Whether you’re looking to create a podcast, record music, or host a karaoke session, choosing the right microphone is key. As is the case with other electronic devices, shopping for microphones can be quite complicated, not least due to the sheer number of options available. In fact, learning about all the different kinds of mics could take you at least a couple of years.
True as that is, however, you can actually find the right mic for your needs by understanding the fundamentals. As far as basics go, none is more significant than their operating principle. It’s with this in mind that the vast majority of microphones can be categorized into 2 major groups: dynamic and condenser.
What is the Difference Between Dynamic and Condenser Microphones?
Although both are transducers that turn sound into electrical energy, the methods through which this outcome is achieved are quite distinct. This also happens to be the most important consideration you’ll need to keep in mind — the suitability of a mic to a particular application all comes down to this aspect. So why not enlighten yourself on how each of them works and, as a result, which one will best suit your needs?
How They Compare
As earlier suggested, dynamic and condenser mics are distinguished mainly by the manner in which they turn sound waves into signal outputs. This is in turn dependent on their respective internal transduction setups. Since it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart based on appearance, understanding their differences on a technical scale is crucial.
Dynamic microphones convert sound into electrical energy via electromagnetic induction. Their operational sequence is basically the reverse of that followed by passive speakers. It’s for this reason that the two devices share a somewhat similar setup underneath the skin, specifically one that includes a diaphragm, coil and magnet assembly. In the case of a dynamic mic, the acoustic energy transmitted by the sound waves is captured by the diaphragm, which in turn makes the coil vibrate to create an electrical signal. This is then sent to the microphone’s output jack.
Condenser microphones use a different type of transducer, and one that’s more complicated as well. The condenser elements include a fixed back plate, an ultra-thin movable front plate, and a metallic diaphragm attached to the former. The 2 plates are separated by a specific distance to form a sound-sensitive capacitor. When sound waves enter the device, the front plate vibrates and triggers a change in capacitance, which is then transformed into an electrical signal. It’s worth noting that some amplification is often required before the signal is sent to the output jack.
Despite their superb performance at handling high sound levels, dynamic mics aren’t really good at picking up high frequencies and short, delicate sounds. This is largely due to the bulky setup; the weight of the coil and magnet impair the cone’s ability to respond to sound waves. They’re also incapable of detecting sounds laterally and from the back, especially if they’re coming from a distance. While it’s easy to think of these characteristics as drawbacks, they’re what make dynamic mics ideal for live performances.
By comparison, it’s fair to say that using a condenser mic is much akin to holding a magnifying glass up to sound. These devices are renowned for their sensitivity to transient and high-frequency sounds, mostly thanks to the nimble setup. The thin front plate is capable of reacting quickly enough to capture faint/distant waves or, in other words, the intricacies of sound with high accuracy. It’s this sensitivity that makes condenser mics ideal for recording environments.
The simplistic nature of dynamic microphones allows them to hold up to physical abuse quite remarkably. They also don’t require much in the form of maintenance; reasonable care is all it takes to maintain the performance of their internal mechanisms. Needless to say, this ruggedness is what makes dynamic mics ideal for road shows and live performances.
Condenser mics are much more delicate in comparison, mostly because of how their electronics are designed to work. Their use within live venues is thus limited to drum overheads and choral sound reinforcement. That being said, it’s worth pointing out that some newer models are designed to be less fragile than their standard counterparts.
-Power supply: In the case of a condenser mic, the core mechanism must be accompanied by a fair amount of electronic circuitry for the device to function. Additionally, changes in capacitance can only be detected when the device is supplied with power from an external source (known as phantom power). While their dynamic counterparts don’t require this, it’s worth noting that this comes at the expense of sound quality.
-Price: Due to their elaborate designs, condenser mics tend to be priced higher than dynamic devices. It goes without saying that this only holds true when comparing products within the same range.
-Variety: Condensers come in a wider variety of sizes and shapes than dynamic mics.
Which Should You Choose?
Having seen what is the difference between dynamic and condenser microphones, you’re now in a position to figure out which of them will be more relevant to your needs. Going by the fact that each kind carries its own set of advantages and disadvantages, sound quality should be your top priority. In other words, your purchasing decision will all come down to what you intend to use your microphone for.
On that note, it’s worth going over the applications in which each kind excels. For dynamic microphones, this includes:
-Recording at high volume levels
-When durability is crucial
Condenser mics are best for:
-Studio use, as well as recording for accuracy and detail
-When durability isn’t a priority
These considerations aside, make sure to check out specifications when comparing models, paying more attention to polar pattern, signal-to-noise ratio and total harmonic distortion. Also remember to test-drive products prior to purchasing — the difference in sound quality between 2 comparable devices could be dramatic. With that in mind, the right mic will be the one that suits your needs and sound preferences.