’re on a budget? What should you know before buying one?
I’ll answer these questions and more in this guide. But first, let’s take a quick look at our top picks for the best condenser microphone under $200:
- Best overall: Audio Technica AT2020
- Best budget: MXL 990
- Best USB: Rode NT-USB
3 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Condenser Microphone
Condenser or dynamic? USB or XLR? AKG or ATH? There are a lot of questions you need to consider before you buy a condenser microphone. Let’s look at a few of them below:
1. USB or XLR?
One of the first issues you’ll need to tackle is choosing between XLR and USB.
All of you are already familiar with USB. It’s the protocol we’ve all used and it’s available in virtually every computing device.
XLR, which stands for “External Line Run”, is a much older protocol. You can identify it by its signature three pin connector. It has historically been used for microphones though there are a range of instruments – mixers, amps, speakers.
The key thing to know about XLR is that:
- It requires an XLR input – missing from 99.99% of consumer computers
- It is shielded and analog (this is important – see below)
- It offers a very tiny signal that must be amplified to be usable
In contrast, USB:
- Is already present on every computer
- Is digital and thus, requires no additional amplifiers or converters
Based on these specifications, you might think that USB > XLR.
The reason XLR trumps USB is that XLR is an analog protocol. It carries a raw audio signal (your voice) and carries it to a connecting device (such as an audio interface). This device converts it into a digital signal and sends it to your computer.
In contrast, since USB is a digital protocol, the entire conversion process – from analog to digital – happens within the microphone itself.
The conversion process is almost always better when its offloaded to an external device (i.e. an audio interface). This leaves the microphone to do just one job – capture an analog signal. In contrast, a USB mic has to capture and convert the signal from analog to digital.
The result? Poorer sound quality.
Of course, USB offers more convenience – you don’t need an interface or special connectors; just plug it in and start playing. But if you care about sound quality, you need to go the XLR microphone + audio interface route.
To sum it up:
- Choose USB if you want plug-and-play convenience, don’t want to buy an audio interface, and are okay with reduced audio quality.
- Choose XLR if you want the best possible audio quality and are willing to invest in an audio interface.
Given that most of you reading this are looking to build a home studio, you probably already own or plan to own an audio interface (here are our best picks). Virtually every interface has XLR inputs. This makes XLR mics the automatic choice for every home producer or studio owner.
On the other hand, if you’re just going to use it for streaming, podcasting, or light vocal work, I would suggest get a USB instead. It’s cheaper and offers about 60-70% of the audio quality for 1/3rd the budget (including the cost of the audio interface).
2. Do You Need Phantom Power?
This is the next question you need to ask.
And the answer is always the same: Yes, if it’s XLR. No, if it’s USB.
Condenser microphones essentially have tiny capacitors inside them. And if you remember your Electronics 101 classes, you would know that for a capacitor to work, it needs outside power.
This power is what we call “Phantom Power”.
Most condenser microphones require 48v of Phantom power. Any decent audio interface has one built-in. On the popular Focusrite Scarlett Solo, for instance, the little red button under the ‘Gain’ knob switches on Phantom power.
If your audio interface doesn’t have this power, you might want to upgrade. Or sacrifice on the audio quality and get a USB microphone instead.
3. Condenser or Dynamic Microphones?
If you know the least bit about microphones, you would know that they come in two flavors: dynamic and condenser (there are other varieties as well but that’s irrelevant for 99% of users).
Condenser mics have a small diaphragm suspended between two metal plates (i.e. the capacitor). When the a sound signal (i.e. your voice or an instrument) presses against this diaphragm, it causes it to move, sending electrical signals through the capacitor.
Because this diaphragm is light and sensitive, condenser mics are great for capturing soft, delicate sounds. Light vocals, soft acoustic instruments, etc. work great with it.
In contrast, dynamic mics have a wired coil inside them. This coil picks up the signal from the diaphragm and amplifies it. Since the coil setup is less sensitive than the two plate setup, it needs a strong input signal to register any sound.
This is why dynamic microphones are much better when the input signal is loud, such as heavy vocals, drums, or rhythm guitar. Dynamic mics also don’t usually need any Phantom power.
You might have read online that condenser microphones are better for vocals, but that’s not necessarily true. Shure SM57/58, one of the most popular dynamic mics around, was used by Quincy Jones to capture all of Michael Jackson’s vocals on Thriller. If that isn’t a testament to the vocal capabilities of dynamic mics, I don’t know what else is.
Of course, Michael Jackson had a powerful voice, and Thriller was generally a loud, poppy record. If the album had any soft ballads or spoken words, a condenser mic would have performed better.
To figure out what’s right for you, evaluate your needs. Ask:
- What kind of sounds do you want to record? How loud or soft are they in general?
- What is your target genre? Some genres – metal, rock, pop – have louder vocals than others.
- What will you record apart from vocals? Dynamic mics work great for most instruments, while condenser mics are only good for soft instruments with a lot of tonal variations (such as a flute).
- Will you record any spoken word – such as podcasts or streaming?
- Will you be taking the mic outside the studio? Dynamic mics are much sturdier than condenser mics and thrive in touring.
To sum it up:
- Choose condenser mics for podcasting, streaming, general purpose vocal work
- Choose dynamic mics for loud vocals, drums, guitar, and other loud acoustic instruments. Also choose it if you’ll be touring.
That just about covers the basics. We can now answer the question you originally came here to ask:
What’s the best condenser microphone under $200 right now?
The microphone does not come with any bells and whistles in the design. It is as plain a microphone as you will find. It is simply a normal, front-facing microphone.
When it comes to performance, the microphone works quite well. The sound quality is rich and great. It is a great vocal microphone. All voices are caught well and transmitted effectively.
Recordings also sound impressive, although you need to buy an audio interface to connect it (and don’t forget about the Phantom power).
What we don’t like: The low-end performance can be a little underwhelming. This mic mostly favors mid to high-end vocals.
Best Budget: MXL 990
- FET preamp with balanced output
- 30Hz-20 kHz frequency response
- 6-micron diaphragm
Right out of the box, you can see that this condenser microphone is a quality option. If we judged a book by its cover, then we expect great things from the microphone. It comes in a beautiful and attractive body. It has a vintage body style and a sleek champagne finish.
The gold-sputtered diaphragm is something found in more expensive condenser microphones, and we are pleasantly surprised to find it in here.
It delivers excellent performance. On vocals, it provides a certain depth that sounds great. By choosing the right sound source, you can have more than average results with this microphone.
When tested with instruments, we find the microphone to have a nice balance through the high and low ends of the spectrum. With drums, we enjoy the sound it gives. There is little to zero distortion. The unprocessed sound of the microphone sounds really impressive and silky smooth.
It handles the combination of vocals and instruments extremely well. However, it handles instrument sounds better than vocals.
It is very easy to set up on your PC. Furthermore, the manufacturer offers the opportunity to download a virtual preamp from their website.
What we don’t like
The vocal performance is a bit muddy.
Best USB: Rode NT-USB
- Cardioid polar pattern microphone
- USB connectivity
- 20z – 20 kHz frequency response
The microphone comes in a sleek and solid body. It looks solidly built and classy. Although it doesn’t feature a suspension cradle, the microphone mount it comes with allows the microphone to be positioned at different angles.
It comes with a tripod too.
We also observe that unlike most of the microphones on this list, it comes with a pop filter. There is an LED indicator on the microphone to indicate when it is powered and when it is in use.
The Rode NT-USB delivers fantastic audio performance. The sound is very clear and sharp. The microphone is very easy to set up. You do not require any adjustments before getting a good sound.
As a cardioid pattern microphone, it catches sounds spoken into the microphone quite easily. As pointed out earlier, it comes with a pop filter. This eliminates any plosives and allows you to draw really close to the microphone without fear of distortion.
It also steers free of any self-noise and the low-level buzz that other microphones suffer from.
What we don’t like
Despite the great overall performance, the microphone catches stray noises like keyboard keys and so on quite easily.
Best Mic for Studios: Shure PGA27-LC
- Electret Condenser Microphone
- 20 Hz to 20 kHz frequency response
- 17.8 mV sensitivity
- Shock Mount
The microphone boasts of an industrial design that is quite appealing. It comes in a glossy plastic casing that feels good to hold.
The tapered design ensures this microphone offers a strong grip. It really looks more expensive than its actual price.
This microphone is usually employed by vocalists because of how easy it is to “work” it. The side-address direction of the microphone is great for vocalists as well as for amplifying acoustic instruments.
What we don’t like
The microphone is quite sensitive to RF, which can be a bummer if you are using it to broadcast.
Best Mic for Vocals: AKG Project Studio P220
- 20 mV/Pa sensitivity
- Condenser microphone
- 20Hz to 20 kHz frequency response
The P220 comes in a similar design with the metal grille taking up about half of its total length. It doesn’t come with a pop filter. It has a top address system as befits a cardioid microphone.
The overall look is similar to the sturdy and professional look common to AKG microphones. It is attractive in its serious, professional way. It is heavy and feels durable.
This microphone is proof that you do not have to spend a fortune before you can enjoy the benefits of a wonderful microphone.
It sounds very good, even as good as microphones that cost twice as much. There are no bells and whistles attached to the sound.
It produces a natural, crisp and clean sound. Running it through a preamp even increases the already impressive quality of this microphone. For this price, you will be hard-pressed to find a microphone that offers the same impressive quality.
Speaking right into the microphone while recording eliminates any errant background noises. It is primarily for home recording, but do not let this deter you from using it for other purposes.
What we don’t like
Some users found the top end boost of the microphone too much and unnatural on female vocals.
Best Mic for Streaming/Podcasting: Blue Yeti Nano
- Omnidirectional, Cardioid Polar Pattern microphone
- 4.5 Mv/Pa sensitivity
- SPL: 120 dB
- 48 kHz sample rate
The original Yeti microphone was one hell of a big microphone. The Yeti Nano, as the name implies, is like the Yeti, but smaller. It is about half the size of the Yeti. It is relatively lightweight. It comes with a stand that feels strong and sturdy. It comes with an adapter that is likewise of sturdy build.
It has a metallic finish and comes in a variety of colors.
It has a volume dial right in front of the microphone which we find to be easy to use.
There is an LED indicator on the microphone that indicates when it is on or muted.
We find the Yeti Nano easy to set up. All you have to do is hook it up to your computer, and you are good to go.
It comes with the Sherpa app, which we honestly don’t see the point of but is easy to use nonetheless.
The microphone sounds great and does a great job capturing sounds. Even low-end tones are ably captured by the microphone.
It handles plosives quite decently, although using a pop filter is the best way to eliminate and popping sounds.
What we don’t like
While it does capture low-end tones, it doesn’t exactly do a wonderful job in this regard.
Best Mic for Streaming (Budget): Blue Snowball iCE
- USB Microphone
- LED Indicator
- 44.1 kHz/16-bit
- Cardioid-only Microphone
The Blue Snowball ice microphone is an orb-shaped microphone that looks quite memorable. It comes in either white or black colored plastic. The only break in the plastic covering is a metallic grille into which you talk.
It has an LED indicator right in front of the microphone. It is not as high as the Yeti Nano and needs to be angled almost completely vertically to capture sounds well.
Nevertheless, as it has a back switch that can change the microphone to a cardioid or omni mode, so you can use it without having to angle it completely.
The desktop stand is included with the microphone; therefore, it is easy to set up almost immediately. Furthermore, it is small and very portable.
It is very easy to set up and use. It delivers impressive performance for applications like streaming or chatting.
What we don’t like
The mini USB connector is a type B connector. Therefore, it is not easy to replace if lost.
Over to You
It used to be that buying a studio-quality condenser microphone would set you back by several hundred bucks, especially when you include the cost of the amplifier or audio interface.
But as you saw above, this has changed fast and how. The advent of quality USB microphones has reduced the entry barrier for professional-sounding audio.
Use this list to find the best condenser microphone under $200 For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Need an audio interface? Here’s our list of the best audio interfaces. If you want low latency, here are our other best picks.
- Working with Ableton? You’ll want to read our list of the best Ableton audio interfaces.
- Need studio monitors and headphones for your setup? Here’s our pick of the best monitors and studio headphones.